Thinking About BDSM

10/02/2015 § 1 Comment

Spices-for-Love-Collar

 

I swore I wouldn’t write anything about the cultural ebola that is Fifty Shades of Grey. How the bored housewives of mumsnet choose to resurrect their saggy, flagging libido in an effort to reconnect with, or liberate themselves from, the paunchy, balding sperm donor who accompanies them round Sainsburys every Saturday is no concern of mine. That someone wrote a sub-Mills-and-Boon standard romance novel and decked it out with pink fluffy handcuffs from the Ann Summers on the high road in order to revive a flagging and increasingly irrelevant literary genre is neither here nor there. The vulgar consumerism of licensed and unlicensed merchandise that sees this hoary canard yoked to everything from fabric softener to £60 teddy bears is proof only of the fact that you really can sell anyone anything.

 

The novels, the film and the merchandise don’t interest me in the slightest, and I can and do ignore them. The media frenzy surrounding all of this is as tedious as it is predictable, so I largely ignore that too.

 

However, there is an idea now in circulation, on the back of the Fifty Shades of Grey “phenomenon,” that bothers me. The idea that bothers me is that anyone can, and indeed should, do BDSM, that kink is merely a practical technique that expands the range of sexual activities that anyone and everyone can participate in. This idea was most recently published in an article in the Guardian newspaper by the evolutionary psychologist Brad Sagarin “Never tried BDSM? Go On, Its Good For You”  but a quick look around most news and current affairs outlets will produce an abundance of similar articles.

 

Sagarin is the proprietor of a university research laboratory to which he and his team return after “collecting data in the field” – by which he means fetish clubs – where the “data” is “analysed” and various physiological and psychological findings are recorded according to saliva samples, statements from participants, and so on. In the article, Sagarin sets out his psycho-kinky stall in scientific terms. He extols the various benefits that  current participants derive from BDSM, and suggests that as current participants derive some kind of psychological benefit from kink, everyone should try being kinky. He concludes that BDSM participants generally come away from a BDSM experience quite happy, and concludes that if everyone was kinky they might be a bit happier themselves.

 

What he doesn’t consider is what leads people to BDSM in the first place.

 

What does lead people to BDSM? The drive towards “normal” is immense. The pressure on individuals to conform to monogomous, heterosexual reproductive sexual relations means that anyone who does not conform faces a whole raft of problems, of which social stigma, however insidious, is just the beginning.

 

The psychiatrists handbook, more usually known as Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists sexual bondage – which includes BDSM – as a mental disorder. The DSM, particularly it’s most recent iteration, DSM 5, published in 2013, is a contentious document. It has been condemned by some mental health professionals for its tendency to turn every aspect of human behaviour and thought into a mental illness that can then be treated by medical professionals and prescription drugs, at no small cost to the client and at considerable reward to the health care industry. It is also produced by the American Psychiatric Association, and is reflective more of the norms and values of the US than of the human condition itself. Nevertheless, in terms of understanding the human mind, the DSM is still a highly influential publication.

 

Some forms of BDSM are considered illegal under criminal law in the UK – a legacy of the Operation Spanner police investigation and the court cases that followed from it. More recently in the UK certain sexual practices have become illegal to show in still or moving images, and a government-appointed quango, ATVOD, is vigorously prosecuting anyone who publishes such images in the UK. The list of banned content includes the following activities:

  • Spanking
  • Caning
  • Aggressive whipping
  • Penetration by any object “associated with violence”
  • Physical or verbal abuse (regardless of whether consensual)
  • Urolagnia (known as “water sports”)
  • Role-playing as non-adults
  • Physical restraint
  • Humiliation
  • Female ejaculation
  • Strangulation
  • Facesitting
  • Fisting

 

These are, to all intents and purposes, BDSM activities. What this new law means is that while you may be able to practice some of these activities yourself, you cannot look at pictures or films of other people doing them. Nor can you take pictures or films of yourself doing them. And if you are in possession of any such images, whether knowingly or not, you are liable to be prosecuted.

 

We live in a world where kink is criminalized, and sexual autonomy is circumscribed by law and pathologised by medical orthodoxy. People who practice BDSM can and do lose their jobs, their homes, and even their children, because of their sexual preferences, in a way that previously was reserved for gay men, and unmarried mothers. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to see why anyone would choose it as a lifestyle.

 

Except, they don’t choose it. Sexuality – what gets you off, and who and how you fuck, or not – is not a choice. It’s not just an activity, something you do. It’s something you are. Sexuality is neither genetic, nor a conscious decision. We know from psychoanalysis that sexual desire is instead a developmental process that takes place from the minute you are born, that never stops, and that occurs in the deepest, darkest and most inaccessible recesses of your mind. It is created through the encounters we all have as individuals with the world around us, with our parents initially, and later with broader social injunctions, and these encounters then mould our unconscious in ways that no-one as yet fully understands, and shapes, amongst other things, our erotic desires.

 

No-one suggests that gay people should try having heterosexual sex because, hey, we took some saliva samples from straight couples and their happy hormones were way up after a penis-in-vagina session, so it would be great for everyone to give it a go. Likewise, no-one is suggesting that straight people try being gay because the gay guys a researcher spoke to in a nightclub were just having the best time ever. To do so would be ludicrous. And to suggest that BDSM is a hobby you can try out because it’s good for you, like salsa or bridge, is, in my view, just as ridiculous.

 

It may well be that there are more kinky people in the world than has been recognized or acknowledged thus far. Certainly, while fetish clubs and online groups are growing in popularity, there are also many people who enjoy BDSM but who do not identify as a part of the BDSM “community” and who are not represented in the self-selecting sample studied by Dr. Sagarin and his colleagues. It is also equally possible that kink will eventually come to be accepted as a part of the spectrum of “normal” sexual behaviours. Perhaps we will one day look at the legislation and case law that criminalises kink in the same way that today we look at the Labouchere Amendment  that criminalised homosexuality in the UK in 1885, and that was not repealed until 1967. Perhaps, one day, we will say some people are kinky, get over it.

 

Until then, it might be helpful to recognise that sex (however defined) is not just a hobby. It might also be helpful to accept that what consenting adults do in private is entirely up to them and neither the law nor anyone else has any business to be concerned with it. And whatever sex consenting adults have, vanilla and heterosexual, or something, anything, else, or none at all, it’s fine. It might also be worth thinking about sex as an ethical matter rather than a moral one. And we could, if we wanted to, recognise too that the spectrum of human sexual behaviours is wider and more diverse that anyone can adequately express.

 

Finally, and for me most importantly, we could accept that our unique erotic desires and satisfactions are not a shopping list of activities to try, or a purely bio-social activity that can be measured and quantified by “data” in a “laboratory” – but instead are the supreme articulation of the vagaries and traumas and joys of the human soul. Wouldn’t that be something?

 

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§ One Response to Thinking About BDSM

  • A well-written and argued piece. The commodification of kink is worrisome, since (like all objectified things) it separates us from reality, where the latter in this case is our sexuality. No, thank-you.

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