BDSM: A Queer Sexual Practice

BDSM: Definition

BDSM stands for Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadomasochism. It may be best defined by its five core features: (1) Dominance and submission (the appearance of one partner ruling over the other); (2) Role playing (acting out a role in a planned out “scene”); (3) Consensuality (a voluntary agreement to participate in a session and to honor pre-negotiated limits); (4) A sexual context (the presumption that the activities involved have a sexual meaning); and (5) Mutual definition (a shared understanding by the participants that their activities are BDSM).[1]

BDSM does not indicate psychological or sexual problems, and it was removed from the DSM-5 in 2013. [2] Yet, it is still stigmatized and misunderstood; some people think it is violent and/or misogynistic. When practiced ethically, BDSM is non-violent and can be feminist.

BDSM: Creative and Feminist

BDSM may challenge conventional assumptions, ideas and practices related to sexuality, gender, power, and identity. It can be a medium for approaching sexual pleasure in a creative way; exploring gender and power as social constructions that can be manipulated; and challenging the idea that sexual identity is innate and stable. However, it is important to note that BDSM’s creative feminist potential is not always realized, particularly due to representations of BDSM in mainstream media (ex. 50 Shades of Grey), gendered assumptions about what constitutes dominant and submissive acts, and essentialist ideas about BDSM roles and identities.

BDSM demonstrates that pleasure, sexuality and eroticism can be creative. It challenges heteronormative ideas about sexuality because it is not about reproduction, penis-vagina penetration or male orgasm, and does not prescribe roles based on sex/gender. Instead, it allows people to creatively derive pleasure from their bodies, minds and contexts however they choose.

Foucault saw BDSM as a means of using “every part of the body as a sexual instrument.”[3] Some BDSM acts do not involve the body at all. Instead, participants achieve arousal or pleasure psychologically through evoking feelings like uncertainty, apprehension, embarrassment, powerlessness, anxiety, and fear; or confidence, control and power.[4]

Everything in BDSM can be negotiated, including sexual roles. Positions in a scene are not determined by gender/sex. To the extent that patriarchy requires “natural” sexual categories and roles, BDSM is a site for its opposition.[5] Some BDSMists see their practices as a pro-sex feminist endeavour in which they intentionally transgress conventional heterosexuality and “[parody] sexual relations considered as traditionally subjugating, oppressive and exploitative of women.”[6] In this way, BDSM is arguably a tool for undermining patriarchal sexual power.

Feminist BDSM practitioner Pat Califia asserts: “We’ve made a major improvement on heterosexist mores by insisting that the bottom can be a man or a woman, has control, has the right to consent or refuse, and should always get off.”[7] By deliberately playing with sexual roles, BDSM makes them seem less natural, less definite, and less compulsory.[8] Men are free to cry, experience vulnerability, and play a ‘passive’ sexual role if they so choose. Women are free to act ‘tough,’ wield sexual power and control, and play an ‘active’ role. A female dominant paired with a male submissive – a common occurrence in heterosexual and bisexual BDSM culture – could be an image subversive to patriarchal sexual ideology.[9]

BDSMists are as likely to have sexist attitudes any other politically random social grouping.[10] Yet, the assumption that BDSM is inherently anti-feminist, and the ignorance of non-heteronormative practices (due to ubiquitous representations of dominant men with passive women) must be challenged. Although its subversive potential is not always fully realized, BDSM is as heuristic site for the de- and re- construction of sexuality, gender, power, and identity. Perhaps most importantly, it provides a very useful model of consent which could be applied beneficially to everyday sexual and non-sexual life, and a critical tool for re-examining the meanings we assign to all sex acts.

