The morality of BDSM

The acronym BDSM refers to several related sexual practices: Bondage & Discipline, Domination/Submission and Sadism/Masochism. Fundamentally, BDSM involves yielding control to your partner. It may involve either physical pain or humiliation:

One of Baumeister’s favorite — perhaps apocryphal — stories is that of a woman whose husband threw her a birthday party, inviting lots of people. She was posed nude and spread-eagle on the hors d’oeuvre table. Every party-goer who reached for a cracker or the vegetable dip had to reach across her bare self.

In recent years, BDSM activity has entered mainstream culture:

Sadomasochism has also become a popular theme for advertisers who seek to appear “edgy” or unconventional. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., a mainstream brewer of popular beers, including Bud Lite, now sponsors the Folsom Street Fair and Diesel brand Jeans runs ads in major fashion magazines with an S&M theme.

Here in Canada, the television show Kink documents BDSM culture. Kink is broadcast on Showcase — a standard cable channel (not pay-per-view).

kink.jpg

Mental health authorities no longer regard a predilection for BDSM as a mental disorder in and of itself:

In certain extreme cases, sadism and masochism can include fantasies, sexual urges or behaviour that cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, to the point that they can be considered part of a mental disorder. However, this is an uncommon case, and psychiatrists are now moving towards regarding sadism and masochism not as disorders in and of themselves, but only as disorders when associated with other problems such as a personality disorder.

Nonetheless, I have serious reservations about the morality of BDSM.

I tend to apply broad principles to determine the morality of any behaviour, including sexual behaviours:

  • No harm, no foul.
  • Consenting adults should be free to do as they please in private.
  • Behaviour that is both respectful and reciprocal is unobjectionable.

In my view, BDSM is problematic on all three counts.

Folsom Street Fair 2006First, the submissive party may be at risk of harm. Here I should distinguish between hard-core activity and other, relatively playful forms of BDSM. It seems that many adults utilize blindfolds or restraints as one variation of their sexual play, without taking even a remote risk of physical harm.1 But activity of the sort pictured on the right risks mutilating the body.

Second, the term consent is problematic in BDSM activity. The Web sites I’ve visited assume the activity is consensual insofar as the submissive party establishes limits:

While it might be assumed that the “sadist,” or “top” — the person who gives the sensation or causes the humiliation — is the one with the power, the actual power may lie with the “masochist,” or “bottom,” who typically creates the script, or at least sets the boundaries, by which the S&M practitioners play.

The argument is valid only if we assume that the “bottom” is psychologically healthy. Arguably the bottom’s willingness to submit to extreme physical pain and/or humiliation is de facto evidence of a psychological disturbance. Consent is not valid unless it is given by an adult of sound mind.

Finally, I wonder whether BDSM activity can be characterized as respectful and reciprocal. This may be a subjective judgement. Personally, I could not bring myself to inflict serious physical pain on another human being, even if s/he begged me to do it. I can’t regard such behaviour as respectful; therefore it offends my conscience. But I accept that others may come to a different conclusion where the behaviour is consensual.

As for reciprocity, while some people alternate roles, it’s clear that other people never do so. This post was provoked by Barbara Nitke’s photo of the week2, with its accompanying text:

This moment was at the end of an intense play piercing and flogging scene, which had been cathartic for Kimiko. She started crying, and then became deeply embarrassed. There were just a few of us there, but she looked around the room, and asked if it was okay about the crying.

Soulhuntre untied her from the cross, and then held her very gently.

One of the reasons I liked the shot [of Soulhuntre hugging Kimiko] so much was that I felt it was out of character for him. Soulhuntre never shows much compassion, at least publicly. Kimiko is a 24/7 service slave, so their relationship is more about her giving service than being hugged and comforted.

He also has another slave, Tatsumi, and the three have been together for about ten years now, in what appears to be a stable and rewarding relationship for all.

Note that Kimiko is a 24/7 service slave, and this small expression of compassion was apparently out of character for Soulhuntre. The sadism is clearly not reciprocal: their respective roles were established ten years ago.

