Bondage and Patriarchy

A few posters have requested that I transfer this discussion of BDSM and patriarchy into its own thread (right now it’s taking place in the “root of all oppression” thread). So here are a couple of posts, to get this thread started; and then I’ll copy over a bunch of the comments, where appropriate.

Myca wrote:

…To call BDSM a representation of male dominance and female submission is both 1) factually inaccurate in the huge and important number of cases where there aren’t any women, aren’t any men, aren’t two people, the woman isn’t submissive, or the man isn’t dominant, and 2) it seems to miss the point even in the cases where it’s not factually inaccurate on the face of it.

What I mean by #2 is that . . . well . . . hmm . . . look, I don’t think that gay male relationships are sexist because they exclude women. In fact, I lose respect for people who make that argument. I don’t think that a relationship between two white people is racist because it excludes black people. Once again, I would lose respect for anyone who make that argument. For me, BDSM is the same thing.

“Excluding women” in the bedroom or in a romantic relationship isn’t the same thing as excluding women outside of it. “Excluding black people” in the bedroom or in a romantic relationship isn’t the same thing as excluding black people out of it. A deliberate choice to play out a power imbalance in the bedroom isn’t the same thing is perpetuating a power imbalance outside of it. Maybe it’s just that I think of sexual/romantic relationships as something “different.” It’s just how we are. We’re attracted to who we’re attracted to. We get off how we get off. Our kinks are our kinks.

Then, cicely wrote:

Yes, Myca, I think along those lines as well. I’m not ready to concede that anyone on the planet has the complete answer to the question ‘why is the eroticisation of power so pervasive in human sexuality?’, and certainly not adherents to any political ideology, even one that I consider myself in harmony with on more than a few issues. I guess I’m just not big on foregone conclusions. I prefer to keep asking questions, especially about other peoples lives and eccsperiences.

In any case, it is not impossible for an individual to work in a battered womens shelter, campaign for better childcare facilities, a more even distribution between the seccses of wealth in society, whatever – i.e make a significant practical contribution to the betterment of womens lives, then go home (or somewhere) and engage in consensual d/s sexual activity! These things are not mutually exclusive.

After that, Charles responded:

Myca and cicely,

As a fellow pervert :), I have to strongly disagree with your rejection of the idea that BDSM practice should be subject to radical feminist analysis (cicely, your position seems more nuanced than Myca’s blanket rejection, but I still find it problematic).

The fact that sexual preference is largely not subject to conscious control does not mean it shouldn’t be examined critically. The fact that one can both be a feminist and have BDSM desires (and practices) does not mean that one’s BDSM practice and desire is positively compatible with one’s feminism (one can also be an asshole and a feminist, or a professional torturer and a feminist, so coexistence doesn’t equal validation).

Likewise, that BDSM does not consist of a trivial replication of men oppressing women does not mean that it is unconnected to patriarchy.

While it is possible to have specific meaningful discussions of the basis of the eroticization of power without referencing patriarchal domination, I think that refusing to talk about the relationship between eroticization of power and patriarchal domination (or rejecting such arguments as naive) is crippling to a full understanding of either.

I think treating sexuality as something that just is is a mistake, and I think that trying to understand sexuality under patriarchy while ignoring that the sexuality under discussion exists under patriarchy is a mistake. I also think that recognizing that BDSM sexuality is constructed under patriarchy is not a simply blanket condemnation of BDSM sexuality, particularly not in comparison to unconsidered vanilla sexuality, which is (obviously) also constructed under patriarchy. While it is possible to work to reconstruct one’s sexuality in a direction that is oppositional towards patriarchy (and I think that Safe/Sane/Consensual BDSM is to some extent such an effort), I think that to do so requires recognizing the relationships between one’s sexuality and patriarchal oppression.

Incidentally, my own views on my own sexuality are (strangely enough) strongly influenced by Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse (originally by osmosis in the late 80’s, but when I actually read it a few years back I was impressed with how strong the osmosis had been), so I feel strongly that radical feminism can provide useful tools for understanding BDSM sexuality in terms that are more complex than “BDSM is bad”.

cicely, I realize that you commented that you were not trying to start this conversation here, but I think it might be an interesting one. Perhaps it needs a top level post of its own? Amp expressed to me a willingness to have such a top level post, if you and Myca would be interested in going into these questions further.

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106 Responses to Bondage and Patriarchy

  1. 101
    Thomas says:

    Laura, I think there’s more to people’s unease with 24/7 D/s relationships than just YKINOK.* We’re all talking here about how to prevent the inequality we deliberately create within a scene from spilling over into our lives, but in a 24/7 relationship, it completely takes over the relationship by design. Without jumping to conclusions, it sure does raise issues. Even for feminist folks that want to have a 24/7 D/s relationship for a set period, it takes a lot more work to set limits during that period than for just a three-hour scene.

    Also, and this might must be my biased perception, it seems like the “men/women are inherently superior” nonsense is more prevalent among folks who do 24/7 relationships. I wonder how much people are simply attracted to the idea of it and have not yet accepted that the reality is tough to execute.

