BDSM may set off red flags for feminists, says Kit Roskelly. But so does sitting in judgment on women’s sexual preferences
“When we get freedom for all, you’ll do as you’re told!”
It’s an old joke, and its origins have got lost somewhere along the line. It may have been a trade unionist who said it first, or an anarchist. Or maybe even a feminist, because we are not immune to that unfortunate disease of oppressed groups – occasionally, we turn our oppression in and allow ourselves to repeat the patriarchy’s mistakes on smaller minority groups within our own ranks.
That is not how feminism should work. More specifically, feminism should not have a prescriptive stance on female sexuality, that subject of so much debate both outside and within the feminist movement. Feminists discuss and question; we frequently disagree and agree to differ; we debate assumptions and challenge stereotypes, but prescriptivism should not be on our agenda.
There was a heated debate among lesbian feminists in the 1970s and ’80s about the use of strap-ons during sex between women. One group argued furiously that women did not need phallic toys for pleasure, and that using strap-ons was a sign that we had not yet thrown off the shackles – and the symbols – of the patriarchy. Another side of the debate held that sometimes a sex toy is just a sex toy, and if they feel good, why should they not use them?
In more recent years, a middle ground has been reached. Women now are able to consider whether or not they are turned on by phallic sex-toys, and what that says – if anything – about their dependence on men. That choice is now seen as an individual one and few women will argue strenuously on the point. In more recent years, we have become more able to take a live-and-let-live attitude to these issues, and feel less inclined to police the grey areas of feminist discourse and female sexuality.
Clearly, some issues are not up for discussion and feminists take a united stand on them. Consent is an absolute requirement of sexual interaction, and the louder that is insisted upon the better. Feminists are more than aware of the cloudy concepts of consent held by many people, and make a point of clarifying those boundaries and arguing for them to be clearly enshrined in law and the public consciousness. Consent is essential.
In addition to consent, though, a feminist view of sexuality must put value on mindfulness – on an awareness of the political impact of personal choices. This is the issues the lesbian feminists of the ’70s and ’80s raised, and it is a vastly important one.
In a society where women, and particularly women’s sexual desires, are policed, obfuscated and subjected to constant re-writing by male ‘experts’, how much is a woman’s desire her own, and how much does she draw from the society around her telling her how to think and behave?
Female sexuality is a rich and varied tapestry, and there are many things which lie within the boundaries of consent, but are not universally appealing. Some women enjoy cross-dressing, wearing corsets, sex outdoors, using strap-ons and a whole astonishing range of activities. We live in a place and an age where these are accepted variants, and this is to be celebrated. Given this, it is surely a mistake for anyone within the feminist movement to sit in judgement on another woman’s sexual preferences? Discourse and discussion are essential to raise awareness and start the questioning process, but it is a matter for the individual to consider her desires, and to decide how far they may be informed by the patriarchal society around her.
Having nailed my non-prescriptive colours to the mast, I intend to disentangle a particular set of issues I have an interest in – the BDSM subculture. BDSM is an area which will raise the hackles of many feminists. It carries some strong negative associations. In particular, female submission can look like a minefield of dubious consent, manipulation and abusive behaviour. It is understandable that many people cannot reconcile the concept of being both a feminist and a submissive, but I am convinced that kink as it is practised, in consensual and responsible ways, by thousands of women and men, is entirely compatible with feminism.
BDSM is an umbrella term, standing for Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, and Sado-Masochism. The overlapping acronym is a good indication that it is many things to many people.
At its broadest, BDSM is about power exchange. One person takes on a certain amount of physical or sexual power over another, for the pleasure of both. There is often a lot of power symbolism involved – for example, a submissive partner may wear a collar, or the dominant partner may be called by a title. It can involve verbal domination, physical pain such as whipping and restraint, or sexual domination.
To the gaze of any critical feminist, this looks worryingly like a ritualised version of the routine subjection and subjugation that we fight so hard against. However, there are important differences. The first, and most crucial, is consent.
On an individual level, no scene responsibly played is without a framework of consent. All responsibly-played scenes contain a safe-word – a codeword indicating ‘stop’. There are variations and elaborations on this – some people simply use ‘stop’, some work with the more complex ‘traffic light code’ – but anyone new to the scene learns from every resource they look to that the safe-word is essential. The websites I spent my first year as an apprentice domme perusing, while they differed widely on almost everything, were unified in stating that the safe-word is an essential part of any scene.