Finally, to return to an issue raised earlier, I find myself wondering about the psychological health of any person who would submit to 24/7 “service” involving intense physical pain.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1According to Wikipedia: “A 1990 Kinsey Institute report stated that 5% to 10% of Americans occasionally engage in sexual activities related to BDSM. This was based on the 1983 Playboy Readers Sex Survey by Walter Lowe. There has been an explosive growth in the BDSM community since the 1983 study, which raises the possibility that the 1983 figures are unrepresentative of current behavior [citation needed].”

2Since the photo will only be displayed for one week, I’ll explain that it shows a clothed man hugging a much smaller naked woman.

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33 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. whig
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 00:51:37

    I think it rises to a matter of public concern if and when people turn up in hospitals. I think it may well be immoral according to your perspective, but many things likely are which cannot be prevented without working a greater harm. If there is evidence of non-consent it becomes another matter, of course. Even if the participants (or any of them) are mentally unwell, forcing medication on them to change their lifestyle choices is a non-starter.

  2. whig
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 00:52:21

    With that said, nothing prevents you or anyone from suggesting someone get help.

  3. Stephen
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 07:51:13

    It may well be immoral according to your perspective, but many things likely are which cannot be prevented without working a greater harm.

    That’s a good point, Whig. I should clarify the purpose of the post. I do not think BDSM activity should be criminalized. If the submissive party suffers serious physical harm as a result of the activity, I gather that the dominant party may be criminally liable — “consent” notwithstanding.

    I posted on the subject for the reasons explained at the beginning of the post: BDSM activity has entered mainstream culture. I know our society values tolerance (“to each his own”) but we shouldn’t be naive: some behaviours do cross the line into immorality.

    That doesn’t mean they should be criminalized. Criminal law should not be our primary tool to solve social problems.

    On your second comment — I don’t know anyone who engages in the sort of BDSM activity that causes me concern. The post was provoked, as I said, by Barbara Nitke’s photo of the week. Philosophically, I find it interesting to consider how to defend moral judgements without appealing to revelation.

  4. Bill
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 09:01:20

    I would suggest that outside the comercial realm that a health warning may be in order, inside the comercial realm a labeling of products for sale for BDSM may be all that can be done. In other words a signal from society that BDSM activity is tolerated but within certain bounds.

  5. JewishAtheist
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 13:48:03

    I agree that the key question is that of consent. If someone genuinely prefers to be a slave (sexual or not) is it moral to enslave him or her?

    I’m troubled, though, by the idea of assuming one is mentally incompetent to make decisions based on unusual preferences. What do we mean when we say that someone who craves being hurt and humiliated must “have something wrong with them?” We certainly don’t mean that they are necessarily schizophrenic, depressed, manic, mentally retarded, or psychotic. We have to make a distinction between mental states which are unusual and perhaps even unhealthy on the one side and states which render a person unable to give consent on the other.

    Assuming we agree the submissive is capable of giving true consent, the question at hand has two parts:

    1) Is BDSM “harmful” to the submissive?
    2) Is it moral to harm someone with their consent?

    And I think both of those stem from the same ultimate question, which is, what is “harm?” Who can judge what is harmful other than the person being allegedly harmed (if competent?) Trans-fatty acids are harmful — is it immoral for me to bring my girlfriend a couple Oreos?

    Ultimately, if a person is competent of consent, he or she is the only person who can define what is harmful to him/her self, even if, from an outside perspective, we may disagree.

    (By similar logic, I believe competent adults should be allowed to be prostitutes, to get assisted suicide from a willing person, to use harmful drugs, etc.)

  6. whig
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 14:16:33

    Stephen, it seems to me that you are trying to establish whether BDSM is moral or immoral in some absolute sense, but human choices and actions are never absolute. Whether it is moral for you is a matter of your own perspective, and I would encourage you to abstain from that which you find hateful and wrong — but that’s my morality.

    There is no judgment proper to this, unless in specific cases with circumstances that make it necessary to intervene, as when consent is not evidenced.

