BDSM versus Sex, part 1: Divide and Conquer

Every once in a while, someone will ask me a question about something BDSM-related that I feel “done with”; I feel like I did all my thinking about those topics, years ago. But it’s still useful to get those questions today, because it forces me to try and understand where my head was at, three to seven years ago. It forces me to calibrate my inner processes. I often think of these questions as the “simple” ones, or the “101” questions, because they are so often addressed in typical conversation among BDSMers. Then again, lots of people don’t have access to a BDSM community, or aren’t interested in their local BDSM community for whatever reason. Therefore, it’s useful for me to cover those “simple” questions on my blog anyway.

Plus, just because a question is simple doesn’t mean the question is not interesting.

One such question is the “BDSM versus sex” question. Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual? A lot of people see BDSM as something that “always” includes sex, or is “always sexual in some way”. In the documentary “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!“, one famous BDSM writer is quoted saying something like: “I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”

But a lot of other people see BDSM, and the BDSM urge, as something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex — that is separate from sex.

I see two sides to this question: the political side, and the “how does it feel?” side. Both sides are intertwined; when it comes to sex, politics can’t help shaping our experiences (and vice versa). I acknowledge this. And yet even when I try to account for that, there is still something deeply different about the way my body feels my BDSM urges, as opposed to how my body feels sexual urges. I don’t think that those bodily differences could ever quite go away, no matter how my mental angle on those processes changed.

This post is about the political side. Several days after I wrote this post, I followed up with a post about the bodily side. But first ….

The Political Side of BDSM versus Sex

“BDSM versus sex” could be viewed as a facet of that constant and irritating question — “What is sex, anyway?” I’ve always found that the more you look at the line between “what is sex” and “what is not sex”, the more blurred the line becomes.

For example, no one can agree about what words like “slut” or “whore” actually mean. As another example, recall that ridiculous national debate that happened across America when Bill Clinton told us that he hadn’t had sex with Monica — and then admitted to getting a blowjob from her. Is oral sex sex? Maybe oral sex isn’t sex! Flutter, flutter, argue, argue.

It is my experience that (cisgendered, heterosexual) women are often more likely to claim that oral sex is not sex, while (cis, het) men are more likely to claim that oral sex is sex. I suspect this is because women face steeper social penalties for having sex (no one wants to be labeled a “slut”), so we are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “don’t count” as sex … whereas men are usually congratulated for having sex (more notches on the bedpost!), so men are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “count” as sex. (Unless they’re Bill Clinton.)

So we already have this weird ongoing debate, about what “qualifies” as sex. And you throw in fetishes such as BDSM, and everyone gets confused all over again. A cultural example of this confusion came up in 2009, when a bunch of professional dominatrixes got arrested in New York City … for being dominatrixes … which everyone previously believed was legal. Flutter, flutter, argue, argue, and it turns out that “prostitution” (which is illegal in New York) is defined as “sexual conduct for money”.

But what does “sexual conduct” mean? At least one previous court had set the precedent that BDSM-for-pay is not the same as “sexual conduct for money” … and yet, in 2009, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office decided that “sexual conduct” means “anything that is arousing to the participants” … and then decided that this suddenly meant they ought to go arrest dominatrixes. It’s not clear why the Manhattan DA did not, then, also begin arresting strippers. And what about random vanilla couples on a standard date-type thing, where the woman makes eyes at the man over dinner, and the man pays for the meal? Sounds like “sexual conduct for money” to me. Which could totally be prostitution, folks, so watch your backs.

In his piece “Is There Such A Thing As Kinky Sex?“, Dr. Marty Klein says that:

If practicing kinky sex makes you “other”, not one of “us”, if it has non-sexual implications, if it means you’re defective or dangerous — who wants that? And so as “kinky sex” and its practitioners are demonized, everyone is concerned — am I one of “those people”? It makes people fear their fantasies or curiosity, which then acquire too much power. It leads to secrecy between partners, as people withhold information about their preferences or experiences.

