BD/SM and the reification of patriarchal sexuality (Part 1/2)

The shift in feminism from the second to the third wave has seen a number of challenges arise to what was thought to be established feminist thinking.  One of those challenges is in the rise in acceptability of BD/SM (Bondage:Domination/Sadism:Masochism) and the numbers of women who identify as feminists engaging in the BD/SM subculture either as part of a “scene” or as a private consensual arrangement with their partner.   Part one of a two part series, this post explores womens’ BD/SM practices within both heterosexual and homosexual relationships and its their political resonances and implications.

Traditionally feminists have been hostile to BD/SM- seeing it as a justification of abusive sexual practises which are commonplace, yet within literature aimed at women, BD/SM has been a recurring theme, from the Mills and Boons romances of the dark handsome cruel suitor who wins the love of the reluctant through to the modern version of the “Story of O” in “Fifty Shades of Grey”.  In the last decade, BD/SM has come out of the closet and become more and more mainstream in literature and in pop culture.  Its entire premise is on eroticised pain and power differentials, consequently it is clear why feminists who wish to eradicate sexual violence may object to such practises, but the challenges brought by third wave and queer theory warrents that we take a second look.

Lisa Millbank ends her blogpost on “The Ethical Prude” on this note

Under patriarchy, sex is power, power is sexy, and sex is compulsory. That is to say, the sex act is attractive in a way that is conditioned by its qualities of power and violence. And that coercion is not just a property of individual sex acts, it is a property of sexuality at a social level; we are not just coerced into sex, we are coerced into sexuality, most specifically into heterosexuality, or into reproducing subject-object dynamics within our non-hetero-sexualities.

I explored this link between sex, power and violence in an earlier blogpost, where I looked at how the power structures inherant in society: the male gaze, the permanent legal state of consent and rape culture colluded to create a situation where sexual violence towards women was normalised, accepted and above all denied.  Yet the lives of women under patriarchy informs all of their sexual interactions.  The way that they are objectified in the media shine back at them an image of what they should be, their legal situation determines the boundaries of autonomy that they can expect over their bodies and the cultural manifestations of how sexuality is seen inform how they should behave.

Although they are often mixed, it is worth seperating out Bondage and Domination from Sadism and Masochism  for although they may be linked, and they are not necessarily found together, nor are the the same thing, both come from a common place.  Each dynamic is found within “vanilla” (ie non-explicitly BDSM couplings).  The bondage(submission): domination element is found in (non-consensual) power play of the bedroom, a power play which is frequently reproduced elsewhere, while the Sadism:Masochism element is found in (non-consensual) sexual violence.

It’s ironic that the most perverse manipulations of power in my life occurred in a past vanilla relationship, where I tolerated tyranny because the normative structure of our relationship obscured the fact that that is what it was.

Feministe

Power plays and violence occur within most people’s intentional interpersonal relationships with one another.  Most of it relatively mild.  Once a relationship has a sexual element it is inevitable that power-plays and violence find their way into the bedroom. In many cases, although these are non-consensual, they are overlooked, either through the eyes, laws and codes of patriarchy, which encourages people to accept non-consensual and unwanted behaviours: because they consider it normal, consider they themselves not in a position to challenge, or consider it culturally appropriate.  Only when it reaches a certain point is it labelled “controlling behaviour” or “violence” despite micro-aggressions being a familiar feature of all relationships, sexual or otherwise.  Because the sexual sphere is private, it is more likely that power and violence remain unchallenged their through a lack of direct comparative social norms.

The three major ways that women participate in BD/SM is with an active male partner (traditional); a passive male partner (reversal) or another woman (transgressive).  Each of these dynamics is explored below.

Traditional: Active male; submissive female

a large proportion of BDSM involves a man dominating a woman, and because that dynamic warrants separate discussion because it involves the eroticization of an oppressed group’s submission.