  7. whig
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 14:24:12

    Now to the matter of relativism, it can be attacked on the grounds that it makes murder a matter of personal choice. Unfortunately we have evidence that it is, when organized by the state and perpetrated against people of another country it is even sometimes called heroic.

    This is not to justify that, and war is immoral to me. But those who find themselves in circumstances which compel them to act under some duress or delusion cannot be held to the same standards as one who understands and freely chooses to do something. I would not condemn a soldier too quickly, would you?

    I say that we reflect ourselves back to ourselves and what we do we receive in its proper measure. What you plant, you harvest.

  8. Stephen
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 14:33:05

    • Bill:
    … a signal from society that BDSM activity is tolerated but within certain bounds.

    Thanks for the constructive input. Your suggestions are constructive, they illustrate my point that there are ways of solving social problems short of criminalization, and your bottom line sums up my concern precisely. In general, society should be tolerant of people’s sexual predilections, but tolerance should have its limits.

    • JA;
    I’m glad you weighed in on this issue and argued a contrary point of view. I think your two questions clarify the consent issue — you isolate the core issue better than I did in the post.

    Ultimately, I reject the premise that there is no objective measure of harm: that it’s purely up to the subject to define it for him- or herself.

    I am sympathetic to your concern about declaring someone incompetent to give consent. When we start dividing people up into the competent and the incompetent, we open the door to totalitarian control. I think that suggestion is the most provocative point in my post.

    On the other hand, the state has always intervened to prevent disturbed people from destroying themselves. And I would not shrink from declaring that Kimiko, for example, is a disturbed person, on a trajectory to self-destruction.

    I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to describe their S&M “play” as torture. Kimiko needs help, and it troubles me that she has been abandoned to live out her life in this horrific scenario for ten years already.

    As you know, I’m also opposed to assisted suicide. But I think the case for it is stronger than the case for abandoning Kimiko and her like to their fate. A person with a terminal illness cannot evade death. But there is no reason that Kimiko must continue to be tortured.

    As I said to Whig, I’m not arguing for criminalization. But I am concerned that friends and family, or whatever outside contacts Kimiko has, make no effort to intervene.

    This is the point I wanted to make: I think society should make a moral distinction between, say, spanking one’s girlfriend with her consent, and enslaving and torturing someone. The morality of the former can be left for the couple to judge; but society should not shrink from declaring the other behaviour immoral and responding accordingly.

  9. Stephen
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 14:47:03

    • Whig:
    I believe there is such a thing as objective morality. It is perhaps unknowable, but I think it is best to assume it exists and strive to discover it and conform our behaviour to it.

    If morality is unknowable (unprovable), practically speaking the best we can do is establish some shared principles and seek a broad consensus on how to apply them.

    Let me pose a question. If you knew a woman who cuts herself, would you describe her behaviour as healthy? Would you leave it up to her to determine whether this is a good choice? Or would you assume that she has some psychological problem and encourage her to seek help?

    One of the common explanations for masochism is that masochists enjoy the endorphine rush brought on by severe pain. I’m sure the same thing is true of cutting — but we treat that as evidence that a person needs social support and/or professional help.

  10. JewishAtheist
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 14:51:02

    Stephen:

    Your response made me remember about Stockholm Syndrome, which raises some difficult questions about consent. Perhaps Kimiko presently believes that this is the life she wants, but given some distance and perhaps therapy, would realize that she has been being horribly abused. I think I’ll have to agree with you that there has to be some line beyond which people (and perhaps the government) should step in. We’d need to be very careful about government intervention* though, perhaps requiring a judge and a psychologist to weigh in beforehand as well as some standards as to what specifically crosses that line.

    *I’m not inclined to trust government to make reasonable decisions regarding sex when in some states, for example, dildos are illegal. Not to mention sodomy laws, etc.

  11. Bill
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 15:51:00

    Philosophically, relativism seems to be going the way of the dodo, but moral relativism is another story. I’m with Stephen on the reality of objective morality, but I share JA’s concern over how we treat it socially, given the governments track record on decisions regarding sex.

    Even Relativistists broadly defined, often see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries. Like 90% of social issues I tend toward the grey middle ground of compromise.

