Today, I have a few things to say about two articles on BDSM that have come across my feed these past couple of days: “No, Being Kinky Does Not Grant You Minority Status” by Meghan Murphy for Rabble.ca, and “The Trouble with Bondage: Why S&M Will Never Be Fully Accepted” by William Saletan for Slate.com.
They’ve got it wrong. They’ve got it so far wrong that frankly, their authors are making public fools of themselves, if nothing else than for sheer factual error, but also because of a remarkable failure to demonstrate even the most basic ability to construct a logical argument. Beyond that, they’ve been published on otherwise relatively well-regarded websites, which indicates a failure of clear thought along two entire publishing chains of command, and this makes me seriously raise an eyebrow at their editors. If this is the level of discourse that writers are engaging in, in 2013, when the topic of sadomasochism comes up, I fear we are about to descend back into a blow-by-blow replay of the 1980s Sex Wars, except played out on the interwebs among much bigger “armies” than the diminutive, if vociferous, ranks of radical feminists.
How do they get it wrong, you ask? Mostly, it’s about conflating ideas that are in fact quite separate, and failing to provide any justification or logical explanation for those conflations. Again: super basic stuff. Stuff that, if they weren’t operating with some sort of willful ignorance (or failing that, actual lack of intelligence, so I kinda weirdly hope it’s the first option), they’d be able to figure out quite easily. This isn’t rocket science. Perhaps these writers are so dazzled by the spectacle of kink that they simply lose their critical thinking faculties. If this is the case, I’d invite them to come spend a few weekends at a kink conference or twelve. Once the “oh my god people actually do that?!” wears off, perhaps they’ll be able to approach this topic in a somewhat more level-headed fashion.
I have created a three-part breakdown for your reading pleasure, followed by some suggestions of how to do the job properly. (Yep. Long post. Necessarily.)
Problem 1. The conflation of kink with domestic violence, assault and murder.
Let’s take Meghan Murphy’s Rabble article, “No, Being Kinky Does Not Grant You Minority Status,” as the perfect example of this. She discusses the “cannibal cop” case that’s recently made the news, and then goes on to package that with an attack on kinksters’ self-understanding as sexual minorities. It’s a twisted, deeply flawed argument. I will try to take it apart here.
Okay, so we’ve got this cop who likes to look at pictures of dead bodies and videos of women being roasted on spits. So far, a bit gross, potentially, but y’know, if you don’t want to see depictions of dead bodies (real or staged), don’t watch the news or action movies or TV or, well, yeah. Images of people roasting on spits are a little less common but the first time I saw one was in a Robin Hood film when I was about six, and don’t even start me on the weird shit in Indiana Jones or Star Wars. These ain’t specialized fetish websites, folks. Torture scenes are par for the course in mainstream cultural productions to which we all have access. And, lest we get upset about misogyny when it is not warranted, please note that in all cases I’m mentioning here, we’re talking about male victims. So let’s bracket this out unless we want to tar pretty much everyone in North America with the same brush.
Do we want to get into the realm of specialized fetish websites? Okay, let’s go there. Without actually using the term “snuff,” Murphy relies heavily on the spectre of snuff films for her argument. “Snuff” is basically the idea of porn in which someone is killed at the end. Like, for real killed. But she misstates the facts as reported. Her article contains the following paragraph:
“The officer, Gilberto Valle, had been visiting a ‘fetish sites’ (because murdering women is a ‘fetish’ donchaknow) which “show[ed] women in various stages of forced duress, including one that offered images of women who did not survive.” There was a cannibalism element to his ‘fetish’ and “the FBI analysis of Valle’s laptop yielded a video of a naked woman hanging over an open flame and screaming in agony.”
Pretty disturbing, right? Except that the article she links to twice in that paragraph in fact reads as follows:
“Jurors appeared uncomfortable Monday as prosecutors showed a video of a screaming woman made to appear as if she were being cooked alive over an open flame and other disturbing images from websites devoted to torturing and eating women – evidence prosecutors say proves Valle was involved in a cannibalism plot.
“Valle frequently visited websites showing women in various stages of forced duress, including one that offered images of women who did not survive, FBI computer forensics examiner Stephen Flatly testified at Valle’s kidnapping conspiracy trial.”
Do you see the difference? If we go by Murphy’s conflation, we’d think the woman was being actually roasted alive. If we go by the original article, we see that she’s made to appear that way (refer back to Robin Hood). If we go by Murphy, the cop was visiting fetish websites presenting snuff porn—footage of real women being killed. If we go by the original article, the cop could have been looking at any pictures of dead women (refer back to watching the news), or possibly pictures of women made to appear dead. The original article isn’t terribly clear—what does “forced duress” mean? How is it split into “stages”? Are we supposed to understand that these women “did not survive” that “duress” or just that they are dead? And is all that imagery of things that actually happened or are they pictures of women being “made to appear” to go through these things? Those are pretty key distinctions to make, and if the recent Montreal special-effects artist case is any indication (the artist was acquitted, by the way), disturbing imagery is by no means an indication that anyone was harmed, even when it’s extreme. Despite lack of clarity, though, the person who wrote this article—y’know, an actual reporter who has to be careful not to state things that aren’t true—didn’t explicitly conflate all this stuff. But Murphy sure did.
