Introductory Texts About BDSM for Educational Settings

Recently, Emily Nagoski mentioned she was looking for ‘good, short introductory reading about BDSM’.

She can’t be the only person who comes across this question in their work. I’m therefore noting some suggestions that occurred to me in a blog post as well. Feel free to add your own text suggestions and criteria.

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IN ENGLISH LANGUAGE

Online Texts

Wright, Susan, with contributions from Charles Moser: What is SM?

Brame, Gloria (2000): Five fallacies about SM.
Specifically addressing some prejudices. Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Brame, Gloria (2000): Come Hither. A Commonsense Guide to Kinky Sex. New York: Fireside Book.
A sample text of Chapter 1, including a list of basic sexual rights, can be read on the Library of Congress website.

Miesen, Don (1981): A view on Sadomasochism.
Good non-academic introductory text from an inside perspective. Archived. This text used to be on the Society of Janus website before its redesign.

Reiersøl, Odd and Skeid, Svein (2011): The ICD-11 Revision. Scientific and political support for the Revise F65 reform. Second report to the World Health Organization.
An up-to-date look at academic research on BDSM and fetishes, and conclusions.

Reiersøl, Odd and Skeid, Svein (2009): ICD Revision White Paper to WHO from Revise F65. Revise F65’s first report to the World Health Organization.

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Articles in Books

Kleinplatz, Peggy J. and Moser, Charles (2006): Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures. London: Routledge.

Langdridge, Darren and Barker, Meg (2007): Safe, Sane and Consensual: Contemporary Perspectives on Sadomasochism. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
For example: Kleinplatz, Peggy J., and Moser, Charles (2007). Is SM pathological? pp. 55-62.

On the general theme of sexual diversity

Brame, Gloria (2011): The Truth About Sex, A Sex Primer for the 21st Century. Volume I: Sex and the Self. Terrace, B.C.: CCB Publishing.
Introduction: Sex matters, Why we don’t know what we know about sex, Diversity is normal, A universal solution. pp 1-8.

Articles in Journals

Journal of Homosexuality, Volume 50 (Issue 2/3), 2006.

IN GERMAN LANGUAGE

Online Texts

Datenschlag: Sadomasochismus – Was ist das? Eine kurze Einleitung für Neugierige.

SMJG e.V., BDSM-Jugend online: BDSM – Was ist denn das?

Bundesvereinigung Sadomasochismus e.V.: Textpool der BVSM.

Book

Passig, Kathrin and Strübel, Ira (2000): Die Wahl der Qual. Handbuch für Sadomasochisten und solche, die es werden wollen. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.

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CRITERIA

Some criteria for my selection of texts.

In part, these are criteria which I’m happy the collection of texts as a whole meets. In part, these are desiderata which I hope will receive more attention in theoretical introductory texts yet to be written.

1. Theoretical texts about BDSM

Not instructional how-to texts (as specified). Ideally, addressed to readers in general.

Some of the texts above, by Don Miesen, Kathrin Passig and Ira Strübel, Datenschlag and in parts BVSM don’t completely fulfil this criterion, as they address readers as people with, potentially, personal sadomasochistic interests. As their emphasis is on theoretical description rather than practical how-to though, I think they are useful reading for a general audience anyway.

2. Based on a premise of sexual human rights.

Sexual human rights ‘include the right of all persons, free of coercion, discrimination and violence, (…) to choose their partner; decide to be sexually active or not; consensual sexual relations (…)’.

3. No profusion of BDSM-specific jargon.

4. Anti-discriminatory.

In awareness of past and present discrimination.

5. Specifically addressing some prejudices.

As it is (sadly) likely that readers will have encountered some erroneous assumptions and stereotypes in the past, whether they believed them or not.

6. Discussing consent of all persons involved.

Showing BDSM as ways of relating to each other and interactions which the people involved voluntarily choose to engage in. To complement consent of a person who bottoms/submits, including reference to consent of a person who tops/dominates.

7. Discussing differences between BDSM and abuse.

This is one open question people can have. A differentiated view on intentionality, voluntariness and effects. No reductionist approach, which misunderstandings have been known to change to a distorted ‘abuse + passive acquiescence’ formula. Stating that among sadomasochistic people, just as among non-sadomasochists, people who do commit abuse exist.

