Note: This post is a bit feminist-theoretical.
Radical feminists* attack BDSM (and many other marginalized sexual identities) on a variety of ideological grounds — usually claiming that it’s Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome (an assertion that is not only unproveable but is also usually stated in really hurtful terms, thereby serving mainly to drive kinky people away from feminism or guilt-trip kinky people into suppressing their desires). But another tactic many radical feminists use against us is slut-shaming, including resentful declarations that sex-positive feminists are getting all the sexual attention. (They often patronizingly call us “fun feminists”, as if we wouldn’t hold our opinions if we weren’t trying to be fun! fun! fun! As if our opinions can’t be serious, and/or aren’t worth taking seriously.)
If I make the mistake of announcing that I’m into S&M in an unfamiliar vanilla group, then yeah — it’s true — I do get hit on more. Because the stigma around BDSM is particularly sexualized. But that kind of attention isn’t actually what I want, and it frequently takes really unpleasant forms. For instance, before I left Chicago I went on one of my friend Ken’s Chicago Sex Tours. Because it was a sex-related event, I introduced myself to the tour group as Clarisse the S&M activist. Immediately, people had questions, which is fine and great — that’s part of why I’m an activist: to answer those questions. But they also had assumptions — most obviously the man who grabbed my ass while I was ahead of him in a stairwell. Obviously, that dude’s tiny mind was thinking what most similar dudes (and many radical feminists — but I’ll get to this in a minute) think: “Woohoo! A girl who’s into S&M! She must have no boundaries at all! Clearly I can grab her ass with impunity!”
I didn’t want to make a huge scene at Ken’s event, so I just twisted away and told the guy in a freezing tone: “If you do that again without my consent, I’ll kick your ass.” And avoided him for the rest of the tour. (God, what a complete assmonkey. I get angry all over again just thinking about it. I’d like to believe that he realized he was being an ass and won’t do something similar again, but I’ve encountered too many asshole men like him to be sure that he internalized the point. In fact, I bet that if I had decided to make a scene and confront him directly, he would have been all injured innocence. “But you’ve been talking about crazy sexual acts all night! What do you mean I wasn’t supposed to grab your ass? You can’t blame a guy for being a little confused! She was wearing a short skirt, Judge!” Argh. But I’m getting distracted. Let me return to the main point.)
(edit Really, maybe I should have made a scene. To his credit, Ken read this post and Direct Messaged me on Twitter to say, “I am so sorry that happened on my tour! Had I known I would have kicked his ass. I had no idea.” At the time, I just didn’t want to disrupt the space because I was enjoying the event, etc. Who knows? Even in hindsight it’s hard to say. But again, back to the main point. end of edit)
Which is: so how was that dude similar to some radical feminists? Because there are radical feminists out there who describe sex-positive women as “freely sexually available” — usually in tones of rage, resentment and disgust. Yes, they use that phrase. They’re so angry at us for daring to indulge our badwrong sexuality that they fall into the exact same patriarchal trap that Tour Dude did. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that sex-positive women have boundaries and preferences, too. Radical feminists of this stripe are (as Renegade Evolution deconstructs in the aforementioned link) actually part of the problem, because they reinforce the awful dialectic around sexuality that they claim to oppose. They are basically stating that any woman who dares to freely express her sexuality thereby sacrifices her right to sexual boundaries. They are declaring us infinitely rapeable — throwing out our rights to bodily integrity just as Tour Dude did.
Why must they do this? Why?!
When I think back to my pre-BDSM days — the days when my opinions were considerably more stereotypical-radical-feminist than they are now — and when I look around the Internet, here’s one of the reasons I find: such feminists actually believe that we don’t have any boundaries, which — combined with some really awful social conceptions of men — makes them feel threatened. The ladies who call kinky women “freely sexually available” are freaking out partly because they feel like we’re setting up some kind of crazy “standard” for how to behave that they can’t match. One example collected from the Internet: these comments about how sex-positive women are stealing men from more virtuous ladies. But a better example comes from my own life:
I clearly remember the sexual anxiety from my undergraduate days. For one thing, I had no real idea of what my sexual needs were; I knew they weren’t being met, but I tried not to think about it because I didn’t even know where to start, so thinking about how I wasn’t getting what I wanted just made me feel awkward and confused, like I’d failed as a liberated woman, plus I thought my boyfriends would resent me if I said something like “I’m not satisfied and I need to explore more, though I have no idea what direction to go in — will you help me?”,** and anyway I figured that the sex I was having was good enough. I mean, at least I was having sex, right? At least I had a boyfriend, right? And since I’d been deemed Worthy Of Having Sex And A Boyfriend, my first responsibility was to Please My Man, right? I clearly remember feeling sick and hurt whenever I watched porn because I knew it wasn’t what I wanted, and yet I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends — who I knew were watching porn, and were all watching the same porn, because everyone knows all men watch the same porn, right? — I couldn’t believe that my boyfriends were happily “settling” for me, if those images were what they chose to get off to when they were alone. I couldn’t believe that I would still be desirable to a man who was used to porn. I couldn’t believe that a man wouldn’t secretly be let down by me in bed, because I couldn’t “match up” to women in porn. And I therefore felt like there was a cage of social pressure closing around me, stifling me: telling me that I had to “perform” like women in the porn I saw, whether I liked it or not; telling me that the only way to be good in bed was to act the way porn women did, even if it didn’t feel like that behavior was right for me at all.
