Reconciling Feminism & Sadism

June 29, 2010  |  advice, essays

From the Ask Me Anything questions from Sugarbutch’s 4th anniversary:

How do you reconcile your feminism with your sadism and desire to (gulp) hurt women? (In a completely consensual manner, of course.)—Cold Comfort

The closest thing I’ve come so far to explaining this was in that essay from December 2009 called Reconciling the Identities of Feminist and Butch Top, but this question, about sadism, is slightly different, and I have the impression I haven’t quite answered it all the way.

“Butch top” is very much related to “sadist” for me, but that’s just because that’s my particular version of butch topping, into which my sadism is built. In fact, it’s only been recently that I’ve been unpacking sadism from topping, being with someone who is much more submissive than she is a masochist. Point being, much of that essay is exactly about reconciling those identities.

Yet still, I don’t feel like that is an adequate explanation on this topic. Besides, the culmination of that essay is basically, “How did I reconcile these identities? I don’t know, I just thought about it a lot and then it was better.” There must be something more articulate to say about that.

I hit on it a little more in the essay Yes, No, and Consent too, about agency, in feminist terms. It has to do with the very simple distinctions between BDSM and abuse, even if they are equated by many anti-porn feminists. And it has to do with the Platinum Rule—not the Golden Rule, the “do to others what you would like to be done to you,” but the “do to others as they would like to be treated,” and the acknowledgement that how you want to be treated and how another wants to be treated may not be the same thing, especially when you add in the complexities of relationship through sex, BDSM, sadism, and masochism.

But, if someone wants me to treat them a certain way and something about it feels funny to me, I trust that, and I take a break and pause and ask questions (hopefully without over-processing or projecting), until I feel like we have resolved whatever was coming up or until I decide there’s too much there to open up without adequate containment or backup.

To go back to the Platinum Rule: for a pop-culture simplistic example, consider the Love Languages! Which, cheesy as they are superficially, I think are a very useful system to think about the ways that myself and my partner may be seeking the same things (like love, comfort, security, passion) but may be in different ways (through words of aspiration, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and receiving gifts). I think we all have some relationship to all five of those ways (and possibly more), but many of us are more focused on some of those ways than others.

All of us are seeking similar things, like love and sex and companionship, but we may be seeking to play with those things in different ways. And figuring out what my own preferences are in playing with those things, and in being in a relationship, figuring out how I best communicate, who I’m attracted to and what qualities I most prefer in someone else, and how to reconcile differences or misunderstandings between us, has been a huge journey, and has been a huge piece of being able to articulate that I want to play with deeper, heavier BDSM, like pain or humiliation, and to trust someone enough to believe that when they say they want to play with that on the receiving end, they mean it, they know themselves well enough to know what they want, they are experienced enough to understand what they’re asking for, they are in touch with themselves enough to tell when they have reached a limit, and they are strong enough to be able to communicate with me around whatever is going wrong (or right).

I’ve worked a hell of a lot on my own issues, particularly on being able to say what I’m thinking, to stand up for myself, and to not get swept up in someone else’s psychology and psyche. I’ve been in therapy for about four years now, and that has helped me greatly with my communication. I’ve also done all sorts of “alternative” methods of healing, such as massage therapy, physical therapy, acupuncture, tinctures, supplements, nutritional counseling, bodywork … I’ve done a lot of work on myself and my own issues, and I am continuing to work hard to improve the ways I communicate and relate.

So, this is how I would reconcile feminism & sadism:

  1. Acknowledge that people want different things. For example, your desire to hit someone is bad when the person you are hitting doesn’t want to be hit, but when the person you are with wants to be hit, in a playful, controlled, conscious way, that’s called consent and it’s (probably) great. Consider the distinctions between BDSM and abuse, and trust yourself when you know you are on one side or the other. Listen to your lovers when they give you feedback about how your behavior affects them.
  2. Play with people whose consent you trust, and don’t take responsibility for other people’s consent. And, if they consent, then later uncover that it was actually bad for them, they didn’t like it, or blame something on you, you can certainly apologize and take responsibility for whatever your part of it may have been, but it was not your fault that they consented to an act that you then did. Be willing to process a scene after playing, and listen carefully, but know that trying to retroactively revoke consent is a dangerous move.
  3. Seek out and understand the background and history and texts on BDSM. Find mentors (if you’re in a city big enough to have a BDSM scene) and take classes, or join online BDSM groups and learn. There is a rich history of writings and teachers who discuss what it’s like to go into these deep, dark realms of physical sensation and psychology, and many of them hold important explanations for how this play works. Studying these arts makes us more aware, which can make us more conscious, and more intentional, and better able to be present in our play.

