Sorry for the delay. I just forgot to finish this series and got carried away with telling everyone what gutterballs Dov Charney and Ralphie May are. Polly Styrene, who is a badass, has got a post up that inspired me to get back on task, so here we go.
Some qualifications (radfems can skip this paragraph): This post will revolve around my interpretation of M/f BDSM and nothing else, and I’m not going to suffer any relativistic bullshit about whether my interpretation is more or less “valid” than anyone else’s. I obviously think I’m right or I’d be out asking other people what they think rather than telling them what I think, and I admit up front that I think people ought to agree with me. I know there are readers whose experiences may not have been as fucked up as some of the things I’m about to describe (though many of them may very well have been more so), but I’m here to discuss the general nature of a vast phenomenon, not get lost in the minutiae of every single individual’s private experiences. I’m going to say this again: I’m not discussing anything in this post but men dominating women. I’m going to do that because a large proportion of BDSM involves a man dominating a woman, and because that dynamic warrants separate discussion because it involves the eroticization of an oppressed group’s submission. I’m not approving any comments on this post about anything else. You’ll have to wait for a later installment if you want to talk about women dominating men or lesbian and gay BDSM. Seriously. That said, I welcome argument and would like to have a discussion here, though it must be a civil one.
When considering sexual matters and their relationship to the general misogyny that pervades our culture, I generally pretend I’m a justice in the Supreme Court of Gender Issues and apply the ol’ strict scrutiny standard (albeit my own modified version of it). Sex, as it has been used throughout history as a tool of domination and as it is the locus of the negotiation of gender roles and a large majority of our social behaviors, requires close analysis. If I’m going to give a sexual practice a free pass and the Nine Deuce seal of approval, it’s got to meet three criteria:
- First, I ask myself whether women are ever hurt as a result of the practice under consideration. If the answer is yes, the practice has not earned immunity from examination and analysis.
- Second, I ask myself whether those who engage in the practice ever do so out of a hatred of women. If so, it’s up for discussion and judgment (a nasty word for those with po-mo leanings, I know, but a necessary one nonetheless).
- Finally, I have to ask myself whether the practice would occur in a society that wasn’t characterized by male supremacy and the hatred of women, both of which tend to manifest as the mixture of sex and power. I’ve got a really impressive imagination (I invented unicorns), so if I can’t imagine a sex act having the power to excite in a post-patriarchal world, I get a little dubious.
If a sex act fails to meet any of these three criteria, you can expect that I’ll be questioning the fuck out of it, and BDSM really blows it on all three. I know what you’re going to say: mainstream “vanilla” (a term I’ll not be using again because it’s insulting, hackneyed, and really not clever) sex doesn’t pass Deuce’s strict scrutiny standard. Fuckin’ A right it doesn’t, but I’ve never made the claim that it does. Many of those who responded to my previous posts in the series created that false dichotomy and pretended that I was out campaigning for the kind of sex we see in the average Michael Douglas movie, but I think we all know that’s bullshit. BDSM, just like mainstream sex that seems to mirror porn more and more every day, won’t be escaping my jaundiced eye just because a few people tell me they do it “right.” There’s too much ambiguity involved in BDSM with regard to my criteria for that (as is the case with pretty much all sex acts — in a misogynistic society, there may not even be such a thing as a sex act that’s free of the influence of patriarchy, though that thought makes me want to start an emo band). But the fact that I urge scrutiny doesn’t mean I’m here yelling, “Real feminists don’t engage in BDSM!” It does mean we all need to think about what our desires and choices mean to us as individuals and in relation to other women. If one does so and still decides BDSM is where it’s at, whatever, but it needs to be discussed in an open forum where those who are working things out for themselves can get access to the experiences and opinions of others and where issues can be raised that will help us all figure out how to try to move toward a future in which sex isn’t used as a tool of oppression.
A few things stood out in the responses I received to my little personal ad, the first being that a lot of the men who responded told me they were feminists themselves, and that they didn’t think there was anything incompatible about D/s relationships and feminism (they’re obviously not advanced feminist theorists). They wanted to make sure I knew that their idea of an ideal BDSM relationship was one in which the power differential in the bedroom stayed there. Mmm hmm. Many of them, because the fake woman in the ad was new to BDSM, explained the concept of the safe word and warned the poster to be wary of the men who responded because “there are a lot of sickos out there who just want to hurt women.” No shit.
