From the Bandana Guide Scratchpad: Theory Braindump

Posted: April 15, 2013 in Uncategorized

01.06.13 – Theory Notes

CONTEXT: So, I don’t know whether this is specifically Bandanna Guide material or something else. It’s rough notes for something theoretical specifically around the notion of what “dominance” looks like in a rolequeer context. I started writing it in response to this comment thread: but it quickly grew beyond the scope of responding to that comment — and, much like all of the theory I write, parts of it already feel obsolete or spurious to me. There’s more I wanted to say (plus a few rough notes from my conversation about Matthew in which we tried to hash out a “taxonomy of control”) … but I don’t forsee myself prioritizing returning to this piece anytime in the immediate future. Meanwhile, I wanted to put my existing rough scribbles somewhere that other brains have access to it, rather than leaving it to rot in a notepad file on my computer (and to close the tab in my own brain for the time being.) I may come back to this at some point.


Hi Lava,

Okay, I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days and, having had good conversations about it with some friends of mine as well, I think I know what I want to say. I’m kind of going to braindump a lot of stuff here, so forgive me if this veers off-topic from your original comment. I have a lot of thoughts re: the political implications of BDSM that are heavy on my mind these days, and I’d kind of like to get them *off* my mind so that I can think about some other things. 😉


To start, let me just contextualize that in all conversations of this type, I’m working from the basic philosophical position that BDSM, not just as a subculture but as a practice, is a fetishization of oppression culture.[0] This is a “hard radical” position akin to “all heterosexual sex is rape.”[1] I realize that can make it a hard bullet to bite.[2] I’ve sometimes described BDSM as “Power-and-Control Play” with implicit reference to the fact that the “power and control” is the language used by many therapeutic professionals to describe abuse dynamics within domestic violence situations.[3] I think of BDSM a bit like “Playing House with Abuse and Violence.”

Certainly, there are activities that might fall under the BDSM/”kinky” umbrella that it seems like a stretch to describe this way e.g. sensation play that isn’t about pain, bondage that’s mostly about trying out cool knots, or role-play that doesn’t depend on power differentials (“Let’s both be kitties together and roll around and fall asleep in a heap!”)[4] But let’s not kid ourselves that much of What It Is That We Do references existing cultural models of oppression, violence, abuse, and self-destruction — and that, often, that is precisely what makes it hot.

Hence all of the desperate scrambling by BDSMers to differentiate BDSM from abuse.[5] Because, as we know well, it’s not that the uninitiated find BDSM confusing or illegible — it’s that, unless we provide clear and comprehensible evidence that what we’re doing isn’t abuse despite looking <em>just like it</em>, it will simply seem obvious to an outsider that <em>it is</em>. Nobody who lacks BDSM as a possible framework sees a naked woman tied to a chair being punched by a growling man and just thinks, “Golly. How curious! I wonder what’s going on between those two humans.”

(For what it’s worth, I don’t think “vanilla” sex is innocent of this cultural referencing, either. Standard heteronormative models of intimacy, in particular, strike me as different only in degree rather than kind from relationships we would easily describe as “abusive.” But, since people are exposed to more models of heteronormative intimacy and we’re more used to understanding them as “romantic,” the ways in which they derive much of their erotic power from referencing abuse tropes is just a little harder to see. Unless you’re, like, a feminist or something.)

And, much like children who grow up in abusive households will sometimes incorporate violent tropes into their make-believe games without any conscious understanding of what they’re doing (“It’s just more fun that way!”), humans who grow up in an abusive culture will often incorporate subtly (or not so subtly) violent tropes into our erotic play without consciously noticing that we’re doing it. It’s not <em>wrong</em> of children when they do this. It is, however, often a red flag that if their understanding of “fun” involves hurting other children, something troubling may be going on for them at home. And, if nothing else, it provides a jumping off point for conversations with those kids around their experiences of violence and an entry point into healing work for those children who have had them.

I’m not suggesting here that everyone who does BDSM was abused. (Although some of us were.) I’m pretty sure that study after study has shown there’s no direct link between enjoying a good spanking and having been beaten as a child, etc.[6] What I’m saying is: It’s likely that many of the power-and-control aspects of BDSM wouldn’t seem as “fun” or “hot” to us if we hadn’t been socialized in a culture that eroticizes mass oppression and teaches us that abuse is what love feels like. And, again, it’s not <em>wrong</em> for us to Play House with these tropes. They are ubiquitous in our culture and most of us will Play House with them in some way or other — whether we call that “vanilla,” “BDSM,” “kinky,” “queer,” “new-age spiritual,” whatever. Our erotic selves are so raw, vulnerable, creative and spongelike, and steeped all our lives in a world of complicated images and experiences; it’s almost impossible to avoid problematic sex unless you just flat-out avoid sex. (And that is, in its own ways, problematic.) I’m saying that the specific ways in which <em>my</em> sex is problematic are worth me paying attention to as, if nothing else, a fertile site for investigating my own experiences of violence and for entering into healing work — both individually and culturally.

So, that’s one framework for understanding BDSM. It’s a framework that says, far from being simply a fun game we play in bed, BDSM is a trapdoor into our subconscious minds. Specifically, it’s one that allows us to look at the ways oppression culture has programmed the deep structures[7] of our erotic grammar — and, potentially, how we might re-program ourselves to eroticize liberation instead. (I’ll say more about this later.)