Rage Against the Man-chine

As RATM points out above, most BDSM follows a traditional heterosexual pattern of active male, passive female.  Men tend to identify as dominent and/or sadist, while women as submissive and/or masochist.  BD/SM has an active culture of consent – it is the basis of its entire existance.  That because they are desired by the participants, they have the right to engage with complimentary others to see their desire fulfilled.  RATM speculates that it is the desire for a closer bond which leads people to engage with BD/SM – seeking intimacy through extreme sexual interactions.

In Intercourse, Andrea Dworkin critically explores penetration as a symbol of women’s oppression.  She suggests that it is the penetrative act of PIV which is fundamental to much of women’s oppression.  That the act of fucking is in itself a violent act, whereby men colonise  women through an invasive act.  The penetration has different implications depending on who is the penetrator and who is being penetrated.  That by inserting a body part into another, men see penetration as a mastery over women, while women feel it as a possession. Within both men and women, that possession is eroticised.  Men obtain sexual relief through an act of colonisation, while women achieve it through an act of invasion.

Traditional BD/SM follows those norms whereby male power and female submission is eroticised.

Reveral:  Active Female; Submissive Male

…the tendency to see a man being dominated by a woman as a jokeworthy subject implies at best a discomfort with a man being submissive, and at worst, such a strong refusal to believe women can truly have any power over men that any scenario depicting this must be comical or unrealistic

Bitch magazine explores the phenomenon of male submissives, noting that it goes against the grain of all that is considered “manly” in our culture.Within pop culture, female dominants are also seen as slightly amusing, and tend to be white and older – playing into other forms of kyriarchial power tropes. On the Good Men Project, Noah Brand tackles “The Domme Deficit“, the community trope that there are more submissive men than there are dominant women with references to the cultural depictions of sexually dominent women.  It is also notable that those who seek out dominatrixes are reputed to be more educated, more wealthy and with more dominant external positions than those who prefer traditional sexual roles.

Speculation abounds that such eroticism of submission on the part of males is related to a desire to abdicate responsibility; to become someone who is vulnerable and consequently non-responsible in a world where men are encouraged to be dominant and aggressive.  The association between more powerful men and a desire for a submissive sexual role may reflect an ambivalence between the role they have been brought up to perform and their private feelings about that dominance which becomes reflected in a desire for a submissive sexuality.

Transgressive: Lesbian BD/SM

Since 80s, BD/SM within the lebsian community has been a particular debate within feminist theory.  Political lesbianism had suggested that eradicating men from the sexual arena would enable more equal, more nurturing relationships, however the existance of lesbian BD/SM and the desire for women to participate in acts of consensual dominence and violence with other women severely challenged the assumptions of political lesbianism and ideas of feminist sexuality.

Coming to Power, published by the SAMOIS collective in 1981 was one of the first public declarations of the acceptability of BD/SM practice within lesbian communities.  Identifying as a feminist collective, it did not characterise BD/SM as a “feminist sexuality” merely that it was a valid sexuality for a lesbian to enjoy as a feminist.  Noting the conflation of gender politics and sexuality within the political lesbian movement, Gayle Rubin noted that the embrace of difference and power within BD/SM practices brought it into conflict with radical feminist lesbians who asserted that such practices were “unwomanly” and consequently anti-feminist.  However the demand for womens sexuality to be enjoyed in accordance with  ideas of “good girl behaviour” has resonances with a gender essentialist approach demanding that women behave sexually in ways which are socially sanction within the feminist community, in the same way that patriarchal society also demands conformance to appropriate feminine behaviour – conflating feminism and feminine.

Yet several radical feminist lesbians have pointed out the connections between patriarchial sexuality and BDSM practices.  Noting the BD/SM is a practice which eroticises pain and powerlessness for one, and violence and power of the other, many radical lesbian feminists argue that as a sexuality which excludes males, the patriarchial tropes of such eroticism is an import into lesbian culture from a society which sees lesbian sexuality as a devience which can be exploited for male arousa  The ongoing violence against women by men finds a level of justification in lesbian BD/SM practices which eroticises inflicting pain and powerlessness on women while at the same time allowing women to play a dominent role which is denied to them in heterosexual interactions except as a humourous invection, makes lesbian BD/SM a particular focus of the role of power and violence in relation to women and the limits of consensuality.

