Let’s Get Real About BDSM

Sole Cortés

This is the 21st century, at this point, even your mum knows what BDSM stands for. Bondage, Domination, and Sado-Masochism. However mainstream BDSM has become as a topic, the reality behind the satin eye masks and the scary-looking whips is still very much unknown. Unfortunately, all those Christian Grey inspired profiles with black and white pictures of men in suits and ‘Dom’ written in the bio aren’t helping. 

In 2015, Marie Claire conducted a poll about it and concluded that 85% of people surveyed engaged in some kind of light BDSM. For most it’s a casual thing that’s introduced occasionally into their daily sex lives, while some go further and explore the power dynamics they enjoy with the help of toys, openly assigned roles, and other tools. BDSM is so much more than the fancy paraphernalia 50 Shades of Gray boasts about. It’s a very common informal practice amongst straight couples, but its roots and meaning are often left behind. Due to the patriarchal implications present in the mainstream depiction of BDSM (hello, Mr. Gray) it has been heavily problematised by feminist groups as a glorification of male power and female submission. But this is just the tip of the iceberg that is BDSM and I’m going to tell you all about it. 

First, let me get things straight: BDSM is not about dominant men with expensive watches and submissive women in lingerie. It is not even heterosexual. We have just taken a very complex and important part of the queer underground culture and, as many other things, we have made it look like it was always our own: we appropriated it. But BDSM is so much more than a way for straight couples to re-ignite their passion with a few spankings and handcuffs, however fun that is for us -and I’m the first one that falls under this category. BDSM is a culture, and if we want to practice it safely, we should at least know what it is about. Because when we’re engaging in these practices, we are doing so much more than just having sex.

First and foremost, BDSM is built upon the idea of a community. It’s about consent, queerness and counterculture. It was properly born after World War II, with the growing gay leather culture in cities such as San Francisco and New York. The military influence brought the imaginary and the aesthetics, pictured in the famous artwork of Tom of Finland, to LGBTQ+ communities that practised ways of living that were against all societal expectations. They protected each other, explored their sexuality, fought for their rights and created art in a unique cultural context that slowly started to influence mainstream society. The figure of the leathermen, present in Robert Mapplethorne’s photography work and depicted in the the1970 crime novel Cruising by Gerald Walker, became increasingly popular, and soon there were leather-themed events and pageant-like contests like Mr. Leather and Mr. Drummer. The shifting social changes during the 70s consolidated and shaped the kink underground culture, with major events, like the Stonewall Inn Riots in New York or the ‘Summer of Love’ in San Francisco. By the 90s, BDSM was trickling heavily into the mainstream, with pop artists such as Madonna employing BDSM imagery. The Internet has also been a powerful tool to introduce it to a wider audience and prompt it to evolve past its niche roots. 

Read more: Friends with Benefits: Doom or Delight?

That brings us to the present, and what BDSM means today. “It’s used as a bit of a catchall for a community that includes fetishists, lifestylers, those who explore BDSM acts as art or cultural critique, and those who casually incorporate elements of power into their otherwise normative sex lives”, professional dominant and BDSM educator Scarlet Riot explained to Xtra Magazine. It is, above all, about fantasy and comfort. It is also about respect and consent. BDSM puts consent at the center of any act, however insignificant, by establishing clear boundaries and safewords; reminding the dominant party to constantly check on the submissive one. It encourages emotional connection and self-knowledge by prompting aftercare conversations, in which both parties express their feelings and desires. It demands an extremely high level of trust and honesty. It goes past the mere sexual acts, because it puts the focus on something else entirely. 

Very often, BDSM has been problematised, not only by conservative groups (which is to be expected) but by certain feminist sectors. The relationship of feminism with BDSM has always been controversial as it relates to the great feminist debate about sex and porn. Specifically, when BDSM is criticized from a feminist perspective, it’s often upon the argument that these practices legitimize the assault and control of women from their male partners. As mentioned earlier, BDSM is all about consent, and submissive women are consenting to the practices they submit to (you know, they actually get off on it, it’s the whole purpose of the act).

BDSM is queer by nature, therefore its queerness must be taken into account first and foremost. It doesn’t play under the cisheteronormative rules at its root. When taken into the mainstream, it does suffer from the patriarchal system principles, but so does everything else we perform. Pretending that BDSM is only about a dominant man and a submissive woman is highly reductive, as at the core of it lies the breaking of traditional perceptions and norms that exist in our society. Power roles are extremely fluid and dominant women are a prominent figure, as are submissive men. Evidently, fantasy and fetish don’t exist in a vacuum environment, they are affected, as is everything else, by patriarchal social conditioning. The feminist question about the ethical nuances of BDSM resides, not so much in the concept itself; but in the desire of the individuals who practice it.

As feminists, why do we like BDSM? As far as I can remember, sex has always been about kink for me. The wrongness of it, the sheer pleasure of performing things that, though I couldn’t always explain why, were tied to my perception of what is wrong. I like BDSM because it allows me to experience the rush of taboo in the right environment. Many women express how BDSM is about trust and vulnerability, for them it’s about opening up to your partner in ways that you simply can’t share with everyone. Others focus on the control aspect, whether it’s owning your own pain or exercising it. Some others mention the enjoyment of letting go and adopting new power roles that are completely independent of what occurs in their daily lives. In reality, for most of us, it’s a mixture of all these and much more: freedom, safety, fetish and trust. 

Asking yourself why you enjoy power play, even if it is just light hair pulling, is worthy of your time. Ask yourself why you like it and be honest about it. If you’re a submissive woman in a relationship with a man, ask your partner why he likes dominating you. You may not like the answer, but it’s important to get to know your own desire as well as that of your partner.

I’m going to say it now: it’s okay to have patriarchal fantasies. It is normal. We live in a patriarchal society, we are programmed to like certain things. Men are told to be strong, cold and prompt to violence; while generally women are taught to be pliant, soft and submissive to men. As feminists, we are constantly deconstructing ourselves, de-programming ourselves, and navigating a world that is not like we were told. We likely and hopefully pursue partners who are also constantly challenging their own patriarchal principles. There is an inherent tension within ourselves; and if thar way of dealing with it is through BDSM, it seems completely fine to me. Fantasies are just that, and playing them out in a safe space allows us to process them and set them apart from our real lives and beliefs. Don’t ever stop asking questions, challenging and exploring yourself in the ways that you enjoy the most. 

When it comes to your own sexuality, your opinion is the only one that matters.

Illustrated by Romina Karegar

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