Get Real! Is Something Wrong with Me If I Like BDSM?


alice42 asks:

For
as long as I can remember, I have been turned on my imagining my own
pain and humiliation. I am going out with someone for the first time
now, and we’ve been together for almost eight months. Recently we’ve
started experimenting with very mild SM-type things–tying each other
up, biting, spanking. I love it, and so does he. But is this normal?
Should I be worried that this turns me on more than anything else we’ve
done together? Is there something wrong with me? (I’ve never been
abused). And can I still be a feminist if I get off on being dominated
by men?

Heather replies:

There
is no one, unilateral stance on feminism and BDSM, whether women are
being dominant or submissive; whether women have male, female,
transgender or intersex partners.

For decades, there has been a lot of feminist conversation around it and other aspects of sex with a lot
of varied opinion. Everyone has their own ideas about these issues, and
anyone who is interested in BDSM basically just needs to decide or find
out if it is something they even want or like, and then if it is
something (or is done in such a way) that works with their feminism and
with their life and relationships as a whole or doesn’t.

I’m also willing to bet that there are probably any number of things
you do in your daily life which aren’t feminist. Let’s be more clear:
which don’t further or nurture the equality of women or aim to do so,
or which may empower you personally, but might disempower another woman
or group of women.

For instance, a lot of women who identify as feminists aren’t vegan,
and support of factory-farming and the politics of meat-eating are
sometimes considered a feminist issue (because the subordination of
animals is often linked to the subordination of women). Many buy
clothing or other goods that were made in sweatshops in which women and
children are exploited and mistreated. Many marry, even though as
feminists we know the origins, history and some of the premise of
marriage to be sexist or misogynist. Maybe you buy things from clothing
or cosmetic companies which don’t pay their female workers equally or
which advertise in ways which are not empowering to women. Maybe you
don’t always call men or other women out when they’re making jokes
about rape or intimate partner violence or slagging on a woman for her
shape or size. Maybe you voted for someone who doesn’t support the
equal rights of lesbian women (and all of us who voted for Obama are
unfortunately guilty of the latter).

The point is that you’re going to meet very few people, if any,
where every single aspect of their lives is in alignment with the goals
of all kinds of feminism or is furthering the goals of feminism as a
very big and diverse whole. I think we can be or aspire to be feminist
without having to have every single part of our lives be about feminism
or having every part be about working towards the goals of feminism.

While it’s a much more complex conversation when we start to talk
about things like women being publicly collared, 24/7 D/S relationships
or the general — as in, in the whole world, not just with sex — issue
of hierarchy as a whole, I don’t think anyone has to worry about
dismantling the goals or successes of feminism with what they do
privately and consensually in their bedroom. You or your boyfriend are
not likely to take away our right to vote or keep all women from full
equality with a love-bite or a spanking.

I think it’s important to remember that at the heart of feminism is
the goal for women to be able to have enjoyment of our lives and the
freedom to make our own choices and take our own journeys. We all also
get to have our own ideas and opinions about what feminism is or should
be: not all feminist women agree that this thing or that is or is not
feminist. It’s a movement made of people, and people vary and also
adjust our ideas, and thus, the movement itself, as we all go through
our own processes.

I’ll be candid and personal and share that for me, per my feminism
as well as other aspects of my life and beliefs (I’m Zen Buddhist, and
that informs a lot of what I do) and what kind of dynamics I want and
don’t want in my life, I came to the conclusion a while back that BDSM
was not a good fit. Even though it was something I enjoyed for a spell
back when, it just didn’t wind up fitting with who I am, and what I
want, personally, sexually and politically. I prefer my own sex and
love life better without those elements, or if I’m going to engage in
sensation play, to do so without any domination, submission or
hierarchy. And for me, who does have a history with some serious abuses
in it, it is triggering, which I think is some of why I — again,
talking about me here, not you or anyone else — enjoyed it: I was
looking to be triggered or to trigger others at the time. That’s where
I was in my process then, but I’m not there anymore. I personally do
not, for the record, have any feelings of regret or shame about my
experiences with BDSM: not being in that same place isn’t because I
think I or anyone else did or felt anything terrible or wrong. And I’ve
also gone back and forth a lot over the years around how I feel when it
comes to BDSM and feminism as a whole.

Even with an ungodly amount of discussion around the topic for years
with feminists of many types and stripes, I still have a tough time
settling on a solid opinion when it comes to how I feel BDSM does or
doesn’t impact feminism and the aims of feminism. I felt one way about
it ten years ago, a different way about it now, and may very well have
an entirely different opinion in another ten years.

