The BDSM Motto Is "Safe, Sane And Consensual," But Is That Good Enough?

BDSM has been part of my identity for as long as I can remember. Even as a child, I remember being drawn to a peculiar mixture of sex and violence, and exploring the dynamics of dominance and submission was a huge part of my sexual development. When I say this, people often ask me why. I wish I had an honest answer, but I really don't. The truth is, I was drawn to BDSM before I was even properly aware of its existence. I remember being around kindergarten-age, for example, and looking up the definition of "spanking" because I found reading it exciting (that's some OG porn). 

By the time I was fully cognizant of my own sexuality, it was clear that BDSM was part of it. By and large, I wouldn't have it any other way. Playing with ideas of dominance and submission adds tantalizing spice to my sex life; I find its inclusion deeply stirring on an emotional, physical, and spiritual level. But, that said, I think there are some problematic elements of BDSM, with regards to exploitation and appropriation, that need to be addressed by those who participate. 

I'll be completely honest: for many years, I didn't consider those problematic elements that would later consume me. When I turned 18 and began going to BDSM parties in NYC, I was elated. For much of my life I felt like there was something wrong with me, that I ought to be ashamed of my own desires. Before I started attending BDSM parties, my only exposure to the BDSM world came through Internet pornography, which didn't do much to lessen my anxiety that my sexuality was strange and perverse. When I finally started going to parties, however, I was struck by how normal, even mundane everything seemed. The parties had cheesy music, snacks, people milling around talking awkwardly about the weather. The sheer banality of it all — combined with the knowledge that the dozens of people around me understood where I was coming from — allowed me to fully accept this huge part of who I am.

I tend to agree with folks like Jillian Keenan who identify BDSM, at least for many practitioners, as an orientation — not a hobby or sexual pastime. This perspective certainly fits my own lived experience and childhood fascination with kink culture. Even if BDSM identity is not conceived as a choice, though, I still wonder to what degree larger cultural hierarchies influence how participants act out (or choose not to act out) aspects of their identity. 

The mantra of the BDSM community is "safe, sane, consensual" — and it is by these three tenets that the BDSM community differentiates ethical play from sexual practices that would to be condemned as reckless or coercive. In short, the BDSM community largely evaluates BDSM play along the same lines as other kinds of sexual encounters: is everyone giving enthusiastic consent throughout all aspects of the chosen activity? Is it (relatively) safe for everyone involved? If so, great! No further questions, have at it. 

While certainly any BDSM play should meet this criteria, I'm not sure these questions alone determine whether or not BDSM play is ethical. 

There are ethical concerns at play in many BDSM spaces that often go unmentioned. After several years — and reading a whole bunch of Foucault — I began thinking about the implicit politics of my sexual practices. Once I began that process, some aspects of BDSM play began to make me feel uneasy. I began to notice, for example, that men tended to identify as dominant and women tended to identify as submissive. There are many exceptions to this trend, for sure, but anyone who spends significant time amongst a BDSM crowd will notice that female doms and male subs tend to be in the minority. I began to wonder: is this just a crazy, random happenstance? Or is it, perhaps, because the tenets of our patriarchal society seep into our bedrooms?

It is impossible to ignore how certain kinds of BDSM play mimic, to some degree, the real-world oppressive circumstances to which far too many people are subjected without their consent. The way the patriarchy often places women in positions, physical or not, that are subordinate to men, for example. The way that, while BDSM practitioners may willingly surrender control of their bodies, their contortions evoke images of women who have had their agency violently stolen from them. Physically restraining people has been an oppressive practice for far longer than it has been an act of BDSM sexual exploration, and I think BDSM practitioners like myself are not always sufficiently critical of the ways we use traditionally violent imagery for our own ends.