8. No emphasis on reclaiming pejorative terms.

Reclaiming can create some amusement for inside groups (‘We are proud perverts!’), but has little to no information value, when concepts such as ‘perversion’, ‘deviance’, ‘aberration’ or ‘degeneration’ were founded on obsolete ideologies in the first place.

9. No re-centering.

No self-aggrandising wishful thinking as backlash against discrimination. (Examples of re-centering: ‘I don’t want to be part of a sexual minority, I want to be like everyone! Therefore I’m going to pretend everyone is really sadomasochistic in some way, if only they admitted it.’ Or ‘I can’t imagine a happy and fulfilled love life for myself without BDSM. I’m going to project this on humanity in general and pretend nobody can have a happy and fulfilled love life without BDSM.’ Or ‘Everyone who does not like what I like is clearly repressed/afraid/boring.’)

10. No promotion of sexist ideology.

11. No promotion of heteronormativity.

12. Glimpses of the vast diversity within BDSM.

Different interests, experiences, emotions, activities, genders, orientations, relationships, interactions, combinations, variations…

Note:

On the subject of diversity, I wish more introductory texts would emphasise, while honouring the work of people who were and are pioneers of empirical research in this field, how little we can know about demographics from surveys undertaken so far. We can know that a great variety of interests and activities exists; all statements on numbers, and quantitative statements such as ‘more’, ‘fewer’ or ‘most’ need to be taken with a large grain of salt. Many open questions still remain for future research.

Some examples:

An empirical study which draws only upon participants in ‘the scene’ produces no findings on people who do sadomasochism in their personal lives, and do not participate in any groups, clubs or events.

A survey which only asks ‘female or male?’ can not show people who identify their own gender as non-binary.

Asexual people don’t show up in surveys when asexuality is not a response option.

Regarding data collected in BDSM groups, these can possibly be skewed, depending on characteristics of each different local group. Groups, clubs and events are not random samples from sadomasochistic portions of a population.

People who have had negative experiences in the group in question (examples: people who have been subjected to role policing; heterosexual, bisexual and pansexual dominant women who have experienced people tokenising them and devaluing their sexuality; men with interests in bottoming and/or submitting encountering sexist prejudices; people who have encountered prejudices against switching) may be reluctant to communicate their personal interests, may only communicate their interests selectively, or may have given up on that group long before the researchers arrived.

Representations of sadomasochism, both in wider cultures and in subcultures, are by no means diverse by default. Genders, orientations, ethnicity, body types and many other factors can contribute to whether media representations and self-portrayals of groups resonate positively with a person or not.

At present, whether groups or private lives are a focus of research, an unknown percentage of women with personal interests in dominance and/or sadism, who are attracted to men, will not even be there to take the survey.

It can depend on a person’s specific interests within the wide scope of ‘BDSM’ whether a person is more likely to encounter exclusionary, erasing and alienating representations, than representations they can relate to and/or are attracted to. This can have a considerable influence on whether people even connect their own inner desires and possibly activities to a concept called ‘BDSM’.

When we look around the world beyond those regions where some surveys have been undertaken, demographics of sadomasochistic interests and activities mostly become one big question mark.

13. Showing BDSM interests as possibilities within the wide field of human interests, activities, sexuality and relationships.

On this theme, a quote from Emily Nagoski.

‘And the problem is built into science as it has been practiced for yonks: measurement of central tendencies, with the assumption that “variation around the mean” is just insignificant noise (…)

With sex, the central tendency is close to meaningless. What’s important is the variability that has been traditionally ignored. (…)

This was Darwin’s genius: the ability to see the underlying meaning in variability. It was Kinsey’s genius too: to (…) see only variety, not deviance. And it is the future of the study of the evolution of human sexuality. Look at the variety, and see the principle underlying it.

When we have the right principle(s), everything will fit, all variety will be accounted for, and no sexual variety – barring the infringement of rights (which gets very complicated very fast but we’ll just leave that alone for now) – will be any better or worse (…)’

14. No erotic/pornographic illustrations.

A criterion that isn’t about texts: I’m not going to send people to a web page illustrated with erotic/pornographic pictures when their intention is to read an educational text for a class or other educational event.

