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Feminism and BDSM: A Coexistence

Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center recently hosted a 21+ Sex, Love, and Science night where adults could enjoy the center kids free, explore the science behind sex and the human body, all while enjoying those adult beverages we love so much. The night included events such as a science speed dating session and a large-scale simulation where guests “swapped fluids” to simulate the spread of disease. What garnered the most attention was the Pittsburgh Bridge presentation—a local kink/BDSM community organization designed to provide social interaction and education into the world of kink. The lecture was aimed at kink-curious beginners about topics such as making kink-friends, cleaning toys, correct vocabulary, communication during play, and turning people down gracefully.

And wow, was there some curiosity. The room filled to the point of standing room only, with more individuals sneaking in even twenty minutes after the presentation began.

What Is Kink?

When talking human sexuality, kink is the use of unconventional sex practices, fantasies, and concepts. The word “kink” is derived from the idea of “bending” conventional sexual behavior. But just how unconventional is kink it really? According to a 2005 study by Durex, upwards of thirty-six percent of adults in the United States incorporate sexual practices that involve kink in their sex lives. The trick here is that BDSM (bondage, domination, submissive, master) goes by many different names and involves a wide range of practices. The underlying factor though is the practicing individuals derive sexual pleasure from submission and/or dominance with partners. In another study (Joyal, Cossette, and Lapiere, 2015), researchers asked 1,500 women and men about their sexual fantasies—65 percent of women and 53 percent of men disclosed fantasies about being submissive, while 47 percent of women and 60 percent of men disclosed fantasies of being sexually dominate.

Considering these statistics and the national attention gathering around sexuality and sexual violence, one can’t help but wonder, can feminism and BDSM coexist? There are two separate stances about the relationship between feminist beliefs and BDSM practices. One is that they do coexist in terms of sexual liberation and empowerment. Another is that they cannot coexist due to BDSM representing oppressive practices towards women such as violence and submission.

To Marisa Floro, a licensed MSW who has been practicing for two years as a therapist in the field of sexual violence including individuals who practice kink, the answer is not only yes, but yes, very much.

A common argument against coexistence is that a women’s participation in BDSM as a submissive is inherently anti-feminist because of the unequal power-dynamic it perpetuates in society. Marisa argues against this, stating that the difference is control and choice. “A BDSM situation is highly controlled by the submissive. Limits, what they are or are not willing to do, is discussed prior. It’s a choice to become a submissive, and highly empowering perhaps due to acting out roles in a structure where they decide.”

It is worth mentioning that women are just as able to choose a dominate role in BDSM practices as they are a submissive role. This option is often forgotten in the perpetuating unequal power-dynamic argument. If anything, that argument feeds into the stereotype that women are only submissive in bed and men are only dominate. This supports Marisa’s argument that BDSM practices provide highly empowering experiences for any participate to try any role of interest, regardless of societal expectations.

When Marisa began her education, she viewed BDSM very differently and had to reconcile that through professional experiences and education. “I really didn’t understand it until my master’s program when I began a human sexuality class. Say BDSM and I thought of that Rihanna song. I was confused at how this woman, a survivor of violence, could be promoting this song of sexual dominance and submission. Then I learned the involvement of empowerment and having a choice in BDSM.”

Not only does BDSM encompass many aspects that are encouraged in feminism such as sexual empowerment and sexual liberation, feminism derives much of its power in the support of women’s personal choice and consent, including the choice to practice what they sexually desire.

A common saying in the BDSM community is safe, sane, and consensual (SSC). Safe, as in attempts should be made to identify and prevent risks to safety or health. Sane, in that activates should be undertaken in a sane and sensible frame of mind. Consensual, in that all activities should involve the full consent of the parties involved.

In regard to consent, when rape or sexual violence occurs, society often asks, were they asking for it? Marisa comments, “Some of my most severe clients are ones that consent was not given or was taken advantage of. When practicing BDSM ethically, that doesn’t happen. Even the BDSM community understands consent isn’t perpetual; one can start intercourse, and then say no or use a safe word. Wouldn’t we all benefit from that type of communication from our partners?”

While Marisa has only had a couple of clients who have disclosed their BDSM practices, she reports that despite their experiences with sexual violence which brought them to her, none of them have stopped being part of the BDSM community. “A person within the community was preying on people, and that person was excommunicated from the community and all involvement with them. The victims were able to experience a sense of safety because there was no shame on how it [the BDSM practices] went too far without consent, they were able to disclose to other members what happened, and it was understood that this was not ethical BDSM.”

Another argument against coexistence is that even if choice is involved, some believe women are actively damaging feminism by choosing to reinforcing power imbalances in society or propelling violence against women. Some say even if there is consent, some acts of BDSM are considered violent and therefore wrong. Marisa responds: “Even outside of BDSM, sex occurs that involves horrific violence, even violence that goes so unnoticed people won’t even call it rape. The fact that they [the BDSM community] talk about their violence beforehand shows they are so much more forward thinking than others. I do not believe in violence and I do not practice BDSM, but perhaps we shouldn’t even be equating violence against women and what occurs in BDSM sex.” Marisa is on to something here. Wrongful violence in non-consensual pain or without pleasurable intention, so when practiced under BDSM guidelines, BDSM is not violence.

Norma Ramos’ words in a 1995 issue of Ms. Magazine states that “women are socialized into actually getting sexual pleasure through their powerlessness.” Marisa comments: “This is like the argument, do sex workers use their own sexuality for their power or is it exploitation? Acting out structures is a concern no matter the case. What if its a true consensual agreement, and there is all the power in the world to say no or yes? Who isn’t affected by socialization and systems? How can I say what I’m interested in if I don’t know it exists? My argument is that people of the BDSM community have explored a whole host of sexual experiences and are now choosing what feels best to them.”

Final thoughts? Marisa does believe that the issue with this discussion is the discussion itself: When feminists target or police other people’s choices and cast judgement, is that not causing further oppression?

“They [Marisa’s clients from the BDSM community] don’t necessarily label themselves feminist. They do feel empowered though. It’s more so my clients that don’t understand BDSM that have issues with it. They say how dare someone practice that, why would someone purposefully go to that. I then remind them of personal choice and informed consent, isn’t that feminism? Before anyone makes a judgement about BDSM, I ask that they seek information from the BDSM community or talk to someone involved that is willing to have a conversation. I changed my perspective just by reading a couple of articles on what it is and why it is.”

She goes on to say, “I think the majority of people that have an issue with BDSM, have not had a real conversation about it.” This holds true to many topics in our society, in which a conversation and education can make all the difference. The difference here was lecture graciously provided by Bridge Pittsburgh, the individuals that were curious enough to attend, and you, the readers of this article.

References
Joyal, C. C., Cossette, A., & Lapierre, V. (2015). What exactly is an unusual sexual fantasy? Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12, 328-340.

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