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

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.

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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.