Why Feminists Should Accept BDSM

Pictured: BDSM Rights Flag

By Lisa Petriello

For those not familiar, BDSM (and I am referring here only to consensual BDSM, except where stated otherwise) means bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, and masochism. Some feminists, though not myself, are opposed to it because they believe it is inherently anti-feminist. In particular, a feminist critique of BDSM has been that it contains violence against women; however, I note that it also contains violence against men, and that, more importantly, the people involved have consented to the violence against them, which is the difference between consensual violence in BDSM and abuse. While BDSM is not always consensual, rape of women is no more likely to occur in BDSM than in non-BDSM sex, nor are other types of anti-feminist harm such as it being used as a weapon of and/or excuse for abuse. As well, BDSM is not more likely than non-BDSM sex to be used to glamorize rape and sexist attitudes, such as sex scenes in media, or to uphold industries that can be exploitative of women, such as pornography.

As for the argument that feminists should not engage in BDSM because it has been influenced by patriarchal culture, most things in a patriarchal society have been influenced by that culture. Avoiding all of them is simply not possible, and it is possible for something to be influenced by patriarchy and still, in itself, not be patriarchal. For example, even in those BDSM relationships which involve women submitting to men and even men having hierarchical power over women, they exist only because they are freely agreed upon between the people involved and can be ended at any time by anyone who says they do not wish to do that anymore. Therefore they are really not the same as sexist abuse or as men having power over women in the world of business, government, politics, etc.

In regard to the argument that enjoying being a female submissive or male dominant stems from false consciousness based on internalized social scripts/roles, I note that socialization does not prevent someone from making a choice. If a person knows that women are not inherently submissive and men are not inherently dominant, and that vanilla relationships are available, then if they choose to be a female submissive or male dominant they are not being forced into it by sexist socialization. Nor has it been demonstrated that female submission or male dominance in BDSM is either the cause of or the result of misogyny. In fact, many female submissives are not at all submissive outside of their relationships, and likewise for male dominants. If BDSM relationships do cause misogyny by being misinterpreted as showing that all women should be submissive and all men should be dominant, or as proving that that is already the case, then the harm comes from the misinterpretation and not from the relationships themselves.

In regard to forced feminization as part of BDSM, I note that this is a reflection of, rather than a contribution to, misogyny; as when women stop being considered inferior to others and actions such as wearing makeup stop being associated exclusively with women, there will be no reason for forced feminization to exist, as feminization will not be considered either inherently degrading or even a coherent concept.

While power dynamics such as one person being submissive and the other being dominant outside of the bedroom (e.g. one person having much more money than the other, etc.) can lead to abuse, they are not in themselves abusive. Therefore, I believe our focus should be on fighting abuse directly, not discouraging relationships that could potentially be abusive if they are in fact healthy. As for the argument that power dynamics are inherently unhealthy because they lead to wars etc., I note that they can also lead to people guiding other people in a healthy way (for example teachers guiding children) and sometimes there are good reasons for a group of people to have power over others. While I do not think there is good reason for men to have power over women, I do think that when considering power dynamics within BDSM relationships we should consider whether a certain power dynamic has a negative outcome (such as abuse), rather than simply deem one person consensually having power over another inherently abusive. 

One must also consider female dominance as part of BDSM. While there are instances of women being dominant simply to please their male partner(s) or (in the case of sex work) customer(s), there are also instances of men doing the same, and I do not think it is fair to dismiss female dominance as always performed for men’s benefit. 

There are also BDSM relationships that do not involve a woman and a man at all, such as lesbian and gay male BDSM relationships, BDSM relationships between genderqueer people, and polyamorous BDSM relationships. Some consider lesbian and gay male BDSM relationships sexist because they are supposedly enacting sexist male and female roles; however, I note that if you see a person being submissive as being female and a person being dominant as being male, that is in itself in a sexist view because it refuses to acknowledge female dominance and male submission. 

I think that feminism should oppose women being pressured or forced into BDSM and women being abused under the guise of BDSM because feminism involves advocating for women’s rights, and women should have the right not to be raped, abused, or pressured or forced into things they do not want. However, this does not mean that feminism has to oppose women freely agreeing to BDSM. I support women who freely choose to be involved in BDSM, and I think all feminists should because I support women doing what they have freely chosen to do when it is not harmful (and I do not think the temporary harm of bruises, etc. should be considered harmful enough to order someone to stop, especially since that is not how most feminists react to women freely choosing to participate in other activities that may lead to bruises, etc. such as ice hockey.) It is feminist to oppose rape and abuse, but it is not feminist to oppose women expressing their sexual desires in a way that they have freely chosen, as such opposition restricts those women’s freedoms and diminishes their happiness without advancing women’s rights.

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