Listen, I don’t know what this cop was looking at or what websites he was visiting. What I can tell you, though, is that according to the numerous books and articles I’ve read on the topic, snuff films are largely a thing of pure imagination. Actual snuff films are incredibly rare and excruciatingly hard to find even for people who are actively seeking them out, ranging from both independent investigators on a personal quest to major law enforcement teams. And when posted on the internet, such videos usually lead pretty quickly to the arrest of a perpetrator who was stupid enough to film himself murdering someone. Because hello! Filming yourself committing a murder is a pretty clear giveaway! (Luka Magnotta, anyone?!) So the chances of this guy watching footage of actual murder are very, very slim. The closest he likely came was viewing documentary footage of accidental death, or other such potentially gruesome and disturbing but not exactly pornographic stuff. More likely he was entertaining himself with “turkey”-roasting fetish porn (which, from what I’ve seen, is so wholesome-looking as to be almost silly), gore-film special-effects footage and “Faces of Death,” which half the kids in my high school watched on weekends to upset their parents. You can argue that his taste in entertainment is disturbing, and you might be right, but that is a whole different discussion than one about a guy who watches films of actual women being murdered, roasted on spits and eaten. If such films exist, we are dealing with a way bigger problem than a cop watching them, but since I am seeing no news articles about snuff porn rings with a penchant for cannibalism, I am forced to assume this isn’t the case.
Murphy: get your facts straight. This is deliberate misinterpretation. When presented in context of an article whose (confusing!) aim is to simultaneously dismiss kinky sexuality as boring and tar it with the brush of murder, you are making some very dangerous conflations indeed.
Moving on from the question of what he was watching… Next, this cop decides he thinks it’s a good idea to discuss killing and eating his wife with some potential accomplices. Okay! Now this is a BIG problem! He’s probably not the nicest guy! He’s seriously plotting to do something very violent, very real, VERY non-consensual, and that is explicitly and intentionally aiming to result in someone’s death. HELLO! These are BAD THINGS! This, not his taste in websites, tells us that we are talking about a potential murderer here. Psychopath? Maybe. Some other sort of mental illness? Possibly. If he’s not mentally ill, then what? Do sane people ever take steps toward killing, dismembering and cannibalizing other people? Frankly, I don’t know. I have no idea how I’d deal with this guy in a court of law, but one thing I can tell you is that there is no place for him in the diverse realm of consensual joy- and pleasure-seeking self-actualizers of the world who play with other people who also wish to play with them. He belongs in the ranks of, well, pretty much every other person out there who plans and executes the un-desired, non-consensual torture and murder of people.
Murphy asks the question, “When does a fantasized crime become an actual crime?” The answer is in the question. When it becomes actual. Next question, please.
I would propose that a more interesting question would be, “How do we tell the difference between plans to enact a fantasy and plans to commit a crime?” That, too, has an easy answer, but that answer doesn’t appeal to the likes of Murphy, who seems bent on creating a parallel where none exists.
Let’s look at the case. The guy didn’t commit the actual crime of murder. What he did do, however, was make extensive plans to commit the actual crime. Please note the difference between plans to commit the crime of murder and cannibalism and plans to play out a murder and cannibalism fantasy (and yes, this fetish does exist, and fantasy websites do exist about it). The distinctions might be lost on folks like Murphy, but I’ll walk us through it as an exercise in the obvious, just in case.
In the planning to enact a fantasy that involves two people, both people are involved in that planning to whatever extent they agree they will each be involved (everything from “I trust you to surprise me, honey!” to “You pick the apple to put in my mouth, and I’ll polish it so it’ll look good in the pictures”). In planning to commit a crime, one person is involved, or possibly one person and a partner or partners in crime, and the victim of the crime is unawares, because if they were they would run like hell.
In the planning of a fantasy enactment, roles are discussed, safety is considered, limits are negotiated. (“If I squawk twice, that means this ‘turkey’ needs to come out of the ‘oven’!”) In the planning of a crime, nobody is role-playing, the very idea of safety is by definition not part of the game plan (unless maybe you count the perpetrator’s plans to get away with the crime himself unharmed?), and limits are by definition disregarded because HELLO SOMEONE DIES AT THE END.
Do I really need to go on here? Is Murphy actually arguing that she can’t tell the difference between these two things? If not, I must ask: what exactly is making Meghan Murphy link this guy to anything in the realm of kink?
I’m going to throw her a bone here, and acknowledge that Murphy’s main source of upset here seems to be misogyny and violence against women. And y’know, I get it. Misogyny and violence against women upset me too. I’m not sure how she makes the leap from a murder-plotting cannibal cop to your local spanking fetishist or what have you, though. She fails to actually lay out the connection she sees, and given the rather vast divergences (orgasm versus murder, say), that is a significant element to omit.