I’ve always, for as long as I can remember, had a deep connection to feminism. And I believe in it the way I believe in psychology or democracy—that even though there are plenty of people out there fucking it up, there is a kernel, a spark, a rawness at its core that I believe is important, necessary, and is deeply aligned with me and my sense of purpose in this world. I don’t believe that because some people are taking these things and claiming them to mean some things that I disagree with that I need to then step out of the ring and let them take it over. I’m glad that there can be multiple perspectives coming from one singular idea, it strengthens the idea to have multiple angles, I think (even if sometimes I believe they are so very wrong).

I know there are plenty of people who say they are not a feminist, especially those who work in various aspects of sex, and that there are plenty of feminists who would probably say that I am “not a feminist” because of my BDSM play or my masculinity or whatever. But I have enough sovereignty around my feminist identity that I know that their version of feminism is simply different from mine, and that mine is no more wrong than theirs is.

So that’s my last prescription for reconciling feminism and sadism: Ask yourself what your definition of feminism is. If you start digging to discover that you think feminists never, ever hit someone, or humiliate someone, or call someone a bitch, or shove a cock down a girl’s throat, well then, you are going to have some trouble reconciling those two identities. This is where the #3 Research on BDSM will come in handy, because BDSM circles know the difference between play and real life. We know that rape is absolutely not the same thing as playing with consent, as someone yelling out “no no no” during a scene. We know that the things that we play with during scenes, like pain, like giving or receiving pain, are not fun to experience in real life. I would never want someone to spank me or beat me or slap me in the face for real! I would never want someone to do that to my girlfriend! But under the umbrella of play, it takes on other qualities. It might look the same, a slap across the face vs a slap across the face, but the motivation, intention, control, and outcome are completely different.

Growing involves seeing more than the black or white definitions that labels, identities, and systems of thought often prescribe. Lots of feminists have written about how oppressive the sexual culture surrounding the subordination of women is; and that’s important to learn. However, equating ALL acts of some kind of sex, happening between consenting adults, that you or “feminists” deem inappropriate with oppression or non-consent is denying a key part of sex play: agency. Hurting someone, especially sexually, is something (some) feminists shun, but when you add consent into that mix, you’ve entered into something that is not black or white. And perhaps not even gray, since consent puts any act in a whole new category.

Did that adequately answer your brief but loaded question? Are there other follow-up questions from what I’ve posted here?

 

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11 Comments


  1. All good thoughts.

    I'm a feminine-ish bottom, and I guess I'd also add that while I am a feminine woman who desires domination from a masculine person, it doesn't follow that I desire domination from a masculine person BECAUSE I'm a feminine person, or that I believe that masculine people are categorically supposed to dominate feminine people. In practice it's murkier because gender dynamics do play into my fantasies, and I do want to be dominated as a woman by someone masculine. I've also justified this to myself by thinking of it as a reflection of the dominant culture rather than an affirmation of that hierarchy as the "proper" order of things. And of course, feminine people in general don't necessarily want to be dominated by masculine people. There are femmes who like to dominate butches, butches who like to be dominated by butches, etc.

  2. Thanks for this. I'm in kind of a similar boat of trying to explain how I've reconciled kink with my religion. I'm part of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and a huge tenant of our religious practice is peace. Violence is not tolerated in any form, so it took a while for me to come to terms with the idea that people out there like BDSM, and then even longer to wrap my head around the fact that I liked it. It helps that I came at it from the sub position first, though, because it's easier for me to think, "I like being hit," than, "I like to hit people." When I finally started thinking of it as a different expression of love, rather than of violence, things clicked a lot better in my head. There was a moment when I was watching a whipping at the Folsom Street Fair where I saw how everything that the top was doing was designed to express a form of love and care that the bottom couldn't get elsewhere. Everything in kink is ultimately for the greater pleasure of the parties involved, and what could be more peaceful than bringing others happiness and love?

