The Soapbox: BDSM Is Not “Consensual Domestic Violence”

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I don’t want to write this post.

I really don’t want to write this post.

I really don’t want to write this post because all the ways that Slate columnist/link-baiter William Saletan is wrong about BDSM are so numerous and so glaringly inaccurate that I have half a mind not to dignify it with a response.

Alas, here I go:

Saletan asks whether, between 50 Shades of Grey and various colleges starting their own BDSM clubs,  kink is going “mainstream,” as if sexuality is like rap music or the Atkins diet which spreads around the country once it becomes “cool”. He quickly concludes no, BDSM won’t ever be accepted by your Great Aunt Myrtle in Iowa City, because it’s actually “dangerous” — actual quote — and actually “consensual domestic violence” — actual quote.

Sigh.

His viewpoint only serves to further stigmatize what’s barely even taboo anymore,  promoting the Dark Ages/maybe-in-rural-Alabama idea there’s “right” and “wrong” sexuality between consenting adults.

To which I have to say, shut the fuck up, William Saletan.

  • “To start with, BDSM isn’t an orientation. It’s a lifestyle.”  “Lifestyle” is a coded word for “choice,” as in “Liberace was just choosing to be gay!” Nobody chooses to be gay. Nobody chooses to be kinky. These things are innate, subject to the whims of chance. Dare I say it?  We are born this way. A lot of kinksters (and a lot of gay folks) will tell you that they had curious inklings and arousals in childhood. Even if they could not conceptualize these curiosities as a sexual interest, they knew they were intrigued by tying people up or they knew they were attracted to boys more than girls. That’s quite different from the person who dabbles in outre behavior by choice — the ”straight” person can choose to engage in homosexual behavior and a “vanilla” person can choose to engage in kinky behavior and then go back and live their lives perfectly happy without doing it again.  Not so for those of us whose sexuality is an orientation. I don’t consider my kinkiness a “lifestyle,” because it isn’t something that I can set aside without being unfulfilled and unhappy. It’s been my sexuality since I was a child, only revealing itself with more maturity into adulthood. Kinky is my sexual orientation, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
  • “Second, S&M, by its nature, hurts people.” Yeah, certain physical manifestations of BDSM hurt people. But that’s the point. A person doesn’t ask to get flogged, or tied up, or slapped in the face during sex, if it does not feel pleasurable to them. Just ask any otherwise vanilla person who loves to have their nipples bitten! I’m kinky but I hate having my nipples bitten because it hurts me, ergo I don’t like it. We are deriving pleasure from pain — it’s how we do. This shallow understanding of S&M assumes it is purely physical: a lot of what we do with bondage, dominance and dominance/submission/sadomasochism is psychological. BDSM is about anticipation. BDSM is about experiencing excitement-mixed-with-fear in a controlled environment. BDSM is about that satiation that comes with dominating or submitting.  Any person could get psychologically hurt from fallout from any aspect of any relationship, BDSM or vanilla. That’s called not living life encased in bubble wrap.
  • “Some stick to spatulas and wooden spoons, but others move on to electric shocks, skewers, knives, and butterfly boards. Women who do S&M porn scenes have described electric burns, permanent scars from beatings, and penetrations that required vaginal reconstructive surgery. While these injuries were accidental, the BDSM subculture doesn’t regard intentional harm as wrong. According to the “Statement on Consent” developed by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, injury is wrong only if it “was not anticipated and consented to.” I don’t understand what your point is here. (FWIW, Clarisse Thorn over at BuzzFeed Shift doesn’t either.) Of course we don’t regard intentional harm as “wrong.” We probably asked for the intentional harm because we trust the person inflicting the pain — it’s called “consent.”Being “safe, sane and consensual” is at the crux of what we do. As Thorn points out in her piece, knives and electric shocks are extreme examples of what is called “edge play,” in part because it involves extreme trust and acquired skill to be practiced safely. “Edge play” is not something done on a one-night stand with a person you don’t know. Additionally, some kinksters consider aspects of “edge play,” such as bloodletting, unappetizing, myself included. Given how “edge play” is the extreme, it’s not at all the example that a responsible columnist should be using to describe BDSM which could hypothetically be accepted by the “mainstream.” And for the record, I don’t even know what a “butterfly board” is.
  • “BDSM can be quite dangerous. Responsible practitioners insist it must be “safe, sane, and consensual.” But it attracts people who like to push boundaries. Some submissives are adrenaline junkies: They don’t believe in safety.”  This is the part of Saletan’s piece that I find it offensive: Submissives like myself don’t “believe” in safety? Who doesn’t “believe” in safety? Safety is not like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. It’s not something you have to suspend disbelief to achieve. Safety exists or it doesn’t exist. On the contrary, there’s actually an immense feeling of safety that comes from the heightened level of trust required with having BDSM sex. One could probably even argue that BDSM sex, as an activity, is more safe from a pregnancy and STI prevention standpoint because there’s a lot of outercourse (activities that occur outside the body, like nipple pinching or hair pulling or spanking)to safely engage in. But of course, that wouldn’t serve Saletan’s argument that we’re all Russian roulette players just waiting to get shot.
