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Translated by Zoe Yarymowich
This article presents the 1950’s household kink1, however it cannot make a verified scholarly analysis unless it addresses the subject from a scientific perspective. Such as in the case of research on erotic asphyxiation (Baxendale et al., 2019) or furries2 (Julien-Saavedra, 2014; Hsu & Bailey, 2019). However, there are no reasonably accessible scientific articles or books addressing the specific case of the eroticization of 1950’s households. In any case, it is possible to analyze it starting from scientific publications on eroticism in general as well as from testimonies offered by kinksters3. It should be noted that for the analysis of this eroticism, only documents published in English and French examining Western populations (North America, and the West of Europe) were retained, as that the idealized image of the 1950s can vary from one culture to another.
Distinguishing Between Eroticism, Link, and Paraphilia
Eroticism refers not only to sexual or genital arousal triggered by particular stimuli, but also to the energy that accumulates or unfolds in the mind and body at the evocation of these stimuli (Newmahr, 2014). Eroticism is a term that encompasses others, such as desire and pleasure. It characterizes the object, circumstance, or element that motivates desire, generating pleasure that originates in the body and flows through it (Newmahr, 2014). The term “kink”, meanwhile, is an English slang term that refers to a preference for sexual activities that are considered non-traditional or unusual (Zeglin et al., 2018). There is no real equivalent in French for the word and it should not be confused with “paraphilia”, a pejorative term which defines as abnormal “[...] any intense and persistent sexual interest, other than sexual interest for genital stimulation or foreplay with a phenotypically normal, sexually mature, and consenting human partner.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2015 p. 807, translated from French)
The 1950’s Household As an Eroticism: What is it Exactly?
The eroticism of 1950’s households, or 1950’s household kink, therefore refers to the excitement, desire, or pleasure that a person feels when they4 are exposed to stimuli that remind them of the 1950s, in particular, the aesthetic configurations and the relational styles associated with this socio-historical period. One must understand that these individuals search for an idealized image of the 1950s.
It is not a question of a quest for life as it could be in the middle of the 20th century, in a desire for absolute synchronic fidelity, but rather of a quest for the subjective utopia that the individual builds in their way of considering this period.
According to an analysis proposed by Darling (2019), who is herself a 1950’s household kinkster, it is possible to distinguish between three main categories of eroticized content, namely the aestheticism of the 1950s, the atmosphere of the 1950s, and the power dynamics in marital relationships of the 1950s. Aestheticism refers to the visual and sensory aspects that bring to mind the idealized image a person may have of the 1950s. These could for example be characteristic objects, a particular style of architecture, or clothes and fashion accessories associated with this decade. The atmosphere is a more all-encompassing concept; it consists of everything that allows a person to feel like they are in the 1950s, whatever that means for them. The atmosphere may, therefore, involve aesthetic elements, elements associated with interpersonal relationships, or a combination of both. For example, a person could eroticize the atmosphere of the 1950s by experiencing a special pleasure when spending a romantic evening in a retro diner located on a commercial street where the retina is saturated with colorful illuminated signs, dressed in a polka dot dress over a pointy bra, hair styled in victory rolls, listening to Come Fly With Me by Frank Sinatra and feasting on a delectable meatloaf accompanied by creamy mashed potatoes. The cliché is strong, but it gives the general concept of the atmosphere. These are the elements that make a person feel like they are “living” in the 1950s as they idolize them. Aesthetics, meanwhile, is limited to the visual or sensory aspects that the person finds pleasant, without however allowing them alone to modify the perceived atmosphere of a kinkster and without implying this need to feel transported in time.
Reports of Domination-Submission in the Foreground
If the previously mentioned elements can be arranged in such a way as to make the subjective experiences of eroticism heterogeneous, it will at least be a question, for most kinksters, of eroticizing the relations of domination and submission in intimate relations (Darling, 2019). In a typical relationship, one of the two people (the “head of the household”) will be responsible for making important household decisions, providing financial resources, and maintaining domestic discipline, while the other person (the “housewife”) is responsible for accomplishing domestic tasks (e.g. cooking and cleaning) and educating the children, if applicable (Darling, 2019). In some couples, people describe their role (head of the household or housewife) as part of their overall identity. These partners sometimes adopt a full-time domination-submission model (Bunny, 2018; Darling, 2019). In other relationships, the games of domination and submission will appear sporadically, without being part of the usual power dynamics between partners and without being anchored in their personal identity. According to a blogger from the DDLGForum website (Guest_BabyPeach_*, 2018), the gender roles (cultural expectations that are attributed to gender) are eroticized in the 1950s-type households are profoundly embedded in the identity of kinksters. This is precisely what constitutes the main appeal for them5, who then see it as an opportunity to experiment with the interpersonal exchanges that enhance these aspects of their identity. Conversely, on the same blog, another person explains that she experiences eroticism part-time and that the role of the housewife is not anchored in her identity (Little Illy, 2018). For her, it represents oppression when it leaves the consensual confines of a temporary domination-submission dynamic (Little Illy, 2018).
