Saturday, 28 March 2009

Definition Check

Okay, yeah, it's kind of one of those trainwreck fascination things that I keep coming back to or something -- every so often I reload that Feministing thread and see what sort of weird stuff has come up so far.

And I've come to the conclusion: what I'm talking about when I say "BDSM" is not the same thing that a lot of people over there are talking about when they say BDSM. Witness this comment from becstar, quoted in part:

I think society does teach people that BDSM with sub women is the *only* way to go about sex. [...] Things like spanking and cumming on women's faces have been taken out of BDSM territory and been normalised which I think is where the danger starts.

I'm left with a strange void between what I've understood as BDSM and what other people are pointing at. Especially since, as a female submissive, it has been very clear to me that the sort of sex that I want is not acceptable, not normal, not what I should be doing; especially since I have heard other kinksters of various orientations and preferences express the same feelings.

Spanking and BDSM? I know from a couple of spankos I've seen talk about this that a lot of people with that particular kink prefer to distance themselves from BDSM, being Not Like Those People. I have also seen quite a few of them talk about getting sexual responses to corporal punishment as children from the physical sensation. Far from being a gateway drug - to steal a silly concept - it seems to be one of those things that may or may not fall into the BDSM category depending on who's counting.

Ejaculation on the face? Well, maybe I'm totally isolated from BDSM norms, but I never heard about this practice at all until I encountered the Porn Wars. And because porn is totally outside the scope of my sexual interest and experience, it just never much occurred to me. (I have an ex who had a hard time orgasming from coitus, which tended to mean he got himself in the eye occasionally, though.) I mean, it's not even on any version of the Purity Test I've played with, and since the long Purity Test versions frequently include scat and incest I'd expect if this were so mainstream it might have gotten a mention on one or two versions.

The closest thing to mainstream-culture BDSM I can think of from my childhood is an episode of Cheers. Seriously. For those who aren't familiar with Cheers, its basic plot orbits around a misogynistic horndog trying to pursue a woman who isn't having any of that. In a bar, in which Wacky Sitcom People come to get drunk. In any case, Sam (the horndog) and Rebecca (one instance of the woman) were, at one point, in an elevator, and the subject of risk-taking sex comes up. Sam is, of course, all for, and thrilled that Rebecca is showing some kind of interest; she takes a scarf, ties his hands to the handrail, and he's panting with excitement that not only might he get the woman, but he's getting the woman kinkily; she pulls down his pants, and he's thrilled; the elevator stops, she gets off and leaves him there, because she still can't stand his entitled ass.

I'm not so sure that it's a good display of the ubiquity of female submission, though. Maybe a "he'll settle for sex, but exciting sex will be more thrilling for him" cultural datapoint. But she was dominant, she was in control, and she said no - leaving him nonconsensually exposed and quite vulnerable. Which was, I am pretty sure, not his kink.

And so I turn it around, and look for things that I'd file as clearly BDSM in the mainstream. And I don't see them. At least, not outside the Signs That Someone Is A Dangerously Depraved Serial Killer or something on Cop Show Glurge: Dead Whore Version. Bondage more serious than tee-hee a silk scarf or cheap fuzzy handcuffs? Culturally marked 'creepy'. Impact play? Culturally marked 'abusive'. Slave contracts? Mocked publically when they come up in the news, otherwise unheard of.

"Naughty schoolkid" roleplaying situations and similar stuff get played for laughs on sitcoms - in that 'Who could believe someone would really do that?' overdone kind of way. It's something like the kinky equivalent of flaming queer comic relief. Lacy lingerie is normal stuff (and one's occasionally considered a little pervy if one doesn't fancy it), but black or red lacy lingerie is a sign of dangerous dominatrix tendencies which are, again, played for mockery.

And I have never, not in any mainstream medium, seen any treatment of kinky submission. Bottoming maybe (and mostly as a joke); coercive, abusive situations, including those treated as normal by some people, those show up on the news. But to talk about anything remotely approaching the stuff I do in pop culture requires the sort of language used to talk about drug use -- and gets spun in the same pejorative way.

So I'm left wondering where the hell the BDSM is that some people are finding so prevalent. Because I'm so not wherever they are.


Alex said...

It was imperfect, but CSI had a pro-domme on a couple episodes and they spoke pretty well of the basics of dominance and submission. As one of the most popular TV shows out there, I'd say that's mainstream. SOME of the people shown engaging in the behavior were made out to be 'off' but not all and the urge itself was not.

Hope said...

I think, based on her comments on that feministing thread and also on this one, that becstar is having trouble separating her own bad experiences from how actual kinky people view and talk about their kink. I get the impression that she is very unsure about sexuality in general.

