[Commenting Note: I am trying to be as charitable as possible to radical feminists in this blog post and I would greatly appreciate it if my audience would do the same]
[Content warning: extensive discussion of sex, BDSM, abuse dynamics, and sexual violence; brief, approving discussion of self-harm]
I recently read an article by a radical feminist asking five questions about BDSM she had never heard satisfactorily answered. And, you know, how else does one respond to a temptation like that?
1. How would you teach women that they are owed bodily integrity, freedom from violence, and mutually pleasurable activities if they are also taught that it’s normal for sex to be degrading, painful, and non-mutual?
I want to turn this around into another question: how would you teach women that they are owed bodily autonomy, freedom from domination, and activities they find pleasurable, if they are also taught that those rights only extend to activities no one finds sufficiently gross or incomprehensible?
My thoughts here are closely tied to neurodiversity activism. One concept arising from the intellectually and developmentally disabled people’s rights movement is dignity of risk. Even today, a lot of people decide that intellectually and developmentally disabled people should be protected– other people should make their decisions for them, because what if they make the wrong decisions? But if you’re not allowed to make bad choices, you’re not actually allowed to make choices. Actual autonomy involves the ability to take risks, to decide what costs you’ll accept for what benefits, to make decisions your guardians or peers disapprove of, to make mistakes, to fail, to fuck up. Otherwise it’s meaningless.
The policing of nondisabled women in our society is, of course, not nearly as bad as the policing of disabled women. But I still think a lot of sexism takes the form of “don’t worry your head about that, little lady. Just let someone else think about it for you. We’ve already decided what’s good for you.” So I think we should, at the very least, default to the position that, when a person’s choice is not directly hurting other people, you don’t have to like what they choose, you don’t have to understand it, you don’t have to want it for yourself, but they are making understandable choices given their own life circumstances, and you shouldn’t limit their choices without a damn good reason.
“Hey, wait!” you might say. “I have a damn good reason! Those women are hurting themselves!” The Icarus Project, in their excellent workbook on self-harm, gives examples of things that could reasonably be thought of as self-harm: running a marathon; not exercising; getting tattoos; working when you’re sick; skydiving; even undergoing psychoanalysis. The point, of course, is that it’s pretty hard to draw a hard line between the intentional infliction of damage on one’s body that we accept and even approve of, and the intentional infliction of damage on one’s body that we pathologize. Therefore, the line shouldn’t be drawn around acts, but around the relationship people have to particular acts. If someone wants to not work while they’re sick but has panic attacks whenever they try to stop, or it’s making them unhappy or making it harder for them to reach their goals or harming their relationships, then they have a problem. If someone cuts, and it calms them down and is a useful tool in their emotion-management toolkit and generally improves their life, and they’re taking appropriate safety precautions, then they’re fine. The best thing is to provide nonjudgmental, harm-reduction information that allows individuals to make the best decisions for themselves.
The same thing applies to BDSM. If someone wants to stop having kinky sex but feels compelled to do it anyway, or it makes them feel like shit, or it harms their ability to reach their other goals, then we have a problem. If someone is having kinky sex and it makes them feel happy and at peace, or more connected with their partners, or even just gives them some good orgasms and no other consequences– there isn’t a problem. It doesn’t matter what the act is. It matters what the individual’s relationship to the act is.
2. How do you expect to prosecute and prevent domestic violence when you promote controlling relationships, sexualized abuse, and psychological and physical abuse as part of “healthy” relationships?
The Conflict Tactics Scale is a commonly used method of measuring interpersonal violence. It typically finds that men and women are equally likely to abuse each other, and that a substantial number of relationships are “mutually abusive”.
Why? Because the Conflict Tactics Scale looks at individual acts of violence. If a man hits his partner because she burned the dinner, and she hits him back in an attempt to get him to stop, the Conflict Tactics Scale will record it as each partner having hit each other once, and therefore both the man and the woman are abusive and the relationship is mutually abusive.
