BD/SM and the Sexual Reification of Patriarchy (Part 2/2)

Part two of a two part series (part 1), this post explores patriarchy, power, violence and female sexuality, arguing that a BD/SM is not unproblematic, but as a reification of patriarchial sexuality it may be beneficial in making explicit the power dynamics and violence which exist in a less extreme form in “vanilla” and operates as a method of sexually reifying patriarchy It notes in particular the challenges that are arising within the community to tackle abusive behaviour, as well as the role of BD/SM in providing a forum for those conflicted about the unhealthy mix of sex, power and violence which characterises patriarchal sexuality.

In part one, I described BD/SM as Bondage:Domination/Sadism:Masochism.  It has since been pointed out to me that within the community there is an accepted expansion which in my ignorance I hadn’t completely understood.  The BD stands for Bondage and Discipline; the SM, for Sadism/Masochism, however the central two letters of D/S have a dual meaning also standing for Domination/Submission.  It was very helpful to come across this definition, which has further informed this second part.  From this we can see that there are not two, but three dynamics going on.

Bondage and Discipline

Bondage and discipline are both linked to power.  The bondage of our working lives where we agree to turn up to a designated place at a designated time to do designated acts for designated results requires discipline. Although that can be thought to be a long way from handcuffs and ropes, the net result is the same – a limitation on our freedom of action.  We accept certain forms of bondage – written contracts, verbal promises, unstated but understood agreements through our desire for the actions of the other party and we impose discipline both on ourselves and on the other to enforce it.  Within patriarchy, the most common form of bondage is the marriage contract.

Sadism and Masochism

Sadism and Masochism are both linked to violence.  The desire to physically hurt another person although taboo, appears all over the place – from warzones to pub-fights, while the desire to be physically hurt transpires in self-harm most commonly in self-cutting.  Within domestic violence an unhealthy dynamic can develop where tension builds up and the outbreak of violence is seen as a relief of tension.  Although not strictly sado-masochistic in that it is not the violence per se which is desired, the violence can be indirectly desired on both parts as the symbol of an end of a tense period.

Domination and Submission

 The dynamics of domination and submission are common across many relationship forms, where one party instructs the other, and the other accepts their direction.  Common examples would be the authority of the police or the teacher.  Within a traditional family, in addition to the dominence of parents exercised over children, the tendancy of families to prioritise the working needs of the husband in living and domestic arrangement can reproduce a dominent/submissive relationship structure, while the usual pattern for sexual relationships is for men to ask out women, and to lead sexual behaviour, particularly at the start of the relationship.

Thus BDSM as a sexual practice does not exist in a vaccum, but interwoven into a set of pre-existing relationships which are normal and normalised through patriarchy.  Bondage, discipline, sado-masochism, domination and submission can all be seen in other areas which regulate womens behaviour.  The bondage of the marriage contract is held up as an achievement; the discipline of “rape awareness” advertising highlights womens’ “responsibilities” to avoid the punishment of sexual violence for social transgression.  Male violence and female self-harm are common responses to trauma, and the domination/submission dynamic can be seen reproduced in many forms of social relationships, with males still comprising the majority of authority figures in civil society, in politics, in religion and in business.  Particular scenarios – or scenes – re-enacted in BD/SM mimic these social relationships.  Prison guard/prisoner; boss/secretary; doctor/patient roles are all common, and all reflect situations in which there is a structural imbalance of power between the parties.

Our sexuality is not immune to the social and political forces which shape other dimensions of our lives —the sexual is also political. As such, it is also subject to evaluation, modification and change.

Karen Rian, Sadomascochism and the Social Construction of Desire

It is in this context that the rise of BD/SM and its increasing mainstreaming and normalisation takes place.  Sexuality is a bit like the dream world – a place where insecurities and desires meet and manifest.  The vulnerability of being naked, of being penetrated;the responsibility of caretaking in the realm where the physical meets the emotional and the privacy in which most sexual encounters take place, with two participants seeking to mutually meet the needs of themselves and their partner.  These needs although most obviously physical and sexual conceal an emotional element, which lovers will attune to.
In a world where power and violence is all around us, the eroticisation of that power, coupled with the focus on consent which is emphasised within the culture can be seen as a sexual reification of what surrounds us daily, enabling us to sexually process imbalances of power and experiences of violence.

Sexuality is a key way in which social power is manifested.  Taboos, norms, expectations and punishment of transgressions all encourage us to keep our sexuality within a monogamous heterosexual norm.  Transgression is socially punished.  Thus  sexuality itself is imbibed as a form of bondage and discipline that we should conform to.  The fetishisation of virginity has a sado-masochistic element with the pain of first penetration being exaggerated and the bleeding of a deflowered virgin considered desirable in many cultures.   The prioritisation of PIV (penis in vagina) as the form of sex, demands a dominance of the male penetrator and the submission of the female penetrated.

