Lesbian BDSM, part 3: BDSM and the Prevention of Revolution

by admin

Guest post by Maggie H.

This post is the final part of a series of posts based on some of the RadFem Reboot 2012 presentation talk that I gave in Oregon recently on the patriarchal takeover of women’s sexuality. Part I is here, Part II is here

Definition: As this is the final part here, I would like to make it clear by what I mean by BDSM for the purpose of this series. BDSM is ‘Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism (formerly known as ‘sadomasochism’); a form of patriarchal sexuality involving the eroticisation of the symbols of slavery, misogyny, captivity, rape and torture. It is a sexuality that involves the most egregious dynamics of domination and subordination (a.k.a. ‘dom/sub’) and the sexualisation of pain and/or danger.’

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So what happened to the woman-identified woman nowadays? Let me first go back to the origins and causes of the mainstreaming of BDSM within contemporary lesbian culture and communities. I will then elaborate more on how BDSM prevents revolution.

Back in the 1970’s, Radicalesbians released a statement saying that “a lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion” as a feminist call for woman-loving lesbianism. During the 1990’s, the lesbian pornographic magazine On Our Backs gave this statement an odd twist with proclaiming that “a lesbian is the lust of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” This was the beginning of lesbianism being socially defined solely on sexual terms. This was the end of woman-loving lesbian feminism.

One cannot possibly retrace the actual start of BDSM mainstreaming within our communities without mentioning Pat Califia (now Patrick, a F2T person), the biggest handmaiden of patriarchy I have ever seen. Her pro-BDSM agenda had already gained momentum and won in the 1980’s; things have gotten even worse ever since. The origins of the mainstreaming of BDSM in the lesbian community can directly be traced to both Califia and gay male culture.

Gay male sexuality is thoroughly geared towards BDSM, the glorification of maleness, ‘top’/‘bottom’ roles and the sexualisation of hierarchies. Gay male communities have had a very negative influence on some lesbians’ sexuality. It initially started during the HIV scare (when the virus was first discovered in the early 1980’s). Gay men were under attack. Some lesbians back then stopped supporting feminism and decided to go join ‘their’ gay “brothers” in the fight against homophobia. Once there were many lesbians who became very inclusive of gay men and welcoming them in their (no longer women-only) communities, gay male culture (with its intensely patriarchal ideologies and practices) shaped many aspects of contemporary lesbian culture.

Lesbian BDSMer Pat Califia was a worshipper of gay male sexuality (now, as a F2T, she identifies as ‘bisexual’ and sleeps with gay men too). She became a “sex educator” within contemporary lesbian culture and mainstreamed her pro-BDSM agenda by severely polluting our lesbian communities with intensely patriarchal, male-centric views on sexuality. As a pornographer, she wrote some of the most female-hating BDSM pornography ever disseminated to lesbian culture.

In one of her most prominent BDSM pornography books, Califia rejoiced in the eagerness of BDSM dominants to ‘confront their victims’ regarding sexual response to punishment and insult (cf. Califia, Macho Sluts, p. 152). She used some pro-rape, pro-abuse language here: victims, punishment, insult became sexualised terms in that book. This is pure patriarchal sadism: the abusers have to be made to look like someone who is ‘right,’ their acts ‘justified,’ and the victims of sexual assault are supposed to find their abusers ‘exciting.’

It really shocked me when a lesbian I know in my own community lauded Califia as a ‘great writer.’ Yes, some patriarchal, woman-hating pornographic books can sometimes be very “well-written” in some cases. However, it should be clear to us that no amount of ‘good writing’ should ever make us enjoy things that are antithetical to the liberation of women. Know how patriarchy works, sister. Don’t fall for this type of ‘seductive’ writing style anymore (this also applies to the horrendous BDSM fan fiction stories I had written about in Part 1).

As for Califia, seriously, is this really the person whom the BDSM community sees as a ‘revolutionary’ and a ‘liberator’? Califia is reactionary. All that she ‘liberated’ and helped mainstream in our communities is the ‘lesbian’ fascination for a sexuality and culture that worships maleness. Many lesbians now view gay men as their ‘role models.’ Gay male sexuality directly influenced the development of stronger BDSM dynamics within lesbian communities. Califia (along with a few other lesbian handmaidens of patriarchy like Gayle Rubin, Cherry Smyth or Della Grace) only facilitated this influence, this invasion from male-centric and male-identified sexuality and norms.

Pat Califia is known as having carved a swastika into Jewish lover’s shoulder against the woman’s will. Califia is also known as supporting paedophiliac pornography such as Paidika (a Dutch magazine), according to Christine Stark in Not For Sale (from Stark’s essay ‘Girls to Boys: Sex radical women promoting pornography and prostitution’ in Not For Sale). Stark also noted (from Califia’s book Public Sex) that Califia glorifies master/slave and daddy/girl dynamics as well as intensely male-centric sexuality. Califia also stated that a BDSM ‘bottom’ has to be completely shaved so that she (now F2T, self-identified as a ‘man’) can ‘own’ her as her ‘child and property.’

Female bottom BDSMers are victims of this culture, as well as being victims of men or female ‘top’ sadists like Califia. Female ‘subs’ have been indoctrinated by patriarchy and its supporters into accepting BDSM as an attractive form of sexuality. We need to understand that BDSM is like a cult –just like the trans movement, Christianity and other patriarchal religions. It is very important that we avoid shaming the women who end up being ‘sub’ in BDSM practices, and try to understand that it is very hard for them to know there is a life after BDSM, that there are better possibilities in lesbian sexuality and love.

Here Bev Jo analyses the internalisation of misogyny and self-hatred as a major precursor of women’s (and lesbians’) involvement in BDSM:

“Most of us grow up with mental, emotional, and physical abuse. I believe most of us have been sexually assaulted, and certainly all females have been sexually harassed as well as subjected to violent hatred of females throughout the media. Patriarchy, reinforced by religions, is a sado-masochistic culture, based on humiliation, pain, and suffering. Most females’ earliest feelings of love, intimacy, and passion are interwoven with dependence, fear, anger, threats, and rape. We are taught to be both self-hating (masochistic) and to hate our own kind (sadistic). We are trained into sado-masochistic scenarios from the day we are born.” ~ Bev Jo’s chapter on BDSM.

