BDSM FAQ (Frequently Asserted Quibbles): Part 3

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

“What about aftercare?”

The mere fact of aftercare should clue people into the abusiveness of BDSM when a BDSM encounter leaves someone emotionally distressed, unable to communicate, or in need of “processing.” Processing is something one does with a traumatic experience, not a pleasurable sexual encounter.

Aftercare, in this context, is used as a means of reassuring the submissive it wasn’t “really” abuse. It is a form of gaslighting — an attempt to claim that what actually happened (deliberate infliction and enjoyment of the submissive’s suffering) did not “really” happen. It is also a common technique practiced by abusers to engage in “rewards” of affection after abuse, in order to further confuse and maintain a bond with the victim. It is not a surprise, then, that aftercare involves the same sort of brainwashing tactics that abusers typically employ.

“It involves a lot of trust”

It is hard to understand why someone would think this is a justification. Women trust men who hurt them all the time. In fact, one of the main ways that abusers get access to their victims is precisely by exploiting a position of power or a position of trust — this is one of the many reasons why most sexual predators are friends, teachers, coaches, pastors, or family members. Having someone’s trust is not the same as being trustworthy.

It should at least be counterintuitive that a dominant — a person who wants to abuse and enjoys causing the submissive pain and degradation — could ever care for the person that they want to abuse. But it isn’t for most people; precisely because the perversion of patriarchalism teaches women that “love” is about being hurt and abused.

“It’s not like it’s a 24/7 relationship”

Except, of course, when it is… And when one partner is given license to control and possibly psychologically or physically abuse his partner (once again, affirmative consent is stunningly absent). If you are wondering how this is different than a domestic violence relationship, it isn’t. Domestic violence is about control. The mere fact that the submissive “agrees” means nothing; women agree to stay with and even protect their abusers all the time and often feel they deserve the abuse they receive.

Even in a non-24/7 relationship, the only difference is the duration of the abuse. And that isn’t terribly different from domestic violence relationships either. Many abusers are not always abusive or always controlling. Putting arbitrary limits on the duration and place of the abuse does not thereby mean that women are no longer being abused. At best, it demonstrates to women that no matter how successful they may become in the pubic realm, no matter how “equal” the relationship appears in other spheres, there is always a realm where she is nothing more than an object to be used and hurt by a man.

“People do all sorts of risky things because they like it. We consent to painful things all the time (like tetanus shots). People like pain because of endorphins.”

This class of objections is a red herring mixed with some false analogy. The false analogy comes with “other painful things” — with the exception of tetanus shots, this involves things that we do to ourselves and that don’t involve a sexual context. In the case of the tetanus shot, the doctor is presumably poking the needle in your arm as a matter of medical treatment, not because the doctor enjoys making her patients suffer.

The fact that someone “enjoys” it is not, in itself, a justification for making violence permissible. People could easily get their adrenalin and endorphin rushes through other activities; if they really wanted to be in pain, there are plenty of ways to self-harm. What differentiates BDSM is that it does involve, and is used to justify, interpersonal and sexualized violence.

“You assume that women who like it are brainwashed/broken. You are saying submissive women do not exist. I’ve always felt this way since I was a child, therefore it cannot be because of social influences.”

These objections are predicated on the idea that being submissive or masochistic is an “authentic” desire for women. The claim to an existential crisis is an easy way to justify one’s perspective and to side-step critique.

The problem is, of course, that this relies upon the hubris that we exist in a social vacuum and are completely unaffected by social influences (even though socialization and exposure to rape culture occurs from the day we are born) and the fallacy that becomes something exists it must therefore be justified. Neither of those assumptions are true. But in the end, whether it is an “authentic” desire misses the point; the point, instead, is whether violence against women is acceptable.

“Women like it and feminism is about CHOICES. You are taking away women’s agency!”

Feminists called themselves “women liberationists,” not “women libertarians.” And, as Meghan Murphy has said, “just because you like it doesn’t make it feminist.”

The fact is that if men did not want to hurt women, it wouldn’t matter whether women enjoyed subjugation or not; sexualized abuse requires the participation of a minimum of two people. When people say, “But what if women like to be hurt? They have a right to do what they want,” what they are actually saying is, “But men enjoy hurting women! They have the right to hurt women!” (Doesn’t sound so feminist anymore, does it?)

This is a clever reversal that obscures the real issue by “disappearing the male.” The issue never has been about what women choose but about how men choose to treat women. Even if we were to effectively outlaw violence tomorrow, it wouldn’t impact women’s agency at all; they would be free to do the same things that they did before. It would merely affect men’s ability to engage in violence against women. Masochistic women couldn’t even claim a harm, since no one is entitled to demand that anyone else participate in their sexual practices or desires (whatever they may be). However, and importantly, feminists do believe that women are entitled to freedom from violence.

“If you don’t like it, don’t do it”

It might be hard for sexual neoliberals to understand, but I actually care about what happens to people other than myself. But I also have to live with men who enjoy making women suffer in the most horrendous ways possible, and with the knowledge that my pain, suffering, and degradation is something which society condones and glorifies. And in a society that does not acknowledge or validate women’s humanity, it is no wonder that women have a hard time seeing themselves as human beings worthy of respect.

My Challenge to the BDSM and Sex-Positivists

So here’s my challenge to the BDSM advocates (adapted from a comment on a previous blog post):

  1. How would you teach women that they are owed bodily integrity, freedom from violence, and mutually pleasurable activities if they are also taught that it’s normal for sex to be degrading, painful, and non-mutual?
  2. How do you expect to prosecute and prevent domestic violence when you promote controlling relationships, sexualized abuse, and psychological and physical abuse as part of “healthy” relationships?
  3. How would you teach men to respect women and want to engage in mutually pleasurable activities if they are also taught that it is sexy to hurt, dominate, and coerce women?
  4. How do you expect to teach men about affirmative consent when BDSM practices themselves do not embody affirmative consent — including situations where consent is physically impossible?
  5. How would you prevent emotional and social coercion into these practices?

I haven’t heard a satisfactory answer to these concerns, and I don’t think that there are any, because to really eliminate sexual violence we need to change the way men treat women. In the sex-positivist vision of society, nothing changes from the old patriarchal order. Women (and girls) are still bought and sold like commodities. Women and girls are groomed into non-mutual, uncomfortable, or painful sex by pornography and socialization; girls are still told they are mere objects to be used and hurt by men; men inflict violent, painful, or degrading sex upon women. The difference is that women are told that these institutions are acceptable because of “choice.”

But this is not a satisfactory conclusion for any feminist. Because when we say we are working for sexual liberation, we should mean it.

This is the third of a three-part series. Read part one and two 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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