… I’d like to destroy the idea of binary contrast — that kinky and non-kinky sex are clearly different. Instead, I suggest that kinky and vanilla sex are parts of a continuum, the wide range of human eroticism. We all slide side to side along that continuum during our lives, sometimes in a single week. We don’t need to fear our fantasies, curiosity, or (consensual) sexual preferences. They don’t make us bad or different, just human. Some people like being emotional outlaws. They’ll always find a way to get the frisson of otherness. But most people don’t want to live that way. So ending kink’s status as dangerous and wrong, and its practitioners as “other,” is the most liberating thing we can do — for everyone.

That’s certainly reasonable from a political standpoint. I’ve made similar arguments. (Some folks, such as the brilliant male submissive writer maymay, also argue against the common idea that “kink” is limited to “BDSM”; they prefer an expansive definition of “kink” that denotes a vaster cornucopia of sexuality.)

Plus, I even suspect that a lot of the distinctions made by BDSMers ourselves are based far more on stigma than sense. For example, when I was younger, I went through a period where I couldn’t stand to have the word “submissive” applied to myself. I insisted that I was into BDSM solely for the physical sensation, and swore I would never ever do something solely submission-oriented (such as wearing a collar). It was like I could only handle BDSM as long as I distanced myself from the power elements; the power elements carried too much stigma in my head for me to acknowledge them … yet.

I also used to carefully separate “BDSM” from “sex” in my head. Part of me felt like, “If my desire for pain and power is sexual, then it’s weird. If it’s not sexual, then it’s less weird.” (It looks strange when I type it, now, but I guess that’s how sexual stigma works: it rarely holds up against the clear light of day.) It took me a while to integrate sexuality into my BDSM practice. In contrast, I once met a couple who told me that it took them a long time to do BDSM that wasn’t part of sex. In their heads, the thought was more like: “If the desire for pain and power is sexual, then it’s not weird. But if it’s not sexual, then it’s really weird.”

I’ve heard of plenty of dungeons where sex is not allowed — sometimes for legal reasons, but sometimes because there is actually a social standard against it: people are like, “Dude, let’s not get our nice pure BDSM all dirty by including sex.” (Note: My experience is primarily with dungeons owned by “lifestyle” BDSMers — “lifestyle” being a clumsy word that attempts to denote those of us who are motivated to do BDSM for reasons other than money. While there is some overlap between “lifestyle” BDSM and professional BDSM, the overlap can be surprisingly rare, and professional BDSM is often banned at lifestyle BDSM parties. Lifestyle dungeons are often non-profit organizations, and often function more like community centers than moneymaking venues. I understand that some professional dungeons have a “no sex” rule out of a desire to protect the boundaries of dominatrixes who work there, who may not wish to be asked to engage in sex.)

There are also plenty of cultural groups who do things that look suspiciously like BDSM … who insist that they have nothing to do with BDSM. For example, I’ve heard of spanking clubs whose members get really mad if you dare bring BDSM up in their presence.

And then there’s groups like Taken In Hand, a quasi-conservative organization. Actual testimonial from the Taken In Hand site:

There are lots of websites for people in the BDSM, D/s, DD (domestic discipline) and spanking communities. There are websites for people who belong to religions that advocate male-head-of-household marriage. There are even websites for Christians who are interested in BDSM. But there are very few websites for people who are interested in male-led intimate relationships but who are not interested in all that the above communities associate with this kind of relationship (jargon, clothes, etc.) Some of us don’t even like thinking of this as a lifestyle.

Well, my friend, you know what … you can refuse to call yourself BDSM all you want, and you can reject our “jargon” all you want, and you can “dislike” thinking of this “lifestyle” until the end of time … and you have every right to insist that we have nothing to do with you. But when your site has posts that include comments like “When my husband behaves in a dominant manner I basically swoon,” or have titles like “Don’t forget your whip,” well … I’m just saying.

Also, since you mention rejecting BDSM “clothes”? I’ll just say that I can be an astoundingly badass domme in a t-shirt. And I have done so. Multiple times.

