Let’s Take the Gloves Off

Speaking of the real rape vs. rape play debate, check out Stacey May Fowles’s essay on the subject over here. It’s a piece written for a book called Yes Means Yes, published by Seal Press.

First of all, I have to admit that I don’t really agree with the premise of this book, which is that “creating a culture which values genuine female sexual pleasure can help stop rape.” That said, there’s a part of me that was thrilled to find a piece on this subject included in their anthology, especially one written from the perspective of a submissive woman who enjoys rape play. It’s hard not to simply be happy when you see something like this published by a feminist press and reproduced on a liberal website:

However you attempt to excuse it, this inability to accept BDSM into the feminist dialogue is really just a form of kinkophobia, a widely accepted prejudice against the practice of power-exchange sex. . . . the best a submissive can hope for is to be labeled and condescended to as a damaged victim choosing submission as a way of healing from or processing past trauma and abuse.

Yeah, don’t really see that perspective in print too much.

But there’s always a problem that emerges when people try to defend a controversial position or idea in a mainstream publication: they try to make it palatable. They lower the bar. They handle it too carefully. It’s something I’ve noticed in my own writing, and it’s something that I think is perhaps unavoidable — but it’s always unfortunate.

In describing BDSM to her audience, Fowles sticks to “safe, sane, consensual,” focusing almost exclusively on the safety measures, rules, negotiations, and safewords that make sure that nothing bad happens. She doesn’t mention the fact that the BDSM some people like to engage in does carry some degree of risk; that what constitutes “safe” play (or “sane” play, for that matter) is always a hotly debated topic in the BDSM world; that not every BDSM scene has to have to have a long negotiation beforehand; or that the meaning and use of safewords can vary widely. She refers to BDSM as a “counterculture” with “complex rules,” without acknowledging the fact that a lot of people who engage in BDSM aren’t engaged with it as a counterculture and don’t have much interest in its complex rules.

Most importantly, she oversimplifies the issue of consent in BDSM play and relationships, asserting that consent in BDSM “has to be founded on a constant proclamation of enthusiastic consent, which mainstream sexuality has systematically dismantled.” But she doesn’t really talk about what constant, enthusiastic consent actually looks like in a scene based around nonconsent and rape (rape play, of course, is the focus of the essay), returning instead to her assertion that because of all those rules and negotiation, BDSM is “the ultimate in trust and collaborative ‘performance,’ its rules and artifice the very antithesis of rape.”

As I’ve been exploring on here recently, though, the reality is much more complex. Rape play is not the antithesis of rape simply by virtue of consent being involved, both because (a) it still fetishizes and draws from the idea of rape and non-consent and (b) within any given rape play scene, the line between consent and non-consent can become microscopically thin. For those of us who are prone to sinking into submissive headspace or other states of consciousness during play (which make it very difficult to discern what we do and do not want), the idea of proclaiming enthusiastic consent during the entire duration of the scene just doesn’t resonate. It’s not always as simple as safewords, and it requires communication and awareness of the ways in which things can shift during a scene, not hard-and-fast rules.

Shifting gears a little: having absolved BDSM of the blame for creating rape culture, Fowles spends the latter half of the essay attributing it instead to the supposed increase in rape imagery in mainstream porn. (An assertion that might be true, but that is not backed up in the essay by any facts or studies.) She writes:

No longer reserved for an informed, invested viewer who carefully sought it out after a trip to a fetish bookstore, BDSM is represented in every porn portal on the Internet . . . . This kind of constant, unrestrained availability trains viewers who don’t have a BDSM cultural awareness, investment or education to believe that what women want is to be coerced and, in some cases, forced into acts they don’t consent to. . . . the imagery’s constant, instant availability makes rape and sex one and the same for the mainstream viewer.

