Posts Tagged ‘abuse’

2010 19 Sep

The S&M feminist

UPDATE 2012: I’ve now published a collection of my best articles titled The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

* * *

Readers of my blog have told me that my actual feminist opinions are sort of unclear. So have people who know me in real life. I don’t blog about straight-up feminist issues here, at least not very often.

One reason for that is that I’m more interested in appealing to a general audience than to a specifically theory-oriented audience. To some extent I can’t help the fact that I have a very analytical mindset; that I often, instinctively, use big words; stuff like that. But still, in an ideal world, I’d like every post I write to be quite accessible to any smart newcomer. So I spend a lot of energy thinking about how to make my posts less jargon-y, and more interesting to random people. Sometimes I fail, but I like to think that most of the time I succeed.

Another reason is that other bloggers have already written about feminism, including the fraught topic of S&M and feminism. And they’ve done it so intelligently that I honestly don’t feel that I have much to add to the conversation. My introduction to the S&M blogosphere actually came about because I was Googling something-or-other and I came upon the blog SM-Feminist, at which point I was so filled with awe and delight and recognition that I sat and read the archives for hours upon hours upon hours. I’ve never been so enthralled by any other blog. (Just a note: the writers at SM-Feminist don’t, I think, share my concerns about being generally accessible. It’s possible that it won’t be easy for non-feminists to read, but I actually can’t tell.)

The major problem with SM-Feminist now, I think, is just that the easy posts went first, in 2007. So the more recent posts (the ones on top, and on the front page) tend to be a bit complex, and probably less exciting for newcomers to these debates. Of course, the other major problem is that almost all the writers have pretty much stopped writing, even the incredibly prolific Trinity — who gets a place in my personal Pantheon of Awesomeness — and who now focuses her efforts in other areas.

Recently I was going through the SM-Feminist archives looking for a couple of posts to cite in a piece that I’m working on, and I was stunned to see how much of it overlapped with things I’ve written — even though I’ve specifically tried not to recapitulate what’s already been said over there. Some examples:

* This post basically encompasses everything I said in my old post BDSM As A Sexual Orientation and Complications of the Orientation Model, except that it’s more complicated, and also touches on some points I made in my more recent post 5 Sources of Assumptions and Stereotypes About S&M.

* The post How a Girl Learns to Say No elegantly makes one of the major points from my post on safewords and check-ins.

* This post on the term “vanilla” is a more complicated and interesting take on a question that I first started considering way back when I started blogging, in my post Vanilla: Dissection of a Term. It even encompasses all the things I meant to write when I wrote the followup to my post, you know, the followup that never actually happened.

And then there are the SM-Feminist posts that say things I’ve either never gotten around to saying, or that I simply haven’t bothered to blog about because I know they said it better. I’ve even cited some of these posts in lectures. Here’s a (doubtless incomplete) list of those posts:

* BDSM and Self-HarmI want to make this perfectly clear. I don’t think that SM is wonderful for everyone at every point in their lives. I do believe that some people use SM to self harm. I do believe that some people bottom or submit because they believe that they are inferior or unworthy. I also believe that some people use sex and sexual pleasure, whether from SM or from non SM sex, in ways that are unhealthy for them.

However, I believe that this is all beside the point.

… Yes, for some people SM is a maladaptive coping strategy. But this does not mean that SM sex is fundamentally about self-harm, any more than sex, as a whole, for all humans is about self-harm. I’m sure we’ve all met someone who we at some point thought was using his sexuality in a way that was ultimately damaging to him. But very few people would say that he needs to give up sexuality. That therapy designed to make him asexual is wise.

* Why BDSM?Radical feminists are quick to point out to any kinky person who feels uneasy hearing that her fucking is just standard heteropatriarchy that they’re not trying to control what anyone does in bed. “I’m not trying to take your whips away,” etc. They’ll be extremely careful to mention this, and understandably irritated when someone goes “They’re trying to make me hang up the whips and go home,” given how clear they are that this isn’t what they want to do.

What I don’t understand is exactly what good the theory does at all, if they’re not trying to change people.

* OppressionIn discussions of SM and feminism, I frequently see the following coming from anti SM people:

“People who do BDSM are not oppressed. When you complain about how people treat you, whether that be other feminists or mainstream society, you’re insulting people who really are oppressed. It’s as if oppression were a fad that you want to be a part of, rather than a brutal reality in the lives of members of subordinated groups. “

I was always sympathetic to this view. I always figured that most of us have life pretty easy, at least as far as SM goes.

Then I realized something. Not about how bad we have it, but about the words and concepts we’re using. I realized that I don’t actually know what the word oppression means. I know how it’s used. I know roughly what we mean when we say it. But I don’t know an official definition, such that it’s possible for me to clearly delineate its boundaries. I know the paradigm cases of oppression, but I don’t have a decent enough definition to be sure which cases aren’t close enough to the paradigm to qualify.

