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.