TL;DR (summary courtesy unquietpirate): The goal of BDSM Scene rhetoric is to limit the scope of any conversation about sexualized violence to a simple dichotomy — that there is “BDSM” and there is “abuse” and that the two can never overlap “because consent.”
But BDSM, by definition, is about abuse — even when performed in the most consensual, conscientious, and compassionate way — because “what makes BDSM the thing that it is is not consent but sexualized authority, a fetish for eroticizing dominance, or justifying a desire for non-consensual sex. That doesn’t mean consent is lacking in BDSM, it just means that what the people involved are consenting to is getting off on stories (or the actual acts) of powerful actors overpowering vulnerable ones.”
But that does not describe the entire field of kink and, in fact, if we zoom out to include a broader understanding of what is sexual, what is kinky, and what is abusive, we see a much more complex landscape in which the conversation about sexualized violence can occur.
And it needs to be occurring in that more complicated and comprehensive landscape, otherwise many survivors of sexualized violence are erased and their stories go unheard.
Okay kids gather round while I try my best to explain something that I’d like to not have to explain anymore. You have probably heard how lots of kink shits will say “BDSM is not abuse,” and then when you challenge them on that, they will tell you to “educate yourself.” When you point out that perhaps they should instead question their education, they will say you are “kink shaming” and run off.
Here’s why their argument is just completely wrong. Follow along with the Venn diagrams, above.
Picture 1: “BDSM” versus “abuse”
First, though, what is their argument? Well, it’s simple: “BDSM is not abuse.” This is what’s known as a No True Scotsman argument, that is, the continual re-definition of a thing to selectively exclude the parts of that thing that aren’t “truly” that thing. In this case, BDSM on the one hand and abuse on the other. This is also known as a false dichotomy, or a binary, or, more simply, just a kind of lie.
This lie didn’t come from nowhere. In fact, it came from a very specific political rhetoric that differentiated sex from rape in the exact same way.
Picture 2: “Sex” versus “rape”
The binary dichotomization of sex as distinct from rape was and arguably still is a very important tool to shift political conversations away from “don’t get raped” and onto “don’t rape,” but it is nothing if not obtuse. It’s obvious that there are a lot of coercive, non-consensual acts that are not sexual, but we don’t tend to call those “rape.” Therefore, it’s also obvious that “rape” is a form of sex. Violative, even violent, sex, but still sex. So the reality about this is more like the Venn diagram shown in picture 3.
Picture 3: “Sex” encompasses “rape”
While there is still an important distinction between “sex” and “rape,” it’s simply imprecise at best and obfuscatory at worst to describe “rape” as non-sexual. This obfuscation is one of the things the BDSM’er lie that “BDSM is not abuse” relies on you remaining unable to see.
The easiest way to get BDSM’ers to admit this is a lie is simply to ask them, “Do you believe that abusive BDSM exists?” If they say no, they’re stuck playing their 1990’s smash hit single, “BDSM is not abuse” by the No True Scotsmans, and you can politely excuse yourself from the conversation because you’ve reached its end.
However, this is so obscenely obviously obvious that most of them will, in fact, admit that there are “abusers in the lifestyle” or at least that those people are “using BDSM as a cover for abuse,” at which point you have successfully described the situation shown in picture 4.
Picture 4: Where “BDSM” and “abuse” overlap there is an area called “abusive BDSM”
This idea presupposes that there is something about BDSM that can make it not-abuse, but that BDSM is not inherently anti-abuse. That magic thing? Why, “consent,” of course!
I mean, your job or boss is not abusive because, after all, you consented to employment there, right? Your school is not abusive because, after all, you haven’t dropped out, right? And I mean, y’know, if you do end up being forced to engage an abusive boss or teacher (or cop) it’s really just one “bad apple,” just an “isolated incident,” and you shouldn’t speak so negatively about all bosses or teachers (or cops). Cuz, y’know, #NotAllBosses and #NotAllTeachers and certainly #NotAllDominants.
But wait, there’s more.