“Most of us grow up with mental, emotional, and physical abuse. I believe most of us have been sexually assaulted, and certainly all females have been sexually harassed as well as subjected to violent hatred of females throughout the media. Patriarchy, reinforced by religions, is a sado-masochistic culture, based on humiliation, pain, and suffering. Most females’ earliest feelings of love, intimacy, and passion are interwoven with dependence, fear, anger, threats, and rape. We are taught to be both self-hating (masochistic) and to hate our own kind (sadistic). We are trained into sado-masochistic scenarios from the day we are born

Bev Jo, Leather = S/M = BDSM

Growing up in a culture where sex and power are infused and confused, through the media, through our social relations, through our intimate relations, we accept the roles that we are handed.  We are players in a bigger game which we have absorbed the rules but don’t explicitly know them.  This enmeshing of power, violence and sex leaks into our consciousness shaping both our desire and our behaviour.  In doing so it maintains oppressive power structures, that our sexual desire becomes bound to fulfilling particular roles that we have little understanding of.

BD/SM, with its variety of sexual practices which do not fetishise PIV, where pain is not considered inevitable but may be desired, and its undermining of gender roles of female submission and penetration together with the emphasis on consent from both/all parties to what is happening, including ongoing negotiations of proceedings, makes explicit the power dynamics which is going on while containing violence. By naming the roles that are being played and acknowledging imbalances of power, and acts of violence, the hidden dynamics which shape them become exposed.

In direct opposition to a culture which so often disregards women’s consent and desire, BDSM places the submissive’s right to choose—the right to change their mind, the right to say no, the right to pleasure—front and center.

Bitch Magazine

 As Bev Jo points out, very few of us, particularly women, reach sexual maturity without trauma of one kind or another, not necessarily sexual, but the exercise of, and subjection to violence and power does not escape any one of us.  BD/SM as therapy, as a means of re-enacting traumatic scenarios, either directly or indirectly – as a means of asserting a form of control while surrendering it, or assuming control in a desired but taboo manner, it allows desires which are repressed or invoke shame to be expressed.

For all that there is a strong “official” consent culture within the BD/SM community, and a fierce statement from the community that their practices are not abusive, however much they may look so to an outsider, the community itself does not exist in a vacuum outside of traditional dynamics however much they may state, or even want that, their practice subverts this. In a strong seminal piece on abuse within the BD/SM community, a submissive female details incidents of non-consensual sexual activity, where the identification of being a submissive female led to an assumption of consent, while the internal culture inhibited the use of safewords, of objections and of raising issues afterwards fearing victim blaming.

The BD/SM scene, with its explicit acceptance of violence and oppressive power structures, its underground status and implicit victim blaming whereby submissives are expected to have control in a situation where they surrender, and masochists are publicly identified as such, it is the perfect place for sexual predators to hang out unhindered.  While in theory BD/SM may challenge power structures, within a rape culture, a patriarchal culture and a victim blaming culture it is all too easy for abuse to be swept away.  The shame of being a victim of sexual abuse, coupled with the shame of having non-mainstream sexual desires conspires to keep victims silent within the community, while the outsider status of BD/SM and its unhappy relationship with the state who spectacularly fail to deal with even the most transparent forms of sexual violence far less the more nuanced forms which occur means that the sexual violence within can go unchecked.

Desire, particularly sexual desire, is a strange and ephemeral being   – it is shaped by our experiences within the bedroom and outwith.  Our sexual practices transmitted from culture and public discources and then re-enacted in private.  While BD/SM can explore and exploit power and violence mechanisms within our culture, it must take care not to reproduce them at a meta level and then cover it up as revolutionary sexuality.  There is nothing revolutionary in making the slave love their chains, but making the chains explicit and physical can make them easier to cast off.

 

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8 comments
DavyMarzella
DavyMarzella

I agree that there's no need for our sexual experiences to be explicitly revolutionary or even "political" in the conventional sense...... though sometimes I think how we treat each other when we are naked and horizontal , stripped of many social/cultural "identifications" could possibly open ways to be personally "political" in the raw.......and to possibly transgress and transform conventional behaviours

I think that is one way of simply describing "politics" - ie. how we treat each other , individually and collectively....... 