I would like to make clear that the people who get involved in BDSM are not just some “weirdos” out there. They are pretty much regular, everyday kinds of people. The women who become female ‘bottom’ BDSMers can be any woman who has thoroughly internalised misogyny and hierarchical norms already present in society. BDSMers in fact make sense (only) within the context of a patriarchal, relentlessly hierarchical world.

A major problem with BDSM is that it is addictive. It creates an endorphin rush which keeps participants coming back for more, making BDSM a powerful drug-like experience as a response to pain. Women are supposed to numb themselves to the pain so that they can experience pleasure, a form of pleasure that has immediate negative consequences for us and other women. I, myself, initially had to take steps towards giving up on BDSM. I had to learn how to re-connect the negative ‘after-feelings’ to what I feel for women in general, to re-connect with the fact that BDSM degradation is antithetical to our liberation.

Within a non-patriarchal world, BDSM would not ever make sense. We live in a patriarchy, and women are often being sexually degraded and objectified in malestream media. We sometimes internalise the degrading sexual values stemming from a male-dominated society without noticing it, including in some of our lesbian relationships.

To the average lesbian who gets trapped into the BDSM world, I would like to say that women like Pat Califia (or any other lesbian BDSM pornographer for that matter) are not your ‘friends.’ They are not your ‘allies.’ They are just out there to make money and fame just like other handmaidens of patriarchy who see a personal benefit to themselves in supporting the male-supremacist system.

As a former BDSMer, I can somehow understand the reluctance to listen to what lesbian feminists have to say on lesbian BDSM and the desire to frame them as ‘prudes.’ But, in the end, who would you rather listen to? Lesbian BDSM pornographers who are making heaps of cash (and/or acquiring a lot of fame) from turning women’s fear and suffering into ‘sexual entertainment’ or lesbian feminists who have no social power whatsoever and no real financial gain in promoting the true liberation of women? Well, I myself decided to listen to the latter six years ago, and here I am –closer to feeling what genuine freedom might actually look like.

I totally hate the term ‘vanilla sex’ being used for describing lesbian love-making by supporters of patriarchy. Deriding a sexuality that strives to achieve more closeness to lesbian egalitarianism as ‘vanilla’ is very insulting. Patriarchy keeps characterising the more female-centred forms of sexuality as ‘boring’ or ‘incomplete.’ In fact, patriarchy deliberately wants us to get away from the most genuinely female-centred forms of sexualities. BDSM is the ultimate killer of sensuality. There can be many tender, woman-loving things that can be explored within lesbian sexuality. If at one point we feel that we are ‘bored,’ then maybe we should not centre our whole lives around sex so much (instead of trying BDSM), and should also learn to appreciate other various forms of gyn/affection.

“Decolonizing our bodies and psyches in a sadomasochist culture has the urgency of survival in terms set outside the prescriptions of sadomasochism… The value of re-claiming those desires already outside the means of our oppression is the value of fighting back –of dissent. By doing so we might re-figure a lesbian identity that is indigestible to the patriarchal dream factory which makes the source of women’s fears into the ‘best’ fantasies.” ~ Kathy Miriam, in Unleashing Feminism, p. 38.

As previously mentioned at the end of Part 2, not all contemporary lesbians are beyond hope when it comes to possibility of open-mindedness to a feminist critique of BDSM. I, myself, live within the lesbian community. I talk to other lesbians all the times. I met some lesbians who feel concerned about what is going on within their communities as a result from pornified culture’s poisoning and who are willing to hear what I have to say on my BDSM experience and critique.

Nevertheless, it is pretty clear that some other lesbians still attempt to shut out any sort of critical views on BDSM. Some of those women go even as far as claiming that lesbian feminists are “not any better than homophobes for criticising their sexuality.” I find this pretty ironic. There is no denial that BDSM desires stem from a patriarchal society. Those desires aren’t ours to begin with.

I understand that it can be very difficult for some women to fully realise and acknowledge that you have been indoctrinated. It takes a lot of willpower for someone to be willing to do that, but we are not ‘naturally’ masochistic. When I first opened myself up to reading and appreciating radical feminist writings on BDSM, I remember I had never seen anything as radical, as revolutionary as the notion that sadomasochistic desires were something we had been conditioned to, that they were what a sado-patriarchal society forces upon us –not something we were “born with.”

Because in BDSM, lesbians are encouraged to act out sexualised misogyny, degradation and violence onto other females, lesbophobes win when we engage in it. They can ostracise us even more once they can characterise our sexuality as “inherently violent and degrading” (without even being self-critical of their own heteropatriarchal, sadomasochistic sexuality). Once we have internalised sadistic gay male ideologies and values on our sexuality, lesbophobic people win in their hatred of us. We capitulate when we find no other solution to the hatred of women and of lesbians apart from sexualising it –re-enacting it through heteronormative butch/femme, ‘top’/‘bottom’ scenarios and practices.

BDSM deters us from experiencing full lesbianism, complete love for women. True woman-loving lesbianism is a threat to patriarchy. Men get off on women beating each other up; they get off on women and lesbians being involved in BDSM –because they know perfectly that a subjugated people trapped into internalising their own oppression to its core will not start a revolution.

“Haven’t we learned enough by now to know that wanting to do something that is destructive to ourselves and other females is just not good? For our survival and self-respect, we need to turn our justified hatred against our enemies and our oppressors, instead of inward, letting men’s war against us to be successful.” ~ Bev Jo, ibid.

It is true that we are sometimes still already struggling (radical feminists included) with much milder forms of sub/dom sexuality being constantly bombarded at us within contemporary lesbian culture and seeping into our heads. Hierarchies upon hierarchies are repeatedly woven into the fabric of our society. We are constantly being reminded by a sado-society to sexualise them as an illusory form of ‘release.’ To eradicate all forms of hierarchical sexuality and desires (including the least disrespectful ones), we might have to fight for the destruction of all patriarchal conditions that underpin this sexualisation of hierarchies to begin with.