And I started to realize that without that definition, my assertions that SMers are not oppressed were merely based on intuitions about how bad we have it compared to the paradigm oppressed groups, such as women, people of color, transgendered people, people with disabilities, etc.

* Safer Communication PracticesThere are these words that get tossed around subculturally, like “safeword” or “safe, sane, and consensual”. And sometimes they’re tossed around as some sort of talisman to ward off evil, and sometimes they’re tossed around as contemptible nonsense, and neither of these things gets into the reasons that the concepts exist, why they were created, what they’re attempting to express.

Last but not least, I’m just going to list the titles of some posts on BDSM and abuse:
* Wut About The Abuuuuzers?
* Not Your Usual BDSM and Abuse Story
* Confession
* The Nature of Abuse

The influences on my post Evidence That the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse are obvious.

So there you go, folks. Right there, in the above links, are actually most of my major theoretical influences as a pro-SM feminist (and, indeed, as a general S&M practitioner). Someday I might find something to say about S&M and feminism that Trinity (and her fellow bloggers, occasionally) haven’t already said five times, better ….

… but I’m not holding my breath.

REMINDER from 2012: I’ve now published a collection of my best articles titled The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn.

2010 28 Apr

Anti-BDSMers pretending to look out for us are dangerous

Maymay, the brilliant BDSM activist who was recently attacked and labeled a pedophile on the Salvation Army’s human trafficking email list, has drawn my attention to another lovely little initiative from Citizens Against Trafficking: “BDSM: A Case of Human Trafficking”, by Donna M. Hughes and Melanie Shapiro.

Firstly, the title. “BDSM: A Case of Human Trafficking”. What the paper actually outlines is one single abusive BDSM relationship — the famous Glenn Marcus case — that is, a sadist who seriously mistreated, raped, and threatened the family of Jodi, a female submissive. No one was moved across any borders; I’m having trouble figuring out when and where the “trafficking” happened.

So why does the paper’s title imply that BDSM is one huge crazy orgy of “human trafficking”?

And if the authors aren’t trying to convince us that S&M is dangerous and scary in itself, then why is the paper full of blanket statements like “A sadist’s goal is the progressive destruction of a victim”?

And what the hell is going on with bits like this:

One of Marcus’ other sex slaves testified in his defense saying that Jodi was a 
willing participant in sex games. She said that Marcus was harmless. 
When prosecutors showed a photograph of this woman’s breasts punctured
with dozens of pins, she still insisted it was consensual: “I love being around
Glenn. He’s a lot of fun.”

Well, the “sex slave” probably “insisted it was consensual” because it was, you know, actually consensual. I have consensually had pins stuck in me as well, so I can see how someone might “insist”. In fact, the first time I ever did piercing, I purchased the needles myself and explicitly propositioned my partner … then handed him the box.

Now, I’m not saying that Marcus’s relationship with Jodi was entirely consensual. But it sounds like this other woman did herself have a consensual relationship with Marcus. And showing pictures of oh-so-scary pins stuck in her breasts doesn’t make this other woman’s relationship with Marcus less consensual.

But let’s get past the doubtful phrasing of those sentences, and start questioning why the authors included such explicit details. What, exactly, is the point of describing that piercing so carefully? Or the consensual floggings that the authors linger over? Or the cages and leashes they lovingly describe? These writers know that mainstream America is not remotely accustomed to this kind of imagery; sounds to me like they’re trying their absolute hardest to freak people out. They do thoughtfully include a “Warning the following includes extremely graphic descriptions of violence and abuse” … on page 6, after most of the descriptions of violence and abuse.

Chillingly, after flinging lots of stereotypes about, the paper ends with this:

If you have been involved in BDSM that went beyond consensual 
activity and someone was making money from your work, sex acts or images 
of sex acts, you may be a victim of human trafficking, either sex trafficking, 
forced labor or both. You can get help by calling the national 24 hour, 
toll‐free trafficking hotline at 1‐888‐3737‐888, or call the local 
FBI office or U.S. Attorney’s  Office.

Donna Hughes has spoken to the director of the national trafficking
hotline. They are prepared to talk to victims of BDSM who may be victims 
of human trafficking.

“Victims of BDSM”? Well, actually, a person who is involved in non-consensual BDSM would be a “victim of abuse”. Once such activities stop being consensual, they stop being BDSM and become physical/emotional abuse.

