Every once in a while, someone will ask me a question about something BDSM-related that I feel “done with”; I feel like I did all my thinking about those topics, years ago. But it’s still useful to get those questions today, because it forces me to try and understand where my head was at, three to seven years ago. It forces me to calibrate my inner processes. I often think of these questions as the “simple” ones, or the “101″ questions, because they are so often addressed in typical conversation among BDSMers. Then again, lots of people don’t have access to a BDSM community, or aren’t interested in their local BDSM community for whatever reason. Therefore, it’s useful for me to cover those “simple” questions on my blog anyway.

Plus, just because a question is simple doesn’t mean the question is not interesting.

One such question is the “BDSM versus sex” question. Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual? A lot of people see BDSM as something that “always” includes sex, or is “always sexual in some way”. In the documentary “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!“, one famous BDSM writer is quoted saying something like: “I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”

But a lot of other people see BDSM, and the BDSM urge, as something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex — that is separate from sex.

I see two sides to this question: the political side, and the “how does it feel?” side. Both sides are intertwined; when it comes to sex, politics can’t help shaping our experiences (and vice versa). I acknowledge this. And yet even when I try to account for that, there is still something deeply different about the way my body feels my BDSM urges, as opposed to how my body feels sexual urges. I don’t think that those bodily differences could ever quite go away, no matter how my mental angle on those processes changed.

This post is about the political side. Several days after I wrote this post, I followed up with a post about the bodily side. But first ….

The Political Side of BDSM versus Sex

“BDSM versus sex” could be viewed as a facet of that constant and irritating question — “What is sex, anyway?” I’ve always found that the more you look at the line between “what is sex” and “what is not sex”, the more blurred the line becomes.

For example, no one can agree about what words like “slut” or “whore” actually mean. As another example, recall that ridiculous national debate that happened across America when Bill Clinton told us that he hadn’t had sex with Monica — and then admitted to getting a blowjob from her. Is oral sex sex? Maybe oral sex isn’t sex! Flutter, flutter, argue, argue.

It is my experience that (cisgendered, heterosexual) women are often more likely to claim that oral sex is not sex, while (cis, het) men are more likely to claim that oral sex is sex. I suspect this is because women face steeper social penalties for having sex (no one wants to be labeled a “slut”), so we are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “don’t count” as sex … whereas men are usually congratulated for having sex (more notches on the bedpost!), so men are typically more motivated to claim that sex acts “count” as sex. (Unless they’re Bill Clinton.)

So we already have this weird ongoing debate, about what “qualifies” as sex. And you throw in fetishes such as BDSM, and everyone gets confused all over again. A cultural example of this confusion came up in 2009, when a bunch of professional dominatrixes got arrested in New York City … for being dominatrixes … which everyone previously believed was legal. Flutter, flutter, argue, argue, and it turns out that “prostitution” (which is illegal in New York) is defined as “sexual conduct for money”.

But what does “sexual conduct” mean? At least one previous court had set the precedent that BDSM-for-pay is not the same as “sexual conduct for money” … and yet, in 2009, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office decided that “sexual conduct” means “anything that is arousing to the participants” … and then decided that this suddenly meant they ought to go arrest dominatrixes. It’s not clear why the Manhattan DA did not, then, also begin arresting strippers. And what about random vanilla couples on a standard date-type thing, where the woman makes eyes at the man over dinner, and the man pays for the meal? Sounds like “sexual conduct for money” to me. Which could totally be prostitution, folks, so watch your backs.

In his piece “Is There Such A Thing As Kinky Sex?“, Dr. Marty Klein says that:

If practicing kinky sex makes you “other”, not one of “us”, if it has non-sexual implications, if it means you’re defective or dangerous — who wants that? And so as “kinky sex” and its practitioners are demonized, everyone is concerned — am I one of “those people”? It makes people fear their fantasies or curiosity, which then acquire too much power. It leads to secrecy between partners, as people withhold information about their preferences or experiences.

… I’d like to destroy the idea of binary contrast — that kinky and non-kinky sex are clearly different. Instead, I suggest that kinky and vanilla sex are parts of a continuum, the wide range of human eroticism. We all slide side to side along that continuum during our lives, sometimes in a single week. We don’t need to fear our fantasies, curiosity, or (consensual) sexual preferences. They don’t make us bad or different, just human. Some people like being emotional outlaws. They’ll always find a way to get the frisson of otherness. But most people don’t want to live that way. So ending kink’s status as dangerous and wrong, and its practitioners as “other,” is the most liberating thing we can do — for everyone.

That’s certainly reasonable from a political standpoint. I’ve made similar arguments. (Some folks, such as the brilliant male submissive writer maymay, also argue against the common idea that “kink” is limited to “BDSM”; they prefer an expansive definition of “kink” that denotes a vaster cornucopia of sexuality.)