I absolutely acknowledge that we live in a culture in which male violence against women is seen as normal, is permitted both subtly and overtly, and is even encouraged (take the example of rape jokes, which I wrote about here). I absolutely think we need to work to end misogyny. But come on. Let’s actually target misogyny and violence, then, not the people whose sex lives Murphy herself seems to see as dull.
“There are a couple of issues surrounding ‘kink’ that do concern me. The first is the unwillingness of feminists to call out misogyny when they see it simply because we have to protect the sensitivities of the fetish folks. The second is the delusion that ‘kink’ is an identity that designates ‘kinky people’ as some kind of oppressed minority group. Kink and BDSM can certainly enter misogynist territory and it isn’t your right to force the world to pretend that it doesn’t in order to defend your sex life. … The real life rape and torture of real life people isn’t just a sexy game; but when presented as ‘kink’ it becomes innate part of our sexualities, completely divorced from larger culture.”
I think Murphy is trying to construct a link between the “cannibal cop” and misogyny, and a further link between misogyny and kink, and then a link between kink and the employment of “sexual minority deserving of protection” logic as a tool used by evil kinksters to undermine feminism. But she doesn’t employ any logical means to make that chain of links strong enough to lean on. So let’s consider it broken, all right?
This doesn’t mean we can’t address the separate, non-cannibal-cop-related question of misogyny in kink. The problem with Murphy’s take on it is fourfold.
First of all, Murphy seems to assume that “fetish folks” are not, themselves, feminists. Her phrasing belies her bigoted understanding of kink as necessarily un-feminist or anti-feminist. She’s free to misperceive as much as she likes, but in doing so she’s ignoring a rather colossal amount of literature produced in the last thirty years of feminist discourse (both scholarly, such as Gayle Rubin among many others, and popular, such as Clarisse Thorne), as well as the existence of countless self-identified feminists within kink communities and privately engaging in kinky activities. This doesn’t speak highly of her research skills but does speak volumes about her bias.
Second, Murphy thinks “kink” as an identity designates a group that falsely considers itself an oppressed minority. And Murphy takes pains to point out, repeatedly and condescendingly, that she finds us boring:
“Now, before the ‘don’t kink-shame me’ folks start railing on me, I will reiterate that, I really don’t much care about whether or not you want to dress up in latex costumes and play silly games in the bedroom. It isn’t particularly interesting. The only people who really care about ‘kink’ are people who care about ‘kink’. So get over the idea that you’re so bad and the rest of the world is just too ‘vanilla’ to get you. You like role-playing, other people don’t. So what. Move on.”
Okay. I’d be happy to move on, except that Murphy herself is simultaneously telling me my sex life is uninteresting and conflating it with the practices of a would-be murderous cannibal. I don’t feel the least bit oppressed by liking to dress up in leather and hit people for mutual enjoyment, but yeah, I admit, I do feel pretty keenly misrepresented by articles like this one which try to tell me that places me on a continuum with a dude who wants to slit his wife’s throat, bleed her out, and eat her dead body for lunch. Murphy, you are doing some pretty nasty oppressing here. An eye-rolling comment about latex outfits doesn’t obscure that little trick. It’s precisely this sort of egregious conflation that has psychiatrists chemically neutering foot fetishists and courts revoking custody because Mom has a riding crop tucked behind the dresser. And those consequences are bona fide oppression, the threat of which very much does hang over practicing perverts. If people like you would leave “boring” folks like us alone, we would have no reason to call oppression.
Third, Murphy’s perception that feminists are unwilling to call out misogyny completely ignores the extent to which self-identified kinky feminists are doing precisely that: calling out misogyny in kink. And no, it’s not about pictures of women in bondage or whatever. It’s about actual, not fantasized, assault, and the people who try to close ranks around the perpetrators. The community-wide discussion of non-consensual behaviour within the pansexual scene, mostly perpetrated by men and mostly targeted at women, is reaching epic proportions, as well it should. Fetlife, for instance, is practically melting down with controversy after controversy in which perpetrators of assault, non-consensual outing, stalking and more are being protected and victims being blamed within the confines of the site, which of course reflects what happens beyond it too. The reason the meltdown is happening is because feminists are calling bullshit in discussion after discussion. Loudly. Repeatedly. That discussion isn’t happening only on fetish social networking sites—it’s happening in workshops, on panels, online, via support groups, in books. (GoodReads.com even has a shelf entitled Abuse and Assault Sold as BDSM! Brilliant. And yes, Fifty Shades is on it.) I, for one, am intrigued to see where it will all go. One thing that’s most certainly not happening is silence. If someone like Murphy were at all educated about what happens among actual kinksters in actual kink community spaces, she wouldn’t make such ridiculous assertions—assertions which only serve to perpetuate the very silence, or “forcing the world to pretend,” of which she accuses kinksters. In short: misogyny absolutely does happen in kink. And when it does, much as it does pretty much anywhere else in society, feminists call it out, the way we do everywhere else we are.