Personally, I am particularly frustrated by the stigmatizing idea that BDSM has nothing to do with love. Sometimes I encounter this idea that BDSM has to be separated from sex because BDSM has nothing to do with sex, whereas sex supposedly “should” be about love. The truth is that both BDSM and sex are very different for different people, emotions-wise. Although many people experiment with “casual BDSM”, the same way many people experiment with “casual sex”, a stereotype that BDSMers cannot find love in the act is wrong and absurd. (There’s even an actual study that found that positive, consensual BDSM increases intimacy.)

So yeah. Nowadays, many of these “BDSM versus sex” reactions strike me as being born out of pure, irrational stigma. As Dr. Klein noted, these reactions are usually born of the terrible human urge to exclude: to find ways to differentiate ourselves from “those people”. Humans apparently love to think things like: “I’m not like those people. It doesn’t matter if I, for example, write extensive rape fantasy fiction! That couldn’t possibly be BDSM! Because I’m not a BDSMer! Because BDSM is dirty.”

But we shouldn’t necessarily blame people for this instinct to reject and categorize: the instinct is one that comes from being scared and oppressed … because the social penalties for “getting it wrong” are high. Remember, those New York City dominatrixes thought they were “safe” from the law as long as BDSM didn’t count as sex. But as soon as someone decided BDSM “counted as” sex, those dominatrixes were arrested.

It’s just one more example of how sexual stigma for “different kinds of sex” is constantly intertwined. No type of consensual sexuality can express itself freely until people agree that “among consenting adults, there is no ‘should’.” The Romans, those ancient imperialists, used to say: “Divide and conquer.” When consensual sexualities are scared of each other, we will continue to be conquered. As long as “vanilla” people are afraid of “BDSM” … as long as “BDSMers” are afraid of being seen as “sexual” … as long as the social penalties for being a “slut” or a “whore” are incredibly steep … as long as sex workers are stigmatized and criminalized … everyone will be bound by these oppressive standards.

Go on to the next post, “BDSM versus Sex, part 2: How Does It Feel?


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About Clarisse Thorn

Clarisse Thorn is a Chicago-based, feminist, sex-positive activist and educator. Personal blog at clarissethorn.com; follow her on Twitter @clarissethorn; you can also buy her awesome book about pickup artists or her awesome best-of collection, The S&M Feminist.
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26 Responses to BDSM versus Sex, part 1: Divide and Conquer

  1. NBarnes says:

    “I’m not like those people. It doesn’t matter if I, for example, write extensive rape fantasy fiction! That couldn’t possibly be BDSM! Because I’m not a BDSMer! Because BDSM is dirty.”

    We’re looking at you here, John Norman.

  2. Hahaha. I feel like the issue with John Norman is at least as much being rejected by the BDSM community as rejecting it himself ….

  3. Sam says:

    A kind of interesting thought that has cropped up in my head while reading this. For me, if it is BDSM, then it can be consensual and performative and queer and (rightfully) fulfilling. If it isn’t BDSM, it is oppressive, those involved have false consciousness, it traditional, and its patriarchal.

    So when the example of Taken in Hand came up, my instant response to a non-BDSM, religious group that was down with male domination was that that is not okay at all. Yet I have lots of room for BDSM in my feminism.

    Not quite sure what to do with this. Because I still feel pretty not okay with Taken in Hand for example. Maybe I need to set clearer line between “good” BDSM and “bad” BDSM in my head (not sure that you’d be an advocate of this) in the same way that I see “good” ways of being in a heterosexual relationship and “bad” ways of being in a heterosexual relationship.

    The hierarchy of good/bad is not particularly appealing, but I think that it’s pretty clear that as feminists, there are ways that oppression and patriarchy appear in our relationships that we should be critical of.

  4. Randomizer says:

    Sex in my relationship definitely includes an element of power exchange and frequently some light bondage and a bit of flogging, etc. Still, it is worlds apart from the kind of hurting that I understand the OP to crave in her experience of BDSM and I expect in her world I would be considered vanilla.

    At the same time, others would probably consider what my partner and I do at least kinky, if not outright BDSM. Where you stand as ever depends on where you sit aas the saying goes.

    I am fascinated about what I have learned about the BDSM “orientation?” from CT and others and wondered betimes if in my intimate life I am just scratching the surface of a deeper itch. But really, I don’t think so.

