BDSM: Deconstructing the Stigma Pt. I – A Lesson in Feminism

Current Events Reporter Charlotte Kissick-Jones is a second year studying English at KCL, and the author of this three part investigative series on the BDSM scene in central London. This piece explores the feminist implications of BDSM from the perspective of students here at King’s College London.

Discourse on the expression of sexuality has long been considered a moral taboo for women. The practise of BDSM, in particular, has been affiliated with female subordination and abuse, both sexually and psychologically. The absence of dialogue on this topic has led to the dangerous consolidation of these misconceptions. This article, and proceeding ones, will focus on deconstructing the stigma around the practise and conversation of BDSM. Through confronting the misapprehensions that have arisen by public fear and inaccuracy of the media, sexuality can be celebrated and embraced as an exhibition of agency. I am hoping to stimulate discussion of BDSM as a feminist topic and encourage the deconstruction of what society views as ‘conventional sex’.

‘negotiate, communication, consent’

BDSM stands for ‘bondage, domination, sadism and masochism’. This is an umbrella acronym that encompasses all types of erotic practises. The roles involved can commonly be defined as ‘dominant’ or ‘top’, ‘subordinate’ or ‘bottom’, or ‘switch’; a switch chooses to alternate between dominating and being subordinate. The term ‘domination’ regularly sparks resentment with feminists however, as I will come to explore further, the role of domination is not gender-specific and functions through the concept of consent. The exercising of agency, regardless of sexual preference, is a feminist practise- a liberation of sexuality and self. Consent is the active process of saying ‘yes’ rather than the absence of saying ‘no’. This notion is imperative in confronting the control of rape culture and defining BDSM. Without communication and consent, sexual practises are no longer classified as BDSM but fundamentally become acts of sexual abuse.

‘Hell, I know some very good female dominants who can top like a mother f*cker’

Feminism is defined as the advocacy of women’s rights to achieve equality of the genders; BDSM functions as an integral act of feminism, enabling sexual freedom for people alike. All of those interviewed for this project identify as feminists, their approaches to the feminist framework of BDSM are alike, with a focus on the opportunity for women to express their sexuality freely and achieve personal desires. One of the interviewees who practises BDSM as a submissive female within an exclusive heterosexual relationship observed that ‘it is a great way to do things that are often not viewed as feminist in a way that is by my own agency. Sometimes you want to be submissive but in real life I would never as it is not me as a woman, a powerful woman’. She describes her experience as a way to open herself up to emotions within her relationship, ‘I have what is recognised as a masculine way of dealing with emotions. I don’t like making myself vulnerable at all, through pain and submission I have allowed myself to become vulnerable’. This connection between her life inside and out of the bedroom shows the importance of the dominant-submissive dichotomy to those who practise BDSM. This conversion of public dominant traits within private moments is similarly witnessed by men who seek dominant women through BDSM to remove themselves from this usual role. A male interviewee stated that ‘it is not all about a man being in power, actually as a man I am happy to be smacked over the arse by a very strong female’. This equal ability to gain sexual satisfaction and exercise freedom of choice is what makes BDSM a feminist act. The role of the submissive is regularly associated to women conforming to a man, but this originates from a heteronormative framework. One of the interviewees, who identifies as a queer woman, favours ‘subbing’ as a method of removing the nervous component from sexual interactions. This identifies the equality achieved through satisfying personal desires and those of their partner. Unfortunately, there still remains feminists who believe that the decision of women to be submissive is an unconscious compliance to patriarchal expectations. Responding to this opinion, the sexual choices of woman through BDSM, regardless of their nature, enables her to exercise her agency as a sexually active individual.

‘Sometimes you want to be submissive, but in real life I would never as it is not me as a woman, a powerful woman’

The topic of BDSM, disappointingly, cannot be addressed without discussing the Fifty Shades trilogy. These erotic novels written by E.L. James admittingly reduced the stigma associated to female sexual liberation and made the presence of kink more public. However, the depiction of BDSM within the novel is inaccurate and subsequently destructive to those who are interested or are involved within the scene. Many of the sexual moments in the book and film disregard the importance of consent. The lack of conversation between both characters around their preferences and safe words is inaccurate of the comfortable and safe environment encouraged by the BDSM community. Similarly, the psychological instability exerted by Mr. Grey, the protagonist, conforms to the problematic stereotype that those who participate in BDSM come from abusive backgrounds. When asked about this misconception one interviewee answered ‘I know a lot of people who have had difficult times and get into BDSM, some people haven’t. I myself have had no abuse as far as I can recollect.’ There are regular workshops held within BDSM communities which approach topics of consent and mental health, as well psychologists being on the scene who people can talk to.

‘Feminism is all about choice and doing what you want, despite how it is conceived’

BDSM, with its broad and encompassing nature, offers an unrestrictive sexual category of liberation. As a feminist I view kinks and all aspects of BDSM as a celebration of human desire. Through open and proud discourse, the BDSM community has the potential to expand, and this will ensure that education on the topic is available to those who are interested and that BDSM is practised safely. The presence of consent is the most vital concept within this community, as stated previously, as the absence of ‘yes’ is no longer the practise of BDSM and instead sexual abuse. Feminism is the movement towards equality for all people, with the right to exercise freedom of sexuality, and BDSM enables a community that can strive towards achieving this.

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