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Thinking Kink: Welcome to a Blog on BDSM, Feminism and Pop Culture

In 1957, Elvis asked us to "Put a chain around my neck and lead me anywhere" in the song "Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear." Fifty-five years and a whole lotta writhing, panting, and spanking later, pop culture's fascination with BDSM still knows no bounds. Whether it was Alice Cooper wielding a riding crop in the '80s, Madonna bringing out the chains and blindfolds in the '90s, or Gaga tussling with stiletto-wearing military men in the 21st century, it's apparent there's something about kinky imagery that our media culture just can't resist.

But what are the implications of this for feminists increasingly concerned about the eroticization of violence or the policing of female sexuality? The recent shit-stirring by Katie Roiphe over the alleged "renewed popular interest in the stylized theater of female powerlessness" shows that, like or not, feminists are still being called to defend representations of female sexuality, and we're not in danger of being left to consume kink-themed books, TV shows, movies, or music in peace any time soon.

In the early '80s, kink- and sex-positive feminists such as Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia battled with anti-porn feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Robin Ruth Linden over whether BDSM (or S/M as it was then called) was a re-enactment of oppressive patriarchal power relations or freely chosen sexual exploration. Now that BDSM has emerged from the confines of adult bookstores and promptly been nabbed by a powerful media which is arguably no less sexist and a hell of a lot more pervasive than it was 30 years ago, the debate rumbles on.

This is what I want to look at and explore during this blog series. I want to look at whether BDSM's infiltration of the mainstream media is a feminist triumph, a positive move for the kink community, or just a wallet-fattener for studio execs. I want to examine how BDSM runs the risk of being hijacked to forward anti-feminist agendas, and consider if its appearance in the media serves to bolster or dismantle rape culture, or simply give us all some entertaining PVC-clad escapism. I want to question whether the media shapes or reflects sexual behaviours and trends—some feminists think it does both, others would say it lacks the power to do either. I'd especially like to know if it's possible for there to be an empowered representation of women who choose to be submissive, rather than the standard tropes of women in BDSM either being victims or dominatrixes.

I'd also like to know what you all think, and welcome any examples of BDSM in TV shows, movies, music videos, songs, or books that you think are in need of closer analysis. So hit me with it! But not like that. (Yes, there will probably be a lot of bad spanking jokes during this blog series—I'm British and we find it hard to write about sex without lightening the atmosphere with an awful pun or seven.) It will probably be impossible to avoid mentioning the ubiquitous 50 Shades on occasion, but I promise to balance this with plenty of other examples of BDSM in the media—after all, kink was around long before E. L. James started profiting from it.

For now, let's start with something that's often absent from when BDSM pops up on our TV screens; a little background information. Here's a (non-exhaustive) glossary, as these terms are likely to get bandied around a lot in the next eight weeks:

BDSM = Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sado-Masochism. Also referred to by the general term "kink."

Vanilla = non-BDSM activities. Some may call this "normal," but kinksters tend to steer clear of this term.

Play = any BDSM activity, undertaken with a "play partner." "Play parties" are where people publicly practice BDSM in a fetish club, rented space or private house. 

Safeword = a pre-agreed term used to end a scene. "No or "stop' may be part of an erotic script, so to avoid confusion many folks use a traffic light system, where "Red"means "stop everything immediately," yellow means "ease up/don't go any harder," and "Green" means "Go, go, go!." Others just use "safeword," and some choose their own random, unrelated terms."Hedgehog," "Lyndon Johnson"—whatever works.

A scene = a session of BDSM activity, often undertaken using specific roles and names, with negotiated acts, ground rules and (usually) safe words.

The scene = the BDSM community.

Hard Limit: Any activity you absolutely do not want to do during a scene.

Top, Dom/me, Dominant, Sadist, Master, Mistress, Daddy etc = person who likes to take control during a scene

Bottom, Submissive (Sub), Masochist, Slave, Pet, Boy etc = person who likes to be controlled during a scene

Switch = person who likes to alternate between dominant and submissive roles

Next time—busting BDSM myths! What our beloved media often fails to mention...

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Comments

34 comments have been made. Post a comment.

grammar domme

the correct plural of "dominatrix" is "dominatrices". looking forward to your new blog series!

Noted, thanks!

Noted, thanks!

Some sources?

Thought you might want to look into Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty Trilogy which was my first exposure to BDSM when I was young.

And maybe this website: www.fetlife.com (where you might find more resources on BDSM and the media).

