5 sources of assumptions and stereotypes about S&M

Clarisse Thorn's picture

Why do BDSMers often feel bad about being into S&M? Why do so many of us freak out once we discover our BDSM identity, or live in secret and repress our desires, or write only under false names, or fear openly joining the S&M community, or ….

Well, here’s a particularly sad example of how bad some of us feel. A BDSMer friend works as a therapist who does couples counseling. He once told me about a couple who had some random argument in his office — the argument, apparently, wasn’t even about sex — during which the wife lost her temper and turned away from her husband. “You know what this freak likes?” she snapped, and proceeded to describe her husband’s biggest fetish. Her husband looked humiliated and was quiet.

Now, from the perspective of my kinky counselor friend and my kinky self, the husband’s fetish wasn’t particularly weird — in fact it seems much tamer than, say, my own desire to have needles slid through my skin — but I can see how the fetish would seem weird to the mainstream. More importantly, it was obvious that this poor kinkster’s wife had been using his fetish as her ace in the hole — her secret back-pocket weapon — for quite a long time. Whenever she wanted to shut him up or shame him, she just mentioned his Deep Dark Fetish and he was silenced and shamed.

So. Obviously, there are a lot of poisonous assumptions and stereotypes surrounding S&M. There are so many of them that lots of kinksters have taken them into ourselves: not only do we fear society’s judgment, but we also feel tons of anxiety from internalized social norms.

And yet I’ve come upon people who tell me that the stereotypes around S&M “aren’t that bad”. I’ve had people (even other BDSMers!) tell me that all our anxiety is internal, that society is totally okay with S&M and if we’d just quit indulging our “victim complex” then everything would be fine. In fact, one person read my coming-out story — in which I wrote about the internal struggle and panic I experienced when I came into my BDSM identity — and snidely said that I was “just being dramatic”.

Then there are people who tell me that S&M is “mainstream”, which is just plain ridiculous. I can see the argument that very mild kink has gone mainstream, at least among young liberals: hickeys, silk scarves, mild choking, mild spanking, and furry handcuffs. Yeah, lots of people try those things, and you’d have a hard time finding a (young, white, well-educated) person who condemns them. But you know what’s not mainstream in any group? Needles in one’s back; blood. Screams for mercy; tears. What appalled me, during my coming-out process, was discovering my need for agony. And I assure you, my anxiety and my self-disgust were real. I wasn’t “making it up to be dramatic”.

Apparently, though, giving examples of BDSMers who feel (or felt) awful about ourselves isn’t enough, so I started thinking about how I internalized that disgust. How did I develop my stereotypes of S&M? I can remember people in my teens joking about how I’m so aggressive, I ought to be a dominatrix; I even remember a girl who brought a whip to summer camp and lent it to me for a costume party. And for years before my own awakening, I was aware that some of my friends were into “that stuff”. Given these positive messages, where did I pick up the negative messages? To put it in academic terms: where can I find instances of BDSM stigma?

Here they are:

Source #1) Radical feminists and/or conservative moralists. These examples are easy and obvious, so I’ll cover them first. Famous German feminist Alice Schwarzer has been quoted saying “Female masochism is collaboration!”, and I’ve received email from multiple Germans letting me know that Schwarzer recently published an essay about how BDSM desires don’t exist unless they arise from childhood abuse. (Sorry, Schwarzer, but that’s just not true.) And if you really want to read some sickening hatefulness, you can check out a now-infamous blog post by feminist Nine Deuce in which she asserted that sadists are morally obligated to either repress their sadistic desires, or commit suicide. Thanks, Nine Deuce, I’ll remember that next time I talk to an actual BDSMer who’s considered suicide (such as Jay Wiseman, who recounts his early temptations towards suicide in the kink primer SM101).