Although sexual behaviour may be predominently a private interaction, no private interaction takes place outwith a social context and political framework. In the case of BD/SM, consensual sexual activities occur within a system of patriarchy and a social context in which violence, in all its forms, are glorified as a display of power.  Although gender norms, particularly within heterosexual BD/SM inform both the acceptance of the practice and its public representation, issues of the acceptability of violence and power disparities within interpersonal relationships and within group identities also feature.  Age-play; medical-play; racialised narratives within BD/SM play, including play-torture which reflect real world events feed into an interaction between phantasy and the construction of social narrative.

Part two, to be published shortly, explores the challenges to abusive behaviour that are coming from within the community and the political implications of an acceptance of BD/SM as an acceptable sexual practice within the context of patriarchy.

 

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11 comments
Media Recherche Action
Media Recherche Action

Call for Papers

The revolutionary abolitionism: For the liberation of the body and female sexuality beyond the limits imposed by capitalism and civilization

Coordinated by Media Research Action

The mainstream media and even alternative media often reduce the debate on prostitution in need of unionization of sex work or, at best, the abolition of commercial sexual exploitation. We do not hear other voices. In one camp or the other, criticism remains to be done to limit the means put forward. As the normalization of sexual violence initiated and promoted by a capitalist industry, the commodification of sexuality body or the use of the police.

The centralization of abolitionist discourse around different groups funded and lack of criticism of these organizations by feminist solidarity leaves sometimes think there is no other possible avenues. Note, however, that the majority of victims of sexual assault in general have little or no confidence in the police or the one of the system (in) justice. Especially when they are criminalized.

It is unacceptable for us that sexuality is footprint of violence, relationship of domination and / or conditional upon a market relationship. We stand in solidarity with all efforts of the struggles and efforts by survivors abolitionist and women in prostitution to reclaim their bodies and their sexuality. We do not want in any way participate in the criminalization and marginalization of women prostitutes. Much less strengthen male domination by giving more power to the police or judge advocates, those very people who contribute directly to the violence and the criminalization of women and their prostitution.

We have to put forward the basis for anarcha-feminist analysis of sexual exploitation. To do this, we need to think about:

  • the direct experiences of past actions
  • review reports of internal domination in the community and subsidized organizations
  • a critique of feminist porn and self-managed environments of prostitution
  • anticolonial a written analysis by Aboriginal women
  • issues of strategies and tactics to use
  • tools \ means put in place to organize and cons-attack
  • ...

This booklet aims to lay the anarcha-feminist abolitionist position of sexual exploitation bases. This call is specifically for women-female feminist abolitionists who materialistic outlook, anti-civilizational and \ or radical.

Texts in French or English preferably written collectively or individually, must address a specific topic rather than generic and subject (media.recherche.action @ riseup.net) no later than September 1, 2013. We then proceed to a collective review. Please inform us by email, in a few lines of the guideline that will take your text as soon as possible.


Média Recherche Action 

media.recherche.action@riseup.net

www.mediarechercheaction.info

To share the call out:

https://www.facebook.com/notes/m%C3%A9dia-recherche-action/pour-la-lib%C3%A9ration-du-corps-et-de-la-sexualit%C3%A9-des-femmes-au-del%C3%A0-des-limites-im/453924308031176

