In 2009, I was asked to write a series of articles at the blog More Inches. This series is about the argument made my radical feminist Melissa Farley as she condemns the sexual minority often referred to as sadomasochists or BDSM:ers. As I now republish this series on my own blog, I keep the division into three parts. These are Totalitarian Categorism in Radical Feminism, The Strawman Sadomasochist and Sadomasochism versus Radical Feminist dogma.
To some extent, all ten points listed in part one are to some extent a “Strawman Political” version of sadomasochists. In this part I will focus on six points where this “Strawman sadomasochist” is the main problem, while the next part will instead deal with the four points where the main problem is radical feminist dogmatism.
1. Pain is pleasure; humiliation is enjoyable; bondage is liberation.
For some people, the RIGHT kind of pain in the right degree and context can indeed be enjoyable. Same thing goes for humiliation and for being tied up with ropes – which is what the word “bondage” refers to in a BDSM context. (BDSM stands for sadomasochistic sexual practices: Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission, Sadism & Masochism.)
During my decades of experience with the BDSM scene, I have *never* encountered a person who claims that all pain is enjoyable. However, I have often encountered this stereotype among people who are prejudiced against sadomasochists and their BDSM practices.
It is also worth noticing that this first point of Farley’s is homage to the novel 1984 and the propaganda of the evil regime in that novel: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” The problem here is not the homage itself, but that she attributes it to the sadomasochists. The strawman sadomasochist she is “exposing” have more in common with the villains of children’s comic books, standing on mountaintops shouting “Muahaha, I’m EVIL!” to the raging thunderstorm, then it has in common with actual people. I assume that Farley has made up the ten points herself, incorrectly presenting her prejudice against sadomasochists as if it was the actual opinions of actual sadomasochists. If the list actually do come from someone who claim to be a sadomasochist, and Farley has not twisted the words or ripped them out of context, then Farley has indeed been extremely lucky with finding a source that is easy to mock.
3. Sadomasochism is not racist and anti Semitic even though we “act” like slave owners and enslaved Africans, Nazis and persecuted Jews.
Most sadomasochists do NOT play such games, and the small minority that do play them have them as role-playing games, not as expressions of actual opinions. If someone wears a Soviet uniform to one masquerade or fetish party, a Nazi uniform to the next and a American army uniform to the third, it means that she thinks the uniforms look cool – not that she have militaristic opinions but are confused about her loyalties. Furthermore, uniforms worn at parties are almost always officer uniforms. Someone who truly respects a certain army is unlikely to pretend to have officer status in it without having earned the rank for real.
5. Sadomasochism is only about sex. It doesn’t extend into the rest of the relationship.
The implied message here is much different from the literal message. When sadomasochists talk about limiting their BDSM to scenes or having it as a part of everyday life, they are talking about consensual expressions on the terms of everyone involved.
However, Farley implies that sadomasochism is inherently abusive: That an extension into the rest of the relationship would automatically be an abusive extension.
While manipulative individuals can certainly use “BDSM” as their excuse to be a jerk, this is no better then the “because I’m a man”/”because I’m a woman” excuse, and it does not say anything about BDSM as such.
Furthermore, the dichotomy is false. It is not either “only about sex” or “extends into the relationship”. Instead, it is either “limited to sessions” or “extends into the relationship”. The “limited to sessions” variant doesn’t have to be all about sex, it can also be an expression of affection, love, or similar.
7. Lesbians “into sadomasochism” are feminists, devoted to women, and a women-only lesbian community. Lesbian pornography is “by women, for women.”
This statement is often true, assuming that one defines lesbian as a woman who is only attracted to women. However, many radical feminists have quite different definitions of lesbianism, so that they include heterosexual women who chose celibacy for moral/political reasons and only share their lives with each other, but exclude many actual lesbians on the ground of not being radical feminists.
Farley argues that certain individual sadomasochists are bisexual rather then homosexual, and this might very well be true. However, there are also female sadomasochists who are exclusively attracted to women.
8. Since lesbians are superior to men, we can “play” with sadomasochism in a liberating way that heterosexuals can not.
Does this argument even exist at all, or is it squarely Farley’s own construct?
The opinion that lesbians are superior to heterosexuals is sometimes attributed to (and in some cases expressed by) radical feminists, but this is the only time I have ever seen this opinion attributed to sadomasochists.
Some feminist sadomasochists do worry about that heterosexual sadomasochistic couples with male dominant and female submissive might reinforce misogynous gender roles. This worry is often not extended to same-sex couples and heterosexual couples with female dominant and male submissive. However this is about cultural/structural pressure, and has nothing to do with superiority.
9. Reenacting abuse heals abuse. Sadomasochism heals emotional wounds from childhood sexual assault.
Again with the generalization, that “sadomasochism” must be either salvation for all or damnation for all. In reality, to most people, it is neither.
Among sadomasochists, a huge majority have NOT been victims of childhood sexual abuse. Thus, in most cases, sadomasochism has potential neither for opening old wounds nor for healing them.
As for the minority who DO have traumas, well: If a certain individual have a certain trauma, then that’s one more thing to be careful about. Sadomasochism can be used in destructive/selfdestructive ways, and that needs to be avoided. However, that doesn’t mean that if a person have some bad memories then that person is automatically selfdestructive or unreliable.
Does Farley’s strawman sadomasochist, who believes that reliving sexual abuse is always a good idea, exist at all? Probably not, and hopefully not. Surely sadomasochists in general can agree that reliving abuse is not for everyone. But let us rephrase into something more nuanced.
“Reenacting abuse in a controlled setting can sometimes help healing the wounds abuse, if done in a non-destructive way where the ‘victim’ doesn’t actually have to take more then she’s comfortable with. Such sadomasochistic play can sometimes heal emotional wounds from sexual assault if done right AND the persons involved are right for it.”
On this issue, there are at least two sides. On one side, those who agree. This side can point out that using heights, spiders et cetera in controlled settings has proven very effective for curing acrophobia, arachnophobia and similar phobias. On the other side, those who believe that such treatment should be left in the hands of neutral trained professionals. Not attempted by friends, much less lovers, and especially not in a sexualized setting.
Even in its more nuanced forms, the idea of using BDSM as a way to heal old wounds remain a controversial issue within the BDSM subculture.
In conclusion, what Farley’s article really shows is that sadomasochists are subjected to prejudice and misrepresentation. The article is one good example, among many.