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.

Women and transexuals gather at 'Submit Party,' a Bondage, Dominance, Sadism and Masochism get together in downtown New York. Participation among members range from voyeurism to exibitionsim. Drugs, alcohol and coercion are prohibited.
Women and transsexuals at 'Submit Party,' a BDSM get-together in downtown New York.

Photo by Marvi Lacar/Getty Images

You can also listen to William Saletan read this piece.

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Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

What’s wrong with S&M? A few days ago, I raised that question in response to a New York Times cover story about the emergence of BDSM—bondage, dominance/submission, and sadomasochism. My conclusion was that S&M will never be fully accepted, because it confounds mainstream beliefs about harm and consent.

Defenders of BDSM, including sex columnist Dan Savage, disagree. In tweets, essays, blog posts, and Slate reader comments, they’ve challenged my argument. I owe them a reply. Here it is.

Let’s start with the legitimate beefs. I should have made clear, as the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and other responsible BDSM groups have stipulated, that master/slave contracts, regardless of their significance to the parties, are legally void. I shouldn’t have linked, without warning, to a gruesome picture of a butterfly board. Also, in case you weren’t aware, there are lots of male submissives and female dominants. I didn’t think this needed to be said, but apparently it did.

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But let’s come back to the main point: S&M, and to a lesser extent dominance/submission, raises moral problems different from those raised by homosexuality. It touches on questions of violence and abuse. BDSM writers know this, but they don’t like to talk about it in public. So instead, they’re twisting this conversation into a more comfortable debate between people like them—who are open-minded, enlightened, and at ease with their bodies—and the rest of us, who are bigoted prudes.

According to these writers, anyone who worries about BDSM is “sex-negative” and “clearly uncomfortable writing about, well, you know: s-e-x.” Savage says I’m “tormented,” “terrorized,” and “traumatized” by BDSM—which is pretty funny if you know how often his podcasts are praised and discussed in my house. (Sorry, Dan—that’s probably the worst thing I could have said to screw with your cred.) Jessica Wakeman, another defender of BDSM, says I’m trying to “shun and control” homosexuality, which is news to anyone who’s read anything I’ve written on that topic. What these people can’t seem to fathom is criticism that defies their stereotypes: that you can be fine with sex, wary of domination, and deeply suspicious of violence.

Savage, along with several Slate commenters, argues that kinksters have to be free to organize overtly so they can identify and police abuse within their ranks. That’s a good argument. But it acknowledges the problem: Kink requires policing in a way that homosexuality doesn’t. “First playdates should be in public,” warns one Slate commenter. “Play at clubs with event monitors,” advises another. Such guidance would be unnecessary, even rude, if it were dispensed generally to gay men or lesbians. But among BDSM educators, it’s common sense.

Many Slate commenters compare S&M with martial arts, skydiving, or driving cars. They argue that the latter are more dangerous, and therefore objections to S&M are just about sex. But these analogies break down. If you deliberately seek pain or injury during a skydive, you won’t be allowed to go up for another jump. If you drop your guard during a judo match and asked to be struck, you’ll be removed. If you walk into traffic and stand in front of an oncoming car, you’ll be taken in for questioning and psychiatric treatment. The problem isn’t sex. The problem is the intentional pursuit of harm.

Kink educators, to their credit, work hard to teach people how to set limits. And, God knows, BDSM has no monopoly on exploitation or violence. But it does lend itself to abuse. Savage acknowledges that “the D/s dynamic is tricky and it can complicate negotiations and some bad players exploit it.” Clarisse Thorn, author of The S&M Feminist, notes that “BDSM, as an activity, can get really complicated and even problematic.” In Slate’s comments, one advocate concedes, “Some people, domestic submissives, might say that a master is legitimate in beating a sub who doesn't have dinner on time.” Another warns outsiders: “If you want to live life as an effeminate, submissive beta male and go about your bland, colorless existence, that's your business. This is ours. STAY OUT.” What happens when a man who thinks like that pairs up with a woman who thinks it’s OK to be beaten over a late dinner?

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