This respects the right of each person to choose whether they want to look at erotic/pornographic images or not, and in case they do want to look at erotic/pornographic images, to choose which genres of erotica/pornography they do want to look at, and which genres they don’t want to look at.

Website that doesn’t meet this criterion: SMJG. The rotating images of some white people in bondage at least don’t show only one gender, and are fairly unobtrusive and symbolic. For the specific purpose described here, my preference would be for no images of people at all.

See also point 12. above on diversity and representations.

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FOR WRITERS

Theoretical introductory texts about ‘BDSM in General’, accessible for readers with little or no previous pertinent information, are not easy to write. In some ways, they may be more difficult to write than a text on a specific question, or a text telling about a specific experience.

Theoretical (not instructional) introductions are suited both to readers who have no own interests in BDSM but a thirst for knowledge, as well as to readers who may have personal BDSM interests themselves.

Instructional texts focussing on ‘If you are a beginner, this is what I advise you to do’ are very useful. Very useful as well are texts which don’t presuppose anything at all about the reader except a desire for non-prejudiced information.

Conscientious authors are likely to know that any introduction they write is likely to have some shortcomings. I would like to encourage writers who are thinking about writing such a basic theoretical introduction to go ahead. In non-academic and academic form. Longer and shorter. For interested readers, having a plurality of sources available is a good thing.

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Dieser Text auf Deutsch: Texte zum Thema BDSM für Bildungsveranstaltungen

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Little Submissions by Jerry Jones (Vague)

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There is a fiction writer I would like to recommend. Jerry Jones (Vague) writes erotic stories with themes of consensual kink.

Little Submissions, Jerry Jones (Vague).
Short stories with a female domination and male submission theme.

You will read of honest and open-hearted masochism and sadism. Intimate conspiracy. Devotion. Love. Even when we just see a glimpse of their interaction, the dom in a story comes across as a whole, three-dimensional woman, the sub as a whole, three-dimensional man. Sometimes there’s just a simple gesture that goes right to the heart. Sometimes the characters engage in elaborately set up games. The games are rigged, of course. It’s sadomasochism. Voluntary unfairness.

There is snarling and crying and screams. There is laughter. There is companionable silence. Things don’t always go as planned. They’re people, not SM bots.

Not unlike a kink bingo player, the author uses a cornucopia of creative ideas with joyful curiosity. There is a large story archive to discover.

Story codes are: F/m, consensual.
It’s so much more than this.

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Dieser Text auf Deutsch

Verfolgt. Hounded. Punish Me. A film by Angelina Maccarone

The following review was written when the film ‘Verfolgt’ came out in the cinema. I’m now posting a revised, expanded version here to make the review available again. While it doesn’t give away a lot of details, this text isn’t entirely spoiler free. Specifically in its portrayal of a sadomasochistic relationship, the film has some awesome and some problematic aspects. I definitely recommend watching it.

‘Verfolgt’ was released on DVD in Germany by MMM Film. A version by Millivres Multimedia with English subtitles is available in the UK under the title ‘Hounded’. In the USA and Canada, Picture This! Entertainment released the movie on DVD under the name ‘Punish Me’ with a choice of English and Spanish subtitles.

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Verfolgt - Hounded - Punish Me. A film by Angelina Maccarone. The DVD cover shows the protagonists Elsa (played by Maren Kroymann) and Jan (played by Kostja Ullmann).

Verfolgt – Hounded – Punish Me. A film by Angelina Maccarone. MMM Film. Germany 2006.

My partner and I went to watch Angelina Maccarone’s film Verfolgt (Hounded) at the cinema in 2007. We were intrigued when it was announced as a love story and drama with sadomasochism as its theme.

‘Verfolgt’ takes place in present-day Hamburg and tells a story about fairly ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances. It shows their discovery of sadomasochism – gritty, awkward, human, unpretentious, and ardent. We meet two protagonists who evidently should not have a love affair with each other. Under the given circumstances, such an affair would be unsuitable, unethical, risky and dumb. They don’t just conventionally fall in love. They start a sadomasochistic relationship.

