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The University of Southampton
Institute of Criminal Justice Research

SM is sick but Kink is cool – exploring ambivalent discourses that surround sadomasochism and health Event

13:00 - 15:00
21 October 2014
University of Southampton Highfield Campus Building 34 Room 2003

For more information regarding this event, please email Professor Jenny Fleming and Dr David Gurnham at; .

Event details

An event in joint collaboration between the Institute of Criminal Justice Research (ICJR) and Health Ethics and Law (HEAL).

Where does sadomasochism (SM) lie on the spectrum between healthy and unhealthy? This presentation explores scientific, feminist, pop cultural and legal engagements with this question. From Krafft-Ebing’s 1886 tome Psychopathia Sexualis, to the current editions of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), the scientific discourse generally accepts mild forms of SM as normal and natural, while more “risky” desires are considered a mental health issue. Feminists continue to debate whether SM – particularly when practiced by submissive women – is a patriarchy-induced infection or an embodied cathartic ritual. In films like Secretary and books like 50 Shades of Grey, pop culture has embraced mild kink as healing within otherwise heteronormative relationships, while often dismissing more hard-core desires as an effect of past trauma. Finally, the legal system sometimes characterizes SM as an unhealthy predilection, drawing explicitly from psychiatric diagnoses of disorder, as well as anti-SM feminist explanations of psychologically damaged women coerced into accepting (and even eroticizing) abuse. Yet a few other cases have found SM to be an acceptable and benign sexuality that, in and of itself, does not indicate criminal or pathological tendencies. Thus, a key goal of this presentation is to map out these disjointed and often contradictory discourses of SM’s status as (un)healthy.

Speaker information

Dr Ummni Khan ,Carleton University,Ummni Khan (M.A., J.D., LL.M., S.J.D.) is an Associate Professor at Carleton University in the Department of Law and Legal Studies. Her research focuses on the construction and regulation of stigmatized sexual practices, with a particular focus on BDSM and sex work. Her book, Vicarious Kinks: Sadomasochism in the Socio-Legal Imaginary (2014), examines the ways that criminal regulation of consensual SM rests on problematic ideological claims that engage with psychiatry, anti-pornography feminism, and pop culture. She is currently a Fellow and scholar in residence at Columbia University’s Centre for Gender and Sexuality Law.

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