taking a trip down memory lane with anti-SM feminism*

*I originally posted this on January 11, 2007. I followed it up with a second post, which I will re-post here next week as a continuation of the theme.

Oh, but before you read it, check out Inverted Eye, a new online boutique that is… well, I almost don’t want to spoil the surprise.  Suffice it to say that it’s a very different trip down memory lane, and one that’s dandy-delicious, deeply kinky and thoroughly original. Okay, so at the end of this post I’ll add Alix’s little intro blurb to the site and the concept, but I encourage you to go and take a look for yourself first. What a treasure trove! (Personally I’m lusting after the antique test tubes… so many possibilities…)


A couple of days ago, on an international BDSM list I’m on, someone posted the link to a 1993 article entitled “Ten Lies About Sadomasochism” by Melissa Farley. It was such a textbook example of reactionary anti-sex feminism that I read the whole thing through and was completely fascinated. It’s a fairly quick read – I totally encourage you to go take a look. I’m going to unpack it here a bit but it’s long enough that I’m going to post only highlights. It is, by the way, focused on lesbian sadomasochism, which makes it particularly meaty in my little world.

It’s funny – when I find these things I consider them to be almost like buried treasure. Clearly I disagree point by point with what Farley and her brand of feminism have (perhaps more like “had”) to say, but it’s such an intriguing glimpse into a sex-related thought process that’s so completely alien to me, I can’t help but enjoy the trip. Much like the book Against Sadomasochism, edited by Robin Linden et al. Classic!

These two texts are some of many, many examples I’ve seen of skewed thinking about S/M on the part of a person who clearly hasn’t actually taken the time to look past the “shocking” images and learn about the nuances of what’s really going on. This kind of thing used to bother me, but now it just kinda bores me – yeah yeah, another person getting all tied up in knots (or not, as the case may be!) about something they don’t really understand. Oh well. They can masturbate with a non-penetrative sex toy while listening to Helen Reddy, while I spell my name in needles on someone’s back and then ass-fuck them to the sound of loud multiple orgasms. To each their kinks. It’s unfortunate that they choose to be reactionary instead of considering the deeper meanings of things, but it certainly doesn’t make them right.

Since Farley makes it really easy by laying things out in a ten-point list of “lies,” I’m going to give a few responses to the points. Do go and read the article, though, if you want to see the meat of her arguments, some of which I’ll include for context, but not all because of length.

For starters, some general criticism: the piece reads like a tabloid article. People addicted to SM! Murders only whispered about but not openly acknowledged! The goal of SM being total annihilation! All SM including verbal abuse, and all sexual power dynamics extending to the relationship outside play! Oy. Hardly the stuff of considered, clear-headed analysis, works cited list notwithstanding. Fun from a pulp-novel point of view, mind you.

1. Pain is pleasure; humiliation is enjoyable; bondage is liberation.

Part of the reason that we are vulnerable to this lie is that many of us were raised with religious notions that punishment is love and that suffering is redemption. We’ve learned to “consent” to subordination, even become culturally enthralled by it.

True; some of us have been deeply damaged by repressive religious notions. Interestingly those are often the same notions that say we’re not supposed to enjoy sex or be queer – but Farley doesn’t seem to be telling us we aren’t really queer, that lesbianism is just a reaction to religious oppression. Also interesting that this supposed cultural enthrallment with our own subordination is so all-powerful that it eclipses our power of choice… and even more so that it only explains the submissive/bottom side of things. It does take two to tango, after all – would the reverse of this argument be that dominants/tops have become culturally enthralled with control and empowerment? Isn’t it interesting that there seem to be two polar-opposite cultures at work here, simultaneously, one of which would seem to predicate an awful lot of power and choice, if you choose to look at SM one-dimensionally in the first place? Of course it isn’t that simple in real life… which is exactly the point.

2. Sadomasochism is love and trust, not domination and annihilation.

Sadomasochism has to do with annihilation. Contrary to the popular legend that sadomasochism expands one’s sexuality, I believe that it restricts and ultimately destroys one’s sexual being. Subordination, humiliation, and torture are all means of deliberately destroying the self.