There’s another lie embedded in “BDSM is not abuse” that has already set the terms of the debate in exactly the same way as the implicit threat of unemployment comes with an unspoken “and then you’ll starve” and the way forced schooling comes with an unspoken “because then you’ll never get a good job,” and this lie is exactly the same as the first, but about different things, as picture 5 shows.
Picture 5: “Vanilla” versus “BDSM”
To a kink shit, the only way to kink is through BDSM. In fact, BDSM *is* kink. Anything that isn’t kinky is “vanilla,” and everything that is kinky is “BDSM.” This is another false dichotomy, another binary, another lie made up by the socially powerful sociopathic abusers who control much of the discourse in the BDSM and sadomasochistic mainstream subcultures (yes, subcultures have a mainstream).
But this lie is in reality just as transparent as the first. In reality, BDSM is only a small sliver under the umbrella of what kink or kinky sex can actually be instead of the other way around; there is a huge difference between “having hot, kinky sex,” and “being into BDSM,” between saying “I’m kinky,” and “I’m a kinkster,” between “doing kinky things” and “being in the lifestyle.” Therefore, the reality of this situation looks more like picture 6.
Picture 6: “Kink” encompasses “BDSM”
Kink is a very, very broad umbrella and includes things that BDSM most certainly does not. Moreover, the hyperfocus BDSM’ers have on that tiny subsection of kink they obsess over is not actually about consent at all:
When describing their communities, BDSM’ers will talk about how theirs is a “safe, sane” space, “based on consent and respect and sex-positivity” as if reciting some invisible script. But there are many communities whose rhetoric or practice (or both) are based on these ideas, so it seems incomplete at best or a deliberate misdirection at worst to describe this particular subculture in that way. All of those things may be present or lacking to varying degrees and the thing that BDSM is will still be mostly unchanged.
It’s especially strange to hear them talk as if those aspects are unique characteristics when there is one very obvious thing that sets BDSM apart from other communities: a fixated sexualization of authority. Oddly, that’s also the one thing about BDSM they seem loathe to admit. I think that’s meaningful.
In other words, what makes BDSM the thing that it is is not consent but sexualized authority, a fetish for eroticizing dominance, on justifying a desire for non-consensual sex. That doesn’t mean consent is lacking in BDSM, it just means that what the people involved are consenting to is getting off on stories (or the actual acts) of powerful actors overpowering vulnerable ones. I’m not even trying to tell you there’s something wrong with that, I’m just saying that eroticizing that kind of coercive behavior is not the only way to kink.
And if you can accept that, if you can decouple the sexualization of coercive cultural tropes from enjoying your kink, and if the idea that you can and do “consent” to things and “willingly” involve yourself in systems that harm you and act abusively towards you for a whole host of reasons (like that job you hate so that you can still get money to pay for food and shelter), that there is no safeword that rape culture will respect, we can proceed to picture 7.
Picture 7: Where “kink” and “abuse” overlap, there exists “BDSM”
It is obviously true that there is such a thing as “abusive kink” as it is true that there is such a thing as “abusive BDSM.” This might look like someone forcing their girlfriend into a threesome with another woman she doesn’t want to have, an act that’s certainly not “vanilla” and yet also doesn’t necessarily rely on fetishizing the dominance of a particular actor. After all, that abusive behavior could just as easily be motivated by the person’s fetish for femininity (a fetish straight men have by definition) as much as it could be motivated by an eroticization of their own authority over their girlfriend.
So it stands to reason that BDSM exists not in opposition to the made up idea of “vanilla” or solely on the side of consensual interactions in an equally imaginary consensual/abusive binary, but is located instead in that area of human desires that spans both consensual and abusive behaviors that for one reason or another nevertheless enacts mistreatment. And this is something BDSM’ers themselves fully acknowledge.
