Thinking Kink: Playing With Race in BDSM

As with the issue of female sexual submission, racial imagery in a BDSM context is an issue apt to cause heated debates, so I want to include two sides of the argument. Today, I'll examine the objections to the use of racialized imagery in kink, and in my next post I'll look at the responses by those who defend it.

Tired of being reduced to stereotypes of "sassy" best friends, asexual "mammies" or hypersexual "hoes," black feminists have long defended black women's right to be counted as both sexy and sexual, without being accused of racial disloyalty. But when we add domination, whips, and chains to the mix, things get more complicated. Hardly suprising, given that much of the language surrounding BDSM involves those loaded words "master" and "slave." We might just be able to stomach the sight of Rihanna writhing around for Adam Levine's pleasure in the video to Maroon 5's "If I Never See Your Face Again," but when Levine grabs Rihanna by the hair and jerks her head back at the end of the clip, we're reminded that, for many of us, there's nothing sexy about a white man physically abusing a black woman.

Recently released novel Wench  by Dolen Perkins Valdez depicts the pre-Civil War abuses of black female slaves who were raped, beaten, and sexually enslaved by their masters. Even the novel's gentler male characters whose slaves sleep with them "consensually" make the readers' skin crawl. How anyone could indulge in behaviors that don't just glorify but actively eroticize this oppression is baffling to some. When Snoop Dogg/Lion appeared with two black women on leashes at the 2003 MTV awards, condemnations mostly focused on the way the women were being treated as objects and subordinated to a man. The connection with slavery and racism didn't really surface until Justin Timberlake was seen yanking Ciara around on a chain and using her as human furniture in the video for "Love Sex Magic" in 2010. Commenters felt that sexualizing such an ugly echo of slavery was obscene: "our ancestors are crying inside."

While many kinksters would immediately respond with the defense that BDSM is about playing with the forbidden and taboo, and pushing boundaries, this is insufficient even for some black people within the scene. Chupoo, a black submissive, says, "I can't do race play because I have people in my family who had to submit to that, where they had no choices. It's too close to home for American black people." She adds that, while she can accept the transgressive appeal of erotic language that seems to degrade women, she cannot accept scenarios that do the same to black people: "The race thing is really a lot deeper."

The language of choice used to defend race play does ring hollow when we consider that the BDSM scene itself is not immune to dubious racial politics. Researcher Margot Weiss found that the Bay Area BDSM community was overwhelmingly white, but its participants considered themselves anti-racist, feeling that "their play [was] divorced from and irrelevant to racial inequality." Weiss wonders if this neo-liberal "colorblindness" actually just salves white people's consciences with "the fantasy of an escape from racism without giving up the material benefits of whiteness."

For Weiss, it's important to go beyond freedom of choice arguments. Is the First Amendment really sufficient excuse to eroticize the terms "master" and "slave," and even engage in scenes such as "slave auctions"? For some, absolutely not. "Jonathon," a commenter on Racialicious, says if you want to engage in race play, "that's your business. But when you take that imagery out of the BDSM club and broadcast it all over the world, you are exposing people to something that they may find highly objectionable. It shows NO RESPECT to those who have suffered."

Perhaps this goes to the heart of the matter: Private play is one thing, but putting eroticized sexual and racial violence out there in pop culture is quite another. As commenters on my previous post noted, rough sex can be great in the bedroom, but inevitably grows misogynistic on TV or in porn. If BDSM practitioners are obliged to be sensitive to their audience at a play party (one of Margot Weiss' interviewees muses that he might indulge in race play in private, "but in public, no fucking way"), should our media be held more accountable for glorifying images of white men being sexually aggressive to black women? How much responsibility should we demand of artists like Rihanna and Ciara—if any—to be cautious of such imagery? Responses to these questions, and some very different views on the matter, coming next post...

Previously: Gay S&M in Pop Music, Then and Now, The Politics of BDSM Fashion

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Los Angeles -- Viva la Difference!

In Los Angeles, we have a diverse scene that includes the wonderful Master Orpheus, his wife Indigo, and the rest of his Cirque de Sade leather family. Here, men and women of color are powerful, plentiful and well-loved members of the BDSM community. One of the biggest BDSM clubs -- Lair de Sade -- is owned by Kane, a man of color. Could we have more diversity? Of course! And we'd love to see it. Meanwhile, we consider ourselves very blessed.