This reminds me of those awful pro-life “clinics” that “counsel” pregnant women about abortion — you know, the clinics that pretend to have actual medical qualifications so they can pull in desperate women who want abortions and then lie to those women about their abortion options — preferably completely scaring the women away from abortion by means of slanted statistics, religious moralism, and outright lies. (Did you know that fake clinics often set up shop right next to actual abortion clinics such as Planned Parenthood, so as to dupe women who come to the area seeking the legitimate clinic?)

“Chilling” is a strong word, huh? But here’s what scares me most about the Glenn Marcus case: Jodi went into the relationship willingly, after deliberately seeking out information about BDSM online. She went with Marcus after having two other BDSM relationships. And at first, she stayed with Marcus not out of fear, but because she enjoyed what he was doing.

I’ve often wondered what could have happened to me if I’d come into BDSM from a slightly different angle — if I hadn’t had the resources or the mentors or the education or even the just plain luck that have kept me from experiences like Jodi’s. I’d like to think that I would never get involved with a sadist who showed such obvious warning signs (Marcus did not, for example, allow safewords from the start) — and I think that most of the wider BDSM community would never enable such behavior — but we all tend to think we’re so brilliant and invulnerable and know exactly what we’re doing, now don’t we?

I recall this moment from my coming-out story:

Richard explained that he hadn’t particularly been satisfied with how he’d dealt with me before he left, but hadn’t had time for anything better. Now, he thought the situation was “healthier”. “What do you want from this?” he asked seriously.

I want the strength to walk away from you, I thought unclearly. I want you to actually care about me. I never want to see you again. I hugged my arms to myself, resting my hands gingerly on swelling skin. “Um,” I said slowly, “nothing in particular?” I took a breath and gathered the one overriding fact: I want you to keep hurting me. “I don’t expect anything from you,” I told him, “and I don’t want you to expect anything from me.”

I knew from his smile that my answer was the right one. I could only hope it was accurate.

Given that I recognized BDSM as something I wanted, desperately — what would I have tolerated in order to get it? Richard isn’t a bad guy, but what happened with him certainly wasn’t my ideal relationship. Could I have ended up in some appallingly abusive situation? I don’t know. I really don’t know.

But I do know one thing. The single biggest factor making women like Jodi (and, arguably, myself) vulnerable is lack of social acceptance for BDSM — fear of being outed, fear of associating too publicly with our desires. Note that the biggest method of control Glenn Marcus used was threatening to out Jodi. In other words, he was able to abuse her because she was afraid he would tell people (especially her parents) that she was a kinkster and porn star.

And the second biggest factor? Lack of freely-available information about BDSM, what makes a good BDSM relationship, and how to practice it safely. Jodi did not run screaming from a dominant who flat-out disallowed safewords … perhaps she didn’t have good community support?

Remember how I mentioned that I initiated the piercing scene with my first piercing partner? I basically read a few webpages, bought the needles, and dove in. And based on that limited information, my partner and I did a couple of things that I now recognize as dangerous — things we wouldn’t have done if we’d had access to better resources on piercing. “Better resources” might include the KinkForAll sexuality conferences that maymay pioneered, the same thing that then — oh yeah! now I remember! — got him labeled a pedophile and trafficker by Donna Hughes et al.

If people like Donna M. Hughes and Melanie Shapiro are so concerned about BDSMers’ safety, then they ought to be speaking out on behalf of S&M; they ought to be trying to create a safer social climate for us to explore and access our desires; they ought to support the free spread of kink-related information. Panicky reports like this “BDSM: A Case of Human Trafficking” are therefore doing the opposite of helping, as are insane crusades like this anti-maymay thing.

But methinks their actual goal has very little to do with protecting actual women, and everything to do with scaring the public into supporting their fundamentally conservative agenda — and also scaring people away from accepting or practicing BDSM. Hence, they offer “support” with one hand — support that would doubtless tell callers that kink is Bad Wrong Awful Must Avoid At All Costs Intrinsically Abusive! — while promoting awful stereotypes about kink with the other. Just like those horrible clinics. It’s chilling.

I wish I were in the States right now so I could call this human trafficking hotline myself — which has apparently been oh-so-well primed to talk to kinksters — and see what they really think about BDSM. If any of my readers have voice acting skill and time to kill, plus maybe a voice recorder standing by, I invite you to try it. I mean, they must be well-prepared to help all those “victims of BDSM”! After all, Donna Hughes talked to them! Even if no actual S&Mers did.

NOTE: If you are a BDSMer and think you might be in an abusive relationship, then I encourage you to seek support, but not from Donna Hughes and her ilk. There may be therapists listed in your area on the Kink Aware Professionals list, and sometimes feminist sex toy stores such as Chicago’s Early to Bed host kink-friendly workshops for abuse survivors (but you may want to call ahead to ensure that the workshop facilitator will be kink-aware). Indeed, your local kink scene may specifically have workshops for kinky abuse survivors (if you’re in Chicago, here’s a calendar of local BDSM events). For more on the subject of BDSM community anti-abuse efforts, see my blog posts The Alt Sex Anti-Abuse Dream Team or Evidence That the BDSM Community Does Not Enable Abuse.

