Years ago I got the idea that sadomasochism was a secularised form of Christianity. The parallels are just too striking to overlook. I let the idea sit for a bit to straighten out my arguments, wrote bits and pieces of it and tossed them out again. And then I read Mary Daly.
″Secular S and M
In christendom as well as in postchristian secular society, the words/expressions of female spirit are raped, twisted, tortured, dismembered. (…) Whereas the christian cross glorified suffering as a means to purification and ultimate joy in the “Afterlife,” the contemporary secular sadomasochistic gospel proclaims that female suffering is joy. “[i]
When I came across this, I was devastated. Here one of the most widely read feminists nonchalantly mentioned in passing what I had been pondering for years. I put my work aside. But re-reading Gyn/ecology, I decided to get back to what I have written and go from there. First, I want to do a little more accessible, practical and straight-foward analysis myself. Second, I don’t agree with Mary Daly’s conclusion: “My point here is not that the sadosymbolism of christianity is the unique source for worldwide S and M. Sadomasochism is the style and basic content of patriarchy’s structures, including those antecedent to and outside christianity. Rather, christianity, with its torture cross symbolism, has been one expression of this basic pattern . I am contending, however, that within Western culture this symbolism has provided legitimation and impetus for subsequent refinements/coarsenings of sadomasochism.”[ii]
I do believe Christianity and sadomasochism are growing out of the same underlying soil of patriarchy. But I also think that sadomasochism is a specific offshoot of Christianity. Christianity and sadomasochism are not two seperate branches of the same tree, sadomasochism is a twig growing from the branch of Christianity.
Sadomasochism is transferable and gets transferred to other cultural spaces, as Mary Daly says. Non-Western societies have their own cultural forms of sadomasochism and female oppression. Yet, sadomasochism as a distinct culture with its own vocabulary, organisations etc, which kinksters themselves call “BDSM”, did specifically grow out of the sexist, imperialist, rich Christian West (Europe and United States), to cater to the needs of sexist, imperialist, rich, male Christian Westerners.
This sexist, imperialist, rich Christian West still exists. We don’t live in a “postchristian secular society”. Christianity still is shot through the very fabric of our lives, whether we are individually aware of it or not. Sadomasochism is a way for Westerners to go along with their Christian imprinting, yet spares them the cognitive dissonance of uniting liberal values and traditional faith. It is a stage of Christianity tailored to fulfil the needs of males (and those who suck up to them) from the liberal upper classes, a class-specific way to ensure the ongoing subjugation of women.
Before I really get into the thick of analysis in the following posts Sacred Kink II, III and IV, I also want to get something out of the way. Namely, the stupid and boring questions Radical Feminists inevitably get asked over and over again when they write about sadomasochism.
Here are my positions, and don’t bother me with this shit in your comments.
″It is called BDSM, stupid!”
I call it sadomasochism rather than BDSM for the same reason why I won’t call males in dresses women. Oppressed groups have no obligation whatsoever to follow the language rules made by the oppressors.
″What about male subs and female doms?”
The vast majority of dominants is male. Female dominants are constantly under pressure to be switches or eventually go submissive, and at “best”, they mimick male power. Submissive men get a kick out of being treated like women under patriarchy: Penetrated, humiliated, sissified etc. After a scene is ended, a submissive male can go and live his privileged life in patriarchy. Women don’t ever get that.
″What about Lesbian and gay BDSM?”
Lesbian and gay sadomasochists glorify and perpetuate the very same patriarchy that makes their life a living hell. Our Lesbian community was invaded by kinksters and ″sex positivists″ as part of the backlash against feminism. Lesbian practitioners of sadomasochism harm our community and other women deeply by eroticising power difference and inflicting mental and physical harm on other women.
“It is all about trust!”
I’ll let Marina Abramović deal with this one:
If the submissive has everything to lose (up to and including her life), it is not ‘all about trust’. It is all about HER trust.
