Thursday, 13 November 2008

A Finer Point On It

Some people that I respect mentioned that my last post struck them as universalizing in a problematic way. They mentioned that for some people BDSM can be unhealthy or maladaptive. they wanted to be sure that I wasn't getting ahead of myself comparing into anti-SM theory to the theory behind conservatives recommending reparative therapy for gay people.

So I want to make this perfectly clear. I don't think that SM is wonderful for everyone at every point in their lives. I do believe that some people use SM to self harm. I do believe that some people bottom or submit because they believe that they are inferior or unworthy. I also believe that some people use sex and sexual pleasure, whether from SM or from non SM sex, in ways that are unhealthy for them.

However, I believe that this is all beside the point. Look, once again, at many of the reparative therapists' reasons for objecting to what they call "The gay lifestyle." They often cite such behaviors as promiscuity, drug use, partying, and shallowness as reasons why such a lifestyle does not ultimately satisfy the people who participate in it. People are actually looking for a lifetime monogamous relationship that is deep and intimate.

The problems with this are twofold. The first problem is obvious: not everyone wants monogamy, intimacy, or relationships. The second problem is different. For many people, the party circuit is indeed unsatisfying. However, this is not what being gay is about. A gay man may enjoy those things, but he may not. Being gay only means that he is attracted to other men, not that he will embrace particular social behaviors or not.

And I think a similar confusion is going on when people say "Wait, Trinity! You have to acknowledge that for some people, SM is an unhealthy fixation." no, I don't, because my point is not whether SM is always wonderful for everyone, but whether a particular sort of social constructionist theory captures what the SM experience is about for everyone.

It does not. Yes, for some people SM is a maladaptive coping strategy. But this does not mean that SM sex is fundamentally about self-harm, any more than sex, as a whole, for all humans is about self-harm. I'm sure we've all met someone who we at some point thought was using his sexuality in a way that was ultimately damaging to him. But very few people would say that he needs to give up sexuality. That therapy designed to make him asexual is wise.

I do think that some people who do, and enjoy, SM are not orientationally sadomasochistic. (For example, some try it only because a lover suggested it, but find they like it. Some value being sexually "adventurous" and see trying SM as one part of this. And some, yes, may try it because of pressure, or low self-esteem, or trauma.) I also think that some subset of these people who are sadomasochistically active may be so because they are dealing with an unresolved issue or problem rather than because it is actually good for them. SM may be a horribly bad idea for these people, and giving up SM may, therefore, be a positive step for them, in a way that I don't think "praying away the gay" can ever be for anyone.

However, this does not reveal anything about SM being bad. It reveals something humans have always known about sex and sexuality: that sex can be quite emotionally powerful, and that sometimes we can harness or use that emotional potency in ways that are actually bad for us.

Saying that I believe that the underpinnings of anti-SM "radical" "feminist" theory are disturbingly similar to the underpinnings of the theory fueling an obviously life-denying organization like NARTH is not saying that any given person who gives up BDSM is unhealthy for it. For some people, that is a positive step.

But that's due to personal factors, and it's certainly not due to my orientation being a "patriarchal lifestyle." (I couldn’t resist snark there…:)


Anonymous said...

hear hear!

This post really sums up a lot of my own feelings on the subject. I feel that both sides sometimes come off as blinkered when it comes to SM. On the pro-sm side I've encountered people who think just because RACK exists, SM can only ever be positive, and refuse to entertain the idea that it might problematic in some circumstances or for some people. And then on the anti SM side there are those who assume it's always ultimately damaging and unfulfilling.

I wish there was more acknowledgement that SM, like *anything*, incorporates both these extremes, and every shade of grey in between.

Trinity said...

I admit I usually make SM sound good, though I don't think I've ever claimed it's not risky.

But for me, the reason isn't because I think SM is entirely healthy, but because I don't see a major difference between SM's riskiness and the riskiness of a whole lot of other things. Being sexual in the first place comes with risk, especially in a culture that doesn't value negotiation.

I do think that some SM activity may be more likely to be triggering -- but in just about every class I've ever been in, people have mentioned this risk and talked about what to do about it. Where in non-SM dating do people talk about this?

I also think that some D/s setups are bad. There's ways to do that that are just... lopsided in ways that are really risky, even stupid. But I feel the same way about a lot of relationship structures, as well.

So I defend SM because I don't think the question should be "Is SM good for women?" but "Is this particular thing I want to do good for me?"

Anonymous said...

Damn, that's an excellent post.

Trinity said...

