Recently, I have been avidly reading various online feminist forums. I have noticed that when BDSM comes up in these forums (which it frequently does for some reason), there is a certain tendency for BDSM practitioners to defend it from any real scrutiny. In other words, there is a prevalent “it’s okay because it is kink” attitude.
Now, I will admit that kinksters are in fact experts at taming nasty power dynamics for their own consensual usage, so it is easy to argue that kink practice is not the same as the (often oppressive) power it mimics. Also, I understand that there is a long history of anti-oppression activists (including feminists) confusing consensual kink with the nonconsensual forms of oppression that resemble it. So a bit of defensiveness is entirely appropriate. Despite great leaps forward, BDSM still needs defending.
However, BDSM is not somehow separate or aloof from the forms of oppression that shape our lives. Putting on the leather does not magically transport us to a place where things like sexism do not exist. Instead, we carry all our problems and prejudices with us into the kink world, and they just find slightly different outlets.
Which leads me to a rule that should be firmly in place during discussions of BDSM and power:
Your kink does not get a free pass.
Instead of refusing to scrutinize our kinks, we should be taking a good hard look at them. Some questions we should be asking ourselves are:
1) Is my kink a reflection of or fueled by oppressive attitudes (sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, etc) that I carry?
2) Am I using my kink to gain access to power dynamics that I would normally not touch because they are oppressive? If so, am I using my kink to subvert these forms of power?
3) Most importantly, what effect does my kink have on the world? BDSM is (among other things) a set of tools for handling power. Am I using these tools in a manner that resists forms of oppression, or am I using them to carry out oppression?
And of course, we should not just be asking ourselves these questions, but we should also be bringing them up with other kinksters, and calling people on practices that reinforce sexism or other -isms. Here are two examples:
Fetish photography focuses heavily on conventionally attractive women in submissive poses. This reinforces the culture’s ridiculous beauty standards, reinforces the idea that women are all submissive, and perpetrates the problems of the male gaze. We need to create and support forms of kink visualization that include people of all genders and of all sizes and top/bottom orientations. Also, there’s a racism problem here: African-Americans, Latinoamericano/as, and Asian-American straight men are underrepresented.
We need to call out dominant men who use their dominance as an excuse to act sexist in situations that have not been negotiated. This is a complaint that I hear from kinky women over and over again. Your dominance does not give you a free pass to act like a Promise Keeper or frat boy.
Also, I have been focusing on dominant men and submissive women here, as those are the roles that most closely mirror the sexist roles the culture assigns to us, which makes it that much likelier that these roles will be abused in some way. However, dominant women and submissive men also do not get a free pass. If a man likes to engage in sissy play specifically because he feels that anything feminine is inherently degrading, then that is a problem.
Power-dynamic criticisms of this sort need to come from within the BDSM community. This is not because we are unable to take criticism from outside, but rather because it is rare for an outsider to understand the nuances of power within the community. When is that submission play used to subvert misogyny, and when is it just plain old misogyny? When is that race play cathartic, and when is it reinforcing racism? Is the community being welcoming and inclusive, or exclusive and discriminatory? When your idea of “welcoming” can involve beatings, it is best that people within the community make the call.
Of course, that means that we all have a responsibility to do this criticism, and to be aware of how power dynamics and power play within the community mesh with the unequal power situations in the greater culture. Let’s get with the program.