It has been said, by some feminists-- and particularly, some feminists of my acquaintance of late-- that people who believe they can be kinky and feminists at the same time are simply dupes of the "sex-positive" turn in third-wave feminism. That we are mindless trend-followers. That asserting that feminism and BDSM are compatible-- just because we want them to be; just because we choose both-- is depoliticized "choice feminism" of the worst sort. That we are blithely, purposely ignorant of the ways in which the personal is political, and we don't want to examine the ways in which systems of oppression affect our sex practices, because then (obviously, of course) we would have to give up our precious kink.
None of this is true.
It may surprise some feminists to discover that I am actually quite critical of any argument that declares an act "feminist" just because a woman chooses it. A couple of years back, I was a member of an LJ community called feminist_sub, which is precisely what it sounds like: a community of submissives-- predominantly women; predominantly, it seemed to me, heterosexual women-- asserting that their feminism and their kink were compatible. Actually, it was more like they were trying to reconcile the two, because there's not a lot of space for them in feminist communities, or in society at large, for them to try to do that. Time after time, women would post in the community, asking how they might reconcile their kink with their politics. And time after time, people would post comments to the effect of, "because you chose both."
I always disagreed. It is, and has always been, patently obvious to me that an act is never feminist just because a woman chooses it. One has to look at the context surrounding those choices: did she have a meaningful set of choices to consider in the first place? Does her decision benefit only her, does it actually curtail the choices of other minorities, or does it help open up the possible range of choices for other people? Clearly, the simple act of choice is not inherently feminist. But this does not mean that BDSM and feminism are incompatible.
When it comes to feminism and kink, I always come to two conclusions. First, BDSM is not inherently feminist, but it can only stand to benefit from feminist critique. I am not an anarchist; I don't believe that hierarchy and power are always already oppressive. But I do believe that some forms of hierarchy are abusive and oppressive, while others may not be. As such, I believe that feminist critique is an imporant tool in BDSM communities and relationships, because it can help community members distinguish between workable power dynamics, and oppressive ones.
Secondly, it has been my experience that BDSM, at its best, can help widen women's (and queers', and other sexual and gender minorities') range of possible choices in a systematic and meaningful way. Above all, what I have learned from my involvement with kink is how to negotiate my desires and limits in the context of play. All good scenes begin with negotiation. I think most vanilla people are, by now, familiar with the concept of the safeword. But it goes beyond that: it's a constant process of negotiation. I talk with potential play partners before scenes-- perhaps by e-mail, perhaps at coffee before a play date, perhaps briefly at a play party-- to make sure I feel safe around them, and so that we can talk out what we're willing to try, and what we absolutely won't do. And in most of the really good scenes I've been in, the safeword has been the absolute last resort: one that I generally haven't had to use, because our pre-scene negotiations were adequately thorough, and because most of the really good tops I've been with have been really good about checking in at fairly regular intervals and making sure the experience is still good for me.
In other words, BDSM has enabled me to assert my sexuality more-- to communicate what I do and don't want. It's taught me how to be verbally open about my desires. I think that true sexual negotiation and consent is more than just a matter of "no means no". It means being able to, and feeling comfortable, talking about what your limits are-- preferably before the proverbial heat of passion, before things get volatile and difficult. More than that, it means learning how to say "yes"-- how to communicate what you do want. I think that a lot of people-- perhaps especially women-- don't feel comfortable asserting their desires, and that learning to do so is at least as important, if not more so, then learning to say no. BDSM, then, is not inherently feminist, but certainly a lot of its tools and techniques can be adapted for feminist purposes.
Having actually thought about these things (QED), I hope it should be pretty understandable why I get blood-boilingly angry when I am told that I am only kinky-- and a kink apologist-- because I'm a brainless urban hipster unthinkingly pushing the sex-positive orthodoxy (is this an orthodoxy? and if it is, why do I know so damned many kinky feminists who feel the need to defend themselves?). Furthermore, it makes me angry when I am told that my interest in BDSM is part and parcel of my being a patriarchal dupe who has been tricked into glorifying violence, or that I must be an abuse victim who can't think of any constructive (read: vanilla) ways to work out my victimization....
....I would like to conclude here by asserting that I am not trying to argue that kinky people are sexually, politically, or in any other sense better than people whose tastes run to the strictly vanilla. I have no interest whatsoever in making those kinds of judgments; my only hope is that whatever you enjoy, you feel comfortable articulating your limits and desires, and that you have success in finding a lover (or lovers) who respect your limits and are more than happy to fulfill your fantasies-- whether your tastes are kinky, vanilla, asexual, or something else entirely. However, the reason I feel the need to conclude my post this way is because I am, in part, reacting to others' tendency to declare something oppressive simply because it has been problematic for them in the past. The second-wave feminist adage that the personal is political may be true (and I believe that it is), but this does not give any single feminist carte blanche to dismiss everything s/he doesn't like as oppressive. Certainly, it doesn't grant any one person the right to unilaterally decide what sex acts will and will not be okay from a feminist perspective. Choice feminism is just as problematic when it is used to prohibit, as it is when one employs it to justify one's own acts. That my tastes are different from yours, and that I assert the right to express them, does not make me an oppressor, insofar as I do not assume that all people should adopt my own desires. Asserting that I am an oppressor for those tastes, however, and arguing for a feminist utopia in which no one has such desires, might well be. From a feminist perspective, "utopian" solutions are always suspect, as they generally rely on the unilateral, one might even say magical, disappearance of all dissenters.
Thursday, 22 May 2008
People keep being totally awesome...
...so I keep linking them here: