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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