2010 19 Apr

5 sources of assumptions and stereotypes about S&M

Why do BDSMers often feel bad about being into S&M? Why do so many of us freak out once we discover our BDSM identity, or live in secret and repress our desires, or write only under false names, or fear openly joining the S&M community, or ….

Well, here’s a particularly sad example of how bad some of us feel. A BDSMer friend works as a therapist who does couples counseling. He once told me about a couple who had some random argument in his office — the argument, apparently, wasn’t even about sex — during which the wife lost her temper and turned away from her husband. “You know what this freak likes?” she snapped, and proceeded to describe her husband’s biggest fetish. Her husband looked humiliated and was quiet.

Now, from the perspective of my kinky counselor friend and my kinky self, the husband’s fetish wasn’t particularly weird — in fact it seems much tamer than, say, my own desire to have needles slid through my skin — but I can see how the fetish would seem weird to the mainstream. More importantly, it was obvious that this poor kinkster’s wife had been using his fetish as her ace in the hole — her secret back-pocket weapon — for quite a long time. Whenever she wanted to shut him up or shame him, she just mentioned his Deep Dark Fetish and he was silenced and shamed.

So. Obviously, there are a lot of poisonous assumptions and stereotypes surrounding S&M. There are so many of them that lots of kinksters have taken them into ourselves: not only do we fear society’s judgment, but we also feel tons of anxiety from internalized social norms.

And yet I’ve come upon people who tell me that the stereotypes around S&M “aren’t that bad”. I’ve had people (even other BDSMers!) tell me that all our anxiety is internal, that society is totally okay with S&M and if we’d just quit indulging our “victim complex” then everything would be fine. In fact, one person read my coming-out story — in which I wrote about the internal struggle and panic I experienced when I came into my BDSM identity — and snidely said that I was “just being dramatic”.

Then there are people who tell me that S&M is “mainstream”, which is just plain ridiculous. I can see the argument that very mild kink has gone mainstream, at least among young liberals: hickeys, silk scarves, mild choking, mild spanking, and furry handcuffs. Yeah, lots of people try those things, and you’d have a hard time finding a (young, white, well-educated) person who condemns them. But you know what’s not mainstream in any group? Needles in one’s back; blood. Screams for mercy; tears. What appalled me, during my coming-out process, was discovering my need for agony. And I assure you, my anxiety and my self-disgust were real. I wasn’t “making it up to be dramatic”.

Apparently, though, giving examples of BDSMers who feel (or felt) awful about ourselves isn’t enough, so I started thinking about how I internalized that disgust. How did I develop my stereotypes of S&M? I can remember people in my teens joking about how I’m so aggressive, I ought to be a dominatrix; I even remember a girl who brought a whip to summer camp and lent it to me for a costume party. And for years before my own awakening, I was aware that some of my friends were into “that stuff”. Given these positive messages, where did I pick up the negative messages? To put it in academic terms: where can I find instances of BDSM stigma?

Here they are:


2010 3 Apr

Salvation Army attacks sex-positive activist through its human trafficking email list

Sometimes people try to tell me that no one has a problem with S&M; that all stigma against S&M is in our heads and that if we BDSMers would just get over our victim complex, we’d discover that society has no real problem with us. I’ve got tons of counterexamples, but today I’m only going to talk about one: my friend maymay, a sex-positive activist and kinkster who has now been painted as a child molester, starting with an attack from the Salvation Army (specifically, two women named Margaret Brooks and Donna M. Hughes).

I admire maymay; he’s done some incredible sex-positive activism. He created the sex-positive unconference model KinkForAll, which swiftly went viral, and co-created Kink On Tap, a smart sexuality netcast with tons of audience participation. Maymay is also out of the closet under his real name, which is an incredibly ballsy and badass move on his part, but one that puts him in all the more danger when absurd and libelous personal attacks like these are launched.

What I find most notable about the Salvation Army attack is that — although maymay’s events and activism focus on general sex-positivity more than BDSM in particular — it’s BDSM that got up their noses. When the Salvation Army’s Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking jumped on maymay, they implied that the “The specific goal of the event [KinkForAll] was to foster an acceptance of bondage, discipline and sadomasochism.” Well, I attended and presented at the first KinkForAll in New York City, and while a lot of BDSM information was shared, the specific goal of the event was definitely to be generally sex-positive.

