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BDSM in a feminist framework: Sexist or Sex-Negative?

In this article series, Clarissa-Jan Lim examines the uneasy relationship between BDSM and feminism by drawing on various feminist debates and the personal stories of BDSM practitioners.

In Part One Clarissa-Jan explores the history of feminism and its views on BDSM. In Part Two she shares the story of a self-proclaimed feminist BDSM couple Ian Locklear and Nicole Lavoie and the ways they reconcile their feminist views with their D/s lifestyle. In Part Three she introduces submissive, Melissa K, who has had to resolve the conflict between her rape fantasies and her strongly feminist ideals.

What is BDSM?

‘Sex is as important as eating or drinking and we ought to allow the one appetite to be satisfied with as little restraint or false modesty as the other.’ — Marquis de Sade

An overlapping acronym of B&D (bondage and discipline), D/s (dominance and submission), and S/M (sadomasochism), BDSM comes with a whole host of connotations—from outright opposition to shoulder-shrugging neutrality to adamant support for the lifestyle and its practices—depending on your crowd of choice.

Broken down into its components, Bondage involves restraining a person’s movement, whether by asphyxiation or instruments like rope, handcuffs, or manacles. Discipline is the use of rules to control behaviour in a sexual context.

Domination and submission (D/s) are the roles of power exchange that lean toward the emotional aspects of a relationship, and do not necessarily involve sex. For instance, many power exchange relationships require the submissive, or ‘slave’ to perform duties—ranging from the mundane like cleaning and grocery shopping, to the more eccentric, such as crawling on one’s knees to greet one’s Dominant (‘master’) at the door—for the simple pleasure of doing something for his or her master.

Sadomasochism (S&M) involves inflicting and receiving pain for sexual gratification. It is arguably the most controversial element of BDSM, and a strong source of discontentment for many in the feminist community.

The spectrum of BDSM is broad, and like many other facets of human relationships, varies according to each person’s tastes and desires. Not all women are submissives, and not all men dominants. Some submissives willingly surrender much of their free will outside the bedroom to their Dominant. Others limit their submission or masochism to the bedroom as part of their play.

BDSM and feminism

‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.’  Oscar Wilde

While historically (and today) many have viewed BDSM through a psychological lens, with the rise of feminism in the 1970s people began to examine BDSM within its broader social context. During this period feminists not only scrutinised gender roles, they also turned their attention to sexual values and the power dynamics that exist between men and women, in their sex lives. Two primary factions emerged, one against pornography and BDSM, and the other promoting a broader sense of sexuality compatible with feminism.

Two main groups arose from this conflict: Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM), who strongly opposed BDSM and all its manifestations in the media and pornography industry, and Samois, a lesbian-feminism S/M organisation based in San Francisco that defended sadomasochism as a legitimate form of sexual activity in harmony with feminist values.

Groups such as WAVPM viewed pornography and BDSM as rooted in inequality and violence against women, while Samois’ statement of purpose proclaimed, ‘We believe that S/M must be consensual, mutual, and safe. S/M can exist as part of a healthy and positive lifestyle…We believe that sadomasochists are an oppressed sexual minority. Our struggle deserves the recognition and support of other sexual minorities and oppressed groups. We believe that S/M can and should be consistent with the principles of feminism. As feminists, we oppose all forms of social hierarchy based on gender. As radical perverts, we oppose all social hierarchies based on sexual preference.’

Exchanges between the two groups—dubbed the Feminist Sex Wars—pervaded through the decades and continue to plague modern-day feminists, who perhaps know it better today as the debate between sex positivism and sex negativism.

Sexism or sex-negativity?

‘Why can’t we acknowledge the fact that violence is sexualised in our culture… Rape is sexualised in our culture. Male-domination, male power, female subordination, misogyny is sexualised.’  Meghan Murphy

To Meghan Murphy, founder, editor, and writer of Feminist Current, Canada’s most widely read feminist blog, and a vocal critic of pornography and the sex industry, BDSM is a manifestation of a patriarchal and unequal society. ‘I think that BDSM sexualises inequity and traditional power roles, and violence against women,’ she said. ‘It is a personal thing but it’s also about a larger context of patriarchy, rape culture, power relations, power imbalances, and systemic oppression in the way that we’re socialised. I mean, all of our sexualities are shaped by those things.’

Murphy believes one of the more pressing issues in the BDSM community is that many kinksters are wary when others try to discuss their kink. ‘I think that sometimes that people who are into BDSM get defensive because they feel like, “Well this is my choice, this is me, I do what I want and why are you criticizing what I like in my sex life?” And it’s like, you can do what you want. No one’s stopping you from doing what you want in your bedroom or liking what you like. But at the same time, why can’t we acknowledge the fact that violence is sexualised in our culture? It is. Rape is sexualised in our culture. Male-domination, male power, female subordination, misogyny is sexualised.’