Thank you. Becca.

Cheshire said...

One thing whihc grabbed me about what you where saying here is that I have dated an number of "service tops" these people where generally not into domming me but got off on there partners getting off, so while they might not be interested in X, they love what X does to me, which means that it does turn them one.

I don't think many people would claim that that will be abused or manipulated.

/sorry about the thread jack.

Anonymous said...

I always get annoyed by the various discussions of unhealthy sex, because they are (generally) heteronormative, not to mention supportive of a norm I once saw defined as 'cuddle monogamous sex in the bedroom.'
It is very difficult to get people to admit that any and all sexual practices can be unhealthy. For example, all my monogamous impulses spring from unhealthy ideas. This is of course not true of everyone who is monogamous, but for me it is: I should therefore not be monogamous. Nothing in this world is good for everyone, except, you know, breathing and eating and sleeping.

Anonymous said...

Also, allow me to add that I think the ideology of cuddly monogamous sex being the only right way to have sex has done considerably more damage than any ideology preaching one form of sex as normative will do endless damage.

Anonymous said...

All and all, a thoughtful post as usual. I did have a couple things to say though:

Does "gay" really mean being (I assume you meant "sexually") attracted to other men? I'm not sure when that happened. Sexual attraction to other men happens with heterosexual and homosexual men. It's just the feelings/desires/preferences/etc. that accompany that attraction that are important as to whether or not someone is "gay". Also, I know many gay men who aren't particularly sexually attracted to men, but only find fulfillment in an emotionally intimate relationship with men, with sex being a part of maintaining intimacy. (Likewise I know many heterosexual women who feel the same way about men.) If the term "gay" really is coming to mean what you said, we're in trouble.

The "gay lifestyle" as marked by "promiscuity, drug use, partying, and shallowness" has more to do with people who are emotionally hurting. There's a huge difference between "not everyone wants monogamy, intimacy, or relationships" and being promiscuous with people who have no significance to you while using drugs at parties.

(I have sexual relationships with women only. I'm not sexual with men, but I do have satisfying non-sexual D/s relationships with submissive men and (F/m or f/m) couples. I also top men from time to time, including CBT. That doesn't make me Heterosexual, Homosexual or Bisexual - not really.)

Trinity said...


You do have a good point here. There are, for example, men who have sex with men who don't consider themselves gay at all. Exactly how that works, I don't know, but yeah, those people exist, and perhaps I shouldn't call them "gay" if they don't.

And yeah, I do agree with you that there's more than lust to orientation. What I'm leery of, though, is the idea that someone doesn't have an orientation unless they want a relationship, which sounds like the upshot of what you're saying. And I don't think that's true. A straight man who wants only to chase skirts and balks at the idea of intimate relationships is not somehow lacking in orientation because all he wants is sex.

Still, though, I find the line of thinking you're espousing a little too close to the talk of "political lesbianism" that I've often seen, and grown deeply w(e)ary of, out of radical feminists. I worry a great deal about divorcing sexual love from sexual attraction.

I can't say I've ever met anyone who is fulfilled by a relationship with someone of X gender, but for whom sex is maintenance. I certainly haven't heard that such people are in any way common, and I worry a bit hearing about them. Very often, people who have "maintenance sex" are actually doing something that's harmful to themselves emotionally. Sex, when you don't like and want it, is, well... I don't want to say dangerous as if I'm claiming people ought never take that risk, but I've seen that kind of thing really hurt people who are doing something they don't want to do too often to smile and nod at what you say.

I feel that these sorts of (if I understand you right) "political" sexualities are actually pretty appropriative. When we talk about emotional affinity as what "makes" someone gay or lesbian, to my mind we are doing a serious disservice to people who experience, talk about, and revel in sexual desire for people of the same gender. We're saying lust doesn't or shouldn't count, that "real gayness" is some kind of political stance.

And I am as deeply leery of that as I am of the people who claim that SM is a layer of lust that blinds people to a political stance they hold.

If you personally feel that you want relationships with people of X gender and sex with people of Y gender, that's your life, but I'm deeply leery of redefining sexual orientation such that lust has no part in it.

Trinity said...

Also, I don't agree with you about the partying bit. I think people can honestly enjoy being frivolous and fun, and that the fact that it's not fulfilling for many, many people does not mean it's bad for everyone.

