(NOTE: this interview was conducted by Richard Kadrey on October 4, 1995. I was present with Richard at the Wired offices South of Market in San Francisco, and the interview was in an online chat format where anyone could join in and participate.)
Deborah Jaffe is an artist who is unafraid to go into forbidden and dangerous territory. As frontwoman, composer and head musician of the band Master/Slave Relationship, she has explored all manner of fetish and S/M fantasies over a decade's worth of indie cassettes and CDs. Unlike most of the mainstream fetish product, M/SR releases are designed neither to titillate nor to make you feel safe. Jaffe writes about dominance and submission from inside the aesthetic. Her lyrics and images are about genuine desire - something which is never safe. Jaffe is also unafraid of her tools, not intimidated by technology. Recently, she designed and released the CD-ROM, Smut Picture Racket, a ten-year retrospective of her work with M/SR. Not only is this one of the few authentically erotic CD-ROMs available, but its lush graphics and hidden levels of images and sound make it a technical breakthrough for a homebrew product. Jaffe appeared in Richard Kadrey's Covert Culture series forum, Wednesday, 4 October 1995.
kadrey asks: Debbie, your band persona, Master/Slave Relationship, has been around for 10 years now. How did it come about, and how has it changed over the years?
Jaffe: It came about from a need for autonomy - sexual and musical independence. I think any creative endeavor changes and is manipulated over the years if it is to survive.
kadrey asks: Your art - both music and graphics - are so raw and personal, and controversial: fetishism, bondage, S/M, etc. are not universally loved. Was it inevitable that you'd incorporate these concerns into your recordings and visuals?
Jaffe: It's not just a matter of it being inevitable, MSR is about, has always been about personal subjects - I can't imagine doing POP music.
grifter asks: How did you get to the point where you could be open about your desires and ambitions not only with yourself, but with others, publicly?
Jaffe: I could never imagine doing music that WASN'T personal.
kadrey asks: How do you mean "independence" as you used it above? Independence from a repressive culture, certain people or situations?
Jaffe: My own personal independence. To do whatever the fuck I want to do artistically.
kadrey asks: Are you ever afraid of revealing too much about your life and your fantasies?
Jaffe: I run the risk of people listening to my music and developing major misunderstandings. But those can be interesting too! I guess it can be kinda embarrassing to know that so many people might know some of my deep-seated fantasies or life experiences. But that's what being an artist is about: being naked when you want to be, or need to be.
scamp asks: Right, Debbie, but how do you transcend the financial barriers? I mean, you can do whatever you want, sure, but it's not necessarily a paying job and some things you can't even make so....
Jaffe: Financial barriers? You mean how do I make a living?
scamp asks: Yeah, but also don't you ever have to sell out in any way?
Jaffe: I don't think anything I've ever done could be considered a sellout. No one has asked me to sell out. I wonder how I've been or am being perceived. Any one out there got any ideas?
scamp asks: Oh, off the top of my head, I'd have to say: taboo.
coffeecup asks: It seems sometimes that when women pursue expressions of sexuality, they're considered artists, but when men do, they're perverts. Agree?
Jaffe: NO, my experience is the opposite. When a woman expresses herself, especially sexually, she's a whore, a slut, but when a man expresses basically the same type of subject matter, he's honest. Fucking ridiculous.
kadrey asks: Coffeecup brings up an interesting point. We had Eric Kroll online recently and got into a discussion about women and pornography. You use a lot of explicit images in your work. Do you think your relationship to porn is different because you're a woman?
Jaffe: Men and women ARE different beasts. I'm not much into straight porno. I speak for myself only, so this is purely a female viewpoint - my viewpoint.
kadrey asks: IS the whore/slut thing one of the perceptions of yourself that you mentioned earlier (or rather, people's perceptions of you)?
Jaffe: I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out people's perceptions of me - I prefer people to listen/view my work and make their own opinions. But I guess it's always interesting to find out what those opinions are - usually wrong. People assume they know me from my music and work - they only know a part of me.
jverb asks: I read your novel Child Lieutenant Governor; is this at all autobiographical, or is it pure fiction?
kadrey asks: Can you talk a bit more about the book. It's included on your CD-ROM, Smut Picture Racket.
Jaffe: CLG is a 161-page digital novel on the CD-ROM Smut Picture Racket. It is based on a true on-going experience I had a few years back with a slave who would go to ANY length to please me. I became intrig ued by HOW FAR would he REALLY go.
kadrey asks: Would you like to describe some of the tests you set up for him, and how you chose them?
Jaffe: It's gross and scatological in places. But to me, the old saying: nothing human is alien, applies. I merely used my imagination - something so many people are sorely lacking in. Or maybe my imagination is wilder than most , I don't know. It was a progression. I no longer know him.
kadrey says: Perhaps imagination is like a muscle: the more you use it, the more you have. The form of the disc is beautiful and intuitive: users move to different areas by clicking on sprocket holes in a piece of burned film. The decay/decadent feel of Smut Picture Racket is one of the few times I've seen form match function on CD-ROM. It's almost dream-like. How did you develop the look?
Jaffe: How about this mundane answer - a FLOWCHART. HA! Really, that's how it started. Grew from there of course. SPR was a progression, it evolved considerably over the 6 months or so I worked on it.
jverb asks: Debbie, How much of your life is governed by SM? Do you live and breath SM? All day?
Jaffe: There is reality. Isn't there? Day to day concerns. I would admit to always wondering where MY control is in any given situation. Do I sit around in garters and stockings all day long. Well ......
scamp asks: I don't really GET fundamentally what's up with the slave thing. Why be a slave?
