BDSM is Violence Against Women

This post contains graphic descriptions.

Radical feminists often argue that BDSM practice is about degrading, humiliating, violating and torturing women.  It is patriarchal violence against women—whether it occurs in your bedroom, on your computer screen, or is simulated during your lunchtime book reading.

We do not blame women who participate in it, but we will analyze it through a feminist lens.

BDSM is the legitimization of domestic violence against women. Case in point: The Feminist and the Cowboy.  Author Alisa Valdes wrote an erotic semi-autobiographical book about a dominant lover who violently f’ked her under the guise of consensual “play”. After her book was released, Vales wrote a blog post detailing the real life abuse that the “cowboy” inflicted on her. Though the abuse was framed as consensual in her book, her real life experience with the cowboy involved being raped, verbally abused, threatened, and abandoned once he discovered her pregnancy.

Similarly, during a recent BDSM play abuse session, abuser Steven Lock strangled a woman he had recently met on a dating site with a rope, chained her to his bed, lashed her 14 times, f’kd her, and then left her chained. She had to call a friend to help her escape, but Lock was cleared of all abuse charges once he claimed the assault had been “consensual”.

BDSM occurs in the context of patriarchal rape culture, where women always “deserve” the rape, violence, abuse and death that men dish out to them, and women who object to this treatment are called names, and dismissed out-of-hand.

One of the names we are called is “sex negative”, which as many of us know, is actually a code word for “frigid” where “frigid”, as many feminists know, is actually a pejorative referring to our refusal to please men. Radical feminists embrace our refusal to give a f’k about what men want, so we  are happy to be considered prude if it means liberation for women.

We are also told that we are “slut shaming” when we object to BDSM, even though we know that no woman is a slut, and no woman is to blame for the ways that men abuse her.

We are told that we are “not respecting the agency” of women who “choose” to engage in BDSM when recognize that playing a submissive role in sexual situations is likely born out of Societal Stockholm Syndrome. We never, however, blame the women who participate in the practice– our blame sits squarely on the shoulders of men who dominate women.

In so blaming, we are told that we are “kink shaming” the men who like to beat and sexually torture women for fun. A good example of one such man is Snowdrop Explodes who was invited as a “BDSM expert” to talk about BDSM and abuse on the site Womanist  Musings. It was revealed that this so-called “expert” had in the past blogged without apology about his plan to rape and murder a woman in his local park. These are the types of men we are “kink shaming”.

Women who suffer abuse from BDSM are often blamed for having not “said the safe word” when they express discomfort about the abuse they received, which is clearly a case of blaming the victim.

Often women who report on the abuse they experience are silenced, as Vales was when her agent forced her to take down her confessional blog post, or as her new boyfriend does by thanking the cowboy for “taming her”.

Radical feminist are infuriated by this normalization of male abuse of women. (Just this morning I saw a copy of 50 Shades of Gray for 30% off at the local grocery store ferchrissakes). But there is one objection sometimes brought up when discussing BDSM that I haven’t yet addressed. That objection is: What about the submissive men in BDSM? They consent to violent beatings and humiliation too, so how can you say BDSM is strictly violence against women?”

Firstly I’ll point out the fairly obvious: violence, humiliation, and abuse against any person is dehumanizing and wrong.

Leaving this point aside, however, I’ll note that the majority of BDSM occurs in a male-dominant/female submissive context.

In preparation for her documentary The Price of Pleasure, Chung Sun studied 50 of the 275 most popular pornographic films as noted by best-selling and most-rented list reported by Adult Video News. In the films, men being spanked constituted less than 3% of the total spankings that occurred onscreen. In fact,

“most of the targets of physical aggression were women, who usually responded with expressions of pleasure (encouragement, sexual moans, etc) or with no change at all in facial expression or interruption of action.” (quoted from Big Porn, Inc, page 172-173)

So we know that male recipients of aggression constituted less than 3% of the on-screen spankings tallied in the study. The fact that the vast majority of recipients of violence on screen in the most rented videos tells us something about BDSM. It tells us that BDSM is an instrument of violence, and the target of that violence is women.