or

http://www.mediarechercheaction.info/?p=664 

Media Recherche Action
Media Recherche Action

Call for Papers The revolutionary abolitionism: For the liberation of the body and female sexuality beyond the limits imposed by capitalism and civilization Coordinated by Media Research Action The mainstream media and even alternative media often reduce the debate on prostitution in need of unionization of sex work or, at best, the abolition of commercial sexual exploitation. We do not hear other voices. In one camp or the other, criticism remains to be done to limit the means put forward. As the normalization of sexual violence initiated and promoted by a capitalist industry, the commodification of sexuality body or the use of the police. The centralization of abolitionist discourse around different groups funded and lack of criticism of these organizations by feminist solidarity leaves sometimes think there is no other possible avenues. Note, however, that the majority of victims of sexual assault in general have little or no confidence in the police or the one of the system (in) justice. Especially when they are criminalized. It is unacceptable for us that sexuality is footprint of violence, relationship of domination and / or conditional upon a market relationship. We stand in solidarity with all efforts of the struggles and efforts by survivors abolitionist and women in prostitution to reclaim their bodies and their sexuality. We do not want in any way participate in the criminalization and marginalization of women prostitutes. Much less strengthen male domination by giving more power to the police or judge advocates, those very people who contribute directly to the violence and the criminalization of women and their prostitution. We have to put forward the basis for anarcha-feminist analysis of sexual exploitation. To do this, we need to think about: the direct experiences of past actions review reports of internal domination in the community and subsidized organizations a critique of feminist porn and self-managed environments of prostitution anticolonial a written analysis by Aboriginal women issues of strategies and tactics to use tools means put in place to organize and cons-attack ... This booklet aims to lay the anarcha-feminist abolitionist position of sexual exploitation bases. This call is specifically for women-female feminist abolitionists who materialistic outlook, anti-civilizational and or radical. Texts in French or English preferably written collectively or individually, must address a specific topic rather than generic and subject (media.recherche.action @ riseup.net) no later than September 1, 2013. We then proceed to a collective review. Please inform us by email, in a few lines of the guideline that will take your text as soon as possible. Média Recherche Action  media.recherche.action@riseup.net http://www.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.mediarechercheaction.info&h=fAQHdScrQ&s=1 To share the call out: https://www.facebook.com/notes/m%C3%A9dia-recherche-action/pour-la-lib%C3%A9ration-du-corps-et-de-la-sexualit%C3%A9-des-femmes-au-del%C3%A0-des-limites-im/453924308031176 or http://www.mediarechercheaction.info/?p=664

mudamudamuda
mudamudamuda

I read this and was reminded of why new-age internet feminism is a joke

Chris Walsh
Chris Walsh

Just had a chance to read this article Mhairi.  It's characteristically engaging and informative.  I enjoyed it very much.  I don't quite follow one of your assertions though, perhaps you could elaborate further for the unitiated (like me): you say that sadism/masochism is necessarily non-consensual.  Why is this?  I appreciate that sadistic practices could be implemented on an unwilling partner; but surely a masochist desires to be the object of violence and (consensually) seeks out willing partners to inflict it upon them?  Or is your argument that because of the institutional oppression of women inherent to the mode of production, a woman's desire to recreate her societal subjugation in an interpersonal context should not be deemed as consent (the choice is not her own) since she is merely the prisoner of her own oppressive and repressive social environment?  I have some reservations about both positions but would be interested in discussing it further. 

Chris Walsh
Chris Walsh

Just had a chance to read this article Mhairi.  It's characteristically engaging and informative.  I enjoyed it very much.  I don't quite follow one of your assertions though, perhaps you could elaborate further for the unitiated (like me): you say that sadism/masochism is necessarily non-consensual.  Why is this?  I appreciate that sadistic practices could be implemented on an unwilling partner; but surely a masochist desires to be the object of violence and (consensually) seeks out willing partners to inflict it upon them?  Or is your argument that because of the institutional oppression of women inherent to the mode of production, a woman's desire to recreate her societal subjugation in an interpersonal context should not be deemed as consent (the choice is not her own) since she is merely the prisoner of her own oppressive and repressive social environment?  I have some reservations about both positions but would be interested in discussing it further.

xyzzy
xyzzy

Far too many typos in this one, with a couple of botched sentences.

You should rethink your current method of putting lines around large blocks of text that are both quoted and in a larger font. This makes such look like "pull quotes" that normally repeat material within and serve as internal advertising for the article. These are often skipped by readers. Each time I see one here it takes a moment to be sure that you want it to be read directly as part of the article's flow.