BDSM and Power

As they involve deliberately constructing and staging power dynamics, BDSM scenes show that power is performative/arbitrary rather than natural/inherent. The roles that individuals decide to assume in a scene are not necessarily the same ones assigned to them by their sociocultural context. BDSM is not the mere replication of the established patterns of power within society (as some people argue), but the deliberate staging and re-interpretation of those patterns. In this way, it is a means to subvert socially established power hierarchies.[11]

BDSM may be understood as the “eroticization of strategic power,” which requires (1) the possibility for the reversal of power roles, and (2) pre-negotiated ‘boundaries’ that protect each partner from being merely dominated by the other.[12] Although BDSM may take on the appearance (simulation) of a power dichotomy, power operates in a much more complex way. One common misconception about BDSM is the idea that submissives have no power. As one BDSM practitioner explains, “everybody knows the bottom really runs the scene.”[13] Although the dominant maintains the appearance of power, the submissive has the power to assert their own desires and set clear boundaries. The real power lies in choosing the role they play in the (simulated) power exchange, rather than having it forced on them.

BDSM challenges social mores that say sexuality must only be expressed in private. BDSM often takes place at group gatherings in clubs, which creates a sense of intimacy within the BDSM community.[14] This intimate group environment contributes to safety, as witnesses can help enforce ethical codes pertaining to consent.

BDSM: Non-Violence and Consent

BDSM challenges conventional assumptions about pleasure, pain and violence. Some people think BDSM is violent because of practices that inflict physical or psychological pain. But do certain actions have an intrinsic meaning that cannot genuinely be altered by consent, conscious negotiation, or context? BDSM advocates say they do not practice or condone violence, which they define as a “nonconsensual exercise of power upon the body or mind of another individual.”[15] Instead, BDSM is a set of explicitly consensual and contextualized practices from which violence is excluded.

Masochists derive pleasure from pain, but not from harm or injury. The pleasure taken from pain depends on context and consent, which allows participants to experience “good pain.”[16] Pain can be a sexual stimulus that elevates intensity in sensation and arousal: it provides “a general psycho-physiological arousal – anticipation, expectancy, excitement… – which can amplify sexual feelings… or be labeled as sexual by those experiencing [it].”[17] The physiological response to pain is similar to that of orgasm.[18] After ‘bottoming’ in a session, submissives commonly report feeling grateful, relieved, and satisfied; rather than angry, violated or resentful, as they presumably would after experiencing an act of violence.[19]

Enjoying the simulation of violence, domination or submission is not the same as, or indicative of, taking pleasure in real violence, domination, or submission. Without boundaries, consent, ethical codes and safe words, BDSM would not be the desired experience, and would thus not be erotic. Hopkins explains: “in the same way the roller coaster rider may find actually falling to her death repugnant and horrible, but finds the simulation of that event thrilling and exciting, the SM practitioner may find actual violence and humiliation repugnant and horrible, but finds the simulation of that event thrilling and exciting.”[20]

Context establishes the possibility for erotic interpretation: “the entirety of bodies and circumstance and interpretation is desired.”[21] BDSMists use the term “scene” to describe their encounters. Scenes are deliberately constructed performances (“simulations”) “in which the participants are writers, producers, directors, actors, and audience.”[22] Although, on the surface, the acts in a scene may appear similar to real violence, the core features of violence are absent. Events like rape, slavery, and torture are “evil… [because] they cause harm, limit freedom, terrify, scar, destroy, and coerce.”[23] BDSM is set apart from such violence because it involves voluntary participation, negotiation, the ability to stop the activity and switch roles, and attention to safety.

In fact, rather than encouraging violence, BDSM arguably minimizes it by employing a “radically honest, democratic model of consent.”[24] Participants must explicitly articulate and assert their own desires and limits, and respect those of their partners. Participants may use a safe word to stop an activity at any time. This model of consent lessens the likelihood of participants feeling uncomfortable, unsafe, or violated. It also limits situations in which one partner is unsure of what the other wants or expects. The BDSM consent model could (and should) be beneficially applied to all sexual encounters. As one advocate asserts, “just because [a sexual activity is] vanilla [not BDSM] doesn’t mean that safe words aren’t necessary.”[25] It may also teach people how to better handle conflicts and negotiations outside their sexual activities.[26]

BDSM: Fluid Identity and Power Relations

While some people claim their kink as a positive minority identity, BDSM can open up the challenge the idea of stable identity altogether. Identity is not biologically determined or immutable, but culturally and temporally located. While social and political institutions usually presuppose a ‘normal’ individual whose relationships are shaped according to ‘normal’ models, BDSM reveals that the ‘normal’ individual, and their social and political relationships are mere constructions which “can and are continuously modified.”[27] This is perhaps most obvious in the temporary power relations that (usually) characterize BDSM: the power relation in a given scene is (usually) only valid during the session.

