Author: Jiyu He graduated from the ANU with a Master of Anthropology (Advanced). In his studies in anthropology, he focused on cultural economy, values and consumptions, Queer Anthropology, and Politics of kinky sexuality. Now, he has shifted his trajectory to Computer Science for his living poverty, unstable mental status, and career failures in his early life under the discipline of social sciences. Jiyu tweets from @Redpanda6283458.
When you think of an expensive outfit, what comes to mind probably won’t be a hazmat diving suit designed to keep your entire body out of contaminated water. For some, however, this is the height of sexual attire, an expression of sexuality. At a time when the logic of free market and consumption has encroached upon every aspect of our lives, any of our private desires and pleasures, kinky or vanilla, normal or perverted, are all deeply embedded as part of contemporary capitalism and are constantly shaped by it.
For BDSM studies, it would be a knee-jerk reflex to indulge in the identity-politics mindset by taking its explicit transgressiveness against normative social expectations as simply as some kind of sexual liberation, a progressive sexual identity, a subversion against the social norms of sexuality, or even an escape from social and economic life through the thrills of intimate pleasures. But understanding such an apparent ‘identity’ at its face value would mask the intricate socioeconomics from which it is produced.
My research study does not set out to scrutinize the ‘otherness’ of BDSM sexuality, nor to reveal the ambiguity between the hierarchy of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ so we can fight back and de-stigmatize the marginalized kinky sexuality. Rather, my intention is unpack the entangled web of social relationships in the BDSM community in order to recognize the dynamic links between the ‘gear’, kinky sexual desires, people as purchasers and sexual subjects, sexual practices, and the wider capitalist web within which they are ensnared.
Sexual fetishism and commodity fetishism
The idea of circuits, introduced by Margot Weiss (2011) in her ground-breaking study Techniques of Pleasure, characterizes such dynamics between capitalism and BDSM performance. This concept contemplates sexuality as a conduit through which social networks are viewed as an electrical current, connecting the private and subjective domains and the social world. Circuits of sexuality is a paradigmatic concept to map BDSM in ‘the complex and often contradictory social dynamics that produce and are, in turn, reproduced within particular sexual cultures, practices, and desires (Weiss 2011, 7).’ Weiss’s ethnography of kink provides a productive perspective that highlights the dynamics of how BDSM desires, toys and sex furniture, and bodies are structured in contemporary late-capitalist production and consumption.
In contemporary BDSM practice, purchasing and using SM toys are an integral part. With the proliferation of SM toys as a niche market and the professional techniques and community rules by which they are played with, these commodities link capitalism and embodiment by combining two subjects together, as the BDSM ‘consumer-player’ (Weiss 2011, 102-103). By calling attention to SM toys, or better yet, these commodities, Weiss’s work points to the biopolitics of consumerism that the sexual subjectivities are produced and disciplined through the techniques of consuming and using these commodities; and more importantly, the BDSM pleasures, intimacy, and bodily potentials are fabricated within the political and social dynamics of inequality and privilege.
Just like the toys that are crucial to BDSM practice, the gear plays a similar role in the gear fetish community and offers an exemplary case to reveal the circuits between kinky subjects and capitalism. Gearheads, the self-styled identity in gear fetish culture, are people who display sexual interests in particular wearable equipment or outfits and usually enjoy the pleasures from being covered-up or encased by the gear. In today’s kinky culture, there could be an endless list of objects to be involved in sexual fetish. Alternatively, any object has its potential to be sexualized and connected with kinky desires. Some of them are incredibly common in daily life (e.g. boots, socks, raincoats, jeans, etc.) but this is not the case for Gearheads. The outfits for Gearheads tend to be more specialized, professional, and pricey, such as sportswear, diving drysuit, hazmat suit, and motorcycle suit. These commodities circulate and often originate in other niche communities, be they hobbyists or specialized professions, but they are also eroticized in BDSM scenes.
What sets the aforementioned Gearheads apart from the ordinary fetishes is a unique bodily experience linking kinky desires, bodies, and materiality. Usually, the specific gear has formed a particular dress code or a style. Even outsiders can easily distinguish between a Gearhead and a more general fetish enthusiast by their gear-dressed appearance. Common fetishes may focus on particular materials, certain body parts, and what they wear (Scott 2011); and the fetish objects are usually accessories to the erotic subject. In contrast, a typical Gearhead that people may often see in a BDSM parade or on social media is completely wrapped in gear without showing the face and skin. As previously mentioned, whether it is a drysuit or a motorcycle outfit, the wearer’s body is completely encased from head to toe, even with an isolated respiratory system. The professional design of heavy gear provides a sense of restraints to the body, making an uncomfortable bodily sensation a perfectly kinky pleasure.