As for the moralists, these tend to be the same people who believe widespread acceptance of homosexuality indicates that the Apocalypse is just around the corner, such as Concerned Women For America and Americans For Truth. The money quote is from CWFA: “Homosexual activists have always been the largest supporters of, and the driving force behind, SM perversion among heterosexuals. That is because normal, healthy, monogamous, heterosexual, marital relations are the biggest threat to their ultimate acceptance.” I love how these words not only insinuate a “gay agenda” but also inform us that S&M “perversion” cannot possibly be normal, healthy, monogamous, or heterosexual. (If you’re the type to be amused by these things, you should read this bizarre essay whose author claims that the next step after gay marriage is … S&M marriage. Because, uh, it’s not like BDSMers are already getting married or anything.)

Source #2) Conversation. These examples are anecdotal and therefore questionable, but I do think they’re relevant, so I wanted to get them out of the way. One, I remember from my teens: I wrote a couple stories with rape scenes and someone who read them snidely discussed about my “rape fantasies”. “Really,” he sneered, “I don’t have a problem with your rape fantasies, but do you have to put them out where people can read them?” (Or something like that; it was a long time ago. I remember his tone better than the exact words.) Now, it’s possible that those stories were partly expressing my repressed rape fantasies — but they weren’t presented that way, firstly; and secondly, even if I had been explicitly writing a rape fantasy (rather than a fictional rape scene) then the dude was showing a lot of disgust over something that’s supposedly “mainstream”. I mean, he wouldn’t have said those things if he hadn’t been trying to shame me, right? (I reacted by getting very upset and saying, “I do not have rape fantasies!”; of course he just became gleeful that he’d gotten such a rise out of me.)

My second example is more straightforward. I used to work in a bookstore and one day, while I was sorting the sexuality section, my boss told me that “we don’t carry titles about sadomasochism or any of, you know, that stuff.” I wasn’t entirely sure what “that stuff” is, given that he carried titles about LGBTQ and even (gasp!) polyamory, but I never had the nerve to ask. I also noticed that although my boss turned up his nose at run-of-the-mill S&M books, he stocked a used copy of Wilhelm Stekel’s 1953 psychology text Sadism and Masochism: The Psychology of Hatred and Cruelty. (Stekel was a Freudian, and his analysis shows it; Freud, of course, theorized that S&M arises from childhood abuse.)

Source #3) Ostensibly liberated sexuality books. I’ve written before about how, although I had a rather complete education on sexuality, that education didn’t really cover S&M — certainly not in a positive light. For instance, I don’t recall that my parents’ copy of The Joy Of Sex, which I filched at a tender age, mentioned BDSM.

A more bothersome example is Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, in which Friday collected women’s sexual fantasies and wrote them all up in an effort to show their diversity (ha!). That’s another book that I read at an early age, and it outlined precisely two fantasies with sadomasochistic overtones. One was from a woman who had been raped, who confessed that — although she had hated the experience and hated her rapist — she sometimes fantasized about him sexually. The other was from a woman who had been physically abused as a child, who herself physically abused children as an adult. I remember that I was so appalled, I showed the second fantasy to a friend and said, “God, that’s so sad, isn’t it?” The fantasies of those two women did not turn me on, though I remember that I felt compelled to read them multiple times; but I couldn’t relate to any of the other fantasies in the book, either. I spent years feeling perplexed about my apparent lack of internal sexual fantasy life (not to mention my inability to achieve orgasm). Both of those things changed in my twenties, years into my BDSM adjustment.

And during that BDSM adjustment? I spent ages thinking that I must have been raped or abused and repressed the memories. I mean, there’s no other reason I could possibly be kinky, right? I didn’t absorb that assumption from Alice Schwarzer or Freud. I absorbed it from Nancy Friday, who gave no other options in her landmark, sexually liberated text.

Source #4) Political jokes. I don’t suppose you’ve noticed how every time folks want to dehumanize or degrade a female political figure, people start projecting S&M onto them. Just Google Image search “Sarah Palin dominatrix” or “Hillary Clinton dominatrix”. You might also enjoy I Fucked Ann Coulter In The Ass, Hard (note: that link includes some serious explicit degradation fantasy action, so don’t read it unless you’re prepared for that).