    Certainly there is no clear desire for power play and pain apart from sex and if I were to go to a dungeon, I expect I would feel like a voyeur who really doesn’t belong.

    It is strange how people seem to want to find themselves in some convenient category where their intimate lives are concerned.

    My partner and I are very happy with how we do. Isn’t that the whole point?

  5. bpbetsy says:

    I’m a “submissive” with pretty “extreme” sexual interests. But I don’t identify with the BDSM/kink community whatsoever. It just doesn’t resonate with me, and yes, part of that is the “jargon” and the “clothes.” Even some of the rituals and rules. That stuff feels cheesy to me, and not spontaneous enough. A dungeon or a fetish party is basically the opposite of a turn-on for me.

    It isn’t about not wanting to be dirty or sexual though. I actually have no problem with other people thinking I’m perverted or deviant or damaged, etc. Being queer & a sex worker, I already know what that is like and can’t be bothered with it.

    The “rules” of BDSM feel too circumscribed to me, the stuff about negotiating beforehand. I don’t want to plan sex like I’m planning a picnic or a baby shower, I want it to just happen. Probably because negotiating is too similar to what happens during sex WORK, so when I have sex for fun I don’t want any of that involved.

  6. Sam:
    A kind of interesting thought that has cropped up in my head while reading this. For me, if it is BDSM, then it can be consensual and performative and queer and (rightfully) fulfilling. If it isn’t BDSM, it is oppressive, those involved have false consciousness, it traditional, and its patriarchal.

    So when the example of Taken in Hand came up, my instant response to a non-BDSM, religious group that was down with male domination was that that is not okay at all. Yet I have lots of room for BDSM in my feminism.

    Not quite sure what to do with this. Because I still feel pretty not okay with Taken in Hand for example. Maybe I need to set clearer line between “good” BDSM and “bad” BDSM in my head (not sure that you’d be an advocate of this) in the same way that I see “good” ways of being in a heterosexual relationship and “bad” ways of being in a heterosexual relationship.

    The hierarchy of good/bad is not particularly appealing, but I think that it’s pretty clear that as feminists, there are ways that oppression and patriarchy appear in our relationships that we should be critical of.

    I usually try to draw the “consent” line about whether it’s okay or not okay, and then I look at how the involved parties are consenting to what they’re doing. It seems clear to me that at least some of the Taken In Hand people are consenting to the activities, even if those activities are patriarchal; it also seems clear to me that there are people involved who aren’t actually very excited about it, or who wouldn’t be into doing BDSM that way if they knew that there were other ways to do it. But I don’t want to draw their own consent lines for them.

    I will say that in my more recent thinking, I’ve concluded that for me, the line between BDSM that is sketchy vs. BDSM that is not sketchy often falls along where the abuse-scholar concepts of “minimizing, denying and blaming” begins. (I just recently wrote a post about this.) If one partner is pretending that violence/power/pain is not happening, or is blaming the other partner for the violence/power/pain, or is acting like the violence/power/pain “doesn’t count” or “doesn’t matter”, then that’s abuse. But as long as the parties involved can talk about the violence/power/pain, and as long as everyone involved thinks that their feelings are being heard and their limits are being respected, then it’s not abuse.

  7. Julian Morrison says:

    What do you think about setting a not-BDSM boundary around the varieties that are more than a little cavalier about consent, especially when they don’t really view women as people who ought to have a right to say no? (Christian fundamentalists, “quiverfull”, “taken in hand” etc, I am looking at you.)

  8. Julian Morrison says:

    Oops, I see you already answered that.

  9. I keep thinking about it and wanting to say more, because false consciousness can be such a powerful thing, and that “fog” that abused partners can enter into is so overwhelming too; Autumn wrote us a powerful guest post about this recently [ http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2011/08/08/i-can-handle-it-on-relationship-violence-independence-and-capability/ ]. But I also really have trouble taking a stand that actually denies anyone the right to define their own consent, right now, in this moment.