    There’s a long history of persistent D/s relationships, especially in the old-guard gay men’s leather community, so I’m not tossing around condemnations, but especially in opposite sex couples, it really does raise major issues.

    *”Your Kink Is Not Okay”

  2. 102
    Vito Excalibur says:

    There may well be few female tops; but that’s because there are few tops, period. In my anecdotal experience I run into maybe 7 people who are primarily interested in bottoming for every 1 person who is primarily interested in topping. That’s *definitely* both men & women, by the way. Susie Bright writes about how “there is no demand for submissive middle-aged men.” In general I find tops in demand and bottoms a drug in the market.

  3. 103
    E.C. says:

    I was wondering when 24/7 D/S was going to come up. There’s a fair amount in BDSM that I find emotionally disturbing, though I think that’s mostly irrational prejudice on my part; intellectually, I don’t have ethical qualms about the majority of it. Some forms of 24/7 D/S, though, I find it very hard to reconcile myself to accepting as ethical.

    One thing that disturbs me in online BDSM venues are the 24/7 subs who laud their masters as better than themselves. Participants generally come down hard (and rightly so) on those who claim men or women are inherently superior, but I worry about subs who talk disparagingly about themselves in comparison with their masters, particularly when it’s in conjunction with limits they’ve since discarded — for example, when subs thank their masters for being so patient with their cowardice after they’ve been coaxed past a limit. Ditto for any variant on “I’d be lost without my master” or “I’m only glad that someone like me found someone like him/her to guide me.” An almost desparate-sounding “I’d do anything for you!” attitude on the part of 24/7 subs strikes me as fairly common in the BDSM forums I’ve read, and it doesn’t seem to raise red flags, at least not in the common discussion space. I see that sort of attitude expressed in vanilla society as well (and find it just as disturbing there), but the vanillas I respect find it problematic.

    This reminds me of something else that bothers me: situations where the sub’s duty is to please his/her master, and to do otherwise is grounds for punishment — not pleasurable “punishment,” but actual correction. I’ve seen subs write to BDSM advice forums with a problem they’re having with their dom, generally cases where they’re upset about something the dom is asking them to do. “Have you told him/her about the problem?” comes the response. “I can’t bring myself to,” says the sub. “You owe it to him/her to be honest,” say the responders. But when a couple cultivates a dynamic where one party is supposed to be hypervigilant about pleasing the other, it makes me wonder how much room the sub has, emotionally speaking, to even admit to him or herself, much less the dom, when he or she really hates something and wishes it wasn’t happening. Especially given the idea I’ve seen expressed, with little controversy, that 24/7 submissives should be expected to engage in activities they dislike or even hate. So many people, particularly women, are socialized as people-pleasers, and I know from experience that it can be difficult to admit except in retrospect that you really despised a particular activity. (I particularly worry when somebody tries to get their vanilla spouse to sub to them, which is why I really appreciate some of what Charles has articulated in this thread.) Now, I understand that there are subs who specifically want to be forced to do things they hate — on a meta level it turns them on, and I have a hard time viewing that as nonconsensual however much it disturbs me on an emotional level — but I’d been reading BDSM fora for a long time before I saw it conceptualized that way.

    I’ve seen couples who really seem to think through the ethical issues involved in this type of relationship, but to me it looks like a mighty fine tightrope to walk.

  4. 104
    Thomas says:

    Vito, I agree that bottoms outnumber tops, but the Suzie Bright article is about something else. She’s talking about Jeff Gannon, a man-for-men sex worker. The market and the terminology are different, and to say that there was no market for him as a professional bottom and a middle-aged man doesn’t necessarily mean that no gay men want submissives in their forties, let alone that straight men, or straight women, or lesbians, are not looking for submissive partners in their forties. In fact, as a viewer, I’ll take clips of forty-something and fifty-something women with grey hair and older bodies doing really heavy scenes over hardbodied twentysomethings engaged in a lot of light play.

    EC, the things that annoy you annoy me, too. I really wonder if there are folks out there with good, working 24/7 D/s relationships. It seems to hard to do and preserve the submissive’s sense of self.

    You mention doing things in scene that the submissive doesn’t like, and as you recognize, that’s a different story. In my relationship, the scenes have clear boundaries, and my wife and I can talk on even footing about what we’ve done and what we may do while we’re not playing. Against that backdrop, she can do things to me in scene that I really don’t like. I particularly hate ball torture after I’ve climaxed, but when we do orgasm denial play, if I come without permission, I’m going to get my balls beaten. I know that, and the credible threat of punishment keeps me honest and makes me really resist argasm without permission, which is what makes those scenes work. I think as long as folks can have clear communication about what they do in scene, without the power dynamics of the scene interfering, there’s not much of an issue. That’s part of what makes me so skeptical of 24/7: even if there’s a designated opportunity to speak freely, if someone is walking around and living within a submissive mindset all the time, how can they just turn on a dime and step out of it?

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