Hee hee. Annihilation? My goodness. There must be an awful lot of us getting annihilated. Honestly, if I were interested in that, it’d be a lot faster to just take a gun to someone’s head – all this painstaking study of proper bondage technique and blood safety protocol would be pretty much a waste of time. Awww, and I was having so much fun! Not to mention all those awesome orgasms my destroyed sexual being seems to be capable of experiencing and providing. Maybe I’m just making those up.

Farley then goes on to quote an article about infamous Texas cult leader Koresh, about how he “entwined ‘sex, violence, love and fear’” in order to control cult members. A rather hysterical comparison if you ask me – I have yet to encounter a BDSM cult, though I’d be intrigued if ever there was one. (Oooh! Crazy people with great accessories!) Unfortunately for Farley, though, BDSM is usually a lot more banal – it’s generally sought out by its participants and includes no brainwashing or kooky religious beliefs.

She also mentions (disgustedly) a 1990 article by Jan Brown entitled, “Sex, Lies and Penetration, a Butch Finally ‘Fesses Up,” where Brown writes: “Sex that is gentle, passive, egalitarian, does not move us. (…) We want to have the freedom to ignore ‘no’ or have our own ‘no’ ignored.”

Luckily I happen to have the article in its entirety because it’s included in Joan Nestle’s The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader. The full article is not available online, unfortunately, so you’ll have to trust me when I say it’s basically a rant on the part of a sex-positive butch dyke former sex worker. She’s pretty much sick of all kinds of PC justifications for liking such things as penetration (it’s all about the nerve endings!), dildos (they’re a plastic tribute to our lesbian herstory!) and rough sex (we frame it with safewords and that’s why it’s hot!), and is trying to explain that really, we just like that shit because it’s deep-down hot all on its own. She is totally not advocating rape or nonconsent – she’s explaining that the desires running through sexual practice are not explainable in PC terms but must be understood for what they are. I love this quoting-out-of-context thing Farley’s doing. Notice Brown talks about the freedom to ignore “no,” not the obligation to. Yeesh.

3. Sadomasochism is not racist and anti Semitic even though we “act” like slave owners and enslaved Africans, Nazis and persecuted Jews.

Farley describes a race-play scene she saw once (Nazi torturer, Jewish captive). Don’t get me wrong – I totally understand how this kind of thing might trigger some people to anger. Much like a rape scene in a movie might trigger a rape victim. But it’s that very charge that makes race play (and rape play for that matter) a major erotic thriller for some folks. The emphasis being on “some” – I’ve probably seen two or three such scenes in my entire life, so they’re hardly emblematic of the entire community. I’ve only even read one article on the topic, and it’s by Midori, who’s a queer Japanese-American switch herself – hardly a spokesperson for the white male patriarchy.

But for those who go there, the whole point is that it’s risky emotional territory – not because the players are unaware of the risk, but because they are highly aware of it. I’d direct my real anger at the ignorant people who perpetuate racism in places outside their consensual fantasy life, not the ones who consensually and consciously explore the erotic power of race-related taboo in very specific and defined contexts.

Farley then goes on to say: If a radical feminist were to challenge (a) newspaper on the issue of sadomasochism, we’d be called “censors.” The whole issue of censorship is used to intimidate us and silence critical dialogue about sadomasochism.

Farley is taking a very odd view of censorship here. She seems to think all anti-SM sentiments are being blocked from expression. Um… proof to the contrary being the publication of her article, no? Cry me a river, honey – MacKinnon and Dworkin’s work, which you so dearly admire, was used as the basis for Canada’s customs laws, which Little Sisters queer bookstore in Vancouver has been battling for over a decade. Not to mention, just take a look at Canada’s laws… or the US’s recent FBI-approved clampdowns on SM porn and websites. It’s hardly the anti-SM dialogue that’s being squelched, even 14 years after this article was published!