Purchasing ability, as Weiss (2011, 122) noted, is also tied to the desirability of practitioners, as SM toys are indispensable commodities in BDSM practices. In the case of Gearheads, the outfits are much more costly than common SM toys. These outfits, which certainly are not designed and manufactured for sex pleasures, have become favored as fetish gear by the Gearheads community as a highly arousing, sexualized, and high-end necessity. When such kinky desires are commodified in a niche market, having a fetish of particular non-conforming sexuality indicates one’s interests in exploring sexual pleasures, implying a specific sexual taste and class identities. Indeed, most avid BDSM practitioners are the middle-class residents in large cities in Western countries (Weiss 2011; Sansi 2018). The sustainment of the kinky subject of Gearheads also requires considerable consumption, ample leisure time, and flexible livelihood. The kinky desires and subjects of Gearheads are implicitly bound up with a certain classed-oriented lifestyle.
Gearhead identity and fear fetish desires are forged dynamically in the circuits between queer subjects, these expensive outfits, and the global economic systems. It would not be hard to discern a convergence of Freudian psychoanalytical sexual fetishism and the Marxist commodity fetishism here, producing a biopolitical consumerism that is inextricably intertwined with kinky eroticism, desirability of both materials and bodies, and the purchasing ability as a consumer.
Viking drysuit, serious leisure, and the cultural biography of things
Case in point is a particular branded gear called Viking® drysuit, owned and manufactured by the global company ANSELL Limited, as part of the ANSELL Protective Solutions product series. The Viking drysuits are the world’s leading products of professional scuba equipment for commercial diving in cold or contaminated waters. With its excellent quality for industrial applications, the prices of Viking drysuits are consequently also prohibitively expensive for the typical consumer. The quotations from Amron International, the authorized dealer of Viking drysuits in the U.S., range from $2,800 to $3,400 or even above, depending on the model. Despite this, the Viking drysuit is very popular among Gearheads around the world, and this makes it an exemplary object to ‘unpack’ — how does a rubber material retain its kinky affordance? How does the purchase, usage, and representation of a high-end scuba gear shift and become reinterpreted through BDSM embodiment and market circulations (e.g., production, distribution, and secondhand trading), and then recreates the desirable meanings of gendered kinkiness?
To understand “why Viking drysuits”, it’s worth reviewing its social life through tracing the historical and social contingencies that led to its popularity among the Gearheads. Of course, to begin with, the excellent airtight encasing attribution of the Viking drysuit lends itself with a kinky affordance as a material. Inseparable to such a material attribution of kinkiness is also the costliness and privilege associated with high-end diving equipment, which contained a circuit connected through specific historical, social and economic contexts: from the history of rubber as a material and how it became a diving equipment, to the evolution of scuba techniques and drysuit designs; from the historical and current layout of global capitals to the creation of the consumer culture of ‘serious leisure’, such as scuba diving, motorcycling, and extreme sports (Breivik 2010). In fact, it is in the commodification of the professional activities of ‘serious leisure’ – indeed, a ‘skilled vision’, that the kinky potentials of such specialized and expensive commodities are activated.
When this branded drysuit is widely accepted as a kinky gear, people order, collect, and travel all over the world for kinky events and fetish festivals. The drysuit is no longer a costly commodity but it is worn, pictured, touched, sold, circulated on the second-hand market, and may also bear a longer life course in which it is re-transformed from a kinky gear to use as real diving equipment. Many Gearheads have also developed a hobby of scuba diving after gaining a drysuit, not only for the extreme bodily experience in the suit while underwater, but also the value and use-value of the expensive commodity is re-valued. In this way the fetish culture of the Gearhead has become part of ‘serious leisure’, and the consumer-player subject is not completely sexualized.
But what about the fetish players who can’t afford a Viking drysuit? Does that mean he would never have the opportunity to be sealed in such attire and experience the ultimate sensations of kinky desires? With the neoliberal rationality in the current global capitalism layout, people who can access such gear-based desires, and develop this gear fetish into a ‘serious leisure’, will most likely be privileged in both time and money. The commodity-oriented kinky desires and subjects are reconfigured in the economic hierarchies.
Freedom in sex?
So, do we still have freedom in our sex? Maybe as a reader, or a BDSM gear consumer, or even an ordinary consumer, one may feel unsettled that if even BDSM sexuality has become subsumed into the capitalist circuit, how could we have freedom in our sex? One must admit that freedom is only an illusion brought to us by neoliberal capitalism. My work highlights a contingent material perspective that the choices we could have access to are only one of the results that are constrained by historical and social contexts. Awareness is the first step. Aware that despite the manipulation of our sexual fetishes and desires through biopolitics of consumption (although the subject to be condemned is rather difficult to found), we can still, like many Gearheads in my ethnography, who continue the latter life course of the object after purchasing—re-circulating, borrowing, sharing etc. explore the possibility of eroticism beyond buying and consuming, as well as new intimacy between bodies and the objects (of course, with kinky affordance), and body to bod(ies).
Reproduced from Jiyu He’s master’s thesis (2021). For the full story, check out the thesis at ANU Thesis Repository.
[Image of the commercial diving equipment is by Marco Busdraghi, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.]
[Image of the leather and rubber fetish store is by Paul2, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.]
[Image of the man on the motorcycle is by driver Photographer, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr.]