    JA’s position that “perhaps requiring a judge and a psychologist to weigh in beforehand as well as some standards as to what specifically crosses that line.” seems reasonable.

    I suspect that an humanist approach over a religious or cultural approach might work, where threat to life and threat to liberty are weighed against each other.

  12. Simen
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 18:36:35

    Stephen:

    If you knew a woman who cuts herself, would you describe her behaviour as healthy? Would you leave it up to her to determine whether this is a good choice? Or would you assume that she has some psychological problem and encourage her to seek help?

    Perhaps it’s just me, but I think this case is different. Those who cut themselves (or so it seems to me, but I don’t know any cutters, so don’t take my word for it) do it because of some underlying pain. They realize it’s a problem, and also that the cutting isn’t actually helping them get rid of the problem, only dulling it. They may wish to stop doing it, but they might not be able to bear whatever it is that’s the underlying cause. In other words, it’s the evil they can bear the easiest.

    While cutting is always a sign of some problem, BDSM, even with severe pain involved, might not be. The third quote in your post says that it’s no longer regarded as a disorder in itself. What might it be regarded as, then? If it’s not a disorder, it makes no sense to say they’re not able to make decisions for themselves.

    It becomes the problem “when should people be protected from themselves?” Is there any circumstances under which healthy, consenting adults must be protected from themselves? At what point does the fantasy stop being a fantasy and become real brainwashing? And even if it’s not current practice, should BDSM with severe injuries involved be regarded as a manifestation of mental disorder in itself? It seems to me the last question is one to be answered only by professionals, but I don’t think any special expertise is required to answer the other questions.

  13. Stephen
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 19:28:25

    • Simen:
    I’m not sure that psychologists have a definitive explanation for why women cut themselves, but it’s a shockingly widespread phenomenon. Why would you assume that BDSM is different? Why wouldn’t a woman, unable to cope with some underlying issue, turn to BDSM as an alternative to cutting herself? If you “need” to feel maximum pain, BDSM strikes me as a better way to go.

    I keep referring to Kimiko in particular, because that’s the scenario that provoked me to write this post. I am not convinced that Kimiko needs to be protected from herself; I think it entirely likely that she needs to be protected from Soulhuntre. (The name is interesting, no? — it suggests a predatory mentality.) Given that the relationship has continued for ten years, you should consider Jewish Atheist’s point about Stockholm Syndrome: emotional bonding with one’s captor(s).

    I take your point, that diagnosing a mental disorder is a matter for mental health experts. But Kimiko isn’t seeking out psychiatric help. It’s entirely possible she’s like someone with a gambling or substance abuse problem, who has lost the ability to help herself. Someone in her immediate circle needs to intervene.

    But that won’t happen as long as people think all expressions of BDSM are equally harmless. People shouldn’t think that “toleration” means abandoning all moral discernment. Readers might regard that as the broader thesis of this post, referring to BDSM as an illustration.

  14. Anonymous
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 19:44:40

    This is a great discussion. I don’t have answers, but I do have a thought to add.

    I have always had an aversion to horror movies – the kind that graphically depict mutilation, dismembership, physical and psychological torture, and so on. I find them repugnant and I am not entertained – I am disgusted.

    I don’t understand the attraction. And yet, millions of people but tickets, go to the theater, and watch them.

    I can’t help feeling that somehow, there’s a connection between this and BDSM – but I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s just that I find both of them distasteful.

    Is BDSM as ‘innocent’ as seeing a horror movie? Or, is it the case that neither activity is really ‘innocent’?

    Am I being totally off-the-wall in relating the two things, or is there some key dissimilarity between them, which would make one wrong and the other not?

  15. whig
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 20:15:33

    Stephen,

    I see that the abstractions are going to cause us to go in different directions, but in the concrete case of this woman, Kimiko, perhaps we might look from our various perspectives to see whether we might agree as the the proper course of action if any.