4. Sadomasochism is consensual; no one gets hurt if they don’t want to get hurt. No one has died from sadomasochistic “scenes.”

Is it ever OK to consent to one’s own humiliation and victimization? I do not think so. Sadists pay lip service to consent, but ignore the power systems which create inequality and make meaningful consent impossible. In this culture we have no experience of equal power relationships.

Actually, it’s very much OK to consent to one’s own humiliation. I think the word “victimization” is not really the right one here because the word itself implies non-consent, but I do think it’s also OK to consent to one’s own torture. That OK-ness is the only thing that makes consent meaningful at all – the fact that we have the choice. If we’ve only got one choice, there’s no power in making it; it’s already being made for us, whether by the patriarchy or by feminism.

We don’t have to like all the choices in front of us, and if we think that some of them are being affected by lack of information or whatever, then we should provide as many alternative viewpoints as possible to make choices as meaningful as they can be. But the old feminist argument that there’s no such thing as empowered sexual choice in a sexist world is pretty defeatist and circular, all things considered – which is probably why it’s a lot less commonly heard these days. It’s no fun to have our ability to make sexual choices denied by the very community that’s supposed to be supporting our empowerment. Results in far fewer orgasms, too. I’m much more interested in feminism that takes a realistic look at the forces of society while also factoring in the realistic choices we each make to fulfil our desires.

Extreme violence sometimes occurs during sadomasochistic “play.” I have been informed of many instances where “safe” words were ignored during a sadomasochistic “scene.” I also know that women have died during sadomasochistic activities and that these deaths are only whispered about – they are not openly acknowledged.

Note the author stops short of naming names, providing case details and openly acknowledging any such deaths herself – hmmm, I wonder why? I’m sure some people ignore safewords, but that makes them abusers, not players. (Check out the differences between SM and abuse here if you’re interested in a really articulate breakdown.) Perhaps a few nutcases have even killed their bottoms, but then they’re criminals and possibly psychopaths, not SM players – no matter how they dress up. Those are the sorts of people who get ostracized by the kinky folks, and hopefully arrested; can’t say I’ve ever met one. But I highly doubt there’s a huge list of unsolved BDSM-related murders out there or the attendance at fetish balls would doubtless plummet.

5. Sadomasochism is only about sex. It doesn’t extend into the rest of the relationship.

Sadomasochism has everything to do with sexism, racism and class in the real world. It is very much related to internalized self-hatred.

That’s why we’re all enjoying ourselves so much…?

The sadistic sexual relationship sets the tone for the rest of the relationship.

Possibly, in instances of consensual D/s. Otherwise it’s abusive, and once again – abuse is not SM. (Key distinction: watch for the bottom’s orgasm, or failing that, their look of sheer bliss.)

Hitting someone is usually a sadistic act.

Wrong. Hitting someone (outside BDSM) is usually an angry act, not a sadistic one. Refer back to the article on SM vs abuse. Abuse is not nearly as much fun.

Assault and rape do occur in lesbian relationships – and they are normalized by the patterns laid down sexually.

Yes, assault does occur between women, and can indeed be supported by sexualized patterns. Once again, though: are they having fun? No? Probably abusive. Yes? Then what are we worried about?

6. Sadomasochistic pornography has no relationship to the sadomasochistic society we live in. “If it feels good, go with it.” “We create our own sexuality.”

We internalize sadomasochistic fantasies because it is the sexuality which has been shoved down our throats from the day we were born. As women we’re raised to be “bottoms:” lesbian “bottoms” tend to outnumber “tops” [sadists] by 10 to 1.

True – not in quite such a high ratio, but Trevor Jacques’ massive 1999 study on BDSM demographics (it’s fucking fascinating!) indicates that women are statistically more likely to be bottoms, lesbian or otherwise. We could speculate on all kinds of reasons for this, and doubtless some of them are society-related. However, the existence of such stats still doesn’t explain lesbian tops, switches, het male bottoms, or gay male bottoms – clearly there are other options than bottoming, and presumably the bottoms are there because they want to be. There’s always a huge number of male bottoms too, to the point where it’s a common in-joke in the SM world that female tops get mobbed by male bottoms as soon as they walk into a dungeon. So, uh, what’s the point?

