BDSM FAQ (Frequently Asserted Quibbles), Part 2

Note: This post as well as the links and resources contained in this post may contain graphic descriptions of violence against women.

“BDSM is not really abuse.”

BDSM proponents promote the illusion of fantasy using Orwellian-style language manipulation. They discuss the eroticization of slavery and abuse as a “kink” (and presented in opposition to the derogatorily-termed “vanilla” sexuality); torture methods are described as “play” (e.g., suffocation becomes “breath play,” etc.); actual abuse is described as a “scene” (invoking the idea of a performance); and the more extreme or dangerous practices are described as “heavy” or “advanced” (as though the more torture involved, the more “skilled” at sex one happens to be).

But while fantasy stays in your head; this actually happens in real life, to real people. There is actual infliction of pain, actual infliction of injury and torture, actual control and domination of another human being. There is nothing about BDSM that is fake, and BDSM proponents acknowledge that a lot of what occurs in abusive relationships also occurs in BDSM, including “head games.”

In order to side-step reality, BDSM advocates will instead claim that nothing counts as abuse as long as it is “consensual.” There are two problems with this: the first is that BDSM practitioners do not eroticize consent. They eroticize pain, injury, harm, domination, coercion, and control. The second is that the mere presence of rules does not mean that there is no violence or subordination; with the exception of war or anarchy, men’s violence against women has always been regulated by certain norms (e.g., men can rape their wives or girlfriends or daughters, but not the “property” of another male). Similarly, consent in BDSM is used to legitimate and regulate violence, not eliminate it. There’s a reason “she was asking for it” is used to exculpate men from accusations of sexual violence: it exculpates men by virtue of their “good intentions” and encourages women to blame themselves for the trauma they experience at the hands of men (because, after all, they “consented”).

Let’s presuppose that we live in the world the BDSM people would like, where the “physical details really only matter in the contexts of safety [sic]…and consent…” There are several problems with the idea that we should divorce harm from wrong. The first is that there is no longer any way to conceptualize bodily integrity (including the harm of pain or suffering); consent by itself cannot differentiate between the harm of rape and the harm of a stolen pencil. Any attempt at putting limits on the violence, or adding in additional constraints, will be merely arbitrary and ad hoc.

As a result, there are no limits to the abuse men can inflict upon women (even to the point of murdering women through sexualized torture, as happened in the Cindy Gladue case). It will be even more difficult for women to prove assault or abuse (in addition to the inherent problems with proving non-consent) because it will be presumed that a woman could have consented to anything.

This also gaslights women into a double-bind. Actual harms become unthinkable and unspeakable through the rhetoric of consent, rendering them invisible and thus impossible to redress. The only harm that is recognized is when the woman herself sees it as a harm, and yet she is being told every day of her life (through pornography, socialization, and through our social responses to violence) that she deserves to be hurt, used, and violated. This is especially pernicious given that women already minimize and deny their experiences of abuse. I have a not-so-sneaking suspicion that pro-BDSM people would like to see all legal protections against assault eliminated, which would ensure that women are never shown that any form of male violence is abnormal, wrong, or abusive.

We already know how “fantasy” plays out in real life. Many men would be willing to rape using physical force or intimidation, if they think they could get away with it (if we include emotional coercion, bullying, pressuring, and manipulation, no doubt the numbers would be much higher). Thanks to increasingly violent pornography and the mainstreaming of BDSM, men are coercing women into more painful, dangerous, and violent sex acts.

“The submissive has the real power because she can say no.”

This objection is actually simply another version of the old misogynist trope that women have “power” over men by denying men sex. Besides the fact that this is obviously false (men coercing women and girls into sex is the norm, not the exception) women have to say “no” because they are already in a position of vulnerability — of needing to defend themselves — against male aggression.

The person who is vulnerable and powerless is the one who is tied up and being beaten. The one who is in power is the person who is doing the beating. There is no “real power” because the dominant can always choose to ignore the “no” (and they often do), and putting the responsibility on the submissive to actively resist her assault is merely victim-blaming.

“But BDSM has such great standards of consent!”

