This Sexual Activity Is Giving Women Space To Do The One Thing Patriarchy Hates

Posted on April 21, 2016 in Cake, Upside-Down

Pop culture can be both a positive and negative influence on public perception—and in the case of BDSM, it has been the latter. In the wake of (the baffling) success of the 50 Shades of Grey series, the act of BDSM, of sexual kinks, has been largely seen in a negative light—as something that’s ‘forbidden’, ‘messed up’ and also, a little bit ‘disturbing’. But is it just that, or is there more to it?

Before we start talking about BDSM in-depth, let’s first know more about what it is. On a very basic level, the term is a combination of three abbreviations—‘B&D’, which means Bondage and Discipline; ‘D&S’, meaning Dominance and Submission; and ‘S&M’, which stands for Sadism and Masochism. These are actually  umbrella terms for a large variety of sexual kinks that go beyond the traditional peno-vaginal sexual intercourse and include in its ambit activities ranging from bondage play (i.e, tying your partner down using multiple forms of sex toys such as handcuffs, chains, collars, and so on), spanking, roleplay, ‘tickle torture’ (self explanatory) to some extreme stuff like ‘golden showers’ (urinating) and erotic electrosimulation (i.e using electric simulation to the body to elicit orgasms). BDSM relationships predicate themselves on an inequal distribution of power, where one person is a clear ‘Dom’ or ‘Top’ (i.e, the dominant one, the one in control); and the other is the ‘Sub’ or the ‘Bottom’ (i.e the one who plays the submissive role)—but, however messed up that may sound, it’s important to note that all of these BDSM practices always occur with explicit consent from all parties involved. In fact, consent is held supreme in the world of BDSM, and almost all its activities occur with informed consent which sometimes even include the signing of forms laying out the particulars of these practices (yes, like the one Christian Grey made Ana sign in 50 Shades—but only, more effective). Further, there is also the concept of the ‘safe word’, which is essentially a word that’s decided upon unanimously by both parties to utter during the process of BDSM whenever something goes too far, or beyond consent.

Why, then, is BDSM a subject mired so much in controversy?

BDSM and Feminism—A Tenuous Relationship

Feminist criticism has always been divided and polarized about BDSM practices. During the 1970s and 80s, there took place something called the ‘Sex Wars’ among feminist theorists, which was basically a large-scale debate about the inclusion of various kinds of expressions of female sexuality within the feminist purview. While the debate was initially about lesbian sexuality—it later expanded to include pornography, sex work, butch/femme roles, and most importantly, BDSM. Needless to say, while a large number of feminists were in support of these various forms of expressions of sexuality, there were also a large number of feminists who were against it, and against BDSM, among whom were popular theorists Andrea Dworkin and Susan Griffin.  Their arguments against BDSM revolved around the inherent violence that exists within these practices, especially directed against women, and how it legitimizes the male desire to subdue, assault and control women. Faced with this argument, the one thing that might pop into your head is the issue of consent that I mentioned earlier—that ‘sub’ women participate in these acts willingly, and in fact, their submissive role is a part of their fantasy which they get off on. But, this argument does have a solid basis. 

Sexual fantasies, and even the granting of consent does not exist in a vacuum, and is a product of widespread (often patriarchal) social conditioning which tells women that in the sexual power equation, their role is inherently inferior, and that they are ultimately at the whims of the man. And it’s true—there are men to whom BDSM is about dominating women, about taming their sexuality (take Christian Grey for example); and that is definitely, extremely problematic; but it’s reductive to think that everyone who indulges in BDSM thinks like that, and does it for those reasons.

Human sexuality is complex and diverse, and so is BDSM. It is not just partaken by cisgendered heterosexual couples where only the man is the Dom and the woman the Sub. In gay and lesbian relationships, among the trans community, in fact, even in the asexual community, BDSM is seen as a mode of power exchange, vulnerability and trust.

