Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Everyone we dislike is S, and everyone we speak for is M...

One of the things I notice again and again in feminist criticisms of SM is people broadening the meanings of "sadism" and "masochism" until they stand for anything the writer wants them to. Witness:

What Satsuma said about S/M reminded me of this passage from Sonia Johnson’s “Going Out of Our Minds: The Metaphysics of Liberation.” She quotes Cheri Lesh:

It is time to stop pointing fingers and making accusations. Time to look at something very hard and real. We are all crazy and weird about sex. Heirs to thousands of years of degradation and torture, of man as S and woman as M, of white as S and non-white as M, of God as S and human as M, of civilization as S and nature as M–who among us can claim immunity, who among us has not tasted the whip sting of poison in the honey, has not confused the slap with the caress? Sadomasochism is the basic sexual perversion of patriarchy.

Then Johnson continues:

So in arguments for sadomasochism as a way of relating to others sexually, we must be aware that we each bear responsibility for creating an alternative to patriarchy that is an alternative. Hurting others/asking to be hurt, dominating others/asking to be dominated, humiliating others/asking to be humiliated–feeding the basic patriarchal addiction–is not finding an alternative. Instead, it is rationalizing and succumbing to the patriarchal imperatives most deeply imprinted on our psyches. It is fiercely seductive–as all addictions are–and it is lethal.

Rhetorical moves like this are fiercely seductive, as all addictions are. But ultimately, they are lethal to any kind of rational argument. If "S" and "M" are merely stand-ins for positions in hierarchies we already deem bad, well, the outcome of our argument is trivial and frivolous: "S" is bad, and "M" is pitied.

But this does not in any way hook up with the lived experience of people who have certain kinds of sex or become members of certain kinds of communities. Even if those communities and ways of having sex are bad or anti-feminist (for anyone who came late to the party, my view is that no, they're not), saying that there have been unjust hierarchies and then tacking a letter on to positions in them is not making an argument. It's saying "let's call this S and this M, and now we see that 'S and M' relate to one another badly. Now let's turn to this other thing over here, where people call themselves S's and M's. Same letters, same dynamic."

Which is what you're trying to prove in the first place.

20 comments:

Ellie said...

Ugh, this is just a crappy version of deconstruction predicated on a fundamentally flawed understanding of post-structuralism. I see this all the time in identity politics and it would make Foucault laugh and cry all at once. Not all binary oppositions represent hierarchies and even when they do, like in the example of S/M, they can remain in flux.

Trinity said...

To say nothing of Foucault's OWN INVOLVEMENT in SM... which always makes me giggle hysterically whenever I see people making vaguely handwavily Foucauldian arguments against it. He was a leatherman, hello? And a bottom as far as I know, though I could be wrong on that. But of course, male bottoms don't exist because they munge "the analysis", amirite?

Trinity said...

And the huge thing is, well, I've said here many a time before that I think the word "hierarchy" suffers from being defined in the same handwavy way in a lot of feminist analysis. It becomes a catchall for "any power dynamic we don't like," which makes the concept fundamentally useless.

Which really bothers me, because I think when we value-lace the idea from the outset that makes it impossible to actually talk about *what's wrong* with bad power dynamics.

(Yes, I do recall from the last go-round of this that some of you suggested saving the word "hierarchy" for nonconsensual power dynamics and/or power dynamics that are inflexible*, but I'm still not entirely convinced. I think that hangs on to the value-lacing, and that value-lacing is itself the problem.)



*besides which if we ARE good Foucauldians, any power dynamic is in flux anyway, though they can be more or less flexible or rigid, and this can matter profoundly.

Trinity said...

Also seriously: Man as S and nature as M? Uh, Nature tends to punch humans in the fucking face if we act stupid. Anyone recall that "Katrina" thingy a while ago?

Yeah, we're really the dominant ones in THAT relationship.

Thaddeus said...