I just wish that she, and everyone else who does, would stop comparing BDSM to porn. I mean for me it just creates some cognitive dissonance and the impression that they don't really know what they're talking about. I actually have a partially written rant on this topic that will probably be up within the next day or so.


You're right about that being the closest thing to a positive representation in mainstream culture. If I remember from the "Lady Heather" sub-plots on CSI (none of which I have seen in quite a while), the rest of the cast thought Grissom's fascination with the subject was strange at best, and his character was sort of strange and abnormal to start with. So it wasn't great. I really don't see how the argument could be made that a few episodes on CSI implies overwhelming mainstream support for BDSM though, which is sort of what becstar was arguing.

Alex said...

Hope-- Actually, my favorite reaction to Lady Heather is from Catherine Willows (who is now the senior in the department after Grissom left.) She asked about the business aspects, expressed respect for Heather as a business woman and for her strong sexual identity. She repeats these impressions to other people in later episodes and encourages respect for Heather. That said, you are right, it's one imperfect example in a huge ocean of vanilla.

Trinity said...


I *think* what these people have in mind is actually not something many people would call BDSM at all: the whole cultural norm of heteromance where The Man is Manly and Swoon-Worthy and The Woman is Womanly and Swoony.

I think they're then taking that and going "Ah, then porn came along and added spanking and coming on faces, so now it's BDSM."

Which is I suppose a brand of male dominance and female submission, so I suppose it could *technically* be a kind of D/s-y sex. What they miss, though, is how different that is from what most of us are up to -- or, if we do happen to kink on those particular things (whether M/fness or facials), what we think this "means" to us, if anything.

I do think what they're complaining about could technically count as domination and submission of a sort, and therefore might be definable as BDSM, maybe... but to talk as if that is BDSM, rather than one little thing you made fit the broader definition, is totally misleading.

Cheshire said...

I think Cassandra of Cassandra says wrote once that "normal" het relationships are some kind of fucked up non consensual D/s which is always boy on top, I think that is true to some extend, but when women want it, not just put up with it for the package deal, well that is scary.

Alcibiades said...

Thanks for posting this. Sums up my thoughts on the matter a lot better than I could.

I hope some of the anti crowd over on feministe comes over here and takes a gander, because I'd love to hear their rebuttal.

Jennifer said...

Main point aside, the phrase "Played for mockery" caught my attention as a great summing-up of some (or many) mainstream depictions of bdsm.

Dw3t-Hthr said...


I think I'm just left going, "But why?" at that point, really. It's just...

If we can't even talk about the subject because some people are coming up with their own definitions for things, how can any of these damned discussions possibly get anywhere. Someone's talking about BDSM, and someone else brings up porn or domestic violence or whatever else, and I just buh.

"There's glory for you."

No wonder I feel when I engage in conversations about this stuff in mainstream-space that I'm being erased and having someone else's story pasted in over my face -- we're not talking about the same shit!

Anonymous said...

Someone's talking about BDSM, and someone else brings up porn or domestic violence or whatever else, and I just buh.

Yes, this.

And it completely ignores, rides over, is blind to, or whatever, the fact that BDSM communities have done tons of examination and theoretical work and practical work to figure out questions like: "Are we really just abusers?" "If not, what are the differences?" "Are there abusers who use BDSM?" "Are there 'nilla abusers?" "What can we do about them?"

Trinity said...

"I think I'm just left going, "But why?" at that point, really. It's just...

If we can't even talk about the subject because some people are coming up with their own definitions for things, how can any of these damned discussions possibly get anywhere."

I agree with you. :)

I think the answer to "But why?" is because there's a tradition in radical feminist theory of analyzing BDSM as Heteromance Writ Large. To them, the only difference between M/f BDSM and heteromance is that the men are meaner and hit the women.

That's what makes the conversation... stop every time. Because they've got that analysis in their head, and whenever we say "it's not like that" they just go "well, of course, YMMV, but I'm talking about the basic reality!"

They don't understand that that analysis is a bad one, and that's the problem.

As far as where the analysis comes from, I'd have to say that... eh. I have guesses, but they'd be armchair psychoanalysis, and I don't put much stock in that.

My guess is that they come from people (like, say, Dworkin) buying into heteromance and then discovering themselves with abusers who used "but it's in porn!" to justify wanting to hit them, tie them up, etc.

Or people who were brought up to be submissive-ish in the heteromance way, who wonder "would I have felt I had to accept it for him if he'd brought home rope, even if I didn't want it? Probably. Man, this heteromance thing is AWFUL. I'm glad I found feminism and got away before someone tied me up or something!"

I think it's all just... a basic refusal to understand that that's not what most BDSM involves or is about.

But like I said, that's me playing armchair shrink, so please don't take it as The Truth.

