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Thursday, June 18, 2015

BDSM is Not Immune to Rape Culture: Part 2/2



This is the second part of a two-part article. The first part is here.

Some people promote the idea that someone who is “sexually liberated” is necessarily interested in BDSM, power play, or similar kinds of “kinky” activities. The truth is, sexual liberation—and liberation in general—doesn’t depend on taking part in particular activities with your sexual partners. What is liberating is to do what you (and, if applicable, your partner or partners) genuinely want to do! Sexual liberation can look any way at all, including not having any sex, just having sex in a committed relationship, only having pretty traditional kinds of sex, or having wild and creative sexual escapades. The key is doing what makes you feel comfortable (and if there are other people involved, what makes everyone comfortable).

While the BDSM community offers many opportunities for self-exploration, it can also serve to funnel people's diverse and creative desires into two main expressions-- submission and dominance. This succeeds because the BDSM scene is able to promote the notion that these are the foundations of kink, and any kinky desires must be somehow related to dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. In fact, kinky or non-traditional desires are infinitely diverse!

Unfortunately, the BDSM scene does not have a vested interest in exploring the ways that it is coming up short sometimes, especially in terms of providing structural cover for sexual assault and domestic violence, harboring abusers and rapists, and pressuring people in various ways. In soliciting feedback for this story, I allowed anonymous submitters to share their experiences with consent violation. Here is one submission:

I've been very fortunate that my experiences have been very positive, surrounded by a very safe community who are very strict about their policy of "don't touch what isn't yours, and don't touch what hasn't given you permission". In private, however, I did have an experience in which I stated something as a hard limit (meaning a total No-No) and it was violated. I felt hurt, betrayed, and dirty. It ruined my trust in him, and in playing with others. It should have never happened.

People's experiences with BDSM vary widely. Some have had such positive experiences that they hate to hear anything negative said. Others have had negative experiences, but protect themselves from having to acknowledge them and feel their impact by defending the BDSM community against any allegations that it  too is part of rape culture.


If you are interested in exploring a “kinkier” side to your sexuality, it’s important to know, first of all, that there are many ways to do so that don’t require you to hand over power to someone else. For example, sexy outfits, using sex toys, costumes, role-play, playing with heat or cold, spanking, cross-dressing, etc., can be done in an atmosphere of fun, mutual trust, and equality. Even something as “BDSM-sounding” as bondage doesn’t have to have a serious power dynamic. For example, although we might think of being tied up as inherently “submissive,” restraint can be understood in many ways (For example, in everyday life, being restrained by the seatbelt in the car isn’t about dominance—it’s about safety and security. One idea, like “restraint,” can be used in many ways!) It’s up to everyone involved to decide the mood and the kind of words, ideas, and roles that are going to be used. 

However, of course, some people will explore this idea and realize that what they really want, still, is power play.  This may include role play in which one partner has power over the other. That often includes things like bondage, pain, or humiliation. These situations can be extra-challenging in terms of consent. Whatever the activity, it is very important prioritize genuine consent, and never to pressure partners into doing something that makes them uncomfortable. On the other hand, if it is you that is uncomfortable, listen to your gut. Never allow a partner to convince you that you need to do something in order to be a good partner, to be sexually liberated, or because they are "dominant."  Never, ever do something simply because it is what you feel you have to do to be a "good dominant" or " good submissive."It is always up to you. Trust yourself!

It’s also okay if you have consented to something in the moment and afterward realized that it didn’t feel right to you. Consent has many dimensions. One of those dimensions is what you may say out loud (“Yes”) and another is how you feel inside—before, during, and after. It’s possible to realize, after the fact, that you actually feel that you shouldn’t have said yes. This doesn’t necessarily put the fault on the other person involved (unless, of course, they were coercive or abusive, or used alcohol or drugs to get a “yes.”) Instead of seeing consent as something contractual and legalistic, it’s healthy to evaluate consent on an ongoing basis. Processing these issues together with a partner can even lead to better and more fulfilling experiences, or even the choice to stop having sex together if that is what is best for both of you. Real sexual liberation means that you have the power to make those choices.

Sexual roles, like dominant or submissive, are only roles at the end of the day. They are sets of socially constructed characteristics-- often constructed along the same exact lines as traditional gender roles. While for some it might be tempting to be submissive or dominant all the time in daily life, we are all called to be full human beings, able to assert ourselves, stand up for what we need, and care for and respect others. This requires some time when we’re not in a “role” and are able to just be ourselves. 

Some people engage in relationships that omit (or have less of) this kind of "outside-of-the-role" time. These are called 24/7 (because they're going on all the time) TPE (total power exchange) relationships. These kind of relationships can meet some needs and stifle others. Though there is not enough talk of this issue in the community itself, BDSM relationships don't exist beyond the possibility of abuse, and certain conditions of BDSM relationships can remove safeguards that might have existed to lessen the possibility of abuse or to stem the rise of a dominant partner's controlling tendencies.

Some people who have been in 24/7 relationships have unfortunately had them degenerate into controlling, abusive, or sexually violent relationships. This is never the victim's fault. Often, people are misled into thinking that they need these kinds of relationships in order to satisfy needs, to satisfy their partner, or to fix themselves or feel better.

EvanExhumed, a former submissive participant in a 24/7 BDSM relationship, writes: "[In my previous relationship] I let myself fall far too deep. It became unhealthy and abusive overtime. My current relationship is exactly what you describe in your last sentence [about "trust and love and infantilism."] It's really great. I don't feel consumed. I'm really happy. I feel in control still but, I sometimes let myself go. I feel equal. I feel that my pleasure is just as important as hers. I don't feel guilty for receiving something."

No matter what interests you sexually, remember to listen to yourself and your partner. Even though we say “yes means yes,” it’s crucial to move beyond just “getting consent” and start creating, together with your partner(s) or alone, the kind of situations that make you both feel thrilled, enthusiastic, and comfortable.

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