Nonetheless, it should hopefully be a little easier for woman-focused women to stay away from (or overcome) the most egregious forms of internalisations of sub/dom sexuality via resisting BDSM. The fact that some of us, lesbian feminists especially, have been able to overcome the lie that says we should “get off on our own pain and humiliation” and we have tried to re-build own sexuality in a non-oppressive way (something that can truly be ours, as far as it can be, under patriarchy) is proof that we, womyn, all have the capacity to preserve our own dignity in the realm of genuine female-centred sexuality and love.

Female-centred forms of sexuality and love, however, are being constantly censored from malestream media, including when pseudo-‘lesbianism’ is being propagandised (as in the ‘L Word’ for instance). Real lesbianism looks nothing like what is shown in most mainstream media (not to mention that most malestream media is heteronormative and heteropatriarchal of course). Lesbianism has also got to stop being defined only in terms of ‘sex.’ Lesbians are not just “women who like having sex with other women.” We are, first and foremost, women who love women.

Lesbian BDSM defenders repeatedly argue that there are ‘safety rules’ in sadomasochistic sexuality. This is only true to an extent. I am, myself, a rape survivor and part of the attraction I’d found in BDSM was the illusory sense of ‘safety,’ something I could not experience during my rape. It is unsafe to eroticise your own oppression, your own subordination but you need to believe it is ‘safe,’ that (as a ‘bottom’) you are the one setting boundaries and ‘safety rules’ when it comes to BDSM activities, to carry on. Many lesbian ‘subs’ would like to believe that they are “powerful,” that they have made a completely ‘free choice’ when choosing a BDSM lifestyle. I used to believe this too when I was into that world.

The truth, however, is much more sinister (which is why female ‘bottoms’ have to constantly deny the facts in order to carry this on). Our society is sadomasochistic to its core. It encourages us to submit to a script that continuously glamorises the degradation of women, to worship violence and aggression against ourselves and other women. We are not ‘powerful,’ we are not making a ‘conscious’ choice when we surrender to scenarios that sexualise our own fears and patriarchal torture of ourselves or other women.

Ultimately, you cannot sanitise something which is intrinsically degrading and violent. BDSM is a celebration of our socially accepted inferiority as women. If we refuse to believe the bullshit that women are ‘naturally’ inferior, we must refuse to sexualise this lie. If we, lesbians, genuinely love women there is no reason why we ‘should’ try to make representations of violence against women or of misogynist disrespect into “safe” fantasies or practices –consensual or not.

Those fantasies and practices are not harmless. They exist to beat us down to the ground, to make us stomach our pain, to force us to accept men’s (and male-identified women’s) hatred of us and to enforce a very male-identified het-mindedness onto lesbian sexuality. They exist to erase and corrupt the love that lesbians have for other women. ‘Safety rules’ notwithstanding, BDSM exists to keep us ‘asleep,’ to prevent our true rebellion, our female revolution.

“… 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. But if we become addicted or compulsively fixated in sadomasochism, eroticizing roles of dominance and subordinance, whatever hostility spills over the bounds of the contracts seems more likely to be directed against those who would resist oppression. Thus, sadomasochism may purge us of revolutionary impulses, not only by getting rid of our hostilities, but also by redirecting them, channeling them ultimately against ourselves and those who should be our allies. If so, what sadomasochism eliminates are hostile impulses that might otherwise be used in politically productive ways to bring about real social change. This would make the sadomasochism of others safe for oppressors.” ~ Claudia Card, in ‘Consensual Sadomasochism: charting the issues,’ article re-published on the Feminist Reprise website.

Another major reason why I simply cannot participate in (real or fiction-based) BDSM activities anymore (on top the ‘integrity of well-being’ sort of reason) is actually a purely political reason. I just simply know that I would be unable to be publicly critical of male oppression of women in its many forms (to truly challenge it to its very roots) if I were still to be involved in BDSM and experiencing its anti-revolutionary effects.

As Ti-Grace Atkinson explained in the anthology Against Sadomasochism, BDSM is actually a “reflection of a passive political position” (p. 92). Women who are into BDSM are much less likely to oppose systems of female sexual slavery such as prostitution or pornography, or to challenge a rape culture, for instances. BDSM keeps us too much locked, too trapped into existing oppressive structures to ever seek real, fundamental change.

Lesbian BDSM proponents even go as far as strongly recommending that women who are survivors of rape and/or girlhood abuse should get involved into sadomasochistic practices as a way of gaining some sort of “empowerment” over their own victimisation, of dealing with their past trauma in a “healthy” sort of way in a ‘consensual’ setting. However, this is actually very unhealthy for us. This reminds me of when I first questioned BDSM sexuality: when I started asking myself (after reading both some pro-BDSM and anti-BDSM literature): “Wait a minute. Are we supposed to re-play our own abuse over and over again as a way of ‘gaining power’?” And I thought there really was something wrong here with this whole pro-BDSM thinking.

As Kathy Miriam brilliantly analysed in the anthology Unleashing Feminism, lesbian BDSM is actually a ‘flight from memory,’ women’s memory –both individual and collective. Re-enacting memories of rape or abuse and eroticising them as a ‘turn on’ is not an adequate or productive way of gaining control over those events. Those traumatic events distorted our perceptions of abuse to begin with. We were aggressively told to just “lie there and take it” and even “enjoy it.”

Lesbian BDSM is a fantasy of ‘empowerment’ and ‘control.’ ‘Sub’ BDSMers typically keep refusing to see that all the ‘power’ we derive from sadomasochistic activities is imaginary. The truth is that the people who are really in power in society actually are not female ‘bottom’ BDSMers or lesbians. Those who are in power actually are the ones who benefit from the BDSM of lesbians (and other women): men. Men benefit from lesbian BDSM. Men do not want (and loathe) the possibility of females rebelling against their own degradation. They certainly do not want lesbians to know that the eroticisation of rape culture is not something we were “born with” but something that they (and male-identified women) have indoctrinated us with.