Fourth, this real-life rape and torture of people that Murphy thinks is being presented as a sexy game? The only person I see doing that here is her. And maybe Gilberto Valle and Luka Magnotta, who are, y’know, in jail. On the odd occasion that I’ve seen someone present real rape and torture as anything even close to “sexy games” in kink community settings, they tend to get shouted down by—you guessed it!—feminists. Pervy feminists. Feminists who, fer fuck’s sake, can tell the damn difference between a fantasy and a rape, between a joyful experience of intense intimate connection and the terrifying and damaging experience of non-consensual violence, sometimes precisely because we’ve experienced both, sometimes because we haven’t and don’t ever wish to. Take, for instance, Mollena Williams’ article in this week’s New York Times, which is doing a much better job than Rabble of publishing clearly written and logically argued pieces about kink. (Even their rather predictable essay about the mainstreaming of BDSM, which kicked off all this discussion, is at least well-researched.) Join the club, Murphy. Have at least a modicum of respect for sexual assault survivors and their basic ability to know when they do and do not want something to happen. I’d like to think you have the intellectual chops to do this. If you don’t, well, then I’m really glad you’re not the great hope of today’s feminism.
Problem 2. The conflation of porn production with personal kink practice.
For this section, let’s take a look at William Saletan’s recent Slate article, “The Trouble with Bondage: Why S&M Will Never Be Fully Accepted.”
Saletan falls into the same trap that Murphy does of conflating criminal violence with sexy fun times, in that his article features several links to articles about middle-aged men who kidnapped and tortured teenage girls against their will and called it kinky. Seriously, guy. Seriously. You can do a better job than this. Please tell me that your critical thinking faculties have not completely atrophied. Would you high-five a hockey player who beats the crap out of an opposing team member if he says “Hey, man, this is how hockey works, it’s all part of the game, I had to send a message”? Would you nod sagely upon hearing the Catholic Church defend and protect priests who sexually assaulted young kids, essentially saying “This is between them and God, and the best thing to do is to transfer them to another parish and pray some”? I certainly hope not. I think we can all acknowledge that violence and abuse happen in a variety of settings, and that the settings themselves do not provide either reason or excuse for that abuse. I think we can further acknowledge that abusers do their best to grab onto whatever justification or obfuscation they can come up with. So for crying out loud, put that brain to work a bit, and recognize the difference here.
Beyond that, Saletan conflates porn production work with the personal pursuit of kink: “Women who do S&M porn scenes have described electrical burns, permanent scars from beatings, and penetrations that required vaginal reconstructive surgery.”
Okay. Guy, did you actually read the whole article you link to in that sentence, entitled “Gag Order: Sex Workers Allege Mistreatment at Kink.com”? The title explains the gist of it, and the article explains the rest in fairly clear detail. We are not talking, here, about women pursuing BDSM for their sexy fun times pleasure and getting carried away and abused as they float in happy subspace. We are talking about porn performers who allege they were were mistreated on the job in a variety of ways. This is a workplace safety issue. This is a labour issue.
The Kink.com situation is similar to the kind of workplace safety issues that sex workers all over the world face when they are doing their jobs, from the freakiest kinkiest sort to the softest, sweetest vanilla. It is on par with sex workers who are pressured to push past their limits on camera or off, because someone’s got them between a rock and a hard place financially or because someone’s physically intimidating them or both. It’s about being pushed to do double anal in your first porn shoot when you didn’t really know the risks. It’s about being told one day that you’re the company’s top performer and the next day that you’re being dropped or paid less because your sales are down, and the emotional and financial roller coaster of maintaining a career in a profit-hungry industry where that kind of headfuckery can be par for the course. It’s about being pressured to do full-contact when you were supposed to do no-hands, to pay dancer’s fees to the club when you’re the one bringing in the business, to give your client a blow job when you negotiated for a massage with a happy ending. Yes, it is about unethical practices at Kink.com.
And all of this in the very specific context of people trying to make a living. Don’t equate this bad shit with the things people do in interpersonal situations that are purely for pleasure. Money changes everything. Even people who enjoy their jobs sometimes put up with shit they don’t like in order to get their paycheques, or are subjected to treatment that’s absolutely uncool and speak out about it afterward. Unethical employers of all kinds regularly expose their employees to practices that can have grave physical consequences, from food-industry-specific lung diseases to electrical shock and backbreaking labour at online shipping warehouses. A bad employer in kinky porn may do bad things to their employees just like a bad employer anywhere else. Of course that should be called out, but let’s be clear that the situation doesn’t involve the same range of decision-making factors that come into play when you’re planning your Saturday-night date.