Elsa (Maren Kroymann), a probation officer, is middle-aged and married. Jan (Kostja Ullmann) is just another one of the juvenile delinquents she works with. He is young and socially awkward and in trouble. He is also masochistic. And he encounters a woman, Elsa, whose presence touches this inner potential. Despite the fact that, clueless about dating as he is, Jan goes about the courtship in the most creepily off-putting manner imaginable, openly and secretly following her around, and instead of putting his request into words, coercing her into kinky interaction without her consent, something in the young man’s nature eventually sparks a flame of dominance and sadism inside Elsa. She becomes intrigued, attracted, and becomes deeply fond of him. Their secret encounters, however, are threatened by their social circles’ suspicion and incomprehension from the start. The ethics of Elsa’s profession, as well as the considerable age difference, would already present plenty of taboos to complicate their lives without BDSM thrown in.

Something I love about the film’s sadomasochistic scenes is how basic and unvarnished they are. The protagonists experiment with surrender and control, distance and closeness, vulnerability, desire, and the fire of giving and receiving pain. What they do is anything but perfect; it is a learning process with stumbling blocks. With Jan’s willing cooperation, Elsa’s first attempt at erotic dominance works well. In terms of pain play however it is a laughable letdown. When she doesn’t really dare yet to do anything along those lines, Jan, intelligent and patient, acquiesces. Elsa makes mistakes, for example, an apparently un-negotiated scene, which due to her ignorance of her bottom’s characteristics casts him into bleak sadness. On an occasion when Elsa takes the step of giving her sadism free rein, she experiences top drop following the glory, and in the aftercare scene Jan comforts and reassures his dominant partner. Another thing I love about the film drama’s BDSM content is that I find the scenes sexy. The acting is convincing throughout. Add to that the fact that the film is aesthetically pleasing and filmed in black and white. I found Kostja Ullmann wonderfully desirable in his role as a submissive man, and it is little wonder that I also recommend Verfolgt for its eroticism.

The stalking scenes made me cringe, and fervently hope that no single submissive men go home from the cinema with the harebrained notion that stalking is a way of making oneself attractive. I found the plot idea of stalking, of all things, leading to a relationship, implausible and exasperating. ‘Hey, it’s a fictional story, not an advice column,’ I repeated to myself numerous times. (In fact, wouldn’t it be a joy to see some more films with female characters actively and directly courting their objects of desire.) One partner being so much younger than the other one is an extreme choice for a story, but thanks to the actors and directing, the relationship comes to life in a way that is both cogent and touching. It rather surprised me that with all their erotic interaction, the protagonists never get around to also having sex in a conventional sense.

The genre of this film is relationship drama, so the problems need to be generated from themes related to the characters’ personal lives. Joy and fun and untroubled tears don’t take precedence in this type of narrative.

It is at present still rare for fiction addressed to a wider audience to approach the subject of sadomasochism in good faith, rather than just use it for laughs or exoticism. As I’m a sadomasochistic person, I watch a film with this theme not just as an interesting film in general. I’m acutely aware of how this particular aspect of the characters’ lives is portrayed, and how it connects with the plot as a whole. In particular, I am acutely aware of the role of prejudices and stereotypes which are associated with sadomasochism in our wider culture (and sometimes also perpetuated by sadomasochistic people themselves).

What, then, were my impressions of ‘Verfolgt’ in particular with regard to prejudices and stereotypes?

Let’s start with things that impressed me positively.

Elsa and Jan are amateurs. They are learning as they go along. Elsa, discovering her sadistic interest, doesn’t magically transform into a know-it-all. She needs to try things out, start slowly. The characters are amateurs in the best sense of the word, lovers who do something they love.

Jan is an erotic, desirable, submissive, masochistic man. The scenes showing his submission – once the characters get around to interacting consensually – are very attractive. Our wider culture, as well as many sadomasochistic subcultures, have tremendous sexist prejudices, often casting submissive, masochistic men as erotically undesired and undesirable. Not this film at all. Especially the intimate scenes showing his beauty make me want to watch the film again.

Elsa doesn’t need a costume. Inside subcultures, dictates of commercialisation and sexism still cause a good deal of female hetero beginners to ask ‘I want to dominate my man for the first time. What should I wear?’. This does not refer to people who actually have clothing fetishes themselves, but to people being collectively or individually pressured into costumes. It is immensely pleasant to see a female character simply going right ahead. Costume? What costume?