I’ve heard plenty from commenters and from the many, many articles I’ve read on this or that BDSM-related website about the proper way to do BDSM, about the importance of ensuring that one’s BDSM activities are always “safe, sane, and consensual.” I appreciate the fact that the thoughtful people of the BDSM scene are concerned with protecting the physical and mental health of the people who engage in practices that have the potential to get out of hand if not approached in such a manner, I really do. But I’ve got to ask whether the fact that such discussions are necessary ought not to be a red flag. What of those who don’t follow the rules, who get fucked up before engaging in emotionally volatile and physically hazardous activities, who don’t ensure consent before they get into whatever they’re going to get into? What of the women who engage in BDSM because they’ve got emotional problems, and what of the men who seek out BDSM relationships as a venue to exercise their hatred on women’s bodies? How many people don’t follow the guidelines more responsible BDSM practitioners have devised? And how do other members of the BDSM community deal with those who don’t adhere to the safe, sane, and consensual line?
How does a woman who has given her consent to one act withdraw it, especially while restrained, in the event that a safe word is ignored? And what, exactly, does consent mean in such a context? There is a pretty large measure of psychological ambiguity involved in BDSM, and I’m not sure that the idea of consent is as clear as people make it out to be. As is the case with any “scene,” there is unvocalized pressure on the members of that scene to be more authentic, more down, more hard core than others. BDSM is often practiced in semi-public contexts in which the sub might feel pressure to go farther than she’s ready to, and in private there’s always the pressure to perform in a way that will excite one’s partner that infuses every sexual encounter. And almost every dude who responded to my fake personal ad made mention of pushing the sub’s limits, a problematic idea if one really wants to emphasize consent. If the BDSM community is such a shining beacon of respect for the concept of consent, then why did so many of the men who responded to my ad make sure to let me know they weren’t interested in people who try to “top from the bottom” and wanted “true submissives” ? That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that a dude who has any respect for his partners’ emotional safety (much less free will and human agency, the key elements without which a discussion of consent cannot even occur) would say.
And what about the legality of consent as it is conceived of in BDSM? What does a woman who has been raped in the course of a BDSM encounter do to prove she did not consent to an act (remember, as our current legal system operates on the “innocent until proven guilty” model, that women are required to prove that they broke a state of — as the law conceives of it — constant consent in order for a rapist to be punished)?
How safe and sane is BDSM? Those are some pretty slippery concepts, safety and sanity. There are plenty of people who would question the idea that there’s anything safe or sane about BDSM, myself included. I conceive of a safe and sane sex act as one that does not pose the risk of bodily or emotional harm for the participants. The mixture of sex and violence and the eroticization of women’s submission to male domination do not fall into the “sane” or “safe” columns for me because I don’t believe either would occur if we didn’t live in an insanely misogynistic society that is detrimental to our emotional health. But let’s say my opinion doesn’t matter (ha!). Who decides what’s safe and sane in the world of BDSM? No one, apparently, because every time I’ve read or heard a discussion among people involved in BDSM about some of the more extreme practices, I get the distinct impression that “to each his own” has gotten wildly out of hand and that there is a marked unwillingness to condemn anything but the most egregious of abusive behaviors (and I really mean egregious, as in permanent bodily harm or worse).
But what does all this talk of separating D/s in the bedroom from real life, of taking “safe, sane, and consensual” as one’s creed, of female subs being empowered by the emphasis on consent really mean? Methinks the Sisters of Mercy fans doth protest too much, that someone is pissing on my leg and telling me it’s raining. I read 400+ e-mails from men interested in a young woman curious about submission, I looked at a shit-ton of BDSM porn, I went to a BDSM club, I read tens of thousands of words on BDSM-related websites, and I didn’t feel very safe or sane when I got done, nor did I feel like participating in the shit I’d seen or read about would make me feel particularly empowered.
I used to live in San Francisco. There is a fucking awesome building in the Mission called the Armory that I loved nosing around at whenever I found myself in the neighborhood. It sat basically unoccupied for many years until Kink.com bought it in 2006, an event that seriously bummed my party out. I’d always thought of the place as an ideal art space, or maybe a music venue (possibly both), and when I heard that they’d be filming BDSM porn there I about fell off of my chair. I had no fucking idea, dude. Like I said, before I posted that ad, went to the BDSM club, looked at these sites, and read up on BDSM in more than a half-assed way, I had kind of a silly conception of BDSM, so when I went to the site I nearly had a heart attack. I know that porn is not the same thing as real life, but porn is fantasy fuel, and I’m pretty sure that I don’t EVER want to run across a Kink.com fan in a dark alley.
Don’t read the next paragraph if you’re squeamish about descriptions of women being abused.