Tricky

This is a thoughtful article. It brought up a question for me... Ms. Scott posits that Rihanna and Ciara are potentially misusing their power to advertise a subordinate dynamic (historically suggestive) between a black woman and a white man. I see the complications in this. And at the same time, argument seems to assume that Rihanna and Ciara are in a position of disempowerment and victimization. This assumption itself seems objectionable and tricky. It resonates with that particular flavor of feminism that is anti-bdsm (or is opposed to bdsm play which involves the submission & objectification of women) because there is a belief that the submissive is truly disempowered, and not participating in a consensual act of play. It appears that MORE is required of black women in popular culture to be impeccable representations of their sex and race, which must be utterly exhausting. The whole thing seems pretty damn loaded. Still, I'm a little tired of folks treating consensually submissive women as victims to a more empowered other.

-Antigone Ray

Thank you for your thoughts

- I will definitely be writing more in my next post about the issue of black people being expected to 'uphold their race' at all times..

"I'm a little tired of folks treating consensually submissive women as victims to a more empowered other."
- I think you will appreciate this previous post on why feminism and submission are, despite various arguments to the contrary, compatible:

http://bitchmagazine.org/post/thinking-kink-female-submissive-pop-cultur...

"And at the same time,

"And at the same time, argument seems to assume that Rihanna and Ciara are in a position of disempowerment and victimization."

I do wonder how much power women in the entertainment industry retain over their image and the roles they take on in public.

I apologize for

I apologize for oversimplifying here, but ...

As a woman who identifies as a sexual submissive, I'd like to say that there is nothing wrong with ANY sexual behavior that a woman CONSENSUALLY engages in, even if it may be considered depraved, and as long as no one is being harmed.

If she likes it, who cares what color her skin is?

I'm a little confused. Are

I'm a little confused. Are you addressing "race play" or white Dominants playing with black submissives? As a black woman who is also a submissive I have had white Doms and race play never came up. Ever.

The treatment of women in RacePlay BDSM as victims

I am sick and tired of the racsim, purportrated, against black women, by people who make articles such as this. This is really the most advanced form of racism and the most insidous. People like the author and many of the commentors, are the bleeding heart sort who feel any woman who doesnt agree with their androgynous and likely racist views of power exchange, then they are some how victims of myisogyne and white racism. You can tell that such views are racists, because when a black domme engages in raceplay with a white male, no two cents are made of it with articles like this, yet such things happen all the time. People should not have to conform to any specfic standards, in who they are or what they do, people who state other wise are merely bigoted because the people they talk about are not like them.

race in bdsm

Well whats the problem bdsm is open to every one at the end of it all we keep bdsm xclose to our selves because people would take the piss or just avoid us so how is being an ethicnic origion bad like foot ball fans some are racist but if it was not for them our big teams would be shit why do you think England cant win these big teams most of the players are not English. ON a much brighter note i have been in to bdsm for ages and mate some great people but have also been a member of endless BDSM chat / dating sites most have people who are looking for just normal relationships????? but the one i have joined over 6mths a go is compleatly diffrent its not a massive site its preety new but do have lots of guys for a new site the best bit it is FREE FOR WOMEN go on totalfantasydating.com sign up you wont regreat it .

Hair Pulling

You wrote "...when Levine grabs Rihanna by the hair and jerks her head back at the end of the clip, we're reminded that, for many of us, there's nothing sexy about a white man physically abusing a black woman."

I think you're being a little hypersensitive here. Many men like to pull women's hair. Many women like getting their hair pulled. I wouldn't consider hair pulling to be abuse...it's at about the same level of booty slapping, only just a notch more hardcore.

Anyway, this entire article is about white men and black women for some reason. It's worth mentioning that white WOMEN and black MEN are pairing up like crazy these days, and no one would bat an eyelash at a black man pulling a white woman's hair. No one besides certain white men, that is. Most women wouldn't care.

I arrived at this article because I enjoy sexually dominating women, and I'm a white man who generally pairs up with white women. I generally avoid black women for the very reason that it would seem "wrong" for me to dominate them. This might go a long way towards explaining the gender imbalance when it comes to interracial dating. I was actually more interested in info on BDSM relationships between white men and Asian and Hispanic women. I'm down with interracial sex and I find other races attractive, but I can't playfully smack black women around because of the history between our races. I'm curious about whether it is only "socially acceptable" for white men to dominate white women. I wonder if Asian and Hispanic women would be as willing to let me choke them, spank them, pull their hair, etc. as white women are.

Can't it just be sexy?

I really disagree with the opinions in this article. I feel like some things are just a primal, sexual connection. And I feel that I can feel that connection with any race of man. It goes beyond race and into who you are in your soul. Sex can be such a fundamentally human experience and so what if a black women likes to be dominated(and why are people obsessed with black female sexuality)? It seems like many people who are quoted here and the author have a real problem with black female celebrities pushing sexual boundaries.
When Adam Levine pulls Rihanna's hair I think it's hot. I know that some words may go too far, but a man being dominant has an appeal to a lot of women, not just white women.
-a black woman who likes her hair pulled