    I think that avoiding minimizing/denying/blaming also has a lot to do with honestly making space for a partner’s objections. You have to listen, and help them believe that you’re listening, and help them believe that you want to hear their concerns. This I think is where my main problem is with people like Taken In Hand — I read some testimonials from the submissive partners and I get the feeling that they honestly don’t believe their words, their experience, is as important or as worthy as the dominant partners’. They don’t believe they deserve the space to articulate any objections they might have, or even think about those objections.

  10. saurus says:

    Sometimes I think that we have compulsions, needs or “fetishes” that aren’t sexual, but lumping them in with sexuality is sometimes the most convenient or socially manageable way to deal with them or get those needs met. They might even physically arouse us for a variety of reasons, but that might be a side effect instead of the act’s inherent nature. Which is not to say that every act can be cleanly cleaved into “sexual” and “non-sexual” – of course not. But I think we lack a language around these needs that doesn’t use sexuality. I see a lot of groundbreaking work coming out of the asexual and disability justice communities in this regard (which is just to say that I find the folks in these groups are churning out some incredible ways to “queer” conventional dominant ideas about sexuality; not that they never have sex or whatever).

    I think one answer to that is to just open up the definition of sexuality to include these things, but as someone who identifies vehemently not as “sex positive” but as “sex non-judgmental”, I know I don’t personally want all my shit to be lumped in with sexuality. It just makes me picture some sex judgmental person insisting that “oh, that’s *totally* sexual.”

    Audre Lorde has discussed things in term of the “erotic”, not the “sexual”, which may (or may not!) be a useful distinction, but which also allows for an intensely political understanding eroticism. And I quote, in a mishmashed way, rather out of context:

    During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.

    I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.

    When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.

    The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

    [T]he erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.

    Of course, women so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic from most vital areas of our lives other than sex…

    I find it interesting that at “cuddle parties”, it’s (supposedly, I’ve never been) understood that physical arousal is common, but that doesn’t mean it’s the purpose or focus or nature of the event, and it can be cast aside entirely just as one might cast aside a case of tickles during a physiotherapy massage. The tickles don’t become the focus, they aren’t seen as a red flag indicating one’s “real” experience of the massage or “true” interests all along.

    If someone asked me, do you have an “acting like a cat” fetish? Is that part of your sexuality? I would say, emphatically, no. Because it isn’t. But if they said, Would you like to spend today just lolling around the house having people fetch and carry for you, stroke your head and bring you pizza, and otherwise behave as though you have no human responsibilities or human obligations, particularly to make small talk, and even when you’re contributing nothing they still love you and think you’re cute – I would say…yes. Holy hell yes.

    So what is *that*? Other than lazy, that is. :)

  11. someone says:

    OP wrote:

    I’ve heard of plenty of dungeons where sex is not allowed — sometimes for legal reasons, but sometimes because there is actually a social standard against it: people are like, “Dude, let’s not get our nice pure BDSM all dirty by including sex.”

    As a former pro-domme, I can think of another good reason to not allow sex in the dungeon: worker well-being. It’s about recognizing that pro-dommes don’t want their clients touching their private parts, and that a client doing so is a serious violation of the boundaries that allow the domme to do her work and enjoy it. Not because sex is dirty or whores are bad, but because we’re not attracted to our clients for the most part so they don’t have our consent to touch us. In theory, you could have those boundaries be up to the individual domme, but in practice it’s way easier to have some baseline hard rules so that we’re not constantly “negotiating” (read: fending off unwanted advances).

    Personally, I was never once attracted to a client when I worked in this field–I was often turned on by the scenarios we played out, though. The “no touch above the knee” rule allowed me to feel secure that my personal space would not be subject to attempts to violate it, thus allowing me to relax and get into the scenes.

    I just wanted to point that out because, while whore stigma is wrong, so is trying to pressure or shame non-prostitute sex workers into doing things we’ve already refused to do.

