Damaging the Social Contract

Underlying a culture, a set of assumptions defines how the individual relates to society. Historically, the term “social contract” described how individuals restrict certain liberties in obedience to laws of the state, in return for the benefits of citizenship. But the concept is evolving to include the contribution individuals make to society. For example, in his 2009 inaugural address[1], Barack Obama said “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world.” And political analyst Melissa Harris-Lacewell [2] commented in response “This challenge that we face now is going to require us to rethink what we mean by the social contract. What exactly are the promises and the price of citizenship.”[3]

Some kinksters say they have a right to practice whatever feels good to them. In response, Sally Roesch Wagner warns that over-reliance on “the liberal ethic of tolerance” can urge us “uncritically to embrace all erotic feeling and expression.” [4] The Bill of Rights declares that we have an “inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.” But this does not mean we have the right to any kind of pursuit of any kind of happiness. It means no government may decide for us what kinds are appropriate. It means we have the responsibility to make those judgments ourselves. The right entails the responsibility.

What is the contribution of BDSM to society? It reinforces perverted conceptions of erotic desire that undergird our culture.

In fact, says John Stoltenberg, sadomasochism constitutes the basis of normal sexual identity here:

Between a man and a woman, the conjunction of male sexual sadism and female masochism fully expresses the cultural definitions of what “real” men and women are, how they are “opposite sexes,” and why they “complement” each other. For the male, eroticized violence against women results in the reification of his male sexual identity; his sexual sadism is the erotic correlative of his power in the culture over half the human race. Male sexual identity is a meaningless construct apart from institutionalized and personalized sexual violence against women: the genital male reifies male sexual identity when he violates someone else’s bodily integrity, when he aggresses against nonphallic flesh and treats it with contempt. For the person defined as inferior, her sexual masochism fully complements the genital male’s erotic drive to actualize masculinity. Constrained by culture to nonentity, she accepts obliteration of her self for his sake, which is, as Andrea Dworkin has written in Our Blood, the norm of actualized femininity:

“Sexual masochism actualizes female negativity; just as sexual sadism actualizes male positivity. A woman’s erotic femininity is measured by the degree to which she needs to be hurt, needs to be possessed, needs to be abused, needs to submit, needs to be beaten, needs to be humiliated, needs to be degraded.”[5] [6]

Robin Ruth Linden goes further, describing sadomasochism as “an irreducible condition of society” that “reflects the power asymmetries embedded in most of our social relationships.”[7] Moreover, the culture assumes women are masochistic, and so interprets pain as pleasure for women. [8]

Not only does our culture create a myth of woman as masochist — but S/M players then buy into it, not just reflecting but exacerbating the problem, and encouraging the assumption that sexuality means men dominating women.

Bisexuality activist Loraine Hutchins identifies two aspects of the effect of S/M on our culture:

In the S/M sub-culture, people “play” with, or eroticize make-believe dominance, often providing mirror images to the dominant culture in fact — with female dominants and male submissives being one of the most common kinds of pairs. Whereas in the overall culture, the submission of members of less-powerful, oppressed groups is not voluntary or chosen. Oppressed people experience real dominance at the hands of oppressors, and that oppression is re-enforced daily through institutionalized systems of control – sexism, social class, heterosexism, racism. So my concern lies in these questions: (1) Does the eroticisation of power imbalance (between those who are dominant and those who are relatively powerless) provide a major prop, or extra fuel, to help maintain and re-enforce unjust relations in the larger culture?, and (2) Does defending and exploring the eroticisation of power imbalances therefore contribute to re-enforcing the institutionalization of oppression in the larger society rather than challenging or eradicating it?[9]

The critics I’ve been reading answer Yes! to both Hutchins’ questions.

1. Extra Fuel for institutionalized systems of control:

Philosopher Hilda Hein: to degrade someone, even with that person’s expressed consent, is to endorse the degradation of persons. It is to affirm that the abuse of persons is acceptable. For if some people may be humiliated and despised, all may be.[10]

Psychotherapist Maria Marcus says S/M reinforces social masochism as well as sexual: “masochism is no less dangerous than sadism, although the books say the opposite. The sadist can beat his victim both physically and psychically, but the masochist, especially the female masochist, can cripple other women and prevent them from wanting strength and freedom. In that way, female masochism is not simply our cross, but also our worst enemy — female masochism in other women, and the masochism within ourselves.” [11]

Audre Lorde: “Sadomasochism is an institutionalized celebration of dominant/subordinate relationships. And, it prepares us either to accept subordination or to enforce dominance. Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially and economically. Sadomasochism feeds the belief that domination is inevitable.[12]

2. Complicity rather than change:

Claudia Card mentions a comment by ethicist Sarah Lucia Hoagland calling sadomasochism “an irresponsible illusion whereby we get to play at having power over each other instead of seeking the real political power needed to end oppression.”[13] Card concludes “If she is right, sadomasochism can sublimate desires for real political power. Consequently, those with real political power in an oppressive society would benefit most from the sadomasochism of others, as antifeminists may profit most from feminists battling one another over sadomasochism. Without the catharsis of sadomasochism, participants’ hostilities might have been directed against social oppression.”[14]