But all of that is my own journey, my own ethos, the place
I’ve arrived at through my own life and unique life history: only you
can find out and know what works for you, and only you can discover
what your journey and ethos are around this and sex as a whole.

I think we do have to take the "by men" out of the equation here,
because I don’t think it’s relevant. Our sexual partners are the people
we are attracted to. If you’re attracted to men, you’re attracted to
men, and your choice of partner (or what you do with them) isn’t about
feminism, but about your sexual orientation, which isn’t something we
choose. If you are attracted to men and you also like to be dominated,
that’s probably why you like to be dominated by men. More to the point,
even if you were engaging in that kind of play with a woman, or you
were the dominant one, I personally don’t feel that wouldn’t change the
script much: feminism isn’t about flipping the script so women lord
over men, or so that women lord over other women, it’s about seeking a
paradigm of equality, rather than a paradigm of power-over/power-under.

Previous abuse is probably a non-issue for most people when it comes
to this. Plenty of people are into what you are who were not abused,
and I haven’t seen any sound study showing more people who are into
BDSM have been abused than those who have not. In fact, when we
consider how very many of us grew up with emotional, verbal, physical
and/or sexual abuse, we have to remember that any sexual or romantic
activity people engage in is being done by or with a lot of people who
have been abused in some way.

Is there something wrong with you? I doubt it.

Why might you like this? Well, look: power hierarchy is the dominant
(no pun intended) paradigm of our culture. We don’t live in a vacuum,
and neither does our sexuality: it’s strongly influenced by the ideas
and social structures we all were raised with, we just don’t all parse,
experience or enact those the same way. People wanting to play with a
totally pervasive power structure is hardly surprising, just like
people wanting to play with gender binaries isn’t a shocker. Sometimes
people like to flip the script for themselves: some people who are
often in charge like to take a turn with someone else in charge as a
sort of minibreak from that other aspect of their lives, or vice-versa.
Like other kinds of sex, there’s also a measure of trust involved on
both sides: someone (I don’t personally like these terms, but I’m using
them anyway) bottoming is trusting their top to abide by their limits
and boundaries and to stop if they call a stop; someone topping is
trusting their partner to communicate very clearly as well as trusting
themselves not to abuse or exploit the power they’ve been given. And
both are experiencing being trusted by the other, which people can find
feels particularly intense with kinds of play that happens at the edges
of our boundaries.

I also feel it’s important to separate physical sensation play from
D/S when we talk about them. Something painful for one person can be
pleasurable for another, and everyone has different sensory thresholds.
Physiologically, we know that it’s not so easy to separate pain and
pleasure: it’s a continuum with some overlaps we can’t easily put in
two distinct piles. You or someone else may like a given "rough"
activity solely because of how it feels sensorially, but NOT like that
same activity were it associated with humiliation or with domination.
There are also people who like D/S but don’t like pain or "rough"
sexual activities. Mind, it sounds like you are expressing that these
are linked for you, but I want to be clear that’s not the case for
everyone or for everyone all the time.

In terms of the humiliation (if that is what you really mean: it’s a
really loaded word), there are a lot of theories about why people enjoy
that kind of play, even though it is relatively uncommon. (And I have
to be frank and say it’s not something I’d advise for people who do not
have very healthy relationships and a very strong and positive sense of
self-esteem: for those without those things I think it’s fair to say
it’s probably emotionally unsafe.) For instance, many people grow up
with a lot of shame and fear around sex: that can be one way of
triggering strong responses around those issues. It might seem odd, but
bear in mind that our socio-sexual conditioning is powerful stuff, and
sometimes people like things sexually which, in other contexts, they
abhor or don’t find feel good. Others enjoy feeling helpless or
powerless during humiliation — as a way to let go — and others find
that humiliation in a sexual actually doesn’t make them feel the same
way they do when humiliated in other parts of life, because they always
have the power to make it stop immediately, or because it was invited
or initiated, not forced upon them.

While I certainly think there is always great value in any of us
intellectually and emotionally exploring our sexual feelings and why we
might feel them, there’s also a point where the "why" of what turns us
on is either irrelevant or leads to a certain absurdity. Often, at a
certain point, we just can’t know why for sure, and I don’t think
anyone really needs to, either. What turns us on or doesn’t just isn’t
something we can control, so in my book, it doesn’t make a lot of sense
to invest a lot of concern in what excites us. The place to wisely
invest our concerns is in our actions, in how or if we enact certain
desires, and how what we do effects us and those we do anything to or
with.

Just like with any other kinds of sex, so long as it is something
you mutually want to be doing, something you both communicate clearly
about and negotiate well, something neither of you are doing out of
obligation or feel you can’t say no to, something you’re doing with
care for physical and emotional safety, and so long as you both feel
good about it, I don’t see a reason for you to worry about this. You do
say this is the first time you’ve had a sexual relationship with
anyone, so given your limited experience is relationships, period, I
think some extra caution and discussion is probably a very good idea
since your sexual relationships skills are so new and have only been
with this person.