Analysing the work of lesbian BDSMer Carol LeMasters, Miriam added that lesbian BDSM is a sort of ‘fantasy’ that demonstrates the large effort lesbians have made in resisting actual pain and victimisation. Lesbian BDSM does not truly ‘heal’ past trauma. BDSM acts as a political opposition to the power of remembering both our herstory of rebellion against female degradation and our consciousness of the violence that is perpetrated against us on a global scale.

The violence hurts. Therefore we feel the need to escape, the need to ‘playfully experiment’ with the symbols of our own violation rather than struggling to effect real change in the social situation of women and lesbians as a whole –rather than fighting for our liberation. Lesbian BDSM is a ‘flight from memory,’ an escape into cultural oblivion and political inactivity. Lesbian BDSM (just like straight BDSM in this case) keeps women politically asleep.

Lesbian BDSM proponents argue in support of an attempt to ‘free’ ourselves from memories of rape via “dislodging” memories, but in a manner that keeps one trapped into the past –forces her to re-experience the abuse, re-live the torture and the captivity again and again endlessly. It should be noted for that matter that it is irrelevant if our actual rape did not involve getting tied up while our ‘consensual’ BDSM experience did, because when we are raped we are already having our movements restrained by men. We are still reliving that trauma in BDSM if we include binding forms of restraint. Different thing, same principle.

If lesbian BDSM really is a way of controlling memory through fantasy, it certainly is not a way of gaining power over our actual trauma. Nor it is a way of challenging the reality of sexual violence. Lesbian BDSM proponents choose to ignore the reality of heteropatriarchy and its colonisation of the female and lesbian body –its cultural violation of us and other women.

“You cannot simultaneously oppose and worship violence….The symbols of slavery, imprisonment, torture and death have no place in the hearts of women who plan to fight for less glamorous things like dignity, life and justice.” ~ D.A. Clarke, ‘Consuming Passions’ in Unleashing Feminism.

You cannot both oppose and worship violence against women. When you start thinking about lesbian BDSM in a clear-headed (non-sexualised) way, you can easily see that it is not possible. Lesbian BDSM prevents us from re-building a truly healthy lesbian community. Once we’ll be able to challenge BDSM and other patriarchal invasions within our own communities, then perhaps we might then become stronger in our fight against heteropatriarchal lesbian-hating and woman-hating within society as a whole.

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Maggie H. is a radical lesbian feminist. She frequently reads the Radical Hub, and has commented here before. She is a sociology student in the School of Social and Political Sciences at University in the UK. She has taken a temporary break from radical feminist blogging (during her studies), and plans to come back to the radfem blogosphere under a different screen-name after graduating…

20 Comments to “Lesbian BDSM, part 3: BDSM and the Prevention of Revolution”

  1. ‘Sub’ BDSMers typically keep refusing to see that all the ‘power’ we derive from sadomasochistic activities is imaginary. The truth is that the people who are really in power in society actually are not female ‘bottom’ BDSMers or lesbians. Those who are in power actually are the ones who benefit from the BDSM of lesbians (and other women): men. Men benefit from lesbian BDSM. Men do not want (and loathe) the possibility of females rebelling against their own degradation. They certainly do not want lesbians to know that the eroticisation of rape culture is not something we were “born with” but something that they (and male-identified women) have indoctrinated us with.’

    I’ve repeated these sentences because they are central as to how BDSM operates whereby male-centric propaganda does sadly indoctrinate many women into believing men’s lies and accepting the lie that women innately want; need and and enjoy being reduced to dehumanised sex toys.

    Thank you Maggie for so succinctly explaining how men’s propaganda operates concerning the now endemic glorification of BDSM.

    As D.A. Clarke says ‘you cannot simultaneously oppose and worship violence.’ Lesbian BDSM imitates male sexual violence against women and reinforces men’s collective belief that women are not human but merely dehumanised objects who can be subjected to horrific violence because they are not human.

    When we women internalise male oppression over us as ‘truth’ this effectively ensures men’s continuing war of endemic male hatred towards females succeeds. Lesbian BDSM is a very effective way of silencing women’s resistance to male oppression and male domination. But at same time we must recognise how powerful the endless propaganda concerning BDSM is and over difficult it is for many women to overcome decades of conditioning into accepting being female means one is innately inferior to default male. We must also recognise that just because certain women glorify BDSM and promote it as ‘female empowerment’ this does not mean we cannot hold these women accountable for promoting women-hating and maintenance of male domination over all women.

    This is precisely what men want – for women to remain silent and not challenge men and their female handmaidens who tirelessly work to silence any dissent from the lie that ‘lesbian BDSM will empower lesbian women.’ On the contrary lesbian BDSM maintains male domination over all women because men are supposedly default human. Violence is real never ‘fantasy’ and that is why BDSM is antithetical to women’s liberation from male domination – particularly the real meaning of women loving women which is not what men claim ‘just women doing sex with other women for men’s sexual titillation.’

  2. Well-researched, well-written and very persuasive arguments. Thank you again, Maggie.

  3. Here is the link to Unleashing Feminism (a radical lesbian feminist critique) of lesbian BDSM: http://www.amazon.com/Unleashing-Feminism-Critiquing-Sadomasochism-Collection/dp/0939821044/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1350393350&sr=1-1&keywords=Unleashing+Feminism for those who are interested.

    I am a former BDSMer myself, and I completely understand what it’s like to build a whole personal identity around BDSM culture and practice. When you are into that world, you tend to have a BDSM friendship network with common people you know and who identify with the same things as you do. There are also lesbian friendship networds that have been created between women around lesbian BDSM, and we will have to question them in order to move forward. The fact is there are countless other harmful patriarchal practices, norms or institutions around which women have created friendship networks (feminine beauty practices and patriarchal religions are two other examples of this, among many), and that does not make those things any less harmful.