The context of the relationship is not a minor detail. It is not something you can handwave past. It is not something you can leave out for simplicity. It is literally the entire difference between an abusive relationship and a nonabusive relationship. Abuse is not a particular set of behaviors. You don’t get two abuse points for name-calling and five for gaslighting and ten for shoving and if you get more than twenty-five the relationship is abusive. Abuse is, at its core, the act of maintaining power, control, and domination over your partner; hitting is just a popular strategy for doing so. If no one is trying to maintain power, control, and domination over anyone else, it ain’t abuse.
Now, this does get into the thorny issue of 24/7 relationships. As it happens, I tend to get decision-fatigued very easily. Therefore, I sometimes ask my partner to order for me at restaurants, or decide what task on my to-do list I’m going to do. I feel like this is fine. If I said “partner, I am going to be decision-fatigued for the next while, so just order for me at restaurants until I say for you to stop”, I think that would also be fine. It seems implausible to me that this setup would suddenly become unethical if I added collars or boners.
The important difference here is between my partner taking power and control and me giving power and control. In a healthy 24/7 relationship, the submissive is deciding, of their own free will, to do what their dominant wants; if they decide that they don’t want to do that anymore, then they can just stop. If you could stop abusive relationships by going “nah, I don’t want to be abused anymore”, there would be a lot less need for domestic violence shelters.
Look, I agree with you that consent is not enough. Consent is the bare minimum standard. “Enough” is that the sex contributes to the happiness and flourishing of everyone involved. But I don’t think you can strip a particular act from the entire context of the relationship and the people involved and be like “that! That is clearly harmful to the people involved!” People are more complicated than that.
3. How would you teach men to respect women and want to engage in mutually pleasurable activities if they are also taught that it is sexy to hurt, dominate, and coerce women?
Well, uh, to begin with, I don’t support teaching men that it’s sexy to hurt, dominate, and coerce women. I think one of the great things about the Internet is how polymorphously perverse it’s allowed human sexuality to be. I want there to be balloon fetishists and dragons fucking cars and knotting and Comstock Films and dendrophiles and transformation fetish and inflation and wetlook and feederism and giantesses and 200,000 word fanfics where they don’t fuck until word 180,000 and the Hydra Trash Party. The faster we get out of this vanilla/BDSM binary where the only alternative to cunnilingus and cuddles is bondage and flogging, the better, I say.
But even in that polymorphously perverse world some people are going to be enjoying the Hydra Trash Party, and therefore some men will get off on the idea of hurting, dominating, and coercing
Sebastian Stan their sexual partners. However, in my experience, this is not related to actual abuse.
People in the BDSM community are probably at higher risk of experiencing sexual violence, although it’s confusing. However, the BDSM community also has a lot of casual sex. In a monogamous community, Jane Rapist will get married and rape her wife; in a casual-sex-heavy community, Jane Rapist will rape three, or four, or a dozen sexual partners– greatly pushing up the percent of people who have survived rape. In addition, the plausible deniability offered by such communities makes them extremely attractive to rapists. Does the BDSM community have a higher rate of rape than, say, the vanilla bar scene? I don’t know. But I suspect the answer is “no.”
To be honest, this is a hard question for me to answer, because of how absurdly distant it is from my own experience. The sex partner I’ve had who fantasized about the most objectively horrifying things is also someone I’ll be forever grateful to, because they were the first person to notice that I had a hard time setting sexual boundaries and deliberately teach me how to say “no” to things I didn’t want. My current primary is pretty fucking kinky, and also tremendously understanding about and patient with my disabilities in a way I’d never expected a neurotypical to be. Conversely, the partners I’ve had who most blatantly disrespected my preferences, limits, and boundaries all fantasized about sweet, loving sex with attractive women. I admit I am only one person, and this is only anecdote, but you understand why this question is much less satisfying than the others. I have no experience to draw on.
4. How do you expect to teach men about affirmative consent when BDSM practices themselves do not embody affirmative consent — including situations where consent is physically impossible?
I want to emphasize that we’re on the same side here. I agree that the BDSM community all too often fails to embody affirmative consent, and I agree that we should work on fixing that. In fact, the author’s very own FAQ quotes from an extended series of essays by a kinkster about preventing rape in the kink community.