I'm actually a dom in my current relationship (in general I'm a switch) I haven't been part of the community for very long but I've been to play parties and as a feminist it's always difficult for me to see so many dom males and sub females and just witnessing the inequality in numbers is difficult but I always have to tell myself that this is their fetish...and I can't decide for them (though I can't help but feel like society and the media really has a lot of influence in this). Anyhow, I look forward to reading your blog!

Thanks, Jennifer - Anne

Thanks, Jennifer - Anne Rice's name has popped up a lot in my research but I haven't read the Sleeping Beauty trilogy as yet. I feel my library card a-twitching...

I am indeed on Fetlife which is a constant source of fascinating information!

And misgivings about sub females are definitely something I intend to explore more. Watch this space!

I've been wondering

I've been wondering about whether sexual submissiveness disempowers women who practice/enjoy it. I'm really looking forward to reading this!

Is is accurate to define the

Is is accurate to define the bottom/sub/masochist/etc category as "person who likes to be controlled during a scene" ? Not everyone who likes to be on the bottom wants to be there to be controlled.

Hi Anonymous, In broad terms

Hi Anonymous,
In broad terms I feel this is an accurate way to characterise a bottom role. As I understand it, it involves a surrender of control to the top or dom. I appreciate that this is expressed in many different ways by different folks. If you feel there is a better definition please let me know.
Catherine

Control

This blog looks really interesting - I look forward to reading it! One thing about the concept of control - it conflates the infliction of pain (on masochists) with the exercising of power (over a sub); although masochism is a conceptual mess that fails to properly separate out the pain and power issues (which obviously are not always distinct, but in some cases are. In short, some people get off on being hurt, not on being controlled; others like being controlled, but hate pain.) a part of the reason for this conflation is the ways that psychoanalysts reconstructed masochism as a submissive character type.

BD vs. SM

This is a really important point.

To add on, in my local kink circles, I know:
1) a woman who enjoys being controlled/giving up control but would never tolerate the infliction of pain and would beat the crap out of any top who tried to violate that limit. for her the kink is voluntary service.
2) a woman who enjoys receiving painful stimulus but absolutely does not give up control, grovel, submit, etc. for her the kink is involuntary physical pain.
3) a woman who likes to offer partners the chance to subdue her with rope. the prize is the option to dominate her or inflict pain, but she is very good at escapism and seldom loses these contests. for her the kink is the struggle.

All of these women are "bottoming", but not all of them are submissive or masochistic, let alone both at the same time.

Please don't forget the category of "switch". I find it very helpful in illuminating the difference between consensual kink and non-consensual rape.

Looking forward to reading more!

Agreed

I have to agree with the comment above: I'm a masochistic Domme, meaning I take control over my subs but enjoy having them inflict pain on me. It makes me no less of a top to enjoy pain. I'd like to see some distinction.

I agree with Anonymous,

I agree with Anonymous, specifically as a masochist type who does not like to give up control. The way I broadly define the terms is more: toppy types like to be on the "doing" end, and bottomy types like to be on the "receiving" end.

Ultimately, any broad definition for all of these types is going to be fraught with peril, including mine. It might be easier to include more than one definition in each group. Like "likes to be in control, or likes to be on the doing end" or something like that.

But really, I always protest the idea that because I'm a masochist or a bottom, I must be giving up control. It's a myth that's rampant and I see it causing problems for people even in the BDSM scene, so it bothers me to see it perpetuated.

In our local TNG group, we

In our local TNG group, we have definitions for most of the "titles" on our Fetlife group page.

The easiest way I have found to generalize it is "giving play" or "receiving play" whether that play is bondage, PE, pain, etc.

We also stress in our Community Orientations that it is the bottom/sub/etc. that is the person with the most power in a scene, because they are the ones who can stop it at any point. (Granted, so could the other person(s), but that's not all that common, lol) It's commonly viewed in our local community, and in others, that the sub/slave is the stronger person in the relationship, as it takes a stronger individual to choose to hand over power, permanently or temporarily.

The Dom/ina who takes on the weak-willed and meek person as a sub/slave is almost looked down upon, as if they are taking advantage of someone who would not stand up for themselves anyway. Although, I do know of some Dom/inas who are skilled at taking on those individuals and helping them grow and become more independent.

