In order to further explore contemporary feminist views on mainstream BDSM, it is necessary to divide opinions into sex-positive and sex-negative. This does not mean that the sex-critical position is somewhere in the middle, but it would be difficult for the purposes of this post to use a sex-critical approach. Years ago, I initially sided with sex-positive feminists due to the visibility of their activism. I have since changed my stance. Although the points below superficially address one part of America’s sexual landscape, I hope they encourage you to think about how feminism, sexuality, and culture intersect in your life.
While Fifty Shades of Grey created a derivative BDSM for heterosexuals, it would be too facile for feminists to center their discussions within the book/movie’s version of it. They have spoken out about the obvious issues (as chronicled in part 1), but are reserving more careful scrutiny for the BDSM communities that cater to individuals seeking the Fifty Shades experience.
Mainstream BDSM would likely only be justified as acceptable by expanding sex-positivism. Many sex-positive feminists have long held that BDSM should be legally and socially protected because sexual practices in themselves are not harmful; suppressing autonomous choice is the problem. Large numbers of feminist men and women find themselves drawn to sex-positivism because America has a long history of punishing female and LGBT sexual behaviors and accepting rape culture narratives. Margo Kaplan’s "Sex-Positive Law" argues that sexual pleasure is devalued in our society. Sex-positivism’s practical applicability to sexual violence also increases its visibility and number of supporters. The campaign against sexual assault has focused on consent, and the acknowledgment of the importance of consent has been significant for many individuals. Feminists know that incremental, real-world changes must happen. Essentially, if someone thinks sexual agency advances gender equality, they appear to have nowhere else to go outside sex-positivism. Other theoretical perspectives have not been identified with promoting replicable, positive behavioral models.
Katie Roiphe’s controversial Newsweek article about working women and BDSM illustrates the collective frustration of living out feminist principles. Roiphe states that we should accept desires for what they are, and using sex-critical approaches or becoming radical feminists will not change them. Roiphe seems to be correct in pointing out that no woman can be the “perfect modern feminist” at all times. However, I find that sex positivism is too idealistic about what it can accomplish. Romanticizing sexual practices as cognitive processes that defy change will momentarily liberate us, but cannot ultimately relieve burdens. Also, formulating temporary solutions does not mean that the root causes of problems are adequately addressed. For example, the social acceptance of BDSM has not meaningfully changed anything within it. BDSM was de-classified as a mental disorder in 2010, and it is currently becoming de-stigmatized. Students have been forming kink organizations on college campuses. Many people feel more empowered, but the gender, race, and class issues we are supposedly transcending have not been significantly affected. There is not enough attention paid to these issues. In fact, I found that sex-positive feminists deliberately avoided many questions raised in their own articles and interviews.
Sex-positivism attempts to salvage its weaknesses with more entreaties to tolerance and understanding, but it never corrects its overestimation of women’s empowerment. Katie Roiphe’s article elicited several comments from women about the exhaustion they face daily. We have been hearing that balancing work and family is tiring, but to frame it as a “balancing” or “having it all” conundrum falsely assumes women have more power and opportunities than they actually do. There has been a small backlash against the “feminist victories” won by sexual empowerment. It does not serve us well to confuse having choices with being free from oppression. Some women are skeptical of mainstream BDSM, but several critics of Roiphe insist that sexual agency and correctly understanding BDSM will remove doubts.
Sex-negative voices point out that Roiphe’s critics do not fully understand BDSM as practiced in America. However, not many feminists want to be labeled sex-negative. The feminist “sex wars” era caused fallout for some of the more radical voices, and sexual liberalism won out. Currently, no consensus exists on what sex-negativism endorses as its favored theoretical foundation. Thus, feminists developed several ways of looking at the reconstruction of power dynamics that is said to be the main problem with sex-positivism. At the extreme end, BDSM is legitimized domestic violence. The existence of male submissives is not thought to disprove the idea since men can return to the dominant class anytime, and women can never do this. Toward the middle is Margot Weiss’ "Mainstreaming Kink: The Politics of BDSM Representation in U.S. Popular Media." Weiss claims that instead of truly appreciating minority sexualities, many Americans are normalizing an escape mechanism. Weiss determined that the consumer-culture we live in creates a desire for the authentic. However, privilege allows many people to reinforce existing boundaries and not face consequences since they can easily exit at any time. Lisa Downing and others support Weiss’ Foucauldian suspicion of feminists’ silence on the deeper issues. But it is difficult to remember how the patriarchy and capitalism are at work in our sex lives without concrete examples.
Researchers published essentialist and constructionist narratives of why individuals get into BDSM. But more convincing are stories from BDSM practitioners chronicling the problems that sex-positivists try to ignore. Danielle J. Lindemann writes about women who do BDSM for a living, and the pressure to fit male clients’ expectations can cause them to worry about their bodies. Some women attack other women’s physical appearance rather than realize they have been made into commodities. Even without money involved, women are subjected to a double standard in which they must wear elaborate clothing, makeup, and heels to be part of “the scene” while men can put in minimal effort.
Women are given stereotypes from pop culture to assume, and these stereotypes often have racist and sexist elements to them. Submissive women and dominant women alike can experience violence, harassment, and demands from men who are accustomed to male privilege. Men seeking to use women as entertainment on BDSM dating sites have prompted women to strategize ways to avoid insults and manipulation, much like what happens in other environments with sexual harassment. Heina Dadabhoy notes that there is a disproportionately-high number of BDSM households where one man has many female partners who are supposed to be faithful to him. She notices that participants are replicating a sexist society despite one explanation of BDSM as a route to subvert gender roles. Even submissive men can be prone to thinking women should cater to every detail of their fantasies. Submissive women in particular are more vulnerable to sexual assault because some men use BDSM as a cover for abuse. As stated in Part One, the law is not on a woman’s side once she has consented to a BDSM encounter. It can be embarrassing for women and LGBT individuals to come forward since BDSM is not truly accepted as normal, despite its consumption as titillation. Several women have written articles on their BDSM abuse experiences.
The observations above reinforced my opinion that sex-positivism might be excluding some women’s hesitations about freeing all sex acts from scrutiny. Sex-positive feminists ought to address sex-negative ideas more often. I understand that it is not easy to be sex-negative or exist somewhere along the spectrum of sex-critical, but sex has been too insulated lately from the feminist conversation. It strikes me as odd that not many individuals have questioned the abbreviated message of freedom, tolerance, and consent that we are getting. Where is the post-sexual liberation awareness about race, class, and heteronormativity apart from dissections of commercial entertainment? Besides consent, there should be attempts to analyze whether exploitative structures are being recreated in the moments we feel most separated from them.