“It is so much deeper than normal relationships! BDSM is safer than vanilla sex because kinky people are so much more aware of boundaries, limits etc!”
“Vanilla” (as if there were such a thing in heterosexuality) and sadomasochistic sex are on a continuum. As a vigilant Lesbian even the most “vanilla” missionary sex freaks me out. Flat on your back, held down by a man’s deadweight, easy to be choked or gutted like a trout, no, thanks. Het sex has been thoroughly romanticised to make it easier to accept (e. g. a happy bride being led down the aisle by her loving and choked-up father versus the transactional history of marriage). This for many women has led to their warning systems to be disabled. Boring missionary needs just as much “trust” as bondage does. Women have just been gaslighted out of perceiving that.
″In reality, the sub has all the power! The dom has to work really hard for their pleasure!”
When Radical Feminists talk about female submissives, sadomasochists claim it is really the subs who have the power. When Radical Feminists talk about male submissives, it all of a sudden is the female dominants who have the power. Sadomasochists can’t have it both ways.
“My boyfriend doesn’t even like to dominate me, he just does it because I want him to!”
If that’s true, you are scum. Teaching a male to mistreat women is the lowest of the low. A woman who urges a man into sadomasochism teaches a man women like to be abused. This is anti-woman betrayal of the highest order.
″But consent! But choices! But empowerment!”
Consent is no miracle cure to determine right or wrong. People consent to participate in “reality” TV shows that make money off their humiliation. People consent to be sold into slavery to pay for debts. People consent to be killed and eaten. People are free to make choices, alright. So let’s focus on choices men make who get off on injuring and humiliating women.
If we assume that there are women who consent freely – it can never be justified or even feminist to promote abuse, not even by the recipients. Many beaten children grow up to defend the parents’ right to beat with the argument it was for their own good and that they benefitted from the discipline. Still does not justify beating.
Consenting to one’s abuse is harmful and it is a fundamental betrayal to other abuse victims.
″Some people are born submissive! They have the need to serve and submit at their deepest core!”
American plantation owners were genuinely convinced they were doing their slaves a favour by allowing them to live by the needs of their subservient nature. It isn’t random that among many post-war Southern narratives that of the ‘faithful servant who begs on his knees to remain master’s property’ is about the most common. I have read articles written by members of the Abrahamitic Three and followers of Hinduism peddling the claim that deep down, women crave to be beaten by their husbands and children crave to be beaten by their parents. Kinksters may (and that’s a big MAY) not have such clear identifiers for the submissive-born as sex and skin colour (although I have seen the claim of ‘all women are submissive inside’ and we all know about ″race play″). It still doesn’t make their position any more worthwhile. Nobody is born to be a slave. If you think that, you are not transgressive. You are the concrete that held exploitation and patriarchy in place over millennia.
″Who made you the police of what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom?”
Sadomasochism doesn’t stay in the bedroom. Kinksters won’t shut up about it. It encroaches all kinds of media, books, art, fashion, education, music, advertisement – it is everywhere. It has encroached even the legal system. You can be beaten to bloody pulp by a rapist and there still will be the assumption that you actually wanted it because ″maybe she just liked rough sex/ all women have rape fantasies/ BDSM game gone wrong″. That at this point the victim has to prove that she did not like it rather than the perpetrator that she did, is a sad state of affairs. By this, the law inherently puts the importance of orgasms over the interest to physical and mental safety. The right to an unencumbered sex life seems to be of more value than the right to safety and health of women. When did this happen, and why? Why is the state more invested in protecting male orgasms than female people? (We know why.)
Additionally, the bedroom is not a sacred space untouched by society and patriarchy. “Two consenting adults in the privacy of their bedroom” is probably the most bourgeois phrase I’ve ever heard. It is on a level with “My home is my castle” in cross stitch embroidery. And not the ironic kind.