7. Lesbians “into sadomasochism” are feminists, devoted to women, and a women-only lesbian community. Lesbian pornography is “by women, for women.”

While lesbians who are “into sadomasochism” define themselves as lesbian, their sadomasochistic practices are bisexual. I have no political criticism of bisexuality – what I am criticizing is sadomasochist posturing as devoted lesbian members of the women’s community.

Wow. Now that’s a huge unsupported and unsupportable blanket statement about an entire community’s sexual practice. Last time I checked, there really were SM lesbians out there. SM bi girls too. Some are devoted members of the women’s community, some not.

Sure, it’s unfortunate that some people keep their bisexuality in the closet, but they’re hardly restricted to the SM world – lots of vanilla women define themselves as lesbians and still boink the occasional dude. And if there’s no political criticism of bisexuality implied, why would its existence in the women’s community imply posturing or lack of devotion? Sure sounds like political criticism to me. Not to mention irrelevant to SM.

Pseudolesbian pornography, that is, pictures of women who are imitating lesbians’ sexual behavior, has been a favored element in straight male pornography since it was first published. It sells. Despite the fact that it is often advertised as being owned and distributed by and for women, “lesbian” pornography sells briskly to straight men.

Well, of course pseudolesbian porn would. I highly doubt the real stuff is nearly as interesting. The indie handicam stuff made by (hot) pierced and tattooed plus-size butch dykes in San Francisco has very little in common with the stuff you get on the late-night channel and doesn’t “sell briskly” to anyone; it costs $60 a video, gets stopped at the border more often than not, and is only available at independently run co-ops – which I dearly love and support as often as I can with my hard-earned cash, but really. Real lesbian porn is not exactly a massive moneymaking endeavour. But the main point being: what does all this have to do with SM?

Bottoms are seen as “generic, interchangeable, and replaceable.”  (Califia, 1992)

Now this is a quote out of context if ever I’ve seen one. I can’t seem to find the original article online in full either, but it’s reprinted in the book Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics and Practice, edited by Mark Thompson, which I also luckily have on my shelf.

The article itself is about the ways in which tops and bottoms bitch about each other within the SM community and make life difficult for each other. A classic example of the way Califia directs his acidic criticism at those he loves best – in a book intended for a readership of SMers, not as an educational tool for outsiders. In fact he contextualizes the entire thing in the first few paragraphs by writing:

“The dialogue within our community about how S/M works on a day-to-day level and how we can form healthy identities as radical perverts has to grow beyond the elementary information we offer outsiders who are still having a hard time making a distinction between rape and an erotic spanking.”

(And what sort of outsider do you think he’s talking about here, Ms. Farley?…)

In the paragraphs preceding the quote, Califia criticizes bottoms who objectify tops:

“I have yet to meet a top who didn’t feel they were frequently depersonalized and objectified by the people who cruise them. This is an odd sensation. You know that sombody wants you bad, but you’re not sure they know who the hell you are. (…) Some forms of masochism and fetishism are actually very sophisticated and complex forms of masturbation. Although the fantasy of a partner’s presence may be necessary to make the imagined situation arousing, that dominant has no more independent needs or feelings than a seven-inch high heel or a see-through plastic raincoat. (…) Autoerotic S/M is not inherently bad, immature, or oppressive. But it’s much easier to fulfill these fantasies by jerking off or hiring a professional than it is to persuade someone else to cooperate out of philanthropy.”

Then, and only then, does he turn his criticism against tops:

“It’s not just bottoms who treat their potential partners like things. Bottoms are even more likely to be seen as generic, interchangeable, and replaceable than tops. Dare I say that it would be healthy for tops to learn a little more respect and humility?”