    Leather also becomes a common part of your identity when you’re into BDSM. You use BDSM paraphernalia during sex –while ignoring the fact that leather has historically been a material thriving on oppression (in this case the oppression of animals by humans; now as a vegan, I no longer use any leather). I also totally understand the “desire” to be mean to radical feminists and want to shut them out as “vanilla women” or whatever. The first time I had read critiques of BDSM, I thought, “what the fuck? Are you criticising me?” But I carried on reading nonetheless –both radical feminist (anti-BDSM) writings and libertarian feminist (pro-BDSM) writings– before I actually made up my mind. I will elaborate more on this in Part 3. What I cannot understand though is the “need” by some BDSMers to be so mean to quitters (recovered BDSMers) just because we want to write analyses that don’t suit them.

    In Part 3 here, my focus there is now on causes, consequences and challenges: How has BDSM come to be mainstreamed in our lesbian communities? (because of Gay men and a few male-identified handmaidens of patriarchy who spread it to the masses) Who benefits from lesbian BDSM? (men) What are the consequences/effects of lesbian BDSM on women’s lives, on our communities in general and on women’s liberation? This and more, Part 3 is about, though, for Part 1 & 2, it was very important for me to analyse our currently queer-dominated lesbian culture and the type of media that may be influencing those women into organising lesbian BDSM events such as what takes place in places like the ‘candy bar’ for instance –where women are encouraged to reproduce male-centric, pornographic ‘lesbianism’ at the expense of the full potential of our deeply woman-loving feelings.

    I understand that not all survivors of abuse become BDSMers and not all BDSMers are survivors of abuse. However, many female ‘bottom’ BDSMers (lesbian or otherwise) are survivors or abuse or rape –so there clearly is still a common pattern of experience here worth mentioning. As for the lesbian ‘sub’ BDSMers who aren’t survivors of rape/abuse, well, those women still live in a rape culture anyway –a culture in which violence against women is being normalised (in media, in society, everywhere) and women are taught not to remember or know (or refuse to know) the extent of male oppression of women, hence all women into BDSM have been influenced into reproducing hierachical elements of the patriarchal system for sexual “turn on.”

    The work I did on my ‘Lesbian BDSM’ series came out after a whole lot of effort, blood, sweat and tears (and pain) in my life –pain at seeing some of my lesbian sisters being so trapped into reproducing the exact sadomasochistic dynamics that men want them to reproduce, the exact dynamics I used to be (myself) trapped into. We have to face this fact in the lesbian community: men get their rocks off at the idea of women beating each other up, tying each other up, making cuts into each other’s skin, etc for sexual ‘fun’ or for ‘pleasure.’ Men salivate like drooling wolves in heat at the thought of women eroticising pain, fear, torture, slavery, captivity or danger. And men support women subordinating other women into BDSM practices which are all straightforwardly antithetical to female liberation. I do not blame the women who are being caught up in the lesbian BDSM world. I blame gay male poisoning in our communities, queer/pomo theorists, the LGBTQWTF alphabet soupblend movement, the female handmaidens of patriarchy who actively and politically support BDSM and the men/handmaidens who control mainstream lesbian media.

  4. I’d like to add something for the lesbians who support radical lesbian feminists on the trans issue but not on lesbian BDSM (like for instance what’s been happening at Michfest, where some lesbians there call themselves ‘radical feminists’ while still supporting the BDSM on the Land: I am sorry but defence of BDSM does not make any more sense than a defence of pornography as far as radical lesbian feminism is concerned. Radical lesbian feminism has herstorically opposed lesbian BDSM. Radical lesbian feminists such as Sheila Jeffreys, Mary Daly, Audre Lorde, Sarah Lucia Hogland, Kathy Miriam, D.A. Clarke, Ti-Grace Atkinson, etc (among many others) have fully explained and analysed in their works why lesbian BDSM is inherently patriarchal and antithetical to radical lesbian feminism. What got mislabelled by handmaidens of patriarchy like Pat Califia as the “lesbian sex wars” is in fact part of the radical lesbian feminist fight for women’s common humanity and resistance to degradation, humiliation, etc as well as the genuine (non-patriarchal) liberation of women and lesbians from phallo-centric norms and male-created oppression. I totally understand that not all BDSMers participate in (say) x or y sexual practice within BDSM (though my own work tends to focus on lesbian BDSM on a broad spectrum). However, to radical lesbian feminists, all forms of eroticisation of female subordination result from internalisation of patriarchal norms (IOW, all forms of BDSM). Every political movement has its own basic tenets and beliefs (and to be a member of a particular political movement, one has to fully agree with the most central basic tenets of it). According to us radical lesbian feminists, to be free, we have to break free from every single shackle of BDSM –BDSM shackles that want to keep us locked into systems of subordination and enslave us to male-centric sexual ideology, dynamics and practice. If some lesbians want to carry on defending BDSM (or some elements of it) and believe that they are being “absolutely free and proud,” they can do so; but it is a lesbian libertarian position –not a radical lesbian feminist one. They can carry on believing that they are being “progressive” lesbians who are being “feminist” by claiming that women have “complete control,” the complete “freedom to choose” regarding BDSM and that we are still “free and liberated” when we engage in BDSM –but their political position on this is therefore lesbian libertarian, not radical lesbian feminist. Radical lesbian feminism has herstorically opposed all sexualised forms of domination and subordination. Now I understand that if some lesbian BDSMers do agree with us radical feminists on the trans issue (and male invasion of lesbian spaces) and they want to support us in that fight against the Trans Cult, it’s a good thing. However, radical lesbian feminism is not a politics in which you can cherry-pick the elements of it that suit you (just like some other women might agree with our analysis of pornography or lesbian BDSM but disagree with us on the trans issue) while shunning other radical lesbian feminist analyses because they are being too painful for you to look into (or because of the fact that you may have formed too much of a personal identity or too many personal lesbian friendship networks around BDSM. Hey, I know how it feels like, I used to be there). As a friend of mine explained on Facebook, sometimes it can be hard for some of us women to read radfem criticisms of the things that have been normalised within our lives or lifestyles, and we’d rather shoot the messenger rather than taking a good look at our lives and think about change. It is normal to be defensive and disagreeing. But, ultimately (as my friend explained it so well), it is very much necessary to examine every aspects of our lives under male supremacy –not just the elements of our lives that we are willing to change, challenge or question, but also the elements which we are being defensive of (kudos to allecto 😉 ). I understand that I cannot change lesbian BDSMers. For myself, nobody could even change me. I could only change myself (and to be able to do so was an immense step –considering that the endorphins effect in BDSM, for instance, is addictive). Nobody can really change us. We can only be willing to (as women) change ourselves. If lesbian libertarians’ hope is that I stop writing rad fem analyses of lesbian BDSM, all I can say is that I will not submit to attempts at silencing a radical lesbian feminist critique of BDSM or pornography, just like the fact that I will no longer submit to BDSM ideology and practice.