So why is BDSM the centerpiece of Salvation Army’s little freakout? One might say that it’s because maymay identifies as a submissive, and frequently blogs about BDSM; or perhaps it’s because KinkForAll attracted a large BDSM community contingent, probably because we’re very accustomed to talking and trading information about sex in a KinkForAll-compatible style. BDSM thus becomes the lightning rod. But it couldn’t function as such if BDSM weren’t seen as deviant, sick, unacceptable, and disgusting. If society really had no problem with BDSM, then why would the Salvation Army be sending messages to a sex trafficking listhost attacking a BDSM-associated event?

(Tangentially, it’s worth noting that talking about sex trafficking — which is a genuine and serious problem in many places — has been used throughout history as a tactic to attack, shut down, criminalize or control various forms of consensual sexuality. If you’d like to learn more about this, I strongly recommend the brilliant blog Border Thinking on Migration, Trafficking and Commercial Sex by Laura Agustín. Start with “What’s Wrong With the Trafficking Crusade“. If you don’t mind academic writing, Agustín’s paper on the history of sex worker “rescue” initiatives is also particularly good.)

The other thing that really gets me about maymay’s attackers — in his post, he engages one one blogger in particular — is the assertion that sex-positive activism leads to “doing whatever” with no regard to the emotional consequences. In her argument with maymay, the blogger states that:

all the things I’d been told about sex – again, on whatever end of the spectrum – had quite clearly missed the point. “Don’t do it” with not explanation leads to rebellion or shaming. “Do whatever” leads to heartbreak. That has been my experience.

I think that we are sexual beings, yes. This means that our sexuality is part of everything – body, mind, heart, soul. I don’t think we can separate, hard as we might try, the one from the other.

Wow, hey, that sounds just like what I’ve been saying for years! In fact, it almost exactly mirrors some things I said in my landmark post Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What’s Missing. I wrote:

I think that there are lots of people out there who feel as though the sexual liberation movement “failed” or “betrayed them”, because they convinced themselves that sex is value-neutral and then got hurt. … We need to start talking about sex as something that is not mostly mechanical — as something that, yes, can be “a private sphere for the creation of human meaning”.

So what’s with this assumption that sex-positive activists have no clue about social issues of sexuality, or matters of the heart? Working to destigmatize sexuality is in no way incompatible with working towards better, more consensual, more meaningful relationships; in fact, I’ll be bound that sex-positive activists do a much better job of this than these “anti-trafficking” folks do. As maymay wrote in a recent email:

Protecting people of every gender and age from falling victim to sexual abuse requires that each person — including every man, woman, and child on Earth — has the right and freedom to learn about sexuality in a non-judgmental environment.

Predictably, Donna M. Hughes and Margaret Brooks are refusing to engage maymay directly. (That’s a typical sex-negative tactic; as I recall, the makers of the appallingly biased anti-porn documentary “The Price of Pleasure” have refused to publicly engage with actual porn actresses as well. Funny how most sex-negative arguments collapse when faced with those of us who freely and consensually choose to do Whatever It Is That We Do.) That leaves the sex-positive community to back up maymay on our blogs, podcasts, and Twitter accounts; and from what I’ve been seeing, we’re doing a good job. We can’t erase Hughes’ and Brooks’ harmful accusations, but we can damn well expose them for the absurdities they are.

2010 22 Mar

Defending my irresponsible, abusive, gender-stereotypical coming-out story

Note: this post is a bit feminist-theoretical.

I try to think seriously about about all comments on my work, but I usually just brush off the snide ones. Every once in a while, though, one arrows through and hits me where I’m vulnerable and shakes my confidence, and if it’s nastily phrased, then it hurts all the more. Seeps into me like poison.

Yep, this is another post about my S&M coming-out story, published in February by “Time Out Chicago”. (I’ve received some questions about when I’m going to start officially blogging for “Time Out” — the answer is that we’re still negotiating the terms of my blogging contract and I’m not sure when we’ll be done. I think we both really want this professional blogging gig to happen, so I’m confident that we’ll work it out, but it might take a while.)

Here’s a brief one-paragraph synopsis: my coming-out story talks about how I got drunk with a man named Richard at a party when I was 20; he started hurting me intensely; and I really got into it. I’d known a little bit about the existence of BDSM for a while — had experimented with light BDSM before, in fact — but this experience was much more intense, and in particular led me to the realization that I needed very dark and tearful masochistic encounters. As an independent, rational feminist, it was difficult for me to come to terms with my desires. It didn’t help that Richard and I weren’t well-suited romantically, although we were well-suited on an S&M level. Adjusting took a long time; but after seeing a Kink Aware therapist, coming out to my parents, exploring BDSM on my own terms, and having BDSM relationships with non-Richard men who suited me better romantically, I feel pretty much at peace with my BDSM identity.