Ongoing and affirmative consent involves explicit expression or active participation throughout the entire encounter. Affirmative consent means that there is not coercion, pressuring, or manipulation, and that both partners are emotionally and physically able to communicate (including their desire to stop, if that happens). Importantly, affirmative consent helps us understand non-abusive sex as sex that is wanted and not simply endured. But this is not the standard of consent used in BDSM relationships. Consent in BDSM instead appears to be based on the idea of contract agreement and lack of active resistance.

First, affirmative and ongoing consent is precluded by the practice itself of dominating or controlling another person. One cannot consent to what happens unless one actually has input in the moment as to what happens, and thus there is no ongoing consent when one person is controlling the encounter and determining what happens. Consent before the sex acts merely establishes limits; it does not in itself constitute consent any more than claiming that I enjoy a certain sex act means that I consent to that sex act. Nor does BDSM practices preclude, or even condemn, various forms of coercion and manipulation. In one blog post, a male BDSM practitioner related the story of a woman who was raped with a knife. The author described the rapist’s grooming behavior (subjecting his victim to other forms of penetration and lying about what he was doing) thusly: “It’s not a bad way, this sort of mind game, to move towards opening up a limit. [emphasis mine]. Respecting a boundary is to take the boundary as an absolute limitation on behavior; not something to be pushed, or worn down, or (euphemisms again!) “opened up.” The author condones the grooming because the victim “didn’t say no,” in spite of the fact that the victim was uncomfortable with the perpetrator’s behavior. Insofar as they condone grooming, manipulation, and coercion to violate boundaries (and this author apparently does), BDSM practitioners cannot claim that they respect consent.

On the same blog, this author dismisses unwanted torture and assault, as well as resulting permanent trauma, as “shit happens” (which sounds disturbingly like the oft-cited dismissal that various forms of sexual violence or abuse are simply “bad sex”). Some of this, he claims, is due to “miscommunication” and the fact that a “good top” is not going to do simply what has been explicitly discussed. A very flimsy excuse — if there is the slightest ambiguity about whether a partner is uncomfortable with a sexual activity, one can always ask.

This leads to another problem. A submissive may be in such a state of fear, pain, or disassociation she is unable to give or withdraw consent: “Lots of bottoms, especially subs, are not really in a state of mind mid-scene to advocate for themselves… Some folks just can’t use safe words at all because they can’t access them in scene: they have to negotiate up front and then trust.” But if there is no consent if someone is in such a state of pain, fear, or disassociation — or for any reason feels unsafe expressing her feelings — that she cannot withdraw consent or communicate (certainly no one could claim that someone in such a state is actively giving consent). Deliberately putting someone into a state where she may be unable to consent is predatory behavior, just like getting someone drunk so that she cannot resist or make informed decisions.

If we consider the pro-BDSM stance on abuse victims (claiming that it is good and empowering for women who feel that they deserve to be abused to continue to be subjected to violence in BDSM), social norms, and economic coercion, the picture of consent promoted is even flimsier. For example, the selfsame blogger quoted above supports the rights of men to torture a woman who is desperate for money in order to avoid losing custody of her children.

“There are abusive people everywhere.”

Certainly men everywhere are abusive, but it so happens that BDSM — in spite of all the propaganda about it — is rife with abuse. As many as one in three “kinksters” report an assault (or, as they would call it, “consent violation”) and the BDSM community has its own share of problems with shaming victims and protecting abusers.

It’s clear that the lines BDSM advocates try to draw between “kink” and abuse, oppression, and violence against women, are not are firm as they say.

This is the second of a three-part series. Read part one here.

C.K. Egbert is a current graduate student in the Philosophy Department at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on feminism and equality.

Guest Writer
Guest Writer

One of Feminist Current’s amazing guest writers.

Like this article? Tip Feminist Current!

$
Personal Info

Donation Total: $1

  • derrington

    Wow, such logical, elegant thinking. The whole BDSM issue is one grand mind fuck but you have managed to cut through the bullshit that sadists put forward to justify their hatred of human equality and abusing women and children as the mind and language game that it is. Brilliant.

