Photo by: Shibari Kinbaku/ Pixabay
Reconciling tension between feminism and kink
As a sexual assault survivor, I never thought I would be happy to say “use me” and mean it. And yet, here I am, consenting to sex that is wild and exciting, all the while feeling safe and cared for. Over time, my tastes have become more taboo, even as I’m writing research papers at school on intersectional feminism and learning about the privilege I have as a white cis-woman. I have struggled to reconcile the tension between being an activist and being a kinkster. Even though there is broad support for exploring taboo interests, I found myself judging my sexuality—questioning what sort of Freudian connection to my childhood trauma was manifesting.
I am polyamorous, which means I have more than one meaningful relationship with the consent of all people involved. With some of those partners I have dabbled in BDSM, which encompasses physical, psychological and usually sexual power-roleplay with consensual partners. Some partners I dominated, and with some I submitted. I have tried bondage, kink furniture, pain/impact play, hot wax, blindfolding, domestic servitude, threesomes and moresomes. It is liberating, exploratory and an experience that has empowered me to rediscover my sexuality and sensuality after sexual assault. I discovered that I enjoyed submission with the right partner. I loved letting go of control, doing what my dominant told me to do, and having my partner reduce me to “yes, daddy.” My ‘subspace’—or submissive mindset—is quiet and calm, contrary to my busy and hectic life where I tend to be a decision-maker.
I had never felt more empowered in my sexuality than when I dabbled in kink—not because it is the only way to be empowered, but because it was something that worked for me. I did, however, feel as though my dominant role was more feminist than my submissive roles. As a female dominant with male submissives, I flipped the typical power distance between cis-men and cis-women. As a submissive, however, I felt empowered, but also like I was upholding a patriarchal standard.
WTF is BDSM?
BDSM stands for bondage, dominance/submission, sadism, and masochism, and some commonly used titles for those who participate include BDSMers, kinky people or kinksters. BDSM does not always have to include sex—whatever your gender identification, sexual orientation or preferences, kink has something to offer if you are interested.
Dominants control or dominate a consenting submissive, and submissives follow orders within their consensual list of activities. Sadists feel sexual gratification from other people experiencing pain, and masochists feel pleasure from receiving pain. Some subcategories of BDSM include bondage and impact play, where a submissive partner might be tied up and spanked; full-time submission is where the role of the submissive extends beyond sex and integrates into the domestic sphere; or perhaps a submissive likes having their partner pick out what they are going to eat and wear every day. Having outlined tasks at home can help submissives who have a difficult time motivating themselves to keep on top of chores or drink enough water. The structure of 24-hour submission can be comforting and help submissives thrive and accomplish things they want for themselves. Alternatively, dominants might take on a caretaker role for their submissive, train submissives to behave with rewards and fun punishments, tie up a submissive in intricate rope-work or create harem fantasies with multiple submissives. A quick Google search will reveal many more possible dynamics.
Partners often use online resources, such as BDSM checklists, to discuss what is consented to and what is off-limits before any roleplay occurs. Consent plays a significant role in BDSM relationships—trust and enthusiasm make the experience enjoyable for everyone.
It is understandable that those new to kink might struggle to see how feminism and BDSM can coexist; so, I approached some people in the community and experts in sexology to explore both personal experiences and professional perspectives.
Kink-based artist and advocate Rebecca (@BeccaBlushArt on Instagram) is bi- and demisexual, polyamorous and a progressive swinger, and a submissive with little tendencies. She says that feminism and kink can coexist; people are free to choose what pleases them and to choose what they consent to engage with.
“Being a feminist means that I support, advocate and fight for all humans on this earth. I do not judge or exclude based on any factor. It means that I believe all people should have equal political, social, and economic rights regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, or social status.”
Kink is commonly misunderstood: what makes it so special, says Rebecca, is constant communication, validation, confirmation of limits and consistent check-ins. She says that those who fear kink might only perceive the observable actions and not understand the deep layers of emotional and physical benefits. There is an emphasis on safety, consent and boundaries—some even go so far as to make written contracts that outline the limits that each person agrees to. Education is a crucial component of kink, ensuring maximal safety and pleasure. Rebecca believes that kink is not “weird”—if we all talked about our intimate lives without the taboo, we would realize how common kink is.
Rebecca has faced and also struggled with reconciling her feminism with her fantasies. One time, before arriving at a sex dungeon, she and her partner had discussed her boundaries for the evening: she consented to him spanking her while she was tied down and also consented to other attendees spanking her and talking to her. An older woman approached and asked if she could speak with Rebecca. Her partner agreed, as per their earlier discussion. The woman uncuffed Rebecca and told her she was worth more than spanks and should “stand up for womanhood.” Rebecca explained to the woman that she had consented and was enjoying herself, but struggled with the woman’s disapproval and the idea that she wasn’t standing up for womanhood. Individuals stuck in the old-school mindset of “cis-man abusing cis-woman” are neglecting a critical concept in feminism and sexual liberation: choice.