  • “Recently, several men have admitted to or have been charged with or convicted of crimes including sexual abuse, kidnapping, and murder, all under the cover of BDSM. These men don’t represent BDSM, but they do represent the far end of sadism. On BDSM sites, you’ll find harrowing fetishes such as immersion water bondage and breath play, which some community leaders consider inherently unsafe. Even a standard ball gag can kill the victim by triggering regurgitation.” Frankly, if we’re worrying about an object being shoved in a person’s mouth to trigger regurgitation and cause choking, I think we can find a piece of anatomy attached to William Saletan’s body that poses a bigger threat to more people than a ball gag.  Again, these are extreme “edge play” examples which certainly don’t represent what the average kinkster likes to do. Those types of activities require advanced safety training and extreme trust for the relatively small number of people who even want to consensually engage in them. I also don’t think it is particularly responsible  to equate consensual sex between adults with sexual abuse, kidnapping and murder. William Saletan’s imagined version of BDSM sex is the Lifetime Original Movie version, not the one that ordinary people all around the world engage in every day.
  • “[... E]verything we condemn outside the world of kink is celebrated within it.” Celebrate? No. It’s called a fantasy. A person who likes being slapped or choked during sex (violence), or who has a rape fantasy (violation), or who wants to be locked in a dog cage and peed on (degradation), doesn’t actually want those things to happen in real life. The reason these behaviors are enticing is because they are a taboo; the safe place to play and explore is in the context of sexual fantasy with a trusted partner. Responsible adults can distinguish between fantasy and reality.
  • “BDSM community leaders stress the importance of “safe word”—distinctive words that the submissive can utter to make the dominant stop. But that doesn’t always work. Some dominants refuse to honor safe words. Some say they’ll respect them, but then they don’t.” These people are not dominants. These people are assholes. There are assholes everywhere, not just within BDSM. As a matter of fact, some people say they will only have sex with a person when he or she wants to, but then they don’t. We call them assholes, too (and rapists). Why is it somehow worse/different when ignoring consent happens within BDSM?  Wrong is wrong is wrong is wrong.  I will agree that it is certainly very scary when someone in the BDSM community is abusive and violates the trust of their partner(s), but it’s not any more or less scary than a world where a person can be sexually assaulted while unconscious because they didn’t say “no.”
  • “In most BDSM relationships, domination or violence is limited to agreed-upon sessions, known as “scenes.” Violence becomes abusive when it occurs “outside the scene.” But some couples don’t accept this distinction.” Some couples don’t accept that distinction because they get off on playing the dom/sub roles constantly. It’s called “being 24/7. Oftentimes these people tend to lean dominant or submissive in their relationships naturally; still, being 24/7 is actually a lot harder than it sounds and it’s not entirely common. In any case, I don’t see what the big fuss is about if two consenting adults want to do this. If people agreed to practice BDSM outside of a play session, why should anyone care what they do in their private lives?
  • “Don’t persecute kinksters.” Really? Because it sure sounds like you think we should be persecuted, what with suggesting we’re abusing each other and all.
  • “Most of them just want the freedom to play out their fantasies, within limits and without losing their jobs. But if you can’t accept consensual domestic violence as just another lifestyle choice, that doesn’t make you a prude. It makes you perfectly normal.”  “Consensual domestic violence”? What is “consensual domestic violence”? How did that phrase even make it past Slate.com’s editors? Domestic violence by its very nature not consensual. I’ve known domestic violence and I’ve known kinky sex and there is nothing similar about them at all. And just in case Saletan didn’t insult us enough by suggesting that we’re abusers/being abused, he throws in that final destigmatizing dig that we’re not “normal.” Pathologizing us, much?

In every single paragraph of this terribly inaccurate, misrepresentative piece, Saletan portrays kinksters as if we’re dangerous, amoral freaks whose sexual desires need to be policed, tamed, and stamped out.  While I wouldn’t directly compare LGBTQ sexuality to kinky sexuality — each have different struggles — the similarities in how he believes society needs to shun and control them are uncanny. And that attitude harms real, live people. He should be ashamed of himself — and Slate.com should be, too, for publishing it.

Just like at the core of homophobia is repression, a desire to control other people, and plain old meanness, there’s messy psychological stuff at the root of kinkphobia as well. I don’t know why it has struck such a nerve for William Saletan but I don’t really care. I resent seeing my sexuality trashed for linkbait. His issues with it are his problem, not ours — and he’s just a man who used his bully pulpit to act like a bully.

[Slate]
[Buzzfeed Shift]

Email me at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. ***Emails propositioning me for sex will be deleted without a response.***  Follow me on Twitter.

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