[Written for Outright, March 1997.]

BDSM: A feminist perspective

BDSM and feminism have sometimes been described as incompatible. But that depends very much on which bits of feminism you're talking about - it includes many strands of thought, not necessarily consistent with each other.

In the 'eighties, one group of feminists put a lot of energy into criticising SM. It was said to be based in patriarchal socialisation, copied from oppressive situations and not essentially any different from the real-life situations it sometimes resembled. If you found it sexy, that was a form of internalised oppression or "false consciousness". If you not only found it sexy, but actually thought there might be some value in it, you were undermining feminism (or at least their version of it) and propping up the patriarchy.

The debate at this time became defensive, simplistic and polarised. On the one hand, if you so much as fantasised about role-play you were damaging women. On the other hand, the SM-ers sometimes sounded as if they were saying "It's not possible for anyone to come to any harm, ever, through anything even slightly connected to BDSM". Any genuine discussion acknowledging potential risks would immediately have been used as ammunition in the "war".

In recent years it's become somewhat more possible to talk about these things. And ironically, in view of the anti-SM feminists' criticisms, the culture of the BDSM community can be a valuable resource for some questions important in feminist politics.

The nature of consent

The nature of consent is one example. Currently it seems we still need a campaign just to establish that "No means no". But beyond that simple level, there are important questions that our culture as a whole is still working on. When is consent not genuine because the person giving it was disempowered and not free to choose? When, even though consent was given, ought one not to proceed because the person giving it was not sufficiently wise about their own well-being? Those questions aren't limited to BDSM, but clearly this is an area of enquiry important to BDSM culture.

Meanwhile, out in the rest of the world, a pervasive cultural mystification on the issue of consent is an essential part of a male-privileging sex set-up. "But I thought she wanted it" is the ultimate get-out clause, and it only works when the nature of consent is continually confused and blurred.

One of the anti-SM arguments is this idea is that people are unable ever to give valid consent to it, for one or other of the above reasons. Interestingly, one strand of feminist thought (of which Andrea Dworkin is probably the best-known exponent) sometimes represents all male/female penetrative sex in the same way. Women are not capable of consenting to it - they've been culturally programmed to want it, so therefore their consent is not of their own free will. A similar argument suggests that if lesbians want penetrative sex, it must be as a result of incompletely escaping heterosexual programming. (Presumably the people who think that believe they've escaped their own "cultural programming" enough to be an authority on the subject.)

Listen to your intuition

Pronouncements on what's "allowable" in sexuality have their own pitfalls. They may deny or confuse women's own instincts about what's right for them, which varies from woman to woman and from moment to moment. It's not only in the practice of BDSM that women need to ask "How do I know what to choose that's healthy for me?". And it's precisely when their instincts are dulled and confused that women become most vulnerable to abuse - of all kinds, not only physical. "Practise listening to your intuition, your inner voice; ask questions; be curious; see what you see; hear what you hear; and then act upon what you know to be true." (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, "Women Who Run With The Wolves"). That is how women get empowered, not by following someone else's rules, however well-meant.

One particular accusation which has been levelled at BDSM-ers is that it's "disrespectful" to genuine abuse survivors to play with pain and submission. I disagree. The disrespect lies in confusing the two situations. In one case, two people are jointly engaged in an exploration for the joy and fulfilment of both of them; in the other, one person is intent on their own gratification with, at best, no regard for the well-being of the other, at worst an intention to harm. The actions may be similar, but the underlying reality is completely different. To deny the importance of that underlying difference is to discount people's own reality. It's equivalent to saying to a rape survivor that because some people enjoy penetrative sex some of the time, they "must have wanted it" - as if different people never wanted different things, or as if people never wanted different things at different times. That confusion is not only outrageously disrespectful, but dangerous in that it denies the importance of consent.

That's not to say that anyone should have to listen to, or see, things that they find upsetting.

Equality, power and pleasure

Something else with which feminists are concerned is equality in relationships. Criticising the play-inequalities of BDSM does nothing to address genuine power imbalances created by money, education or physical strength, or based on race, class, body size, gender, abilities and so on. In a way, BDSM is a peculiarly equalising phenomenon, in that the roles someone plays need not bear any relationship to the economic, physical or intellectual power they may hold in the rest of their life, but only to their own (and their partner's) pursuit of pleasure. Power as an invented, fluid, changeable access to pleasure has a different purpose from power maintaining the authority of an established order.

Pleasure itself is a vital subject within feminist discourse. In her essay "Power and Helplessness in the Women's Movement", Joanna Russ talks about the "Feminine Imperative" - that any power a woman holds may never be used for her own benefit, but only to look after everyone else. This is part of the way that women are socialised. In that respect, it's inherently radical for a woman to set out in pursuit of her own pleasure. (That doesn't mean at other people's expense. The idea that one person's pleasure is always at another person's expense is a fallacy.) Also, many women learn from our culture to be uncomfortable with holding obvious power over another person, estranged from their own strength, and mistrustful of other women who don't have those inhibitions. To whatever degree BDSM provides a space for women to claim their own power and become comfortable with it, to value their own pleasure and that of their lovers, it's a profoundly feminist act.

Copyright Jennifer Moore 1997
jennifer@uncharted-worlds.org


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