    I don’t know much about the circumstances, except you say she is a slave. If she is uninjured and in no evident state of poor health, then she apparently serves her master at her own pleasure. You suggest this is evidence of disordered thinking on her part and may require intervention to protect her from the master, although it is unclear whether and how he has abused her — but psychological abuse is possible.

    So then we have to ask whether psychological abuse is a matter for public concern, and if so, how we respond to it in this case and in general if it is shown to exist. I think that a third party (first friend) of a victim can get standing to go to court in behalf of an abuse victim, for instance. This has the benefit of being a possible defense of abused women in general, but brings with it some very difficult questions of remedy. Still, if you would be willing to trust courts with the discretion to fashion something, it could be done on a fairly ad hoc basis until we have enough experience to define a procedure legislatively.

  16. whig
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 20:18:09

    I think the remedy I would grant were I sitting in judgment of a first friend petition would be to issue a writ of habeas corpus. It’s fallen out of fashion, we need to restore it.

  17. whig
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 20:19:51

    In the spirit of such a writ, I ask that if you have the ability to bring Kimiko to this conversation or some appropriate place that she can speak for herself, it would be helpful.

  18. Stephen
    Mar 13, 2007 @ 22:54:53

    • Anon:
    Like you, I have an aversion to horror movies, or even dramas that show graphic violence. I simply can’t bear to watch so I avoid such movies.

    That’s why I say that I could never inflict extreme pain on someone else, even at their request. And I concede it says something about me that I can’t generalize to the rest of the population. So I’m in approximately the same position as you, and I can’t speak to your question.

    But I will add, I think the use of violent images to entertain people speaks ill of our society.

    • Whig:
    If I had any connection to Kimiko’s community, I would be trying to arrange an intervention. But I only know of her via Barbara Nitke’s web site.

    I think you describe the issues very well. Psychological abuse is possible; we have to ask whether that’s a public concern; and, if so, we have to decide what an appropriate intervention would be.

    I accept that we may answer those questions differently. As usual, I’m just trying to facilitate a dialogue.

    It’s a good exercise for people to grapple with these issues, I think. The capacity to reason morally is an important skill.

  19. whig
    Mar 14, 2007 @ 03:30:37

    If you are just conducting a thought experiment, then I have no opinion as to whether it is appropriate for anything to be done in this case, because absent some actual cause of complaint, not your personal (and they are not objective no matter how you may subjectively perceive them to be so) moral scruples, there is nothing whatsoever to condemn here.

    Many marriages are unequal, this is perhaps not as it should be, and in the case of my own wife there is no power disequilibrium between us. But I cannot say that what is right for me is right for you. I can say that if you are a victim of some abuse, you should have a way to come forward, and you should be protected. Distinguishing the difference between these requires more discernment of specific details.

    Still, for me to express a preference, a felt belief that my relationship is best is only applicable to me. Do you understand my point?

    Abstractions fail sometimes. You have to live in the real world while you are here.

  20. Simen
    Mar 14, 2007 @ 08:00:09

    I’m not sure that psychologists have a definitive explanation for why women cut themselves, but it’s a shockingly widespread phenomenon. Why would you assume that BDSM is different? Why wouldn’t a woman, unable to cope with some underlying issue, turn to BDSM as an alternative to cutting herself? If you “need” to feel maximum pain, BDSM strikes me as a better way to go.

    I keep referring to Kimiko in particular, because that’s the scenario that provoked me to write this post. I am not convinced that Kimiko needs to be protected from herself; I think it entirely likely that she needs to be protected from Soulhuntre. (The name is interesting, no? — it suggests a predatory mentality.) Given that the relationship has continued for ten years, you should consider Jewish Atheist’s point about Stockholm Syndrome: emotional bonding with one’s captor(s).

    Perhaps my feeling that BDSM and cutting are different is unjustified. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard about anyone actually gaining any pleasure from cutting themselves.

    In this concrete case, is Kimiko free to go if she wants to? If not, it becomes another matter. Even if she is, in principle, is she free to go mentally? It could be a case of psychological abuse; perhaps her mind is so broken down that she willfully submits to physical abuse. Without more information, it’s hard to tell. Perhaps, as the image text says, it really is “a stable and rewarding relationship for all,” strange as it may seem to us.