And then he continues with other bitching: how the community doesn’t always make it easy for people who want to switch, for tops to learn how to structure a scene so it’s satisfying for them as tops, and so forth.

So… hardly an example of Califia telling the world that bottoms don’t matter. Crikey.

8. Since lesbians are superior to men, we can “play” with sadomasochism in a liberating way that heterosexuals can not.

I do not think that women are biologically superior to men. In fact, I see that notion as dangerous and reactionary. “Anatomy is destiny” is not exactly a feminist idea.

Thank goodness, there’s a bit of reason in here. At last, Farley and I agree on something!

Occasionally in the SM world there are people known as “female supremacists” who truly believe women are biologically superior to men. They tend to be hetero guys who eroticize this dynamic, and the hetero women that like such men. I have yet to meet a leatherdyke who thinks this way; outside certain specific kinds of hetero kink, this line of thinking is largely the province of essentialist feminist radicals from the ’70s, not of the modern leatherdyke. Just because we mugrunch doesn’t mean we manhate (even my non-bisexual sisters).

We delude ourselves if we think it is possible to “play” the rapist without becoming the rapist.

So there’s no difference between playing a role and becoming a criminal? Gee, all those gun-toting film stars must have crazy long murder rap sheets then…

9. Reenacting abuse heals abuse. Sadomasochism heals emotional wounds from childhood sexual assault.

A greater percentage of women “into sadomasochism” have histories of childhood sexual assault, than those women who do not participate in sadomasochism.

Really? What study shows this? Why is it not in the works cited list?

I just checked out page 22 of Jacque’s survey data (here’s the link again), which covers this very point for this specific demographic. If you average out the first three categories of childhood abuse – physical, sexual and emotional – it would seem that 44% of his female survey respondents reported being abused, and 22% of the male respondents. Specifically, for women: 34.7% physically, 44.4% sexually and 53.6% emotionally. And for men: 16.8% physically, 16.8% sexually and 32% emotionally.

Now, I’m not a statistician and I’m not an abuse researcher, but here’s the data that came up in the first few Google pages when I searched for the words statistics, abuse, women and Canada:

– “1 in 3 females and 1 in 6 males in Canada experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18.” (From the Safe Kids BC site, quoting the 1999 McCreary Adolescent Health Survey II)

– “Sexual abuse statistics vary between countries and reports, but are consistently alarming: One country’s research indicates that up to 36% of girls and 29% of boys have suffered child sexual abuse; another study reveals up to 46% of girls and 20% of boys have experienced sexual coercion (The 57th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights).” (From the statistics page of the Child Abuse Effects site.)

Basically, as Trevor himself has said at numerous presentations of this data (most recently, in my attendance at least, at the 9th International Bi Conference in Toronto last summer), this is pretty consistent with his data on BDSMers. At the very least, if there are percentage variations, they’re hardly enormous. In other words – we’re no more or less likely to have been abused as kids. So let’s get over this argument already!

Farley also engages in a twisted piece of psychological speculation about people’s motivations for SM that I’m not even going to try to unpack here because it’s so full of “may” and “might” and “does not seem” it might as well say nothing at all – and is utterly devoid of any real psychological data or even reference to psychological theory, even of the armchair variety.

Suffice it to say that a carefully constructed scene that allows someone to enter risky emotional territory can indeed be healing, but there are no guarantees, and most sane adults only engage in that sort of thing with a great deal of care and awareness of its risks. You’re highly unlikely to see someone at the local dungeon acting out their childhood abuse scenario to achieve psychological healing. I mean just for starters, it can be more than a little freaky for a top to be cast in the role of someone’s former abuser – you have to really trust your bottom if you’re going to enter that kind of scenario and come out the other end feeling good about it!

10. Sadomasochism is political dissent. It is progressive and even “transgressive” in that it breaks the rules of the dominant sexual ideology.

The posturing of sadists and masochists as “transgressive” can be confusing to those not familiar with feminist theory. By definition, the ultimate goal of feminism is to end sadomasochism.