By all means, there are relationships or sexual scenarios where S/M
or D/S is pretty clearly not a healthy dynamic. For instance, when
activities are not negotiated or negotiations and communication are
ignored or dismissed, where domination is not about play, but the
belief that a given partner is, in essence, a subordinate or slave,
where basic safety practices are ignored or where one partner really
doesn’t like that kind of play, but feels they have to to please a
partner who does. But I’ve seen that stuff in all kinds of sexual
scenarios with people, not just those engaging in spanking or bondage.

This is something, like anything with sex, where you get to evaluate
as you go, adapt as you need to, and if you ever do come to the
conclusion or place where it doesn’t feel right, where it does conflict
with your feminism, or any other part of your heart, mind or life, or
if you stop enjoying it, then you get to just stop doing it.

What you might find helpful is just doing a bit more reading around the subject. We have a very basic article on kink here, and this advice answer and this one might be of use to you. But hitting the bookstore can also put some good resources in your hands, like SM 101: A Realistic Introduction by Jay Wiseman, When Someone You Love Is Kinky by Dossie Easton or Consensual Sadomasochism : How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely
by William A. Henkin. Books like those can give you some basic
information about how to manage BDSM, including important information
about safety: for instance, if you’re biting or doing anything that
involves blood, that is very high-risk stuff in terms of your health.

If you are interested in reading some varied feminist discourse on
BDSM, I’d suggest looking, for instance, at work by Catherine
MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Ariel Levy, Naomi Wolf or Emilie Buchwald
and then also at the work of Carol Queen, Merri Lisa Johnson,
Susie Bright or Jill Nagle: all of these authors identify as feminist
even though they have very different takes on BDSM and related issues.
Sometimes looking at diverse perspectives on something can help us to
reach our own conclusions.

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  • invalid-0

    Really good, thoughtful article. Do you happen to have some links or article titles for the work by Dowrkin, MacKinnon and Buchwald?

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for such an affirming and positive response to this question and issue. We can all benefit from assistance that is informative, accurate and compassionate.

  • invalid-0

    Oh brother. Susan B. Anthony, who fought noble things like the right to vote for all women, is spinning in her grave!

    Let’s apologize to her, shall we?

  • invalid-0

    “…support of factory-farming and the politics of meat-eating are sometimes considered a feminist issue (because the subordination of animals is often linked to the subordination of women)…”

    Some of you feminists have really gone off the deep end.

  • therealistmom

    Feminism is about -choices-… the ability of women to make those choices that are best for them, including all aspects of their sexuality. What one enjoys in the bedroom or private life is not always indicative of how they view relationships or the role of women overall. Having control of one’s own sexuality is at the very heart of feminism. What could be more personal and more to the core of an individual than that, and what could be more empowering?

    It took some time for me to accept that I could be a submissive yet still be feminist. Once I found that balance it became very freeing. I did not have to be ashamed of what fulfilled me- I could embrace it. In a safe, trusting encounter each person values the other for who they are and in a way it is a gift given from both the top and the bottom.

    What it comes down to is that is what works for -me-, it is part of me. It is NOT for all women, nor is it for all men. It does not make women “lesser” or men “more” when it is practiced in SSC manner (safe, sane, consensual). Female tops and male bottoms are not uncommon. They are all simply manifestations of sexuality and women need to have the confidence to explore without stigma.

  • invalid-0

    How could controlling ones sexuality be a feminist issue? No women are being held at gunpoint in America making sure they adhere to some sexual contact standard. Don’t men have the same issues you’re discussing? Just because you feel “stigma” about doing something doesn’t make you a victim. You just need to get over it and be yourself.

  • heather-corinna

    Susan B. Anthony actually didn’t have a whole lot to say about sexuality, period, so I’m not sure we can surmise how she’d feel about any of this.

     

    From what I understand, when she did speak about it at all, her primary focus was on a) preventing unwanted pregnancy (generally through abstinence, though the lack of contraceptiove methods at the time probably had something to do with that) and b) about how women at the time had no legal status when it came to preventing husbands from raping them. Her focus in this regard was on women’s bodily autonomy: without that, even gettng to discussing pleasure doesn’t make a lot of sense, so again, I don’t think we can really guess at what she’d have had to say about any aspect of sexual pleasure.

     

    However, suggesting that women’s sexuality is somehow ignoble, or less noble than our right to participate in the democratic process (but not in the bedroom?) is something I *do* have a hard time seeing Antjony getting on board with.

