I’ve noticed an interesting and (maaaybe) somewhat encouraging shift in my conversations about BDSM recently. (Not that I’ve been talking about BDSM very much lately, but when I do.) In the past, when I critiqued the BDSM scene’s politics around oppression, or terrible track record with consent despite all their PR to the contrary, I would get a lot of pushback and defensiveness. More often these days, what I’m hearing is something like, “I agree with a lot of what you said here. But I see similar trends in polyamory communities too. And sadly I think it’s a pattern of all alt-sex communities.“
So here’s something I recently wrote in response to that:
That being said, I suspect that this due at least in part to there being more and more overlap and blurring of lines between different “alt-sex” communities — and the fact that, in this big blurry blobby melting pot of alt-sexy identities, BDSM culture has been increasingly influencing the discourse because, to be blunt, they’re the richest. Of all the various alt-sex scenes, the population who participates in the public BDSM scene tends to skew the whitest and the wealthiest, which means they’re the ones who have the most access to things other communities need — like meeting space, play space, equipment, funding, PR budgets, lawyers, etc.
There was actually a somewhat contentious conversation that happened on the Poly Leadership Network mailing list recently, because Loving More (one of the oldest and most venerable poly organizations still active today) wanted to do a sort of nationwide poly census, and was considering teaming up with the NCSF (the major legal defense and PR organization for the BDSM scene) to do it.
There wasn’t much discussion about this at first, but then some concerns were mentioned about the PLN being publicly associated with the NCSF — due to some of the NCSF’s problematic history (embezzlement, conflict of interest stuff, some sketchy statements and questionable policies around consent issues) — and at that point a bunch of PLN leaders came out of the woodwork to voice concerns. About the NCSF specifically and, more generally, about the way that poly communities and kink communities are being increasingly conflated — that it’s hard to go to a poly event anymore without running into the the subtle (or forceful) expectation that you’ll also participate in the BDSM scene, join FetLife, etc.
That, even for some folks who are both poly and kinky, having these two parts of their identity treated as one thing was really disconcerting for them — and more importantly (to the PLN), that’s not an assumption we want the general public making about all poly people as we’re trying to raise awareness and educate about what polyamory actually is.
That internal conversation got sticky though, since one of the NCSF board members is also a founding member of the PLN. (Because there IS a lot of overlap between the two communities, regardless.) He and and a few other PLN members who are also big in the BDSM scene got real defensive, and nobody wanted to burn bridges or lose their material support (because one thing that’s definitely true about poly people is that they are pathologically conflict-avoidant.) So, Loving More was like, “No, no, no. We love the NCSF! Everything is going to be fine!” And, in the end, I don’t know if the survey is going forward or not. But my point is that what goes on in our little local poly and kink communities are also being influenced by conversations and cultural shifts at a more national level — and those conversations have as much to do with politics, privilege, and money as they do with how people actually feel about their sexuality.
Point the Second: I agree that there are problematic dynamics in all alt-sex communities. We live in a problematic culture, and that’s going to influence every subculture that exists within it.
That being said, it’s my (very unpopular*) opinion that BDSM — and not ALL kink, just BDSM specifically — is essentially an apologia for predatory behavior in oppression culture. There are predators in the Poly community and lots of other spaces, of course, because certain things about those spaces make them easy for predators to take advantage of. But Polyamory itself is basically just about people wanting to love (and maybe fuck) more people. That’s relatively uncomplicated. (I mean, it’s a relatively uncomplicated drive. Actually DOING it is pretty complicated cuz scheduling…)
BDSM, on the other hand, is largely about providing people with a complicated reassurance that predatory behaviors — rape, torture, sexual violence, physical violence, enslavement, gaslighting, objectification, fetishization, humiliation, dehumization, etc. — are okay things to enjoy, because some people LIKE having those things done to them. That it’s possible to rape, torture, enslave, objectify, gaslight, etc. someone for their own good.
It’s not super surprising, then, that BDSM appeals primarily to people with more privilege. Not only are people with privilege more able to afford the accoutrements required to play in the Scene, but privileged folks are also the ones who tend to be carrying around the most guilt about our history of/ability to abuse, rape, enslave, torture, objectify, fetishize, dehumanize, and otherwise prey on whole populations of people with less privilege. We know that hundreds of thousands of other humans’ lives have been (and are still being) destroyed in order to make ours more comfortable; the narrative underpinnings of BDSM provide us with a bizarre and comforting fantasy that those people might have gotten some kind of satisfaction, pleasure, or benefit out of being victimized by us.
BDSM operates like a weird sort of absolution for the guilt of the privileged in oppression culture. Powerful people get to confess their sins — like maybe that they don’t actually think slavery is that bad; or that they find rape kinda hot; or that abuse seems like a pretty effective tool for getting shit done — and then someone says, “It’s okay, my child. Some people ENJOY being slaves, being raped, being abused; and those who enslave, rape, and abuse them are truly providing a service! Here, try it yourself. See, it feels kind of fun. Just, like, get permission first…or something. But really, it’s fine.”
Other scenes do other weird and problematic shit, but no other scene does that. So, while most alt-sex communities will have predators (or just people who struggle with consent, etc.) IN them, more or less incidentally, BDSM’s function within our larger culture is actually to ATTRACT predatory people and tell them it’s okay to be predators; that their predatory/oppressive behavior doesn’t make them bad people.
I DO think it’s important to tell people they’re not “bad” for having been socialized into an oppressor role. They’re not. That’s not their fault. In fact, it sucks for them. But I don’t think the next step, after that, is to say, “So, do whatever you want, then, as long as you ask first.” I think what we want to do is encourage folks to take responsibility for, examine, and unlearn their impulses to prey on/take advantage of less powerful people.
BDSM (not all kink, BDSM specifically) is, at its core, an apologia for the predatory behavior of the powerful against the powerless in society at large.
This means that, on the ground, BDSM culture is shot through with apologism for the violent or predatory behavior that occurs among its members.
BDSM practitioners tend to be more resourced and privileged, as a population, than other alt-sex communities — which means BDSM culture has a disproportionate influence on alt-sex discourse in general.
Predatory and oppressive behaviors are a problem in every corner of oppression culture, but they are particularly bad the more closely your subculture is linked with the BDSM subculture.
I love poly people and the poly community, and I feel like we’d be better able to take care of ourselves and each other (and to address problematic behavior that does show up in our communities) if we weren’t so tangled up with the BDSM scene.
Even for those of us who are both poly and kinky, it’s important to keep some separation between those two spaces, because…tbh, BDSM is a cancer. Some of us have that cancer and we’ve developed coping mechanisms for living with it, but that doesn’t mean we have to give it to everybody else we know. 😦
* This opinion is very unpopular for obvious reasons, but I’m not the only one who has it — and it echoes conclusions that sociologists like Margot Weiss, and Staci Newmahr have come to after doing long-term embedded ethnographic research in the BDSM scene.