If we applied the same standards to non-BDSM sex that this question applies to BDSM, we are all going to be celibate for the rest of time. The vast majority of rapes are not BDSM-related. The vast majority of rapes are oral sex, manual sex, anal sex, and PIV, because of the simple fact that most sex is oral sex, manual sex, anal sex, and PIV. Forced electricity play is essentially a rounding error.
Earlier in the FAQ, the author gives a more extensive idea of what she means by the BDSM community’s poor consent practices and situations where consent is physically impossible. She says, describing the former:
The author described the rapist’s grooming behavior (subjecting his victim to other forms of penetration and lying about what he was doing) thusly: “It’s not a bad way, this sort of mind game, to move towards opening up a limit.” [emphasis mine]. Respecting a boundary is to take the boundary as an absolute limitation on behavior; not something to be pushed, or worn down, or (euphemisms again!) “opened up.” The author condones the grooming because the victim “didn’t say no,” in spite of the fact that the victim was uncomfortable with the perpetrator’s behavior. Insofar as they condone grooming, manipulation, and coercion to violate boundaries (and this author apparently does), BDSM practitioners cannot claim that they respect consent.
On the same blog, this author dismisses unwanted torture and assault, as well as resulting permanent trauma, as “shit happens” (which sounds disturbingly like the oft-cited dismissal that various forms of sexual violence or abuse are simply “bad sex”). Some of this, he claims, is due to “miscommunication” and the fact that a “good top” is not going to do simply what has been explicitly discussed. A very flimsy excuse — if there is the slightest ambiguity about whether a partner is uncomfortable with a sexual activity, one can always ask.
I think these passages greatly misrepresent Millar’s points. First, it is a very unusual definition of “lie” which includes “I am going to put my fingers inside you and claim that it’s a knife. Is that okay?” Normally, “lie” implies that you are misleading people about facts. Do you also think that reading fiction to your partner is grooming behavior?
Second, I think this passage confuses you pushing my boundaries and me pushing my boundaries. If I say “no, I don’t want to do that” and you say “please please please please”, you are clearly being an asshole. However, if I say “I’m uncomfortable doing that, but I’m going to do it anyway. Can you help me work my way into becoming more comfortable?”, that is perfectly ethically fine. If it wasn’t, I would be morally obligated to never leave my house. (It’s true that Millar’s essay leaves it ambiguous which one is happening, and if it’s the former it’s obviously unconscionable.)
Third, the author fails to mention that what Millar calls “shit happens” are technical errors and emotional landmines. While those may have awful emotional and physical consequences, they are clearly not the same thing as actual rape. Millar does not dismiss the consequences of those acts; he compares the effect of an accidentally tripped emotional landmine to a tsunami. He simply points out that it’s no one’s fault, which is true.As someone with a hell of a lot of emotional landmines, the idea that my partner accidentally triggering me is the same as rape is absurd. And both of those are also issues in vanilla sex: the broken condom, the rape flashback.
I agree that people don’t check in enough during sex; a “can I pull your hair?” saves a lot of trouble and guesswork. However, people are still not perfect at reading each other’s signals. The problem comes exactly when from one person’s perspective there isn’t any ambiguity and no need to check in. Fortunately, most cases of miscommunication aren’t particularly disastrous, because in a healthy sexual relationship you can just say “actually, that’s not my thing”; legitimate sexual-violence-by-miscommunication is probably even less common than forced electricity play.
Next, she discusses cases when, to her mind, people cannot consent:
A submissive may be in such a state of fear, pain, or disassociation she is unable to give or withdraw consent: “Lots of bottoms, especially subs, are not really in a state of mind mid-scene to advocate for themselves… Some folks just can’t use safe words at all because they can’t access them in scene: they have to negotiate up front and then trust.” But if there is no consent if someone is in such a state of pain, fear, or disassociation — or for any reason feels unsafe expressing her feelings — that she cannot withdraw consent or communicate (certainly no one could claim that someone in such a state is actively giving consent).