    • C.K. Egbert

      Thanks Derrington! Although a lot of the clarity has to do with Meghan’s editing skills…

  • The fact that their idea of women having power is women not getting raped tells us a lot about their community and the state of feminism nowadays. Newsflash, any women can say “no” the hard part is getting the man to obey the “no”. They always put so much emphasis on what the submissive can do to not get raped. They never ask how they can stop dominants from continuing to physically attack their submissive after the latter said “no” (via a safeword or some other means). They don’t want to face the fact if a submissive is physically tied to the point where they cannot move, then the dominant is the one with the power to decide whether the sex act will continue.

    Of course that does not make it morally okay for the dominant to continue with the sex act. Might does not make right, but might does mean you can do the wrong thing and avoid getting punished. I have to spell this point out, because any time sex-negative feminists point out that a man has the power to harm a woman (within prostitution, pornography, etc.) liberals somehow interpret that as a justification for the harm or a denial of the women’s “personhood”. Yes, that’s right, liberal think that labelling a person as having little power or “agency” is the same as claiming that they aren’t human. How much power a person has does not determine whether they are human. People who apply that kind of thinking to men are (rightly) called fascists. Go figure.

    • amongster

      It is really astounding how liberals have managed to call the denial of reality positive thinking and to mark critical thinking as being oppressive. Now it is wrong to call victims “victims”, ill people “ill”, prostituted people “prostitutes”, but ok to refer to pimps as “sex workers” and abusers as “kinksters”…
      As long as they are priviliged enough to keep living in their fantasy of empowerment they won’t have to feel how harmful it is.

    • C.K. Egbert

      I’ll quibble with one thing you said, and that is that any woman can say “no,” because I think saying no is actually incredibly difficult. Another commentator had a brilliant insight on the thread on the consent article that by the time one has said “no” the abuse has already happened.

      I’ve heard too many times the trope “you are making women the victim!” as though by acknowledging reality feminists are actively harming women, and that saying a woman is a victim is an insult (which just sounds like classic victim-blaming to me).

      But I think that the reason for it is because liberalism identifies personhood with agency and agency as having property in one’s person. I never thought of the connection to fascism, that’s really interesting.

      • Feel free to quibble with what I say. I am not a liberal, I can handle rational critique :).

        I know it is hard for women to say “no” because of the pressure to be “sex positive” and because women are taught to be generally subordinate (basically from birth.) Being in a stressful situation would also make it difficult. When I say they “can” do it, I mean that is it usually physically possible for them to do it and when I say “any woman” can do it, I don’t literally mean “every women”. What I meant was more along the lines of “a woman does not need to have any extraordinary qualities or be practicing BDSM in order to be able say no”.

        In fact it is even harder to physically say “no” during BDSM than it is for women who are experiencing “vanilla” rape (not that there really is such thing, all rapes involve a dominance-submission dynamic, I guess a better term would be “conventional sex” rape), because BDSM often involves covering people’s mouths or restricting their breathing. I don’t want to trivialise “vanilla” rape, but if a dominant fails to stop practicing BDSM after it becomes clear that the submissive is no longer enjoying it, that also counts as rape and the more physically harmful the sex act is, the worse it is for those forced into it.

        I didn’t mean to imply that liberals were fascists. I have met some and they don’t seem like evil people to me, but equating personhood with agency (which strikes me as a fancy word for “power”) is an example of fascistic thinking. I think it is a product of our highly capitalistic, neo-liberal culture. Fascism is in some ways an extreme form of capitalism. It seeks to solidify the class hierarchies on which capitalism is based, while also promoting more traditional hierarchies (e.g. traditional gender roles, religion, etc.) Sadly, many otherwise decent people buy into hierarchical, victim-hating thinking when it is what their culture and their political movements (e.g. liberal feminism) promote.