If you want to see some articles arguing that BDSM is heteromance with more intense sex -- heteromance for daredevils, basically -- I can give you some citations.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

That might be interesting, for the next time I'm low on things to splutter incoherently about. :}

Trinity said...


The most explicit laying out I've found of this viewpoint would be in Sally Roesch Wagner's article "Pornography & the Sexual Revolution", in _Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis_.

Wagner traces the evolution of the romance novel (and of pornography), and argues that the romance novel teaches heteromance to women. In her view, what it teaches includes women's submission to masterful men.

Then she goes on to find similarities between this and women submitting to men in BDSM contexts, and theorizes that what lies behind both is the same training in heteromance.

You can also find this in Sandra Bartky's more recent essay, "Feminine Masochism and the Politics of Personal Transformation," which you can find in her book _Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression_.

If you do read these, I'd *love* to see how you'd argue against them. I've done it myself, but people probably know by now what I'd say.

Trinity said...

From the Wagner:

"Sadomasochism is not a 'kinky' deviation from normal heterosexual behavior. Rather, it is the defining quality of the power relationship between men and women. Sadism is the logical extension of behavior that arises out of male power. Self-will, dominance, unbridled anger and cold rationality: these qualities, bought at the expense of gentleness and concern for others, define the classic sadist, as well as the 'real' man. Selflessness, submission, lack of will and unbridled emotionalism: these qualities demanded of women, to the detriment of concern for self and independence, portray the classic masochist. At the moment when the women's movement (joined by the emerging anti-sexist men's movement) is challenging these behavioral modes and the unequal distribution of power on which they rest, patriarchal ideology and institutions are in the throes of a backlash to strengthen them." (28)

Dw3t-Hthr said...

From your summaries, I sort of headtilt. But in my culture-of-origin, romance novels are the things that get broken out at two in the morning at slumber parties to read the purple bits in melodramatic tones. Like Eye of Argon readings, one gets to go on until one cracks up ....

That's not a substantive critique, of course, but it goes back to the basic sense of not living in the same reality as radfem theory.

Trinity said...

Yeah, I'd never read a romance novel either.

I do, though, agree with the general point that a certain style of heteromance is treated as normal, and if I squint I can see "domination and submission" applied to that form of heteromance.

It's just that I think that form of heteromance can perhaps technically be considered mild D/s, but BDSM as a whole (or even D/s as a whole) does not equal that form of heteromance.

And considering that form of heteromance a particularly important subset of BDSM or D/s is horribly misleading and ignores the BDSM community entirely, as well as people who aren't big in the community but who do BDSM for very different reasons than those heteromance presupposes.

And, uh, it also tries to squeeze and pinch gay BDSM until it fits into the Procrustean bed of "just copying hets." Which is creepy and dumb.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

And fucking backwards, not just creepy and dumb. That's at the "You're entitled to your own opinion; you're not entitled to your own facts" level.

MP said...

Kiya, thanks, and thanks to all the other women out there sticking up for those who choose bdsm.

Both of my gf's enjoy it, primarily as subs, with occasional switching.

One of them stumbled across Ren's discussions of what was going, this year, over at nine deuce ...
it opened her eyes up to why others don't like it, but reminded her of why she does.

Thank you!

Hope said...

So partially in response to thinking about this post, and also because I felt a serious disconnect in my conversations with becstar, I asked her how she was defining BDSM. This was her response:

"My definition of BDSM and submission probably reaches further than a lot of people's but I believe it all has the same basis so I lump it together. Anything which has women tied up or being objectified/humiliated pretty much as well as the more violent(?) actual pain stuff. When I refer to being made submissive in my own experiences I refer to when I've had my head pushed down and made to gag while going down on someone, being hit (I believe spanked is the popular term but I didn't consent so hit it is), held down, suddenly begun to go really hard when I've said before that it hurt, being continually asked to go in positions that I find degrading, being "talked dirty" to (or verbally abused depending on how you look at it given, again, I didn't agree to it)...the list goes on.

Obviously all this stuff is the reason I think BDSM has been made the norm given that my consenting to sex apparently also meant I was consenting to those things. They were not differentiated at all."

While I see where she's coming from, and it sounds like she's had some pretty terrible experiences, it does seem like a lot of what she's describing are the crappier aspects of heteromance, and I think that a lot of what Trinity's been saying seems pretty accurate. Like I said before I think that she's mostly just confused about sexuality in general. I'm just not sure how to go about having a real conversation with her even though I think it could be productive if I did.

Trinity said...

Hope - Honestly that doesn't sound like heteromance to me. It sounds like violent rape.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Yeah, my response to that is, "That's not BDSM, that's sexual assault."

Hope said...

