Playing Prisoner: Does BDSM Culture Complicate Our Understanding of ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’?

Coming into Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment with only a vague knowledge of the real-life psychological study on which the film is strictly based(with most of the dialogue taken directly from transcripts), I was struck with an immediate question about a current-day discourse. Since the experiment — which saw college students “enacting” prisoner and guard roles and embodying the predetermined power dynamics with frightening aplomb — took place in 1971, how does the increasing visibility and normalization of BDSM culture in recent years impact the discussion surrounding the study? Indeed, it won’t take long, even for the least creative of Googlers, to see that there’s already been an… interesting confluence of the two (which, for your benefit, I won’t hyperlink to). You’ll also find one perfectly non-pornographic article making the same connection. 

The film, as a relatively faithful representation of the experiment (with particular scenes selected and structured for the sake of good filmmaking), ultimately provides much fuel for this question, as it’s released over 40 years after the experiment, when the first thing the phrase “playing prisoner” brings to mind is “sex dungeon.” These connotations are especially resonant with the recent mainstreaming of (heavily diluted) BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey. The interplay of the experiment and BDSM gives way to a more general question about the curious magnetism of polarized power.

The Stanford prison experiment saw psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo set up — and then fill — a simulated prison in the basement offices of the Stanford Psychology Department. He selected 24 students to participate in the study, and after questioning them extensively on whether they’d prefer to be a guard or a prisoner, flipped a coin to determine which role to assign them. Ultimately, neither their preferences nor their nature — as perceived by themselves or by the people running the experiment — had any bearing in the role they’d play. (One obvious but noteworthy difference between this and BDSM is that people who engage in sexual role-play typically choose their sometimes-fluid roles based on proclivity.)

The “guards” were dressed appropriately and given wooden batons, while the “prisoners” were draped in feminizing (interestingly, everyone in the experiment was male) smocks with identification numbers on them. The “guards” were instructed not to physically harm any of the “prisoners” whatsoever, and supposedly signed a contract that contained that regulation — but Zimbardo, the only person who had any say in what constituted crossing a line, became just as embroiled in the pyramidal system he’d set up as his subjects. (Zimbardo self-described as the prison “superintendent,” while his research assistant was the “warden.”)

Soon, at least in their minds, “guards” became guards and “prisoners” became prisoners: means of psychological torture were devised, with guards deriving pleasure from preventing prisoners from sleeping, making them defecate in buckets, locking them in solitary confinement, and sexually humiliating them. One of the most unbearable scenes in the film isn’t one that involves shouting or conflict — it’s one that’s set so deep into the pacification of inmates that it finds the guards calmly forcing them to enact the motions of anal sex with one another.

A shocking notion about the experiment is the idea that any of them could have quit (and lost their pay of $15 a day — the equivalent of $88 today) at any time.  Even those who ultimately left the experiment due to trauma did so through a system of imaginary parole — indicating that they’d so thoroughly inhabited their temporary identities that the only way they could conceive of breaking them was within the same vocabulary. As per Zimbardo’s website:

When we ended the hearings by telling prisoners to go back to their cells while we considered their requests, every prisoner obeyed, even though they could have obtained the same result by simply quitting the experiment. Why did they obey? Because they felt powerless to resist. Their sense of reality had shifted, and they no longer perceived their imprisonment as an experiment. In the psychological prison we had created, only the correctional staff had the power to grant paroles.

Much as a safe word indicates, within sexual power play, that a line has been crossed and the activity needs to stop, the prisoners were given a similar option. Thus, apart from, perhaps, duration (but even that’s questionable, as even the most vanilla of BDSM tales, Fifty Shades, reveals scenarios where the roles of master and slave are sustained not just during coitus) and the aforementioned method of selection, it’s initially hard to find much difference at all between the pretend dynamics of S&M and those of the experiment — even down to the way each prisoner was “arrested” at their own home and charged with armed robbery, as though in some form of verbal foreplay.

This notion leads to very murky questions about the influence of identity over desire, and thus the uncomfortable question of whether one’s typical desires can be distorted by a newly adopted identity during, say, a sex act. On the flip side, it also raises the question of whether the reason the Stanford prison experiment delved so much deeper into its aimed simulation than Zimbardo ever imagined is because there was a certain enjoyment to the notion of getting to enact the deepest humiliation within a “safe space” — a notion that, in turn, led the space to become unsafe. It can even be concluded that the two most memorable characters from the film (and the experiment) — the ones who took it to the farthest extremes — are so fully inhabiting their roles, at least initially, because of their awareness of “pretend.” Ezra Miller’s Prisoner 8612 and Michael Angarano’s Cool Hand Luke-imitating guard are both the most complicit in establishing the extremes — with 8612 to some extent facilitating his victimization and appearing to be in control of it — and ultimately the most seemingly traumatized by the lengths they had gone to. Angarano’s character looks to be the one who is most blatantly “acting” — but he’s also the most blatant abuser of power.

But as the film progresses, the most crucial difference between the power dynamic of BDSM and that of one psych department basement in 1971 reveals itself in The Stanford Prison Experiment‘s actual most dangerous figure: Zimbardo, or “the Man.” Within BDSM, his role most often doesn’t exist: though there are, of course, many variations to the dynamics of fetishistic sex, the fundamental relationship is that between a dom and a sub — there’s not usually a person overseeing, instigating, and depersonalizing the pretend games of control. Ultimately, the most unethical thing about the experiment was the fact that its creator was the one with the actual control over others’ control, but was physically distanced from whatever harm was seemingly being done.

Arguably, the crux of a BDSM master/slave connection is that it’s still, on some level, completely human, based on two individuals’ acknowledgement of and attention to the pleasure they can give one another through power and pain. It involves two humans engaging with one another — one subjugating and one subjugated — and is typically not complicated by an intricate and specific hierarchy of dehumanized control. Late in the film, Zimbardo’s girlfriend,  Christina Maslach (who, despite her objection to his experiment, would ultimately marry Zimbardo), tells him that the remaining prisoners aren’t quitting because they’re afraid of him. He’s the unseen, almighty presence that — far from being an unbiased observer — has become enamored of his own control, and can exert it from the comfort and removal of his desk. Essentially, he’s a king, president, dictator, what-have-you.

Just as the movie Compliance allegorized the type of mentality that could lead a whole country to be complicit in a genocide within a based-on-a-true-story narrative about a McDonald’s worker, the most fearful force in The Stanford Prison Experiment isn’t the human desire to polarize weakness and power. (Don’t get me wrong: this is unsettling, and the lines between “pretend” and “real” in a job, an experimental simulation, and sex can be murky.) But what makes the experiment documented in this film speak so disquietingly to the problems of all large societies is the way it organized human tendencies towards power polarity into such a complex structure of intimidation that, ultimately, no one could exit it — even when they realized that they would have much preferred to step outside the roles they’d been given.