One of the joys (I use the term loosely) of researching popular conceptions of BDSM, and familiarizing myself with the alternative sexuality blog world, has been learning the ins and outs of various anti-BDSM arguments. (Oh yes — there are anti-BDSM people out there. There are even anti-BDSM activists out there.)

The most popular anti-BDSM arguments are fairly easy to predict. For instance: “No one really wants to be physically hurt. Anyone who claims that they do is wrong in the head — they’re insane. And anyone who then hurts that person is taking advantage of an insane person, and should be prosecuted for assault.” (This is pretty much the judgment that won the day in the famous Spanner Case.)

My opinion on that argument is easy: I’m not insane, and I don’t appreciate it that you’re calling me insane just because I like BDSM.

But there are other anti-BDSM arguments that are much more complex and layered, and those fascinate me. It’s really hard to pick just one anti-BDSM argument to discuss … but I have to, because there are too many anti-BDSM arguments for me to address them all in one post … and besides, wiser heads than mine have already talked a lot of them through. *

So, here’s today’s anti-BDSM argument: “Creating wider acceptance for BDSM will legitimize abuse.”

This argument goes something like:

1) When two consenting people do a BDSM scene together, it can look like abuse to outsiders who are not aware that the scene was worked out ahead of time and that the bottom ** can opt out at any time. That is, outsiders can’t know the difference between BDSM and abuse by looking at it.

2) If the outside world becomes more accepting of BDSM, then outsiders who see signs of violence will become more likely to assume that it is BDSM and not abuse. Therefore, they will be less likely to interfere with a violent situation, or help a victim.

3) Thus: legitimizing BDSM puts people in danger. It means that abusers will be more likely to abuse, because they will think that they can get away with it. Or, alternatively: it means that abusers will be more likely to abuse because they don’t learn the difference between abuse and consent. It also means that people who are actually being abused will have a harder time getting help.

… So. These assertions are interesting, but ultimately, they’re barking up the wrong tree. I see a huge range of cultural issues inherent in this argument, but the major one is this:

The argument assumes that people cannot learn to tell the difference between abuse and consent.

The BDSM subculture stretches over the whole world, and I can’t speak for all of it. (If I tried to say, “BDSMers think this …” or “the BDSM subculture is like this …”, that would be like saying “All Americans think this …” or “All of America is like this ….”) But I can say that, in my experience, there is very high pressure in the BDSM subculture to ensure that all partners consent. In fact, I would say that — in my experience — I’ve encountered higher pressure in the BDSM world to ensure that partners consent, than I have in the rest of the world.

Indeed, BDSM workshops and discussion groups directly address the question of abuse. BDSM educators put a lot of effort into teaching audiences how to avoid abuse.

Outsiders, however, don’t usually see the effort we put into consent. As long as outsiders are forming stereotypes of BDSM based on shallow fashion advertisements and misogynistic badly-negotiated pornography, *** people won’t be able to tell the difference between BDSM and abuse — and, more dangerously, people who are attracted to BDSM will be less likely to understand that there are ways to learn how to do it safely. That’s why we need to legitimize BDSM and correct those stereotypes.

If BDSM is legitimized — if it “comes out of the closet” — then the community’s attitudes towards consent will come out of the closet with it. It’s not like legitimizing BDSM means that everyone will start thinking it’s a great idea to beat other people without their consent. No, legitimizing BDSM means that:

– people who want to learn how to practice BDSM safely will have an easier time attending workshops and discussion groups, and they will therefore be less likely to make unsafe mistakes;

– the public will have a better grasp on what it means to practice consensual BDSM, and what the difference is between BDSM and abuse;

– therefore, more people will have a much better idea of how to tell BDSM from abuse;

– therefore, people who are engaging in abuse will not be confused with BDSMers.

– In fact … it will actually be harder to abuse people once BDSM is legitimized, because it will become harder for abusers to convince others that they’re “just practicing BDSM”. Indeed, if we’re lucky, then BDSM attitudes about consent and respect will percolate into the mainstream enough that it’ll be harder in general to commit abuse.

What causes abuse is not people having consensual sex. What causes abuse is people who don’t respect boundaries.

Arguing that accepting BDSM will lead to accepting abuse is analogous to arguing that accepting human sexuality will lead to accepting rape. In other words — telling me that I encourage men to abuse women by having consensual BDSM sex is like telling me that I encourage men to rape women by having consensual vanilla sex.

Outlawing BDSM would not protect people from abuse … any more than outlawing sex would protect people from rape.

The only thing that will protect people from abuse (and rape) is for everyone to understand and value consent.

* If you want to read up on the subject, I recommend that you check out SM-Feminist — where Trinity regularly and brilliantly deconstructs anti-BDSM arguments, as well as talking brilliantly about feminist BDSM in general. Renegade Evolution has some good posts on the subject, too, but she has a wider focus than just BDSM.

** “Bottom” is kind of a catch-all term for “masochist” or “submissive”. Which is not to say that being a masochist and being a submissive are always the same thing. It’s just frequently convenient to have a term that encompasses both.

*** Not all pornography is misogynistic and/or badly-negotiated. But I think most mainstream porn is. And I also think that many popular conceptions of BDSM unfortunately arise from mainstream porn.