Oh, definitely some of it does, but some of the things that she describes sound a lot like the shittier aspects of plain old unexamined heterosexual sex (especially among younger people, which she has said that she is). I've had some experiences that were similar to what she describes and while some definitely were rape, and more were assault, some were just horrible experiences that are hard to classify. But I do think that this sort of experience is fairly common in young women's heterosexual dating experiences, which is the point that I think becstar was making (and the point that I was trying poorly to make in my last comment).

It's just that since I know what BDSM can and should be, I would label that as abuse instead of BDSM while becstar seems to feel that that type of experience is normal or to be expected, which I find very sad. I can relate to her though, because there was a point in my life where I pretty much expected that kind of treatment too.

Hope said...

Dw3t-Hthr -

Yeah, that's pretty much how I responded to her over at the feministing thread. I hope she gets in touch with me privately, because I have some resources that I think could help.

Trinity said...


Yeah, some of it does sound like things a lot of women describe. But what she's saying really does sound like rape to me, not just misunderstandings or arguments.

*sigh* I'm just glad I waited until I was older and found BDSM, rather than feeling I had to settle for that.

(Which is one reason it hurts my soul to see people go "that's BDSM.")

Hope said...

Oh, I agree, some of it does definitely does sound like rape. Like I said, I've been there.

That's why it hurts MY soul when people say that "that's BDSM." Having experienced both there's really no comparison.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I think I'm going to have my mind blown by the differences between the romantic world when I was growing up and now, at least as gets reported on the blogs and stuff.

Though perhaps it was like that when I was younger, and I just avoided it by never "dating". But I'm pretty sure the whole "sex ed comes from porn!" thing wasn't the case back then.

... I'm too young to be this old.

Trinity said...

Sex ed came from school, for me. But smaller cities may not have sex ed that's worth anything.

Hope said...

Well I definitely didn't have the "porn is the only sex-ed" thing that I've seen described, but I think that I'm between your age and becstar's. I do see how it might be possible if the only sex-ed offered in school is the abstinence only kind and parents don't educate their kids about sex.

One of my biggest pet peeves with most sex-ed as it stands now (and when I had it ten-ish years ago) is that issues of consent and negotiation aren't every addressed except to tell young women that they should always be strict gatekeepers. There is no instruction for "yes I'm interested, this is what I might like, this is what I don't want, etc."

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Yeah, I've written about the asstastic nature of consent instruction before, a couple of times -- starting with Ren's blogging for sex education day a while back, I suspect -- and I do believe that if I had gotten something dealing with consent and thinking through what I wanted, I probably would not have been nearly raped.

I'm Trin's age, more or less -- half-decent sex ed in school. My parents also gave me useful what's-up-with-puberty books and accepted my requests for more of them.

Anonymous said...

Obviously all this stuff is the reason I think BDSM has been made the norm given that my consenting to sex apparently also meant I was consenting to those things

The obvious logic fail in this is that one cannot extrapolate from a singe data point. That particular guy may have thought that way, but it doesn't prove that it is "the norm" for guys to think that way.

Other than that, I just agree with everyone else whos said that it's sexual assault/rape, and nothing to do with BDSM (maybe we should emphasise that BDSM involves negotiated agreement on what's okay and what's not?)

Alexandra Erin said...

One thing that strikes me as I read the conversation on Feministing, in particular Nerdism's comments about "sexual submission" being tied up with the "social submission" that is expected of women, is the definition of "submission" being used.

I think part of what's being conflated is the act of submission as a voluntary sexual act and the act of -- to put it in the crude vernacular -- putting out... being accessible, being sexually available.

Once you've got those two things mixed up in your head, it becomes pretty inextricable. Women are clearly pressured by society to submit to sex so therefore our sexual submissiveness is ingrained in us by society.

Anonymous said...

Becstar seems to have a lot of trouble separating her experiences and personal feelings from her emotions. She's talked about some trauma in her past, which makes it a little more understandable, but that doesn't make it okay to say things like this:

Why would someone *want* to rape someone else, consent or not? Why would someone want that done to them? From where I am standing consent seems a purely legal technicality.

I'm getting kind of sick of outcry over "deviant" sex being normalized. No one is going to make you do it, and and anyone who does is an asshole, and can't you at least appreciate how freeing it is for the rest of us? I personally am really thankful that so many of the things I like are becoming more mainstream because it makes it easier to find other people who like to do them to me.

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gw2 gold said...

Hope-- Actually, my favorite reaction to Lady Heather is from Catherine Willows (who is now the senior in the department after Grissom left.) She asked about the business aspects, expressed respect for Heather as a business woman and for her strong sexual identity. She repeats these impressions to other people in later episodes and encourages respect for Heather. That said, you are right, it's one imperfect example in a huge ocean of vanilla.
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