This is, in short, about manipulative labour practices, coercive and sloppy employer behaviour, and the stigmatization that makes it extra hard for sex workers to be respected on the job and on any other job if they decide not to do sex work anymore. I’m not saying we can’t have this conversation, or that we can’t look at the particulars of kink-related porn performance and sex work that might create a different set of risks than other kinds. But if you’re trying to make a real point about risk in recreational BDSM practice, you can’t just slop a story about shoddy porn-industry labour practices into the middle of the article as though they were one and the same.
Problem 3. The conflation of risk and shock factor with harm, and the use of a fallacious slippery slope argument.
When he gets through conflating BDSM play with the kidnapping, rape and torture of minors on the one hand and bad porn-industry labour practice on the other, Saletan gets very caught up in the sensationalism of certain BDSM practices. In so doing, he clearly shows his limited understanding of the subject as a whole.
First of all, he fails to demonstrate any familiarity with the basic realities of kink. Power, sensation and fetish are three key areas of human sexuality that get mixed together in kink. The specific mix is totally individual to each person, and it is very difficult to tell from the outside what particular mix is motivating a given practice, even if it seems obvious to you. Further, practitioners understand terms and concepts slightly differently depending on their location, experience level, social circles and so forth. A picture of an activity gives you only a very limited range of information about what’s going on in it, and a given person’s story about their particular practices is only ever that one person’s story. And on top of all that, unless you have sufficient technical knowledge to understand what’s risky and what’s not, and what steps can be used to mitigate those risks, you can’t possibly judge the safety of what you’re seeing. Until you can acknowledge all of these truths, and understand the complexity they lend to any discussion on the topic, you have no business making any judgements about this whole vast range of practices some people call “kink” (or “SM” or “BDSM” or “leather” – see what I mean?), or about specific practices within it.
Yes, absolutely, some people in SM communities explore practices that, to an outsider, might seem extreme. But until we are discussing this with as neutral a level of judgement as we apply to the physical risks of any and all team sports, of heterosexual vanilla penis-in-vagina sex, of working in construction, of childbirth, of scuba diving, of shoveling your driveway past age 40, of religious fasting, of martial arts, of eating cheeseburgers at McDonald’s three times a week, of living in tornado country, of tanning beds and Botox and waxing and pedicures, of cycling to work in a city run by Rob Ford, and so forth, I’m afraid I just can’t take the “oh but that’s scary risky!” thing very seriously. Yes, some SM has risks. Just like many other things we do, no more and no less. I mean actually, for real, no more and no less. Get over it. Or talk about it level-headedly and with correct factual information.
Saletan refers to SM as “consensual domestic violence,” which is about as accurate as calling polyamory “consensual cheating.” Hmmm, would he do that too? Quite possibly. Okay, let’s instead compare it to calling a public mural project “consensual vandalism,” or calling a juice cleanse “consensual starvation.” I don’t really care what dictionary definitions he throws at the idea. He’s conflating ideas that simply don’t go together. Connotation, not denotation. It’s a thing. You’re a writer. You know this. Do it right.
He also writes that “S&M, by its nature, hurts people. Mild bondage is no big deal. But for sadomasochists, pain is the whole idea. Some stick to spatulas and wooden spoons, but others move on to electric shocks, skewers, knives, and butterfly boards.” (Beware, that last link is going to show you a pic of a pierced penis.)
There are multiple problems with this bit, not the least of which is Saletan’s persistent throwing together of links to articles about violent crime with links to images of safely performed SM practices. Leaving that aside, though, as I’ve outlined, the “nature” of SM (at least when used as a stand-in for the whole package of kink, which Saletan seems to be doing), is not that it hurts people. Plenty of SM doesn’t hurt a bit. Some of it hurts some. Some hurts a lot. Some of it feels like not-hurt even if it looks like hurt. Some of it is hurt that is actual hurt but that is rewarding for other reasons. What, precisely, is the SM he’s referring to? I don’t think he actually knows.
Beyond that, Saletan sets up a dichotomy between kink that’s “no big deal” and kink that, to him, is apparently a big deal. But who gets to decide that? Let’s take his example of “mild bondage.” Who says what that is? I’m not being needlessly relative here. My boy comfortably wears a non-removable chain collar full-time, without even really noticing it. I regularly can’t even stand the feeling of a turtleneck touching my throat. Which one is “mild”? Is “mild” bondage the kind you do with cheap sex-shop handcuffs that are made of crappy metal and might slice open your wrist, but that let you think you’re not all that kinky cuz you’re just playing around? Or is it the much safer kind using scarier-looking thick leather restraints which represent a financial investment and maybe a bit of thinking about your identity? Is “mild” bondage the kind that involves a skinny piece of rope and minimal knowledge of technique, such that you might accidentally cut off your partner’s circulation? Or is it the kind that involves more rope, and probably a workshop or two, but that envelops them in a cozy cocoon of warm safety? Is it bondage you only do once a year, when your spouse isn’t there to see you with the dominatrix you pay to help you live out your fantasies, or is it the weekly practice of wearing a shoestring wrapped around your testicles on the way home from work?
