Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The meanings of BDSM.

One of the tough parts about discussing BDSM in a feminist context is that everyone seems to have a different idea of what BDSM means.  (The literal answer, of course, is Bondage, Disciplominance, Sadimission, and Masochism.)  What does it mean, what dynamic is really playing out, when you do BDSM?

Does topping a person mean that you're pleasuring them, or testing their limits?  Does choosing to bottom mean that you're choosing to endure harm, or that you're merely asking someone to do things you enjoy?  Does dominating someone mean that you're using them, or that you're taking care of them?  Does submitting mean that you're naturally fit to follow rather than lead, or that you have either potential but choose to follow?

The answer to all those questions is "yes."



A lot of debates about BDSM get stuck because people assume they know the meaning of a physical action.  The simplest, and most frustrating, problem is when someone interprets "hitting" to always mean "attacking with anger and intent to harm," therefore BDSM is about anger and is harmful, QED.  But there are subtler assumptions that crop up in better-informed discussions, sometimes even inside the community.  If you're talking about forced feminization, and one person thinks that means "making someone feminine to make them lesser," and the other thinks it means "helping someone explore femininity in a kinky way," they can talk right past each other for hours.

When I say people have different ideas about what BDSM means, this isn't just about intention or emotion or philosophy.  Sometimes it's quite visible when you watch BDSM actually happen. The same activities, that we describe with the same words, can be done in very different ways that completely change the meanings.

Take rope bondage.  People can use bondage to restrain someone while they do other play, or simply tie them up and let them experience it for a while and then untie them.  It can be drippingly sexual and involve fucking in bondage, or it can be done fully clothed and nonsexually.  (Not that "naked" and "sexual" necessarily go together.  Sometimes nudity in bondage is about freedom of motion, or keeping clothing from tangling up with the rope, or feeling the rope on your skin.  Or just having an excuse to be naked.)  It can be so painful it's a form of sadism, or so comforting the bottom nearly falls asleep.  It can keep a person from moving at all, or be purely decorative ropework that they can walk around in.  It can be rough, brutal, and hastily improvised, or it can be a painstakingly crafted art form.

So when we talk about bondage, we're not talking about a unified mood, intention, or effect. We're talking about an umbrella with a gigantic amount of human variation underneath it.  And we need to acknowledge that.  I'm not saying you can't generalize anything about BDSM, but... it's a lot less than you think.  So when people ask questions like "is BDSM oppressive?", the answer isn't "no" and it isn't "yes."  The answer is "it shouldn't be and it doesn't have to be."



This has a fun side.  It's not all about sexism and abuse.  It's also a tremendously powerful tool to use in play.  Understanding how to control the mood and meaning of a scene opens up a world of glorious possibilities. You can bring your negotiation from "I want to tie you up" to "I want to tie you up sexy" or "I want to tie you up mean" or "I want to tie you up artsy." (actual phrasing not recommended)  You can agree to tie someone up sexy and tease and them with not-quite-sexual bondage before turning it sexy.  You can develop the meaning of a scene in sync with your partner, something you experience together, and the cool part is, you get to decide what that meaning is.

28 comments:

  1. Very much agreed; good post.

    Unfortunately the BDSM scene is full of people who know EXACTLY what everything means, because everything means and is exactly how THEY like to play it, and anyone doing it different is doing it WRONG.

    One-true-wayism has found a fertile field to grow in, in BDSM, and there's way too much buying into that mindset; even those who don't agree tend not to be willing to admit that that means there are (at least) two ways to do it; rather, one of them is right and one is wrong and they simply differ on it.

    Also, pop psychology, dodgy evo-psych (is there a non-dodgy evo-psych) and lots of other bullshit self-justification are also rife.

    As is the whole related 'X are naturally Y' thing that too many buy into. Too much unwillingness to admit human variation. Too many who want to say 'Women are naturally submissive' rather than '*I* am naturally submissive', and all the other variations of universalizing personal experience.

    And there's way too much pressure to conform to others' roleplay -- or roleplay-turned-into-reality. A huge amount of non-consensual pressuring others into being part of their personal scene, personal roles, personal fantasy.

    Argh.

    Love (parts of) BDSM, but I bounce so hard off so many versions of the scene.

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  2. As always, educational and well-stated. Thank you, Cliff.

