BDSM
FeminismsSexuality and Gender

BDSM and abuse: Where is the line and who controls it?

His name was Lars. A typical Swedish name and a typical Swedish man in his 40s. He had a soft manner of speech and peppered his English with old Swedish phrases I never understood. He was an artist and his paintings were electric. I was mesmerised whenever I looked at his work. The first time he touched the small of my back, handing me a glass of wine, I knew. 

Dominance and submission (D/S) is a part of BDSM that is rooted in the willing exchange of power as an arousing experience – for all involved. However, many in the past have been anti-BDSM, who oppose the supposed degrading activities even when it’s entered into willingly.

Modern-day feminism emphasises sexual autonomy and largely supports BDSM. Ultimately, the lifestyle is about breaking traditional perceptions and norms that exist in society surrounding sexuality and expressing desire. 

Feminism and BDSM

Early third-wave feminists, for all their reclamation of bodily autonomy, were bitterly opposed to BDSM, some describing it as a ruse to cover for the culture of misogyny that arises from and contributes to the lifestyle. While they all agreed that ending misogyny will end violence against women, the focus was on the real women in pornography and the lifestyle that contributed to the message that brutality equals sexual pleasure and the real-world implications that this has. 

BDSM

It may be logical that radical feminist philosophy would rage at the suggestion that a woman might choose to submit to sexual domination by a man, discounting it as the result of cultural victimisation and socialisation to be subservient. Many feminists say BDSM is the same as actual torture and violates the UN Convention Against Torture. And as torture cannot be consented to, the same label should go for consensual BDSM. 

It’s the dead of winter and I’m in a gown with a corset underneath. Lars hands me a collar and tells me to kneel before him. Collars are a sensitive subject for many anti-kink feminists. They are a visible, tangible symbol of ownership, power, and dominance.

On a very basic level, the term BDSM is a combination of three abbreviations—‘B&D’, which means Bondage and Discipline; ‘D&S’, meaning Dominance and Submission; and ‘S&M’, which stands for Sadism and Masochism. These are umbrella terms for a large variety of sexual kinks that can be quite varied. Lars and I had decided to engage in the dominance and submission side of things. I put on the collar and decide the power dynamic for myself. 

When I told one of my closest friends that this was the situation with this man I had met, he rolled his eyes and said I’m selling out. Identifying as both a feminist and a submissive seems pretty contradictory as it relies on an unequal power dynamic. His first question was whether I am working through past abuse by exploring my kinks. It’s easy to conflate BDSM with anti-feminism with mainstream media representations being either completely misleading or straight-up lies.

However, the majority of BDSM’s tenets are, at their core, feminist. In fact, whether it’s straight or queer couples engaging in BDSM, the power structures are no longer rigid, and the dominant and submissive roles have become fluid, as couples constantly switch these roles and make it about consensual pleasure rather than mere power dynamics.

Feminist criticism has always been polarised regarding BDSM. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the ‘Sex Wars’ among feminist theorists was basically a large-scale debate about the inclusion of various kinds of expressions of female sexuality within feminist discourse, mainly about lesbian sexuality. It expanded to include pornography, sex work, gendered roles in LGBTQIA relationships, and BDSM practices.

While many feminists were supportive of these forms of expressions of sexuality, a large number were against them. Theorists Andrea Dworkin and Susan Griffin argued that BDSM revolved around the inherent violence that exists within these practices that are especially directed against submissive women and that it legitimises men’s desires to subdue, assault, and control women. I do believe their argument has some credence to it, but it does come down to consent and enjoyment. 

Submitting to Lars means I, of my own volition, hand over my personal power and autonomy to him, knowing there will be boundaries tested but I also trust he will respect them and stop when I tell him to. I have to trust that, or else I would never step into this space. I know all too well the risks involved. He could very well end my life if he wanted to.

The power he holds is not to be toyed with. Being from South Africa, the femicide statistics are well embedded in my head and the knowledge that just two months prior to this encounter, 87000 cases of domestic violence were opened in my home country.

Yet here I was, willingly giving every ounce of power to a man who could very well take advantage of my being bound and helpless. While I know people can’t consent to certain things legally, it’s still a thrill. Some bodies of law declare it illegal to consent to certain types of physical harm, whether it’s sexual or not or even wanted, according to the New York Times.

You can’t consent to torture or serious bodily injury and this includes excessive strangulation, cutting, or burning a partner as these could be prosecuted by law enforcement as assault and battery or aggravated assault even if the victim consented. The thought is comforting but the law has never stopped men from exerting physical and ideological power against women if they wanted to. 

There’s also the racial aspect as Lars asks me to call him “Master” and I refuse. A brown woman calling an older white man something that was demanded of brown-skinned people for centuries? Nah. Not my cup of tea.

There are too many layers there to unpack and I’d rather not do it. So we settle on “Sir”. He likes it. It comes naturally as he pours himself a whiskey, enjoying watching me in discomfort as I get more turned on by the things he says. It’s both nerve-wracking and exciting to explore my deepest desires with someone who truly gets it. 

Entering into a BDSM relationship always has its risks but it’s also about balancing one’s feminism with one’s desires. Those who practice the lifestyle have rules for protecting boundaries, exercising safety, and enacting consent. There is no fine line because while it may seem like an ideological minefield, there isn’t a place I feel safer than with people who are committed to understanding and respecting those boundaries.

Lars and I had a jar with post-its with our worst fears, our darkest fantasies, and our biggest regrets and we created our boundaries around those. Yes, it is possible that either one of us could break those boundaries but it’s a kind of social contract like the ones we follow every day when we enter a shop and don’t steal stuff or sit at a restaurant and don’t light up a cigarette in a no-smoking zone. It’s that simple. 

Radical feminist arguments against BDSM are valid and I understand the concerns. However, the bottom line is that when there is a strong bond between dominant and submissive, there is a mutual respect that I can honestly say I have not found in any other human interaction outside of the lifestyle.

BDSM: consent is a key factor

The consent factor is always there and the enactment of violence boils down to our societal constraints about what we imagine is acceptable or not. Some people enjoy pain. Some enjoy humiliation. Even outside of the dungeon, they’re probably getting that on their own or to an extent from other relationships too – without the rules and boundaries that kink has, which can sometimes be more dangerous. 

Fantasies and even consent do not exist in a vacuum and can be seen as a byproduct of patriarchal social conditioning that tells women that in the sexual power equation, their role is inherently inferior and that sex is their only currency. However, it’s highly reductive to think that every single person in the lifestyle has the same reasons for entering into these relationships and that all women are subs while all men are doms.

BDSM practitioners use the catchphrase “safe, sane, and consensual”. Extensive conversations, negotiated checklists, and safe words are only some of the tools for navigating consent and negotiating the power dynamic at play, which can always be revoked for any or even no reason.

As for Lars, although I am back home and thousands of kilometers away, there are times I still call him “Sir”. No boundary is going to end that bond we once shared.

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