Defending the politics of bdsm 2: Bdsm and the state

The puritan feminist argument against bdsm includes the claim that bdsm works as part of the support for patriarchy, or male control of institutions and, of course, women.

Patriarchy in action? It doesn’t really look like it

The puritan case is partly based on the claim that bdsm is men dominating women. To make this claim you have to ignore the existence of lesbians and gays, and women dominants and male submissives. You also have to ignore the fact that we now know that the majority of both men and women involved in bdsm are switches, and will take either the dominant or submissive role according to mood and desire.

Some in the puritanical faction are aware of this, and try to wish it away by waving a sort of verbal wand at it: any “eroticising of power differences” supports patriarchy because, well, because.

One way of testing this is to look at what actually happens in most Western states.

We see that the institutions that do most to promote patriarchy and the subordination of women get encouragement from the state in every English-language-speaking country in the world, as well as most of the non-English-speaking Western states.

The Catholic and Baptist churches in particular, with their long-standing and still current opposition to having women in leadership roles, and opposition to women having control of their own bodies, particularly in relation to reproduction, get extensive funding from the state. That funding comes in the form of direct grants, in the form of tax-free status, in the form of (usually historical) gifts of land, and in the form of favored status when it comes to bidding to provide Government services. 

Church naming rights and livery; 100% tax-payer funding

Something that’s not understood by most people is that when Catholic spokespeople talk about providing hospitals the Catholic Church doesn’t provide those services with its own money. Those institutions are 100% funded from government health spending, even though they don’t offer all the services (eg abortion, and contraceptive information) that a publicly funded hospital should be offering.

In many countries the churches have special dispensation overriding laws relating to discriminating against people based on their religious belief or sexual orientation, particularly in employment. 

The point is that this is an example of how governments in the West endorse and support organisations that promote patriarchal power. That’s nothing like how governments treat bdsm, and people who take part in bdsm.

Bdsm erotica, the stories we tell and the media we tell them in, is banned in many jurisdictions. Bdsm clubs and premises are frequently raided. Consenting bdsm is still a crime in many countries, most notoriously the UK. People have gone to jail for practising consensual bdsm, and others have lost custody of their children. 

A bdsm master or mistress’s authority is never backed by the power of the state. I’m not arguing that it should be (of course it shouldn’t); I’m making the point that governments support and endorse institutions that help uphold male power and control, and they don’t support bdsm that way.

If bdsm really were a part of the ideological support for patriarchy, it’s puzzling that institutions upholding patriarchy, like police services and other law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, the mainstream media, the churches and so on, all seem to be unaware of the fact.

Instead bdsm practitioners, media and organisations (eg clubs) come under surveillance, police harassment, mainstream media shaming, and direct legal bans. 

Bdsm does not promote male dominance (generally, though a few Goreans and domestic-discipline Christians may), and it is certainly not an ally of patriarchy. We like our dominance consensual and our dominants to be sexy. 

Defending the politics of bdsm: power at the mercy of pleasure

Inequality in bdsm works very differently from the real power imbalances imposed by patriarchy. In bdsm, people choose their roles according to their own sexual desires, not their gender. A woman or man doing bdsm may choose a dominant or submissive role, or switch from one to the other, purely according to what pleases them. In bdsm “power” is erotic and fluid.

We are powerful guys, and we are Serious

The arbitrariness of “power” in bdsm contrasts with the seriousness with which power is held in patriarchy. By turning the symbols and even the idea of power into sexual playthings that may be taken seriously but may also be picked up, swapped or put down at whim, there’s a sense in which bdsm mocks and undermines real power.

Bdsm’s mild subversiveness is reinforced by the paradox of how power relationships work in bdsm.

The person who holds the outward signs of power, in bdsm, is not so powerful in reality.

The submissive holds the chain

A dominant may wear lots of black, carry a riding crop and snap out orders, but he or she is still subject to the submissive’s power. In the orders they give, the bonds they arrange and the services they demand, dominants must remain within a range defined and consented to by the submissive.

If the dominant goes far or repeatedly outside that circle of consent, the submissive is likely to end the dominant’s illusory power without notice.

People sometimes use the term “power exchange” to describe bdsm relationships, but not as much power really changes hands as may appear on the surface. Whether they are male or female, submissives retain more power than they and their dominants pretend.

Similarly, the economics of bdsm relationships differ from those of traditional marriage. In traditional relationships the person with the higher income holds more power, and that person is still likely to be a man. In bdsm the dominant partner is not necessarily a man, nor the person with the higher income. In bdsm, “power” is never what it seems on the surface. It does not follow gender. Nor does it follow money.

It follows desire. It follows love and lust.

Sexual authoritarians and bdsm 2: The false consciousness argument

There is a more complex case against bdsm than conservative authoritarians have ever argued, promoted by the feminist faction that allied itself with conservative authoritarians on erotic words and images, and bdsm.

Anti-bdsm feminists often speak as if there is a feminist position on bdsm and theirs is it, but this has never been the case. There are feminists on both sides of the debate.

