Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The meanings of BDSM.

One of the tough parts about discussing BDSM in a feminist context is that everyone seems to have a different idea of what BDSM means.  (The literal answer, of course, is Bondage, Disciplominance, Sadimission, and Masochism.)  What does it mean, what dynamic is really playing out, when you do BDSM?

Does topping a person mean that you're pleasuring them, or testing their limits?  Does choosing to bottom mean that you're choosing to endure harm, or that you're merely asking someone to do things you enjoy?  Does dominating someone mean that you're using them, or that you're taking care of them?  Does submitting mean that you're naturally fit to follow rather than lead, or that you have either potential but choose to follow?

The answer to all those questions is "yes."

A lot of debates about BDSM get stuck because people assume they know the meaning of a physical action.  The simplest, and most frustrating, problem is when someone interprets "hitting" to always mean "attacking with anger and intent to harm," therefore BDSM is about anger and is harmful, QED.  But there are subtler assumptions that crop up in better-informed discussions, sometimes even inside the community.  If you're talking about forced feminization, and one person thinks that means "making someone feminine to make them lesser," and the other thinks it means "helping someone explore femininity in a kinky way," they can talk right past each other for hours.

When I say people have different ideas about what BDSM means, this isn't just about intention or emotion or philosophy.  Sometimes it's quite visible when you watch BDSM actually happen. The same activities, that we describe with the same words, can be done in very different ways that completely change the meanings.

Take rope bondage.  People can use bondage to restrain someone while they do other play, or simply tie them up and let them experience it for a while and then untie them.  It can be drippingly sexual and involve fucking in bondage, or it can be done fully clothed and nonsexually.  (Not that "naked" and "sexual" necessarily go together.  Sometimes nudity in bondage is about freedom of motion, or keeping clothing from tangling up with the rope, or feeling the rope on your skin.  Or just having an excuse to be naked.)  It can be so painful it's a form of sadism, or so comforting the bottom nearly falls asleep.  It can keep a person from moving at all, or be purely decorative ropework that they can walk around in.  It can be rough, brutal, and hastily improvised, or it can be a painstakingly crafted art form.

So when we talk about bondage, we're not talking about a unified mood, intention, or effect. We're talking about an umbrella with a gigantic amount of human variation underneath it.  And we need to acknowledge that.  I'm not saying you can't generalize anything about BDSM, but... it's a lot less than you think.  So when people ask questions like "is BDSM oppressive?", the answer isn't "no" and it isn't "yes."  The answer is "it shouldn't be and it doesn't have to be."

This has a fun side.  It's not all about sexism and abuse.  It's also a tremendously powerful tool to use in play.  Understanding how to control the mood and meaning of a scene opens up a world of glorious possibilities. You can bring your negotiation from "I want to tie you up" to "I want to tie you up sexy" or "I want to tie you up mean" or "I want to tie you up artsy." (actual phrasing not recommended)  You can agree to tie someone up sexy and tease and them with not-quite-sexual bondage before turning it sexy.  You can develop the meaning of a scene in sync with your partner, something you experience together, and the cool part is, you get to decide what that meaning is.