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.

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