Where is Saletan’s line between “mild” and “not mild”? Is it about frequency, intensity, psychological significance, pain, marks left on the body? Is it between coerced bondage and desired bondage? Note that he doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between the latter two, so I’m guessing this isn’t how his line is drawn, which is a serious problem. In any case, I strongly suspect his line is different from mine, but it’s probably also different from yours, and hers, and theirs. Who gets to judge? This isn’t a small question. If you’re going to construct some sex as okay and other sex as not, who gets to decide where that line lies and what falls on each side of it? Are we to assume this line is the same for everyone? Are we to accept Saletan’s line, when he can’t even tell us what it actually is?
Saletan further constructs exactly the kind of slippery-slope type of argument that so many hand-wringing critics of SM like to get caught in. It goes like this: SMers start with paddles and floggers but for some of them, paddles aren’t enough! They move on from there! They go deeper and deeper, like a heroin addict who needs a bigger and bigger hit! They end up slavering lunatics, chasing after the next big thrill, without regard for life and limb! They engage in bloodshed and arson!
Well, no. That’s not how it works. I’m afraid it’s far more pedestrian than that. If you come into BDSM with a lot of damage, little draw to self-preservation and a tendency toward addiction, I suppose maybe this might be your story, but then that would also be your story if you did pretty much anything else, like, say, drive a car or drink a beer or have some regular old sex. Most people who show up in BDSM community take a little while to nose around and figure out what they like and how to do it, and they stick with that, or expand their range as they come across new and interesting ideas. Kinda like a film buff who one day discovers Fellini after years of being mostly into Hitchcock. Gasp! Maybe people like to try something new every once in a while! How shocking.
The down-to-earth truth is that, for many of us, BDSM community events and practices are thrilling at first, but after we’ve been around for a while, they become simply a part of how we live. This doesn’t mean we enjoy them less, though that can happen too (and some people do get bored and stop showing up). Regardless, this is not about needing a bigger hit. It’s just about integration. The thrill of new possible partners every weekend settles into a choosier approach. We go to the party if it falls on a night when we’re not having dinner with the in-laws. We have creative pervy sex, yes, but we aren’t out to prove ourselves to the world by dint of our extreme practices. Sometimes, a simple gag-inducing blow job and a little smacking around does the trick. The needles come out on special occasions. The submissive makes the dominant some tea. The dominant picks out the submissive’s shirt. Ho hum. Life as usual. It’s not the way everyone does things, but it’s how we do them (in whatever combination we each do), because it feels right and good to us, and it’s really not that freaky unless you have an unhealthy fascination with other people’s sex lives and a penchant for sensationalism.
Leaving aside the links to articles about the criminal sexual coercion of minors (!!), for reasons I hope are utter no-brainers, let’s just look at his linked picture of the butterfly board as an example of Saletan’s leanings in said direction. To someone who doesn’t do any needle play, the sight of a penis connected to a corkboard by means of needles might cause a case of genital-clasping panic. To someone who does needle play, this picture is hardly shocking. Look carefully. Do you know how to judge what’s going on? As someone who’s been playing with needles for a decade now, I’ll walk you through it.
When I look, I see, oh, a handful of high-gauge (meaning slim) needles, say in the 23-gauge range, which means they are quite mild in terms of the pain levels they’re likely to cause. (A standard IV drip is considerably more hardcore, in the 18-gauge range.) I see them inserted carefully into the top couple of millimetres of the skin surface, so they don’t penetrate the spongy and blood-filled erectile tissue or the super-sensitive nerves at the head of the penis—not that those can’t be done safely, but they’re more intense. With these factors in mind, this is not a piercing scene that’s likely to draw much blood, and in fact, we see none. I see a gloved finger—I can’t tell for sure, but judging by the texture, it looks like black nitrile to me, which means this top is careful to avoid latex in case of allergy. I see the end of a Prince Albert piercing, which is pretty heavy. Those are usually installed by a professional, and this tells me we’re dealing with a person who’s pretty comfy having big metal put through his most sensitive bits, such that this particular scene wasn’t likely wicked intense for him from a pain perspective. I see the creative use of a needle to tack down the PA without touching the skin, even though that dick is clearly not going anywhere; this speaks to me, possibly, of a certain tongue-in-cheek humour on the part of the top, like sticking a victory flag into your bottom’s bondage harness when they’re too trussed up to move. Or possibly it was just a practical way to avoid the penis rolling in the wrong direction. I also see a clear liquid stain beneath the head of the penis, which means he’s probably leaked some pre-come, which means he’s likely having a good time.
Honestly, the riskiest thing about the activity as pictured is that it’s not really possible to sterilize the corkboard, and when the needles are pulled back through the skin upon removal, there is some chance they’ll leave tiny bits of cork behind such that the skin becomes irritated or mildly infected. Which is, y’know, generally not life-threatening, and the risk can be greatly reduced by swabbing with alcohol after everything’s done. This, to me, is a picture of a pretty darned safe scene done by people who know what they’re doing. It’s not especially physically edgy—though it could have been, and that might also have been perfectly okay. The only “harm” it’s likely to cause are a few tiny dots on the skin. You’d do worse actual damage if you nicked yourself shaving. But it sure does look shocking to someone who doesn’t have the knowledge to see the elements I just described. And call me crazy, but I’m guessing Saletan’s never affixed his cock to a corkboard.