Jan and Elsa don’t buy and sell their interaction. They are in a personal relationship. Most people don’t get told by pervasive cultural narratives that the default of their sexuality is sex work. Heterosexual dominant women and submissive men get told just that. Our culture still overwhelmingly frames a man submitting to a woman as a commercial service which a man buys from a woman he is not otherwise in a relationship with. To the point of casting dominant and sadistic women as sex workers by default, and submissive and masochistic men as clients by default. To the point of pressuring many women into imitating prodoms and porn performers in their personal lives, and to the point of causing many men to act as if they were clients even in non-commercial, personal contexts (client mentality). To the point of, in the wider culture and in many sadomasochistic subcultures, effectively erasing and repelling women who happen to be sadistic and/or dominant in their personal lives. It is gloriously refreshing to see a story of a submissive man and a dominant woman doing their own sadomasochistic stuff inside a personal relationship.

One of the prejudices which sadomasochists of all genders and orientations encounter is explicitly addressed. The film shows side characters ignorantly conflating sadomasochism and abuse, and shows harmful consequences such prejudices can have. It’s an important point in the plot and excellently shown.

These things wouldn’t be so notable if most average moviegoers were familiar with a variety of sadomasochistic characters who are in relationships, non-abusive, amateurs, and don’t need extraordinary clothes. As it is, ‘Verfolgt’ can have a certain pioneer function in this respect, which subsequent filmmakers can draw inspiration from.

Things I’m ambivalent about.

Some powerful figure exploiting an unequal situation – that’s often the stuff sadomasochistic fantasies are made of. Except that this story is meant to be a realistic one. Thus, ‘Verfolgt’ shows different layers: Jan taking the initiative and projecting his submissive energy onto a person who has some measure of real power over him. Elsa’s position which, rather than making things easier for the characters, realistically makes a relationship more difficult, due to laws regulating a probation officer’s interaction with her wards. What this particular film does not show is the more common realistic version: sadomasochists who meet on an equal footing, and together construct their own versions of inequality from scratch, voluntarily and based on their respective inclinations.

Vague association with crime. Apart from ridicule and commerce, common prejudice often associates sadomasochism with crime. Want to spice up a crime TV show? Wheel out the bizarre sex people. In ‘Verfolgt’, one of the characters has a criminal record. At least it is Jan, so it is not the tired ‘sadist = criminal’ trope. Crime isn’t a major theme though, it’s mostly a background occasion to bring the two main characters together. Except that Jan’s stalking and harassment of Elsa moves into criminal territory as well. Which brings us to…

Things that made a negative impression on me.

Cheating. Damn, that was depressing. A far too common cliché assumes that sadomasochistic people are less likely to consider cheating unethical than the general population. They do all this other ‘forbidden’ stuff too, don’t they? Cheating, as opposed to voluntary, negotiated polyamory, is nonconsensual. It causes nonconsensual suffering. Are sadomasochists more, less, or just as likely to cheat on partners than the general population? I don’t know. I’d prefer if fictional plots didn’t automatically associate one with the other, thus rehashing negative prejudices. At least in this story cheating appears in one of the less commonly retold variants. It is not the ‘dominant woman = the other woman’ trope.

Pressuring, harassment, stalking and nonconsensual scenes leading to a relationship and consensual interaction. This was the hardest for me to bear. It constitutes a large part of the beginning of the plot. I found these scenes so awful that, hadn’t I heard good things about the film beforehand, I might have wanted to leave the cinema early, and we’d have missed the hot erotic and interesting stuff later on. The title of the film, ‘Verfolgt’ (Hounded), says it already.

The harassment and pressure is, sadly, not the unrealistic part. If one is unfamiliar with the off-putting things people can experience in SM spaces, there may be an initial difficulty putting this part of the plot into context. It is not unheard of for people with entitlement issues to forget that the bottom’s voluntary consent is only one half of consensual kink, and that the top’s voluntary consent is just as relevant. It is for example, sadly, not unheard of for women going to SM events to suddenly find a complete stranger licking their shoes without having bothered to ask their consent (let alone introduce himself and get to know the person in question as a human being first). Even when it is against the rules of an event to engage in kinky interaction without consent, on occasion there are people who do it anyway. (Client mentality: I showed up, now I’m entitled to kinky action with someone, anyone.)

