BDSM FAQ (Frequently Asserted Quibbles): Part 1

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

Inspired by Meghan’s post on burlesque and the work of feminists and commentators on this site, I’ve outlined responses, in three parts, to the most common objections presented when feminists critique BDSM. My intention is not necessarily to convince BDSM supporters or practitioners to change their beliefs or behaviour (because I don’t believe most will), but rather to help articulate why these objections are problematic/illogical. Another useful post addressing BDSM can be found here, for your reference.

Throughout this post, I refer to the submissive as “she” — both as a reflection of the actual sexual gender dynamics under patriarchy and because I am concerned with how BDSM affects women in particular. It is not because I think that all “submissives” in BDSM are women, and it is not because I think sexual submission or masochism is an inherent or natural feature of female sexuality.

“You shouldn’t judge others for their sexual preferences. You are kink-shaming. This is just like homophobia. You are a prude, pearl-clutching, moralizing, etc.”

This group of objections has the same origin: the presupposition that insofar as an activity or institution involves “sex” it must be immune from critique. Feminists are accused of “shaming” whenever they attempt to analyze or critique any (male-oriented) sexual attitude, preference, or behavior, and thus “shaming” is employed to shut down critical thinking by painting critique as harmful. This perceived harm is considered by sex positivists as more important than the actual harm that occurs to women because of those attitudes, preferences, and behaviors.

If we were to take seriously the presupposition behind these objections, namely, that we can never judge or apply moral standards to sexual behaviors, we could never criticize sexual behaviors at all. In fact, using “consent” as a justification for any and all sexual practices and behaviours is a form of “moralizing” because consent is used to determine what is rightful versus wrongful behavior (even though consent is insufficient). Thus, objections to critiques of BDSM cannot be said to be against “moralizing” per se — this presupposes that whatever norms or “morals” the sex-positivists endorse are the “right” ones whereas all other norms or “morals” are paternalistic or oppressive.

The analogy to homophobia is a false equivalence. Since some conservative, homophobic segments of society are known to criticize sexual behaviors, the claim is that anyone who critiques any form of sexuality or sexual practice is necessarily a conservative (this is also often attached to other kinds of sexist and ageist name-calling, for example, “pearl-clutching prudes”). With homophobia, the perceived harm is that one is not having sexual relations with the “right” type of person (and that the patriarchal, heterosexist family/social order will be disrupted). With BDSM, the harm is the presence of violence, coercion, and reinforcing sexual subordination.

“BDSM is subversive”

The sex-positivist idea is that in doing something (seemingly) taboo, one “subverts” patriarchy by challenging our social norms. However, the effectiveness of subversion depends on what norm one subverts. What “norm” is really being challenged by BDSM?

By definition, BDSM eroticizes inequality, domination, pain, and abuse; thus it doesn’t challenge any patriarchal norms. Patriarchy exists because men enjoy hurting and dominating women. Men have carefully constructed our social and legal institutions in order to promote and ensure men’s ability to violate, abuse, and subjugate women. The norm is men hurting women during sex, coercing women into sex, dominating women during sex, and having non-mutual sex. BDSM says the same thing about sexuality as patriarchy: hurting women is sexy. It merely dresses it up in fancy leather outfits and increases the level of acceptable sexualized violence from the “norm” (e.g., painful or unwanted intercourse, compulsory intercourse) to more extreme (sexualized torture, mutilation).

The only norm that is being “subverted” by BDSM is the “norm” against abuse and torture — but that should be a “norm” feminists want to promote.

“What about lesbians/female dominants?”

Some might argue that BDSM is “subversive” because it (sometimes) places women in the “dominant” position. However, feminism’s goal has never been to reverse roles of domination and subordination, but rather to eliminate power inequalities and violence in sexual relations altogether.

Lesbians, gays, and female dominants can also internalize heterosexist and misogynist norms, just like anyone else. An incident of a woman abusing a man doesn’t change the gender dynamics of violence or sexual assault any more than an incident wherein a minor abuses their parent indicates child abuse does not exist.

In reality, BDSM is rather traditional in its gender dynamics — submissiveness is still associated with females and denigrated in males, and “submissives” often continue to be treated as subordinates outside of the “scene.”

“You need to educate yourself about it first. You aren’t in the ‘scene’ therefore you cannot judge what we do.”

I’m calling this the “mystical experience” class of objections: they presume the ignorance of the objector and also assert that there is something about BDSM that cannot be understood without actually engaging in the practice. In some cases, “you can’t know” is a legitimate objection. For example, a woman or a non-white person can claim special knowledge of what it is like to be oppressed. But this is not the case in with regard to BDSM; the argument is comparable to saying that childfree people cannot make claims about what constitutes child abuse.

Another flaw is that there’s no way to differentiate the “mystical experience” from Stockholm Syndrome and trauma bonding. Human beings adapt to make their experiences tolerable, and enthusiastically supporting the conditions of their abuse (or not seeing it as abuse) is a common survival strategy. In fact, many of the self-described psychological elements of BDSM mirror that of survivors of severe abuse: forming a positive self-concept around enduring torture and “craving” abuse; the perpetrator gaining the victim’s trust and normalizing the abuse; victims going into a trance-like state (or disassociating) during the abuse; feeling bonded to the abuser (trauma-bonding); and the abuser “rewarding” the victim by demonstrations of kindness or comforting the victim after engaging in cruelty in order to further bond the victim to the abuser. The latter is actually formally integrated into BDSM practice as “aftercare.”

In fact, pro-BDSM writers even acknowledge that the cycle of violence and trauma-bonding doesn’t look much different from what they choose to consider “abusive” relationships — the distinguishing element, though, is always the ethereal and magical “consent.” This should not surprise us, as the practice of BDSM consists in the same acts of violence.

“That’s not real BDSM”

This is known as the “no true Scotsman” fallacy — in order to differentiate oneself from an undesirable behavior of group members, one claims that they are not “really” members of the group (in the same way that men proclaim that “real” men don’t rape in an attempt to preclude recognition that sexual violence is a gendered crime).

But what did they do wrong? Let’s take the case of the University of Illinois student who assaulted a young woman, afterwards claiming he was merely enacting Fifty Shades of Gray. Did BDSM supporters believe it was wrong it that he enjoyed hurting her? No, that’s exactly what BDSM promotes. Was it that they felt it was wrong that the victim was harmed and traumatized? No again.

The only thing that went “wrong” in this encounter, according to the BDSM community, was that they didn’t follow the proper protocols — she should have “agreed” to her abuse and had a “safe word.” The sex-positivists spend their time either condoning or promoting men’s desire to hurt women and then act surprised…when men hurt women.

This part one of a three-part series. Read part two and three here.

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

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