Different Loving

An Exploration of the World of Sexual Dominance and Submission
by Gloria G. Brame, William D. Brame, and Jon Jacobs
(Villard, 1993, 540 pages, $25.00 cloth)

Whether it’s seen as a sign of creeping decadence or the healthy defiance of Puritan mores, America’s largest and most diverse sexual subculture is slowly coming into the light. From Gautier’s fetish fashions and Helmut Newton’s fetish photography to whip-toting “tops” on talk TV, from Madonna’s Sex to dial-a-dominatrix phone sex ads, a spectrum of exotic sexual variations has attained a new and unprecedented visibility.

The variations themselves are not new–only their public profile, and, perhaps, their popularity. Millions of ordinary Americans appear to be practicing “love bondage,” playing sexual power games, and living out their taboo erotic fantasies. And the more visible these people and their activities become, the greater a challenge they represent to a culture already uncomfortable with conventional sex, and even more uncomfortable with the unknown.

Enter Different Loving, an ambitious attempt to survey the many dimensions of consensual dominant/submissive sexplay, or “the Scene.” Neither clinical nor exploitative, this substantial volume draws on hundreds of interviews with D&S practitioners to define, describe and illuminate sexual variations from bondage and spanking to erotic piercing, “water sports,” and more. Different Loving is at once an eye-opening education and a voyeuristic field guide, an invitation to understanding and a challenge to the uninitiated’s capacity for tolerance.

Though the structure and context provided by the authors are valuable, their greatest contribution may be allowing their interviewees to tell their own stories. Frank, passionate, and thoughtful, the interviews straddle the line dividing case study from personal essay. These passages provide an intimate–even erotic–glimpse into the lives of people who have embraced or been captured by a different kind of loving.

It would be a rare reader who could confront the whole of the spectrum of Different Loving without reacting at some point with distaste or disapproval. This is, after all, the world psychiatrists once labeled perversion, and which the tabloids still mine for sensational headlines and ratings. To some, the consensual exchange of power at the heart of D&S looks alarmingly like rape. To others, both taking and surrendering power are too uncomfortably reminiscent of battering and abuse.

But the cumulative effect of listening to Cleo Dubois, John M., Frank and Lisa, Laura Antonio, and the many other voices in Different Loving is to still the gut reaction, and quell the quick reflex to condemn. Whether drawn by pleasure or driven by passion, the people of “the Scene” have freely chosen or accepted the roles and games they play. Surprising though it may be to outsiders, they report finding in D&S a path not only to sexual gratification, but to personal growth, spiritual exploration, and emotional intimacy.

Compassionate and nonjudgmental, Different Loving promises to do for sexual variations what Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden did for sexual fantasies–namely, allow people who enjoy them to hold their heads a little higher, knowing that there is nothing “wrong” with them, and that they are not alone. For the merely curious, the book may prove to be an invitation to adventure, or a key to self-discovery.

But most of all, as a window on largely unexplored county, Different Loving is a breakthrough in the dialogue on human sexuality, and a significant work of popular sociology. It brings the exotic, experimental and heretofore hidden world of alternative sexuality into clearer focus–at least for those who are brave enough to look at it, and at themselves.

–Lansing writer Michael P. Kube-McDowell is the author of eight novels, including Exile, recently reissued in paperback by Ace Books.

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