With the increasing media attention to BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism) it’s more important than ever to be clear on what BDSM/kink is and is not.
With the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey the kink community was caught. On the one hand, the community wanted to build on the attention and increased acceptance of kink lifestyles, on the other hand it wanted to dispel the aspects of this portrayal seen as clearly unrealistic. In my feminist circles, folks struggled with wanting to accept women’s choices of sexual expression while having concerns about BDSM being inherently oppressive to women.
As a sex-positive feminist who is training to be a sex therapist, I feel many of these concerns grow out of misinformation about what kink is and what causes folks to be into it. In order to make space for feminists who are part of the kink community, be good allies to those with diverse sexual interests and preferences, and work to continue to expand (rather than limit) the possibilities for sexual expression, we need to be clearer about what kink is and isn’t.
Myth One: BDSM is abusive and/or oppressive to women.
For our own sake, and in order to support folks in the Kink/BDSM communities, we have got to learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality, consent and non-consent, and understand the concept of play. The BDSM motto is “safe, sane and consensual.” We’ll get to the safe part later. The sane is there because one must be mentally healthy to fully consent. So if BDSM requires consent by a sane individual, insisting it is abusive or oppressive means insisting a female engaging in it is ill-equipped to give consent.
Assuming a woman who consents is agreeing to abuse or oppression is no better than assuming a women who chooses to have an abortion can’t be trusted to understand or make that decision. I think many feminists (and others) wonder how someone with self-respect would consent to BDSM because they fail to distinguish between a behavior happening during abuse, and the same behavior occurring in another context. I allow my toddlers to swat at me, bite me, and kick me in the face. I wouldn’t let my co-worker do those things. Holding down a two year old to change her diaper is not the same as holding down a child to sexually abuse her. So why then, would we assume being tied up by a sexual partner with full, open communication and consent is the same as being tied up during a sexual assault? There is a fundamental difference. Being tied up, handcuffed, spanked, flogged, gagged, is all about context.
Myth Two: BDSM is dangerous/a form of violence against women.
Picture this. You are training for a marathon. Every day you run so fast and so far that your muscles ache, you are dizzy, your head hurts, and you fall to your knees. But when you cross that finish line you get such a rush, you can’t even feel the pain.Rock climbing. Boxing. Weight lifting. Martial arts. Dancing. Gymnastics. Skiing. Nascar racing. Roller Coasters. Skydiving. These are all experiences which can cause pain and damage our bodies, in some cases at the hands of another person. So why do we do them? When we choose to engage in these behaviors, we make a very personal cost-benefit analysis.
Women who engage in various degrees of BDSM, from light spanking to dungeon play that draws blood, are doing the same.
When people picture kink, they often picture folks enduring pain the way you would at the dentist’s office. They may imagine the person in the submissive role is enduring the pain for the person in the dominant role. But for people who engage in kink behaviors that involve pain, it’s a lot more similar to the examples above, all of which are more dangerous than kink. People die doing these things, but they do them because they enjoy them, not for the benefit of others.
Despite this, most of us are not perplexed by them like we would be to a sore buttocks after a good flogging. The truth is most kink behaviors involve slight pain and cause no injury at all, and even in some of the more extreme cases, injuries are not permanent. Much of kink is about the drama of a scene, rather than causing harm—the threat of pain, a tiny trickle of blood, playing at forcing someone to do something, dominating them, etc. But the pain that is experienced is experienced as a part of a larger dynamic that is considered worthwhile, much like running a marathon or many other painful experiences.
Myth Three: Submission implies one is being oppressed and can only lead to negative feelings.
Being dominated can be relaxing. You heard me, relaxing—especially for a strong, independent, in-control woman. Being an adult is hard. Sometimes being assertive can feel like work. Sometimes in our play time we want a vacation from it. Having a partner tell you what to do, take control, and dominate you is like a vacation from the constant state of having to guard against being dominated that many of us women exist in. For some women (and men) being dominated can actually feel freeing.
