Radical Feminism and BDSM

I was raised by a radical feminist, and I consider myself a strong feminist and proponent of sexual freedom and an activist in the sex positive movement.  So I was startled to be asked “Why is that radical feminists have such an anti-BDSM stance?”

First, not all radical feminists *do* have an anti-BDSM stance, particularly within the BDSM community. I run into feminist women and men all the time who came to an understanding of their kinks & fetishes through a long and authentic personal journey that led them to understand that what they want and need sexually is fine in the context of the Sex Positive movement.

But for radical feminists who don’t have a good understanding of BDSM? Look, when read on the surface, all the cultural norms of male Dominant and female submissive relationships *look like* the cultural norms of oppressive, patriarchal culture.*

If you’re not familiar with most of the conventions of BDSM, it *appears* that males have power and females don’t in these relationships. Female submission in particular is problematic. When I was a child, women were still considered legally the property of their husbands in the majority of the states. If a woman was raped by her husband, it wasn’t rape. Only in my lifetime has that changed. To radical feminists — hell, to most non-kinky human beings — watching a man tie up and beat a woman is like watching a nightmare come true. Watching a woman agree to that is like watching a woman punish herself through her own choices, choose subjugation over freedom, and deny who she really is.

We can’t blame people who are not in the culture for not getting it. If you planted me on an island in the South Pacific, I’m sure there are lots of things I wouldn’t understand. If you winked, I might not understand if you were trying to cheat me, flirt with me, or make an alliance with me. If I went to France and you sold me a ticket to a ballet in Paris, I might go assuming that I had a seat, and be very surprised to find that the ticket I bought entitled me to sit on the stairs. Two fingers held up in a V by a male American soldier during World War II often meant victory; the same gesture made by a long-haired girl with flowers in her hair in 1967 meant peace.

There is so much of counter-culture that simply can’t be read from outside it. If you are in the BDSM community for a year, you start to understand concepts like “consent” and “negotation” and how important they are. You also learn to separate out the true Dominant or Sadist from the jerk who preys on women new to BDSM — the man who calls himself a top or a Dom but who is actually bent on real abuse. When you’ve been in the BDSM community for a year, you see a man tie up and beat a woman, and you understand that this is consensual, the woman has enthusiastically agreed to the scene (or sought it out), and even if it’s not your idea of a good time, you get that he and she are probably having a good time.

When you’ve been in the BDSM community for 10 years, you’ve come to understand it as a culture, or a collective of cultures with their own norms, and you understand that when you are watching a man tie up and beat a woman, you are watching a woman who has exercised her sexual freedom and her right of choice to seek out an intense sensation and a power dynamic that gives her an endorphin rush and gets her off. You understand that much of the power in that relationship comes from the woman giving her power to the man — and that she can take it back at any time.

If you are steeped in BDSM culture for a long time, that scene looks very different. You see power flowing between the two parties. You see the overt power — which looks like it is all the Dominant’s — and the covert power — which is the submissive’s to give over to the Dominant or not. You see, perhaps, the flow of the power as it waxes and wanes in a given scene. If you’re lucky, you see how much love that couple has for each other (if it’s that kind of relationship). And if you’re the very, very lucky submissive — as I am — maybe you’re the woman tied up on the St. Andrew’s cross participating in a deep ritual of love and trust (trust that’s reinforced again and again) that feels like nothing else in the world.

All power to the radical feminists who have their own deep culture and readings and interpretations of things. Just understand: it’s a different culture. And you can’t expect someone who is new to your country to understand what it means when you wink.

–Virginia Lore

* [I’m using the male D / female s construct because that’s the one that raises the most hackles in the feminist community. Female D / male s doesn’t seem to hit the same nerve.]

Author: Virginia Lore

I'm an out, kinky, bisexual, cisgender woman with a penchant for making the world a better place. One of the ways I seek to do that is through this blog; another is through my volunteer work at the Center for Sex Positive Culture in Seattle. I'm also proud to be a parent of two fantastic people who happen to be teenagers right now.

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