Feminist practitioners say feminism and BDSM are compatible — eliminating distress by averting P’s dilemma.
Among the arguments for compatibility, perhaps the most common lies in how central to feminism it is to decide for yourself who you are. To make your own choices. Thus Elizabeth Schreiber-Byers, a literary scholar who declared that her work “pushes the boundaries of identity and gender,”1 said
Sadomasochistic relationships based on consensual power exchange allow participants to redefine their sexual activities outside social norms and reclaim authority over their sexuality and gender from what could be considered socially accepted power structures.2
In this vein, feminist subs assert that feminism supports the choice of sexual style. Deciding to pursue what gives you pleasure is a feminist act. So sex activist Clarisse Thorn reports “I believe that the feminist movement helped my practice of BDSM: it’s one of the factors that gave me the strength and self-assurance required to figure out and discuss my sexual needs.”3
Moreover practicing that choice, these women say, strengthens you in the rest of your life. Feminist writer and editor Jessica Wakeman talks about her spanking fetish: “I respect myself more than I ever did, for knowing exactly what pleases me and not being afraid to ask for it.”4 Similarly Zoe, co-founder of SSASE (Soft Smiles Association for Submissive Education) says ever since she’s been a practicing submissive and masochist, she is “more confident in who I am and what I choose to do.”5
Many feminist practitioners talk about how BDSM empowers them. For example ambut, a contributor on Reddit:
Can you be a feminist and also want a man to dominate/harm you? I would argue that the answer is yes. Whatever gets you off gets you off. A person who communicates her needs, seeks out pleasure, and engages in sexual encounters that meet those needs is exercising her power. Sex doesn’t have to be philosophical.6
Learning to endure pain can in itself be empowering. S/M activist Pat Califia reports that some lesbian masochists describe themselves as feeling “more powerful and self-confident as they learn to tolerate and enjoy higher levels of pain.”7 A participant on a web forum commented:
Pushing your boundaries. Some people enjoy BDSM as a way to test their own strength, endurance, resolve, strength of will, etc.. It shouldn’t be surprising- people do it all the time in other fields, like sports, for example. A “see what I can take, how much more can I take” sort of accomplishment/achievement that feels mentally and physically rewarding.8
Power-exchange play raises consciousness about how a woman relates to power in her life.Clarisse Thorn, author of The S&M Feminist, believes
“BDSM has the potential to control, subvert, and manage power. BDSM can be a place where people learn to understand bad power dynamics in past relationships; it can be a place where people learn to manage or destroy bad power dynamics in their current relationships; it can be a place where people find glory, self-knowledge and freedom by manipulating their own reactions and responses to power.9
Kink social theorist Pepper Mint (or pepomint) calls this “sandboxing” (in analogy to the practice of software designers, when they isolate a piece of code): “As a testing or training ground for power dynamics. In other words, to gain more power over the operation of one’s power dynamics.” He relates an example:
A girlfriend of mine has identified that she eroticizes misogyny in the bedroom. She is a strong feminist and has very little patience with misogyny outside of the bedroom. Her kink practice does not give her any special tools for handling misogyny. However, she has found herself more aware of normative (and therefore invisible) sexualized violence and its variations, having endured (and enjoyed) its more extreme forms.10
Another factor reconciling feminism and masochism is the healing that practitioners report from an S/M session.
Pat Califia says
As a top, I find the old wounds and unappeased hunger. I nourish. I cleanse and close the wounds. I devise and mete out appropriate punishment for old, irrational “sins.”…A good scene doesn’t end with orgasm– it ends with catharsis.11
Dossie Easton & Janet W. Hardy talk about this at some length:
We have deliberately negotiated to play scenes to vent anger or other difficult emotions. …Pain can give you an “excuse” and open up a pathway for emotions that are too strong and frightening to let loose in other contexts. Sometimes what you want out of a scene is a purging, to go into overload and let it all out.12
The particulars of a “scene” very often mimic real-world sexist oppression. But practitioners emphasize the important differences between S/M play and real-world abuse: Requiring consent establishes trust. And in S&M, the masochist is in control.
Claudia Card adds “Often, the script of sadomasochistic drama is provided by the M, although who provides the script can vary, as long as the M retains a veto.”13
This combination of similarity and difference — between an S/M scene and real-world sexist oppression — provides an opportunity for healing specifically from the hurt of that oppression.
Another S/M practice supports healing. After a scene, a sub can be psychically raw. Aftercare — cuddling, feeding, affirming, praising — nourishes her, supports her return to everyday awareness, and helps integrate the healing into her life.
Arguments for compatibilty between feminism and masochism help a woman kinkster reconcile them in her personal understanding — but there is a large group of non-kinkster feminists who create an external source of conflict for the kinksters. Feminist opponents to BDSM have vehemently denounced and capaigned against feminist kink. Masochist Stacey May Fowles, observing this “inability to accept BDSM into the feminist dialogue,” calls it “kinkophobia, …prejudice against the practice of power-exchange sex. Many, if not most, practitioners, she says, feel an internalized kinkophobia: a sense of shame about their deviancy. For feminist submissives, it amounts to hatred of self, “when an entire community that they identify with either dismisses their desires or pegs them as unwitting victims.”14
What about Maria Marcus? How does the woman who asked it answer the awful question?
1 Schreiber-Byers “Research Statement”
2 Schreiber-Byers, “Power Exchange, Performance, and Performativity: Sadomasochism and Social Critique,” a presentation she gave at the conference Revisiting the Sadeian Woman, at Swansea University (UK), 4/11/2014. (Accessed 4/27/2014; Conference materials no longer on the Web.)
3 Thorn 6/30/2010. This page has been removed from the Web. But as of this writing, the essay “Love Bites” can still be seen on Amazon.com’s “Look inside” feature on their page for the book The S&M Feminist (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 5/27/2012)
6 ambut 2016, comment on WhynterKnox, “Feminism and Masochism” on reddit, subreddit Feminisms.
7 Califia, Sapphistry (Tallahassee: Naiad, 1988), 128].
8 Gwennie B., on Yahoo! Answers in 2012. Accessed 5/15/2017. On May 4, 2021, the site ceased operations and on June 30, 2021, Yahoo deleted all content.
9 Thorn 2012, 280.
11 Califia, Secret Side, 1979, 165.
12 Easton and Hardy, 2001, 86 and 116-117. [The URL says this is The New Topping Book — and the first page shows the cover of that book, but the next page is the cover of The New Bottoming Book, and the rest of the file is for that one.]
13 Consensual Sadomasochism: Charting the Issues.
14 Fowles, “Fantasy of Acceptable ‘Non-Consent” in Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, Friedman and Valenti (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008 117).