The one thing that I do think could be is the drugs, which worry me a lot. However, throughout my life I've known a lot of drug users, and their experiences were often very individual. So the idea that someone did drugs for fun at some party and liked it does not *automatically* suggest to me that he is "hurting" or "broken" either. I would tell him, were I advising, that such drugs are scary things to mess with and I do not advise it, but that doesn't mean I know he has a serious emotional problem unless I know him well enough to know, in a sophisticated way, why he uses.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you've already seen this, but Boy George is charged with "false imprisonment" of a male escort, who claims that George cuffed and whipped him without his consent.

Trinity said...

Holy ICK, Batman!

Wow. Um, Boy George? You're doing it wrong.

Anonymous said...

Got into a debate across the blogosphere, and thought I could use some fellow intelligent BDSMer's help. Here's the link:

"I have no sympathy for men who take pleasure in hurting women, but perhaps it would be worthwhile to hear, in this one thread, why a man feels that way." (I suppose he wouldn't midn the female tops here, either)

"The twisting of consent in the S/M scene is a huge can of worms. This helps men justify their lust for cruelly abusing women. This is what I would like to discuss. How do you justify this form of lust, men? I would also like to discuss why a woman would seek such abuse. I think such women need help, not abuse."

Anonymous said...

Oh, more highlights:

"I think sadism depends on a peculiar facet of our sick culture, that some people learn to enjoy slavishness, or getting roughed up. I know a little about things like brainwashing and the Stockholm syndrome, techniques of convincing people to act against their best interests, and I also know women are conditioned to serve men regardless of how badly men treat them. Still, to enjoy masochism boggles my mind. There is no way a masochist can give informed consent, no more than a woman terrified or browbeaten into submission to rape, or a person committing suicide. These are instances of consent due to lack of apparent alternatives, the antithesis of informed consent."

Anonymous said...

Hi, Anonymous - I weighed in with a lengthy diatribe over there!

Trinity said...


I posted there, though honestly I rather hope she decides women tops are Beside The Point and bids me fuck off -- I really don't think I have the energy today.


What handle are you posting under? I don't see any posts beneath mine. May I see the text of your comment?

Anonymous said...

Trin: It's comment #32, I went over to have my say after Anon. posted the URL here.

I wrote as follows:

I am utterly unashamed to identify as Dominant (in the BDSM sense) and a sadist. I take sexual pleasure in causing pain and suffering.

I am also a masochist - I take sexual pleasure in receiving pain.

Masochism, at least, has a real physiological explanation that is understood by members of the kink community who are interested in such things.

Physiologically, it is a combination of adrenaline (the same thrill that we get from watching a scary movie or riding a roller-coaster - where we stimulate the feeling of being under threat while actually being perfectly safe), and the endorphins released when the body experiences physical stress (for another example of how this works, consider the phenomenon of “Runner’s High”). Because of the doctrine of “safe, sane and consensual” conduct, BDSM presents a setting in which those phenomena can be appreciated without putting oneself at risk. The suggestion that it has anything to do with Stockholm Syndrome is extremely offensive to many of the people you think you’re standing up for, and is also completely false.

As a sadist, I do not know where my orientation originates. I do know that it overrides my gender-choice of partner orientation (I get turned on regardless of whether my partner is male or female, as long as I can inflict pain on them). I was recently asked the same question on my NSFW/possibly triggering blog, and this is the answer I gave:

“The best analysis I have is that it comes down to the fact that a lot of my kink revolves around extreme emotions, and works in terms of the mind rather than the body of my partner. So concepts and ideas that involve desperation, fear, pain, helplessness, terror, humiliation, anxiety, denial, and so on, are right alongside lust, passion, need, tenderness and warmth for me as erotic responses in a partner.”

Apologies if this is getting long, but I also want to respnd to a few of the comments above:

“This helps men justify their lust for cruelly abusing women. This is what I would like to discuss. How do you justify this form of lust, men? I would also like to discuss why a woman would seek such abuse. I think such women need help, not abuse.”

I do not abuse anyone. I physically stimulate them with both pain and pleasure, which results in an unusually high amount of the latter. As I explained above, my lust is for the heightened stimulation of my partner’s mind and senses. It is NOT a lust for abusing.

“So telling. There’s nothing good about mastery of one human being over another. You may think you are fulfilled by it; that’s your problem”

“A ship can only have one captain”. In appropriate circumstances, not only is there something good about it, it is essential! In BDSM, it is not essential, but then, in BDSM, the terms “Master/slave” have very specific meanings that are not directly analogous to the meanings in the rest of the world, but which are used as the best that the English language has to offer. “Rabbi” would almost be an appropriate term, if it weren’t for the fact that this term is nowadays used specifically for a religious office.