I’ve gotten some great feedback on my coming-out story — primarily from submissive women who thanked me for articulating their experience. But here’s the comment that’s been upsetting me, from “emily”:

it’s great when people can come out, even under a pseudonym. but i have to say i have some real problems with the way the author has portrayed her “awakening.” should dominant men be rewarded for coaxing women into submission, assuring them that they can “tell”? the presentation, not the content, of this story is irresponsible and reproduces stereotypical gender roles. is the discovery of one’s sexuality dependent on her relationships? that’s the message i’m getting, whether or not it was intended

In a later comment, she adds:

whether or not you meant to, you implied that some women won’t know they’re submissive until a man figures it out for them. i think this is a really dangerous thing to do in our culture, and i think you know why. i don’t have any problem with your experiences, as i said. i have a problem with the way you’ve presented these ideas without thinking what they might mean in another context. just tacking on your personal bit about feminism isn’t enough. how can we hope to change the status quo if we dont acknowledge these issues? as a submissive feminist myself, i have no problem with your lifestyle or how you conduct your affairs, and i dont care whether or not you’re a switch. i DO care about women (and men) who get into abusive situations that start out as “safe, sane, and consenual” bdsm play. i take this personally. it just seems to me that this essay was more of a self-righteous paean than an educational article and probably should not have left your friend circle.

There’s a lot to unpack here. I think I’ll do it in sections.

I. “Irresponsible”

Writing my coming-out story induced a lot of anxiety — not just because I was coming to terms with myself in the process, but also because I worried constantly about how readers might take it. Obviously, there’s always the saying “if you can’t please everyone then you might as well please yourself,” but with this … I guess I felt like there was a lot more than “pleasing everyone” at stake. It felt important to portray my experiences as accurately as possible — to write the experiences as close to how I felt them as possible — and yet I wondered how to angle them, too. Because what if a closeted BDSMer, new to everything, finds this and it’s their first exposure to the wider community? (Or what if an anti-BDSMer comes upon it looking for ways to use it as anti-BDSM ammunition?)

For instance, I wrote about, not just one, but two relationships that had their origins in drunken hookups. Will that encourage readers to unwisely push boundaries while drunk — even to take advantage of drunk people? (Which is particularly dangerous when S&M-ish violence is involved?) And yet there’s no denying that, in our culture, it’s incredibly common for alcohol to function as a social and sexual lubricant. Yes, some people use alcohol to take advantage of vulnerable partners, and that is unacceptable. But millions use it all the time as part of their normal, entirely consensual dating routine. I don’t actually much like that, as it happens — I’ll drink, and certainly I’ve been known to get trashed, but I’m happier at events where I feel like we’re all having fun sober; still, it really is an endemic part of most youth culture in America. (In fact, one thing I like about the BDSM community is that many BDSM events encourage sobriety or even require it.) When I describe my experiences, including some drunk consensual encounters, I’m describing reality — not just my reality, but that of millions of other young women.

I tried dealing with this kind of thing by shifting my tone at the end of the piece, pulling back and taking a more analytical stance rather than the up-close-and-personal moment-by-moment approach. For instance, I wrote: I fear that others will read this narrative as describing an assault, a near-rape — and a woman who tried to rationalize her experience by embracing it. That’s not what happened. … Conversely, I’m afraid that some conservative will read this and say: “Look how the feminist movement has failed us!” That’s not what happened, either. It felt incomplete, and yes, it felt tacked-on too; but I also didn’t feel like I could stack on an infinite number of more disclaimers and clarifications without losing reader interest or muddying my most important goal: making people like me feel better about their terrible horrible BDSM needs.

So the “irresponsible” charge, the charge of “not thinking about what [these experiences] might mean”, just kills me. It brings out something I feared so much, and maybe that I did not succeed in evading.


2009 30 Apr

Evidence that the BDSM community does not enable abuse

How can you tell BDSM from abuse?

People ask me this all the time.

The idea behind that question is that BDSM “looks like” abuse. BDSM can leave bruises or other marks of pain. When two people are having a BDSM encounter, then — if an outsider were to walk in in the middle — it might look like a scene of abuse. Hence, one of the biggest fears that people outside the BDSM community have about BDSM is that — although it appears to be consensual — BDSM enables abuse, or is used as a mask for abuse.

Are some BDSM relationships abusive? Unfortunately, some are. But abuse happens, sometimes, in all relationships. There are lots of non-BDSM relationships, whose participants have never even heard of BDSM, that are abusive. And the fact is that the majority of BDSM relationships — just like the majority of vanilla relationships — are completely consensual encounters between adults who have specifically sought out, opened themselves up to, their own BDSM desires.

Just as importantly, there are swaths of the BDSM community that actively work against abuse within the community.