Jeanette Nichols, Darlene Pagano and Margaret Rossof, in their essay “Is Sadomasochism Feminist?” say “sadomasochistic behavior reproduces and therefore condones many of the power imbalances and destructive features of our lives.”[15]

Some kinksters declare that their scenes parody the culture’s evils, thus protesting agaist them. But parody does not effect change. In fact, as Hoagland explains, it contributes to the problem:

To parody an institution is nevertheless to reinforce its worldview (its Weltanschauung) and hence to validate it. To parody nazis may take some of the pompousness out of their ceremony, but the parody still valdates nazism by perpetuating the language game, the conceptual framework, and thereby allows those who work with deadly earnest and intelligence toward fascism and slavery to exist in an ideological framework necessary for their growth and development. It holds their foundation intact, feeds it.[16]

Diana E.H. Russell says playing at oppression trivializes true oppression and doing S/M betrays those struggling against oppression: “To assert that a slave role can be chosen makes a mockery of our history.”[17] [Russell is talking specifically about black people’s history.]

To avoid this kind of trivialization, Claudia Card refrains from acting on sadomasochistic desires and fantasies — specifically for her, in solidarity with

two political struggles: the struggle of feminists against women’s complicity in patriarchy and that of gay men and lesbians against homophobic presentations of homosexuality as violent and dangerous[18].

Even simply exposing bystanders can reinforce the cultural problem, Card observes :

Reliance upon the consent principle, however, would seem to rule out subjecting unconsenting parties to witnessing the enactment of sadomasochist contracts and/or even, in some cases, to witnessing the resulting damage. Such witnessing…is itself one of the forms that sadomasochistic sexual behavior can take. Observing this scruple may require considerable restraint in coming out behavior and in political demonstrations by sadomasochists.[19]

Queer activist Pepper Mint says BDSM scenes are “sandboxes,” taking the term from computer programming (meaning situations isolated from the rest of the world, so that what happens there does not affect what is outside). But a computer programmer friend of mine objects to this appropriation of the term: In computer programming you can get complete isolation. In life when you leave a scene you take with you your reactions: emotions, body reactions, changes in your thoughts. There is no way these will not affect the world around you.

[Unfortunately this would also, logically, be true of indulging in my masochism in a fantasy that I cast a magical circle of protection around. Of course I prefer to believe that focused intentionality to keep effects within the circle, (unless I specifically direct energy out for a sacred/beneficial application) … well, I want to believe that’s different from what most kinksters do with a scene. Or is it?]

Audre Lorde thinks the problem is more profound:

“Those involved with sadomasochism are acting out the intolerance of differences which we all learn: superiority and thereby the right to dominate. The conflict is supposedly self-limiting because it happens behind bedroom doors. Can this be so, when the erotic empowers, nourishes and permeates all of our lives?[20]


“even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically[21].”

In addition to all these problems in our culture around sexuality and power relationships, does S/M also create a problem in our governmental politics? As the National Socialist Party was coming to power in Germany, psychoanalyst and social theorist Erich Fromm wrote about the appeal to people of the “authoritarian character” he saw taking over. To Fromm, the masochist seeks to escape a social responsibility: he saw the rise of Nazism as a consequence of Germans’ masochistic submission to authority. Because he saw this pattern developing, Fromm left Germany in 1934, just as Hitler was consolidating his power, purging rivals and developing the Nazi regime of hatred.

Would Fromm see a relationship between the growing popularity of S/M in the US and the president sitting as I write this, who is sweeping through the federal government decimating social programs, removing critics, replacing officials with his cronies, and whipping up bigotry…?

[1] President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address.
[2] now Melissa Harris-Perry
[3] Bill Moyers Journal, transcript of PBS program 1/23/2009 with a panel that included Harris-Lacewell.
[4] Wagner, in Linden et al., 4.
[5] Stoltenberg, in Linden et al. 125-126.
[6] [Quote from Dworkin 1976, 104-5.]
[7] Linden et al., 4.
[8] See The Myth of Women’s Masochism by Paula Caplan, and my discussion of it in “Am I a Masochist? > Challenging the Reality Police Definition.”
[9] Hutchins 2001, 81.
[10] Hein, “Sadomasochism and the Liberal Tradition” in Linden et al., 87.
[11] Marcus 1981, 260.
[12] Lorde, Interview by Susan Leigh Star in Linden et al., 68.
[13] Card, “Consensual SM Issues,” 1995), 160. The piece by Hoagland that Card refers to is in eds. Linden et al., 160.
[14] Card, 237.
[15] Nichols, Pagano and Rossoff, in Linden et al., 138.
[16] Hoagland, 158-159.
[17] Russell, in Linden et al., 1982, 177.
[18] Card 1995, 221.
[19] Card 1995, 230.
[20] Lorde, in interview by Susan Leigh Star in Linden et al., 69.
[21] Lorde, in Lilnden et al., 1982, 68.

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