Why S&M Will Never Be Fully Accepted

Science, technology, and life.
March 4 2013 3:32 PM

The Trouble With Bondage

Why S&M will never be fully accepted.

(Continued from Page 1)

Every article about BDSM now includes the obligatory professional woman who’s secure enough in her feminism to admit she likes to be flogged. It’s great that we’ve come that far, but the message is awkward. While reformers in India battle a culture of rape, Indian BDSM advocates extol the bliss of female masochism. While human rights activists denounce caning and waterboarding, BDSM lecturers teach the joys of caning and waterboarding. Abduction, slavery, humiliation, torture—everything we condemn outside the world of kink is celebrated within it.

The core ethical principle of BDSM is consent. But given the underlying dynamics—one person who wants to dominate, another who wants to be dominated—consent often blurs. BDSM attracts masochists whose boundaries can be pushed. It attracts sadists who like to push those boundaries. According to the New York Observer, “In the last year, hundreds of people have come forward to describe the abuse they’ve suffered within the scene. … The stories ranged from more benign assaults (unwanted groping) to tales of being drugged and raped.” In a survey by NCSF, more than 30 percent of BDSM participants reported that their pre-negotiated limits on violence or domination had been breached. The coalition’s spokeswoman concluded: “There is still confusion between consensual BDSM and assault.”

BDSM community leaders stress the importance of “safe words”—distinctive words that the submissive can utter to make the dominant stop. But that doesn’t always work. Some dominants refuse to honor safe words. Some say they’ll respect them, but then they don’t. In the intensity of a scene, a submissive can be beaten into a state of disorientation that puts safe words and the revocation of consent beyond her reach. DomSubFriends, a kink site, warns, “A sub may be in subspace and not have the presence to stop the scene.” NCSF agrees: “The physical or emotional intensity of a scene can result in the participants getting carried away, or being unable to revoke or modify consent.”

In most BDSM relationships, domination or violence is limited to agreed-upon sessions, known as “scenes.” Violence becomes abusive when it occurs “outside the scene.” But some couples don’t accept this distinction. In a “master/slave” relationship, NCSF guidelines say the slave can “give up contemporaneous consent for the duration of the relationship.” “There are people that believe that if you write a contract giving up your freedom, you give it up forever,” says one BDSM teacher. In these relationships, “if the slave gives up their freedom, that’s it. It’s over.”

For all these reasons, society can never accept BDSM in its entirety. Nor can BDSM fully accept society. If kinksters ever managed to immerse their leather in what they call the “vanilla” world, the vanilla would ruin the leather. That’s what Fifty Shades has done: By flooding sex-toy shops with suburban women more interested in bodice rippers than in ripping bodices, it’s diluting the netherworld. “They took away my BDSM,” sniffed one longtime enthusiast.

Don’t persecute kinksters. Most of them just want the freedom to play out their fantasies, within limits and without losing their jobs. But if you can’t accept consensual domestic violence as just another lifestyle choice, that doesn’t make you a prude. It makes you perfectly normal.


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