(Seriously, I grew up in a housing project with cardboard walls. I know more of my ex-neighbours’ sex life schedule than I ever wanted. So much for ‘privacy’.)
″All you know about BDSM is from Fifty Shades of Grey!”
I have thought about sadomasochism long before these books were written. I for the longest time didn’t understand the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, because the basic plot and character formula are very standard for romance novels and the actual sadomasochism in the text is quite mild (full disclosure: I’ve read excerpts, not the full books). Seen in a wider context of “romance”/”erotica” written for/by women, the Fifty Shades of Grey novels are neither the first nor the most explicit to deal with sadomasochism. What sets them apart from the steady stream of explicitly or implictly sadomasochistic romance/erotica novels sold since literally decades is the incredibly aggressive marketing. Never before have I seen any book being marketed as aggressively as this one. Not even Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight or GRR Martin’s bullshit come anywhere close. Fifty Shades of Grey is a triumph of marketing first and foremost and it has more to do with capitalism than sex or female nature. The text itself to me offers no new insights or particular reasons to bring up in a Radical Feminist analysis. I really don’t give a shit about it.
″It’s all a fantasy! What about movie deaths, boxing matches or spicy food? Do you think people really die in movies/it should be forbidden to consensually beat each other up for sports?”
Putting spices in your food does not inherently tie into the submissive state of females (although the circumstances spices are grown are well worth a closer look. Would there be nutmeg in our food if not for the East India Trading Company?). The superficial tingle of jalapeño is not at all comparable to the eroticisation of oppression sadomasochism promotes – or even the physical and mental outcome of sadomasochism on those practising it. Bloodsports specifically intended to injure, maim and kill ARE forbidden, which is why we don’t have gladiatorial games anymore and animal fighting is considered a crime in most places. Boxing or other martial arts are not inherently intended to maintain the oppressed status of one class over the other.
As for the movies argument – people may get hurt when filming movies, but there are endless precautions that this exactly does not happen. The very existence of stuntpeople who make a living of show-dying without actually dying is proof to that. An actually dead stunt person is a tragedy, because real pain is not supposed to happen. Unlike sadomasochism, which deals out real pain. A movie smack across the face is camera angle make-believe with a sound layered over it in post production. A sadomasochistic smack across the face is real and virtually indistinguishable from an ″domestic″ violence smack across the face. The comparison between the elaborate make-believe of a movie and the reality of sadomasochism is invalid.
“Why shouldn’t people be allowed to put themselves at risk sexually if they are allowed in non-sexual situations (e. g. by the consumption of alcohol, by doing bungee jumping, etc)? It’s about the thrill!”
It’s true that alcohol, bungee-jumping and sadomasochism are liked by humans because of the physiological reaction we get through them. Bungee-jumping and sadomasochism in particular can very well be compared, since their effect relies on two things: The body’s own reaction to an external stimulus and the usage of safety devices to avoid actual damage. Bungee-jumping gives an addictive rush of adrenaline and other hormones because for a tiny moment, our brain thinks it is going to die. We know there is a rope fixed to our ankles, and we know we are not going to die. But our amygdala doesn’t give a shit. Sadomasochism does just the same: The brain’s rational side (aware of safe words, consent, negotiations etc) is overran by the hormones that pain, restraint, dread etc cause to be poured out. This hellbrew of hormones is what leads to a confusion of pain and pleasure, to the brain falling into “subspace” and to the “subdrop” after the scene. Description of sub experiences resemble descriptions of trauma so closely because the brain reacts with the same outpour of the very same chemicals.
Some kinksters seem to be able to negotiate this stress better than others. Still this reckless gambling with the mental health of submissives is inherently unethical. For many women the scene leads to posttraumatic stress. They drop out of it and therefore never make it into the mental health assessments done inside the scene, rendering any such studies useless. Not that kinksters care. Ironically, liberal feminists are very much aware that rational choice does not negotiate the biological impact of trauma in other circumstances: Christian fundamentalist wives build their whole identity around the theology of ‘one flesh’ that makes marital rape impossible by definition. And yet, when they are raped by their husbands, they still experience trauma like any other victim. Liberal feminists have no trouble seeing that, when they are not blinded by their own bias.
