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)