    But that won’t happen as long as people think all expressions of BDSM are equally harmless. People shouldn’t think that “toleration” means abandoning all moral discernment.

    I agree. Toleration doesn’t mean total apathy towards anything someone else might do in the privacy of their homes.

  21. Stephen
    Mar 14, 2007 @ 08:56:17

    Whig:
    Abstractions fail sometimes. You have to live in the real world while you are here.

    In the real world, there is a person who calls herself Kimiko, who lives 24/7 in a “service slave” relationship, which includes flogging, piercing, and being fastened to a cross, and otherwise being at the mercy of her partner’s sadistic predilections. I don’t know Kimiko personally, but this is certainly not a thought experiment for her.

    We can’t actually intervene in this case. But as a society, we should build consensus around moral issues — what we will encourage, what we will passively approve of, what we will tolerate, and what we will actively oppose.

    • Simen:
    Perhaps, as the image text says, it really is “a stable and rewarding relationship for all,” strange as it may seem to us.

    That is the photographer’s perspective, and she’s closer to the situation than I am. But I still feel that I have enough information (see my summation to Whig, above) to form a moral judgement of my own.

    I don’t object, in principle, to your moral subjectivism (though I disagree with it). But when your subjectivism causes you to abstain from moral judgement in a concrete instance like this one, I think it’s indicative of a serious flaw in your philosophical position.

  22. Simen
    Mar 14, 2007 @ 09:31:36

    I don’t object, in principle, to your moral subjectivism (though I disagree with it). But when your subjectivism causes you to abstain from moral judgement in a concrete instance like this one, I think it’s indicative of a serious flaw in your philosophical position.

    It has nothing to do with my meta-ethical position. Remember, even if you believe in objective morality you still have no access to it and so must rely on your subjective intuition for it.

    As a principle, I think that as long as a person is not in immediate danger and is mentally healthy, it should be their business to decide what they want to do and allow others to do to their body. Then I need to answer the following questions:

    Is there immedidate danger to her? Is there any risk of permanent damage?
    Is she mentally healthy?
    Is this her own choice?

    If any of these are true, it becomes a matter for society to intervene, in my opinion. Though from the descriptions it sounds very painful, I wonder if there is any danger of permanent injury. If it were, wouldn’t something have happened sometime in the ten years? Is there enough information to answer the above questions?

  23. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Mar 14, 2007 @ 23:03:53

    Just popped in to see the comments, which I have read with interest. The above anonymous comment was mine (forgot to sign in).

  24. Chris Bradley
    Mar 15, 2007 @ 01:54:40

    My post about this is gonna ramble a bit. Just so you know. 😉

    I have experienced some BDSM activity. A very good friend of mine is heavily into the scene and, as he was a roommate of mine for several years, I have had fair exposure to BDSM stuff.

    That said . . . .

    For most people in BDSM it’s a role-playing experience. Even when it’s pretty hardcore stuff — such as blood play — it’s something that has a lot of built in boundaries. While it’s true a fair number of BDSM people like freaking out the “nilla” people, what they’re doing isn’t problematic. They’re having fun. Sometimes that fun involves pain. So what? So does football. No one would even imagine asking if the people playing were in the proper psychological state to play. It is commonplace for human recreation to include some elements of pain and risk, and BDSM isn’t much different than that (and, indeed, it is usually much less violent than a game like football, much less boxing or other martial arts). It’s something they do, and maybe it’s important to them, but with most of them I’ve met they’re really solid that it’s something they do, a game they play.

    That said, there are a group of people, lifestylers, and they are problematic, IMO.

    Some lifestylers are also quite aware that they’re role-playing, but amongst them there is also a fairly large crowd where I’m not sure that’s the case. Any game can get out of hand — to continue the football analogy, it is easy to play dirty. It’s easy to hurt someone. Same with the lifestylers.

    A fair number of these people do seem to get involved because they have unresolved psychological problems. They are addicted to thrill of power that they have over another person, or are addicted to the submission.