The relationships idealized and eroticized by 1950’s household kinksters are usually those imbued with domination and submission dynamics, in which women5 are most often in a position of submission and men are most often in a position of domination (Darling, 2019). This eroticism is also generally rather heteronormative and binary in its conception of gender. Thus, women tend to adopt traditional feminine gender roles, for example by staying at home, and by looking after children, while men tend to adopt the role of providers of financial resources for their families (DeGroot et al., 2014).
Couples in which the woman adopts the role of the provider and the man, a traditionally feminine role, are called “reverse households” or “inverted households”. In these couples, the gender identity of both partners is unchanged; only their roles are exchanged.
Concerning non-heterosexual couples and those composed of non-cisgender people, all combinations of interests and practices are possible, each situation being unique and the resulting possibilities are multiple. For example, in a homosexual couple, it may be that what works best for the parters is that one adopts the role traditionally associated with the feminine gender (housewife) and the other adopts the role traditionally associated with the masculine gender (provider), without modifying their gender identity. It is also possible to imagine that a genderfluid person could practice the 1950’s household kink while enjoying the fact of taking on a specific gender role without necessarily changing their gender identity. For another person, it might not be the power relations in gender roles that interest them but only the aesthetic of the 1950s: clothes, objects, settings, activities, etc. It is therefore difficult to determine what belongs to this eroticism and what does not since there are so many possibilities, and because everyone can decide to declare themselves a kinkster while choosing to only actualize the aspects that please them and leave the rest.
It becomes relevant for one interested in this eroticism when one draws a parallel between what they idealize and what is idealized through a feminist and affirmative approach to sexualities. Currently, traditional binary gender roles and unequal power dynamics in marital relationships are generally considered a priori as opposed to certain feminist approaches according to which these roles are incompatible with the emancipation of sexist oppressions (McLaughlin & Aikman, 2019). Conversely, from an affirmative, liberating, and non-pathologizing perspective of sexualities, as seen for example in the conceptualization of BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Domination/Submission, Sadism/Masochism; Caruso, 2016), the relations of domination and submission in erotic relations can be framed in mutual consent and a dynamic, collaborative and empowering exchange of power (Hughes & Hammack, 2019). To be interested in the eroticism of 1950s households is to also be interested in the way one can conceive gender roles, relational dynamics, and stereotypical corporealities of the 1950s through a self-determining, positive, and emancipatory perspective.
Is There a Community for 1950s Kinksters?
Some kinksters are part of larger or smaller community of people who practice or who have an erotic interest in the 1950s lifestyle, such as the 1950s Household group on the website FetLife. That being said, it doesn’t appear to be a central aspect of this eroticism, since there would already have to be a consensus about what the 1950s household is, which is not the case. For example, for Ericis (2019), it is an eroticism that puts forward patriarchy, monogamy, and traditional conservative values of the 1950s. For others, it is more of a lifestyle that prioritizes the domination-submission relationship in an environment and an aestheticism reminiscent of the 1950s (BlueBliss, 2019; EricSpank, 2019). The community around the 1950s household kink is not yet very strong, present, or unifying; it is difficult to determine whether “reverse households” are generally well-received by traditionalist kinksters.
Appreciating the Binarity and Complementarity of Genders: Yes, but not Necessarily
At the intersubjective level, it would seem that it is mainly the assertion of (subjective) gender identity that is sought in this eroticism. The image conveyed by erotic relationships in the 1950s is largely heteronormative, in the sense that heterosexuality was the preferred form (if not the only legal form) of marital relationships. Heterosexuality was then viewed in a binary system of gender division (female or male), with little regard for other forms of gender expression and identity or sexual orientation (Ekins, 2005). Such a system presupposes a complementarity of the gender roles between men and women (Rosik & Byrd, 2007). In media content from this period, the ideal woman is portrayed as a young, family-oriented, sexually-objectified, housewife, whereas men are portrayed as pragmatic, realistic, agentive, aggressive, and sometimes violent (Bleakley et al., 2012). For example, domestic discipline, regarding the use of corporal punishment as a means to maintain submission and dominant status in the relationship, was widely accepted in the 1950s when it was used by men (DeGroot et al., 2014). These images convey gender roles in a “male dominant” and “female submissive” relational style, as shown in the media of the time, allowing a certain form of affirmation or validation of the subjective gender identity of some contemporary kinksters.
Therefore, it is mainly the possibility of exploring adherence to certain aspects of traditional gender roles, to let down its barriers, and not to feel the pressure of having to fight against traditional gender roles that would be sought after in this eroticism.
