Book ReviewRecension critique

Pleasure ReadingUmmni Khan, Vicarious Kinks: S/M in the Socio-Legal Imaginary (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), pp 376. ISBN 978-1-4426-1551-9[Record]

  • Dana Phillips

LLM and PhD Candidate, Osgoode Hall Law School. JD, University of Victoria, Faculty of Law. Thank you to Professors Dayna Scott and Susan Drummond for running the workshop that kick-started this project, and for offering feedback and encouragement. I am grateful to Professor Benjamin Berger for his helpful comments on the first draft, and for his support and guidance in seeking publication. I also wish to thank my anonymous peer reviewer for a thought-provoking assessment of the piece, as well as the editorial board of the McGill Law Journal for its diligent engagement with the text throughout the editing process. Finally, I wish to note that it was my pleasure to work briefly with the author as a research assistant for a different project, and to perform a piece of spoken word poetry at the launch of this book.

Citation: (2015) 61:1 McGill LJ 221

Référence : (2015) 61:1 RD McGill 221

To write a book in support of sadomasochism (s/m) is a risky undertaking for a legal academic. To succeed, she must establish scholarly credibility for a cause that has been either ignored or treated with suspicion by most of her colleagues, all the while staying true to the prioritization of sensual pleasure at s/m’s heart. Canadian law and sexuality scholar Ummni Khan rises brilliantly to the challenge in her recently released monograph, Vicarious Kinks: S/M in the Socio-Legal Imaginary. Khan does not provide easy answers about how we ought to understand, or legally regulate, s/m. Instead, she examines, in her first three chapters, how the meaning of s/m is constructed by three intersecting social discourses: the psychiatric definitions of the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and other medical discourse; the political claims of the feminist sex wars; and the cultural representations of film. The final two chapters of the book look at how these discursive constructions play into the judicial treatment of s/m pornography and practice in Canada and abroad. Khan skillfully weaves together her analysis of each discursive framework to paint a rich picture of the stories we tell about s/m, and how those stories influence the legal interests of its practitioners. To advance her argument, Khan deploys a robust theoretical framework. The centrepiece is Michel Foucault’s theory of how knowledge and power work to produce pleasure, an insight that plays out with respect to s/m in at least two ways. In one sense, the condemnation of s/m within dominant social discourses has the side effect of heightening its illicit allure. While this theme reappears throughout Vicarious Kinks, even more central to the book is Foucault’s claim that the pursuit of “objective” truth, including the truth about sexuality, is pleasurable in itself. Applying this idea to the s/m context, Khan argues that the attempts of psychiatry, feminism, and film to pin down the truth about s/m actually serve as an “incitement to discourse”, amplifying the phenomenon of s/m in social consciousness even while warning of its dangers, and taking pleasure in the voyeuristic assessment of s/m representations and practices, even while denying the pleasures of s/m practitioners themselves. Theories of abjection and disgust provide a secondary grounding for Khan’s work. According to her, s/m finds pleasure in the “abject”—unstable spaces where categories of identity, meaning, and social ordering break down. In opposition, anti-s/m discourses invoke disgust as a strategy to police and thereby reinforce the boundaries of sexual normativity. However, as Khan notes, the denigration of s/m through the rhetoric of disgust also serves as a “device[ ] of excitation and incitement,” offering vicarious pleasures to those who stand in judgment. In other words, even those who speak out most vehemently against s/m get off on doing so. At the same time, efforts to stamp out s/m sexuality contribute to the abject status of its practitioners, allowing them to “revel in their outlaw status” and producing new fodder for s/m fantasies. One of the most striking aspects of Vicarious Kinks is Khan’s unfailing self-reflexivity. As she acknowledges at the outset, her book is itself a source of “vicarious kink”—we all want to read it, even if only to dismiss, or actively condemn, the argument it advances. Regardless of whether you agree with her stance on s/m, Khan’s steadfast commitment to situating herself as a researcher and author is commendable. Moreover, the risks she takes in doing so ...