I do see her point that there’s a difference between treating rape play as a fetish and presenting it as normal sex; sure, people who get their only ideas of what sex is and should be like from pornography are probably going to have some unrealistic ideas of what to expect from their partners. But it disturbs me, this distinction between the well-educated kinkster who carefully selects his Real BDSM pornography from Real BDSM pros and Joe Average who downloads some mainstream porn of a woman getting told to “take it” while getting violently fucked. Is it not okay be turned on by this sort of sex if you don’t identify as a dom or sub, if you’re not a member of your local BDSM organization? Is it only okay to like rape play if you’re involved enough in the kink world to actually call it “rape play”? Alternatively, if you do identify as kinky, is it not okay to get turned on by mainstream porn, or are we only supposed to masturbate to Kink.com?

I want to reiterate that I do appreciate that in her article, Fowles is trying to defend BDSM in a very small space to an audience that ostensibly has no background in it and little knowledge of it. I applaud her for that. She’s trying to explain BDSM in an understandable way, and trying not to frighten them off. But I have to wonder — does this sort of visibility help us, or does it do us a disservice to ignore the “scary” parts of BDSM, those aspects that are a lot harder to justify under mainstream liberal feminist ideology?

5 comments so far

  1. devastatingyet on

    I’m trying to think about the idea of “constant, enthusiastic consent.” That’s certainly not what happens when I have scenes with Jos, but it might be a reasonable way of presenting it to an outsider.

    What I get is enthusiastic consent before the scene and enthusiastic retrospective consent afterwards (not always immediately, but the next day or so). But during the scene I may get anything from “Please, Mistress, make it hard” to “I don’t want to do this. I consent but I really don’t want this.” I wouldn’t take the latter as “enthusiastic consent” in any other context. (For instance, I’d think a man was at least an asshole if not a rapist if he had sex with his girlfriend after she said “I really don’t want to do this,” in the absence of some mutually appreciated power dynamic.)

    So there is definitely not always ongoing enthusiastic consent, but if you love it (on whatever level) before and after and you keep joyfully coming back for more, then that’s enough for me, and I’d be happy to tell a concerned vanilla relative or friend that the consent was enthusiastic. But in the real practice of things, part of the draw, on both sides, is that consenting is made very difficult.

  2. subversive_sub on

    Yes, exactly. The “constant” element is invoked because concerned vanilla folks, especially feminists, probably won’t agree that it’s okay if the enthusiastic consent comes before and after a scene, but not during. If the consent isn’t constant, it’s rape. It’s really hard to justify rape play using our own terms to a group of people who take that view.

  3. devastatingyet on

    Yeah, I know what you mean. In our case I’d say that bare consent is constant, but it’s definitely not constantly enthusiastic.

  4. d on

    According to RAINN (http://www.rainn.org/get-information/statistics/frequency-of-sexual-assault):

    “Sexual assault has fallen by more than 60% in recent years. Had the 1993 rate held steady, 6.8 million Americans would have been assaulted in the last 13 years.

    But, thanks to the decline, the actual number of victims was about 4.2 million. In other words, if not for the historic gains we’ve made in the last decade, an additional 2,546,420 Americans would have become victims of sexual violence.”

    I’ve never seen radical feminists acknowledge or explain this, as the ‘mainstreaming’ of pornography has actually coincided with a significant decrease in sexual assault.

  5. ranat on

    “For those of us who are prone to sinking into submissive headspace or other states of consciousness during play (which make it very difficult to discern what we do and do not want)[…]”

    As a dominant the idea of submissive headspace both thrills and terrifies me, especially as someone with very little practical kinky experience. The thought of being able to alter someone’s mental state gives me a head rush for the power (and I looooove mindfucks), but the very fact that it does blur or thin the line between non-consensual and consensual scares the shit out of me. There is no rulebook or algorithm or compendium of kinky wisdom that will tell me where to find the line with each person, each scene, each moment. So I know it’s something that I will have to explore personally and intimately with each partner, each scene, each processing conversation.

    What scares me more is that half the time the line getting blurry or awfully thin doesn’t scare me, and I want to make sure that’s because I’m exploring boundaries not being careless.

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