BDSM shows that identities change according to the situations and interactions. Distinctions between ‘sadist’ and ‘masochist’ or ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ are tied to particular situations and relationships. We also experience different power relations according to different concrete situations in everyday life: for example, a person can be the ‘top’ in one power relation (ex. as a parent), and the ‘bottom’ in another (ex. as a child).[28] While some people engage in BDSM regularly as part of their lifestyle or identity, others only do it occasionally and still enjoy other sexual activities.[29] The need for mutual definition among partners reveals a blurred line between what is and is not BDSM. Although it refers to a set of practices (including bondage, spanking, etc), a total overlapping between BDSM and such practices seems impossible because they are not exclusive to ‘kinky’ (i.e. BDSM) sexuality, as they are present also in ‘vanilla’ sexual behaviors.”[30]

BDSM and Mainstream Culture

The key elements that make BDSM non-violent and feminist — prior negotiation, consent, safe words, attention to safety, and the potential switching of roles — are rarely represented in mainstream media. Mainstream representations of BDSM tend to be filtered through a patriarchal interpretation. This may contribute to the disempowerment and degradation of women by reinforcing problematic beliefs that all women’s innermost erotic desire is to be dominated and controlled,[31] and that all men have sexually violent impulses towards women that are difficult to control.

Written by Westland Researcher Elyssa Carroll Goldman

 

Works Cited

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Hopkins, Patrick D. “Rethinking Sadomasochism: Feminism, Interpretation, and Simulation.” Hypatia 9.1 (1994): 116-141. Accessed June 12, 2014. http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.mta.ca/stable/3810439.

Hornsby, Teresa J. “Gender Role Reversal and the Violated Lesbian Body.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 3.3 (1999): 61-72. Accessed June 18, 2014. doi: 10.1300/J155v03n03_06.

Langdridge, Darren. “Voices from the Margins: Sadomasochism and Sexual Citizenship.” Citizenship Studies 10.4 (2006): 373-389. Accessed June 19, 2014. doi: 10.1080/13621020600857940.

McRuer, Robert. “Crip Eye for the Normate Guy: Queer Theory and the Disciplining of Disability Studies.” PMLA 120.2 (2005): 586-592. Accessed June 15, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25486189.

Monceri, Flavia. “Sadomasochism, Deconstructing Sexual Identity Through Power.” Dissertation, Università del Molise. Accessed June 15, 2014. http://www.academia.edu/1961372/Sadomasochism._Deconstructing_sexual_identity_through_power.

Newmahr, Staci. “Becoming a Sadomasochist.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 37.5 (2008): 619-643. Accessed June 19, 2014. doi: 10.1177/0891241607310626.

Plant, Bob. “Playing games/playing us: Foucault on sadomasochism.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 33.5 (2007): 531-561. Accessed June 18, 2014. doi: 10.1177/0191453707078913.

[ http://psc.sagepub.com.libproxy.mta.ca/content/33/5/531.full.pdf+html

Richters, J., De Visser, R. O., Rissel, C. E., Grulich, A. E. and Smith, A. M.A. “Demographic and Psychosocial Features of Participants in Bondage and Discipline, ‘Sadomasochism’ or Dominance and Submission (BDSM): Data from a National Survey.” Journal of Sexual Medicine 5 (2008): 1660–1668. doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2008.00795.x.

Ritchie, Ani and Meg Barker. “Feminist SM: A contradiction in terms or a way of challenging traditional gendered dynamics through sexual practice?” Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review 6.3 (2005): 227–239. Accessed June 19, 2014. http://oro.open.ac.uk/17262/1/2AF6D7AB.pdf.

