The following quotation is from an essay that doesn’t just tear apart some awful BDSM stereotypes, but also makes a great case for coming together as a community and living our lives without shame … all in the context of parenting. It’s called “S/M Fetish People Who Choose To Parent”, and was printed in the anthology Speaking Sex To Power by one of my all-time heroes: the brilliant and inimitable Patrick Califia.
The state does seem to have a vested interest in preventing anyone who is sexually different from raising a child. Over the years, I’ve heard many stories of custody battles involving polyamorous people, pagans, transsexuals, sex workers, and members of the BDSM-fetish community, not just lesbians and gay men. The people who go through these battles usually do it alone, and they usually lose. But that story can change when there is enough publicity to generate community support.
In early 1995, members of the BDSM-fetish community in the US and Canada were appalled to learn that a couple in the scene had had their children taken away. The Canadian fetish magazine “Boudoir Noir” established a defense fund for the unlucky pair, known as the Houghtons. As we had for the Spanner defendants, the community banded together and raised enough money to allow Steve and Selina Houghton to hire a decent defense attorney. Selina ultimately pled guilty to a disorderly conduct charge, and her husband to one count of endangering the welfare of a minor, a Class E misdemeanor. They were also ordered to continue to receive family counseling …. Although they did not receive jail sentences, their privacy and home life had been badly damaged by the intrusive actions of the police. When the Houghtons got their kids back, they moved suddenly, disappearing from the scene, probably to protect themselves from further persecution.
This was originally posted on September 28, 2010 over at Feministe, where it picked up a fair number of comments. I’m posting it here today partly because I’ve been reflecting on my identity as a feminist and partly because there is an upcoming Chicago workshop on abuse in the BDSM community, to be held at a local dungeon and facilitated by Sarah Sloane. The workshop will take place on February 12, 2011; feel free to email me for more information, or keep track of my Time Out Chicago “Love Bites” blog, where I will post a wide-release public description once it’s available.
* S&M is wicked, * abnormal, * a sign of mental or emotional instability, * inherently abusive, * or even antifeminist.
Given this climate, it’s not surprising that two things almost always happen when BDSM and abuse come up:
1) People of all genders who are abused are often unwilling to report. People of all genders who are abused within BDSM relationships tend to be particularly unwilling to report. Victim-blaming is already rampant in mainstream society — just imagine what happens to, for example, a woman who has admitted that she enjoys being consensually slapped across the face, if she attempts to report being raped. And that’s assuming the abuse survivor is willing to report in the first place; ze may prefer not to negotiate the minefield of anti-SM stereotypes ze will be up against, ze may be afraid of being outed, etc.
2) Members of the BDSM community sometimes push back against real or perceived anti-SM stigma by talking about how abuse is rare within the BDSM community. This BDSM blog post and comments claim that not only is abuse within the community rare, but abusive BDSM relationships seem more likely to happen outside the community. In fact, if you look then you can find posts from submissive women who found that getting into the BDSM community, being exposed to its ideals and concepts, helped them escape or understand their past abusive relationships.
I tend to think that #2 is a really good point — particularly the bit about how abusive BDSM relationships are more likely to happen outside the community, due in part to lack of resources and support for survivors. For this reason, I tend to stress the role of the community in positive BDSM experiences, and I encourage newcomers to seek out their local community. But lots of people don’t have access to a local community at all, especially if they’re not in a big city. Plus, lots of people have trouble enjoying their local community for whatever reason, perhaps because they have nothing in common with local S&Mers aside from sexuality, or because they don’t have time to integrate into a whole new subculture.
Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy in which people have multiple lovers, and are honest with each other about doing so. In May 2010, I wrote a post called “Am I Evolving Away From Monogamy?” in which I talked about my urge towards polyamory, and my confusion about that urge. I talked about my previous dislike for polyamory, and I talked about how new it is for me to feel like I want to be polyamorous. I talked quite a lot, really, but a week later, I started feeling like I hadn’t covered everything … or like I just wasn’t correct about some things I’d written.
But how could I be incorrect? I was, after all, writing about myself and my own feeings. How could I be wrong about what I myself was thinking?
I guess I realized quickly that I’d claimed things about my past self that weren’t quite true. That didn’t acknowledge my own complexity. For example, I wrote that although I’ve toyed with polyamory in the past, my most recent poly leanings came up only because I got my heart broken by a gentleman who I sometimes refer to as Mr. Inferno. I theorized that perhaps I’m just scared of commitment. While it is certainly true that I’m not big on commitment these days, I later recalled that actually — at the beginning of my relationship with Mr. Inferno, I had some doubts about being monogamous. I was monogamous because he was very sure that was what he wanted, but I remember a point when I thought about trying to negotiate something different.
Polyamorous people are stereotyped as being commitment-phobic. I know all about that stereotype — in fact, I have angrily defended my poly friends from it for years! (Even when I was very fiercely monogamous, I got so mad when people who don’t know anything about polyamory said ignorant things about my poly friends!) Yet I have to watch out for that stereotype’s influence on me anyway. When I forgot that I’d considered polyamory with Mr. Inferno, was I being influenced by that stereotype? Or was I just missing Mr. Inferno a lot that day, and wishing I could talk to him, and maybe therefore remembering him as more influential in my life than he actually was? Or … what?
I’ve been thinking a lot about “mainstream” sex versus “alternative” sex. In the S&M community we have a term, “vanilla”, which basically indicates “people who aren’t into BDSM”. But is there really a bright line between BDSM and vanilla? Probably not. Most everyone has their own specific sexual preferences, and I tend to see BDSM vs. vanilla as a continuum rather than an either-or. (Some theorists, such as the amazing Dr. Marty Klein, argue that assuming the existence of a bright line between kink and vanilla hurts both vanilla people and kinksters. There’s a lot to say about that, but I’ll save it for another day.)
Lately, I’ve been asking a lot of sexually experienced guys I know for some explicit details about their experiences with women. And frankly, it sounds like the vast majority of women — based on this anecdotal evidence — like at least a little bit of pain. One of my most promiscuous male friends was actually unnerved by this. “It bothers me that all the women I’ve slept with seem to enjoy a little bit of pain,” he insisted, with a shudder. He then added, “It’s just creepy,” which goes to show that even being friends with me won’t cure a person of their BDSM stigma.
It sounds like I, as a very heavy submissive masochist, am outside the mainstream more because of my preferred degree of intensity than anything else (although I also enjoy a lot of S&M paraphernalia that seems to be considered inherently extreme by the mainstream, like whips and needles and stuff). In other words, love bites apparently sound appealing to most people; it’s just that the kind of love bites I like most, which ideally leave bruises for over a week, aren’t.