First, this is clearly a misrepresentation of Millar’s point. Millar is not talking about “feeling unsafe expressing her feelings”– he would most certainly agree that making someone feel unsafe expressing their feelings so they can’t say “no” to sex with you is an act of sexual violence. What he’s talking about is that for many people BDSM induces an altered state of consciousness. For many people, altered states of consciousness make them vulnerable– think of it like having sex with someone who’s drunk.
(Tangent: nonverbal people are capable of communication. Everyone is capable of communication. When I go nonverbal and point to something, or make an upset noise, or bring someone a movie I want to watch, that’s communication. All you need to be able to communicate is the ability to move at least one (1) muscle. The idea that nonverbal people can’t communicate is regularly used to ignore the preferences and consent of disabled people, and you should not put it in your feminist blog post.)
Now, it is a defensible position that it is unethical to knowingly have sex with someone in an altered state of consciousness. Indeed, many people have a similar position with alcohol: if your partner is sufficiently drunk, you shouldn’t have sex with them. In that case, you don’t have to condemn all BDSM, you just have to condemn BDSM that puts people in an altered state of consciousness such that they are more likely to agree to sex acts that, in the cold light of morning, they wouldn’t approve of. However, I disagree. I believe that if I say to my partner “honey, when I’m really drunk, you can have sex with me if you want”, and my partner respects my limits and my drunken “no”, then this sex is ethically fine. And I believe that if I say to my partner “honey, I get very deep into subspace, but I’m okay with doing a scene with you”, and my partner respects my limits and my subspacey “no”, then that sex is also ethically fine. Riskier? Perhaps. But I don’t think it’s a risk that it’s wrong to knowingly take.
5. How would you prevent emotional and social coercion into these practices?
Now that’s one difficult as hell question!
I don’t think anyone has come up with a satisfying answer about how to prevent emotional and social coercion into sex. But that’s the thing– there’s nothing special about BDSM. The feeling of being socially coerced into a flogging you didn’t want is really not a whole lot different from the feeling of being socially coerced into cunnilingus you didn’t want. If you rule out BDSM but allow cunnilingus, you’re not going to solve the problem of social and emotional coercion into sex, any more than you’re going to solve it if you rule out cunnilingus and allow BDSM.
One important step, I think, is to get rid of the bullshit status games around sex. The quality of your sex life is measured in how much enjoyment you and your partners get from it– whether that means celibacy, missionary-position penis-in-vagina intercourse once a week, quadruple penetration while being suspended, or all of the above at different points in your life. Not being into kink doesn’t make you a prude. Not being interested in penis-in-vagina sex doesn’t mean you’re being unreasonable. Not wanting to orgasm doesn’t mean you aren’t liberated. And not wanting sex at all is perfectly fine– for whatever reason you don’t want it.
We should also get rid of the idea that certain sex acts are something we ‘owe’ our partners. Of course, we should strive to find partners we’re sexually compatible with: it’s tremendously convenient to have a partner who isn’t interested in the sex acts we aren’t interested in. And there’s nothing wrong with trying something out if you’re not sure if you’ll be into it, or doing a sex act because you like making your partner happy. But in the event that your sexualities change, or you discover new things about your sexuality, or perhaps you or your partner were not quite as open in communication as one would hope– you don’t have to engage in any sex acts you don’t want to. Period. End of story. If you decide to let your partner finger you, or fuck you bent over the desk, or diaper you, when that’s not your thing, it’s a favor you’re doing for them. There is nothing your partner is entitled to.
Finally, in a linked article, a person argues that widespread BDSM creates a form of social coercion. A woman who doesn’t like BDSM may have a choice between BDSM and celibacy. However, ending BDSM does not solve this problem. I myself have a hard limit around receiving oral sex. Let me tell you: there are a lot more people who will sulk when you say “please don’t touch my genitals” than people who will sulk when you say “please don’t tie me up.” I think there are about three solutions here. First, you can argue that being socially coerced into bondage is far, far worse than being socially coerced into a sex act that makes me dissociate from gender dysphoria, in which case, uh, good luck with that. Second, you can support mandatory celibacy for everyone. Third, you can support a diversity of sexual preferences, so both I and people who aren’t interested in BDSM can find sexually compatible partners.