  3. Hi, this is my first time in here, and I would like to say a few words.

    I think what feminists in our society are trying to do is to completely remove the somehow submissive role women play compared to men.

    Why does porn "degrade" women? Because feminists argue that in porn women are portrayed as submissive and weak. They think these kind of porn create inequality in social roles of men and women.

    You try to justify your sadist behavior with "consent." But all porn actresses did agree to have sex, right? So that means all male dominance over female in porn are justified? There will not be any thing for the feminists to complain about.

    • What I can't understand is that how can a woman as a feminist, who fight for equality between men and women, play a dominant man's role in her bedroom and humuliate a woman.

      • I think there needs to be a distinction made here between porn made by straight men primarily for straight men that's marketed as "vanilla" (or at least not marketed as "BDSM"/"kinky"), and BDSM porn. In the later case, I think there's an expectation that both partners are aware of the dynamics that are going on and that both receive some sort of sexual fulfillment through what's going on, whereas in the first case the woman's (who is also invariably the submissive, which is not always the case in BDSM) pleasure is not taken into account either by the filmmakers or by the audience. The actress is there consensually and is receiving monetary compensation, but the point is that the audience is not expected to consider her pleasure which perpetuates the (subconscious) idea that her pleasure is not an important consideration.

      • Also, while I'm on the flip side of what you're talking about (a femme-ish bottom), that doesn't mean that I don't believe that women and men are equal. My orientation feels to me like more of a coping method with what I see in the world around me; a reflection of the harmful structure rather than confirmation of my belief in its correctness.

  4. I don’t think audiences of straight porn completely ignore pleasure of actresses. You should notice that porn actors are usually quite handsome, strong and have large penises. Why is that the case? Because it is thought that women would enjoy sex with such men. And also, one seldom see porn actresses in their acting reject having sex. All these show that audiences of straight porn do care about actresses’ pleasure, and they expect actresses truly enjoy the process rather than being forced to have their sexual acts filmed for money.

    What I’m trying to say is that feminists should practice what they preach. Everyone can say they have certain beliefs, but it is their actions that counts.
    Most butch try to make themselves manly, they dress like men, act like men. Some of them can even dominate and humuliate their female partners better than men. Does it somehow symbolize that women are bound to be dominated by men, or any person that is manly (displays men characteristics)?

    • rstitan, I think we have some fundamental differences about where we're coming from. I don't believe most butches "try to make themselves manly, they dress like men, act like men."

      Many, many women do not like to be dominated and prefer to be dominant, both more feminine women and more masculine women, and many others prefer to be submissive and do like to be dominant. It's a personal choice based on self-awareness and what feels good.

      I agree feminists should practice what they preach. But being dominant in bed and being a feminist are not mutually exclusive, regardless of the gender of oneself or one's partner.

    • I think we can safely say that mainstream porn is generally made by straight men for straight men. How porn actresses act in mainstream porn is not a representation of female sexuality so much as a male fantasy of female sexuality. Audiences are therefore encouraged to attribute female sexual pleasure to such things as handsome-ness, strength and large penises. While most women probably wouldn't say no to any of those things (I think the jury's still out on penis size/that's a highly individual preference for a female), the point is that they're simply what men say women want. I would rather go for a scrawny dude with a tiny penis, but a great personality, who was someone I'd developed a relationship with. Any day.

      As for why porn actresses choose to act in mainstream porn… money, just maybe. I guess I don't know what porn actresses make, but it would probably be a tempting solution if you were in dire straits, monetarily.

    • Appendix:

      So in mainstream porn, the directors (who decide what will be depicted) and the audience (who derive pleasure from what is depicted) will approach from the angle of identifying with the man. In contrast, BDSM/alternative porn will have an audience split between whether they're identifying with the top or the bottom or both, and the directors (who aren't uniformly oriented one way anyway) will have to take the depiction of the pleasure of both the top and the bottom into account.

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