Sexism in BDSM

I wrote earlier that I wanted to talk about consent and choice and how they are and aren’t relevant to a feminist reading of BDSM, and I still do, but all of this arguing has led me to something that I think is really important to recognize first:

A lot of people who engage in BDSM are sexist.

Pretty simple, right? This is something we can totally agree upon with the radfems. Here’s the big difference, as I see it. (Some of this taken from comments left elsewhere…)

From the anti-kink perspective, BDSM is a product of the patriarchy and is thus inherently sexist. Because BDSM is inherently sexist, we mainly see maledom-femsub pairings in which men get whatever they want from the women who serve them because they have been socialized to submit.

From my perspective, BDSM is a product of human sexuality and its wide variety of expressions and is not inherently sexist nor inherently feminist. Because we live in a sexist and heterosexist society, we mainly see maledom-femsub parings, while any other combinations, including those involving trans and queer folks, are marginalized; and female dominants are largely still expected to be fetish objects for submissive men. (Or they aren’t really thought to exist.) Also because of the sexist culture in which we are socialized, there are a lot of men (in general) who are accustomed to getting what they want from women, and there are a lot of women (in general) who have a hard time saying “no” and sticking to it. This means that within maledom-femsub, there exist male dominants who expect all women to defer to them (if not to submit entirely) and women who find it difficult to negotiate or leave relationships. Unfortunately, it is often tricky to address or see sexism at work in BDSM relationships, because it’s hard to tell how much is “fetish” and how much is “what I really think.”

…so the big difference, of course, is that I think (and I imagine a lot of folks reading this think) that sexism and abuse found in the BDSM scene isn’t any different than the sexism and abuse found outside of it — it’s just that sometimes, and especially when people are very new to BDSM, kink can be used as a mask to hide sexism for what it really is. (Of course, all sorts of things can be used to mask sexism outside of kink culture, and it’s a cliche that love can be used to mask abuse in any relationship.)

The actual things that we do are not the problem. It is the way that we approach and relate to what we do. The problem is not dominant men who enjoy activity X, but dominant men who say things like “well, if you don’t enjoy X then you’re not a *true submissive*.” The problem is not that submissive women eroticize Y, but that some submissive women do Y even when they’re really, truly not wanting to do it, because they feel like they’re being “bad” if they safeword or refuse. The problem is not dominant men who seek out submissive women to play with or to form relationships with, but dominant men who assume every kinky woman they meet is in need of a strong man to teach her about her deep submissive urges (regardless of whether or not she identifies as a dominant or submissive). It is not a problem if a submissive woman likes being whipped, but it is a problem if she doesn’t have some sort of basic control over when and how she is being whipped.

Of course, as I said earlier, this argument only makes sense if you can get beyond the idea that BDSM is created by the patriarchy, and that any act that inflicts pain on another person or that eroticizes power is “patriarchal” and thus bad. But that’s another argument, I suppose.

14 comments so far

  1. Charlie on

    I agree with your take on sexism within BDSM. And I think there’s a piece missing from this, which is the question of how people who witness BDSM interpret it.

    If someone lacks the discernment necessary to tell when maledome/felamesub dynamics are based on pleasure, trust and authenticity, they may not be able to differentiate it from abuse, or at least from patriarchal models of gender roles. Given that people tend to copy what they see, I can understand where the argument that BDSM reinforces sexism comes from. Rather than saying that kinky sex is bad, I think that part of the solution is to expand our ability to recognize the difference between abuse and consensual, pleasurable BDSM.

    But then, I’m a sex educator, so that’s where my brain goes. ;-)

  2. subversive_sub on

    Oh, totally. And this is something that I think a lot of people within BDSM struggle with as well — I certainly do. It took me a long time to not just dismiss out of hand every maledom-femsub couple who have a master-slave dynamic, not to dismiss people whose submission or dominance extends outside of the bedroom and is present in other aspects of their relationship. And even though I’m a female sub in a relationship with a male dom, it continues to make me uneasy when I see most M/f porn or even a lot of M/f couples in public. (More on that at a later time, though…) When all we have is the surface, the image, it’s incredibly difficult to think “these people have both consciously chosen to do what gives them the most pleasure, and it does not mean that she has any less *real* freedom or control over her life.” That’s where I can really understand *why* anti-kink folks react the way they do when they stumble upon, say, Kink.com. It’s the fact that they continue to react the same way when presented with dozens of kinky folks whose real-life experiences contradict their perceptions that confounds me…

  3. Charlie on

    That’s why I commented on 9-2′s blog somewhere about
    confirmation bias
    . When we’re entrenched in an opinion, we truly can’t see information that would disconfirm our biases. Unfortunately, defensiveness seems to reinforce that, so the louder the conversation and the more defensive people get, the more confirmation bias takes over.

