BDSM and Feminism: An Insider's View 

Tammy Jo Eckhart

The debate in feminist circles about BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, or sadomasochistic consensual activity) has raged now for over a decade. I've read articles and books and seen interviews on both sides of the issue. Last year a collection of essays,SomeWomen,by women in the BDSM community was published. While my essay dealt with the issue of abuse, most essays reflected the concerns among women in the BDSM community about feminism and other feminists. Likewise, there have been numerous articles and books, such as Against Sadomasochism, written by feminists attacking what they call SM, especially in the lesbian community. I have responses of my own based on discussion and literature from BDSMers and feminists. Therefore, this essay will only be my opinion based on my experiences as a heterosexual, feminist, dominant woman.

Since I have been questioned by both sides and have concerns about miscommunication between them, I will address a few of each group's issues. First I will look at problems I perceive within the BDSM community. Next I will respond to a few of the attacks by feminists which have been directed toward me or various groups I belong to.

I believe that the concept of "two sides" is an oversimplification in itself. There is no one feminist view nor one BDSM view of the issues I will be addressing in this essay. However, the issues are often represented as though there were merely two views, and in these debates my position as a feminist and a BDSMer is often marginalized by both generalized arguments, especially when certain topics, such as feminism, abuse, and pornography are discussed.

In general, feminism is often portrayed as a single entity only concerned with limiting women's sexual freedom. To be perfectly honest, when one reads the literature from self-proclaimed feminists it does seem that wayit always seems that the same book, the same movie, and the same victim are being discussed over and over again. The biggest complaint from within the BDSM community toward feminism is that they are inconsistentthey should be more tolerant of others the same way that they wish to be accepted. This perception is based on a misunderstanding of feminism. While I would be one of the first to argue that feminism has a strong personal element, it is primarily a political and social movement, and as such its main weapon is rhetoric. Rhetoric is rarely the search for truth, and is always the method to convince others of one's viewpoint.

There is a second element to the misunderstanding of feminism, based on the mainstream image of BDSM. First, this image, especially movies and "girlie" magazines, is primarily made and consumed by heterosexual men and thus represents fantasies which heterosexual men in American culture are supposed to have. Second, even in homosexual images, the purpose of the material is to create a fantasy where real life issues of consent and safer sex don't exist. Lastly, there is a tendency to downplay how frightening these images are to vanilla (non-BDSM) people, especially those who are fighting sexism and violence.

The issue of potential abuse between BDSMers in vanilla relationships and previous abuse in childhood is one which has received little discussion in the BDSM community until very recently. Often I find that the issue is filed under the heading "not consensual means not BDSM," and while I agree that theoretically this is as true as the statement "not consensual means not making love," there is a difference between reality and theory. I know from friends and family members that abusers will use any excuse to justify their behavior, whether that excuse is love, marriage, or the context of a BDSM scene.

Recently different organizations in the community have acknowledged that abuse occurs under the guise of BDSM. A few articles and brochures have been published discussing the issue and urging support for victims. In public clubs and parties there are strict rules for behavior and people enforce these rules by physically removing violators from the premises.

However, the issue of how the BDSM community should deal with abuse that occurs in private settings is an issue where my opinions seem to be in the minority. There are three basic questions here: Should victims inform the community at large? How should abusers be dealt with in the community? What support should be offered by the community to victims? There seems to be universal agreement that victims should be supported by the community through offers of money and safe space while they deal with the abuse and its effects on their lives. To help them recover, I would further suggest meetings of survivors in organizations' spaces using organizations' funds.

The first two questions are often debated within the BDSM community. Most BDSMers believe that victims should confide in those around them, but fear that false charges will ruin people's lives. However, I believe that lying about abuse is rare and that the best way to sort out the truth is to make it public. This way all sides of the story can be heard and all participating can make up their minds. More information about potential partners allows one to make a better decision and may prevent future abuse from occurring. May I say proudly that Conversio Virium, the BDSM discussion group recognized by Columbia and Barnard, has addressed these issues in its constitution and bylaws.

The final issue with which I often find myself at odds within the BDSM community is pornography. Everyone I have ever spoken with about pornography seems adamantly opposed to the idea that words, sounds, or images could possibly have any effect on a person's behavior or attitudes. This is a naive view. Obviously what we hear, read, and see does affect us; otherwise, there would be no commercials trying to sell us ideas and products. Likewise, there would be no market for pornography or erotica if they did not sexually arouse people and enhance their orgasms. Be honest: we read and watch it to get turned on.

There is an oversimplification I have seen over and over in feminist discussions of pornography which take an anti-pornography stancethe idea that pornography forever changes a person's attitudes and behavior. The vast majority of people who choose to read or watch pornography understand and can differentiate between the fantasy in these images and the reality of people's lives. The border between what one feels and how one behaves can and should be very wide, and the vast majority of people learn to control their behavior. Also, I am very suspicious of criminals who claim that pornography caused their behavior. Until it can be shown that all rapists and abusers use pornography and that all those who use pornography become rapists and abusers, I won't believe in a causal relationship.