The so-called “traditional” gender roles are inspired by what kinksters perceive as traditional and not from a pre-established list of criteria to comply with. Thus, it is not a quest for conformity with the reality of the 1950s, but rather the exploration or affirmation of one’s belonging to gender roles perceived as traditional. Furthermore, some aspects of traditional gender roles may be rejected by those who practice them when they do not suit them. Therefore, there are no guidelines in this regard.
How is the Body Involved in this Eroticism?
In a relationship of the bodily domination-submission type, the pleasure of a submissive person would originate from being able to let go and let the other person be responsible for making the decisions, thus partly escaping the duty to reflect on the good and bad of practices (she remains all the same conscious and consenting in her submission; Caruso, 2016). For a dominant person, it is rather having control and power over the behaviour of the submissive person and of being served by them and of feeling proud to see them evolve and flourish in their role (Caruso, 2016). This pleasure can be sexual, but not necessarily. It can also be feelings of pride, as mentioned previously, or the pleasure of feeling important to the other, the joy of fulfilling the needs and desires of the other, or seeing their own needs and desires being fulfilled (Caruso, 2016). Since physical games (e.g. discipline by hitting) are less often mentioned by practitioners of this eroticism than psychological games (e.g. game of servitude and thoughtfulness; Bunny, 2018), little information is available on the subject of bodily sensations experienced specifically in a 1950s-style household. One can imagine, however, that these sensations may have similarities with those associated with games of physical discipline and erotic pain (e.g. pinching, slapping, biting, hitting, etc.), in particular the awakening of the senses and mental, physical, and possibly sexual arousal (Caruso, 2016).
How to Explain this Eroticism From a More Theoretical Point of View?
While it may seem difficult to explain this eroticism from a theoretical point of view, some avenues of understanding can still be illuminating. For example, from a psycho-relational perspective, this eroticism could arise from certain anxieties associated with one’s social and personal identity. Indeed, people tend to prefer a lifestyle that they perceive to be congruent with their gender identity (Barth et al., 2015). For example, a woman for whom femininity is defined by the desire to have children, to educate them, and care for others will tend to prefer an occupation which, according to her, aligns well with these goals, especially staying at home full time to take care of the household (Barth et al., 2015). However, today, increasingly more women are choosing demanding professional careers (Ezzedeen & Ritchey, 2009), which may contribute to the emergence of certain social pressures to adopt the “majority” lifestyle. It is therefore possible that the woman in this example feels drawn to an eroticism in which she can enjoy a lifestyle or a gender expression congruent with her subjectivity and values. This analysis partly joins another perspective that is more socio-political, in that it involves taking into account the power dynamics between partners, but also the scripts and norms associated with gender roles, which are generally stereotyped in this eroticism, and sometimes transgressed (e.g. in “reverse households”, where women dominate and men submit). Certain themes linked to the 1950s household kink also join those linked to eroticisms in general. In particular, the idealized and monogamous romantic aspect as well as domination-submission power relations (Birnbaum, 2007; Caruso, 2016). Moreover, the incarnation of a role, whatever it is, makes it possible to translate and assert one’s subjectivity and one’s gender identity in a relationship where they are valued and encouraged can allow self-fulfillment and provide great pleasure, relief, both in body and in mind (Van Ness et al., 2017).
Critical Aspects to Consider
The 1950s household kink, like all other eroticisms, should be practiced with the free, informed, and continuous consent, of all involved. By drawing inspiration from harm reduction philosophies prevalent in BDSM communities, the ideal would be to ensure that kinksters take the responsibility that comes to them personally in their erotic exchanges and that they are informed. This means they can name the activities in which they take part and the associated risks (Lords, 2018). As long as this is the case, it is important to remember that eroticisms exist to bring pleasure and that in and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. This is even the point of eroticisms: their sole function is to provide satisfaction, relief, and pleasure. However, the question remains: who benefits from their stigma?
1The translation of this expression could go as follows: “eroticism of the 1950s household”. Throughout this article, the terms “1950s household”, “households from the 1950s” and “households from the 50s” will be used in an interchangeable manner. They describe the same eroticism.
2“Furies” people who have an interest in anthropomorphic or anthropomorphized animals- imaginary, mythological or real- that they can embody thanks to various accessories and mises en scènes, bringing them closer to their intrinsic sense of identity
3“Kinkster” refers to a person who feels pleasure from participating in sexual practices that are considered unconventional or who experiences sexual desire for circumstances or objects that are not usually eroticized.
4“They” and “them” are neutral and inclusive pronouns that can describe people who identify as equally male and female, but also people whose gender is unknown, those that identify with another gender, or who do not identify with any gender.
5In this text, the term “woman” refers to a person who identifies with the feminine gender, who considers themselves to be feminine, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. Likewise, the term “man” refers to a person who identifies with the masculine gender, who considers themselves to be masculine, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. It is therefore an identity that goes beyond the notion of biological sex or gender attributed at birth.
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