This anti-bdsm case rests on the assumption is that bdsm is inherently an expression of patriarchy, of male dominance, so woman only have bdsm desires if their sexuality is distorted by patriarchy. Women who engage in bdsm have simply internalised patriarchal values, even if they delude themselves by thinking they are feminist.

By this theory they may think that they consent to bdsm activity, but this consent is not “real”.

This is because the power imbalance between men and women in our culture is so great and pervasive that women who consent to bdsm have been coerced into doing so by cultural factors beyond their control. This argument is also made of all women who consent to heterosexual intercourse, but that version of the argument is less often made within the hearing of allies on the religious right.

This readiness to diminish and dismiss the moral and political significance of women’s choices and consents is commonly justified by the claim that women who have and (what’s worse) act on bdsm desires are victims of “false consciousness”.

False consciousness is a term derived from Marxist theory, to mean the tendency of oppressed people to accept the ideology of their oppressors and therefore to fail to perceive that they are oppressed. The term was used to explain the awkward fact that in developed countries working people on low incomes tend not to support Marxist political parties or campaigns.

False consciousness can refer to something real. It may be useful to use the term in relation to African American slaves who had accepted the idea that slavery was a just institution. But the term is best used humbly and tentatively.

For example, the reluctance of working people to support Marxism might be a sign of false consciousness, but it might derive from realistic evaluation of what happened in the countries where Marxists got into power. In practice “false consciousness” is a rhetorical device for dismissing the views of the people on whose behalf one claims to speak, because if those people were allowed to speak or vote or act on their own behalf they would say and choose the wrong things.

In this perspective only some choices arise from false consciousness. Consenting to heterosexual intercourse, taking part in the writing or filming of pornography, or engaging in bdsm: these things can be ascribed to false consciousness. Engaging in non-penetrative lesbian sex, going to an anti-pornography rally, or taking part in hours of doctrinal discussion may not.

Moreover only some women are subject to false consciousness. Others are immune. Anti-bdsm feminists are confident enough in the authenticity of their own consciousnesses to make their own sexual decisions and to feel qualified to force sexual decisions (for example on the availability and therefore use of pornography) onto other women.

Feminist women who suffer from bdsm’s false consciousness are, surely, fortunate that other feminist women know better and are prepared to edit their sexual desires for them.

Or they may wish to tell them to take a running jump.

(To be continued)

Sexual authoritarians and bdsm 1

When people discriminate against people who take part in bdsm, or support the harassment of bdsm clubs, publications and so on, by police and other authorities, they usually believe that they are reasonable people acting virtuously. People ply themselves with reasons when they treat other people badly.

If you enjoy bdsm, Robin Morgan, feminist-except-for-women-who-make-choices-she-disapproves-of, says you’re a traitor to all women.

Harassment and discrimination happen because of political, religious, ideological and other frameworks that define certain people as outsiders, generate dislike for them and provide reasons for messing with them as individuals and suppressing their meeting places, books, videos and so on. Discrimination is hardly ever mindless, though it can appear so. Nor is it “natural”.

People make up reasons for hatred, and those reasons are generally rationalisations, intellectualized and argued, to keep the emotional dislike behind them out of sight.

But discrimination against and harassment of bdsm people comes from other, more emotional partskinds of thinking.

Conservative authoritarianism

One framework that drives legal and other activities directed against bdsm people can be called conservative authoritarianism, which is often religious in inspiration. The conservative authoritarian case against bdsm consists essentially of the premises that deviant sex is evil and that bdsm is deviant sex.

Bdsm is therefore, syllogistically, evil. If more arguments were needed, then there are the considerations that bdsm looks strange, often involves non-procreative sex, may involve people who are not married to each other, or are people of the same gender, and so on.

What’s more, bdsm is part of a category that includes oral sex, homosexuality, lesbianism, bdsm, fetishism, paedophilia, window-peeping and flashing, Satanism, group sex, polygamy and many other things. Tolerating any one of them will only encourage the others.

The Reverend James Dobson strongly supports the beating and whipping of terrified, non-consenting children, but if an adult spanks another adult for pleasure, that is, of course, the devil’s work

The distaste felt by conservative authoritarians for bdsm isn’t so different from their distaste for homosexuality, oral sex, and so on.

The impulse that drove a Massachusetts police officer to force his way into a private party in 2000 and arrest a woman who was spanking another woman with a wooden spoon is the same as the impulse that in 2004 led a Virginia policeman to arrest a 21-year old woman for getting oral sex from her boyfriend (the penalty for oral sex in Virginia is up to five years’ imprisonment), and in 2006 led Republican Ralph Davenport to put up a bill to prohibit the sale of vibrators in South Carolina.

No-one who promotes such laws, and no police officer who selectively upholds them, can possibly believe that these laws prevent any harm or protect any person. The laws simply reflect the reality that other people’s sexual expression can rouse emotions in some other people that can range from discomfort to terror, from dislike to hate.