Defending BDSM is a fraught process for feminists. On the one hand, you have misogynists and rape apologists telling you that women are just 'asking' to be assaulted, coerced, violated, beaten and raped, an insidious culture that makes any woman who enjoys consensual kink feel like she is a traitor all female victims of violence. On the other, you have (some) feminists telling you that while they support your right to choose whatever sexual practices you find pleasurable, if you like BDSM (especially as a submissive/masochist) it's probably just due to toxic patriarchal social conditioning and you should probably "work to change that" (genuine quote from a feminist discussing BDSM).
Then you have stories like the awful Jian Ghomeshi allegations that continue to emerge, whereby an alleged abuser is trying to mitigate the charges against him by claiming they took place under the umbrella of consensual kink. His accusers say differently. Rape apologists say "well, it's their word against his." Feminists say #IBelieverHer but suspect that these women are merely going to be dragged through the mill of being disbelieved, scrutinised and publicly attacked and possibly not see any justice at the end of it, because we know that's what happens to the majority of sexual assault victims. Radical feminists say What do you expect? and That's what happens when you say BDSM is OK, it becomes a cover for assault. Of course, there are quite a few radfems out there who believe that all BDSM is assault anyway, and that any woman who claims she consents to it is just brainwashed by the patriarchy into believing she actually wants to participate in this activity.
This is where I encounter a particular logic fail with feminist criticism of BDSM. Does it not seem paradoxical to anyone else to be part of a movement that fights for women's right to be seen as full, autonomous, intelligent beings with agency while claiming that women who make sexual choices you don't agree with are too stupid to know what they're doing? As Margaret Hunt writes in her excellent "Report on a Conference on Feminism, Sexuality and Power: The Elect Clash with the Perverse," "leaps of logic like these only make sense if one really believes that adult women who choose to be the bottom in an S/M exchange are equivalent to children, while their tops are equivalent to pathological murderers." Yet it's not just the obvious corners of anti-sex work, anti-pornography, radical feminism that such viewpoints emerge. I was seriously disappointed to read this recent article by Emer O' Toole "This murder in Ireland has made me rethink my sexual practices," (The Guardian, 31st March 2015) where O' Toole claims that, despite having happily participated in BDSM previously, she now finds it difficult to reconcile with the fact a woman was murdered by a man she was in a BDSM relationship with. The tagline is "I wonder if we can continue to deny any links between kinky sex and wider societal abuse of women," the accompanying picture is a still from F**** S**** o* G*** and the caption to that claims that in that movie "a reluctant, inexperienced and infatuated young girl is controlled and beaten by a rich sadist" - read here to see why I believe that's a total mischaracterisation of that particular storyline.
From the outset of O' Toole's piece I got the sense that this was going to be yet another anti-kink article, this time more cleverly concealed than the usual feminist condemnation by the fact the author claims she is a BDSM practitioner. Sadly, I wasn't wrong. She starts by demanding that we examine "the social context that allowed a man to convince a woman that his sexual desire to stab and kill her was within the bounds of the acceptable," as if it's somehow a foregone conclusion that "social context" was what drove Graham Dwyer to murder his partner. This is followed by an epistemic leap so vast it requires a parachute to accompany it, when O' Toole says that this means we also need to pay "attention to the cultural mainstreaming of BDSM."
I probably should have stopped reading there, because my responses were already descending into teenage grunts. My response to that particular sentence was Why? and Says who? After the Columbine killings, hysterical hand-wringers told us to look to Marilyn Manson and violent films/video games for the source of the senseless violence that two 15 year-olds visited upon their classmates and teachers. Anyone with half a brain said no, I will not resort to such blind, simplistic scapegoating. Music doesn't kill people, video games don't kill people. And consensual play with ropes, floggers, gags and cuffs doesn't cause the rape and murder of women, Whenever we blame anything but the rapist for the rape, the murderer for the murder, we shift responsibility from the criminal and to something else (sadly, as happens far too often in the case of sexual assault, we shift it on to the victim). If you're a feminist, you know that short skirts, drinking and flirting don't cause rape. So why are you suddenly training your sights on PVC outfits and erotic power play and claiming that they are responsible for domestic violence and murder?
Partly because it's an interesting and trendy thing to be talking about, I guess, in light of *that film* and *that book*'s popularity, otherwise I doubt The Guardian would have commissioned O' Toole's piece, But her supposedly kink-friendly feminism is just woman-shaming and kink-shaming in a leather disguise. She says "I’m making this critique not as a kink-shamer, but as a challenge to myself: what are my reasons and justifications for inviting or accepting male sexual violence?" Again, the teenager in me responds WHO CARES? Not because I'm being rude or dismissive, but because funnily enough, as a feminist, I don't think we should be asking women to put a disproportionate amount of weight and stress upon themselves by interrogating their desires any more than anyone else does in this society. Why is it always on us as women to analyse ourselves, to scrutinise ourselves, and, according to the great Radical Feminist Handbook of How Acceptable Egalitarian Sex should be done, probably find ourselves wanting? Wherefore the privilege of the unexamined life, the unapologised-for libido? Isn't that something men enjoy? So why are we demanding that women give that up and instead flagellate ourselves (pun so very intended) for the things that give us pleasure in this so-often thankless and joyless life?
