Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Refuting The Five Most Common Pro-BDSM Arguments

The Chinese New Year is approaching so Happy New Year to those who celebrate it. I hope my Australian readers have enjoyed their summers. I have and I am not looking forward to returning to university. Wish me luck.

With the-film-that-must-not-be-named coming out next weekend, I feel the need to once again write about BDSM. While I hope that the general public is not thrilled at the thought of women being beaten, whipped or having knives held against their throats (the BDSM community calls this "knife play"), mainstream culture tends to be biased in favour of BDSM.

For example, in the United States, the aforementioned "film" (or rather, pornographic video) received an R-rating (the rough equivalent of an Australian MA15+ rating), not for depictions of extreme violence, but for “unusual sexual activity”. This description matches the BDSM community’s claim that their behaviours are “strange” and “subversive”, rather than violent or aggressive. The word “violence” is also missing from the Australian classification. Meanwhile films (even PG-rated ones) that feature people being whipped or beaten in other contexts are always labelled as featuring “violence”. So why make an exception for physical aggression that is considered sexual?

In any case, the less that is said about the film the better. So here are my responses to the five most common arguments put forward by defenders of BDSM.
1. BDSM is Consensual (and therefore acceptable)

This is the most common argument made by defenders of BDSM (hence it appears first on this list). Some proponents even admit that consent is the only thing which distinguishes BDSM from abuse.

In reality, BDSM is not always completely consensual. Sometimes people are pressured into such activities by their partners, other times there are economic incentives involved. This is clearly the case within the sex industry, but economics can also play a role within relationships, especially in cases where women are dependent on their partners’ incomes. There are also situations in which outright force is used to make people participate or continue participating in BDSM (e.g. a dominant may ignore the safe words used by a submissive and continue to inflict violence upon them).

I recognise that some people do consent to being sexually submissive, but even then I do not view BDSM as morally acceptable. While many people apply the “anything-goes-if-you-have-consent” viewpoint to sex, few apply it to other topics, like economics. Only the most hard-core, economic libertarians believe that it is acceptable for bosses to order workers to labour for more than 12 hours a day, while receiving far less than the minimum wage and being in danger of severe injury or death. Some workers, especially in the third world, agree to such conditions, but no decent leftist endorses such exploitation and neither do I.

By rejecting the BDSM community’s consent argument, I am not being biased against sex. I am being consistent. So if my moral standard or “litmus test” (to borrow a term from an email I recently received) for sexual activities is not consent alone, then what is it? Read on to find out. 

2. BDSM is Sexually Arousing (or otherwise pleasurable)

This second pro-BDSM argument is often used in conjunction with the first one. Since one cannot know for sure whether their partner is experiencing sexual arousal (women, in particular, often fake orgasms in order to please their partners), such arousal cannot be a reliable standard for evaluating sexual behaviours. 

However, it is unlikely that every person who claims to be aroused by their partner’s sexual dominance is lying. Some people do experience pleasurable sensations in response to aggressive acts committed against them, but does this justify such aggression? In spite of what liberals and hedonists may insist, I am not against sexual pleasure or physical pleasure generally. I do, however, recognise that some things are more important than physical pleasure and therefore should not be compromised to obtain it.

This brings me back to the “litmus test” I mentioned earlier. The test I use when discussing sexual activities is the same one I use to make ethical judgements in other situations. I believe that we should aim for a world in which humans treat one another like equals. Relations marked by inequalities in power ( those that involve dominance and submission) should be avoided whenever possible, within the realms of politics, economics, culture and personal interactions. 

While getting consent and aiming to provide pleasure, rather than pain, are part of treating someone like an equal, such things are generally not viewed by radical leftists as an excuse to maintain power inequalities. An apparently benevolent dictator, who is adored by the populace, is still a dictator. A boss, who is polite and understanding towards their workers, is still a boss. Leftists (especially radical leftists) do not trust such people when they claim that they are exercising their dominance for the benefit of those being dominated, even if the latter experience pleasure, or some other reward (e.g. wealth), as a result of being dominated. So why should those who regularly exercise sexual dominance get a free pass? If power corrupts, then it probably corrupts BDSM dominants too. 

3. BDSM does not always involve Men dominating Women 

For these last three arguments, there may be some debate over which is the most common, so feel free to disagree with the order I have put the arguments in. I hear this argument very often, but that may be because I often read blog posts that oppose BDSM from a feminist perspective (like this one.)

The mere existence of female dominants is not proof that gender indoctrination has no influence on the roles that males and females play within BDSM. Unless the BDSM community can show that male and females are equally represented in both dominant and submissive roles, I am not impressed. I believe that the practice of BDSM and its growing prevalence within mainstream culture are the result several hierarchical systems, including male dominance over females, capitalism and white supremacy. 

However, even if BDSM were not related to any political, economic or social hierarchy, it still would not be consistent with my belief in equality. True egalitarianism is not about fighting for a world in which everyone has an equal chance to be dominant. It is about creating a world in which there is no such thing as a dominant group or person. Feminist opponents of BDSM do not want to make the role of the sexual dominant more accessible to women or any other group. They want the role to be abolished, the same way communists  want the capitalist and worker roles abolished.