    In most BDSM, there’s a sort of joke that runs that the bottom is on top. The meaning behind this is that, in most play, the limits and parameters are entirely set by the bottom. They’re in charge. In the harder stuff that is associated with lifestylers . . . that’s not clear, anymore. F’rex, one of the most common practices with BDSM is a “safe word” — it’s something that either person can say that instantly brings the play to an end. Something you’re not likely to say, like, “Oranges.” More than one lifestyler has bragged that this is, basically, for cowards and they don’t use safe words. The top stops when the top wants to. Which is hedging perilously close to rape. If you don’t stop when they tell you to stop, how do you know when they’re telling you to stop to heighten the role-playing drama of the sex or when they really want you to stop?

    Furthermore, with the whole 24/7 master-slave lifestyle, well, the possibility of creating a massively abusive situation seems very easy to do. When you’ve given everything over to your “master”, well, what happens when you don’t want to play, anymore? Especially if the master controls things like . . . when and where you go out, the keys to the car, the checkbook and credit cards. The possibility of a psychologically abusive relationship skyrockets.

    So, yeah, the lifestyler angle I’ve long found pretty problematic. I’ve never been able to figure out a good way to resolve the situation, tho’. Mostly, BDSM is voluntary, even the lifestyler stuff, and I trust that our current laws and traditions are sufficient to handle it’s abuses.

  25. Stephen
    Mar 15, 2007 @ 04:59:27

    Note to Whig:
    Not good enough.

    I guess I spoke too soon; WordPress doesn’t allow administrators to block access to their sites. But you’re not welcome here anymore, so I’m asking you to stop leaving comments.

  26. Stephen
    Mar 15, 2007 @ 05:07:09

    • Chris:
    Thanks for bringing an informed perspective to the discussion. I’m certainly prepared to draw distinctions between role playing, within mutually agreed limits, and lifestylers who appear to cross the boundary into abuse / rape / torture — pick your preferred term.

    I hope it’s clear that I’m not advocating totalitarian state control; I’m just making a plea for people to exercise moral discernment. Personally, I have some reservations even about the role players. But I’m prepared to let others make their own moral choices, until we reach that point where consent becomes problematic and doubtful.

  27. Chris Bradley
    Mar 15, 2007 @ 13:36:21

    Stephen,

    Yeah, it’s clear you’re not advocating totalitarianism. It’s been a sticky point for a long time, the balance between personal liberty and the good of society. Virtually everyone, including me, has a line past which it becomes proper to act to prevent acts from happening. But where is the line?

    It is my opinion that BDSM isn’t, generally, near that line but that some people enjoy getting close to it and some are over it — but my line, at any rate, already has mechanisms to deal with rapists, torturers and various abusers.

  28. Stephen
    Mar 15, 2007 @ 18:26:57

    • Chris:
    My line … already has mechanisms to deal with rapists, torturers and various abusers.

    Perhaps I should have acknowledged that point earlier. In any event, I’m not arguing for additional criminal laws.

    Society has institutions (courts, judiciary, jails, fines, etc.) to enforce some social norms. But most social norms are enforced informally, by social sanctions of one form or another.

    What I don’t want is for ordinary men and women to assume that all BDSM is equally innocuous. I don’t generally promote people judging one another; too much of that goes on already. But, just as you indicate, there are limits to what people should tolerate.

    I worry that the mainstreaming of BDSM will mislead people into thinking that it’s all OK — there’s no need to exercise moral discernment.

  29. Simen
    Mar 15, 2007 @ 18:56:16

    I don’t think mainstreaming will lead to that. People already have an aversion for violence and rape. As you seem to concede, it’s all OK to a degree. The problem is to what degree it should be up to individuals to decide and when society should intervene. I think freedom is so important that people should be allowed to go pretty far before society, formally or informally, should do something about it. Like Chris Bradley says, there already is a framework for dealing with rape, violence, torture and so on.

    When you talk about social sanctions, it seems like you long for social stigma, but I don’t think that’s what you meant. Could you clarify?