“If someone chooses it,” says Rebecca, “it’s not oppressive.”
One of Rebecca’s partners, Emily—a bisexual, polyamorous submissive who enjoys bondage play and domestic servitude—says feminism is about autonomy and encouraging choice in different lifestyles rather than forcing women to live a certain way. Her definition of feminism does not stop at gender equality but focuses on intersectionality and solving inequality worldwide. Feminism should be “an anti-exclusionary lifestyle” that does not discriminate against anyone, says Emily. She practices her feminism by maintaining her autonomy and focusing on her career.
“Because of feminism, I feel that everyone, including me, has the right to be free to be themselves and choose their own lifestyle. This is what allows me to both lead a kink-positive lifestyle without fear of the judgment of others and to refrain from judging others.”
Emily agrees with Rebecca: there is more to kink than meets the eye. What might look like a massive power gap between a dominant and submissive first begins with a substantial amount of discussion, consent and trust-building. The fear of kink seems to revolve around a lack of understanding about what BDSM involves and a fear of non-consensual activity.
Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast, says that “whenever we explore sex outside of what is considered mainstream […] we tend to see heightened levels of fear. And this fear is often rooted in lack of knowledge, erotophobia and stereotyping.”
She also notes the intersection of these fears with the reality of patriarchy, sexism, racism, ableism and other forms of systemic oppression.
“Most people enjoy some component of kinky sex—blindfolds, spanking, dirty talk, etc.—and their preferences are not the result of childhood abuse. Period,” says O’Reilly. “Research continues to confirm that a history of childhood abuse is no higher within kink communities and that attachment styles of folks who are kinky are in no way significantly different from those who identify as vanilla.”
She says that “BDSM practitioners scored better on some indicators of mental health including neuroticism, openness, security and overall well-being,” referring to a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
While dismantling systems of oppression is the short—albeit complex—answer to how we can combat the stigma around kink and feminism, O’Reilly says that popular representation can help.
“If we only see BDSM portrayed as something that led to a murder in programs like Law and Order, our understandings will continue to be detrimentally limited. If we see a wider range of people engaging in a wider range of sexual activities and talking about them with nuance and variety, the stigma will start to erode away.”
Daniele Doucet, PhD, says radical feminists perhaps struggle with BDSM because they don’t believe women truly want to be humiliated in a sexual context, arguing instead that these desires come from the internalization of patriarchy. Alternatively, third-and fourth-wave feminists promote the autonomy to choose—if you want to stay at home and raise kids, it is your choice. Rather than critiquing what women should or shouldn’t be consenting to, the priority of these later waves is on intersectionality and advancing the specific concerns of BIPOC and trans women.
“The social conditioning for women isn’t conducive to empowerment, isn’t conducive to choice,” says Doucet, noting how pornography is often either framed around the man and his pleasure or framed around the woman’s pleasure within the context of how amazing the man is at giving her pleasure. Outside of pornography, women are often socialized to only want sex within the context of a loving, intimate relationship. For some, having sex for other reasons than love and connection may be a challenging concept.
Sex-negativity is the idea that sex is considered inherently negative, dangerous, risky, and/or dirty. It informs social norms that regulate what we can and cannot do sexually, even to the point where certain sexual acts are against the law. While education around feminism is essential, Doucet says that “so long as sex-negativity exists, I don’t think any amount of education around feminism is going to change societal attitudes toward kink.”
I have struggled to reconcile the tension between being an activist and being a kinkster. My own experiences of abuse gave me every reason to avoid putting myself in a vulnerable position with a partner. As the years passed after I was sexually assaulted, my sexuality returned with both strange tastes and a brave hunger.
I found my power in unexpected places (namely bound to kink furniture with rope) and learned how to listen to my inner-self and respect what my body consented to.
My body learned to trust me. I conquered one trigger at a time until I was in full control of my sexuality again, adding more and more activities to the list of sexual acts that were safe and fulfilling. But I didn’t stop there—what else could we explore and add? What other exciting and taboo dynamics were intriguing?
I trust myself to hold space for triggering moments that might arise and to take care of myself when they happen. I can also trust myself to know when a sexual act is abusive instead of consensual, to know when my self-judgement is coming from sex-negativity and to know when I’m compromising my feminist morals.
BDSM reminds me that I’m in control of my body. I’m merely choosing to take a replenishing (and much deserved) break from battling the patriarchy.
And if you have a problem with it, bite me. I consent.