Why We BDSM Practitioners Should Be Feminists

(Note: The beginning of this essay, with slight variations, was previously published as “Feminism and BDSM” in the book Feminist Essays, which I also wrote.)


For those not familiar, BDSM (and I am referring here only to consensual BDSM, except where stated otherwise) means bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism. Some feminists, though not myself, are opposed to it because they believe it is inherently anti-feminist. In particular, a feminist critique of BDSM o that it contains violence against women; however, I would note that it also contains violence against men, and that, more importantly, the people involved have consented to the violence against them, which is the difference between consensual violence in BDSM and abuse. While BDSM is not always consensual, as far as I know rape of women is no more likely to occur in BDSM than in non-BDSM sex, and nor are other types of anti-feminist harm such as it being used as a weapon of and/or excuse for abuse, there being anti-feminist people who enjoy it, many of the narratives around it being sexist and glamorizing rape and activities that are harmful to women, and industries related to it being sexist and exploitative. As for the argument that feminists should not engage in BDSM because it has been influenced by patriarchal culture, most things in a patriarchal society have been influenced by that culture. Avoiding all of them is simply not possible, and it is possible for something to be influenced by patriarchy and still in itself not be patriarchal. For example, even in those BDSM relationships which involve women submitting to men and even men having hierarchical power over women, they exist only because they are freely agreed upon between the people involved, and can be ended at any time by anyone who says they do not wish to do that anymore, so they are really not the same as sexist abuse or as men having power over women in the business, political, etc. worlds.

In regard to the argument that enjoying being a female submissive or male dominant stems from false consciousness based on internalized social scripts/roles, I would say that socialization does not prevent someone from making a choice. If a person knows that women are not inherently submissive and men are not inherently dominant, and that vanilla relationships are available, then if they choose to be a female submissive or male dominant they are not being forced into it by sexist socialization. Nor has it been demonstrated that female submission or male dominance in BDSM is either the cause of or the result of misogyny. In fact, many female submissives are not at all submissive outside of their relationships, and likewise for male dominants. If BDSM relationships do cause misogyny by being misinterpreted as showing that all women should be submissive and men should be dominant, or as proving that that is already the case, then the harm comes from the misinterpretation and not from the relationships themselves. While power dynamics such as one person being submissive and the other being dominant (or one person having much more money than the other, etc.) can lead to abuse, they are not in themselves abusive. Therefore, I believe our focus should be on fighting abuse directly, not discouraging relationships that could potentially be abusive if they are in fact healthy. As for the argument that power dynamics are inherently unhealthy because they lead to wars etc., I would note that they can also lead to people guiding other people in a healthy way (for example teachers guiding children) and sometimes there are good reasons for a group of people to have power over others. While I do not think there is good reason for men to have power over women, I do think that when considering power dynamics within BDSM relationships we should consider whether a certain power dynamic has a negative outcome such as abuse, rather than simply deem one person consensually having power over another inherently abusive. I do however oppose the idea that topping from the bottom should be criticized – if a person does not want to be the dom/domme etc. for a scene that should be accepted but they should not criticize the sub for asking for the amount of control over the scene they need to be safe and happy. One must also consider female dominance as part of BDSM. While there are instances of women being dominant simply to please their male partner(s) or (in the case of sex work) customer(s), there are also instances of men doing the same, and I do not think it is fair to dismiss female dominance as all performed for men’s benefit (though I do think it is absurd and antifeminist to insist that a domme must wear skimpy and/or uncomfortable leather or make leather clothing and high heels, which men and others are never expected to wear, and which is not an obviously dominant sort of outfit.)

As well, just because some women have been oppressed or otherwise harmed by being forced into something (such as being whipped) does not mean that it is against feminism or self-hating/self-destructive for other women to consent to and enjoy it, else no women could consent to and enjoy sex since many women have been raped. There are also BDSM relationships that do not involve a woman and a man at all, such as lesbian and gay male BDSM relationships, BDSM relationships between genderqueer people, and polyamorous BDSM relationships. Some consider lesbian and gay male BDSM relationships sexist because they are supposedly enacting sexist male and female roles; however, I would say that if you see a person being submissive as being female and a person being dominant as being male, that in itself in a sexist view because it refuses to acknowledge female dominance and male submission. I think that feminism should oppose women being pressured or forced into BDSM and women being abused with their abusers using BDSM as an excuse, because feminism involves advocating for women’s rights, and women should have the right not to be raped, abused or pressured or forced into things they do not want. However, this does not mean that feminism has to oppose women freely agreeing to BDSM. I support women who freely choose to be involved in BDSM, and I think all feminists should, because I support women doing what they have freely chosen to do when it is not harmful (and I do not think the temporary harm of bruises, etc. should be considered harmful enough to order someone to stop, especially since that is not how most feminists react to women freely choosing to participate in other activities that may lead to bruises, etc. such as ice hockey.) It is feminist to oppose rape and abuse, but it is not feminist to oppose women expressing their sexual desires in a way that has been freely chosen, in this case through BDSM, as such opposition restricts such women’s freedoms and diminishes our happiness without advancing women’s rights. So, now that I have established that feminists can and should accept BDSM practitioners, I will now go on to explain why BDSM practitioners should take advantage of such acceptance to be feminists themselves. I believe everyone should be feminists because I think it is the right thing to do, but I think there are particular reasons why BDSM practitioners in particular should be feminists. One of these reasons is simply that feminism encourages women to explore and express themselves, including sexually, and to have more time to do so. I will note here that while daycare and parental leave are necessary, the fact that they are women’s issues (or more accurately mothers’ issues) rather than parents’ issues is sexist in itself because the fact that they are considered so is the product of male parents not doing their fair share of childcare. As well, men must do their fair share of work in paid daycare, otherwise the situation will simply change from women doing an unfair share of childcare at home to women doing an unfair share of childcare professionally. In any case, when women have a decent amount of time on their hands due to daycare and parental leave and male parents doing their fair share of childcare, they will be able to use that time if they wish to explore and express their sexuality if they wish to do so. I have not said this for a laugh; sex is very important to many people, and sex and in particular women’s sexual pleasure is often frowned on or dismissed as trivial. A world in which women had more time to themselves would be, among other things, a world in which this were not so. It would also be a fairer and thus better world in itself. As well, a feminist world would be among other things a world in which gender stereotypes had disappeared, which among other things could only be to the benefit of BDSM. No longer would men feel compelled to be doms to fit the stereotype of the strong man in control (or to be submissive to deal with the stress of living up to that stereotype outside of the bedroom) and women would not any longer feel compelled to do the opposite. Nor would people be able to use gender stereotypes to pressure people into doing so. As well, dommes would feel freer to choose their clothing during scenes and not be pressured into wearing, for example, stiletto heels if they did not wish to in order to fit gender stereotypes. Women in general would feel freer to act out their own sexual desires instead of doing what their partner wanted or what gender stereotypes existed, and this could only lead to better and more authentic sex, and thus among those so inclined better and more enthusiastic BDSM sex. Most of all, rape and sexual coercion against women would no longer exist. All BDSM practitioners should naturally hope for such a world, and thus they should all be feminists.

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