So what’s the point of this picture? I’m not upset at seeing it because it’s shocking. I’m upset at seeing it because it’s Saletan’s way of trying to be shocking, himself, while pinning (ha!) that accusation on perverts. In using it to try and make a point (ha! jeez, sorry, folks), all he really does is give himself away as lacking basic knowledge of his subject matter. It’s like saying “Holy shit guys, in boxing, they actually hit each other! Like, in the face!” or “Jeezis, I went to the circus and these acrobats, like, jumped through hoops! Hoops that were on fire!” or “Ohmigod there are surgeons who cut people open! With scalpels! And then, get this, they take their organs out!” Yup. Those things happen. They are risky. The people who do them learn how, practice, and mitigate those risks. So?
Saletan brings up, but never attempts to resolve—either in his original piece or in his response piece to the criticism the first one provoked—the question of when the “severity of the harm overrides the sanctity of consent.” He seems to think that examples which are visually or conceptually shocking to a non-kink audience speak for themselves, but at no point does he actually discuss how we should go about judging the severity of harm, or whether there even was any harm. He simply acknowledges that “fortunately, most BDSM falls well short of that”—severe harm, I’m guessing he means—and discusses how “kinksters who comment in Slate have worked so hard to distance themselves from ‘edge play’ such as blood, fire, and asphyxiation—which they call ‘nuts,’ ‘fringe,’ and ‘extreme.’”
So, okay, I’ll take the bait. I’m one of those people who engages in edge play such as blood and fire. Asphyxiation isn’t my particular kink but I do think it’s fun to play with telling someone how and when they can breathe. While we’re at it, I engage in full-time M/s dynamics with my partners, meaning we consider ourselves owner and property. I am not the least bit interested in distancing myself from these practices in order to make anyone feel better about kink. Fuck that.
Am I the bad guy now, Saletan? You wouldn’t know, because you don’t actually discuss what harm is or indicate any understanding of how risk is assessed and kink practices are done with safety considerations in mind. As a rock climber, I double-back all my harness straps and tie my double figure-8 and finish off with a safety knot before I get on the climbing wall or hit a sheer rock face, and I check my partner’s gear too, every time. If I’m about to stick needles in someone or set them on fire, you bet your fucking ass I’ve taken great pains to learn how to do that safely. Do you know what a person needs to have in their kit in order to pierce with minimal risk? Do you know anything about the direction of needle tips, about sharps containers and disinfectants and surface protection and gloves? Do you know anything about competency, about a steady hand, about how a top might back out of a scene because they’re too tired or took too many Advils that afternoon or they just feel funny about this scene, in this place, tonight, and about how all that builds trust? Do you know anything about trust? About the intimacy that this level of careful, intricate work creates? Do you care? Or are you more interested in the shock value of a dick pinned to a board, which to you, inherently conveys the idea of over-the-top harm? If you’re going to open up the question, be a responsible writer and follow the fuck through. If not, you’re taking wildly inaccurate cheap shots and frankly I have no respect for that, or for you.
So what should we do instead, then?
Well, a response from BDSM practitioners, along with some education work, is a good start. This kind of education is tedious fucking work, I must say, and it’s especially tedious because we’ve done it all before and writers like these are just too lazy to look it up. But what else do we do? We could ignore it, I suppose, but that has its own dangers. We’re not talking about someone’s dumb LJ post here. We’re talking about major publications like Rabble and Slate which present themselves as progressive. With friends like these… sigh.
To effectively respond, rather than just go in circles, though, we have to get some of our politics sorted out. So this last part of my post is directed at perverts who want to speak up when this kind of claptrap gets published, as well as at writers who want to do it right from the get-go.
Unfortunately, some of the practitioner responses to Saletan’s sloppy pieces of writing are also problematic, such as this one at The Frisky. Not because Jessica Wakeman’s post is awful—it’s not, in fact it’s by and large pretty great. I especially love that she expresses the same frustration I feel at the tedium of countering these lazy characterizations. But she relies in part on a distancing strategy that leaves some pervs out in the cold (I’ve written about this here and here).
The argument here cannot be about the “extreme” vs the “average” kinkster and what these fictional people do and don’t do. If we go down that road we’ve already lost, because we’re essentially saying it’s okay to throw the next person down the pervy line under the bus, and I absolutely promise you that one day the person getting thrown will be you as soon as your level or style of pervy is the one currently out of fashion or under scrutiny. If we want to have the conversation about what is and isn’t over the line, let’s have it. Let’s discuss and debate that line in great detail. But any statement that assumes a common line for everyone, or even a commonly understood spectrum of okay-ness, is automatically a mistake. And if we’re going to discuss the line, it makes no sense to simply draw it between X practice and Y practice. We must, must, must talk about the why and the how, not just the what.