I can't wait to read the rest of the series! Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

this is a great question! in

this is a great question!

in my circle of kinky folks, the question of control is what helps us define bottom from sub (subs like to temporarily give up control. bottoms like to agree about what things will be done in a scene) (and! some of us like to chose from day to day whether to be a bottom or a sub)

but, i'll admit that this is such a fine distinction within a narrow focus - so i wasn't at all annoyed to see bottom defined the way it was in the post

geeksdoitbetter

thanks to geeksdoitbetter and icic44

for your clarification on the issue, it is definitely helpful to hear different perspectives on the often subtle differences between roles and how people interpret them. As you have appreciated it is hard to include all the subtleties in one blog post, but I hope I am doing OK so far. Next post is myth busting so feel free to suggest what misconceptions about BDSM need dealing with!

No One Likes to Lose Their Special Something or Other

When you follow an artist and they are have a small cult following, it is always a double edged sword when they break big. You can say I knew them when, or you can feel they've been co-opted by the masses who don't really deserve them.The same is true here. When the larger social institutions find they can profit from anything, they will absorb it and shape it into the patriarchal structure. The porn industry is brilliant at this and always have been. Studies of fantasies, both male and female, always reflect strong influences of BDSM. The thing that the "ubiquitous" book you mentioned achieved was to make people comfortable with the subject and able to discuss it in book clubs, etc.

I agree that 50 Shades does

I agree that 50 Shades does seem to have caused discussion about BDSM, but beyond that I'm not sure I'd agree that it's made people 'comfortable with the subject'. Instead it's often been dealt with in a sensationalist and unhelpful way. Katie Roiphe's seizure of the book as an example that because women enjoy kink (or reading about it), it's a sign they don't enjoy equality, is a prime example of this. A British newspaper recently described the relationship in 50 Shades as 'depraved'. And the phrase 'Mommy porn' shows just how far our media still has to go before it can really deal with women having any sexual fantasies, let alone submissive ones.

I also think that if it's true that any lifestyle runs the risk of being absorbed and shaped into the partriarchal structure, then people involved in that lifestyle have a right to be concerned, and not just because they feel possessive over their kink. The concern for feminists who are into or open to BDSM, is how a sexual mainstream that glorifies male domination and female submission may manipulate kink as a justification for coercive or misogynistic trends.

Trey Parker/Matt Stone Musical-Ball Gagging My Inner Goddess

I disagree regarding 50 Shades. I live and work in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City a and the talk from women who have read the book is nearly ubiquitous. It is not even close to a guilty, private pleasure. Most of these people were certainly aware that BDSM existed, they just never had a gateway. I do not mean to imply that three horribly written Lifetime Channel with a Tuscan Room of Pain novels give anyone an understanding of the full range of psychological and material experiences of the scene. My point about people holding onto kink like the serfs did their quarter acre of land in feudal times is valid. It is a matter that needs to be considered in examination of the issue. It does not preclude the significance of other facets. Anything the patriarchal system feels is useful for profit or control is absorbed to some degree or other. Feminists (like many others) often spend lots of time and energy bloviating to each other. See the ongoing porn debate between feminist camps going on since the 70s. For sheer disparity between reality and fantasy, this clearly loses out to 50 Shades in terms of impact on society.. (That is a bad place to be, but there they are). I think to follow through with your idea about keeping some control of kink, an approach might be to find or produce some quality product in the genre and try to popularize it as much as possible. Katie Roiphe is not the problem. It is the people who take her seriously when the media trots her out to support the status quo. (Much like Ann Coulter and Dinesh D' Souza).
If Katie really wants to examine the issue of women's treatment both by themselves and the system, she should perhaps read the Rolling Stone cover story from a few months ago regarding Dartmouth College (my Alma-Mater). The 30 year+ cover-up by administration of rape, humiliation and verbal abuse of anyone not white male and wealthy is a true laughing party.

Curious to see how this goes.

As a butchy dominant leather woman I am used to being vilified in the media, and this may be the first time that I have seen a major feminist outlet take up the topic from an intelligent, balanced perspective.

There is a Japanese manga

There is a Japanese manga which from the many message boards I have read, is noted for it's realistic display of BDSM. It's called Nana to Karou. I myself know nearly nothing on this specific topic, however almost every review I have read of it gives it positive marks for depicting such a relationship. Also in reading it I found that it was certainly something special. It is categorized as a shonen manga, or boys manga, which usually means a lot of unrealistic tits and far to many panty shots. These sorts of manga often have the worst imaginable treatment of women, however Nana, although incredibly sexualized, was an equal member in her relationship with Karou. It shows the real development of the feelings between these two characters and displays BDSM as a relationship between partners. I know this not a media of western culture, but as I read your goals, I thought of this manga and the many people who recommended it as a positive look at BDSM.

As far as positive depictions

As far as positive depictions of female submissiveness are concerned, Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series is amazing. Though the main character is masochistic, she is also an adventuress/spy/general heroine.