What casts a lot of doubt on the Lesh's line of thinking for me is that so many people see BDSM is a way to escape their public personas, and find release in giving up the responsibilities and authority that they shoulder daily, or regain the confidence and empowerment that they feel they lack. So, if BDSM can be a way to invert your day-to-day power role, doesn't that make it anti-Patriarchy? :P

I'd be really interested in seeing what kind of braindead arguments these people come up to explain the holes in their theories - that is, when they're not just ignoring them, which seems to be the general case.

Trinity said...

Thaddeus:

If you're actually really interested, here you go.

May even be where the Lesh piece was published in the first place. I know the phrasing rings a bell.

thene said...

"It is fiercely seductive–as all addictions are–and it is lethal."

Now there's a weird sentence. SM is not seductive to people who aren't either sadists or masochists. Pain's just a fetish, one of many, and if you don't swing that way you're unlikely to be 'seduced' into it. I don't, I tried, I wasn't; my bdsm is elsewhere.

Also seriously: Man as S and nature as M? Uh, Nature tends to punch humans in the fucking face if we act stupid.

LOL, much agreed. I think that people who regard 'civilisation' as sadistic and 'nature' as masochistic need to try living in the jungle for a few days...

It's odd looking at how they've slapped those 'S and M' labels around, because they're being simultaneously v. critical of masochists but are also casting all women (you know, those 3.35 billion people they speak for) as masochists... That's a weird way of describing yourself & your cause, something akin to 'original sin' - everything and everyone is tainted by teh evill sm! - and that coupled with the idea of 'seduction' just reinforces the idea that radical feminism is a religious cult.

Thaddeus said...

Thanks, maybe I'll see if they have that at the library. It's been a while since I read something that really pissed me off. :)

Trinity said...

"Now there's a weird sentence. SM is not seductive to people who aren't either sadists or masochists. Pain's just a fetish, one of many, and if you don't swing that way you're unlikely to be 'seduced' into it."

Very true -- as someone who DOES have a pain fetish I can't imagine not having it, but I know plenty of people who find it incomprehensible, including some submissive people.

:)

But it does very closely resemble, say, religious conservatives' convictions about gayness: it's tempting, it's sinful, if it's not fiercely contained, any good heterosexual may turn.

Same logic, false for the same reasons.

And also suggests that the people most against it are (were?) the people most drawn to it themselves.

thene said...

And also suggests that the people most against it are (were?) the people most drawn to it themselves.

Or that they feel threatened by it for some tangentially related reason, eg. their own sexual or gender insecurity, or even low self-esteem. Either way, their problem, not ours.

lalouve said...

who among us ... has not confused the slap with the caress?

I haven't. Not ever. And I wish people with a confused relationship to negative and positive attention would not extrapolate from it as if it was shared by everyone.
Yes, most people will take pain, or nebgative attention, if they can't get pleasure, or positive attention. That doesn't mean they find it attractive or seductive, or that they are in any way like those of us who actually find pain desirable.

Trinity said...

"Yes, most people will take pain, or nebgative attention, if they can't get pleasure, or positive attention. That doesn't mean they find it attractive or seductive, or that they are in any way like those of us who actually find pain desirable."

Yes, THIS. This right here.

I've tried periodically to avoid BDSM on the theory that not-pain is somehow healthier or better, and although I have the slight security of feeling I don't have a secret, something hugely important to me is missing. That's not because I look down on myself or on the people I date. That's because I have a fetish. Hello?

SnowdropExplodes said...

Yes, most people will take pain, or nebgative attention, if they can't get pleasure, or positive attention.

Thing is, there's a whole element of such theories as transactional analysis that deal with how attention is processed (I'm sort-of planning a longer explanation of how I think that fits together with BDSM over at my place, as a response to this post). So to some extent, people do confuse positive with negative in a way. But the thing about BDSM is that it's not actually negative anyway. And particularly for a masochist!

Anonymous said...

Aside from these annoying quote from that Sonia Johnson book, I remember being very impressed with the overall book when I read it 20 years ago as a young anti-authoritarian. Johnson came out of a Mormon background, so the book is an interesting take on anti-authoritarian feminist politics.

BDSM anarchist guy

Anonymous said...

what a load of bullshit - who gives a Fouc!

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