[CONTENT NOTE: abuse mindset, violent behaviour]
So today on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog service, Emer O’Toole writes that a murder in a BDSM relationship has “made me rethink my sexual practices”. This is a sad and, if I’m honest, distressing read for many BDSMers who aren’t murderous or abusers.
Girl on the Net and <a href="http://mollysdailykiss.com/2015/03/31/a-marked-difference/"?Molly Moore @ Molly's Daily Kiss have both commented in a general way on how this is a harmful and mistaken attitude to take, and how analysing and examining need not be a synonym for rejecting our desires.
Carter @ Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar demolishes the logical fallacies in O’Toole’s approach.
These are all excellent commentaries. I wanted to add to them by looking at some of the specific assumptions, either stated or implicit, in the article and challenge them directly.
The first is blatant, though implicit: “I’m making this critique not as a kink-shamer, but as a challenge to myself: what are my reasons and justifications for inviting or accepting male sexual violence?” Do you see it?
“BDSM=Male Sexual Violence”
The obvious retort is, “Um, do you see that woman over there holding a flogger and standing over a naked, restrained man? Where’s the male sexual violence there?” I’m not completely satisfied with this retort, because of the prevalence of feminisation and crossdressing as a submissive fantasy.
But there is a lot more to BDSM than violence. Only sadism/masochism (the SM part of the BD, D/s, SM combination “BDSM”) involves explicit violence. Bondage (the “B”) can involve force, but is often completely co-operative and collaborative in producing the effect of restraint. Discipline (the first interpretation of “D”) may well carry implied violence, but can equally be a matter of self-discipline, or of “corner time”, the “naughty step”, “writing lines”, or other non-violent but focussing assignments. Domination and submission (the “D/s” part) is frequently service-oriented with each partner supporting the the other and making devotional acts. We don’t use that language to talk about Dominant partners so much, but I’ve been there and the same care and attention and focus on the other is present.
This leads to the next, overlapping, assumptions:
The dominant ideology in kink communities is that BDSM creates a sandbox or play space around impulses which clearly have their roots in sexism or other prejudice. The sandbox allows role play that expurgates dangerous desires in a cathartic manner, rendering doms safe, egalitarian people who do not want to hit or kill women in the real word. In short, it’s believed that BDSM gets violent urges out of our systems.
Except, this isn’t how human psychology functions. We do not siphon off fiction or play from our social realities. Rather, the values and norms of the fictions we consume or participate in suffuse our world views and influence our actions.
Participating in violent sports or fictions does not always make us less violent, but can do the opposite. Watching aggressive pornography does not quell our desire for aggressive pornography, but, contrarily, can create a desire for increased violence. If we know and believe this about video games, movies and porn, then why do we suddenly deny it when it comes to BDSM?
The description above of the “dominant ideology” sounds like a twisting and simplification of the explanation that is commonly expressed in my experience. (It is worth noting that, while I was composing this piece, O’Toole edited her article and it now more closely resembles what I describe below.) Maybe I read too many feminist BDSMers and not enough BDSMers who don’t have that perspective of gender politics. I’ll explain as I get into the individual assumptions, which are:
Playing or Subverting?
The main difference between the theory O’Toole describes and the theory I’ve heard is that he assumes that the spaces are there only to insulate. The discussions I’ve heard are about how BDSM can (not always does) use that space not only to isolate, but to actively engage with and subvert the norms of social violence and oppression. We don’t simply act out the aggressions of society, but mock them and challenge them. A week ago, I wrote about what it’s like to be the top in a degradation scene:
To take on, for a moment, the role of what I hate is to confront the capacity to hate within myself; and to take on the role of a hater or abuser does the same thing. (Blake, again: “To mindfully explore our kinks is to turn to our shadow and accept it” – and of course I’ve referenced the “shadow self” concept a few times myself.)
* * *
Ultimately, I don’t know what it means that I am so readily able to take on these roles and play them out in a consensual, kink, setting. I am pretty sure it doesn’t mean that I am secretly any of the things that I play and that the social justice stuff is all a façade. I think it does mean that I am aware of the influences society has on all of us, regardless of our political convictions, and that living in a racist, or rape-culture, or homophobic, or whorephobic, society means that somewhere along the lines you’ll pick up something of those issues – we all have the capacity to hate. The operative word in the Blake quote is, “mindfully”. To enact the roles without engaging with where they come from is problematic.
Are there BDSMers who are not mindful, who engage (as O’Toole suggests), “reluctant to acknowledge problems with the ideologies underlying their sexual practices, focusing instead on the pleasure or relationship benefits to be gained from BDSM.”? Well, yes. And I have seen some of them writing about their stuff online, and it doesn’t make me happy. But those problems are the same in any group.
The next overlapping assumption is that:
“BDSM is about Violent Urges”
Central to Toole’s thesis here is the assumption that the violence displayed in a SM context is similar in kind and emotional content to the violence displayed in playing video games, or violent sports, or letting out your anger.
I’ve done all of those, and I’ve done BDSM. I’ve even done a scene in which my partner had just told me she wanted to dump me, and I was feeling angry with her. I shouldn’t have done that, but it’s a part of my history and a relevant data point for this piece. All of which enables me to tell you that these are two completely different types of experience and pleasure. BDSM is not cathartic violence, it is not a video game, it is something entirely separate. When O’Toole asks, “why do we suddenly deny it when it comes to BDSM?” the answer isn’t, “because it makes us feel defensive” but rather, because we are well aware of our experiences and of the differences between them! (Well, alright, there may be some defensiveness involved as well – nobody’s perfect.)