I want to caution, before I talk about this, that the “BDSM community” is a big place. Plus, there are many BDSM communities out there — not just one. There are BDSM communities in cities around the world, and within those city-communities, there are multiple smaller communities. Here in Chicago, for instance, there are communities based around multiple BDSM clubs, multiple BDSM events, and more. And all the BDSM communities that exist are filled with many different voices, and all those voices will agree and disagree with me to varying extents.

But I can observe some commonalities from various BDSM communities I’ve participated in. And one of those commonalities is that many (if not most) kinksters are very concerned about potential abuse. Arguably, the greater BDSM community contains a far higher proportion of people who worry about abuse, than the rest of the world does.

You can tell partly because of the steps BDSM people are frequently trained to take within our relationships, to ensure that we communicate well and do not misunderstand each other. Safewords are the most common example of these kinds of anti-abusive communication tactics. I think the more convincing argument, however, comes from these examples of specific anti-abuse initiatives from the community:

Anti-Abuse Initiative #1: The Lesbian Sex Mafia, an old and respected BDSM group in New York City, has a short page on its website devoted to the difference between BDSM and abuse. The page has a list of quick, comparative maxims designed to explain the difference simply, and ends by providing the number for an abuse hotline.

Anti-Abuse Initiative #2: At one point, while sorting files up at the Leather Archives and Museum, I found a copy of an anti-abuse pamphlet created by The Network/La Red that has been distributed at various dungeons, BDSM workshops, and other BDSM community spaces in the Northeast.

Here’s one panel from the pamphlet — I think it speaks for itself:

(For the rest of the pamphlet, check out the images at my Flickr account — here’s the front, and here’s the back.)

Anti-Abuse Initiative #3: In September in San Francisco, I attended a workshop put on by Angela of EduKink, an excellent BDSM educator. The workshop was titled “Emotional Aspects of BDSM Play”, and there was a section that talked about how to look out for abuse in a BDSM relationship. Angela described:

Four General Guidelines for Recognizing the Difference Between BDSM and Abuse

1) Consent. BDSM is consenting; abuse is not.
a) Assuming consent was given — was it informed consent? Did everyone know what they were consenting to?
b) Was consent coerced or seduced from the partner? Did everyone feel like they could say no if they wanted? Was anyone worried about suffering negative consequences if they said no?

2) Intent. A BDSM partner intends to have a mutually enjoyable encounter; an abusive partner does not.
a) Did everyone leave the scene feeling somewhat satisfied?

3) Damage. A BDSM partner tries to minimize the actual damage inflicted by their actions; an abusive partner does not.
a) Did the two partners learn what they were doing before they did it? Did they learn how to perform their activities safely?
b) Were the partners aware of the potential risks of their activities?

4) Secrecy. Abuse often happens in secret. This is the hardest one on this checklist, because — due to the fact that BDSM is a very marginalized, misunderstood sexuality — BDSM often happens in secret, too. But this is one of the benefits of having an entire subculture that deals with BDSM: we look out for each other.
a) Were the two partners involved in the local BDSM scene? Did they get advice from knowledgeable, understanding BDSM people during rough patches in their relationship?

* * *

The moral of the story here is … for a community that’s so frequently accused of hiding or accepting abuse, doesn’t it seem like the BDSM scene puts in an awful lot of work against abuse? Again, I can’t speak for all BDSM communities, nor can I speak for everyone who has had BDSM experiences; and I know that — as with all types of relationships — there will occasionally be abusive BDSM relationships. But the three anti-abuse initiatives I’ve listed above are hardly unique, and many of us within the BDSM community work to emphasize those ideas as much as possible.

We’re not monsters. We’re not trying to do things that our partners don’t want to do. I have never met anyone within the BDSM scene who was not exquisitely aware of how careful we must be to gain consent from our partners. I’m not saying that people who don’t care about consent don’t exist — I’m not saying that abusers don’t exist — even within our community. But the community as a whole dislikes abuse at least as much as any other community. The only difference between us and non-BDSM people is that we feel violence and dominance as a language of love; violence and dominance is not, for us, intrinsically abusive — rather, something to be considered in context and with full understanding of the involved parties’ BDSM needs.

2009 9 Feb

Anti-BDSM arguments #1: “BDSM legitimizes abuse”

One of the joys (I use the term loosely) of researching popular conceptions of BDSM, and familiarizing myself with the alternative sexuality blog world, has been learning the ins and outs of various anti-BDSM arguments. (Oh yes — there are anti-BDSM people out there. There are even anti-BDSM activists out there.)

The most popular anti-BDSM arguments are fairly easy to predict. For instance: “No one really wants to be physically hurt. Anyone who claims that they do is wrong in the head — they’re insane. And anyone who then hurts that person is taking advantage of an insane person, and should be prosecuted for assault.” (This is pretty much the judgment that won the day in the famous Spanner Case.)