To the meat: Since the patriarchy is ubiquitous it seems impossible to be sure which tropes come directly from it and which might occur in its absence. Maybe there are naturally dominant and submissive personality types? Would these normally be expressed in sexuality and if so, how? If the patriarchy has "contaminated" such expression, does that make it forever forbidden? (Note something being forbidden always increases its sexual power.)

The claim that the patriarchy is "reificated" by BD/SM even among lesbians and gays not to mention reversed roles among heterosexuals, is a little like the claim that all science is due to Christianity because the first advances in Western science were made by Christians. We are stuck with our history but are not constrained by it.

Lastly, the whole BD/SM scene seems to exist solely to spur the sexual appetite of mature adults, a period of life in which normal sexual interest is waning. Why would mentally healthy people continue to chase it like a drug high, seeking ever bigger and better orgasms? Like the advertising for food or sports cars or the latest gadget, "Get this and your life will be complete."

xyzzy
xyzzy

Far too many typos in this one, with a couple of botched sentences. You should rethink your current method of putting lines around large blocks of text that are both quoted and in a larger font. This makes such look like "pull quotes" that normally repeat material within and serve as internal advertising for the article. These are often skipped by readers. Each time I see one here it takes a moment to be sure that you want it to be read directly as part of the article's flow. To the meat: Since the patriarchy is ubiquitous it seems impossible to be sure which tropes come directly from it and which might occur in its absence. Maybe there are naturally dominant and submissive personality types? Would these normally be expressed in sexuality and if so, how? If the patriarchy has "contaminated" such expression, does that make it forever forbidden? (Note something being forbidden always increases its sexual power.) The claim that the patriarchy is "reificated" by BD/SM even among lesbians and gays not to mention reversed roles among heterosexuals, is a little like the claim that all science is due to Christianity because the first advances in Western science were made by Christians. We are stuck with our history but are not constrained by it. Lastly, the whole BD/SM scene seems to exist solely to spur the sexual appetite of mature adults, a period of life in which normal sexual interest is waning. Why would mentally healthy people continue to chase it like a drug high, seeking ever bigger and better orgasms? Like the advertising for food or sports cars or the latest gadget, "Get this and your life will be complete."

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@Chris Walsh I dont see where I say that S/M is necessarily non-consensual.  Are you referring to this...

" The bondage(submission): domination element is found in (non-consensual) power play of the bedroom, a power play which is frequently reproduced elsewhere, while the Sadism:Masochism element is found in (non-consensual) sexual violence."

What I am saying here is that power and violence routinely manifest in non-consensual ways in vanilla identified relationships but that is covered over as being "the natural order" and consequently are not identified as such explicitly.



mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

Chris Walsh I dont see where I say that S/M is necessarily non-consensual.  Are you referring to this... " The bondage(submission): domination element is found in (non-consensual) power play of the bedroom, a power play which is frequently reproduced elsewhere, while the Sadism:Masochism element is found in (non-consensual) sexual violence." What I am saying here is that power and violence routinely manifest in non-consensual ways in vanilla identified relationships but that is covered over as being "the natural order" and consequently are not identified as such explicitly.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@xyzzy Yeah- sorry - my proofreading isnt the best. The way that quotes are presented is built in to the theme that I use for this blog, I understand what you are saying - I might have a play around and see if I can change them.


This is part 1 of 2, the 2nd part is on my to-do list to finish off. Some of the above is covered in it, but its an interesting observation/hypothesis that it tends to be mature adults who participate.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

@xyzzy Yeah- sorry - my proofreading isnt the best. The way that quotes are presented is built in to the theme that I use for this blog, I understand what you are saying - I might have a play around and see if I can change them. This is part 1 of 2, the 2nd part is on my to-do list to finish off. Some of the above is covered in it, but its an interesting observation/hypothesis that it tends to be mature adults who participate.

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