The research cited by O’Toole showing that, “Participating in violent sports or fictions does not always make us less violent, but can do the opposite,” (assuming it’s the same as what I’ve read) focusses on the reward cycle: it feels good to let off steam and act violently when we feel angry or stressed, so we learn to do it more. This seems to be true, to some extent. It is always dangerous to assume that a population trend is also applicable on an individual basis.
However, the reward structure in being a BDSM top is fundamentally different than the reward structure in cathartic violent release. It is precisely the opposite of just letting go and giving free reign to your violent urges. (If you think this is a direct contradiction of my self-quoted passage above, I’ll point out that there the “just letting go” was a release of worry over inadvertent harm, and not a sudden outburst of violence.)
For a SM top, the reward is not the wonderful rush of adrenaline, testosterone and/or dopamine (all hormones associated with violence – dopamine is the reward transmitter, usually, as I understand it, but I don’t know which of the three is significant in the catharsis violence that’s usually discussed). Instead, to top effectively one must be controlled, focussed, alert and competent with your tools. There is no immense rush of violence, but rather, a measured, purposeful application of force towards a specific and clear goal. Moreover, what you are doing is other-focussed. There is no “enemy” as there is in violent sport, and it is no solo activity as in cathartic release or video games (even multiplayer violent games have an “enemy”, and are frequently experienced in isolation).
The rewards are therefore from focus hormones, and probably from oxytocin, the “bonding” or “cuddle” transmitter that makes us feel closer and more connected to one another (and I am sure I’ve seen there have been studies showing BDSM produces higher oxytocin levels in participants). It is just not the same experience.
Finally in that passage, there’s:
“Doms are violent people”
O’Toole wrote that the theory is supposedly that being violent in the BDSM space is a means of, “rendering doms safe, egalitarian people who do not want to hit or kill women in the real world.” This implies that if we didn’t have BDSM then all the tops in the world would want to murder or beat up people at random. (O’Toole thinks women specifically, so all the gay tops and straight female tops are not included in her analysis.)
This is, in short, a load of bullshit. I can’t speak for all Doms, but for Yours Truly, it is precisely the opposite: in day-to-day life I am overly concerned about not hurting anyone. I think it is also telling that if O’Toole’s linking of the research on violence to BDSM violence were accurate, then surely they’d become more violent and there would be many more examples out there. The truth seems more likely to be that Doms have the same range of emotions and personalities as any other randomly selected group of society – if anything, BDSM practitioners test as more stable emotionally (again, bearing in mind my caveat about going from population trend to individual characteristics) and research has reported such findings.
I was in a shop today when from the first floor I heard shouting. A customer was asked to leave. I heard him shout, “You think I’m aggressive? I’ll show you fucking aggressive!” He stopped every couple of steps as he descended the stairs to hurl more abuse at the staff. I wouldn’t say no Doms ever behave like that, but there’s certainly no indication in my experience that it’s commonplace. I can’t imagine a single BDSM space where such aggression would be tolerated, and I can’t imagine a greater contrast with the behaviour of tops in general while in a scene.
It’s worth noting that prevalence of bottoms in BDSM, and of women in general society (going on various US research figures I’ve seen about 5 years ago – sorry, I don’t have the links any more), reporting having experienced roughly similar types of consent violations against them, were about the same. It implies that BDSM is neither better nor worse than general society when it comes to the prevalence of abuse (and we may tentatively speculate, abusers) in the group.
O’Toole claims, “Watching aggressive pornography does not quell our desire for aggressive pornography, but, contrarily, can create a desire for increased violence.” However, despite decades of research, nothing conclusive has ever been demonstrated to this effect. In fact, it seems to be less likely to be true. There are certainly studies bandied about by both sides of the censorship debate, but none of it seems to prove anything other than that, if you ask the right question, you can get the answer you want.
“Rather, the values and norms of the fictions we consume or participate in suffuse our world views and influence our actions.” – in itself, not false. The false assumptions are (a) that we do not insert our world views first into the fiction, and (b) that we do not ever engage with or challenge the values and norms we find there. And it’s not the fact that O’Toole would present it as.
But the biggest assumption of all is that:
“It’s All About The Dom”
In the re-edited version of O’Toole’s piece, she acknowledges that, “It may give subs control over situations that would – in reality – make them feel powerless” In the original, there was no acknowledgement of the Sub’s role in BDSM whatsoever: Submissives are, literally, an afterthought for O’Toole’s understanding of BDSM. When I am topping, my bottoming partner is the centre of my world because I am responsible for hir wellbeing and for what happens to hir.
O’Toole implies that psychology “doesn’t work this way”, when countless people with lived experience say it does.
The centring of (male) tops is rife throughout the piece: every point makes assumptions about how tops work, about their intentions and the effects on them. The Submissive is a cypher here, presented with no engagement of hir own, no powers of consent or negotiation, no desires that zie wants fulfilled. There’s no questions about the physical pleasure of being hurt in physical (i.e. violent) sports (again, lived experience for me) and comparing that to the bottom’s experience (does this make bottoms more violent, I wonder?)
This is a fundamental flaw in O’Toole’s piece: it treats BDSM as something individuals do, instead of as a collaboration of two minds and two bodies. In so doing, it could be suggested it replicates the mindset of an abuser (I’m no expert so I don’t know for sure).