What’s Wrong With S&M? A Reply to Dan Savage.

Science, technology, and life.
March 7 2013 10:14 AM

All The Kink’s Men

Is S&M wrong? A reply to Dan Savage and other defenders of BDSM.

(Continued from Page 1)

Savage takes particular offense at the phrase “consensual domestic violence.” He calls this description of S&M “unfair bordering on unhinged.” Wakeman agrees. “Domestic violence,” she argues, is “by its very nature not consensual.” But commenters have already hashed out this question in Slate, and they’ve found that according to the dictionary, the description is accurate. By and large, S&M is consensual, domestic, and violent. That’s what makes it hard to talk about.

Wakeman depicts S&M as a fantasy world:

"A person who likes being slapped or choked during sex (violence), or who has a rape fantasy (violation), or who wants to be locked in a dog cage and peed on (degradation), doesn’t actually want those things to happen in real life. The reason these behaviors are enticing is because they are a taboo; the safe place to play and explore is in the context of sexual fantasy with a trusted partner. Responsible adults can distinguish between fantasy and reality."

Fantasy? This is more than fantasy. The masochist really does get slapped, choked, or locked in a dog cage and peed on. It may be private, and it may be with a trusted partner, but it’s real.

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And that, in turn, creates problems for other people. The consensuality of violence in your relationship may be obvious to you. But for outsiders, it’s hard to tell. One Slate commenter describes a young man who told his girlfriend’s father: “But that was when she was your daughter: I own her now. She belongs to me." Another commenter complains, “I've had the police try to investigate my husband because my coworkers wouldn't believe that he wasn't abusing me because of bruises on my wrists.” A third cautions that some BDSM participants “like black eyes,” so police should back off if the injured party says it was consensual. Yet these commenters also protest that when they report abuse, cops tell them, “Well, you asked him to tie you up. We can't do anything.”

Kinksters like to say that any act is OK as long as both people consent to it. But they don’t really believe that. Savage rules out anything “that leaves a sub traumatized.” Various Slate commenters draw the line at death, dismemberment, broken bones, or “irreparable harm.” One commenter says you can’t consent to “having someone carve off pieces of you, and eat you, while you watch, before they kill you,” though “many people won't agree with me in the BDSM community.” At some point, most kinksters recognize that the severity of the harm overrides the sanctity of consent.

Fortunately, most BDSM falls well short of that. Kinksters who comment in Slate have worked so hard to distance themselves from “edge play” such as blood, fire, and asphyxiation—which they call “nuts,” “fringe,” and “extreme”—that they now stand accused, jokingly, of “vanilla BDSM.” Which raises some interesting questions: Should S&M be treated differently from bondage? Should edge play be discouraged? Should courts accept consent as a legal defense to criminal charges of assault? And to what extent should BDSM be, as the Times headline puts it, “A Hush-Hush Topic No More”? Savage worries that criticism of BDSM will keep kinksters “closeted.” But he also agrees—contrary to Wakeman—that kink isn’t a sexual orientation, and therefore, as a matter of “boundaries,” your mom doesn’t need to know about your fetish.

These are hard questions. They’re hard because sex is private, but violence isn’t. And they’re hard because domination can warp consent.  A subculture that mixes these elements is inherently fascinating. For some, it’s exhilarating. But it can never be fully reconciled, even with itself.

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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