  5. Brilliant. Sadly, these things have to be written again and again, because they are hidden, like all herstory. Women get depressed feeling alone because “no one” is seeing the truth out there. We have get in touch again.

  6. Maggie, this is a brilliant analysis. Thank you so much for this. I wish all Lesbians and all women would read it.

    It’s so important to keep reminding everyone of the lies and cons of sado-masochism. It’s interesting to see what has happened all these years later, with Califia going full circle back to men, though claiming she’s a man herself now. To me, there is a dirtyness that is part of male sexuality (I don’t even like using the term “sex” for Lesbians) that the pornographers and sado-masochists brought directly into our communities. And now we are seeing the after-effects. Even some of the few sado-masochists who claim to be radical feminists have also been charged with doing non-consentual sadism.

    By the way, Califia and her women friends who worship gay men, brought that gay male influence of porn and sado-masochism into our community by 1979, before AIDS appeared. In our chapter in “Dykes-Loving-Dykes,” now at my blog, we chronicled the het, male, and mixed groups that Samois (the first “Lesbian Feminist” sado-masochist group) came out of. They published “Coming to Power” in its original form by the late Seventies. So they don’t even have the excuse of exposure to gay male decadence through supporting gay men with AIDS. They brought this addiction into our community when gay men were at their peak of sexual activity and sado-masochism. I remember seeing notices for groups about bondage begin in the Lesbian community just before Samois appeared. (It was all right here in the SF Bay Area.)

    The insults and cruelty to those who quit and who say no to them is so typical of cult behavior.

    Part of the appeal of course too is that, despite pretending to be daring outlaws, sado-masochism is extremely boring and mainstream. So while being trendy, sado-masochists can feel secure in knowing they are still following the rules men set for women and are not threatening patriarchy or the enemies of Lesbians in any way.

  7. BDSM is another form of oppression sickness in the lesbian community. There is a significant financial reward for all of this–from sex toys being promoted at lesbian “health’ conferences, to porn, to glorification of gay male sexual practices. I have often had to stand up against BDSM in lesbian groups, and it is by far the most controversial thing I do. But I do find, in setting limits..someone invited me to a group reading of lesbian BDSM “literature” at a sex toy shop, and I just said I don’t go to stuff like that.

    We fail to really engage in what is truly woman loving, what is sensual or passionate or tender. And this aspect of lesbian life has always been very important to me. It is the deep intellectual love of a woman, a kind of closeness that simply doesn’t exist in heterosexuality.

    In failing to have so much room for the kind, the tender, the gently sexual, the deeply felt connections between lesbians, we short change ourselve to the merchants of shame and degredation— merchants, profiteers of porn— all of these people want to colonize the lesbian world, and this world had brought on an incredible amount of death and sexually transmitted diseases.
    I feel so sorry for all the women who are victimized by this nonsense and ritualized abuse. So articles like this are important in warning the lesbian community about who these people like Califia really are. They carve NAZI symbols on lesbian bodies, they refuse to shut up when you tell them NOT TO TALK about BDSM experiences… they don’t honor the word NO at all. I think they are a dark and evil element in the community, or a lost element or a sad sell out to male supremacy.

    Trying to create and maintain a strong lesbian feminist woman loving community is very hard work. Very hard. LEsbian feminism –the radical kind is THE MOST hated ideology on the planet, and yet women who are a part of this have been the most movingly loving, intimate partners I have ever known.

  8. By the way, Califia and her women friends who worship gay men, brought that gay male influence of porn and sado-masochism into our community by 1979, before AIDS appeared. In our chapter in “Dykes-Loving-Dykes,” now at my blog, we chronicled the het, male, and mixed groups that Samois (the first “Lesbian Feminist” sado-masochist group) came out of. They published “Coming to Power” in its original form by the late Seventies. So they don’t even have the excuse of exposure to gay male decadence through supporting gay men with AIDS. They brought this addiction into our community when gay men were at their peak of sexual activity and sado-masochism. I remember seeing notices for groups about bondage begin in the Lesbian community just before Samois appeared. (It was all right here in the SF Bay Area.)

    Ha, thank you Bev Jo for the clarification. 🙂 I still think the HIV scare and the homophobia linked to it amplified lesbians’ support for gay men. I know that it has been documented by some lesbian feminists that even more lesbians joined gay men and supported them rather than carrying on supporting feminism during the HIV scare (though how things happened may have varied from country to country, or state to state). But you are right, the HIV scare must have just added more lesbian support for gay men rather than initiated it. I still think that even more lesbians became heavily influenced by gay male sexuality/BDSM after the HIV scare. But I also agree that some lesbians’ worship for gay men & BDSM did start in the late 70’s in some areas (especially California).

    Hecuba, Hannah, FrauHupfdohle, Bev Jo and SheilaG– thank you so much for your support and insightful comments here, along with your appreciation of my work. *hugs to all* I might add something later. 🙂

  9. I agree, Sheila. Lesbian love-making is so exqusite, beautiful, magical, and powerful. I remember a friend’s mother warning me and my first lover that we should never start or we would be unable to stop!

    BDSM just sullies Lesbians, and makes so many just bored, acting on rote games, destroying passion and wildness.

    There is nothing as powerful and loving as gentle Lesbian love-making while looking into each other’s eyes, feeling every part of every moment, merging and sharing it all.