Depends what kind of feminist theory you’re talking about – anyone who does know anything about feminist theory can tell you there are many many flavours of it! Try sex-positive feminism. It’s fun, and one of my personal favourites.

Our system is sadomasochistic to the core, how is celebrating it any kind of true rebellion? (Fritz, 1983). The political values of sadism are blatantly antifeminist, totalitarian and right-wing.

That’s why we have to fight censorship, risk losing custody of our kids and function at the edges of the law – because we’re right in keeping with the dominant system. Huh?

Sadomasochism is not a creative deviation from normal heterosexual behavior. It is the defining quality of the power relationship between women and men. Sadism is the logical extension of behavior that arises out of male power (Wagner, 1982).

Which explains why all those lesbians and fags are doing it together, and why there are female tops? Wow, does this ever show a simplistic view of power relations.

We live in a misogynist world, and women have so little political power, that it’s easier to fantasize about absolute personal power than to politically organize for change (Clarke, 1993).

Funny, the leatherdykes of my acquaintance are generally among the most politically active people I know. Much like a significant number of major feminist activists are lesbians (and historically have been too, perhaps even more so in the past than today). Maybe because when you’re a minority within a minority (or a minority within a minority within a minority in the case of leatherdykes) you understand just how much you’re fighting for?

Anyway – this article was published in 1993, so almost 15 years ago, near the tail end of the “sex wars” where this kind of rhetoric was common. Of course some people still feel this way, but in my experience at least it’s far less common now, thank goodness. Nonetheless… an interesting trip indeed!


As promised, here’s Alix’s blurb:


Dear admirer of the uncommon, enthusiast of the exceptional, appreciator of the unusual and fan of all things fetish.

I am thrilled to announce that the Inverted Eye online store launched today, just in time for the holiday season!  And for those not “in the know”, the Inverted Eye is a sophisticated vintage store offering subtly kinky items and discreet fetish antiques.

So if you were wondering what gift you could possibly buy your favorite sweetheart, friend “with benefits”, daddy, girlfriend, mistress, spouse, doctor, burlesque dancer, sailor, barber or equestrian-lover, look no further.

While the online store debuted with over 250 items of carefully hand picked inventory, I will be adding an additional 250 extraordinary pieces over the next few weeks, so be sure to check back frequently.

Also, be sure not to miss the movie on the Home Page that stars fourteen incredibly sexy models who are dressed thematically to correspond to the areas of merchandise offered on the site, which includes Medical, Barber, Equestrian, Domestic, Juvenile, Scholastic, Uniform, Kitsch, Vaudeville & XXX treasures!

Finally, as I am committed to making the experience as compelling and user-friendly as possible, I welcome all feedback.

With gratitude,

Alix Izen
Owner, Inverted Eye

5 thoughts on “taking a trip down memory lane with anti-SM feminism*

  1. I’m with you just in general, but the excerpts from Point #9 are really confusing. If you’re trying to combat the “myth” that bdsm can heal the damage from an abusive childhood (which I’ve rarely if ever heard anyone claim), how is pointing out (incorrectly or not) that a lot of bdsm’ers were abused helpful?

    Myth: Psychotherapy can help heal the wounds caused by childhood traumas

    Fact: Many psychotherapy “clients” had traumatic childhoods


  2. I dunno. Her logic is quite confused in general. I think what she’s trying to say is that a lot of BDSMers try to justify their kink by saying it’s a healing experience (and I agree with you, this is not something I hear actual kinksters claim all that often), and she’s trying to say that in fact BDSM is actually a symptom of trauma rather than a healing of it. But no, she doesn’t do the greatest job of stating a “lie” and then refuting it – she just gets muddled. It’s not the only instance of muddled thought in her article, but you definitely have a good point in drawing attention to this one in particular!

  3. Sadists pay lip service to consent, but ignore the power systems which create inequality and make meaningful consent impossible.

    If this is so, then we cannot consent to vanilla sex either.

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