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Is it ethical for a male dominant to use BDSM play to fulfill his desire to subjugate women, even if the women he plays with consent to the scene? Is it ethical for people to play out scenes of racism or human trafficking because they like the way it turns them on?  In her book Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, ethnographer Margot Weiss recalls a BDSM seminar she witnessed where instructors read excerpts from the torture manual used at Abu Ghraib to provide ways to increase the realism of attendees' BDSM play. Should this practice be labeled acceptable, simply because everyone in the room is on board? Obviously these are extreme examples, but I hope they illustrate why I don't think "safe, sane, & consensual" is necessarily a sufficient ethical barometer. 

Take, for example, the idea of "slave auctions." This is a fairly common practice within the BDSM world: Subs get up on stage, one by one, while an auctioneer describes in detail why doms ought to bid on the sub in question. Sometimes the doms are given fake money at the start, other times they bid with real money which is usually given to charity. The atmosphere of such events are generally bright and jovial, with doms having jocular conversations with other doms about each sub's respective merits. Whereas I previously saw slave auctions as simply fun, lighthearted affairs, I was subsequently horrified by the myriad ways this practice trivializes, and sexualizes, its horrific real-life counterpart. It doesn't surprise me that, looking back on my experiences, that it's almost invariably groups of white people who think it would be fun to "play" overtly with slavery. 

Participants like myself might want to imagine that our bedroom activities are completely removed from the real world. But the truth is BDSM play — or any sex act — does not take place in isolation. Instead, it occurs within a greater societal context; one in which, unfortunately, oppressive hierarchies of dominance are all too real. There is great danger in casually incorporating such practices into our sexual lives. At best we are appropriating the traumatic experiences of others for use in our own pursuit of pleasure; at worst, it implicitly suggests that there is something playful and sexual about real-world violence. Can we incorporate violent aspects of BDSM play without committing these kinds of ethical violations

As I thought about these issues, it dramatically changed aspects of my own BDSM play. I saw patriarchy and oppression sprouting up like a weed in the garden of my BDSM play, which alarmed me because I already identified strongly as a feminist. This realization forced me to reconsider the way I had previously bifurcated my BDSM play from the rest of my life. Once I tore down this barrier it forever changed the way I relate to BDSM play.

It would be simplest to disavow any activity which has a basis in real-world oppression, but unfortunately that would cover a good portion of BDSM. Many of the most common BDSM activities (spanking, flogging, restraints, suspension, CBT, etc.) are tied, to a greater or lesser degree, to things that few would wish for outside of a BDSM context. Moreover, it is often these elements of realism that make for exciting, tantalizing, mind-blowing BDSM play. For those of us inherently drawn to such activities, this is not easy terrain to navigate. To forgo any activity with connections to real-world violence would mean to forgo essential parts of my own sexuality. On the other hand, I refuse to use sexual identity as a carte blanche justification for ways my BDSM play can trivialize others' trauma or reinforce damaging hierarchies in my own psyche. It seemed like a problem with no solution.

I wish I could tell you that I discovered some sort of magical solution, that I found a foolproof recipe for ethical BDSM play. Unfortunately, I don't think there's a simple answer to this conundrum, and certainly nothing as pithy as "safe, sane, and consensual." Personally, I try to make sure that whatever BDSM play I take part in avoids any specific real-world referents (so no emulation of Abu Ghraib practices or American slavery). I also try to remain conscious of how my masculinity is at play, doing everything I can to avoid play that falls into traditional patriarchal roles. For me, that means exploring my submissive side and — when acting in a dominant role — trying my best to avoid needless emulation of damaging patriarchal tropes (no schoolgirls or secretaries). BDSM is deeply personal, though, so I imagine others' ethical standards will look different based on your social position. I can't tell you what to do specifically, only urge you to critically examine the politics operating in your play.

I'm not willing to give up this part of who I am, and I don't know that I'll ever be 100 percent comfortable with BDSM's implicit politics. What I do know is that if we as BDSM practitioners lean into this discomfort — if we scrutinize how our sexual practices may reinforce damaging hierarchies or make light of others' suffering — we will end up with more ethical BDSM practices than we will if we forgo asking these questions of ourselves and our community.

Images: Andrew Zaeh for Bustle (featuring Lelo Bridal Set); Getty (5)

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