Sex-positive feminist blogger Cliff Pervocracy disagrees that BDSM is rooted in sexism. ‘I think some people think that if you’re going against society in one thing then you must have freed yourself from all preconceptions, and I don’t think that’s the case. I think people bring a lot of ideas into BDSM with them,’ he said.

‘I think there should be critical discussion about BDSM, but critical in the sense of film criticism—that you’re not criticizing the fact that it exists because that’s way too big and not helpful, but criticizing different ways it’s done—I think it’s worthwhile. Basically it’s like criticizing sex. Is sex good or bad? It’s just too big of a question because so many people have so many different experiences with it.’

Dr Gayle Rubin, one of the founders of Samois and an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, questions the notion that feminism and S/M are in contradiction with each other. ‘The conviction that they are, is based on a whole structure of assumptions, many of them questionable, about both feminism (and the idea that it should privilege certain forms of sexual preference) and SM (and the idea that it is intrinsically sexist in some fashion),’ she wrote in a recent email.

‘While I do believe that feminism speaks to issues of differential power in intimate relationships, it is important to distinguish between various kinds of power. There is no intrinsic relationship between the kinds of “power” expressed in SM and the kinds of power between individuals in a range of intimate situations (including romance, marriage, or recreational sex). This is not to say that SM relationship and encounters cannot be embedded in or entangled with other kinds of differential power; only that the one doesn’t predict the other.’

A prominent activist and theorist in the politics of sex and gender, Dr Rubin has criticised the use of sex as a tool for repression and called into question the value system that determines certain types of sex as natural, and therefore good—vanilla, monogamous, heterosexual—and others, such as paedophilia, bestiality, and sadomasochism, as wrong and unnatural.

In her famous essay, ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory on the Politics of Sexuality’ Dr Rubin wrote, ‘This culture always treats sex with suspicion… Virtually all erotic behavior is considered bad unless a specific reason to exempt it has been established. The most acceptable excuses are marriage, reproduction, and love. Sometimes scientific curiosity, aesthetic experience, or a long-term intimate relationship may serve. But the exercise of erotic capacity, intelligence, curiosity, or creativity all require pretexts that are unnecessary for other pleasures, such as the enjoyment of food, fiction, or astronomy.’

Does BDSM actually serve feminism?

A democratic morality should judge sexual acts by the way partners treat one another, the level of mutual consideration, the presence or absence of coercion, and quantity and quality of the pleasure they provide’  Dr Ruben

Counter to certain feminists’ arguments of inherent inequality in BDSM relationships, practitioners report that to avoid injury and abuse, a healthy and functional BDSM relationship requires proper and thorough communication. This includes seeking and granting explicit consent for BDSM activities—the kinds of discussions both sides of feminism value and strive to encourage between men, women, and all sexual partners.

A recent study conducted by Andreas Wismeijer at Tilburg University seems to support this position. The study, reported in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found evidence that BDSM practitioners might be psychologically healthier than those who lead vanilla sex lives. ‘[O]ur findings suggest that BDSM participants as a group are, compared with non-BDSM participants, less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, yet less agreeable. BDSM participants also were less rejection sensitive, whereas female BDSM participants had more confidence in their relationships, had a lower need for approval, and were less anxiously attached compared with non-BDSM participants.

‘As BDSM play requires the explicit consent of the players regarding the type of actions to be performed, their duration and intensity, and therefore involves careful scrutiny and communication of one’s own sexual desires and needs, this may be one possible explanation for the positive association between BDSM practitioning and subjective well-being.’

Taking the middle ground, Dr Rubin contends that BDSM is not intrinsically sexist, but the people who engage in it might be. Like many other people outside the subculture, Dr Rubin says those who practice BDSM ‘are as likely or unlikely to have bad ideas about gender (or any of a number of other forms of social difference) as anyone else. But is there any evidence that SM encounters or relationship are more sexist than, say, romance in general? Marriage? Heterosexuality? Homosexuality?

‘A democratic morality should judge sexual acts by the way partners treat one another, the level of mutual consideration, the presence or absence of coercion, and quantity and quality of the pleasure they provide,’ she wrote. ‘Whether sex acts are gay or straight, coupled or in groups, naked or in underwear, commercial or free, with or without video, should not be ethical concerns.’

Perhaps feminism should be focusing less on the content of people’s sex lives, and more on the process by which people negotiate what they mutually desire.

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