Obviously, the small number of male submissives will never be able to “even out” the harms inflicted against women in BDSM. It is never okay for women to be abused by men.

Radical feminists know that patriarchal society is set up with a sex-based hierarchy, and that hierarchy is perpetuated using gender. Masculinity is the gender males are socialized into, and it consists in valuing domination, power, invasion, and taking-up-space. Femininity is the gender females are socialized into and consists in submission, powerlessness, having no boundaries, and taking-up-as-little-space-as-possible. As Lierre Keith puts it, “Gender is who gets to be human, and who gets hurt”.

In the context of life as a man in the dominator class, a small percentage of men may wish to “try on” what they perceive to be a feminized role during sexual interactions. They may find themselves turned on by imagining what it might be like to be sexually terrorized. They may get a boner from temporarily adopting the submissive—aka feminine—role. These submissive roles are often explicitly feminized, and submissive men are often referenced as “sissies”– a word used to humiliate men by implying that they bear some resemblance to their much-despised counterpart: woman.

But radical feminists know that “trying on” a submissive role is the action of a supremely privileged individual, who, as a part of his Sunday-Funday-f’k-fest, wants to “spice it up” by having his nipples tweaked. But he can always put away his ball gag and join the world of men and masculinity. We women, however, cannot escape the day-to-day sexual terrorism that he vacations in, because it is our lives.

The existence of male submissives in BDSM practice does nothing to excuse, nullify, or disprove the fact that BDSM is violence against women. We know that liberated sexuality does not follow the patriarchal model of dominance and submission, and that BDSM is the normalization of domestic violence.

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22 comments
  1. girlsoftheinternet said:

    Nice smash! Great analysis and I’m so glad to see a new post up on liberation collective!

    Something I have seen stated over and again in conversations between BDSM-ers about the radical feminist analysis of their kink is “What could be more powerful than choosing to submit” or words to that effect. To which the obvious answer is, well, pretty much anything actually when women are constantly submitting in their daily lives without consent.

  2. emmahamer said:

    What of the BDSM practice of some lesbians? That, to me, is the biggest mystery – why would any woman submit to – or perpetrate – violent “play”, re-enacting the sick dynamics of male oppression? Internalized misogyny? Warped butch-femme dynamics?

  3. smash said:

    GOTI, thanks for stopping by! Great point that women submitting is never going to be powerful. What a reversal.

  4. Hecuba said:

    Locke committed physical assault upon this woman and UK has laws criminalising grevious bodily harm but of course that only applies when a male physically assaults another male, irrespective of whether or not the male victim supposedly ‘consented.’ But a male subjecting a woman to male sexual violence under the pretence ‘it was consensual’ means male did not commit male sexual violence! Patriarchal illogic again. Or rather what the jury enacted was their misogynistic belief that women aren’t human but merely exist to be mens’ dehumanised, disposable sexual service stations because men cannot harm something which is not human.

    The Spanner case was a cause celebre in the UK because a group of homosexual males were convicted of inflicting physical and sexual violence upon some male victims and the male perpetrators claimed the male victims had ‘consented.’ The male perpetrators were convicted because even when a male supposedly ‘consents’ to being subjected to sexual violence this does not make the crime not a crime.

    Does this then mean that if a male ‘consents’ to selling one of his organs this is acceptable? No it is not because selling one’s organs is a crime in the UK but again I forget – this law is to protect men from being exploited.

    BDSM is just another variation on mens’ pseudo sex right to female bodies, any time any where. Those men who play at being submissives do so in the knowledge they retain their male power and rights because these men are paying a woman to inflict a little pain on the male customer. He retains his power because he is the one telling the woman what he wants her to inflict on him. Ergo he retains his male control and domination over the woman.

  5. girlsoftheinternet said:

    That book has a lot to answer for (or should I say the author of the book has).