“You think women are too weak and stupid to make sexual decisions for themselves! You are sexist and have a saviour complex!”
Exposing oppressive systems is not a declaration of personal weakness of oppressed people inside the systems. It is a question of solidarity among women and other oppressed groups. We either succeed as a group or we lose as a group, and statements like this only serve as a tool to break up our solidarity and splinter our common force.
“It is a way to heal from abuse! Survivors benefit from it!”
Compulsion to repeat a trauma is a symptom of PTSD, not of healing. It is literally training your brain to recall the trauma over and over, which is why experts are pushing to stop “debriefing” for soldiers or first responders. Also, not every coping mechanism bringing short-term relief (until you need the next fix) is a good thing. Alcohol, drugs and self-harm are all ways to deal with pain, and that’s exactly the category where sadomasochism belongs as well. Self-harm by proxy (let someone else do the hurting for you/hurting someone else to externalise pain) is still self-harm. Additionally, all the sadistic males are not traumatised at all. They are just male. If nothing else, cutting off their victim supply and exposing them should be a feminist goal.
″BDSM is subversive!”
Open a history book. Or today’s newspaper. As far back as our written sources reach, the vast majority of societies was and is build on hierarchies, dominance/submission, oppression and exploitation. It is radical to imagine a society free of all this. A place of peace for everyone. Sexualising the power does nothing to subvert it. It just makes power and violence more digestible and appealing. When people look at a whip, they should feel uncomfortable and think about slavery and violence. To conflate a whip with sexual pleasure erases the pain and hides away violence. Yet it does nothing to end the pain and the violence themselves.
″You are a right-wing kinkshamer!”
As for right-wing, right-wingers operate under the assumption that submissiveness is a good thing. They fill libraries with books about how females should be submissives to males and everyone should be submissive to their respective deity. There is also an overlap between right-wingers and kinksters: Even if we leave the Goreans aside (although, why would we, them being an established part of the SM scene for decades?), there are the folks of Taken in Hand and Christian Domestic Discipline.
Regarding kink-shaming: Damn well I think that people should be ashamed if their sexual practices are exploitative, disrespectful to victims of violence, demeaning to women as a class and individually dangerous. I’m a Lesbian. People give me shit for that all the time. Yet, it wouldn’t occur to me to counter that with a whiny ″Don’t shame me!” because I know that there is nothing shameful in loving a woman. That kinksters are so sensitive about shaming tells me they know very well themselves they are scum.
″Women today are so secure in their feminism/strength they can admit they like to be dominated!”
And do they ever.
There is nothing radical in that, and nothing new. When the Story of O hit, this kind of statement was everywhere. When women marched to obtain the vote, anti-feminist women would swear up and down that as strong women they didn’t need the vote since they were queens in their own home already. Romance novels and movies to this day use the trope of the strong heroine who ultimately romantically submits when she’s too tired of the fight. I think it was Balzac who wrote that a housewife is a slave who has to be sat on a throne (in order to be dociled). The line ″You are so strong, you can afford to be submissive/weak″ is really nothing new and always directed at women.
″You just had one bad experience! This or that particular thing is not real BDSM! Safe, sane, consensual! Risk-aware consensual kink!”
There is no universally agreed line to seperate ″real BDSM″ from ″fake BDSM″ or indeed what is ″safe″. This line shifts constantly, depending on who is making this argument, their personal limits and their intentions. This renders a discussion impossible.
As the case of James Deen shows, even the praised pillar of sadomasochistic ethics ceases to be a proponent of “real BDSM” the very moment he gets embarrassing to the community’s image. The man went to bed a praised pro-feminist dom, and woke up a True Scotsman No More.