  10. Yes, the late 70s did spark the beginnings of the degredation and sexual weirdness that came into the lesbian community, and it was before AIDS hit. So maybe all of this was just in the air, waiting to be born.
    And it was. But the escallation of lesbians being colonized by gay men did come out of the AIDS crisis, and it was the huge decadence of gay male sexuality gone crazy that brought sexually transmitted diseases out of the closet so to speak.
    What I found weird was all of this— I ended up in San Francisco in the 80s, and it was just nuts. I do recall the very day I got a copy of “On Our Backs” in the mail. I published a feminist magazine and did exchanges everywhere, so this magazine ended up in my mail box. I was so horrified, it is the only lesbian publication I ever ripped up on the spot and threw in the trash. And it was a glossy magazine…. something none of the other lesbian mags were at the time, so I wondered who had the money to fund such a thing.
    I never could figure out what the attraction was to kink, sex toys, BDSM, the whole mess. It had nothing to do with the depth and love I feel from lesbians; it was simply other and weird. There is a connection between the female to trans groups and BDSM which they are very open about. And a lot of younger women considered it hip and cool, but they gave off a very creepy vib to me. You can feel the pornification as if it is toxic waste. So anything we can do to stand up to this is necessary.
    I could never see why lesbians, who have such limited resources, would give all these resources to gay men, who never supported lesbian feminism to begin with. In fact, gay men have always hated lesbian feminists and our desire for separate male free spaces, and the AIDS industry just continues to take lesbian money out of the community in record amounts.

    When I think of the beauty of women, in the compelling kindness of women, in the intellectual power of the lesbian mind let loose in the world, I feel so profoundly sorry that any lesbian had to be a part of that world. But I am so glad many are escaping the sexual violence that really is at the heart of the male soul.

  11. I really agree, Maggie, that Lesbians wanting to help gay men with AIDS definitely increased the contact and picking up gay male culture.

    It’s so important how you say that you won’t let anyone silence you about this also. It’s hard when we do have some shared politics with sado-masochists, but I learned yet again, that their comfortability with inequality and using bullying techniques and also abusive ways of dealing with conflict make them not possible to work with politically, except at a far difference.

    Another part to all this that I don’t know how to deal with is those Radical Feminists who are politically against sado-masochism but who clearly enjoy being sadistic emotionally privately, or even publicly, when there are disagreements. I have seen it too many times. Some have histories of being physically and emotionally abusive in relationships, but I don’t know how they reconcile that with their current politics or what they say about their past. (That is very different from women who once were into BDSM and who have stopped. This is women who were/are non-consentually abusive, not in a BDSM setting.) I’m also not talking about women who are being strong and direct in political arguments, but who cross the line into cruelty and oppressiveness.

    There is so much to explore with all of this, including how we are trained into it from girlhood because patriarchal culture is inherently sado-masochistic. To not unconsciously act it out is on a whole other level from saying no to the public culture of it. I think to not treat others how we don’t want to be treated is a good way to start. The desire for power over and to bully and just to hurt because you can fuels too many women. But I don’t think they realize that they are being literally and non-consensually sadistic.

  12. Cheers Maggie! This is a great finish to your three part BDSM series. It’s so important for lesbians to examine the powerfully negative impact that BDSM has on our lesbian communities. BDSM certainly isn’t empowering. It’s extremely dis-empowering. I was once a participant in the BDSM community, being introduced by a former girlfriend. I am thankful to no longer be a part of that scene. I wish more women/lesbians who are not radical feminists or interested in radical feminism were more open to reading and discussing an analysis such as the one you have written Maggie. More open dialogue among women/lesbians is crucial to spreading awareness of how BDSM promotes, embraces, and encourages violence against women…There are countless other ways for women to express ourselves to each other during lovemaking without demeaning, degrading, and disrespecting each other through acts of bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism…

  13. Maggie, I’ve really enjoyed this three part series. It has really resonated with me.

    You mentioned this point:

    “What I cannot understand though is the “need” by some BDSMers to be so mean to quitters (recovered BDSMers) just because we want to write analyses that don’t suit them. ”

    It reminded me of how ex- transgendered people are treated when they decide to de-transition. I remember one case where a young man, couldn’t have been older than 24, gave a short interview about his regrets. He was consequently bombarded with hate on youtube, and called a liar by transwomen who were accusing him of not really being a transsexual. This prompted him to make a second video, where he was clearly upset, showing people his fake breasts to prove that he had, indeed, gone through the “sex-change” operations. He was attracted only to men, but because he no longer had a penis (and now had fake breasts) gay men weren’t interested in him , and at the same time straight men didn’t want him. And what did the trans cult do, but attack him relentlessly for being so honest.

    And I guess it all boils down to the fact that you have to stick your fingers in your ears and go “la la la” if you want to continue living a certain way without thinking too deeply about what it all means. It’s a case of shoot the messenger.

  14. Hecuba-

    Lesbian BDSM imitates male sexual violence against women and reinforces men’s collective belief that women are not human but merely dehumanised objects who can be subjected to horrific violence because they are not human.

    You’re absolutely right. It’s not because that it’s women participating in this together that it makes the patriarchal practice “better.” One woman is actually acting as an agent of patriarchy in “being the man” there as she sexually ‘plays’ at re-enacting torture and slavery onto another woman, i.e. re-enacting violence against women.

    As for the few lesbian BDSMers who might argue that “swapping roles” might make things “more equal,” I completely disagree with this. Playing at swapping hierarchies offers nothing ‘revolutionary.’ This is not real challenge to patriarchy, and it still keeps participants into political (anti-revolutionary) passivity. However, even in the lesbian BDSM community, ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’ typically don’t swap roles. BDSM dynamics generally remain thoroughly rigid, just like with men dominating women.