  • Sabine

    Call me naïve (or a decent human being?) but the idea of intentionally physically hurting somebody who gets off on it makes me feel sick. Something has gone wrong, emotionally speaking, for a person when they have to feel degraded and dominated over to feel turned on or, in the case of the dominant, in the position of abuser, whether they believe it to be just a “game” or not. I know BSDM has been filtering into the mainstream for a while now (which makes biting, slapping and scratching “normal” for somebody wanting to show how porn-star hot they are during sex) but to call choking somebody “play” and to not question WHY a submissive would put themselves through it is just inhumane. I am very sure that pretty much all of the people practicing BDSM have had some kind of trauma (which could well be so deeply buried as to be apparently forgotten)in their pasts which has led them to being involved in the whole scene. There is just nothing healthy, respectful or humane about it.

  • Sabine

    P.S. I count patriarchy as a trauma to all humanity.

  • Michael Lebednik

    I realize that what is now called BDSM has existed for a long time. What has not been made very clear is where BDSM’s evident popularity comes from. Either I have missed something due to code-language, or else sexuality has a much darker side in practice than most people are willing to fess up to. As young people come to terms with their hormones, crushes, and experiments, it seems bizarre that the elder generation on the one hand talks about integrating caring and deep consideration of the other in sexual activity, and on the other hand presents BDSM as a perfectly logical extension of sexual pleasure, despite that BDSM on its face seems completely at odds with the caring assumption. Is BDSM primarily a male obsession? My understanding of female sexual response indicates very little evidence to support a domination-submission narrative as the ultimate female sexual experience. I’ve seen it suggested by a dominant that BDSM is simply another way of loving. I am unable to make the leap between loving behavior as I have always understood it (entailing much patience, kindness and self-sacrifice) and loving as physically restraining and beating the beloved, unless the drive to do so is based ultimately on the eroticism of power. I guess therein lies the disconnect — since when does power trump any other consideration in the expression of physical intimacy?

    • Thomas Eisenecker

      BDSM is a fundamental affirmation of patriarchy: it literally fetishizes existing hierarchies and power differentials and adds a sexual component to them. That sexual component makes all the difference and that is also why BDSM is so popular. It is very interesting to see all kinds of marginalized men when they claim to be “against the system” or “against existing hierarchies.” At the same time that same marginalized male can be into BDSM/hurting women. That contradiction proves all to well how orgasms (particularly male orgasms) trump everything.

      As to the Dom who said that BDSM is “simply another way of loving”: in a way, he’s right, if you look behind his words. He unwittingly gave a commentary on patriarchy, not to criticize it, of course, but to affirm it. A lot of second-wave feminists, like Dworkin or Millett, said that “love”, as we know it, all too often means self-negation and subordination for women. Kinksters, mostly male kinksters, admit that themselves all the time. If you want to learn the nature of patriarchy, radical feminist naturally remain indispensable but you can also look at what male kinksters, pornographers, pimps, johns, “artists”, intellectuals etc. have said about women throughout history. Sexual Politics is everywhere.

  • “The first(problem with a BDSM utopia)is that there is no longer any way to conceptualize bodily integrity…” That’s a very helpful way for us to look at the normalization of violence against women,thank you C.K. Egbert.
    So far, the culture of abuse hasn’t destroyed the concept of bodily integrity in Canadian law. According to Brenda Crossman who wrote a Globe & Mail article in the wake of the Ghomehsi scandal,”(t)he Supreme Court has said that a person cannot consent to an assault that causes bodily harm”.

  • FreeRadicalFem

    The whole concept of “agency” in the context of BDSM is of particular baloney in situations where one partner introduces the idea to another partner. How many times does the partner agree to engage in sexual activity to avoid being labeled a “prude,” “vanilla,” “unadventurous,” etc. There is the unspoken threat of “do this with me or I will find someone who will.”

    That is my absolute biggest problem with extreme kink. It’s just too easy to manipulate other people into engaging in it who really don’t want to. And then people will say “oh but she said yes and she could have always said no” is a craptastic denial of the realities of sexual relationships.

    • C.K. Egbert

      Very true, especially now that women are being subjected to unwanted, painful, and dangerous sex acts merely because they are “expected” to do so (thanks to porn and socialization). Of course this has always been the case (e.g., compulsory intercourse), but the terrible thing is that thanks to the “sex positivists” and all that they advocate for (porn and BDSM) what is expected is now even more painful, dangerous, and harmful.