Plus, I even suspect that a lot of the distinctions made by BDSMers ourselves are based far more on stigma than sense. For example, when I was younger, I went through a period where I couldn’t stand to have the word “submissive” applied to myself. I insisted that I was into BDSM solely for the physical sensation, and swore I would never ever do something solely submission-oriented (such as wearing a collar). It was like I could only handle BDSM as long as I distanced myself from the power elements; the power elements carried too much stigma in my head for me to acknowledge them … yet.

I also used to carefully separate “BDSM” from “sex” in my head. Part of me felt like, “If my desire for pain and power is sexual, then it’s weird. If it’s not sexual, then it’s less weird.” (It looks strange when I type it, now, but I guess that’s how sexual stigma works: it rarely holds up against the clear light of day.) It took me a while to integrate sexuality into my BDSM practice. In contrast, I once met a couple who told me that it took them a long time to do BDSM that wasn’t part of sex. In their heads, the thought was more like: “If the desire for pain and power is sexual, then it’s not weird. But if it’s not sexual, then it’s really weird.”

I’ve heard of plenty of dungeons where sex is not allowed — sometimes for legal reasons, but sometimes because there is actually a social standard against it: people are like, “Dude, let’s not get our nice pure BDSM all dirty by including sex.” (Note: My experience is primarily with dungeons owned by “lifestyle” BDSMers — “lifestyle” being a clumsy word that attempts to denote those of us who are motivated to do BDSM for reasons other than money. While there is some overlap between “lifestyle” BDSM and professional BDSM, the overlap can be surprisingly rare, and professional BDSM is often banned at lifestyle BDSM parties. Lifestyle dungeons are often non-profit organizations, and often function more like community centers than moneymaking venues. I understand that some professional dungeons have a “no sex” rule out of a desire to protect the boundaries of dominatrixes who work there, who may not wish to be asked to engage in sex.)

There are also plenty of cultural groups who do things that look suspiciously like BDSM … who insist that they have nothing to do with BDSM. For example, I’ve heard of spanking clubs whose members get really mad if you dare bring BDSM up in their presence.

And then there’s groups like Taken In Hand, a quasi-conservative organization. Actual testimonial from the Taken In Hand site:

There are lots of websites for people in the BDSM, D/s, DD (domestic discipline) and spanking communities. There are websites for people who belong to religions that advocate male-head-of-household marriage. There are even websites for Christians who are interested in BDSM. But there are very few websites for people who are interested in male-led intimate relationships but who are not interested in all that the above communities associate with this kind of relationship (jargon, clothes, etc.) Some of us don’t even like thinking of this as a lifestyle.

Well, my friend, you know what … you can refuse to call yourself BDSM all you want, and you can reject our “jargon” all you want, and you can “dislike” thinking of this “lifestyle” until the end of time … and you have every right to insist that we have nothing to do with you. But when your site has posts that include comments like “When my husband behaves in a dominant manner I basically swoon,” or have titles like “Don’t forget your whip,” well … I’m just saying.

Also, since you mention rejecting BDSM “clothes”? I’ll just say that I can be an astoundingly badass domme in a t-shirt. And I have done so. Multiple times.

Personally, I am particularly frustrated by the stigmatizing idea that BDSM has nothing to do with love. Sometimes I encounter this idea that BDSM has to be separated from sex because BDSM has nothing to do with sex, whereas sex supposedly “should” be about love. The truth is that both BDSM and sex are very different for different people, emotions-wise. Although many people experiment with “casual BDSM”, the same way many people experiment with “casual sex”, a stereotype that BDSMers cannot find love in the act is wrong and absurd. (There’s even an actual study that found that positive, consensual BDSM increases intimacy.)

So yeah. Nowadays, many of these “BDSM versus sex” reactions strike me as being born out of pure, irrational stigma. As Dr. Klein noted, these reactions are usually born of the terrible human urge to exclude: to find ways to differentiate ourselves from “those people”. Humans apparently love to think things like: “I’m not like those people. It doesn’t matter if I, for example, write extensive rape fantasy fiction! That couldn’t possibly be BDSM! Because I’m not a BDSMer! Because BDSM is dirty.”

But we shouldn’t necessarily blame people for this instinct to reject and categorize: the instinct is one that comes from being scared and oppressed … because the social penalties for “getting it wrong” are high. Remember, those New York City dominatrixes thought they were “safe” from the law as long as BDSM didn’t count as sex. But as soon as someone decided BDSM “counted as” sex, those dominatrixes were arrested.

It’s just one more example of how sexual stigma for “different kinds of sex” is constantly intertwined. No type of consensual sexuality can express itself freely until people agree that “among consenting adults, there is no ‘should’.” The Romans, those ancient imperialists, used to say: “Divide and conquer.” When consensual sexualities are scared of each other, we will continue to be conquered. As long as “vanilla” people are afraid of “BDSM” … as long as “BDSMers” are afraid of being seen as “sexual” … as long as the social penalties for being a “slut” or a “whore” are incredibly steep … as long as sex workers are stigmatized and criminalized … everyone will be bound by these oppressive standards.

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Go on to the next post, “BDSM versus Sex, part 2: How Does It Feel?

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This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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