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Thinking Kink: Moving Beyond Abuse with BDSM

[Trigger warning for discussions of rape and assault]

"Why does she sing 'S&M' when she has been physically abused?"  Bitch commenter, referring to Rihanna

"Having the shit beat out of your face and sexual kinks are completely different ... I'm confused on how people can relate the two ... this has nothing to do with that part of her life." YouTube user JittlersJinx, commenting on Rihanna's "S&M" video

BDSM and abuse make uncomfortable bedfellows to say the least. Even if we agree that consensual BDSM itself is different from physical, sexual or emotional abuse, our collective tendency to treat victims of violation with kid gloves can lead to more silencing. If you've experienced abuse and you like BDSM, the two are immediately connected in many people's minds. It's difficult for any abuse victims who wish to be consensually dominated/humiliated/hurt in the bedroom to escape the assumption that they are only doing so because the abuse has "warped" their sexuality in some way. Hence the discomfort many felt watching Rihanna play around with ropes, latex, and ball gags in her video for "S&M"—the spectre of her abuse at the hands of then-partner Chris Brown was still too fresh in people's minds.

Last post, I looked at how using BDSM to work through abuse can be a valid and healthy form of catharsis. Today I want to think about those who participate in BDSM separately from their troubled past, not because of it. I came across the simplest and best explanation of how a person can go on to enjoy BDSM after sexual or physical abuse in the second book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire. In it, heroine Lisbeth Salander—brutally raped by her guardian Nils Bjurman in the first book—agrees to a "play" session with a female partner who wants to dominate her. Aware that the reader will think, "But what about the horrendous violation she has endured, surely this must bring back terrible memories of that?," Larsson addresses the uncomfortable: "Salander could not help thinking that this was similar to the way Nils Bloody Creep Bjurman had tied her up two years ago." Then in one, blunt isolated sentence, he reminds us: "The similarities ended there."

Larsson qualifies the difference between assault and consensual bondage. "With Mimmi, Salander felt only lustful anticipation. She was compliant when Mimmi rolled her over on her back... She was more excited than she had been in a long time. She shut her eyes beneath the blindfold and let Mimmi set the pace." Rather than let the ghost of his character's horrific rape hang over this sex scene, Larsson acknowledges and thus releases the phantom. He also emphasises consent, communication, and pleasure—the cornerstones of good sex which pop culture so often fails to depict.

There's no point skirting around the aesthetic similarities between real-life abuse and the scenes that are played out in BDSM. But the tendency to fixate on those, rather than the crucial differences, is exactly what fuels misperceptions of BDSM. It makes it too easy for abuse to be covered up under the guise of just "kinky sex," and it lays genuine kinksters open to accusations of horrendous violations even when none have taken place. The 1990 Spanner trial shows how violence during consensual BDSM gets confused with actual abuse by those judging from the outside. If the gay men accused of "degrading and vicious" behavior towards each other had sustained their injuries during a soccer game or a boxing match, no one would have deemed it non-consensual violence.

Perhaps, at least in the case of women who want to be dominated, people's discomfort originates from a society that still struggles to ascribe genuine agency to women. What, she's choosing what she wants in the bedroom? Must be an oversexed slut. What, she's asking for violent stuff during sex? Must be an abuse victim. God forbid a woman actually make a sexual decision that is attributed to nothing but her knowing her own mind, body, and desires.

And let's also remember how often we forget to divorce the art from the artist—no one apart from Robyn "Rihanna" Fenty herself knows whether she likes, or has even participated in, S&M. But because as a famous woman she is deemed to have surrendered her right to an unexamined life, her behavior is constantly assessed and judged, even through such dubious media as her music videos. Many cynical kinksters will dismiss the "S&M" video as a "vanilla" entertainer hijacking BDSM imagery to make a quick buck, and they may well be right. What's important to defend though, is Rihanna and everyone else's right to do whatever they wish in the bedroom, without their pasts being dragged up and used to pathologize and silence them.

Previously: Is BDSM Therapy "A Dangerous Method"?, Lesbian BDSM and the Male Gaze

Image from Wikimedia Commons user Ilikeriri

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Comments

9 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Full people with full histories

"Today I want to think about those who participate in BDSM separately from their troubled past, not because of it."