    @Hecuba: bloody good point. I had a discussion along similar lines a couple of weeks ago regarding Jared Diamond’s defense of widow strangling in traditional Papuan society on the Colbert Report recently. He said they “chose it”. However, the one Western case I could think of where there was explicit consent to killing was still deemed murder even without the cultural pressure. Guess what? That was a dude. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armin_Meiwes . Who knows what the outcome would have been if a woman had been the victim.

  6. “But radical feminists know that “trying on” a submissive role is the action of a supremely privileged individual, who, as a part of his Sunday-Funday-f’k-fest, wants to “spice it up” by having his nipples tweaked. But he can always put away his ball gag and join the world of men and masculinity. We women, however, cannot escape the day-to-day sexual terrorism that he vacations in, because it is our lives.”

    This is such a terrific, well-stated point. There is a very big difference between taking on a submissive role and being assigned to/socialized/defined by it.

  7. smash said:

    goti, thanks for bringing up the similarities between widow strangling and BDSM, Excellent points.

    wotp, thank you for saying so! I am tired of going round and round this point on the internet.

  8. smash said:

    Thank you Susan Hawthorne for these links. I will check this content out!

  9. Thank you for THIS!

    I got into an online debate with some pro BDSMers recently, and it just boggles the mind that they are able to fool themselves (and others) into believing this practice can be anything BUT harmful to women.

    I also wrote a short piece about BDSM on my blog as it is a current topic in my hometown due to the tragic event of a young woman being murdered by two people into “the scene”.

    [Moderator note: This link contains images of BDSM pornography used for purposes of analysis] h88p://elle-fury.blogspot.ca/2013/02/bdsm.html

  10. Alex said:

    This is a few months old but I stumbled on it thanks to Google.

    I’m mildly submissive/masochistic, and I consider myself a feminist. The thing is … BDSM comes in all sorts of flavours. My play partner is, quite honestly, not a sadist. While I might be the “submissive” partner, I’m actually constantly guiding him and telling him what to do through my cues, saying, “Hurt me here,” or, “Tell me what you want to do to me.” He enjoys it because he knows I love it and wants to make me feel good. If at any point he even suspects I’m uncomfortable with what’s happening, he checks in with me, and I know that at any point I can say, “Nope, not okay with this.”

    The scenarios you describe, in my mind, aren’t BDSM. They’re rape and abuse masquerading as kink. There’s no real consent there. Like so many women, I’ve been sexually assaulted (incidentally, my interest in BDSM predates my assault, so no, they’re not related … a lot of people assume they are) and it was one of the most horrific experiences of my life. It also has nothing in common with the really tender, loving play I engage in consensually.

    I also get the sense from your post that guys can’t really win … if they’re “dominant” then they’re rapists. If they’re submissive they’re still sexist for “trying on” submission.

  11. smash said:

    Thanks for your comment, Alex. It’s good to hear we both stand against rape and abuse. Many respond to radical feminist objections to the above practices by claiming that since women “consent” to this treatment, that it somehow avoids being abuse.

    Under radical feminist analysis, claims of enjoyment of a particular activity do not place that activity beyond feminist analysis. Because we grow up in a male dominated society, we are conditioned to like a lot of things that reinforce that dynamic, and we believe BDSM is one of those things. You can be a feminist and still enjoy the practice, but that doesn’t by itself make the practice feminist.

    “I also get the sense from your post that guys can’t really win … if they’re “dominant” then they’re rapists. If they’re submissive they’re still sexist for “trying on” submission.”

    Men can strive to treat their partners as equals without reenacting sexuality under the deliberate patriarchal framework of domination and submission. There are options besides dominance and submission. The fact that many can’t see this is indicative of the omnipresence of patriarchy.

  12. Schelve said:

    I wrote from Germany.

    Thank you for this exellent article. It describes exactly what I experienced with my ex-boyfriend. Congratulation for your clear view on the subject without the usual mystifications.

