The acronym BDSM stands for bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadomasochism. In Liberal Land it’s somehow okay to have a single letter stand for two different words, I suppose they think it makes their acronym more “subversive” or whatever, but other people are more likely to find it confusing. In fact, the acronym itself masks the nature of the practice. “BDSM” sounds a lot less scary than “sadomasochism”, doesn’t it? The word “sadomasochism” calls to mind an image of a man inflicting physical pain upon a woman, who is screaming in terror, and enjoying the fact that she is in pain, while whispering to you (the onlooker) “Trust me, she likes it”. It all sounds pretty freaky, doesn’t it? Of course, the word “BDSM” contains the acronym for sadomasochism within it, suggesting that sadomasochism is a form of BDSM, but this is not immediately obvious to the uninitiated. Thus when you tell people you’re against BDSM, people assume you must be a prude, because you sound like you’re objecting to some mysterious sex act that they see no reason to be afraid of, a sex act which is merely “weird”, rather than violent, dangerous or degrading.
Regardless of which term you use and regardless of how “varied” and “complex” the behaviours may be, all acts which fall under the BDSM umbrella have one thing in common, the domination of one human being over another. The phrase its advocates often use is “the exchange of erotic power”. Like with many liberal terms, it is not comprehensible to those who have not studied the issue. I’m not even sure if it’s entirely comprehensible to the people who use it. I think its intent is to inspire positive-thinking in the reader/listen. After all, we all like erotic things, right? Meanwhile the word “power” implies that what they’re saying is really profound and philosophical and the word “exchange” implies that something fair and egalitarian is going on. When you examine the term “exchange of power” more closely it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that is a topic for another post. Suffice it to say, liberal language is littered with euphemism and deception.
So why would anyone be opposed to “weird”, “kinky”, “steamy” “[insert deceptive adjective which is likely to appear in mainstream articles about BDSM here]” sex? In the remainder of this article, I will be presenting some of the arguments which are made against BDSM from a radical feminist viewpoint.
1. BDSM is contrary to the ideal of equality between humans
This argument really needs no explanation. BDSM is an anti-egalitarian human interaction (it involves some people being dominant and other people being submissive.) Radical feminists oppose anti-egalitarian human interactions (especially when they occur within the realm of intimate relations.) Therefore radical feminists oppose BDSM. It is really that simple.
Philosophy geeks may have noticed that what I provided above was a deductive argument. The structure is undoubtedly valid. Thus the only way to refute it is to show that the premises are wrong. Go ahead. Try it in the comment section. I dare you. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, feel free to ignore this paragraph. Unlike liberal feminists, I’m not here to bamboozle you with fancy words. If I use a fancy word it will be because the word properly expresses the thought that I’m trying to get across to the reader. Anyone who writes things that have been specially designed to only be understood by people who have done majors in gender studies probably isn’t serious about changing the world.
Back to the topic at hand, radical feminists fight for equality, not “choice”, not orgasm, equality. Yes liberal feminists and pornography lovers everywhere, there is something out there which is worth more than an orgasm (or any kind of sexual arousal.) To quote Gail Dines, orgasms are great, but revolutions are better.*
Equality (i.e. the elimination of power hierarchies within sexual relationships and in general) is the aim. Without equality there can be no genuine freedom. It is freedom feminists fight for, not “choice”. Not all choices lead to liberation and the fact that we may be allowed to choose our cell, does not mean we are not in a prison. Many of the choices women are faced with can be summed up as “submit to men this way or submit to men that way.” Some lucky women have the option of being dominant rather than be dominated, but what about the option of having a relationship that involves two people treating one another like equal human beings? That options is only available to those who consciously strive for it and radical feminists believe it’s worth striving for.
* For anyone who feels the need to verify everything someone says on the internet, the quote I’m paraphrasing is near the end of the talk.
2. BDSM glamorises rape and abuse
Though it may not always seem that way, I like to be charitable when I’m arguing. If I grant that all of my opponents’ assumptions are correct and still show that what they’re advocating is messed up, it becomes pretty hard for them to refute me. So I’ll grant that BDSM is always consensual (even though it sometimes isn’t) and I’ll grant that BDSM is never abuse (even though it sometimes is.) That still doesn’t let BDSM off the hook.
Suppose you were watching a film in which a thin, busty women (or a highly muscular man, take your pick) struts across the screen smoking a cigarette. If you’re one of those media-analysis-is-above-me types you’ll probably shout “It’s just entertainment. Why you got to think so much about stuff?” as if thinking were a bad thing, but anti-tobacco activists know that when we see images of prettified celebrities smoking, it makes smoking seem glamorous. If you create a link in people’s minds between smoking and something pleasurable, like sex, it causes them to have more positive feelings towards smoking. Thus if we care about the welfare of human beings, we should be very careful about linking things with sex. Of course, corporations don’t care, but those claiming to be progressive should.