Submission can be powerful. Many folks in the kink community experience the submissive role as the more powerful role. The submissive ultimately decides when the exchange has gone too far and can use a safe-word at any time to set limits. Is it really submission, in the sense we feminists fear, if one is in complete control over how much one submits? And what about women who do take on dominant roles in BDSM? This can be an empowering way to subvert cultural norms.
But then if we submit aren’t we just playing into damaging cultural scripts for women? Playing a role of submitting is not the same as submitting. In the real world, we can’t say a safe-word and have men cease to control governments and corporations, immediately end their privilege, and stop patriarchy. In the fantasy world of BDSM we can enjoy submission precisely because the deck isn’t stacked against us. We are in a safe space where we can be aware of our deepest fantasies and turn-ons without having to put them through our feminist censors. Rape fantasies are not the same as rape. We are in complete control of our fantasies. If we are fantasizing, we are necessarily getting off. We are getting pleasure from it. If the characters in our fantasies and/or in a BDSM scene are treating us in culturally oppressive ways, they are doing so completely on our terms. For some women, submitting in this way can feel empowering.
For others, being dominated can feel like being taken care of, I believe in much the same way children feel taken care of when parents physically restrict them or cause them discomfort which is ultimately for their own good. Keep in mind, the ultimate goal of BDSM is to feel good.
The dominating partner isn’t just getting off on dominating, but on the fact that the submissive is getting off on submitting.
Having a relationship where one feels safe enough to give over control of their body to another person can be a transformative experience—quite the opposite of having control taken away against one’s will. If only all partners spoke so clearly and openly about what turned them on. Good-bye vanilla sex!
Myth Four: Women tend to be in the submissive role because BDSM is inherently sexist.
Women are, indeed, more likely to take on the submissive role in BDSM than males. Some feminists see this as evidence that BDSM is oppressive to women. I believe many women are taking on the submissive role as an escape from having to work so hard to avoid being dominated in a misogynist culture. I believe many of these women are taking control back by getting to be submissive in a safe situation. On the other hand, of course there are women who engage in BDSM as part of a larger, problematic oppressive paradigm. How many women who engage in vanilla sex are being oppressed in their relationships? For example, some women give oral sex and never get it in return. Is the solution to assume women who give blowjobs are being oppressed? Is sex causing submission? When children play doctor, we don’t worry that one of them is going to remove the other’s spleen. BDSM is a similar form of play in which people take on temporary roles. There are surely BDSM relationships that are abusive, but I don’t believe it’s any more than in other relationships.
Myth Five: People who engage in BDSM have poor boundaries and relationship skills.
Actually, quite the opposite. The BDSM community is known for extensive consent rituals in which scenes are discussed in detail in advance and partners agree on roles, what they entail, and what the boundaries are. Even within that context, safe words are utilized. I would argue couples who engage in kink behaviors are on the whole quite good at communicating about their sexual needs. Couples who engage in these behaviors actually maintain better sex lives over the course of long-term relationships. This is most likely because of their communication skills, as well as flexibility in being able to change it up and try new things.
Myth Six: People who like BDSM were abused themselves.
As a mother of toddlers, this one always fascinates me. My children love to wrestle, smack, pinch me, pull at me, and they are constantly being held down, tied up (in strollers and car seats), and generally having their movement restricted. If BDSM is a replay of childhood experiences, it’s way more likely to be of normal, everyday experiences. If you have experienced the dominance/submission, bondage and discipline inherent in growing up in a safe environment where people ultimately had your best interests in mind, that could actually make you feel safe engaging in BDSM with a trustworthy partner. To my mind, people who were abused as children would feel the least safe doing that. Are there some folks with abuse histories engaging in BDSM? Of course. Abuse is rampant, and there are folks with abused histories in every group. For that reason I think we need to be very careful about drawing a causal link between abuse and later preferences and behaviors. I think we all need to think more about just how far from “normal” experience BDSM behaviors really are. I have yet to hear a kink story that didn’t remind me of something my toddlers have experienced in the course of normal, safe, loving child-rearing.
Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, with clinical interests in relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger atUndercoverInTheSuburbs.com, where she focuses on expanding notions of identity beyond cultural limitations in the areas of gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on twitter@UndrCvrNSuburbs.
Editor: Lori Lothian
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