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

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William Saletan William Saletan

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.

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?

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.

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.

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