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.

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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.

A woman, who is a willing submissive participant, is bound and suspended with ropes at a dungeon party during the DomConLA convention on May 18, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
A submissive bound and suspended with ropes at a dungeon party, May 18, 2012.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Is S&M going mainstream?

It looks that way. Twenty to 30 years ago, surveys suggested 10 to 15 percent of Americans had tried it at least once. Five to 10 percent had engaged occasionally in BDSM—an umbrella term for bondage, dominance/submission, and sadomasochism. Fewer embrace it as a lifestyle or identity: Even in big cities, attendance at BDSM conventions is said to be only 1,500 to 2,000. But in the last year, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has sold more than 65 million copies. The membership of FetLife, a social networking site for BDSM enthusiasts, has doubled to nearly 2 million. Sales of books and equipment have increased. So has attendance at BDSM events. BDSM-related Internet searches (domination, master, sex slave, sadism) went up 70 to 80 percent. College groups devoted to “kink,” largely BDSM, gained official recognition at Tufts and Harvard. Pillars of the media establishment—ABC, Fox News, the New York Times—are exploring the rise of kink in unflinching detail.

Political advocates for BDSM see themselves as successors to the gay rights movement. They cite Lawrence v. Texas. They call themselves “sexual minorities” and depict kink as a “sexual orientation.” They seek “legitimacy” by bringing BDSM “into the mainstream eye.” They ask to be “accepted,” “validated,” and “normalized.” They wonder, according to the Times, whether “they are approaching a time when they, like the LGBT community before them, can come out and begin living more open, integrated lives.”

Don’t count on it.

I don’t mean to be cruel. I know people who have lived this life. I’ve watched others tell their stories on YouTube. I’ve read the writings of BDSM teachers, advocates, and organizers. These people are conscientious. Many of them have worked hard to draw boundaries to distinguish domination from abuse. At its best, BDSM is a willing power exchange enveloped in love. But it differs from homosexuality in ways that make it much harder to integrate into normal life.

To start with, BDSM isn’t an orientation. It’s a lifestyle. In the words of one aficionado, “It’s not who you love, it’s how you love.” That makes it much more reasonable to limit this kind of sexual expression. It’s hard to hide the fact that you’re in a lesbian relationship. But it’s not hard to hide the fact that you like to tie up your girlfriend. You can bring her to the office holiday party. You just can’t bring her on a leash.

Second, S&M, by its nature, hurts people. Mild bondage is no big deal. But for sadomasochists, pain is the whole idea. Some stick to spatulas and wooden spoons, but others move on to electric shocks, skewers, knives, and butterfly boards. Women who do S&M porn scenes have described electrical burns, permanent scars from beatings, and penetrations that required vaginal reconstructive surgery. While these injuries were accidental, the BDSM subculture doesn’t regard intentional harm as wrong. According to the “Statement on Consent” developed by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, injury is wrong only if it “was not anticipated and consented to.” The coalition hopes to embed this principle in law, “ensuring that consent will be recognized as a defense to criminal charges brought under assault laws.”

I understand the coalition’s concern. They don’t want nosy neighbors dragging you into court because hot wax burned your nipple. But the BDSM community’s position—that “government must stay out of the bedrooms … of mutually consenting adults, no matter how violent or shocking the activity”—creates perils of its own.

BDSM can be quite dangerous. Responsible practitioners insist it must be “safe, sane, and consensual.” But it attracts people who like to push boundaries. Some submissives are adrenaline junkies: They don’t believe in safety. Recently, several men have admitted to or have been charged with or convicted of crimes including sexual abuse, kidnapping, and murder, all under the cover of BDSM. These men don’t represent BDSM, but they do represent the far end of sadism. On BDSM sites, you’ll find harrowing fetishes such as immersion water bondage and breath play, which some community leaders consider inherently unsafe. Even a standard ball gag can kill the victim by triggering regurgitation.

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.

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