(This is a pretty self-indulgent post. It’s vaguely on the ‘musings about sexuality’ theme of the blog, but I primarily wrote it for catharsis, and published because something about publishing makes writing even more cathartic. This is not about asexuality, and any ace followers I’ve still got hanging on, feel free to give it a miss)
So I’ve seen a few people on the internet try to explain why their practice of BDSM (especially as submissive women/dominant men) doesn’t contradict their feminism recently (ie. in the last few months, and by ‘a few’, I mean, like, 2. Maybe a few more I’ve forgotten). With varying degrees of flair, and significantly more coherently than this, this seems to boil down to ‘Erm, well, er… there’s no overlap. You can be a feminist and practice BDSM. The end.’
I’ve been thinking recently about how that may well not be the case. I think it’s arguable that the practice of BDSM, or the BDSM movement, is or could be an inherently feminist project. Not just in the third-wave Choice Feminism I subscribe to (as per an Onion headline: ‘Study shows that women are now empowered by literally anything!’). But in a (fairly non-radical) second-wave ideology as well.
Let’s set out our baseline here. Let’s say we have a society influenced by Patriarchy. Patriarchy is a force which influences every choice we take, every thought we have, and conditions it, in a variety of subtle and unsubtle ways, to a choice which is most suitable to the Patriarchy. Think you’ve escaped Patriarchal conditioning? Think again.
Amongst the many intersecting memes that the Patriarchy guides us to are the idea of male objectification of women, and male violence against women.
The typical argument is ‘BDSM is a reflection of the inherent desires the Patriarchy puts in us to be dominant, or to be submissive, according to gender. The occasional role-reversals we see, or same-sex or non-binary BDSM, are caused by people acting out a different gender role, but they still perpetuate the same violence and objectification of women by men, even if the dom isn’t a man or the sub isn’t a woman. Therefore you should all stop.’
And the typical Choice Feminist response is ‘Nuh-uh. Choice is good, and empowerful and stuff.’ Which I agree with, as an argument, but I think there’s a stronger one.
Which is ‘Accepting that Patriarchy is a thing, then sure, BDSM is influenced by and created by Patriarchy. EVERYTHING is influenced and created by Patriarchy. That’s in your own definition of Patriarchy. Therefore the fact that it’s influenced by Patriarchy CANNOT mean we have to get rid of it, unless you want to get rid of EVERYTHING.
‘What we need to look at is whether BDSM feeds INTO Patriarchy. If it does, then it’s harmful. And the answer is that I guess it CAN. There can be non-feminist, gender-essentialist BDSM sometimes but, ultimately, BDSM is an antidote to Patriarchy.
‘Let’s say, as you do, that Patriarchy instils into boys the idea that they should naturally be violent towards and objectify women, and girls the opposite. Let’s say Bob, from a very early age, is acclimatised to the idea that he should be violent towards and objectify women, so much that the thought erotically pleases him. Sally, from a very early age, is acclimatised to the idea that she should accept violence and objectification from men, so much that the thought of men behaving that way towards her erotically pleases her. Let’s run these basic facts through three simulations.
‘Firstly: The Patriarchy has been dismantled. This is an entirely unrealistic scenario, but I’m just using it to quickly point out that there’s no evidence that Bob wouldn’t still be a sadist and Sally wouldn’t still be a masochist in a post-patriarchal world. The second-wave feminist argument relies on the idea that you can get rid of BDSM practitioners by addressing the underlying ‘causes’, but never really proves the cause. Personally, I’ll generally push for a world where we’re slightly better at dealing with difference over a world where we’re all a little bit more similar.
‘Secondly: The Patriarchy is still in place, and Bob and Sally don’t have access to a BDSM movement or information on BDSM culture. They get all their information from cultural osmosis and porn which is produced by people who also have Patriarchally-induced, gendered, sado-masochistic desires. These desires are reflected in the media so as to suggest that male dominance and female submission are normal, and how everybody works.
‘The crucial point here, and I’ve spoken about this before and will undoubtedly speak about it again, is that we automatically assume everyone else thinks like us. If Bob and Sally find sado-masochism along gendered lines erotic, if that sado-masochism inflects on every sexual thought they have about the opposite gender, they’re very strongly likely, with only a minimum amount of encouragement from society, to identify dominance with masculinity and submission with femininity in general. I’ve seen several of my borderline kinky friends (who don’t identify with BDSM especially) do this.
‘Thirdly: The Patriarchy is still in place, giving Bob and Sally these errant desires. They find BDSM culture, which tells them that their desires are perfectly natural and totally possible to act on. However, the BDSM culture adds two very important things that mainstream male dominance/female submission culture doesn’t really address. Firstly, everyone in a scene is actually an equal partner. Everyone needs to have their needs met and active consent is a baseline. The scene is actually best thought of as a roleplay of a dynamic you find erotically stimulating.
Where people don’t have this way of expressing the dynamic, keeping sex good and consensual can be pretty much impossible. If a man knows that he likes and is meant to like being forceful, aggressive, occasionally inducing pain, and a woman knows that’s how she likes her men, then it’s going to be pretty much impossible to negotiate a consentful scene, with just the right amount of force and violence, unless you have access to the BDSM ‘roleplaying’ ideas.
Secondly, however dominated by male doms and female subs BDSM groups are (and I’m not convinced that they are), there will always be people at them who buck the trend (and the less we try to persecute BDSM spaces and the more we encourage them instead, the more true that’ll be). Every female dom, male sub, switch, same-sex couple or non-binary person weakens the idea, easy to subscribe to if you’re just going off mainstream culture, that sado-masochism is inherently gendered. The BDSM culture de-genders sado-masochism. Does it do it perfectly? Hell no. But it effectively stands as a feminist alternative to mainstream culture, where the Patriarchally-indoctrinated can identify as a dom or sub in a de-gendered way, rather than having it inherently bound into their gender identity, which is the only option they really get from the mainstream culture.
‘So what the BDSM scene does is break down these desires that people have and make sure they know that those desires aren’t ‘how everybody works’. They’re fine, but they have to involve good consent (and BDSM culture is trailblazing as a consent culture). And they’re not inherently gendered. If you assume that Patriarchy can indoctrinate people into being kinky, BDSM is the antidote to that, the thing that puts those feelings in their good and natural place. In challenging the idea that men are inherently violent and objectifying and women are inherently violated and objectified, recontextualising that as a speciality interest and encouraging everyone to consider whether they’re kinky, thus fighting the natural impulse to assume that the world works according to your fantasies, BDSM should be a second-wave dream.’