    We had a very close and equal relationship for nearly 6 years. He is very intellegent and even sensitive. But he has an other side. In the beginning he claimed that he likes BDSM (Bondage, whipping, Master/slave). I have very bad experiences with submission with my abusive mother, so I refused this. This enforced submission is my trauma. I will never, never, never submit again. As I don’t like to be a slave I don’t like to be master. In some way I think the position on top of the lash is even more degrading than the buttom. I want to be human.
    He knew that. Despite I sad no he tried to overpower me. He wanted to be the master and I should be his slave. I asked him, if he wants to play. “No play”. I was really disgusted. I stoped him. I confronted him. He decided for the life with me and without this master/obidient slave thing.

    I was not against BDSM in general. With Bondage I don`t have this problem. It does not recall the trauma. I was curious. But first time he tied me like a parcel. And that was too much for me as a beginner. I wanted to try more but slower. But all he wanted was enthusiastic response. “I must do whatever I want”. So it’s not ok, that I say what I want. He refused the next years when I baged him to try Bondage again.

    In the following years we had a very close relation. We treated each other like humas should treat each other, with respect. We wanted children. So I really forgot what happend in the beginning. The sex was good too, very good, but not BDSM. I trusted him, he was the only one who knew all of me. He was the first man who I trustd absolutely and completly. I opend my soul to him. My love to this man was sacred for me.

    Than he started to change. “I don’t want to lock my demon any more”. He became agressive, less campassionate. Whatever I did was wrong. Than came the bad news: He is unfertile. No chance to have own children. And then the Dom came out. He questioned our relation what was absolutely shockinng, because before he said to me that he loves me. When he decided to continue to live with me, he changed everything. He declared that he will guide me not only in sex and that he will guide me in the relatinship, too. Destabilized this way, I was not able to resist him like in the beginning.
    What he wants was my submission, „voluntarily“ of course, he is a dom not an asshole. He involves me in this dom/sub-practices. After making this experiences I can say if I liked or not. On the other hand, if I don’t like he don’t know about the relationship. That’s how psychological domination works. So much about „consensual“. It was not possible to speak whith him what I like or not before. No personal taboos we talked about. He simply refused to make a difference between play and life. He decided for me that I have to try. No safe word. And so he violates my personal taboos constantly. Now I have a lot of experiances I never wanted to make. I still don’t know how to live with this humiliating memories.
    It’s true what you say that dominat behavior makes a person less compassionate.

    One time, when he had a weak moment, I asked him why he needs my submission. His anwear: To have the feeling of controle over the chaos, the life, his infertility. This is not about sex, it is a personal problem finding a sexual exit like sex addicts use sex to compesate other problems. I told him that. Read about narcissism and you understand that BDSM is just another way of acting out personal problems.

    When he had healthproblems, I refelected on what happened. That was the end of the relationship.

    BDSM celebrates the sickness of this world. It celebrates humiliating behavior. And this behaviour does not stay in the bedroom.

  13. smash said:

    Thanks Schelve for sharing. What a disturbing experience. I’m glad you are out of that relationship now. I wish we had more places to talk about this stuff.

  14. It grosses me out how the kinksters have hijacked an innocent word like “play” to describe their misogynist (and corny) sexual practices. If they’re so liberated, why are they so afraid of calling sex, sex?

  15. Rabbit said:

    Interesting article. I’ve always found it odd how if a man or woman were to whip their partner for not having dinner done on time, they would rightfully be labeled as abusive, even if the other person stated they were okay with it, yet if a man or woman whips their partner for sexual pleasure and the other person consents, it’s somehow not abusive.

    I guess I cannot understand how or why you would want to hurt or degrade/humiliate someone you love, even if they told you they liked it. If someone’s offspring, whether child or adult, told their parent, “I sure do love being forced to eat my food out of a dog bowl,” would you be considered a good parent if you made your offspring eat dinner like a dog? No. The loving thing to do would be to not engage in such behavior and talk to them about it.

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