Jaffe: I've always asserted that my role has never been to EDUCATE on the ways of S/M.
scamp asks: Well you don't have to convince me, Debbie, maybe just explain a little.
Jaffe: Control. Relinquishing control. Yeah. Is sex all in the head? Well, S/M is purely mental to me.
kadrey asks: But it's expressed in very physical ways. S/M starts in the head, but the body is always involved, even if it's only through denial.
Jaffe: The physical aspects of any relationship are important. Even relationships that aren't overtly S/M - control rears its ugly head. In being led around by the tongue I address these types of issues. Personal responsibility.
kadrey says: Playful and S/M are difficult to take apart sometimes. I recently let a friend cut a design into my arm with a razor blade. I'm usually dominant in these things and it was an exquisite feeling to let go and let her have her way with my skin.
jverb asks: With control right out in the open, do you think the relationship goes better? I mean no one is left guessing, right?
Jaffe: You can never get into someone's head. There's always guessing. But that is the chemistry, the excitement between two people - wanting to possess, but knowing you will never possess someone.
kadrey asks: Y ou can get into all kinds of minutiae here. S/M vs. dominance, and submission vs. bondage and discipline. All have their devotees, and while they often mix, they can remain exclusive, too.
Jaffe: As strange as this may seem - when it's all said and done, there's nothing like a mutual orgasm with someone you have deep feelings for.
kadrey asks: And what all this about is the road you take to get there.
scamp asks: Right, but what about the pain? Isn't that pretty integral?
Jaffe: No, there doesn't have to be pain. A misconception. The "average" American looks at SM and thinks of whips and chains. Everything gets boiled down to a stereotype, doesn't it, in this society?
kadrey asks: The rock video image of the dominant woman in leather.... The terms sadism and masochism in this context often seem misleading and lame, I think.
Jaffe: I am for the STRONG woman, whatever form she chooses to take. But I'm not a feminist either.
scamp asks: Why do you say you're not a feminist?
Jaffe: I love the power of men too. Sometimes it seems as if feminists want to demasculinize men. Or point their fingers at them instead of looking INWARD.
scamp asks: And I still don't understand why the mental pain inflicted in wielding power over a submissive person doesn't count as pain.
Jaffe: Forget PAIN. That is such a small part of it. So much of my work DOES NOT involve S/M.
kadrey asks: But what is sadism? When my friend cut me, it was to give me the pleasure of letting go. It hurt, but the pain wasn't the end point. Many people, however, would consider what we did S/M.
Jaffe: Sadism, to me, is the extreme pleasure of one at the expense of another. But what that entails is purely up to the participants. And the definition of pleasure is variable too. Or, extreme pleasure. Richard, what was your motivation for letting her cut you? To let go? Was it liberating?
kadrey says: She's an old friend and she's very much a fan of scarring and bright shiny metal. As I said, I'm usually dominant in sex/pain play. Letting her cut me was a liberating experience. The feeling was nothing I could have given myself. I cut her, also, by the way. There is something extraordinary about letting someone do something genuinely dangerous to you - like cut you with a razor. It's total trust. Nothing I would do with someone I didn't know well.
Jaffe: Yes, let's not forget TRUST. SO IMPORTANT. But then, sex is about trust. I have difficulty trusting people much of the time, really.
divve asks: Do you mean real cutting or is it more on the surface?
kadrey says: Real cutting, as in drawing blood and having scabs and perhaps a permanent scar. I have quite a lot of tattoos, but this is my first cutting. I think a lot of what is being talked about here comes down to a willingness to explore. To use your body as a canvas for art or a lab for experiments. What can you take? What do you truly desire?
Jaffe: YES! A willingness to explore - and I don't just mean sexually, but that seems to be the area most people find themselves feeling repressed. Musically, there is a lack of exploration - cuz it doesn't serve the money interests. If we are to talk about control, maybe MONEY would be more appropriate than S/M, here in America especially.
scamp asks: Just because someone knows you doesn't mean they know what they're doing. But maybe that's part of the point. It's pretty fucking scary too.
kadrey asks: Now that you have a higher profile through the WWW and magazine reviews, have you had any worries or experiences with censorship?
Jaffe: Censorship has always been a concern. I live in SF so sometimes I forget that middle America exists. Maybe I should be more worried now than I am?
olyve asks: Don't you think though that it's whatever you can get away with?
Jaffe: I don't look at what I do as getting away with anything. I do what I do because it comes from my heart and mind and soul.
kadrey asks: You have a website and an online catalog. As an independent artist, has the WWW been a help to you?
Jaffe: The Web has been terrific. I love it even though it's still so primitive. Surprise everyone: Debbie Jaffe is a computer nerd!!! I have three video screens at home, an elaborate Macintosh and PC computer setup and I love it.
grifter says: Actually, the mixture of computer nerd and sexplorer is no longer very surprising.
jverb asks: Why do they go hand in hand so often?
kadrey says: Exploration again.
grifter says: Grad students tend to be pretty kinky these days, too.
Jaffe: Yeah, and people at NASA and government agencies - they visit my site a lot.
kadrey asks: There are video and sound clips, as well as still images on your site. What are your plans for the future?
Jaffe: I keep changing things on my web site, I'm working on new music and the web site always reflects what I'm currently doing.
kadrey asks: People who want to get a catalog and learn more about your music and CD-ROM can get both there, right?
Jaffe: Yes, or write me at
jverb asks: Is there a SPR II planned?
Jaffe: SPRII? - maybe!!!