Citing one study about self-proclaimed porn addicts as evidence that porn creates a desire for violence (if you read the article, it actually only states that people who are predisposed to already enjoy looking at violent porn tend to seek it out - shocker), O' Toole accepts on one hand that kink gives people a safe space to enjoy desires that are not acceptable to release in everyday life, but then demands that we never forget that a racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist society is still sitting in the kink club with us. Does she really think that any one, apart from those in the most privileged social groups, can ever forget that fact? So why is she asking that we continue to beat ourselves over the head with guilt about the fact our BDSM practices may resemble sexist, racist, transphobic or ableist violence (I remember reading about a disabled man who liked to be called 'cripple' and dragged out of his chair and abused during kink scenes - his play may shock me and many people, but that itself is not reason enough for me to tell him he should not be doing it). What reason is there, apart from the fact that this one horrible murder has clearly made O' Toole feel guilty about her own sexual practices, to demand that we start "conscientiously examining a) the social conditions that have led to our fetishisation of female pain and submission, and b) the ways in which our sexual practices strengthen and reinforce those social conditions?" These very statements imply to me that despite claiming to be a BDSM practitioner, O'Toole has not thought very long or hard about kink or feminism. She assumes there must be a social basis for the desires of any woman who enjoys pain or submission, yet that assumption pretty much at one fell swoop disregards all female sexual agency, the existence of female switches and male submissives, and women who feel their submissive desires exist in spite of, not because of, their upbringing (quote Mollena Williams: "I was taught that being strong was the first thing you had to be, especially ... as a black woman. To be submissive, to be obedient, was NOT acceptable.") There is also, of course, the underlying assumption that O' Toole's own viewpoint is objective and neutral, rather than coloured, as everyone's must be, by their own experiences and background. As Margaret Hunt writes, in a statement that could be applied to every radical feminist condemnation of women's sexual practices, "The argument that there is no free choice in the world is never all-inclusive. It always admits the existence of a small group which is morally superior to the corrupt mass." And that is where the logic fail happens. If O' Toole believes we are all so easily brainwashed, then how come she has magically managed to avoid the same fate as the rest of us? What exactly is it about her that makes her qualified to say that women's choice to participate in BDSM is somehow linked to, possibly even partially responsible for, one terrible murder?
If we really want to look at things that have left women likely to be murdered by partners, we could look at: cuts to domestic violence services, slow legal machinery that mean getting injunctions and getting a violent partner removed from the family home could take days or even weeks (now thankfully much improved), victim-blaming narratives ("Why didn't she leave?" "She must have provoked him") and a culture of silence around domestic violence - the very term implies a "private matter" or "just a domestic," a language that seriously needs to change. BDSM did not kill Elaine O' Hara, and I take massive offence at O' Toole's last statement, that O' Hara's "submissive desires left her vulnerable to male aggression in the most tragic way possible." The only thing Elaine O'Hara's submissive desires left her open to, it would seem, was having her sexual preferences blamed for her death rather than her murdering partner. I'll say it again - if you wouldn't blame a short skirt for rape, then don't blame BDSM for a murder. BLAME THE MURDERER. O' Toole is criticising BDSM for somehow making it easier for abuse to go undetected - even though plenty of abuse goes undetected, excused or apologised for in the vanilla world - yet she is playing by the same rulebook of rape apologists by implying that Elaine O'Hara "left herself open" to getting murdered just because she was a submissive.
This is pretty disgusting. It's also ignorant - it disregards the many lengths submissives and masochists go to to protect themselves, precautions that many vanilla people don't bother to take when meeting someone for a date (arranging a 'check-in' call with a friend, letting someone know the name, online username, address of the person you're meeting), it assumes that "submissive as part of kink" = "weak in everyday life" (and anyone making that assumption will get a big, rude shock when they meet some actual subs) and, as I've pointed out above, it presumes that there are things women can and should be doing to protect themselves from male violence. But what could Elaine O' Hara have done? Not been married to this man? Right, well, perhaps it's marriage we should be protesting against, not BDSM. But then she might still have met this man, or dated him, or worked with him, or just walked past him one night in the street. And he still might have violently murdered her. So the best she could do is move to a remote island with no men on, right? Funnily enough, no one ever suggests that. Because that would be silly, that would be extreme. But saying that enjoying a spanking from your partner means you contributed to your own murder? That's fine to say. Even from someone who claims to be feminist, who claims to be pro-kink.
So, no, I'm not going to accept that I am obliged to examine my sexual practices and consider how they contribute to a society that blames rape and murder victims for their own violations, because I think the only thing which contributes to such a society is the belief that it's always down to women to change, behave differently and re-wire ourselves, because that belief is predicated on the mistaken idea that there's anything we can do to avoid violation, and that belief in turn - however well-meant - comes from a solid landscape of victim-blaming. So I let (read: asked) a guy to pull my hair, put his hand round my throat, slam me against a wall - so the fuck what? Does it make feminists like O'Toole feel better if they know that this took place with my full consent and enthusiastic desire, while in my own home, wearing clothes of my own choice, that the wall I got slammed against belongs to me, and I paid for it with my own money, that the guy and I laughed and chatted and drank Um Bongo before and after it took place? Does it help if I add that I've never experienced any coercive sexual behaviour from any of the men I've practised BDSM with, whereas I know plenty of women who've experienced the same in vanilla relationships? Do you know, I don't care if it does - because I shouldn't be obliged to state these things just to make my preferences sound 'acceptable' to the feminist anti-kink police. Because what I do in my sex life, however unpalatable or odd it may seem to others, is not hurting anyone, and is bringing me freedom and pleasure. Fuck anyone who tries to shame me for that by using a woman's horrific death as their excuse.