Normally I’d post about sex and related topics over at MySexProfessor.com but this topic has gotten me all fired up and talkative. I’m also leaving that option open to Miss Maggie Mayhem, who was one of the main sex work activists interviewed in this Salon piece on sexual assault in the BDSM community and who’s also blogged at MySexProfessor.
If you need some background to the Salon piece I’m discussing in this post, I give a brief definition of BDSM here, and explain how it can be viewed as a sexual orientation. Clarisse Thorn, who is a brilliant feminist writer who discusses BDSM among other topics, narrates her messy initial experiences with BDSM here, in case you want to read about how a really smart, independent, feminist woman comes to terms with how she enjoys pain sexually.
What you really need to know, though, is that BDSM is a subculture that values the agency of adults to make their own sexual choices, no matter how strange or counter-intuitive they might sound. Period. No judgments like “that’s too weird” or “ew how could anyone like that” or whatever. If it’s consenting adults, then it’s fine.
So what really bothers me about the Salon article is how it highlights the abuse that happens in the BDSM community and gets swept under the rug, explained away as a desire to avoid drama. Because this is a subculture that thrives on consent, and yet some of the practitioners trample on the consent of their partners – that’s what baffles me. I think this is just further evidence that the power tensions that plague a society will permeate it at practically every level: every subculture, every genre of expression, will somehow struggle with those roles and stereotypes and inequalities.
The Salon article notes: “In many ways, the kink scene seems light-years ahead of other sexual communities when it comes to issues of consent. They have checklists that tirelessly detail personal limits and safe words meant to bring things to a screeching halt if ever someone’s boundaries are crossed.” This is why I think it’s a shame that we’re not hearing more about the models of communication as well as the assaults that happen in the BDSM scene. Like other alternative sexualities – non-straight folks, non-monogamous folks, and so on – practitioners of BDSM are learning to communicate honestly and fearlessly as they figure out what they want and how to get it… which, when you have no mainstream role models or narratives to follow, can be pretty tough.
However, I think it’s important to recognize that just because a subculture acknowledges that pain can be an interesting sexual or sensual experience does NOT mean that a practitioner invites every kind of pain. The victim-blaming rhetoric mentioned in the article – make sure you get references before “playing” with someone, make sure you have a safe word, and so on – obscure the fact that the assault is never the fault of the victim, and that it’s perfectly okay for a consenting adult to say “I’d like to explore biting, but no blood drawing, please.” Nobody invites their boundaries to be broken. Nobody asks to be violated. Insinuating otherwise is stupid.
Kitty Stryker, interviewed in the article, says of safety techniques: “But then you find out that you can do those three things and not be safe anyway, and that’s terrifying. You realize how vulnerable you are.” This is true not just for BDSM or other sexual subcultures, but for all culture in a patriarchy. This is an incredibly unpleasant truth to face. As long as we live in a hierarchical culture where some people are deemed less human than others, there will be assault. I think it’s sad that assault is occurring in a community that otherwise is really focused on consent… but I also don’t think assault will go away until we fix larger inequalities in our society.
To end on a more positive note, the bloggers at Yes Means Yes are doing a lot of constructive work evaluating rape culture and how to change it. They make the excellent point that so “what if someone is taking different risks than you? We need to get over the idea that there’s some risk-free way to be sexual, or to more generally pursue pleasure, or to do anything else in life.”
Every lifestyle, sexual or social or whatever, carries some risk with it. This is unfortunate but inevitable. I applaud anyone who acknowledges that openly and honestly, and lives their lives in a constructive and brave fashion. In my mind, any sexual community that foregrounds consent and communication does that, and I hope mainstream cultures can learn something from them.