As a BDSMer, a member of BDSM groups, and a published writer of BDSM erotica and non-fiction, I have felt attacked by women and men whose visions of feminism differ from my own. Unlike the general issues that have been raised above, I would now like to address a few points that have been directed toward me personally.

Unlike many women in the BDSM community, I have never felt an internal conflict between my feminism and my kinkiness. This is properly based on my understanding of feminism and my position as top/dominant, as opposed to bottom/submissive. I arrived at my definition of feminism from my upbringing, which was just barely feminist, and from my education, most of which was self-initiated until I was able to pursue a Women's Studies concentration when I did my undergraduate work. For me, feminism is the fairly modern notion that men and women should have the same responsibilities and privileges in society, except where reproductive differences apply. I believe that most gender roles and gender stereotypes are merely effects of culture and differ from one culture to another. I also believe that while law and economics may help make a difference, the only real changes in society come through education and experience. It is this understanding of humanity, combined with a strong Christian spirituality, that formed the basis of my acceptance of my own BDSM interests.

Many people have approached me with concerns about my interest in BDSM. The most common question I am asked when I tell anyone that I am interested in BDSM is, "How can you let him do that stuff to you?" There are a couple of problems with this question. First, it assumes that I am heterosexual. Well, I am, but not every woman into BDSM is. The fact that the question is being asked at all implies that the questioner doubts that I've thought about what I'm doing. I insist upon a long, detailed negotiation before my first scene with any person, and upon continued honest communication between us, in and out of scene. I have a small but growing reputation for two to three hour negotiation sessions, and I have broken off relationships with a few people who did not deal honestly with me outside of scene space. Finally, and this is generally the point at which the questioner has to change tactics, it assumes that all women bottom/submit and all men top/dominate. Yet I do not bottom or sub; I am strictly a top and a dom.

These responses are generally enough to silence most critics, who cant imagine anything other than the woman-bottom/man-top model. Some, however, counter with, "You don't really dominate; you're simply fulfilling his male fantasy." There is a common belief in the BDSM community that there are more bottoms than tops and that men outnumber women. However, I have introduced various types of BDSM play into all of my romantic relationships. My husband and I have enjoyed discovering where our interests overlap and how to enhance our enjoyment of BDSM. But I never enter into a BDSM scene with him unless I desire the interaction for my own sake, nor do I expect him to bottom to me unless he desires to do so. We base our relationship on mutual satisfaction beginning with our personal desires. Furthermore, I know several other women who are primarily or entirely top/dom.

Some people tell me "It's because of your childhood; you're acting out the patriarchal/hierarchical violence you learned." I find this attack the most hurtful. First, it assumes that only childhood abuse, etc. can cause an interest in BDSM. Now, while I am a survivor of both incest and stranger rape from very early childhood, most people in the BDSM community have not had more negative childhood experiences than the average vanilla person. Second, it assumes that my scenes are reenactments of my experiences. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was violated by adults when I was a childthey never asked my consent and they never cared. I have strict rules about the age of men I will play with; they must be at least eighteen and preferably over twenty, and I never ever scene until I have first gotten to know someone as a casual friend and we have gone through a long negotiation process. Furthermore, I never scene when I am feeling strong negative emotions such as anger or fearI have learned that these can be doorways to non-consensual behavior regardless of whether it is a sexual or nonsexual interaction.

The final attack leveled at me by other feminists has been, "All hierarchical relationships are in opposition to the principles of feminism. Dominance and submission are necessarily hierarchical." By this point, and it is rare that anyone keeps up an attack on me for this long in person, I tend to get very tired. This statement ignores the fact that all social organizations or groups whose membership numbers more than a few dozen have hierarchical structures to help them deal with decisions that need to be made for the survival of the group. Furthermore, these critics fail to understand that hierarchies entered into under mutual consent and in the form of sexual play are different from those common in the everyday world, where hierarchies seemingly impose themselves on us at every opportunity. These non-consensual hierarchies leave me feeling trapped, used, and angry. My scenes leave me feeling free, valued, and trusted.

It seems that I am often caught in the middle when BDSM and feminism collide. I feel isolated at times from both communities, and that saddens me. There are internal differences of opinion within each community that need to be addressed for the health of the members. External forces, such as a return to a traditional restrictive social and political environment, threaten the existence of both communities. All of these issues and misunderstandings could be addressed if people would just sit down and talk, go into each other's communities and observe, and, most importantly, realize that each person is different. Unfortunately, there is little outreach from either community toward the other. As a woman who proudly claims a place within both, let me extend my mind and my hand to anyone who wants to understand my reality.