In discussions of SM and feminism, I frequently see the following coming from anti SM people:
"People who do BDSM are not oppressed. When you complain about how people treat you, whether that be other feminists or mainstream society, you're insulting people who really are oppressed. It's as if oppression were a fad that you want to be a part of, rather than a brutal reality in the lives of members of subordinated groups. "
I was always sympathetic to this view. I always figured that most of us have life pretty easy, at least as far as SM goes.
Then I realized something. Not about how bad we have it, but about the words and concepts we're using. I realized that I don't actually know what the word oppression means. I know how it's used. I know roughly what we mean when we say it. But I don't know an official definition, such that it's possible for me to clearly delineate its boundaries. I know the paradigm cases of oppression, but I don't have a decent enough definition to be sure which cases aren't close enough to the paradigm to qualify.
And I started to realize that without that definition, my assertions that SMers are not oppressed were merely based on intuitions about how bad we have it compared to the paradigm oppressed groups, such as women, people of color, transgendered people, people with disabilities, etc. Since my intuitions were (and still are) that we don't have it as bad, I decided that we must not be oppressed.
But then I started to think about what the word might mean. Here's what I came up with. If any of you have definition of your own, or official citations about exactly what different theorists take to be the meaning of the word, please do add them here. I would love to see them; I'm flying blind.
Oppression is a social system in which one group has arbitrary power over another and exercises this power in an unjustly cruel, limiting, or stunting way.
Then I started thinking about SMers and other unusual sexual minorities, like fetishists of various sorts. I started wondering what I would say about our position in society, and whether a definition like the one I've given above could apply to us.
I'm going to save "Social system" for last, even though it comes first in the definition. This is because I think the sticking point in these discussions is whether members of these sexual minorities are mistreated in a truly systemic way.
First there's the question of social power. I definitely do think that there is a sexual mainstream, and that the members of that mainstream can and do wield power over those of us who are not members of it. We can be intimidated into hiding our identities. We can be fired from jobs. We can lose custody of children. We can face ridicule, distrust, and suspicion for not being members of this mainstream. We can be shamed into believing ourselves inferior. We can be told by mental health professionals that there's something wrong with us for not being part of this mainstream. (Yes, this can and does happen even though there are current movements to recognize us as mentally healthy. It's happened to me. ) All that indicates to me that there are two social groups here, and that one has power of various sorts that the other does not.
And I do think we're limited or stunted by these things. Obviously, if we happen to be the ones who lose custody of our children, lose our jobs, lose the trust of our communities, we've been limited and stunted. If we have to hide who we are, as most of us do, that's another form of stunting.
In my own personal life, I'm very excited about a possible job in the offing. My writing about disability rights will be relevant if I get this job. But I will have to pull all that out of its original context on my blog unless I'm willing to be out at work as someone who also not only supports the rights of kinky people, but freely and proudly admits to being one herself.
(Yes, even if I did feel I could do this I realize I would still have to "clean up" or lock some of the non-political adult content on TSA, but I think that is a different issue. )
I believe that my activism around sexuality only truly makes sense in its full context, but I fear offering that full context. Since I mentioned disability rights blogging to these people, I'd love to be able to say that I blog at TSA about all sorts of things, including disability rights.
I'm not going to do that. I don't believe that's fair or right, but I believe it's the wisest course of action in a world in which my sexuality is deemed fantastically inappropriate in a way vanilla sexuality is not.
Even more emotionally vivid, however, are the descriptions many of us have shared when of our struggles with internalized shame around our sexual interests and activities. These are toxic messages that we've received from people around us that say that we're violent, perverse (and not in the reclaiming way, either), or fundamentally broken because we don't function sexually in the way everyone is expected to. This kind of stigmatization is poisonous.
And it is pretty clearly arbitrary which sexualities are valued and which are not. There is no particular reason that I can see to disparage fetishes, or sexual interest in pain or power.
The sticky question, I believe, is the question of whether these problems are systemic. If we think about the ways that the paradigm cases of oppressed groups are treated, there has always been obvious social support for discrimination against them. If you look at the historical situation of women, for example, you can clearly see discrimination enshrined in law. Women not having the vote is one example. Doctrines of coverture are another. Looking at other groups, we see other socially enshrined discrimination. No marriage for gays, for example. The obvious example of legal slavery in American history.
I may sound like I'm too what's called "liberal feminist" here, focusing on the letter of the law. I don't mean to only do that. It's of course true that many forms of violence go on outside the law as well. It's not legal to bash, for example, even in places that don't deem it a hate crime. And various forms of group-based terror that are illegal are in fact ignored, tolerated, or actively encouraged, even, by those who supposedly enforce laws against them.
However, I wanted to mention and emphasize the historical legality of some groups' power over others. I think a lot of us, in our efforts to not be legalistic about oppression, are losing sight of the fact that most forms of oppression have actually had legal backing of one sort or another throughout history. I think that's an important fact, and one we shouldn't forget about even now that people are more genteel/covert about their oppressing.
And I think this legal history is a part of what makes BDSM look like it couldn't be an axis of oppression, as well. As far as SM goes, however, it's much more difficult to find laws on the books that are specifically aimed at preventing us from doing what we do, or from setting up the kinds of relationships that many of us want. Flogging, for example, is in fact illegal in my state so far as I know. However, as I understand it, the law arose not to prevent consensual sexual interactions but as a way of criminalizing punishments for sailors that people had come to consider overly cruel. Similarly, there are laws designed to regulate sexual conduct in public or semi public that impact what can happen at play parties or conventions, but as I understand these laws, they were originally designed as limitations on sex work in clubs, and on patrons of those clubs. (Which may well also suck, but is not about targeting SMers for being SMers.)
And I think this is where people get "But you're not oppressed. " I don't think it's really a statement about how little we are affected. I think many people admit that we are or can be profoundly affected by all this stuff. I think what holds people back from calling that oppression is that there's no blatantly obvious culturally enshrined history of beating up, locking away, or hatefully speaking to sadomasochists specifically. I think that's why people think that we're whining, or wanting a piece of "Oppression pie. "
But lately I've begun to think that there's no particular reason for considering what happens to us not to be oppression. While we're not specifically targeted as SM people, there is plenty that does affect us. The laws that I've mentioned. The shame that I've mentioned. The fact that laws about obscenity do specifically mention us and what we do in terms that flat out define what we do as abuse.
Looking up obscenity law in my state some years ago in an effort to determine what was legal for me to put on a personal web site, I found that the law mentioned depictions of "sadomasochistic abuse" without mentioning any possibility for sadomasochistic non-abuse. While obscenity laws at least in the US allow the out of proving your work has artistic or other value, I think it's telling and it matters that what we do is defined by a group of people, who are not us, as abuse full stop.
Because of all this, I'm beginning to think that in order to claim that people who practice BDSM and other stigmatized forms of sexuality are not oppressed, those who want to say it's obvious and clear that they are not need to
1) clearly put forth their definition of oppression, and
2) demonstrate that members of this these particular alternative sexualities are not covered under it.
It's quite possible that there is a cogent definition of oppression that does not include us; if there is, and it's a better definition, that's fine with me. I just find myself unable to think of one that captures what oppression is that clearly excludes us.