At the moment, I’m not particularly interested in arguing about whether this theoretical framework is “true.” It will resonate for some people and not for others. The kind of resources required to do rigorous socio-psychological hypothesis testing aren’t available to me, nor are they often made available to people who would be interested in doing this kind of work. Also, it’s probably not “true.” I don’t use this framework to understand everything about BDSM all of the time. If I did, I would never have sex. And I hardly ever have sex as it is, so that would suck. I do use it when I talk about BDSM on the Internet for two reasons 1) Deconstructing BDSM in this way is personally useful to me re: making my own intimate, erotic life feel more comprehensible, complete, ethical, healthy, and sexy. 2) It’s a perspective I’m not seeing talked about in very many places.

(Politico-theoretical discussion I’ve seen of BDSM online tends to break down into roughly two camps. Massive oversimplification ahead: The sex-positive “consent is magic” camp that says “BDSM isn’t abusive because it’s consensual, so it’s fine,” and the radical feminist “false consciousness” camp that says “Nobody can consent to that shit; BDSM is abusive, so don’t do it.” I’m saying neither of those things. In fact, basically what I’m saying is, “BDSM IS abusive — in fact, it’s abusive in a particularly self-referential way that makes it both extra abusive and also gives it extra potential as a site for liberatory work — and you get to decide how you want to negotiate that in your erotic life because you’re a free agent. Try not to be an entitled asshole about it, please.”)



[0] Invisible Girl

[1] Hard Radicalism

[2] Biting the bullet

[3] Power and control wheel

[4] thing about either it’s kinky or we’re little kids

[5] consent counts or something?

[6] studies about bdsm and abuse?



being turned on by being dominated is kinking on internalized oppression

rolequeerness, access to bodily sense, shower exercise (reconnect conscious awareness “this is my hand” with felt sense of water pressure against my hand = reconnect conscious awareness “this is oppressive/this is liberatory” with felt sense of those experiences day-to-day) [Relevant:]


– people who have influence over others because they offer more options (paul wall)

– people who have influence over others because they have authority

** externally enforced authority

** voluntary authority

people who have authority either have it because they earned it or because they stole it. (people who stole it will try to convince you they earned it.)

people can have authority because it’s valuable to them to be able to tell others what to do as a means to some end, vs because they just get off on telling other people what to do.

“elderhood” more experience/competence in a particular sphere vs. they don’t have anything to teach you, they’re just in charge by some fluke (stole it)

the benefit of his kid holding his hand isn’t that he gets to tell the kid what to do. it’s that he gets to help the kid cross the street so that he can survive until he no longer needs to be told how to cross the street.

the purpose of accepting someone’s submission should be to guide them into a state of no longer need/desire to be dominated by you, not to keep them in a state of suspended animation

conversely, if “being turned on by being dominated is kinking on internalized oppression” and the purpose of rolequeer play is to somatically familiarize ourselves with what liberation (from, in this case, internalized oppression) feels like, then:

it seems that the only people to whom I, qua submissive*, ought ever want to hand over power (ala Lava’s “but sometimes people just hand you power cuz you’re just standing around being that awesome and they wanna!”) are people who have more experience being oppressed than I am/more experience with or with overcoming internalized oppression than I do.

[*This should read “qua person who desires to be dominated” not “qua submissive.” Conflating being submissive (identity or role) with the desire to be dominated is philosophical sloppiness on my part: a) submissiveness is not dependent upon dominance or a desire for it, b) there are reasons one might desire to be dominated that are not inherently linked to a submissive identity.]

THEM: it felt like while we were fucking when i was talking to you there were some places where you were hesitant…

ME: i was actually thinking about you saying that i was trusting and about the fact that i really do trust you; i trust you not to take advantage of my desire to be submissive to you. i was also thinking about the fact that the desire to be dominated is the fetishization of internalized oppression

THEM: yep.

ME: the fact that, when i say that, you get it, makes this feel safer to me


i’ll be explicit: i don’t think bdsm is a fun game. i think it’s a psychonautical tool for rooting out oppression culture. that can be a fun game.

rolequeerness is about breaking D/s dynamics together

my goal, in any act of dominance, should be always to make myself* obsolete. no other way of holding authority is ethical. #rolequeer

*[“my dominance” not “myself”. I don’t want to make myself as a person-in-relationship-with obsolete, I want to make my domination an obsolete part of that relationship. In fact, that’s the whole point of dominance in a rolequeer context: Somatic habituation to the experience of liberation doesn’t just mean learning what it feels like as oppressed folks to liberate ourselves from our oppressors; it also means learning, as oppressors, what it feels like to (in solidarity with people who are oppressed by us) liberate ourselves from oppression culture by becoming humans rather than instantiations of oppressor-roles.]

. . .


So, any remaining doubt I might’ve had that I’ve just been imagining all this stuff, or making a philosophical mountain out of an experiential molehill, or spinnning some clever story about the political and psychological implications of BDSM-qua-practice for Maymay’s and my benefit that doesn’t usefully describe the experiences of any other people? (SA:

Yeah. I just had a conversation that made whatever remained of that self-doubt melt away. And I’m not going to tell about it here because it’s not my story to tell, but it made me sad about the world — because it made me feel like I’m not crazy. And while it’s nice to feel not-crazy, it’s sad to have the proof of that be someone else’s pain. And I just needed to, like, tell somebody.


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