In discussions about sadomasochism, it is sadly not unusual for people to ask the entitled question ‘How do I get my partner to do X?’, rather than a consent-oriented ‘How do I ask my partner if they want to try out X?’ – let alone a reciprocal ‘And how do I ask my partner what things they would like to try out?’. Jan not bothering to ask Elsa’s consent is sadly not unrealistic. People starting to explore their kinky interests later in life, as is the case with Elsa, is not unrealistic either.

What is unrealistic in this plot is the favourable outcome of Jan’s stalking, hounding and pressuring. Stalkers hardly suddenly find themselves in loving relationships with their targets. Pressuring is more likely to destroy whatever positive interest in experimentation may have been there. Nonconsensual entitled behaviour drives people, especially women, away from the company of other kinky people, and drives them to give up on kinky dating. Always supposing personal interests in dominance and/or sadism are there inside a character in the first place, in a plot with a modicum of plausibility, someone who pressures, acts without consent and walks all over personal boundaries is pretty much the least likely candidate to earn the necessary trust to become the person to explore them with. The film here rehashes a cultural narrative which is not specific to sadomasochism. It is the wider cultural misconception of women’s sexuality as nonspecific, with no desires of our own. It is the erroneous narrative of women’s sexuality as reactive and malleable to whatever wishes a man happens to project onto us.

Again, ‘Verfolgt’ is a relationship drama, so the main characters’ relationship itself is expected to be a source of lots of plot-driving problems.

What I hope for in the future are new films with sadomasochistic characters in them, where the plot’s conflicts and dramatic tension originate from a plethora of other sources than some sort of association with crime, people cheating on partners, and issues with nonexistent or dubious consent. Also, dominant women who, yes indeed, do have sex with the men who submit to them. Come on script writers, you can do it!

And I hope for more films showing, like ‘Verfolgt’, sadomasochism with subtlety, beauty and human depth. I hope for more films showing, like ‘Verfolgt’, hotness and desirability of submissive and masochistic men. I hope for more films showing people doing sadomasochism in their personal lives; out of complementary desire and desire for each other; in their everyday appearance, undisguised; imperfect, learning as they go along; with mutual regard, caring, passion and love.

The world of sadomasochism is wide and varied. This film gives a glimpse of two characters who start giving life to their own inner wishes under extremely adverse conditions. On the whole, ‘Verfolgt’ is not a cheerful film. But it is very much worth seeing, for people interested in good cinema, sadomasochism, or both.

Ranai Pahav

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Language note: It should be noted that in the German language, we often use the word ‘Sadomasochismus’ – sadomasochism – in a broad sense, encompassing a wide range of erotic domination, submission, bondage, giving and receiving pain, and a variety of fetishes.

‘Verfolgt’ won the Concorso Cineasti del Presente (Filmmakers of the Present) Golden Leopard Award at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2006.

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Images from MMM Film

Elsa (Maren Kroymann) sitting in a chair, looking at Jan as he undresses for her. The erotic tension in their scenes is beautifully enacted. The background illustrates the grim homelessness of their secret relationship. They improvise and hide. Photo: MMM Film.

Jan’s expressive face, looking up (Kostja Ullmann). The collar is something he brought along. Elsa, however, has no need to conform to conventions of sadomasochistic fashions. She has a different idea for something she wants him to wear... Photo: MMM Film.

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Links for the film

DVD. Available from bookstores and DVD sellers

Verfolgt. DVD Region 2. MMM Film. Germany

Hounded. DVD Region 2. With subtitles in English. Millivres Multimedia. UK

Punish Me. DVD Region 1. With subtitles in English or Spanish. Picture This! Entertainment. USA and Canada

Pictures

Picture gallery on Kino.de

Excerpts from the film

Trailer: Verfolgt. MMM Film

Trailer: Punish Me. Picture This Entertainment

One of their scenes

Another scene

Texts

Verfolgt on IMDB (German)

Verfolgt on IMDB (English)

Verfolgt article in Wikipedia (German)

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Thanks to Nikita for proofreading the English text when the review was originally written.

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This review in German:
Verfolgt. Ein Film von Angelina Maccarone. Filmbesprechung auf Deutsch.

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