BDSM links sex with things that are just as horrible, if not worse, than smoking. These things include aggression, domination, violence and the abuse of women. “But wait,” BDSM proponents will scream, “BDSM is not abuse”. I already granted that assumption earlier on and in this situation it doesn’t matter. In the best case scenario, BDSM is a simulation of physical or emotional abuse which is aimed at causing sexual arousal. It thus trains people’s brains to associate abuse with arousal. In the case of the arousal-causing celebrity with the cigarette, it doesn’t really matter whether the actor is actually smoking in real life or not. It is the effect of the image on the audience that is significant. Likewise, when we’re discussing BDSM, we have to look at the bigger picture and ask what effect the practice has on our culture.
The pro-BDSM response to this will no doubt be something along the lines of “but BDSM has no effect on the culture, it goes on in the bedroom, in private, not on movie screens”. Well as of February next year, it will be happening on movie screens. Even now, sadomasochism is a common theme in pornography. This is not something that the BDSM community objects to. They just want the pornographers to add boring scenes where the people involved talk in detail about what they’re going to before they do it (which is not something pornographers are likely to include if they want to maintain viewer interest.) In fact the activist portion of the BDSM community believes that the only way to alleviate the constant persecution which BDSM practitioners supposedly experience is by educating everyone about BDSM as much as they can. Some advocates argue that a lack of BDSM imagery within mainstream media leads to (or is a form of) persecution against the BDSM community. As long as there are people advocating this belief, BDSM cannot be understood purely as something private that goes on in bedrooms. It must be understood as what it is quickly becoming, a powerful political and cultural movement.
For a list of gripes that BDSM advocates have concerning mainstream society, see the Vanilla Privilege Checklist.
3. Many BDSM acts are physically dangerous (to women)
“BDSM groups often try to educate people in safe practices (e.g. making sure gags don't cause suffocation). Some people have died; this is tragic; don't end up like them.” From a pro-BDSM blog called “Going Rampant”
Notice the power-neutral language in the above quote. We’re told that “people” have been killed by BDSM. In reality it is almost always the submissive whose life is endangered by violent sex. Dominants do not have objects shoved down their threats. They do not have knives or fires waved near their naked bodies. Only submissive BDSM practitioners are physically endangered by BDSM sex (but of course that fact does not fit well with the Orwellian pro-BDSM claim that the submissive is actually the one with the power) and, let us be honest here, there are good reasons to believe that it is typically women who play the submissive role in BDSM. So a more accurate statement would have been “BDSM kills women” or better yet “BDSM dominants sometimes kill their submissive female partners by inflicting dangerous sex acts upon them” (let’s just hope they’re doing it by accident.)
Even if we assume that BDSM does not involve any gendered power dynamics, surely I don’t have to defend the claim that the death of human beings (be they male or female) is generally a bad thing, do I? The usual response to this argument is that life is full of risks and it is crazy to oppose all risky behaviours. While I do not oppose all risky behaviours, I do believe that risks should be minimised whenever possible. This cannot be done for BDSM, because the risky nature of it is what makes it exciting to those who practice it. If power is what turns you on, then the best way to get that arousal is by placing yourself in a situation where you literally have the power of life and death over your partner. Meanwhile the submissive partner proves that she really does trust her sexy, sexy dominant by allowing him to have that kind of power over her. Thus danger is not an accidental feature of BDSM, something that just happens to exist during BDSM sex acts. It is part of the inherent nature of BDSM.
This is not true for other risky things like transportation. The purpose of the planes, buses and trains, for example, is to get people from point A to point B and making a plane, bus or train ride more dangerous will not improve its ability to do so. In fact public transport which is safe does a better job of getting people from point A to point B. Safe public transport is good public transport. Safe BDSM is bad BDSM (from the viewpoint of those who are into BDSM.) Unsafe BDSM sex acts can never become truly safe without losing much of their BDSM character and that would spoil the BDSM community’s fun.
I hope that this post has provided a useful introduction to the radical feminist critique of BDSM. This article is not intended to provide an extensive list of the arguments which feminists make against BDSM. I have barely touched on the ways in which BDSM is gendered. I am yet to discuss the ways in which BDSM embodies masculine and feminine ideals or the ways in which it glamorises oppressive systems of the past (e.g. slavery), nor have I responded to all pro-BDSM arguments. I do however feel that I have presented the main radical feminist arguments against BDSM, those which get to the heart of the matter and that I have provided sound arguments as to why any decent, equality-loving person should oppose BDSM. Maybe I even managed to generate some laughs along the way.
Since this post is an opinion piece, rather than a trope page. Opposing viewpoints are allowed, but do try to be original. If your comment is pro-BDSM and made up only of arguments which have already been made in other comments it will probably be deleted. Personal attacks against individuals are still not allowed. As always constructive criticism is welcome.
If you enjoyed this post then stay tuned for posts discussing common pro-BDSM arguments, the causes of BDSM desires, the harmful nature of specific BDSM sex acts and why the left should be opposed to BDSM.