  • heather-corinna

    How could it not be?

     

    That’s a big issue of bodily autonomy.

     

    For one, MANY women are INDEED being held at gunpoint when it comes to sex in America: the rape rates here are hardly a trifle, and  female victims of male rapists vastly outnumber male victims by both male or female rapists.  And let’s remember that most rapes are not by strangers but by boyfriends, dates, husbands, male family members.

     

    Setting sexual violence aside, I would not say men are in the same place in the states, and certainly the world, as women are when it comes to sexuality.  That’s a HUGE topic, but a few tidbits: the activity which a majority of men reach orgasm through but a majority of women do not is still largely held as "the real sex," healthcare, including sexual healthcare, is still largely male-dominated, scientific and cultural models of sexuality are still often built solely or primarily on male sexual experience, and I’d say the kind of sexual issues per sexism and patriarchy that, say, Shulamith Firestone talked about in 1970 really haven’t changed very much, especially for certain groups.

     

    And pulling out the V-word?  When someone does that in discussions around equality, I tend to interpret that as an attempt to silence that discussion, or to try and dismiss the fact that any kind of discussion like this has a lot of nuance and can’t simply be boiled down to good guys and bad guys, victimizers and victims.

     

  • invalid-0

    Because sometimes if you spend too much time looking down, you forget to look up and see the Summit. :)

    I hope you and your partner find the summit someday, and you can stand as equals upon it.

    Susan

  • invalid-0

    I think we can safely say that Susan B. Anthony would not spend her time with a man who got sexual pleasure from degrading her.

    I doubt that she would think that a woman being in such a situation was safe, or that it was edifying.

    And as far as domination goes, she was for EQUAL rights, not about punishing a man. She was thinking on a whole different level than what you are describing above. Why would she waste her time with games?

  • heather-corinna

    Again, it’s entirely possible that for Susan B. Anthony — or any other feminist — that BDSM did NOT fit her feminism; her vision of feminism.  But we simply can’t say that for all feminists nor all feminisms, and Anthony is not the only author of feminism, nor the only woman who has formed and grown the movement.

     

    And I also don’t think we can guess at that for Susan B. Anthony, who never said anything on this subject herself (a whole lot of people have sexual desires which aren’t or don’t seem in alignment with their politics or other aspects of their lives), nor was she alive during this particular period of time. To my knowledge, we don’t even know that she ever had any sexual relationships at all, herself, so I don’t see how we can guess at what their dynamics would or would not have been.

     

    I’d also personally be very careful defining some sexualities as noble and others as ignoble, particularly when we’re talking about a range in which consent is afoot and central for all of them, and when everyone involved is invested in shared, mutual pleasure, and enacting a sexuality which feels mutually authentic to them.   Same goes for talking about people being degraded: with this particular post particularly, I didn’t see any mention of degradation.

     

    But when it all comes down to it? Anthony didn’t write this question, and she’s not who I’m answering with it.  I’m answering the woman who asked it, who may or may not feel that this aspect of her sexuality is a game, and whose process in feminism and life is unique and hers alone.

  • http://www.whatmenreallysayaboutwomen.com/flyonthewall invalid-0

    Sure, there are those folks who dabble in S&M to “bring variety” into the relationship, but for most people who really appreciate BDSM, it is actually their sexual orientation. They can’t choose to turn it off any more than a gay man can decide to suddenly like women. It just doesn’t work that way. When are brains are wired for BDSM, Homosexuality, or Heterosexuality, it is no longer a choice for us any more than it is a choice to not like chocolate. You can’t just say “I don’t want to like chocolate anymore”. It’s part of you. You can refrain from eating chocolate, but it’s pretty difficult to change your entire taste.

    So BDSM and Feminism are mutually compatible. Just like being Gay and Feminism are compatible. Sure, you could say that BDSM is more degrading and violent and therefore contradicts the ideals of Feminism, but as long as it is consensual and desired in the heart, then it is no more violent or degrading to Feminism than someone torturing their body to run a marathon or rock climb in the snow. Why is it acceptable to torture our bodies to run a marathon, but not get whipped with a riding crop? I bet you the riding crop will create less long term damage to our bodies. But because the BDSM form of violence is tied to sex, it suddenly has to be against Feminism. I just don’t buy that.

  • snowflake

    According to who? BDSM is a fetish, not a sexual orientation–are we going to declare an sexual orientation catorgy for every fetish? As for hard wiring in the brain, it could be or not–the research hasn’t been done yet. The chocolate example doesn’t work–a lot of people give it up, including someone I knew in college who completely removed it from her diet. Let’s not tell people they are powerless to make a change.