It was awful. It hurt. A lot. I still remember all that mixed-up anxiety and pain with a shudder.
What cured me was (a) realizing that there are many different kinds of porn out there and that different people have very different tastes; (b) properly exploring my sexual needs — especially my repressed BDSM identity — and learning exactly what it means to have sexual fantasies that hold no bearing on how I feel about my partners. But I still remember feeling sick, watching those porn actresses enact a script that didn’t feel right for me. And I can imagine a very short jump from how I felt then to how a woman might feel, if she thought that “all men want the same thing” and her own sexual preferences didn’t fit that script — how such a woman might feel if she were confronted with women who professed to like those things, and even to like all kinds of crazier more perverted things …. Indeed, women who want “super-perverse” things would probably make such a woman feel like we’re setting an “even worse standard” than porn, because everyone knows that all men (those slobby hungry beasts) will always desire the most perverse possible thing, right? For such a woman, surely other women who enjoy the acts she doesn’t want to do would seem like a pressure-cage; the same way porn felt like a pressure-cage for me, once upon a time.
(I’m not saying all radical feminists feel this way. I’m just saying, I suspect that some feminists who attack sex-positivity are just trying to break out of those awful societal pressure-cages in their own way. And I sympathize. But that doesn’t make it okay to tell me I ought not realize my own sexuality in the way I want, the way I need to realize it.)
And this has brought me to the other big problem. Another thing disappeared by these awful ideas — women being “freely sexually available”; sex-positive women “stealing men”; men all preferring a certain stereotypical idea of porn — what’s disappeared here is the fact that men have different sexual desires. In other words, these attitudes can only persist as long as one has a really narrow view of men in general. Yes! A man who desires you, my lady, may very well not desire porn sex — or may very well not desire me, the crazy kinky girl! It’s true! People are sexually different! Even men are sexually different! Who would ever have thought?
As a matter of fact, my BDSM identity makes it considerably harder for me to find partners. Really! Yeah, it means that folks hit on me more, but that’s only because they’re operating on a stereotype that doesn’t truly come close to describing me. In reality, most men — like most women — are basically vanilla; and even if they’re into S&M, they’re into very mild S&M. I dated one man for two years who was initially attracted to me partly because I was just discovering BDSM, and he wanted to explore it with me … but ultimately, one of the sorest spots that developed in our relationship was that I needed experiences way more hardcore than he wanted to give. (This experience made me decide to never, ever again date a vanilla-but-questioning guy, because they don’t know what they want and they’ll only break my heart. I am not very good at following this dictum.)
To wind up this post, I’ll share one more example: a former friend of mine who I’ll call Bert. Bert was hitting on me aggressively after he found out about the BDSM thing; he was making all kinds of S&M-ish innuendoes. At the time I was lonely and confused and I’d just had a nasty breakup, so I thought, okay, why not? I told him to write me a letter describing what he wanted to do. Here’s what he wrote:
so i was thinking silk ties or scarves to bind the the other one’s hands and 10 minute intervals of hedonistic pleasure taking turns pushing, pulling and releasing each other’s buttons, knobs, valves, etc…? i.e. fingers do the walking, thar she blows, abc, cum here, hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, omg.
This letter had the effect of making me smile ruefully and shake my head. Why? Because it is not even close to what I’m into. Restraints don’t usually even enter my fantasies at all, but when they do, they ain’t flimsy little silk scarves — they’re being used to actually hold someone (often, me) down. Someone who’s screaming in agony. Someone who’s begging for mercy.
I wrote back:
Oh, dear. I was imagining something significantly more painful.
… and Bert never hit on me again. Heaven only knows what would have happened if I’d explicitly told him what I’m into. He’d probably hide in the corner every time I entered the room.
* This is not to say that there aren’t lots of radical feminists who are careful, tolerant, open-hearted people and whom I really admire. Honestly, I have a lot of radical feminism in my own outlook.
** Indeed, when I finally got up the courage to say this to a partner in my late teens, he told me that he didn’t feel that assisting me with sexual exploration was his job and he was perfectly satisfied with the way things were, thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen: the portrait of sexual entitlement. Not that I’m bitter or anything.