It’s also crucial that we refuse to engage in the “born this way” argument. Listen, the first thing I ever knew about my sexuality was that it was about power and pain. Like, when I was a toddler. And I still wouldn’t seriously argue that I was “born kinky.” This idea relies on a logic of genetics or other pre-social formative influences that simply cannot hold up under investigation, because the meaning of “kinky” is only ever social, and there cannot be a gene for high-heel fetishism or the enjoyment of invasive dental work. Human evolution simply does not work that fast or that specifically. And genetics have zero bearing on the legitimacy of a sexual practice anyway. If we understand an orientation to be a fundamental and relatively unchanging set of internal parameters through which we experience our desires and sexualities, then my kink is an orientation as surely as my queer and my poly are, but none of them require a biological basis for being valid and deserving of respect. “Born this way” is used willy-nilly as though it were the argumentative equivalent of no-fault insurance, but it’s not. It’s just inaccurate. It fails to pay out when the accident happens. Let’s please drop it. We don’t need it anyway. Just like the boxers and acrobats and surgeons, we are perfectly legit without it.
If we really do want to engage in questions about the acceptability of or risks related to kink—real, genuine questions that do away with shock value, inaccurate conflations, hysterical hype and flawed defense strategies—I can suggest a few pathways into the discussion. If you still don’t know the difference between a murder plot and a hot date, go back and do some 101 before you approach these questions. For those who are with me in the grown-up world, here we go.
I suggest a triptych of criteria to help us evaluate what is going on in a given situation, whatever that may be. (Yes, they apply well beyond kink, not surprisingly.) If we need to draw lines at all, I’d like to suggest we draw them with these concepts in mind.
1. Motivation. Why is a person doing what they’re doing? Completely independently of the next two criteria, this one is key because it focuses on mindset, intent, emotional state, and so forth, all key elements of strong decision-making. I could sleep for ten hours because I’m super tired after an intense workout, or I could sleep for ten hours because I’m depressed and avoiding the world. I could have sex with a complete stranger because I hate myself and feel my body is worthless, or because the attraction was off the charts and I expect to be walking on air for two weeks afterwards. In some ways this question is the most crucial of all, because it is entirely possible to make very un-shocking, responsible-looking decisions from a place of terrible motivation, and because that’s where you started you may still come out the end facing miserable consequences (say, getting married to someone you don’t love and having kids you don’t want because your parents pressured you so hard). It is equally possible to make shocking, risky-looking decisions that are very well-thought-out and solid (say, quitting your high-paid lawyer job to become a nomadic volunteer on organic farms because you well know you’ll burn out and jump off a bridge if you don’t do something to relieve the pressure, and also, you really like world travel and spinach). So, why is someone doing their kink? Is that man submitting because he can’t bear taking responsibility for anything, or because it connects them deeply with his partner, who desires and honours the gift of that vulnerability? Is that guy spanking his wife because they both find it wicked sexy, or because they believe women are naturally meant to take punishment from men and also God says so?
2. Process. Let’s think about recklessness versus responsibility. How is a person doing what they’re doing? Have they acquired the skill and knowledge to do it safely? Do they have an accurate perception of their own competency? Do they have the appropriate tools? Do they have a plan for what to do if things go terribly wrong, and a sense of what the possible fumbles could be? Are they attentive to the well-being and safety of the person or people they’re playing with, whether that’s expressed via a written contract or a clear verbal negotiation or simply many years of trust built such that Person A knows the second Person B breathes funny that something is going wrong? (Yes, this applies to both bottoms and tops.) Do they have enough information to make fully informed consent? If they don’t, and this is an information-gathering type of scene (à la “let’s try this, I don’t know if I like it yet”) do they have a support system set up in case it goes badly, and a plan to evaluate and discuss what they’ve figured out?
3. Result. What’s the upshot? Did it all work out hunky dory? Did they have fun? If something went wrong, how was it handled? Did the players or partners deepen their trust and communication by repairing things? Do they want to try again? Did they simply decide this wasn’t an experience to repeat? Was it meh, mediocre, all right but not great? If so, did everyone concerned learn something at least? If there was a severe consequence of some kind—with the understanding that proper attention to the first two criteria makes this highly unlikely—how was that dealt with?
There. Simple enough. Let’s drop questions such as “why are they like this” or “how unusual are the things they do” and focus on these ones instead as we each try to establish what our lines are, and work toward having real discussions about those lines if and when that’s even needed. If you’re stuck in look-at-the-freaks mode, you are holding back the whole class. Go do your homework. Drop your assumptions. Talk to some real people, and not just one or two. Read a book or two or ten. Think a little, and then think a little harder. Use your logic and your analysis skills. Do real research. Make tenable connections. Above all, don’t be lazy. Then come back and write a thoughtful article that’s worth reading, and let’s actually move this discussion forward.