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Feminism + BDSM = ??

Feminism + BDSM = ??

I am firm in my position that BDSM practices should not be pathologized. But I also think it can be useful to know what the criticisms are and how they lend to the cultural context of misunderstandings about BDSM.

By interrogating our own desires and knowing how they interact with larger systems, we can be more authentic and committed to them.

Cognitive dissonance can really be a downer on pleasure.

I have no interest in kink shaming. It’s harmful and dangerous. But I also don’t fuck with people who plug their ears and yell something nonsensical about individual freedoms when they encounter criticism.

Folx interested in BDSM shouldn’t have to answer for their desires any more than anybody else interested in sex and/or pleasure. But unfortunately, critics have been loud and long and have created a cultural climate where many kinksters feel like they must defend BDSM at all costs or reconcile their personal politics and desires in a way that feels hypocritical or insincerely preachy.

That is, if I’m a feminist and like BDSM, how do I understand my own relationship to cisheteropatriarchy?    

Constructions of pathology and perversity have had a widespread and lasting influence and have made nuanced conversations difficult. Much in the same way early medical and psychiatric thought sadomasochistic desires were an illness, radical feminist objections see the desires as only a conditioned response to patriarchal social inundation.

So, in a weird way, radical feminists and old white doctors propose the same solution: resist acting on those desires.

What do we say to that? Fuck repression. But let’s talk a little more about why.

Sex Wars (ever had a political debate with your genitals?)

Many radical feminist objections to BDSM can be traced back to a period called the ‘sex wars’, when feminists essentially divided into two camps of sexual morality.

Second wave feminism through the 1960s and 1970s emphasized the interconnectivity of private and public realms and made sexuality exceptionally important in articulations of gender equality. By asserting ‘the personal is political,’ individual sexual practices became directly implicated in the structures of heteropatriarchy and systemic power and oppression.

Issues of sexual oppression versus sexual repression patterned themselves into arguments about pornography, BDSM, public sex, lesbian dildo use, and even transgenderism. Basically, many radical feminists thought (and continue to think) that you couldn’t do these things without reinscribing patriarchy.

Some of the most prolific pro-sex, feminist voices starting in the 1980s like Gayle Rubin and Patrick Califia published at length about how anti-BDSM arguments by feminists were like mainstream homophobia, assuming that participants can’t actually consent and have no rights to privacy.

Early advocacy for BDSM framed itself as fighting against censorship and for personal freedom. It came directly from kink communities, who were also publishing erotica, BDSM user guides, and hosting skills shares.

So, what exactly are feminist objections to BDSM?

If heterosexuality is about sexual domination and women are subject to violence and rape culture, then BDSM is thought to only replicate these.

There are suspicions about neo-liberal arguments that individual choices about sexual practices have no implications on larger power structures.

For critics, the inherent inequality in power-based BDSM relationships is incompatible with feminism and results in the internalization of heterosexual power hierarchies, a homophobic view of lesbians, and the acceptability of images of violence against women.

If it wasn’t already clear from the framing of this article, I obviously disagree with arguments that say BDSM practices can’t be safe, sane, and consensual. But the reason these critiques have staying power is because they aren’t entirely baseless.

Rape culture exists. Sexual domination and the denial of pleasure is certainly rooted in heteronormativity. There are social relations of class, gender, and race that have the potential to limit the scope of consent. But BDSM is not automatically a site where consent is compromised or systemic oppression is upheld.

I am also suspicious of claims that sexual practices and desires have no connection to power dynamics outside of the bedroom. Assuming that everyone is a neoliberal subject with equal footings to assert their desires and act on them ignores the very real disparities that exist in the world.

Also, BDSM is not a free-for-all. There are practices that are not supported by kink communities but there is also nuance is separating fantasy and real-life implications.

This doesn’t mean that some BDSM practitioners aren’t complete garbage. Where I disagree with radical feminist critiques is that BDSM is a cause or a reflection of the very real and shitty things that exist because of cisheteropatriarchy that is rooted in colonialism and white supremacy.

So, hopefully by tracing some of the history of why BDSM is framed the way it is, we can reject pathologization. But we can also engage it in meaningful ways that don’t dismiss critique without understanding.

 

 

About the writer

Morgan Oddie

Morgan (she/they) is a labour activist and academic based in Katorokwi/Kingston. While their PhD thesis was broadly on the cultural politics of kink, they are also interested in SFF fiction, working class history and politics, and revolutionary socialism. They also like to consensually beat up humans. Sometimes this happens in the MMA circuit.

Check this out! How to Choose Between Suction Toys
Have you read? Consensual Non-Monogamy 101

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