    Unfortunately, a lot of folks in the radfem world are so convinced that they’re right that they can’t/won’t entertain the possibility that there might be other perspectives. Ironically, ignoring the evidence in order to reinforce pre-existing beliefs is part of what maintains heterosexual normativity in the first place.

  4. lissy on

    Great Post! Can’t think of anything more profound to add than that.

  5. flightless on

    Great analysis!

    “…sexism and abuse found in the BDSM scene isn’t any different than the sexism and abuse found outside of it — it’s just that sometimes, and especially when people are very new to BDSM, kink can be used as a mask to hide sexism for what it really is.”

    It was actually a bit of a shock to me when I first started reading the online posts of submissive women who *weren’t* feminist/genderqueer/radical. I had to take a step back and go “oh, that’s right, MOST people haven’t devoted this much energy to trying to kick the patriarchy out of their heads!”

  6. Dw3t-Hthr on

    Me, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the concept of “M/f” or “F/m”. As in “That’s not my kink, and I’ll be over there now.” I think that that sort of descriptor intrinsically genders dominance and submission, and I find that both sexist and tremendously restrictive.

  7. subversive_sub on

    I know what you mean. I still use that sometimes as a shorthand descriptor of d/s play when the gender of the respective partners is relevant, but it’s just…the d/s that I do isn’t different from the d/s that a male submissive does simply by virtue of my gender. I don’t kink on the idea of “male dominance,” I kink on the idea of “dominance,” and the fact that I am heterosexual means that the dominant people I am attracted to are also male.

    On the other hand, I’ve known / known of bisexual women who do specifically eroticize “male dominance,” and who enjoy bottoming to men but not to women. That’s one of those uncomfortable areas where I’m still struggling with the “but your kink is okay” thing. (As in, I don’t want to act toward those women the way that folks like 9-2 act toward me…)

  8. Dw3t-Hthr on

    One of the reasons I was so disgusted with Nine Deuce was the litany of “M/f” “M/f” “M/f”, as if it were meaningful terminology for everyone. D/s I’ll cop to, though I don’t fuck around with the capitalisation of it like some people do, but as soon as someone tries to drag my sex into it or gender what I do mostly I just want to scrub myself off. It’s like, look, I do d/s. That’s a trait. I’m also heterosexual. A trait. I’m also a cissexual woman. A trait. These things in combination do not mean the same thing as “M/f”.

    Grumph. Preaching to the choir, I know, but I wrote a whole damn entry about this a while ago. Not that that crowd would actually stoop to reading the perspectives of a female submissive, that might taint their precious theory and extensive Craigslist research.

  9. Pandora on

    This is a fantastic post, and I’m definitely going to save the link to point people at next time they sing the “all BDSM is inherently sexist” song. My friend Indy left an awesome comment on a recent blog post saying much the same thing, and you both nail it better than I ever have.

    I’m one of those bi women who’s only ever subbed to men. I’ve angsted about it, believe me. Partly I think it’s because I thought I was gay until I was 18, and my first two relationships were both same-sex, and they also happened to be abusive. I’m still healing from that. Secondly it’s because I’ve met fewer women who were into girls, into me, into kink, poly, and impressive enough for me to give them that much trust and respect. The one woman I’ve dated who I could have subbed to was vanilla. I’m still looking. I don’t know if this has something with how male and female dominance is socialised or if I’m just unlucky!

  10. Mija on

    I agree completely with your statement that “A lot of people who engage in BDSM are sexist.” As a female bottom and sometimes submissive whose partner is a male switch, I get a lot of supposedly dominant men claiming that I’d somehow be more submissive if I had a “real” top or dom as a partner.

    Feh.

    But the sexism goes both ways. I know plenty of women whose attitude toward men bottoming ever is dismissive, to the point where one hears statements along the lines of it being fine for men to bottom, but if they ever witness it, they could never feel comfortable with that man topping them — it would somehow ruin their fantasy of the dominant man.

    Inside or outside the scene, gender stereotypes confine us.

  11. Nebulous « beyond the hills on

    [...] then something shifted when I was reading, and something occurred to me, and I dropped it like a stone to hot to handle. It’s been [...]

  12. [...] then, prompted again by Subversive Sub, this little tiny inkling began to trickle out of the locked-up portions of [...]

  13. unscrupulouspagans on

    Do you think BDSM should be included in a religious lifestyle?

    http://unscrupulouspagans.wordpress.com/

  14. subversive_sub on

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by “should.” I do not follow a religious lifestyle, nor do I advocate such a thing…but I don’t think there’s anything *wrong* with religious folks incorporating BDSM practices into their worship, and indeed a lot of them do and historically have. It makes sense: BDSM encourages reaching transcendent headspaces (“communion with god”) as well as the enjoyment of suffering and subjugation (the stoicism and martyrdom of saints). I don’t think including BDSM makes religion “better,” though.


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