    Our society is based on hierarchies upon hierarchies. Here, re-quoting Luckynkl on this

    Patriarchy is based on hierarchy and our entire culture is structured by the dom/sub relationship. Since patriarchy is global, the dom/sub relationship is a global paradigm. Male/female, husband/wife, masculinity/femininity, het/gay, butch/femme, white/black, rich/poor, parent/child, employer/employee, landlord/tenant, teacher/student, sadist/masochist – these are all examples of the dom/sub relationship. Notice the dependency and how one cannot exist without the other. There can be no rich without the poor, there can be no masculinity without femininity, there can be no teacher without a student, there can be no boss without workers, there can be no state without citizens. So the dom/sub relationship is crucial to patriarchy. Without it, patriarchy and male supremacy could not exist. Because in order for power to exist, a subordinate is required. It should come as no surprise then that the dom/sub relationship is what men and their patriarchy worship and eroticize. Sex is not what men eroticize. It is the power-over a subordinate that men eroticize. […]

    That said, BDSM is just one more variety of the dom/sub relationship which our society is structured on. It is eroticized because our society worships and eroticizes the dom/sub relationship. Lesbians are not exempt. They assume the roles and eroticize what the entire culture does. Some eroticize/envy the dom role, others eroticize/envy the sub role.

    Lesbian BDSMers (and other BDSMers) eroticise hierarchies that are already present within the very fabric of our society and tend to see this eroticisation as a form of “release,” a sort of “catharsis” while living in this society –but these women are in fact being kept completely asleep politically. You cannot have people who will start a political rebellion against an unjust system when they are already sexualising the very hierarchies and authoritarian relationships that oppress them. I think, also, that BDSM (because it involves the sexualisation of danger and/or pain) it has even much more negative effects on us that any other sort of (milder) hierarchical sexuality…

    FrauHupfdohle-

    Sadly, these things have to be written again and again, because they are hidden, like all herstory. Women get depressed feeling alone because “no one” is seeing the truth out there. We have get in touch again.

    I agree. 😦 We really need to get in touch with each other again, as womyn.

    SheilaG-

    Trying to create and maintain a strong lesbian feminist woman loving community is very hard work. Very hard. LEsbian feminism –the radical kind is THE MOST hated ideology on the planet, and yet women who are a part of this have been the most movingly loving, intimate partners I have ever known.

    Exactly!

    I could never see why lesbians, who have such limited resources, would give all these resources to gay men, who never supported lesbian feminism to begin with. In fact, gay men have always hated lesbian feminists and our desire for separate male free spaces, and the AIDS industry just continues to take lesbian money out of the community in record amounts.

    Yes, that’s right, Sheila. Lesbian should seriously tell gay men to fuck off and stay away from our own (lesbian) community. Those gay men are just as misogynistic as any other men. I wish more lesbians would realise this…

    BevJo-

    Lesbian love-making is so exqusite, beautiful, magical, and powerful. I remember a friend’s mother warning me and my first lover that we should never start or we would be unable to stop!

    Yeah, you said it right. 🙂 I wish more women knew this. *sigh*

    I think to not treat others how we don’t want to be treated is a good way to start. The desire for power over and to bully and just to hurt because you can fuels too many women. But I don’t think they realize that they are being literally and non-consensually sadistic.

    Yes, some BDSMers are like that. I hate it when they constantly try to force BDSM culture upon us as if it were such “fun.” Some BDSMers are clearly loud-mouthed and non-consensual in the ways they will ensure that they will make you hear about BDSM being ‘hip’ and ‘fun.’ Fuck this, seriously…

    Marcia- 🙂 So good to see you here again. *hugs* I am so glad to have another quitter (ex-BDSMer) as a friend. It makes me feel not alone. 🙂

    I wish more women/lesbians who are not radical feminists or interested in radical feminism were more open to reading and discussing an analysis such as the one you have written Maggie. More open dialogue among women/lesbians is crucial to spreading awareness of how BDSM promotes, embraces, and encourages violence against women…

    Marcia, I think that, as a lesbian feminist of colour, you could definitely bring so much of your knowledge to your friends in the lesbian community. Talk to them, explain to them how BDSM (with its mockeries like e.g. “slavery can be consensual,” etc) in fact represents both the patriarchal normalisation of violence against women and the sexualisation of racism against Black women. You may also get your friends to see my work on this (these three posts) if you wish and if it can help.

    Cherry-

    I guess it all boils down to the fact that you have to stick your fingers in your ears and go “la la la” if you want to continue living a certain way without thinking too deeply about what it all means. It’s a case of shoot the messenger.

    Exactly. Although I also think that because BDSM can be an addiction (just like alcohol), asking a BDSMer to analyse BDSM is a bit like asking an alcoholic why they drink. That’s why some BDSMers will defend and argue their position tooth and nail, and even more so if they’re also pornography users. BDSM and pornography often go hand in hand.

  15. Yes, BDSM is a physical addiction isn’t it, as well as an emotional one.

  16. Cherry- I certainly agree and understand what you mean regarding “And I guess it all boils down to the fact that you have to stick your fingers in your ears and go “la la la” if you want to continue living a certain way without thinking too deeply about what it all means. It’s a case of shoot the messenger.” I’ve previously had chats with women that “defend” their involvement with rationale such as enjoying the music at “play parties” or enjoying the “escape” they believe BDSM grants them, totally disregarding BDSM’s various negative impacts on women. But I’ve grown to understand and accept that everyone comes to decisions to alter their path in their own time. I guess we (feminist women) just have to wait until they are ready and then make ourselves available to listen and be supportive…

    Maggie- *hugs back to you* You’re not alone. 🙂

  17. Absolutely Marcia, I think Maggie has been very clear about the fact that she is in no way *judging* or *criticizing* the women who are caught up in BDSM; rather she is analyzing the patriarchal structures behind the very existence of the practice.

  18. Yeah, and that’s what RadFem is – analyzing what’s behind rather than claiming “it’s all my free will to do so”. It’s about culture, not about single people. And it’s questioning oneself, whatever one might “like”. I hope so much, “third wave” will end soon…

  19. Thankyou Maggie!
    I go to college with a woman who told me that these dom/sub bullshit things are “natural”, I said that if it’s so natural then why do I despise hierarchies? What species am I then, hmmmm? So this is why I am thankful for this article.
    I would add government/inhabitants of country to Luckynkl’s hierarchies.

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