″In a perfect world, there’d be no power differences. But our world is not perfect and can never be, so we might as well deal with power differences by making a sexual game out of them!”
So, making yourself comfortable in an unjust system is now a valid technique? That’s what people in dictatorships do. Keep your head down, look out for your own interests, snatch some extra cake at the führer’s birthday. Hey, in a perfect world political dictatorship wouldn’t exist. But this world is not perfect and can never be, so we might as well deal with the dictatorship by drawing advantages out of it. Very ethical, that.
″What’s the harm for non-kinksters? Just don’t do it! What business of yours is that all, anyway?”
Sometimes I wish I could go on a separatist Lesbian island and never have anything to do with men and het women ever again. But since this island doesn’t exist and I am forced to get by in a system benefitting men and their collaborators, everything men and their collaborators do is my damn business. I can’t walk on the street without seeing a poster for a student clubbing with a woman having a ball-gag in her mouth (true story). I can’t open the newspaper without being informed yet another rapist has been acquitted in doubt because maybe the victim wanted it rough. I can’t stay out of sadomasochists’ business because they don’t stay out of mine.
“Don’t knock it before you try it! Don’t yuck someone’s yum! Ignorant bitch! Do it before you criticise!”
Just because someone likes to do something, it must not necessarily be ethically right.
In any way, to realise “X is not good for me and others” does not require to have X tested on someone’s actual body. Fracking is not good. I don’t to need personally have drunk poisoned water to be allowed to have this opinion. In sexual matters this rule is even stronger: I don’t need to have been abused to be against paedophilia. I don’t personally need to have tested the ability of animals to consent to come to the conclusion bestiality is wrong. And I for sure don’t have to submit to a SM lifestyle to be able to talk about it. To suggest otherwise betrays a fundamental lack of the sense for boundaries, contrary to the SM community’s claim to be the most boundary-conscious people of all.
“Kinksters are oppressed! Vanilla privilege! We lose our jobs and children when we are outed!”
The overwhelming majority of sadomasochists are white and middle class according to themselves:
(Screenshots from the pdf of Robert Bienvenu, Ph.D, H. Jack McGeorge, Trevor Jacques, The General Psychological Health of SM Practitioners (2002 Annual Meeting, Society for Scientific Study of Sexuality, Montréal, Canada). If you want the pdf, let me know and I’ll send it.)
The kink scene grew out of upper class pastimes (e. g. Hellfire clubs or higher-end brothels catering to rich johns). Donatien de Sade and Leopold of Sacher-Masoch were European nobility. Also, one needs a certain amount of time and financial means to pour into this silly hobby and its toys, munches, dungeons and parties. As a working-class Lesbian I really have a hard time to imagine anything more bourgeois than sadomasochists.
And yes, anyone who likes to bring up their sexual practices in a work place should be fired[iii], and every kinkster should have their children taken away. Sadomasochistic parents do not provide a safe environment for children. They are teaching children to sexualise violence and lie to themselves if they think children don’t figure out their lifestyle. Unfortunately, kinksters’ oppression is all in their minds and children (and co-workers) are not generally considered worthy of protection by the law and society.
“You are virtue-signalling!”
Yes, because women telling men they are not entitled to women’s bodies are totally patriarchy’s darlings. It is definitely Radical Lesbian Feminists who are serving dicks here.
“All your arguments are just making me kinkier! Tonight my boyfriend is going to do X, Y and Z to me and it is your fault! I like to have done to me/do the things X, Y and Z. I need to tell you about that in detail and then ask you what you think about it.”
[i] Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology, The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Boston 1978, p. 93/94
[ii] Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology, The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, Boston 1978, p. 96
[iii] Don’t you dare compare this to ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’. Lesbians and gay men unable to talk about how they took their lovers on camping trip last weekend is not the same as detailing sexual practices. Lesbian and gay rights are about love. “Kink rights” are about fucking.