The BDSM community as a whole makes a huge effort to emphasise this point. The first time I went to a Munch (a meet-up of a local BDSM community), I was astonished and pleased by how concerned and responsible they were. Compared to the culture of mainstream dating, where one is sent off to meet people with a mixture of common sense, misinformation and scare stories to guide you, the BDSM community clearly takes the safety of individuals very seriously. I was told the safest places to meet new partners, how to set up a safe-call with a friend and how to avoid dangerous situations. Both the Munch organiser and a visiting organiser from another area relayed this advice with genuine concern and earnestness.
While the nature of BDSM is likely to attract a few people willing to abuse it, by and large the BDSM community appears safer and more concerned with consent than the wider community. The stakes are higher within a BDSM scene, and consequently the boundaries are made very clear. When I was newly involved in the subculture, I found it very refreshing to meet people whose concept of consent as an absolute requirement, with no space for grey areas, was similar to my own view drawn from my feminism.
On a more individual level, though, what goes on in a BDSM scene?
It is just that – a scene. It is a piece of acting, geared to the enjoyment of both participants, but ultimately an artificial performance. In the same way that sexual fantasy is a drama generated from the imagination, for the imaginer’s own enjoyment, a BDSM scenario can be invented, elaborated and acted out by two or more people for their mutual enjoyment. Once the safety net of a safe-word is in place, the participants can explore their fantasies and desires in a safe space.
These scenes do not happen by chance or without preparation. The power exchange is carefully negotiated and considered beforehand. It is paradoxically true that the submissive is more in control of any scene played than the dominant partner. Dom/mes take on a controlling role because they are interested in the sub enjoying the scene. They may also get an erotic thrill out of the scene they are performing, but the submissive controls the direction of the scene through negotiation and holds the ultimate veto, the safe-word, if the scene does not work out. The power-play is illusory.
It is also worth noting that most dom/mes have at some point been involved in a scene as a submissive. The boundaries between dominant and submissive are by no means fixed for either sex and many, if not most, dom/mes have ‘switched’ at some point and experienced submission. This is a very valuable experience, particularly for men, who may learn a great deal from being placed in a position of submission within the safe space of a scene, and it is often recommended to a new dominant as a vital part of learning how to make a scene work.
This brings me to the question of gender dynamics within a scene. While people of every orientation and gender are involved in BDSM, the scenes in which heterosexual couples interact, and particularly those in which a woman takes the submissive role, are of particular interest in the context of female sexuality.
In taking on control of a female submissive during scenes, dominant men appear to be enacting all that is worst about male privilege and control. The use of tying and restraints, physical punishment and sexual domination, all ring alarm-bells for the feminist viewer.
It is regrettably true than a few of the male doms one encounters within the BDSM scene – particularly the online community – are using the context of power-play to attempt to abuse the women within the scene. Some men are attracted to BDSM precisely because of the dynamic of control which, they feel, gives them easier access to women.
These men are the minority that get the rest a bad name.
From what I have seen, within the BDSM community, and within individual scenes, consent, negotiation and mutual respect are seen as a standard and required part of sexual interactions, by men as well as women. Most male doms are aware of, and respect, the mutual dynamic in which the submissive holds real-life control over a scene, and are attentive to the needs and wishes of their partner. While there are a few exceptions, the subculture as a whole could teach many of the people involved in mainstream dating a few lessons.
And the mindfulness of social context which I have been arguing for? Within BDSM, women are able to discuss and negotiate their needs within a safe space, and that can only be a good start.
It is a personal matter for a woman to question and analyse her own sexuality, but it is, in my view, a highly desirable exploration. Awareness of the social context of personal desire is a part of defining oneself and, for feminists particularly, the questioning of self is a part of one’s political make up. It is often impossible to reach the ‘right answer’, but an increased awareness of the issues is hugely helpful in making choices.
And this is where I must leave the debate and ask my reader to take up the question for herself. Having, I hope, made it clear what BDSM is and is not about, I will return to my first point, and say that feminism is not a prescriptive school of thought. No movement so diverse and discursive could be. On issues of grey areas, of personal tastes and desires, of the strengths and weaknesses and compromises and choices of women – feminism does not prescribe. It is not a feminist’s business to tell people to think like her, only to tell them to think.