Is something wrong with me because I like BDSM? Can I like it and still be a feminist?

For as long as I can remember, I have been turned on my imagining my own pain and humiliation. I am going out with someone for the first time now, and we've been together for almost eight months. Recently we've started experimenting with very mild SM-type things--tying each other up, biting, spanking. I love it, and so does he. But is this normal? Should I be worried that this turns me on more than anything else we've done together? Is there something wrong with me? (I've never been abused). And can I still be a feminist if I get off on being dominated by men?
Heather Corinna replies:

There is no one, unilateral stance on feminism and BDSM, whether someone is being dominant or submissive; whether women have partners who are men, women, both or neither.

For decades, there has been a lot of feminist conversation around it and other aspects of sex with a lot of varied opinion. Everyone has their own ideas about these issues, and anyone who is interested in BDSM basically just needs to decide or find out if it is something they even want or like, and then if it is something (or is done in such a way) that works with their feminism and with their life and relationships as a whole or doesn't.

I'm also willing to bet that there are probably any number of things you do in your daily life which aren't feminist. Let's be more clear: which don't further or nurture the equality of women or aim to do so, or which may empower you personally, but might disempower another woman or group of women.

For instance, a lot of women who identify as feminists aren't vegan, and support of factory-farming and the politics of meat-eating are sometimes considered a feminist issue (because the subordination of animals is often linked to the subordination of women). Many buy clothing or other goods that were made in sweatshops in which women and children are exploited and mistreated. Many marry, even though as feminists we know the origins, history and much of the root premise of marriage to be sexist or misogynist. Maybe you buy things from clothing or cosmetic companies which don't pay their female workers equally or which advertise in ways which are not empowering to women. Maybe you don't always call men or other women out when they're making jokes about rape or intimate partner violence or slagging on a woman for her shape or size. Maybe you voted for someone who doesn't support the equal rights of lesbian women (and all of us who voted for Obama are unfortunately guilty of the latter).

The point is that you're going to meet very few people, if any, where every single aspect of their lives is in alignment with the goals of all kinds of feminism or is furthering the goals of feminism as a very big and diverse whole. I think we can be or aspire to be feminist without having to have every single part of our lives be about feminism or having every part be about working towards the goals of feminism.

While it's a much more complex conversation when we start to talk about things like women being publicly collared, 24/7 D/S relationships or the general -- as in, in the whole world, not just with sex -- issue of hierarchy as a whole, I don't think anyone has to worry about dismantling the goals or successes of feminism with what they do privately and consensually in their bedroom. You or your boyfriend are not likely to take away our right to vote or keep all women from full equality with a love-bite or a spanking.

I think it's important to remember that at the heart of feminism is the goal for women and gender-diverse people to be able to have enjoyment of our lives and the freedom to make our own choices and take our own journeys. We all also get to have our own ideas and opinions about what feminism is or should be: not all feminists agree that this thing or that is or is not feminist. It's a movement made of people, and people vary and also adjust our ideas, and thus, the movement itself, as we all go through our own processes.

I'll be candid and personal and share that for me, per my feminism as well as other aspects of my life and beliefs (I'm Zen Buddhist, and that informs a lot of what I do) and what kind of dynamics I want and don't want in my life, I came to the conclusion a while back that BDSM was not a good fit. Even though it was something I enjoyed for a spell back when, it just didn't wind up fitting with who I am, and what I want, personally, sexually and politically. I prefer my own sex and love life better without those elements, or if I'm going to engage in sensation play, to do so without any domination, submission or hierarchy. And for me, who does have a history with some serious abuses in it, it is triggering, which I think is some of why I -- again, talking about me here, not you or anyone else -- enjoyed it: I was looking to be triggered or to trigger others at the time. That's where I was in my process then, but I'm not there anymore. I personally do not, for the record, have any feelings of regret or shame about my experiences with BDSM: not being in that same place isn't because I think I or anyone else did or felt anything terrible or wrong. I enjoyed myself at the time, just like I enjoyed myself at the time when I dropped LSD in high school. I wouldn't drop LSD again now, but that's not because it was bad for me then: it just isn't a fit with who I am two decades later.

I've also gone back and forth a lot over the years around how I feel when it comes to BDSM and feminism as a whole. Even with an ungodly amount of discussion around the topic for years with feminists of many types and stripes, I still have a tough time settling on a solid opinion when it comes to how I feel BDSM does or doesn't impact feminism and the aims of feminism. I felt one way about it ten years ago, a different way about it now, and may very well have an entirely different opinion in another ten years.

But all of that is my own journey, my own ethos, the place I've arrived at through my own life and unique life history: only you can find out and know what works for you, and only you can discover what your journey and ethos are around this and sex as a whole.

I think we do have to take the "by men" out of the equation here, because I don't think it's relevant. Our sexual partners are the people we are attracted to. If you're attracted to men, you're attracted to men, and your choice of partner (or what you do with them) isn't about feminism, but about your sexual orientation, which isn't something we choose. If you are attracted to men and you also like to be dominated, that's probably why you like to be dominated by men. More to the point, even if you were engaging in that kind of play with a woman, or you were the dominant one, I personally don't feel that wouldn't change the script much: feminism isn't about flipping the script so women lord over men, or so that women lord over other women, it's about seeking a paradigm of equality, rather than a paradigm of power-over/power-under.