Almost all of the videos on the Hogtied site (a branch of Kink.com billed as the “sensual” bondage site) feature shibari, that Japanese rope bondage shit that’s absolutely terrifying to see. Almost every photo I’ve seen that involved shibari featured a woman whose breasts were so constricted by ropes that they looked as if they’d pop, and every single video I saw on Hogtied featured a woman suspended by ropes, gagged, and clearly in heinous pain, followed by a short clip of the woman in the video talking about how cool the experience was. Their other sites feature bound women with electrodes hooked up to their genitalia, a site where women are fucked by terrifying machines, a site called Device Bondage in which women are bound with every manner of nightmarish machinery, and The Training of O, a site that features women undergoing “slave training” that includes such weird shit that I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s just say that there were suction devices, dildos, blood, and hooks everywhere. The looks on the women’s faces in the photos that the sites use to promote the videos that they sell can best be described as anguished. The logos for all of the sites looked like the main titles for horror movies, especially the Device Bondage site, which included a terrified-looking woman’s face with a gag in her mouth along with that shitty grainy font overlay that every horror movie producer seems to love. What a disturbing combination, sex and horror. Visually confronting the fact that men are looking for images of women who are clearly in pain to wank to really scared the piss out of me.
Out of fourteen sites Kink.com puts out, three feature men as submissives. Eleven focus solely on women submitting to various forms of abuse (their term, not mine). I’ll leave the interpretation of that ratio up to you (as long as you don’t give me some evolutionary psychology bullshit about men being more visually stimulated than women). Really, ask yourself, what do you think it means that M/f relationships seem to dominate the BDSM world and that straight BDSM porn is almost entirely comprised of images of female submissives? It’s OK, make the comparison to mainstream porn. It only proves my point.
I know that all of the sites that Kink.com operates make a big show out of how much the actresses supposedly enjoy what’s being done to them, but that’s almost more worrisome than had they not done so, because it supports the idea that women can’t get enough of being sexually dominated and abused. The message in these videos, basically, is, “It’s OK if you get off on hurting women, because they’re sluts for pain!”
What in Billy Zabka’s name would make a woman want to submit to such treatment, and how in the fuck could anyone get to the point that they derive sexual enjoyment from severe pain? No one ever seems to want to get anywhere near that question, because it’s nearly impossible to provide an answer for it that doesn’t sound silly if compared to the completely reasonable suggestion that women who are into submission are into it because our culture eroticizes male domination and female submission. Honestly, I can’t really think of many forms of the expression of human sexuality in our fucked up culture that don’t include an element of that, but BDSM is probably the clearest distillation of such a dynamic, and protestations to the contrary just seem absurd to me. And the same goes for male doms — the idea that any convoluted explanation for why a man enjoys hurting a woman has even a third as much explanatory power as the simple fact that men are raised in this culture to conceive of sex and power as one and the same is hilarious. The paternalism, arrogance, and unalloyed sadism evidenced in the ads I read both by men looking for subs and in response to my ad confirm what I saw in that heinous fucking porn and what I’ve read and seen elsewhere.
So, should women who are into submission be ashamed of themselves? I don’t think so. It’s shocking to me that there are any women in this warped society who aren’t. But I would like to ask submissive women who read this if they think that what I’ve postulated is far off from the truth. I don’t think it’s healthy to mix sex and violence, and I think submitting to the will of other people is detrimental to our mental health and human development. I’m certainly not going to blame submissive women for sexual inequality or for the continuation of patriarchy because that’s completely ridiculous. Men are to blame for that because they’re the ones who benefit from it. So should men who are into domination be ashamed of themselves? That’s a harder question. Men, being that they’re the ones with the privilege and power in this society, bear more responsibility for the dominance and submission dynamic that pollutes human sexuality and romantic relationships. Human sexuality is a complicated matter, as are the hierarchical structure of human interactions and the way that structure interacts with our individual emotions and desires.
But BDSM, as it intermingles sex with power and violence, is highly suspect for a feminist like me. All of the claims about women’s sexual agency and the focus on consent within BDSM sound awfully weak in the face of the reality of the misogyny that pervades our culture and the very real sexual and emotional abuses that women face every day. I’ve heard the claims that by playing with gendered power dynamics, people who practice BDSM are subverting the gender hierarchy, but I find that a little difficult to believe when so much of what I’ve seen just looks like garden variety sexual abuse at a Halloween party. I find it hard to believe that a sexual practice that fetishizes women’s pain and submission is so different from mainstream misogyny, that I ought to think M/f BDSM is a step forward for feminism because the women who participate in it like it. Orgasms don’t necessarily equal progress.
Enough of this shit. I’m going to bed.
To be continued…