  12. @saurus — Wow, that’s an amazing comment. The comments on my blog mirror version of this post have already kind of convinced me that it was a mistake to put up this post without the second section about embodiment, and your comment has added to my convictions … ah well. ;)

    @someone — I have little experience with dungeons that are focused around professional BDSM. The vast majority of my experience has been in dungeons that are for the “lifestyle” crew — “lifestyle” being an (admittedly clumsy) word for “those of us who don’t do this for money”. (Lifestyle dungeons are usually non-profit organizations, and function more like community centers than moneymaking venues. Occasionally, there is overlap between the lifestyle BDSM scene and the professional BDSM scene, but these overlaps can be surprisingly rare.)

    The “no sex” rule applies in a large number of lifestyle dungeons. That said, I appreciate your perspective and I’ll edit the post to note that my perspective comes from lifestyle rather than pro.

  13. someone says:

    Thanks for the edit!

  14. Passing Reader says:

    ///It is my experience that (cisgendered) women are often more likely to claim that oral sex is not sex, while (cis) men are more likely to claim that oral sex is sex. ///

    Did you mean “cisgendered” straight women here? Because that statement sure doesn’t apply to or acknowledge lesbian / woman-loving-woman views of what constitute sex.

  15. Logoskaieros says:

    I’m gonna try to push the Taken in Hand example from another angle.

    “…But when your site has posts with titles like “When rape is a gift,” well … I’m just saying.”

    Is this conflating rape with rape fantasy? My impression of the Taken in Hand group is that they think it’s okay for husbands to rape their wives in order to encourage/enforce submissiveness in the wives. My impression was that the wives consent to this practice on moral grounds, but they won’t (necessarily?) consent to or enjoy the experience. Therefore, it’s not (always?) rape fantasies, but actual rape. Am I misunderstanding/oversimplifying this group?

    With BDSM, my impression is that activities can look like (for instance) rape, but it is not actually rape (or participants don’t want it to be actual rape?), because BDSM fosters robust consent and enjoyment between participants. Is that an accurate characterization?

    Tl;dr: I didn’t think Taken in Hand was part of BDSM culture because TIH thinks it’s okay to rape people, which is distinct from thinking it’s okay to engage in rape fantasy.

  16. saurus says:

    The impression I get from Taken In Hand is not that they’re actually pro-rape – in fact I find they often emphasize consent in their writings if not in their actions, which I don’t know about – but they believe that the woman can (and if it’s a TIH relationship, will) consent in advance and across the board to her husband, not unlike agreeing to be the “the one who does the cooking”. They understand that the woman can withdraw consent (and if so, her husband must respect that), but that she shouldn’t.

    I do believe it’s a valid form of consent – i.e., “look, even if I’m tired or don’t feel like it, tell me you want it and I’ll supply it” in which it’s kind of like “sex as a chore”. Frankly, I think that kind of sex happens in lots of relationships and isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although as a consent model it certainly opens the door on rape more than some other models, imho.

    I don’t really find TIH very insidious – it seems to me like a pretty cut-and-dry BDSM community that just doesn’t like the trappings (clothes, jargon) and is really, really into traditional gender roles. In other words, people who get off on the whole “the husband holds dominion over the woman” Biblical stuff.

    That could not be farther from my cup of tea for about 3000 reasons and for all their “it’s just more effective to have one person steering the ship!” language they certainly don’t investigate very deeply why the dude is apparently the best relationship leader in every situation, but meh.

  17. Pingback: » BDSM versus Sex, part 2: How Does It Feel? Clarisse Thorn

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  19. Cara says:

    THANK YOU, Logoskaieros. That comment from Clarisse disturbed me greatly. What the fuck does something as terrible as “when rape is a gift” have to do with BDSM? If they’re not talking about actual rape, they’re rape apologists for using the word “rape” to talk about consensual activities that may be rough or involve role-playing or BDSM elements and pretending that they’re the same. If they are talking about rape, that’s even more fucking disturbing, because then Clarisse just essentially said that BDSM is pro-rape … while also actively supporting it. Either way, that paragraph is fucked up. I can’t find a way around it not being really, really fucked up and also triggering to us rape survivors who realize that rape FANTASY is really, really different from rape, and that rape itself is never a fucking “gift.”