Yay!

My partner and I have just started seriously exploring BDSM in our relationship. I'm a feminist and it took me a long time to reconcile my submissive sexual play with my feminist beliefs. But, through more reading, I've learned that that conflict was generated by media myths, not the actual practices of BDSM, which are all about consent, respect, and openness. I hated Roiphe's piece. I am having the best sex of my life as a submissive, and I really look forward to a full, feminist account of kink. I wish I felt more comfortable being open/public about it, but I don't (hence the pseudonym).

feminism and kink go hand-in-hand for me

As a young, extremely sexual feminist, I have found way more positive things come from my interest in kink and the bdsm community than I have from any repressive anti-porn/anti-female-sexuality teachings. I have always struggled with being able to say no to men (growing up in a society where I am taught to not have a say in what happens to my body) and that I shouldn't want to be sexual, but I should want to let men use me sexually for their enjoyment. By exploring my curiosities in kink I was taught what it really meant to have control over MY BODY for once. Sure, I'm a switch so that means more often than not I am being submissive to a girl or a guy, but the submissive person is always the one ultimately controlling the sexual acts. The dom can't do a thing that the sub doesn't want done to them. And despite how it could look or feel for some people, being a sub at 16 was really where I learned how to relax and enjoy myself in bed, how to look out for myself and understand what I liked being done to me and what I didn't. I learned how it felt to every now and then want to stop, and it was very empowering for me to speak up when I had to speak up, and then watch as my dom immediately stopped whatever I didn't like or couldn't handle and silently hold me, waiting patiently to hear what was done wrong and what he could do better (if anything). I'll tell you what's really damaging to feminism- pretending women aren't sexual and don't crave kink. Even pretending teenage girls aren't sexual or not allowing them to be sexual. There was no way I could speak up when a popular guy who I didn't want touching me was fondling me in the back of his car at 14- it would have been to awkward and strange and accusatory and uncomfortable to say no to them. I love the BDSM community because now I know how to confidently say no. I know the difference between sexual pleasure and sexual pressure. I'm telling you, the revolution for some girls (like me) starts between our legs.

I love this. I have not been

I love this. I have not been sure how to think about or address many such issues and it's nice to see I'm not alone.

I know Catherine already

I know Catherine already knows this because she's interviewed me, but I figured I'd share with readers that my book "The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn" is now available. It includes a glossary with a lot of these terms, plus essays and stuff.

This blog sounds fantastic. I

This blog sounds fantastic. I identify as both a feminist and as a sexual submissive/masochist, and it's something that I've struggled with a lot and am just now coming to terms with. I'm always excited to find more information from fellow kinky feminists!

A Dangerous Method

While it isn't perfect, I felt as though the recent movie "A Dangerous Method" gave an ultimately empathetic picture of female submission. SPOILERS:

Sabina Spielrein, first Jung's patient, later also his lover and finally an accomplished psychologist in her own right, struggles with her sexual desire for pain and humiliation. She and Jung both initially assume that Spielrein's kink itself is the cause of her distress, but the later part of the film seems to imply that she becomes happy and healthy by taking ownership of it.

Movies

I completely agree about Dangerous Method (disclaimer: I think anything David Cronenberg directs is fascinating and thought provoking). Any thoughts on Dead Ringers and Crash?

Great idea

There are a lot of myths that need to be busted about BDSM....

great idea! I agree that

great idea! I agree that there are many myths about BDSM and I am looking forward to busting them here

scenes

Not all scenes are scripted, with a certain set of bdsm activities pre arranged. Quite a few of us do NOT script scenes, and what is to be done, and to whom. This would fall more under the heading of roleplay, in my opinion.

Live Webcam Domination

I enjoyed your article and think it is great in helping newcomers explore their own kinks. I have been on the fetish scene for a while and now do live webcam shows where I perform many dominant acts. Many of my slaves wish nothing more than to pull out their wallet and throw their cash at me. Do you think this makes me a whore? Because I feel more like an artist or an entertainer during my cam shows.

Sounds great!

Just stumbled upon this & looking forward to reading the other articles as soon as I have time. The whole '50 Shades' phenomenon has been amusing to watch unfold: vanilla friends feigning shock at the contents & me thinking 'oh please! If only you knew what it's really like!'
As a female kinkster with a kinky on-line business, I find the psychology behind what drives our fetishes quite fascinating to say the least.
I'm hoping your blog will explode a few myths... :-)

BDSM myths

are really too much ! And after 50 shades it's going from bad to worse...