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.
If Farley had openly accused sadomasochists of not conforming to the dogmas of her particular brand of radical feminism, then she had been correct. But this is not what she is doing. Instead, she’s exploiting mainstream society’s contempt for BDSM in an attempt to establish her very special discourse as if it was a objective reality or consensus viewpoint. She’s establishing a world view where society itself is “sadomasochistic” and where her own brand of radicalism is the ONLY valid resistance against mainstream society. Lets take a look at the remaining four points.
2. Sadomasochism is love and trust, not domination and annihilation.
Good relationships, sadomasochistic and vanilla (conventional/mainstream) alike, are based on love and trust. Of course, there are also bad relationships. There are also sexual relations that are based on mutual lust rather then love. Such a relationship can still be mutual and non-abusive if it contains enough trust and respect.
Farley’s examples are not even examples, merely shallow propaganda. David Koresh was a destructive religious cult leader, not a sadomasochist. Of course HIS kind of dominance was bad – and so was his heterosexuality and masculinity. If he is being to be used as an example of sadomasochism being bad on a general level, then he can just as well be used as an example of heterosexuality being bad on a general level, or of men being bad on a general level. Then again, there are radical feminists who would agree with that kind of argument.
Farley also uses some sexual fantasies as examples. And indeed, these particular fantasies certainly do not seem loving. Then again, they are fantasies. The love and trust is not about the fantasies themselves, but about how they are handled. Also, there are a lot of sadomasochistic fantasies that are very much about love, and many heterosexual and homosexual fantasies that have nothing to do with love.
4. Sadomasochism is consensual; no one gets hurt if they don’t want to get hurt. No one has died from sadomasochistic “scenes.”
Regardless of her sexuality, a victim of abuse is a victim period, not a masochist. She may or may not ALSO be a masochist, but this is entirely beside the point. By the definitions that sadomasochists typically use, abuse (sadistic or otherwise) is not sadomasochistic. The word sadomasochism include the word masochism, and this word implies that the person on the receiving end is there as a masochist, not as a victim.
Thus, BDSM and sadomasochistic sex can never be abusive, but only in the same way as vanilla lovemaking can never be abusive: If it turns abusive, then it is no longer lovemaking.
Of course, there are many sexual relations – vanilla and BDSM alike – that have started out consensual, but later turned abusive. This is a real problem, but it doesn’t men that all sadists (in the BDSM sense of the word) are abusers, and it does not mean that all heterosexual men are abusers either.
Furthermore, there are people who have died from vanilla lovemaking, so of course there are also people who have died from consensual BDSM play. Heart attacks are a common cause in both cases, but when it comes to advanced forms of BDSM there is also the issue of people being inexperienced and lacking proper safety education. Just as with mainstream sexuality, porn is NOT a good teacher for how to do it in real life. Even in its advanced forms, BDSM can be LESS dangerous then vanilla sex – but only if people know what they are doing.
Deeper in her argument, Farley practically claims that it is impossible to consent to BDSM – that the masochist is a brainwashed victim who does not know what she really want or an addict unable to say no. While a convenient excuse to disqualify the experiences of women who don’t share Farley’s dogma, it is simply not true for masochists in general, regardless of gender. (Farley’s argument seem to assume that the submissive is always female and the dominant is always male.) Of course there are individual masochists and victims of manipulative sadists who fit this stereotype, just like there are destructive vanilla relationships that contain addiction or cultlike tendencies.
6. Sadomasochistic pornography has no relationship to the sadomasochistic society we live in. “If it feels good, go with it.” “We create our own sexuality.”
Mainstream society is most definitely not sadomasochistic in any definition of “sadomasochism” that EITHER the sadomasochists themselves OR the mainstream society would agree with. Farley is taking theoretical constructs of radical feminism for objective reality here.
10. Sadomasochism is political dissent. It is progressive and even “transgressive” in that it breaks the rules of the dominant sexual ideology.
Seen from a non-totalitarian perspective, this statement contains an obvious truth. Although sadomasochism, just like homosexuality, is becoming more and more accepted, it is still far from mainstream.
To deny this, one must reduce reality to two groups. On one side, the one and only true resistance (in this case radical feminists) and on the other side the evil conspiracy and all its minions, including all resistances that do not conform to the orthodoxy of the one and only true resistance.
Of course, this only covers the matter of dissent. Far from all dissent is constructive, progressive or transgressive in any good sense of any such word. If one can reasonably consider BDSM and sadomasochism to be good things depends on your point of view.
In BDSM, dominance and submission is optional and not based on gender. One can be dominant, submissive, both or neither, regardless of whether one is a man, woman, intersexual or a gender-undefined queer-person. Being a dominant doesn’t give you any right to dominate someone who doesn’t want to be dominated by you or in a way that he doesn’t want to be dominated. Being a submissive gives you a right to chose who to submit to, when, how and to what extent.
From a queer-feminist perspective, this is very liberating and a useful tool in the struggle for freedom and diversity. From most other feminist perspective, it is neutral: Neither a good thing and a help, nor a bad thing and a threat.
From a totalitarian conservative or radical feminist perspective however, it is inherently evil. It is, by definition, a lie – Or at least a contradiction in terms. One core belief shared by patriarchal conservatism and radical feminism is that men are, by definition, dominant/oppressive, while women are, again by definition, submissive/oppressed. While the conservatives consider it good and the radical feminists consider it evil, both sides agree that That’s Just The Way It Is. Thus, the dominant women and submissive men of BDSM must be explained away for their worldview to remain intact. And an all-out attack is always the easiest defense.