"Pleasure derived from the infliction of pain is an evil thing. Cruelty is uncivilized."
~ Lord Templeman
Somehow, quite against my will, I've become one of those people who goes around blog comments saying, "That ‘funny’ comment you just made? It’s not funny, and this is why." How did this happen? I hate those people, the ones with no sense of humour. On considered reflection, I blame you lot.
What you’ve done is convince me that there are people who are willing to listen and try to understand when I explain dodgy things, without being all judgemental about it. I hope you’re happy with yourselves. That’s what brings us to this place, one where I’m going to try to explain BDSM, in a manner so unsalacious as to suck all the fun out of it. Nonetheless, if the subject matter makes you deeply uncomfortable, please do stop reading.
There’s no statement I can make about BDSM practice or practitioners that would be unequivocably true. If you know one BDSMer, you know one BDSMer. A particular person may be part of the ‘scene’, or not. Their practice may involve pain, humiliation, bondage, actual sex – or not. It may pervade other areas of their life, or be entirely restricted to occasional bedroom sessions. There will be two things: explicit consent, and some degree of ritualised role-play.
There are, however, a bunch of clichés – things people think they know – that maybe I can do something about. Some of the myths even contradict each other, which is mildly hilarious. So for instance, the British Conservative Politician myth says that all subs/bottoms are powerful men who find sexual enjoyment in being subjugated by leather-clad dominatrices. Meanwhile, radical feminism pretends male subs don’t exist, and teaches that all subs are women conditioned by society to think they enjoy being dominated by men, sexually and in all other areas of their lives.
There is, quite simply, no relationship between someone’s position in the rest of their lives, and their BDSM sexual identity. It neither agrees with nor runs counter to their status or social conditioning in any reliable way. There are, of course, people in the BDSM community who fit those clichés, but there are a lot more of those people – powerful men, happily subjugated women - who aren’t BDSM practitioners. There is no correlation between gender and BDSM sexual identity.
These myths also ignore the over-representation of LGBT people in the BDSM community. It’s very hard to get any kind of demographic read on BDSM practitioners, because so few are prepared to be open about their proclivities, but various surveys have pegged the level at somewhere between 25% and 50%. In general sexual surveys, the group most likely to articulate an interest in BDSM practice is bisexual women. The two cultures – BDSM and LGBT – cross over and become sub-cultures of each other, most obviously represented by Leathermen and the lesbian feminist group Samois.
This rather effectively argues against the idea that BDSM is inherently sexist or patriarchal, if BDSM practitioners are more likely than vanilla people to have same-sex partners.
That doesn’t stop this group, however, and people like them, preaching exactly that: that BDSM is inherently degrading to women. Nor did any sense of irony stop them then banning a number of female subs from commenting in the group, because they were saying the wrong things. (You do not want to piss off female subs, as a generalisation. Those poor deluded degraded brain-washed chickies will hand you your arse and ask if you want fries with that.)
Of course, it might not be general social conditioning that causes BDSM. It could be that BDSM subs were smacked as children, and therefore associate pain with love. It could be that they were abused, and so seek either to be abusers, or victims.
To which I can only say this: the search for a cause is inherently degrading. It sees a particular sexual taste as abnormal, as a departure from how people are supposed to be. Nobody asks what causes a person to enjoy vanilla sex. The need for an explanation is reserved for kink. You start by telling me I’m wrong, then you try to work out how I got broken. The next step is of course fixing me. This is the same attitude some people display towards homosexuality.
The sexual response to pain actually requires no elaborate sociological explanation. The biology is quite sound. Sexual arousal changes the way the body processes stimuli. I’m sure there are a lot of people who have found marks on their body – bruises, scratches, bites – that they didn’t notice getting during sex that would have hurt them under normal circumstances. Pain and pleasure can blend: the sensation of pain is blurred, but the body still releases endorphins in response. This can lead to the phenomenon of subspace, where a sub becomes incapable of perceiving pain at all, on a total endorphin high – an experience referred to as ‘flying’. The pleasure is an entirely genuine physical response.
Nevertheless, people continue to believe that it is impossible to consent to violence. That attitude is entrenched in the British legal system, and led to the awfulness that was Operation Spanner:
The police had obtained a video which they believed depicted acts of sadistic torture, and they launched a murder investigation, convinced that the people in the video were being tortured before being killed…
The apparent "victims" were alive and well… Although all of those seen in the videos stated that they were willing participants in the activities depicted on the videos, the police and Crown Prosecution Service insisted on pressing charges.
Nobody struggles to believe that I can consent to being tattooed, or having my teeth drilled, or entering a boxing match. It’s only sexual violence where I suddenly can’t know my own mind.
And the Dom/Top role is so far from an abuser or a rapist I can’t really get my head around the idea. It’s a caring role: a good Dom(me) is expected to know his or her sub’s likes and dislikes, freak-out points, and be able to tell when he or she enters subspace and needs the Dom(me) to judge their tolerance for him or her. The Dom(me) is expected to provide after-care for the sub. The person with the power to bring the whole thing to a screaming halt, whose needs supercede the other party’s, is the sub.
Christian Domestic Discipline is not ‘like BDSM’. That is inherently sexist: a husband is allowed to administer physical punishment to his wife because, being female, she’s inherently stupid and wrong. I’m sure some couples practicing it get an erotic charge out of it, but that doesn’t make it the same.
Where to from here? Wikipedia is excellent on BDSM: well-written, well footnoted, and non-judgemental. For ‘out’ BDSM blogging I recommend the fabulously-named Let Them Eat Pro-SM Feminist Safe Spaces. From both those places you can find links to other sites and resources. And who could pass up a site called Wipipedia?
The very, very brave among you might find some value in visiting lesbian BDSM site Bleu Productions (NSFW!) and watching the teaser clip in the top right-hand corner. There are no nighties and hairbrushes in sight. (Also, the candles will make you giggle, and ‘Post-Apocalyptic Cowgirls’? Awesome.)