In my most generous interpretations, I will agree that “BDSM is not abuse” is technically correct, but the technicality is misleading: BDSM is not necessarily “abuse” if and only if “abuse” is defined so narrowly that it now becomes the thing to which No True Scotsman arguments are applied (instead of “BDSM,” as before). But unless they are backed so far into a corner that they can no longer hold to their own internal logic, no BDSM’er has ever argued against or denied that what BDSM actually is is an eroticization of mistreatment. If you bristle at the word “abuse,” fine, call it something else. But at this point that argument is a distinction without a difference, and beyond being simply wrong, it’s also boring.
But wait, there’s one more argument BDSM’ers will make to defend their failed experiment in content-free “liberation” that they still feel BDSM contains: “BDSM is not always about sex!”
This is a ruse back to the beginning, another way to say “what is sex can not be rape and what is rape can not be sex.” It’s an attempt to redefine BDSM as somehow inherently not-abuse by pointing out that implicitly equating BDSM with sex is untrue and thus unraveling the argument that BDSM is also therefore the eroticization of abuse.
And while there’s some merit to that argument, its flaw is that neither kink nor abuse are necessary about sex, either. Observe, picture 8.
Picture 8: Sex, Kink, and Abuse are three distinct areas; where sex and abuse overlap there are various different forms of coercive sex (i.e., “rape”) and where sex does not overlap are different forms of abusive behavior, including a smaller area called “BDSM” that includes (where sex is concerned) “sadomasochistic rape” and (where sex is not involved) “abusive BDSM”
Here, now, is a much-expanded view of the realms of sex, kink, and abuse. Coercive and violative experiences can both involve or not involve sex. When they do, they are called rape, because that’s what rape is. It is possible to commit rape in a number of different ways, only one of which is sadomasochistically. The noisy protestations from BDSM’ers that “what it is that we do (WIITWD)” can not be abuse is a bad argument that itself relies on shitty lies.
And sure, part of the problem with their lies is that they provide structural cover for rapists—a cover that is increasingly becoming more popular as Daddy-doms continue to gleefully turn abuse into a fun meme attractive to young Submissives—to hide and blend into what may have otherwise been respectful social institutions. But the much bigger issue here is that BDSM’ers’ elitist hyperfocus on a tiny sliver of kink and subsequent lawyering over what is or is not (“real”) abuse, what is or is not (“real”) rape, actively harms survivors of far more ubiquitous consent violations than just the extreme horror stories of those who have suffered sadomasochistic rapes.
We have a War on Terror. We have a War on Drugs. We don’t have a War on Rape. WHY. THE FUCK. IS THAT?
maymay may be opposing BDSM but he and other bloggers have theorized a new brank of kink called “rolequeering”, which I personally find as problematic as BDSM. (The use of “queer” already makes me raise my eyebrows.) Unlike radfems, “rolequeers” think power dynamics shouldn’t be dismantled, they should be worked around in a somewhat innovative way instead. I think it’s the same old stuff with fancier words.
Not only can you apparently not be bothered to do the bare minimum amount of research before you put your foot in your mouth, you can’t even be bothered to use people’s proper gender pronouns?
Yeah, you’re a total expert on what is or is not “problematic” in this field, Daniela. Keep up the great work.
For everyone else who actually, y'know, reads more than 140 characters about a topic before deciding they’re some kind of authority on it, here’s a great, short piece about rolequeerness that discusses some common misconceptions, like “rolequeer is cishets appropriating queerness"—which is obviously wrong; rolequeers are queers who are repoliticizing kink and taking it back from whitewashing cishets—and "rolequeer is just BDSM but without the dom-y bits"—which, again, is obviously wrong; rolequeerness has its earliest roots in dance communities that take concepts popularized by activities like Queer Tango and extend its subversiveness to all forms of institutionalized power-inegalitarianism, such as capitalism and white supremacy. These are things you would know if you spent literally 1 minute googling about for "rolequeer,” but instead you idiotic Tumblristas apparently only actually care about sounding smart not actually about being informed.
That all said, major thanks for signal-boosting my takedown of the equally stupid “BDSM is not abuse” myth, Daniela. Your support is appreciated, your ignorant opinions, not so much.
Wait, why did I login to Tumblr again? Oh yeah. Not this. Later, gaterz.