My current research is concerned with Bondage, Domination, Submission and Masochism (BDSM) and its role and importance in the lives of people who practice it.
The dominant view of BDSM has been that these activities are about the deliberate infliction or endurance of pain as an expression of an underlying psychopathology. Another common view is that BDSM is 'nothing but' sexual activity. However neither approach adequately reflects the understanding of people within the community about their practice.
My approach draws on the concept of lived religion to explore the potential of BDSM as a contemporary spiritual practice. To examine ‘lived religion’ means looking at what people do; it is not concerned with what constitutes orthodox practice within any specific tradition, or theology or belief. It can be used for studying the activity of traditional religious groups but it also offers a chance to consider the practices and belief systems of the growing ‘spiritual but not religious’ group while remaining within the academic discipline of religious studies. The term can be applied to solo practices or activities carried out as a group. It enables the recognition that apparently secular activities can form a meaningful aspect of personal spirituality - studies have been carried out on activities as diverse as white-water kayaking, fly fishing and natural childbirth.
Some people within the BDSM community already explicitly refer to their practice in terms of spirituality, and my research participants include some of these individuals. But I am also interested in exploring beyond this to understand how individuals who do not explicitly label their BDSM in that way incorporate that practice into their understanding of their lives, their world, self and body. My research takes the form of informal, conversation interviews with individuals who engage in any of the various practices which constitute BDSM, during the interview I ask participants for their understanding of what BDSM is and what some associated terminology means to them. I also ask them to share accounts of personal experience, so that we can explore together how (or indeed whether) they construct meaning around these experiences or incorporate them into their everyday lives.