    And - Matthew above me - can I get a HELL YEAH for dodgy evo-psych as bullshit self-justification?!

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  3. As someone who spent a few years struggling with both my perception of BDSM and my own desires in that direction, I am now REVELLING in the freedom of doing whatever the fuck feels good and just enjoying it.

    Now I've more or less managed to disentangle myself from the social assumptions of THIS HAS TO MEAN THIS, not only do I feel like I've got a whole new world to explore, but looking around at the world I 'know' I can't help but see it differently. Unacknowledged, un-negotiated kink seems to be everywhere. Almost all porn seems to be BDSM porn, with some kind of power play or humiliation or whatever, but the difference between that being acknowledged or not is HUGE. Not to mention adverts, music videos, etc etc etc.

    If the makers, and participants and viewers could all go "Ah, this is BDSM, it involves elements such as dominance and submission, humiliation and pain play, which can be enjoyable for a number of different reasons and in different ways for different people, but it's important to negotiate them clearly, and has absolutely nothing to do with who the people are outside of the scene" then everything would be fine. Instead it's just this persistent "Aww yeah, using and abusing women is hot (except you couldn't do it in real life because they wouldn't want it (and if they DID, you wouldn't want them, because they'd have no self-respect (and don't get me started on men who would want that - do they have no respect for the sanctity of the great thrusting dominance of manhood?!))) BDSM...what's that? Sounds like it's for freaks."

    Just wish people would acknowledge that kink exists, in all its glorious variety, and it's all FINE, and then they might be able to separate it out from actual sexism.

    It's like...some people like playing paintball. But you play it with rules, safety equipment, and a clear understanding that that is, in fact, what you're doing. At the moment, it's as if people are just rampaging through the office shooting unsuspecting colleagues in the head and shouting "It's fun! Have a sense of humour!"

    CONCEPTUALLY WHAT YOU'RE DOING IS FINE, BUT CONTEXT IS REALLY IMPORTANT YOU GUYS. OW.

    /rant

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    1. That's a great metaphor and I'm ashamed that I've never thought of it myself... mind if I steal it for future discussions?

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    2. That's an excellent metaphor. I've met so many people who just assume that if they like something, everybody else must like it too, and will be ecstatic to join in/experience it, even without prior warning and agreement.

      And the vast majority of these situations have happened to me in completely non-sexual settings, regarding completely non-sexual activities.

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    3. Validation: you may or may not need it, but here it is if you want it.

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  4. What are disciplominance and sadimission?

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    1. A goofy joke about the BDSM acronym. It actually stands for "Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism."

      But clearly that would be BDDSSM, so I... fixed it!

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    2. Very strict diplomacy, and a quest to inflict pain?

      Alternatively, I suspect Clint was playing on the fact that BDSM stands for bondage and discipline/dominance and submission/sadism and masochism.

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    3. Doh, that's what happens when you try to comment on things at work!

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    4. Ah, enlightenment! Thank you!

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  5. So very AnonymousJune 7, 2013 at 3:01 AM

    I think that BDSM is such a catchall that two people can both say 'I'm into BDSM' and have totally different interpretations of what that might mean. It's almost as vague as 'I'm into sex' really.

    I have some difficulties myself because I cannot even slightly deal with any 'gendered' play. And that's a lot of people's go-to verbalizing. I don't want to feel like I'm controlling, but it turns me off right away if a partner 'goes there'. I'm at the very beginnings of realizing I have feelings of being some type of gender neutral, and I'm still really not ready to discuss that.

    So, I could wish selfishly that those aspects weren't often the ones people are familiar with. Cause I'm having a hard time figuring out how to say 'I really need you to not refer to me as any female-associated word, regardless of whether I'm top or bottom tonight'.

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    1. Dear So very Anonymous,
      I hope you see this - you're not alone! I think you very eloquently summed up some of my feelings about gender roles and how they're used in BDSM.
      Good luck figuring it out for yourself, I'm on a similar journey.

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    2. So very AnonymousJune 11, 2013 at 1:44 AM

      I did see it, thank you! I'm glad someone found it useful and sense-making. And, yay me, I managed to communicate it to a partner...not as directly as I could have been, but I did manage to subtly redirect the gendered stuff, combine that with a nonsexual conversation about how weird I feel about gender lately, and mission accomplished|

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    3. Gender, like sexuality, is both fluid and a spectrum. And I'm just beginning to really understand that a person's gender and/or sexuality does not even have to be the same from day to day.