” I don’t have much respect for beliefs in things that are not directly experienced or provable. I’m a scientist and truth-seeker, so I only believe what I have to believe.”

See above re: the physiological element of masochism; see also the very happy and joyous relationships of many long-term BDSM couples. You have to believe, based on this evidence, that sadomasochism is not as you describe it.

“You can believe this relationship makes you happy, but do you really believe that’s the only kind of relationship that could make you happy?”

For me, personally, yes. For me, personally, a relationship without sadism and masochism is a relationship without feeling or connection - I would feel as though I was being shut out all the time. That others DON’T feel this way, I perfectly understand and accept. That intimacy for them comes via other routes, I have no problem accepting. I can’t imagine how those feel to those people, but that doesn’t stop me accepting that they are real, and it certainly doesn’t lead me to call vanilla folks self-delusional about their love.

“By the way, your use of vanilla is insulting. I suppose you know that, and don’t care.”

Or perhaps it’s more like the privileged being unhappy that the unprivileged have a name for the privileged group, rather than letting the privileged group self-define as “normal”? If you think “vanilla” stands for “bland”, then you couldn’t be more wrong - as someone who likes to cook, I know that vanilla is a very powerful, sweet and sensuous flavouring, but it is sold as the “standard” flavouring of ice cream or of cake - all the term “vanilla” designates is that non-kinky sexuality is the most common sexuality (a slightly false analogy, since in fact chocolate ice cream is more popular than vanilla, but vanilla is still viewed as the “normal” flavour).

This is no different from gay folks coining the term “straight”, or trans folks coining the term “cisgendered”, as a way to refer to those unlike themselves.

Jen: “So, you tell me why, Gorgias, a sadists behavior would need to be described as above if S&M were even in the slightest realm acceptable?”

First up, I’ve never seen any of that happen, and I don’t recognise it as a part of the kinky community in which I’ve been involved for the past 5 years (although I do accept that it *can* happen - it’s just that I personally have never witnessed such a thing, and it certainly isn’t the norm); secondly, what I *have* seen several times has been Submissive masochist women trying to persuade their vanilla boyfriends/husbands to become Dominant men and to deliver the pain that these women crave. Sometimes it works (my current girlfriend’s last partner was one such experiment, and succeeded, except that they broke up when he wouldn’t go far enough for her); other times it doesn’t work, and some other way for her to get her sexual gratification has to be found.

Gorgias: “I think we can agree that a BDSM relationship is going to be considerably more inegaliatarian than most.”

Actually, I disagree. Even though my current girlfriend and I are enjoying what we call a “Master/slave” relationship, we are still equals within the relationship: it is just that the “division of labour” is unorthodox, but it is according to the demands of “from each as according to hir ability, to each as according to hir need”. We are equal in dignity and standing and importance. Relationship counsellor Al Turtle has the following to say about BDSM relationships and how they differ from a lot of vanilla relationships: “As a counselor several times I have run into members of this community, and found them to be usually more informed about healthy relationship skills than the general public. What I found is that these people seek to participate in relationships of ‘mutual informed consent’, where both parties have agreed, sometimes in contract, to a division of responsibility between an enactor or decision maker and a follower/an obedient one/an aider… a ‘Friend/Friend relationship with a Leader/Follower dynamic.’”

I hope that this has given you some food for thought, and clarified why sadism and masochism are not sicknesses or perversions, but simply different.

Trinity said...


That's odd. I see mine as comment #32. I'm wondering if they're awaiting moderation... or perhaps dumped into the moderation memory hole?

Here's mine, anyway:

32. TrinityVA - November 26, 2008


Before I say anything else, I’d like to ask you this: You seem to be suggesting that female sadists are totally beside the point, but wanting to know what it is that makes some men have the fantasies they do.

Would you, or would you not, then, be interested in hearing about how I see my own involvement, or am I beside the point because I’m not a man? Personally, I don’t think my fantasies or activities are all that different from the men I know who have similar fantasies and do similar things, so I’d think I could answer your questions too, but you seem to think the mere fact of my being female makes everything… different? Irrelevant?

Personally, I tend to think that discussions that say “Men who have or wield sexual power matter; women who have or wield it are odd plot points” are a bit… off. It seems to me to replicate something very patriarchal: as a woman, you have no power, so you are not worth talking to or thinking about.

But if you feel that my situation or my psyche is so different from a man’s that my saying anything is silly, let me know and I’ll leave you to your discussion. :)

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