Rufus, Anneli. “The Intellectual Sex Fetish.” The Daily Beast, July 29, 2010. Accessed June 19, 2014. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2010/07/29/cuckolding-the-sex-fetish-for-intellectuals.html.

Seidman, Steven. “Sadomasochism, or, the Pleasures of Pain” in The Social Construction of Sexuality 177-185. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2010.

Suel, Morgane. “Sadomasochism as a Sexual Culture: Contemporary Manifestations and a Foucauldian deconstruction of Feminist Discourse.” Dissertation, McGill University. Accessed June 12, 2014. http://www.academia.edu/3190002/Sadomasochism_as_a_Sexual_Culture_Contemporary_Manifestations_and_a_Foucauldian_deconstruction_of_Feminist_Discourse# .

Sullivan, Nikki. “Sadomasochism as Resistance?” in A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory 151-167. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Taylor, G. W. and J. M Ussher. “Making sense of S&M: A Discourse Analytic Account.” Sexualities 4.3 (2001), 293-314. Accessed June 19, 2014. doi:10.1177/136346001004003002.

Weinberg, Martin S., Colin J. Williams, and Charles Moser. “The Social Constituents of Sadomasochism.” Social Problems 31.4 (1984): 379-389. Accessed June 18, 2014. doi:10.2307/800385.

Weinberg, Thomas. “Sadomasochism in the United States: A Review of Recent Sociological Literature.” Journal of Sex Research 23.1 (1987): 50. Accessed June 19, 2014. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=5686868&site=ehost-live.

Weiss, Margot D. “Working at Play: BDSM Sexuality in the San Francisco Bay Area.” Anthropologica 48. 2 (2006): 229-245. Accessed June 18, 2014. doi:10.2307/25605313.

[1] Martin S. Weinberg, Colin J. Williams, and Charles Moser, “The Social Constituents of Sadomasochism,” Social Problems 31.4 (1984): 380, accessed June 18, 2014, doi:10.2307/800385.

[2] https://www.ncsfreedom.org/key-programs/dsm-v-revision-project/dsm-v-program-page

  1. Richters, R. O. De Visser, C. E Rissel, A. E. Grulich, and A. Smith, “Demographic and Psychosocial Features of Participants in Bondage and Discipline, ‘Sadomasochism’ or Dominance and Submission (BDSM): Data from a National Survey,” Journal of Sexual Medicine 5 (2008): 1660–1668, doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2008.00795.x.

[3] Flavia Monceri,“Sadomasochism, Deconstructing Sexual Identity Through Power,” (Dissertation, Università del Molise), 4.

[4] Weinberg et al., 382.

[5] Ibid, 136.

[6] Ritchie and Barker, 230.

[7] Hopkins, 135.

[8] Ibid, 136.

[9] Ritchie and Barker, 238.

[10] Ritchie and Barker, 229.

[11] Monceri, 6.

[12] Bob Plant, “Playing games/playing us: Foucault on sadomasochism,” Philosophy & Social Criticism 33.5 (2007): 538, accessed June 18, 2014. doi: 10.1177/0191453707078913.

[13] Ritchie and Barker, 237.

[14] Staci Newmahr, “Becoming a Sadomasochist,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 37.5 (2008): 632, accessed June 19, 2014, doi: 10.1177/0891241607310626.

[15] Monceri, 3.

[16] Weinberg et al., 382.

[17] Ibid, 381.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Newmahr, 631.

[20] Patrick D. Hopkins, “Rethinking Sadomasochism: Feminism, Interpretation, and Simulation,” Hypatia 9.1 (1994): 126, accessed June 12, 2014, http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.mta.ca/stable/3810439.

[21] Ibid, 125.

[22] Ibid, 123.

[23] Ibid, 124.

[24] Ibid, 127.

[25] Ibid, 135-6.

[26] Ibid, 127.

[27] Monceri, 6-7.

[28] Monceri, 6.

[29] Weinberg et al, 384.

[30] Ibid, 3.

[31] Hopkins, 136.