      You get to be what you want to be. It may take time and effort not only to explain it, but to find someone who understands what you mean - but that's no reason you shouldn't try.

      Cliff is always talking about the importance of communication. Sounds like you're doing it right.

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    4. It's never occurred to me to think of myself as anything but a woman (except as a thought experiment), but I can't think of many gendered terms I'd like used toward me during sex either.

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  6. I think it would be just fine to say it *exactly* that way :)

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  7. Does dominating someone mean that you're using them, or that you're taking care of them?
    This kind of thing used to confuse me because I felt like there would be one right answer, and that would be the ethical way to do it, but now I realize there are so many directions to take these things, and I like a lot of them.

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    1. Even the question of what taking care of someone means can get complicated. Are you doing it just because you care about them? Or is it to fulfill your own needs? Or both? Or does it even matter, provided you aren't harming anyone?

      Everything is complicated. There are no black and white answers to anything.

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  8. It's a strange thing how being caring and nurturing can also be a power trip. If someone *needs* you, well, you must be strong and capable and competent, right?

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    1. Strong enough to wield the crop and strong enough to care for them afterwards, yes.

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  9. Very interesting post, I loved reading it ^^

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  10. I wrote this in response to an older post (about one's right to consent to any act for any reason one should choose), and thought I'd post it here instead. I have since found a couple of things I disagree with (e.g. race play with socio-historically aware, consenting partner is unethical) but by and large I am still thrilled to find a feminist (not the first) I can relate to, and with whom I could probably have a whole conversation about sex without any awkward segues into meteorology:

    Thank you for existing, and thank you for this post. The things that some people have been saying about media depictions of BDSM are very disturbing for me as a kinky and dominant but (relatively) uninitiated and (relatively) inexperienced male. Every person has the absolute right to decide whether they want to do something or not, AND the right to choose to do it anyway if they don't. Anything else deprives women (and submissive men, I suppose, not that we hear a lot of complaints from them) of their personal agency in reality, not just in the fantasy world that they chose to participate in. No means no, except when "raspberry pop-tart" means no, instead. It's a serious turnoff to think my partner might not say no (or raspberry pop-tart) even if she didn't think the benefits outweigh the costs.

    One question for you:

    My ex fiancée found it upsetting that I didn't consider myself a feminist, but was hard pressed to find anything we actually disagreed about. I just feel like it's not my axe to grind, and I'm not oppressing anybody (except with my power-knowledge, of course, if you want to get all Foucaltian, and anyways I share), so me supporting her in being a feminist should be enough. What do you think?

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    1. I think not identifying as a feminist when you are literally a feminist is pointless at best and unethical at worst. "[You] supporting her in being feminist" reinforces the idea that only marginalised populations can 1) see that there's anything wrong 2) do anything about it, which is unfair in about fifty different directions, any and all of which this comment is too narrow to contain.

      But the one which I can sum up goes like this: I'm guessing you're a cis dude, and I really doubt I'm wrong, because no one else has the remarkable privilege to get to opt-out of feminism, even if that's not what they call it.

      (Normally I'd let you slide because your fiancée was "hard pressed to find anything" you two disagreed about, but I don't know her, I don't know you, and for all I know the things you agreed on were "wow, pay inequality! shitty, huh?". I'm just--I'm sorry. But as soon as you're aware of what's wrong opting-out and claiming the people who don't just have "axes to grind" is irresponsible.)

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  11. Would you maybe consider doing a post about the latest kink-critical argument, which is that since some stuff used in BDSM (whips, gags, etc) have some racist (slavery) or misogynistic (domestic abuse) histories, BDSM therefore has its origins in cultural racism and misogyny? I don't know how to articulate a reply to this myself, but it's an argument that feels wrong and off-kilter to me and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

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    1. I wish people would just say "I am kink critical because IT'S EWW YUCKY" instead of rationalizing so hard.

      Yes, objects and methods used to inflict pain for good reasons share some symbolism with those used to inflict pain for bad reasons. But... sex uses some of the same physical actions as rape. I'm more concerned with something's actual effects than what it looks like.

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