  20. Cara, how would you suggest that I rewrite it to make it less triggering? I’m absolutely positive that they don’t intend it to actually be talking about rape, and are discussing a rape fantasy (albeit one that may be negotiated in ways that squick people out, as saurus observes above). So I need a way to get across that I don’t think they intend it as pro-rape (and obviously I don’t either), without triggering people.

    • Cara says:

      I don’t know, maybe “when you write about enjoying rape fantasy”? The title of that post is triggering, to me, BOTH because a) it conflates rape and rape fantasy as being the same thing and b) does not make it all clear through the title that this conflation is happening and they are not referring to actual rape. And I mean, just … “rape is a gift,” ugh, I can’t get over that sentence.

  21. I went through the site and took some different quotations to make my point instead.

    I will say that when I see titles like that, I want to respect the desires of the person who wrote it … I’ve seen figures like up to a third of women have rape fantasies — I don’t know if it’s actually that high, but there are definitely a lot of women out there who have them. But … although I don’t want to police anyone else’s experience, or tell anyone that they’re not consenting when they say that they are … I would feel a LOT more comfortable with organizations like Taken in Hand if they had more concrete structures to enable communication among their members, and if they were more willing to question the absolute power of gender structures they apparently take for granted.

    A person who writes something with a title like that probably isn’t carefully parsing the impact of their language, or thinking about how consent might be represented more carefully. But that’s a really hard thing to do. I look at a lot of my writing from a few years ago and wish I’d done more work to represent how consent happened … but it’s taken years of thinking about these topics and researching them, not to mention getting certified as a rape crisis counselor, to arrive at these conclusions … and I still screw up sometimes, as you can tell. I’ve been thinking that maybe I should write a post with a title like “how to write about consenting BDSM” … it’s worth a shot. I’d probably learn a lot from the comments, too.

  22. Autumn says:

    Clarisse Thorn:
    I keep thinking about it and wanting to say more, because false consciousness can be such a powerful thing, and that “fog” that abused partners can enter into is so overwhelming too; Autumn wrote us a powerful guest post about this recently [ http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2011/08/08/i-can-handle-it-on-relationship-violence-independence-and-capability/ ].But I also really have trouble taking a stand that actually denies anyone the right to define their own consent, right now, in this moment.

    I think that avoiding minimizing/denying/blaming also has a lot to do with honestly making space for a partner’s objections….

    My experience with BDSM is pretty limited, but my experience with abuse has shown me that people will tell themselves all kinds of shit to not believe that what’s abuse–and what’s nonconsensual–is okay, because *they’re* okay, and *we’re* okay, and everything’s okay, right? From what I know of BDSM, people generally find it on their own–they see images, feel a stirring, and follow up on their own. The emphasis on boundaries within BDSM communities, to me, illustrates that whatever manipulation occurs within play is done consciously as a part of the play, and that parties are aware of what’s going on. (I may be wrong.) So then when there are lifestyle movements that are specifically designed to be all-encompassing and limiting (cults, Taken in Hand, etc.), yeah, issues about how consensual it can really be come into play. “Not everyone is strong enough for Taken in Hand” (from their FAQ) seems like it’s giving uninterested parties a way out, but what it actually creates is a refrain for questioning people within it to be punished for not being “strong enough” to take it.

  23. It has also struck me that although people who participate in groups like Taken in Hand probably don’t see things this way — if they insist on telling members that “we’re not BDSM”, and reinforcing stigma against BDSM, then that is another way of preventing members from gaining access to other ways of thinking and communicating about BDSM.

    I have occasionally seen people in the “main” BDSM subculture tell each other that “real submissives can take a certain amount of punishment” or “real submissives do X, Y, Z” … and I hate that. I fight that whenever I see it. Because I agree, setting a standard that claims that some people are “real” or “strong enough to take it” or whatever can be very damaging.

  24. Autumn says:

    That’s exactly it–the manipulated communication in those communities points to a lack of true communication, which needs to be a part of BDSM for it to “work.” The reason, as I see it, that the BDSM community exists is for people to have a truly safe place to explore desires that seem unsafe. And the minute the baseline of safety is called into question–not the form that the desires take, but the baseline–there’s going to be exploitation.

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