Here's a contribution to D/S discussion 

 http://www.rebellesociety.com/2013/02/15/submission/

DavyMarzella
DavyMarzella

I agree that there's no need for our sexual experiences to be explicitly revolutionary or even "political" in the conventional sense...... though sometimes I think how we treat each other when we are naked and horizontal , stripped of many social/cultural "identifications" could possibly open ways to be personally "political" in the raw.......and to possibly transgress and transform conventional behaviours I think that is one way of simply describing "politics" - ie. how we treat each other , individually and collectively.......  Here's a contribution to D/S discussion   http://www.rebellesociety.com/2013/02/15/submission/

anon
anon

still, you ignore that kink can also be something we do *just because we enjoy it* There no necessity for what we do in the bedroom to be explicitly revolutionary. it is only necessary that all those participating have actively consented to it and are enjoying it. for many of us we see no conflict between our feminism and being a female submissive. just as there is no conflict between being being a feminist and wearing makeup, or having a traditional female role. the point is to end the idea that your sex/gender requires you to do these things. female submissives do not reify patriarchy - socio economic structures do that! I think you've again fallen into a trap of disliking the appearance of something, as to you it just looks like patriarchy, and then building theory round that, but ignoring other options for why something may be a way. it might look distasteful to you, but I was honest with you when I said that my submission was not an internalisation of patriarchy but was genuine sexual desire and relationship preference.

anon
anon

still, you ignore that kink can also be something we do *just because we enjoy it* There no necessity for what we do in the bedroom to be explicitly revolutionary. it is only necessary that all those participating have actively consented to it and are enjoying it. for many of us we see no conflict between our feminism and being a female submissive. just as there is no conflict between being being a feminist and wearing makeup, or having a traditional female role. the point is to end the idea that your sex/gender requires you to do these things. female submissives do not reify patriarchy - socio economic structures do that! I think you've again fallen into a trap of disliking the appearance of something, as to you it just looks like patriarchy, and then building theory round that, but ignoring other options for why something may be a way. it might look distasteful to you, but I was honest with you when I said that my submission was not an internalisation of patriarchy but was genuine sexual desire and relationship preference.

Davy Marzella
Davy Marzella

Good post Mhairi . I particular , I think this is very significant - "The dynamics of domination and submission are common across many relationship forms," Even thinking about relationship between writer and reader. In order for reader to understand the writer, is it not necessary for reader to submit to dominance of writer , initially at least..... the reader may then go on to disagree with writer. Not sure if that's a useful analogy , but it sprung to mind - maybe others have written ( and read ) about it

Davy Marzella
Davy Marzella

Good post Mhairi . I particular , I think this is very significant - "The dynamics of domination and submission are common across many relationship forms," Even thinking about relationship between writer and reader. In order for reader to understand the writer, is it not necessary for reader to submit to dominance of writer , initially at least..... the reader may then go on to disagree with writer. Not sure if that's a useful analogy , but it sprung to mind - maybe others have written ( and read ) about it

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine moderator

@anon
yes, theres no need for it to be explicitly revolutionary, but broader politics and social forces act to create desire, and unless we examine them we cannot hope to achieve equality.

The politics and social forces act on us to shape our desire and also constrain desire.  We are acted upon to shape our desire in socially approved ways. So female submission is encouraged, female domination discouraged.   While there might be inherant traits among us all, patriarchy works to encourage some and not others.

At an individual level what matters is the consent, but at a social level we need to consider on what basis that consent is being granted.  Like married women pre-91, who could not bring a charge of rape on their husbands were forcedinto a situation where they had to give consent because they could not withdraw it.  They consented to sex because they had no legal room to not consent.

While in BDSM it might not be so explicit, the social forces are there which influence what we feel that we can and cant consent to, can and cant request that others consent to, and what assumptions that consent granting or requesting is based on.

mhairimcalpine
mhairimcalpine

@anon yes, theres no need for it to be explicitly revolutionary, but broader politics and social forces act to create desire, and unless we examine them we cannot hope to achieve equality. The politics and social forces act on us to shape our desire and also constrain desire.  We are acted upon to shape our desire in socially approved ways. So female submission is encouraged, female domination discouraged.   While there might be inherant traits among us all, patriarchy works to encourage some and not others. At an individual level what matters is the consent, but at a social level we need to consider on what basis that consent is being granted.  Like married women pre-91, who could not bring a charge of rape on their husbands were forcedinto a situation where they had to give consent because they could not withdraw it.  They consented to sex because they had no legal room to not consent. While in BDSM it might not be so explicit, the social forces are there which influence what we feel that we can and cant consent to, can and cant request that others consent to, and what assumptions that consent granting or requesting is based on.

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