My opinion on that argument is easy: I’m not insane, and I don’t appreciate it that you’re calling me insane just because I like BDSM.

But there are other anti-BDSM arguments that are much more complex and layered, and those fascinate me. It’s really hard to pick just one anti-BDSM argument to discuss … but I have to, because there are too many anti-BDSM arguments for me to address them all in one post … and besides, wiser heads than mine have already talked a lot of them through. *

So, here’s today’s anti-BDSM argument: “Creating wider acceptance for BDSM will legitimize abuse.”

This argument goes something like:

1) When two consenting people do a BDSM scene together, it can look like abuse to outsiders who are not aware that the scene was worked out ahead of time and that the bottom ** can opt out at any time. That is, outsiders can’t know the difference between BDSM and abuse by looking at it.

2) If the outside world becomes more accepting of BDSM, then outsiders who see signs of violence will become more likely to assume that it is BDSM and not abuse. Therefore, they will be less likely to interfere with a violent situation, or help a victim.

3) Thus: legitimizing BDSM puts people in danger. It means that abusers will be more likely to abuse, because they will think that they can get away with it. Or, alternatively: it means that abusers will be more likely to abuse because they don’t learn the difference between abuse and consent. It also means that people who are actually being abused will have a harder time getting help.

… So. These assertions are interesting, but ultimately, they’re barking up the wrong tree. I see a huge range of cultural issues inherent in this argument, but the major one is this:

The argument assumes that people cannot learn to tell the difference between abuse and consent.

The BDSM subculture stretches over the whole world, and I can’t speak for all of it. (If I tried to say, “BDSMers think this …” or “the BDSM subculture is like this …”, that would be like saying “All Americans think this …” or “All of America is like this ….”) But I can say that, in my experience, there is very high pressure in the BDSM subculture to ensure that all partners consent. In fact, I would say that — in my experience — I’ve encountered higher pressure in the BDSM world to ensure that partners consent, than I have in the rest of the world.

Indeed, BDSM workshops and discussion groups directly address the question of abuse. BDSM educators put a lot of effort into teaching audiences how to avoid abuse.

Outsiders, however, don’t usually see the effort we put into consent. As long as outsiders are forming stereotypes of BDSM based on shallow fashion advertisements and misogynistic badly-negotiated pornography, *** people won’t be able to tell the difference between BDSM and abuse — and, more dangerously, people who are attracted to BDSM will be less likely to understand that there are ways to learn how to do it safely. That’s why we need to legitimize BDSM and correct those stereotypes.

If BDSM is legitimized — if it “comes out of the closet” — then the community’s attitudes towards consent will come out of the closet with it. It’s not like legitimizing BDSM means that everyone will start thinking it’s a great idea to beat other people without their consent. No, legitimizing BDSM means that:

— people who want to learn how to practice BDSM safely will have an easier time attending workshops and discussion groups, and they will therefore be less likely to make unsafe mistakes;

— the public will have a better grasp on what it means to practice consensual BDSM, and what the difference is between BDSM and abuse;

— therefore, more people will have a much better idea of how to tell BDSM from abuse;

— therefore, people who are engaging in abuse will not be confused with BDSMers.

— In fact … it will actually be harder to abuse people once BDSM is legitimized, because it will become harder for abusers to convince others that they’re “just practicing BDSM”. Indeed, if we’re lucky, then BDSM attitudes about consent and respect will percolate into the mainstream enough that it’ll be harder in general to commit abuse.

What causes abuse is not people having consensual sex. What causes abuse is people who don’t respect boundaries.

Arguing that accepting BDSM will lead to accepting abuse is analogous to arguing that accepting human sexuality will lead to accepting rape. In other words — telling me that I encourage men to abuse women by having consensual BDSM sex is like telling me that I encourage men to rape women by having consensual vanilla sex.

Outlawing BDSM would not protect people from abuse … any more than outlawing sex would protect people from rape.

The only thing that will protect people from abuse (and rape) is for everyone to understand and value consent.

* If you want to read up on the subject, I recommend that you check out SM-Feminist — where Trinity regularly and brilliantly deconstructs anti-BDSM arguments, as well as talking brilliantly about feminist BDSM in general. Renegade Evolution has some good posts on the subject, too, but she has a wider focus than just BDSM.

** “Bottom” is kind of a catch-all term for “masochist” or “submissive”. Which is not to say that being a masochist and being a submissive are always the same thing. It’s just frequently convenient to have a term that encompasses both.

*** Not all pornography is misogynistic and/or badly-negotiated. But I think most mainstream porn is. And I also think that many popular conceptions of BDSM unfortunately arise from mainstream porn.