Previous abuse is probably a non-issue for most people when it comes to this. Plenty of people are into what you are who were not abused, and I haven't seen any sound study showing more people who are into BDSM have been abused than those who have not. In fact, when we consider how very many of us grew up with emotional, verbal, physical and/or sexual abuse, we have to remember that any sexual or romantic activity people engage in is being done by or with a lot of people who have been abused in some way.

Is there something wrong with you? I doubt it.

Why might you like this? Well, look: power hierarchy is the dominant (no pun intended) paradigm of our culture. We don't live in a vacuum, and neither does our sexuality: it's strongly influenced by the ideas and social structures we all were raised with, we just don't all parse, experience or enact those the same way. People wanting to play with a totally pervasive power structure is hardly surprising, just like people wanting to play with gender binaries isn't a shocker. Sometimes people like to flip the script for themselves: some people who are often in charge like to take a turn with someone else in charge as a sort of minibreak from that other aspect of their lives, or vice-versa. Like other kinds of sex, there's also a measure of trust involved on both sides: someone (I don't personally like these terms, but I'm using them anyway) bottoming is trusting their top to abide by their limits and boundaries and to stop if they call a stop; someone topping is trusting their partner to communicate very clearly as well as trusting themselves not to abuse or exploit the power they've been given. And both are experiencing being trusted by the other, which people can find feels particularly intense with kinds of play that happens at the edges of our boundaries.

I also feel it's important to separate physical sensation play from D/S when we talk about them. Something painful for one person can be pleasurable for another, and everyone has different sensory thresholds. Physiologically, we know that it's not so easy to separate pain and pleasure: it's a continuum with some overlaps we can't easily put in two distinct piles. You or someone else may like a given "rough" activity solely because of how it feels sensorially, but NOT like that same activity were it associated with humiliation or with domination. There are also people who like D/S but don't like pain or "rough" sexual activities. Mind, it sounds like you are expressing that these are linked for you, but I want to be clear that's not the case for everyone or for everyone all the time.

In terms of the humiliation (if that is what you really mean: it's a really loaded word), there are a lot of theories about why people enjoy that kind of play, even though it is relatively uncommon. (And I have to be frank and say it's not something I'd advise for people who do not have very healthy relationships and a very strong and positive sense of self-esteem: for those without those things I think it's fair to say it's probably emotionally unsafe.) For instance, many people grow up with a lot of shame and fear around sex: that can be one way of triggering strong responses around those issues. It might seem odd, but bear in mind that our socio-sexual conditioning is powerful stuff, and sometimes people like things sexually which, in other contexts, they abhor or don't find feel good. Others enjoy feeling helpless or powerless during humiliation -- as a way to let go -- and others find that humiliation in a sexual actually doesn't make them feel the same way they do when humiliated in other parts of life, because they always have the power to make it stop immediately, or because it was invited or initiated, not forced upon them.

While I certainly think there is always great value in any of us intellectually and emotionally exploring our sexual feelings and why we might feel them, there's also a point where the "why" of what turns us on is either irrelevant or leads to a certain absurdity. Often, at a certain point, we just can't know why for sure, and I don't think anyone really needs to, either. What turns us on or doesn't just isn't something we can control, so in my book, it doesn't make a lot of sense to invest a lot of concern in what excites us. The place to wisely invest our concerns is in our actions, in how or if we enact certain desires, and how what we do effects us and those we do anything to or with.

Just like with any other kinds of sex, so long as it is something you mutually want to be doing, something you both communicate clearly about and negotiate well, something neither of you are doing out of obligation or feel you can't say no to, something you're doing with care for physical and emotional safety, and so long as you both feel good about it, I don't see a reason for you to worry about this. You do say this is the first time you've had a sexual relationship with anyone, so given your limited experience is relationships, period, I think some extra caution and discussion is probably a very good idea since your sexual relationships skills are so new and have only been with this person.

By all means, there are relationships or sexual scenarios where S/M or D/S is pretty clearly not a healthy dynamic. For instance, when activities are not negotiated or negotiations and communication are ignored or dismissed, where domination is not about play, but the belief that a given partner is, in essence, a subordinate or slave, where basic safety practices are ignored or where one partner really doesn't like that kind of play, but feels they have to to please a partner who does. But I've seen that stuff in all kinds of sexual scenarios with people, not just those engaging in spanking or bondage.

This is something, like anything with sex, where you get to evaluate as you go, adapt as you need to, and if you ever do come to the conclusion or place where it doesn't feel right, where it does conflict with your feminism, or any other part of your heart, mind or life, or if you stop enjoying it, then you get to just stop doing it.

What you might find helpful is just doing a bit more reading around the subject. We have a very basic article on kink here, and this advice answer and this one might be of use to you. But hitting the bookstore can also put some good resources in your hands, like SM 101: A Realistic Introduction by Jay Wiseman, When Someone You Love Is Kinky by Dossie Easton or Consensual Sadomasochism : How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely by William A. Henkin. Books like those can give you some basic information about how to manage BDSM, including important information about safety: for instance, if you're biting or doing anything that involves blood, that is very high-risk stuff in terms of your health.

If you are interested in reading some varied feminist discourse on BDSM, I'd suggest looking, for instance, at work by Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Ariel Levy, Naomi Wolf or Emilie Buchwald and then also at the work of Carol Queen, Merri Lisa Johnson, Susie Bright or Jill Nagle: all of these authors identify as feminist even though they have very different takes on BDSM and related issues. Sometimes looking at diverse perspectives on something can help us to reach our own conclusions.

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