The existence of “switches” (people who “switch” between dominant and submissive roles) is also used to defend BDSM, but two people taking turns to play anti-egalitarian roles is not the same thing as an egalitarian relationship. The fact that a person has previously behaved in a sexually dominant manner does not change the fact that the person is being submissive in the present and vice versa, nor does an act of dominance somehow counteract an act of submission. If a man rapes a woman, should she rape him in return? Would that somehow make up for him raping her? It may result in some twisted form of “equality”, but this is not the kind of equality that we should aim for. 

4. Opposing BDSM is like opposing Gay Rights 

As a leftist, I am expected to be opposed to prejudice against gays and lesbians, thus I probably encounter this argument more often than conservatives opponents of BDSM do. Since this blog is aimed at leftists and feminists, I think the target audiences encounters this argument often enough for it to be included in this list. 

I oppose homophobia, but not for “sex liberal” reasons. Simply put, my support for gay rights is not based on the assumption that all sexualities are equally acceptable. I support gay rights because, unlike BDSM activities, sexual encounters and relationships between two people of the same biological sex do not necessarily involve power inequalities. This does not mean that people in gay and lesbian relationships always treat one another like equals. Unfortunately, gays and lesbians often take on the same dominant and submissive roles that heterosexuals are encouraged to adhere to. It is however possible to participate in straight, gay or lesbian sexual activities without taking on such roles.

The same is not true for BDSM, since dominance and submission are part of its very definition. Since dominance and submission are the very opposite of equality, it is not logically possible for BDSM to be practiced in an egalitarian manner. People who are into BDSM may treat each other like equals in other situations (though full time BDSM practitioners do not even do that), but the practice itself can never be egalitarian, any more than a triangle can be a circle. 

Liberal support for BDSM is probably a result of liberals adhering to a definition of “equality” which is different from that usually used by political radicals. Liberals believe that equality means granting all behaviours (and thus all people) an equal amount of social approval. Money and other sources of power (e.g. political office) are significant in the eyes of liberals only because they indicate social approval. Radical feminists, however, care less about approval and more about preventing people (particularly men) from exercising power over others (particularly women). The liberal notion of equality seems rather cowardly and conformist (i.e. overly concerned with the opinions of others) and thus is not the kind of “equality” I fight for. 

5. BDSM is about Love and Trust 

This is the last and least common (though still pretty common) argument that I will address in this article. If there are any others you want me to take on, please let me know in the comment section.
The idea that people in BDSM relationships love each other sounds sweet, until you remember that those who make this argument are attempting to justify brutal and often physically dangerous acts of aggression. I guess the idea is that the submissive must really love and trust the dominant, otherwise they would not be allowing the dominant to do potentially dangerous things to their body, but is that really the kind of “love and trust” we want to promote? The kind where you perceive someone as faultless and blindly do whatever they say? Is that not the kind of “love” that dictators and cult leaders promote among their followers? You can call it “love” and “trust” all you want, but that does not make it healthy. 

Abusive men sometimes claim that their violent acts are done out of “love” and tell their partners that if they really loved them they would not leave the relationship. BDSM dominants (whether they are actually guilty of abuse or not) reinforce these claims by labelling their aggressive and dominating acts, as well as their partner’s willingness to submit to them, as “love”. 

Our society demands that women be ever-loving and self-sacrificing, while men are permitted to be sex-crazed and self-interested, even within relationships. Both “ideals” are harmful (whether they are embraced by males or by females) and BDSM takes the first, rather conservative, ideal to its extreme. Instead of focussing on how a “good” romantic partner should be full of love and trust, we should be encouraging people, especially men, to demonstrate to their partners that they are worthy of trust. Healthy trust is a response to trustworthy behaviour, but I will have more to say about this in a future post. 

For now I will leave you with a warning. Though genuine love can be a beautiful thing, we live in a society that celebrates dominance, submission and a distorted version of love, marked by such dynamics. Our culture tells us not to think too hard about love. Radicals recognise that the things we are told not to think about are the things we should think about the most. It is important for feminists and other progressives to encourage discussion about what love is and is not. Healthy, egalitarian love should be promoted in place of blind infatuation, for the latter leads to blind obedience and thus reinforces hierarchical power relations. 


While I have not addressed every argument made to defend BDSM, I suspect that most other pro-BDSM arguments are variations of the ones listed here. In fact, many are based on the same, sex liberal assumptions (e.g. “all consensual sexual activities are acceptable”, “all moral judgements regarding sex are oppressive”, etc.)

The ethical standards I have discussed in this article can be used to critique conservative views regarding sexual relationships, as well as other practices promoted by “sex-positive”, liberal feminists such as prostitution, pornography use and extreme beauty practices. So readers can expect to see these standards invoked again and again in future articles. 
My plan for my next three articles is to write a mini-series discussing egalitarian sex and relationships. The world needs it, given the influence of you-know-what franchise.