      Those “sex negative” feminists are the only ones saying that sex should be wanted, pleasurable, reciprocal, and should never include anything that a woman is “expected” to do.

    • “The whole concept of “agency”… is… craptastic”

      Fixed it for you. 🙂

  • CK Egbert doesn’t mince words!

  • Reva

    The “there’s abuse everwhere” excuse is so lame and ignorant that I just want to leave this planet.How many forms of abuse other than abuse of women is being sold as ‘sexy’?How many opressed classes other than women are told that if they consent to their own abuse they are sexy and empowered?
    The other forms of abuse that we see are ‘forms of abuse”.If it’s against women who have apparently ‘consented’ to that abuse,it’s sexual liberation?Would they have the nerve to say something like this about black people?”if you let white people dominate and torture you,you are empowered and free!”.That would be racist,wouldn’t it?

  • ESPA-LynX

    Glad to see this posted, as it reminded me to send a couple other links to FE that I saw/read a few days ago: “Imagining a Safer Space: Building Community & Ending Harassment in Punk” – http://storebrandsoda.com/2015/04/28/imagining-a-safer-space-building-community-ending-harassment-in-punk/ – which led to this, by “Cliff Pervocracy”, which imo pretty much sums up the ‘scene’ and all the problems with it: http://pervocracy.blogspot.ca/2012/06/missing-stair.html

  • This is a nice article, but it only addresses heterosexual sadomasochism where the female is submissive and the male dominant. It would strengthen your case to address other kinds of BDSM as well (especially hetero BDSM where the female is dominant); at least, I’m curious about your position on those types of cases.

    I’m against all BDSM on basic moral grounds. I’m especially against heterosexual BDSM where the male is dominant, because that involves misogyny and genderism on top of the usual violence, emotional abuse, and inegalitarianism that is inherent to BDSM. Those who defend BDSM on the grounds that it’s consensual presume that the only way sexual acts can be unethical is by involving violations of consent. That presumption is never motivated or defended, and challenging it is another way to respond to the consent defense of BDSM. While consent is necessary for a sexual act to be ethical, I do not believe that it is sufficient. Those who claim it is have just as much of an initial burden of proof as those who claim it is not, but this is not reflected in conversations on this issue. Even opponents of BDSM often leave the presumption unchallenged, and focus their attack on the factual claim that consent is present in BDSM sexual acts.

    • C.K. Egbert

      I agree with you that consent is insufficient. Earlier I was using a dentist example; for me, consent only makes sense when the only thing that we could consider problematic about an interaction would be the lack of consent. On the other hand, if the interaction is problematic, then consent simply cannot do the work it is taken to do.

      I think that the focus on consent doesn’t work for several reasons: it actually isn’t how consent work (theoretically at least) in other contexts where consent is taken to be important (e.g., medicine); it doesn’t work well as a normative concept given the actual facts of how humans operate (e.g., we are easily coerced), and it ends up being rather inconsistent (e.g., they say they are against abuse, even if it is demonstrated that BDSM involves pretty much every element in domestic abuse).

      I don’t focus on BDSM apart from women’s subordination because this is a feminist site (whereas that seems to me to be more about ethics in general), and because as a feminist I’m concerned specifically about abuse against women.

      • “I don’t focus on BDSM apart from women’s subordination because this is a feminist site (whereas that seems to me to be more about ethics in general), and because as a feminist I’m concerned specifically about abuse against women.”

        Okay, but defenders of BDSM might use the example of BDSM involving female domination to challenge your feminist case against it. If your criticisms are only directed toward hetero BDSM with male domination, then it’s not clear how it generalizes to all BDSM, though your article purports to refute arguments made in defense of BDSM in general (so implicitly attempts to attack or criticize BDSM in general).

  • Meghan Murphy

    Yes totally. Jian Ghomeshi went straight for ‘consent’ when he tried to defend himself against accusations of assault. He was simply engaging in ‘consensual rough sex.’ How convenient!