Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Feminist responses to the mainstream appropriation of BDSM: Part 1

Now that E.L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey has been released as a major motion picture, feminist perspectives on BDSM sexual practices have gained renewed attention. BDSM stands for bondage/discipline, domination/submission, and sadism/masochism. (For a general overview, visit this page.) The popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy is largely due to this type of sexual content. Recently, BDSM has been commercialized and appropriated by the mainstream culture more than ever before. The fact that Target and other national chain stores are selling Fifty Shades-branded products illustrates this. Obviously, feminists are concerned that any structural inequalities reproduced within BDSM relationships are being overlooked by the average American. The possible harm resulting from this is currently a point of debate among feminists and other voices in the media.

Sex-negative and anti-BDSM feminists posit that we cannot disregard the presence of inequality and the “false consciousness” described by Catherine MacKinnon, and BDSM encounters are often not any more consensual than regular ones. However, sex-positive feminists think that an awareness of BDSM aids in discussing consent, recognizing non-heteronormative lifestyles, and breaking rigid gender roles. Those who label themselves sex-critical attempt to reconcile both views within a nuanced framework, while accepting the idea that more research is needed. Although one can understand why individuals within the three theoretical camps choose to either protect or reject BDSM practices, it can be difficult to take a stance on the issue.

One of the difficulties in forming an opinion is predicting how BDSM will evolve. The entertainment industry has chosen to promote one of the more harmful variations of a BDSM lifestyle. Fifty Shades of Grey adheres to traditional, gendered constructions of sexuality. It shows only the submissive female/dominant male coupling. The male character has wealth, power, and experience, while the female character is a student and a virgin. At times, the plot points seem to involve stalking. In fact, the plot was originally a piece of Twilight fanfiction, and Twilight has been criticized for romanticizing a predatory relationship. Furthermore, a sex contract is used in Fifty Shades as a stand-in for consent. Some people seem content with this pop culture version of BDSM without further educating themselves on actual practices and domestic violence. However, several BDSM communities have denounced this inaccurate portrayal of BDSM and its careless treatment of consent. Some anti-pornography and domestic violence groups think that selective appropriation of BDSM practices and terminology can be used to conceal sexual and physical abuse.

The current uncertain legal status of BDSM divides opinions as well. Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi attempted to diffuse accusations that he assaulted several women by framing the assaults as BDSM encounters. Most people did not buy this excuse, and he was forced to leave his show. Although some have taken this as evidence that BDSM will not suffice to cover sexual violence, the law rarely offers all women the protection they expect. Contrast the Ghomeshi scandal with Canada's treatment of a female judge whose nude photos were released without her permission. There have been many low-profile BDSM cases in which the woman was allegedly assaulted, but the courts chose to gloss over consent issues. In these cases, the women negotiated sex contracts or met someone through an S&M dating website. The courts interpreted the initial agreements of consent to excuse unwanted contact or injury that occurred during encounters. BDSM itself violates laws in several states, but participants and feminists could probably agree that many states complicate the matter by not updating their codes or protecting sexual expression enough. Some think that sex contracts will not be enforced by courts, and cannot be, due to inherent power imbalances that cannot be separated from them. For a recent Harvard Law Review article on sex contracts, visit their site.

Within BDSM communities, many individuals communicate requests clearly and obtain verbal or written consent for each act precisely because the law is unpredictable about sexual expression. Sex-positive feminists think BDSM is a good model for consent. Please see this earlier post in our blog. Many LGBT and gender queer groups support BDSM because it broadens views on gender. However, it does not eliminate them. In part two, I will discuss whether radical feminists are correct to be concerned about sexism and gender issues in BDSM communities.

Finally, here are two additional resources before I move onto part two: if you want to read several interesting studies on pornography, visit this site. To learn about individuals who do not experience sexual attraction, visit the Asexual Visibility and Education Network.


Damon Alimouri said...

I just want to say that by the looks of the trailer, the movie seems pretty terrible. I'm sure everything about it is garbage--from the acting, to the screenplay, to the cinematography, to the score.

How could something so vacuous enthrall so many people? I guess there's a Foucauldian answer. Our society appears to be sexually free, yet in actuality most people are quite sexually repressed. Consequently, people go mad when they are given something slightly out of the ordinary and provocative.

Jessica S. said...

I agree that most people are repressed. Many do not even know that PIV, hetero male pleasure-centered sex isn't the only option. And this "book" and "movie"? I think the entertainment industry and society cannot even handle anything about sex that doesn't advance the male dominance agenda. Sell that oppression and brainwashing. That's why instead of choosing a real book or story on BDSM, they chose a recycled, lazily written fanfic (original names in it were Bella and Edward) whose author is married to a bigwig. It's funny you should use the words "go mad" since 2 women tried to injure a man outside 50 shades, and other crazy incidents have happened.

Juliana said...

I really appreciate the point you bring up about the male/dominant and female/submissive, heteronormative relationship being problematic. I think the way heteronormativity gets played out in the 50 Shades of Grey plot is one of the biggest problems because it perpetuates McKinnon's theory of dominance feminism -- women being used as sexual objects at men's disposal.

Rebecca F. said...

I appreciate a number of the points you’ve raised with regard to 50 Shades of Grey – issues like structural inequality, consent, rape, and violence within romantic relationships are incredibly important to address. And I agree that the mainstream acceptance of 50 Shades of Grey and the relationship it portrays is quite troubling given the way it handles those issues.

However, I think it’s important to note that for most members of the BDSM community, the novel and movie do not accurately reflect their lifestyles. Frankly, many people (both within and outside of the community) view the relationship in 50 Shades of Grey as non-consensual and abusive. Consent is necessary and critical in any intimate relationship. And, actually, most BDSM interactions are much more consensual than other sexual encounters – everything is discussed and agreed to explicitly, even if it might be uncomfortable to talk about. I found this description from members of the community quite helpful: you’re far more likely to have a non-consensual and unexpected sexual interaction in the back of a frat boy’s car than you are in a BDSM scene. And I think this is because the BDSM community is better about explicitly discussing sex and getting consent.

Finally, I think the agreements made between partners are designed to ensure clarity, not as a means of legal defense. There have been countless legal charges brought as a result of BDSM encounters – even where the “harmed” party explained that the conduct was consensual.