I admit it: I laughed at some of the jokes in the Coulter piece. I did! But it’s still kinda creepy, and more importantly, it still exemplifies my point.

Source #5) Fiction. Ever watch “Men In Black 2″? I just saw part of it recently; remember how the villainess wears a leather corset and fights with an implement that looks suspiciously like a whip? Yeah. How about that show “Legend of the Seeker“, in which the villainess runs around in black leather and dominates the hapless hero to her evil will? Yeah. These wouldn’t be so bad if there were also lots of film examples of dominatrix types who aren’t Bad Evil Women Who Must Be Stopped, but … there aren’t. (I’ve heard of exactly one: Lady Heather from CSI, who got a CineKink award in 2009 for being a great sex-positive example.)

And at least dominatrixes are visible. Non-female doms, submissives of all genders, and switches basically don’t exist, at least according to popular culture. Unless you count abusers and abused, of course. As the incredible BDSM dominant and blogger Trinity once wrote, “what all the stories like this about D/s-y romance taught me was … ‘If you be your dominant self, you will never be happy. Dominance is for the villains, and the villains are always either vanquished or voluntarily give up what’s presented as their only chance for companionship because they realize they can never be themselves without doing harm.’”

Although there’s a surprising (and wonderful) amount of pro-SM fantasy and science fiction out there, mainstream literature pathologizes kink to hell and back. I recently read Judy Blume’s adult novel Summer Sisters, and I wish I still had the book with me, because there was a bit at the end that I’d love to quote explicitly: basically a Female, Hysterical, Disturbed character asks her husband to hurt her in bed; he, being a Good And Decent Guy, is bothered by the request and worries about what’s going wrong. Soon after that, she abandons her young child and runs away for a life of Damaged, Miserable, Irresponsible Hedonism.

And then there’s Mary Gaitskill, supreme exemplar. I confess, I’ve got a soft spot for Gaitskill, because when I was coming into my BDSM identity one of the first books I read was Bad Behavior (which includes the short story that inspired the movie “Secretary” — a very different story, let me tell you, and one that ends very differently from the film). And in those days, when I was miserable and confused and horrified by my desires, I loved Gaitskill’s work because it expressed my ambivalence very well. But recently, when I’ve read Gaitskill I’ve sadly noticed that she does the same thing as Judy Blume: she portrays BDSM as something alienated, lost, and sad. I was able to relate to her writing when I considered myself “broken”, but it didn’t help me learn to feel whole.

The Lessons. So now, what are the lessons we draw from BDSM stereotypes? Well, there are a lot — female dominatrixes are the enemy, sadists ought to kill themselves, etc. — but the most obvious is the abuse thing. As Freud, Alice Schwarzer, Nancy Friday, and tons of others have said or implied: “everyone knows” that kinksters wouldn’t be into kink we weren’t traumatized. This stereotype is not only emotionally difficult for people like me to come to terms with; it contributes to serious social problems for kinksters like sex activist maymay, who recently fielded scary accusations of pedophilia from the Salvation Army.

Given all this, you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe that there’s No Such Thing As Negative BDSM Stereotypes. There is an obvious need for art, sex education, and social norms that don’t portray S&M negatively. (Not to mention other kinds of stigmatized consensual sexuality such as sex work, etc.) I’ve got some posts coming up on How We Can All Contribute, but you probably already know the basics! Speak up, if you can, when you hear negative viewpoints; accept others’ sexuality without judgment; and if you yourself are a kinkster, reassure yourself that you are totally fine and awesome. Reassure yourself that it’s consent, not stereotypes, that really matter.

For super-shiny extra credit, those of you who — like me — enjoy thinking about concepts like “privilege” and “oppression” will love this old post from Renegade Evolution: Vanilla Privilege.

(Posted at Clarisse Thorn)

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