BDSM As A Liberating Space

While there have been feminists in the past who were anti-BDSM, modern day feminism which emphasizes sexual agency largely supports BDSM.  Same-sex couples—and especially lesbian couples—are redefining the earlier heteronormative power equations of BDSM (ie, the man being Dom, woman being the Sub)—and proving that, ultimately BDSM is about breaking traditional perceptions and norms that exist in society surrounding sexuality and expressing desire. In fact, whether it’s straight or queer couples engaging in BDSM, the power structures are no longer rigid, and the dominant and submissive roles have become fluid, as couples constantly switch these roles.

But, what’s further intriguing is the phenomenon of the ‘power bottom’. A power bottom is someone, who, though positionally in the submissive role, is ultimately the one exercising all the control in the sexual proceedings. This, again, can be accomplished through sex toys, roleplay, and so on. This is truly revolutionary—because it’s questioning and overthrowing every patriarchal norm surrounding sex (and not just BDSM sex), because the power equations are totally reversed. Though the power bottom originated in gay relationships, it has now expanded into the ambit of heterosexual BDSM relationships as well, becoming further subversive. In fact, popular culture is also (slowly but surely) embracing the ‘power bottom’, as evidenced by the bondage scene in hit show Mr Robot’s third episode, where the woman is clearly in control, despite being on bottom.

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The scene from Mr Robot where a pregnant Joanna Wellick is very clearly the power bottom

In fact, the traditional notions of the ‘dom’ are also changing. In straight relationships, many women are now taking on the dominant role, the term for which is ‘Domme’. While there are, again, many positives to this shifting power equation, there is also a negative—the fetishization of the ‘dominatrix’ figure. Very often, in many modes of popular culture (case in point, Irene Adler from BBC’s Sherlock), the ‘dominatrix’ figure is either hypersexualized, or seen as a threat. This harmful trope has become so normalized that ‘dommes’ or ‘dominatrixes’ have now come to be seen as people who threaten traditional sexuality, and who are something to be wary of—and that, yet again, is messed up.

Irene Adler From Sherlock- A problematic ‘dominatrix’

The Problems Faced in Trying to Reclaim BDSM

Once we really understand the nuances of BDSM, we see how it’s more than just a ‘kink’ or a ‘fetish’; and how it can ultimately be a subversive medium. But, trying to reclaim BDSM from its traditional patriarchal understanding (i.e, men dominating women) is not an easy feat, considering the aeons of prejudice and stigma which come with it. Society sees the BDSM or ‘kink’ communities in a similar way it sees queer communities—as ‘abnormal’ expressions of sexuality. To break out of this kind of discrimination, and this extent of kinkshaming has proven to be extremely difficult. Survivors of sexual abuse within the BDSM community have it exceptionally hard, as their claims of abuse are often ridiculed and not taken seriously by people who do not understand how BDSM works. Because of this, many victims of abuse within the kink community refuse to seek help, for the fear of being judged for their desires and blamed for their predicament (or not believed at all). But even the community itself is not entirely safe from abuse; as some people deliberately use BDSM to manipulate, exploit, overpower, and sexually violate. Healthy kinky relationships are founded on clear communication, informed consent, and constant negotiation; so when anyone uses BDSM to abuse, it’s very foundation as a subversive medium is shaken to the core.

Even apart from this, many people (especially feminists) who indulge in BDSM today still find it difficult to reconcile themselves with its earlier connotations of patriarchal violence—the amount of ‘does liking BDSM make me a bad feminist?’ blog posts and thinkpieces doing the rounds of the internet are staggering.

It is, quite definitely, murky moral territory. On the one hand, it’s evident how it challenges patriarchal notions of sexuality, how it’s a space for expression of desires which society would consider ‘abnormal’, how it even challenges gendered power structures—but it’s hard to completely ignore how BDSM basically started out as a consensual way of men sexually assaulting women, and feeding their masculine desires of controlling the female body and sexuality. It’ll definitely take a lot more time and effort (from the kink community and otherwise) to completely divest BDSM of its negative patriarchal connotations, but till then, as long as there is explicit, informed consent from all parties involved, who are we to judge? If there’s one thing that patriarchy hates, it’s women taking control of their own bodies—so as long as BDSM gives women the space to do that, we shouldn’t kinkshame.

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