As though we have a choice of which parts of our present are enacted out of our past experiences and which are entirely our own agency. We are beings with pasts, narratives, stories, and very often unconsciously so. We don't get to just put those pasts on a shelf when we feel like it. "This drink is totally unlike the ones I had when I was binging nightly. Back then I drank beer, and this is a top-shelf martini." Sounds a little too convenient when the sentiment is moved to another context.

Sure, we all have pasts...

Sure, we all have pasts... but we can't identify a direct causal relationship between our distant histories and our present selves any more that we can assume they are completely unrelated.

Thank you for a wonderful,

Thank you for a wonderful, thoughtful piece. I actually just had a heated discussion/argument with a friend of mine on this very subject. He had a hard time reconciling actual, physical abuse and BDSM practices. I plan on sending this to him so that maybe he can understand my perspective a little better.

You're welcome.

I'm glad you found the piece useful and thought-provoking. It might also be useful for your friend to read one of my previous posts, 'Debunking BDSM myths' -
http://bitchmagazine.org/post/thinking-kink-myths-BDSM-feminist-magazine...

Catherine x

People make similar

People make similar assumptions about abuse survivors who are Dominants, too. "Oh, you were abused, so *of course* you want to be in control now." You can't win no matter where you identify on the spectrum.

I am a former abuse victim

I am a former abuse victim who can't separate BDSM or bondage or role play and abuse. But that's me. I don't visit that on other people.

What I defend is everyone's ability to be who they are and to engage (or not engage) in whatever sexual activities they have made a conscious and knowing (and uncoerced) decision about.

For me, my distaste of all of that may be related to my abuse history OR it may be related to I just don't like it and might not like it even if I were not abused.

The important thing is that my motivation to like it or not like it is no one's business but mine. No one has the right to tell me or anyone else "Oh you like this, so that has to do with your abuse..." or "You don't like this so it has to be because of your abuse."

What I don't like are labels...you like S&M? Must be an oversexed slut. You don't like S&M? Must be a frigid man hater.

You know what? I like what I like and you don't need to understand it or analyze it or label it. If more people spent less time in everyone else's bedrooms, everyone (men and women) would be better off.

thank you for sharing

your experience and views. I definitely agree in defending "everyone's ability to be who they are and to engage (or not engage) in whatever sexual activities they have made a conscious and knowing (and uncoerced) decision about." I hope you appreciate that this blog series is not implying that participation in BDSM makes anyone 'better' or 'worse' than anyone else. It is simply focusing on one aspect of human sexuality which has become increasingly popular in the media, and looking at the way it is represented.

I hope you can also see that this piece supports the view that "No one has the right to tell me or anyone else "Oh you like this, so that has to do with your abuse..." or "You don't like this so it has to be because of your abuse."". My defense of Rihanna is answering back to those who judge her present and future actions based upon one abusive incident in her past.

BDSM safeties

My partner and I have both been sexually assaulted in the past and yet we both enjoy BDSM. (We've never switched and I'm the submissive.) In our play though, because of our past our safety word is literally "no". If I have an issue with anything happening to me play immediately stops and after we've put everything away we actually sit and discuss what I didn't like about the scene so that it won't happen again.

Of course this has stopped play a few times when I've cried "oh!" and he misunderstood. But still, I know that we both feel safer with that being our safety word since we respect it and it was disrespected so many times before. It's almost self-affirming in a way.

I do not believe that either of us play because of our past. We play in spite of it. I cannot speak for my partner but I know I owned erotica about BDSM before my sexual assault so at least for myself this has been a long standing fantasy that I'm now able to play out.

"Many cynical kinksters will

"Many cynical kinksters will dismiss the "S&M" video as a "vanilla" entertainer hijacking BDSM imagery to make a quick buck, and they may well be right. What’s important to defend though, is Rihanna and everyone else's right to do whatever they wish in the bedroom, without their pasts being dragged up and used to pathologize and silence them."

I think those kinksters are spot on. And I agree it's Rihanna's and everyone else's right to do whatever in the bedroom, bathroom or anywhere else, despite their past, the rest of us have a right so call it hypocritical and say WTF?