  30. Stephen
    Mar 15, 2007 @ 20:41:54

    Social stigma is perhaps one extreme, if by that you mean ostracism or shunning. Or perhaps name-calling or some other form of overt rejection.

    It’s hard for me to be specific, because I think social influence is exerted in very subtle and sophisticated ways. And, at the same time, I think the expressions of it are almost unconscious.

    A smile, granted or withheld; or a mouth that smiles coupled with eyes that don’t; or a smile held for a fraction of a second longer or cut short by an equally brief increment.

    Someone who joins in laughter with you when you make a joke, or doesn’t. A tone of voice. Eye contact or not. A conversation that breaks off when you enter the room — which actually sends a relatively forceful message.

    With respect to Kimiko, I would like someone who knows her to intervene, forcefully if necessary. (Not that I expect any reader of my blog to be in that position!) But in general, I’m not suggesting that anybody set out to consciously change their behaviour.

    Social cues spontaneously follow from our response to something. If we think a child is shy, we respond one way; if we think a child is petulant, we respond another way. But we don’t consciously choose a response; it’s basically a social reflex.

    In the same way, if people exercise moral discernment, the social cues will be different when we approve of a behaviour vs. when we disapprove of it. We don’t need to conspire and say, “Next time we see Soulhuntre we’ll raise our noses in the air and walk right past him as if he doesn’t exist.” (Of course, I don’t expect Soulhuntre would respond to gentle social disapproval.)

    You’re probably right, and society still has qualms about BDSM activity. So maybe my counsel is unnecessary. But the conviction has been growing in me: that BDSM is increasingly part of mainstream culture; that I personally am ambivalent about it at best; and that society should not suspend critical judgement of it. The Barbara Nitke text brought focus to those feelings in me: hence the post.

    If the moral discernment is present, the rest will follow without anyone having to organize it. Except perhaps in extreme cases: the Kimikos of the world, who may be unable to help themselves and require formal, assertive intervention.

    I hope that makes some kind of sense. It seems a little weak to me. Sometimes the best I can do is grope toward a half-perceived goal.

  31. Carolyn
    Mar 17, 2007 @ 00:07:12

    Stephen, your blog has gotten quite saucy in my absence (I’ve been BURIED at work and don’t care to look at a computer when I get home).

    BDSM is such a broad term, really. There are so many degrees of it and each of those degrees require a different mindset and level of committment. Some partners may use it as a game, while some genuinely like yielding control or overpowering someone else.

    BDSM has hit the mainstream in many ways. I’m sure many people are practicing it that you would never guess. In an ideal situation there’s a mechanism in place to call the whole things off – safe words and such. If there’s truly consent, a safe word should protect both parties. It’s so mainstream (I guess seemingly mainstream for someone who works in HIV prevention) in St. Louis that my department does outreach at “Beat Me In St. Louis” and “Spanksgiving”…two of our events that draw crowds to the area. 🙂

    One of the programs in my department recently did a three session series on BDSM as it pertains to same sex situations – men in particular. Mr. Missouri Leather came with a couple little friends and they taught how to do it, do it safely, and actually use BDSM in some ways as a safer form of sexual activity/intimacy when one partner is HIV positive. My agency showed a video called “Beyond Vanilla”. It’s pretty graphic, but it gives a good depiction of some of the practices.

    I guess I always kind of swing in the direction of letting everyone make their own decisions and sometimes their own messes. I have a hard time looking at BDSM as a moral issue because I don’t feel it’s any of my business if someone likes to wear a ball gag and get flogged every now and then.

  32. unscrupulouspagans
    Sep 19, 2009 @ 10:04:20

    Do you think BDSM should be included in a religious lifestyle?

    http://unscrupulouspagans.wordpress.com/

  33. Caitlin
    Sep 27, 2010 @ 14:45:20

    I can’t help but wonder why you seem to think it’s ok to make assumptions about what this woman needs. Everything you have said about her needing to seek help and the situation being unhealthy for her is based on a picture with a few sentences as a caption. How can you truly know what she needs and what the people around her need to do? You have no connection to her at all. She may be a high functioning member of society when she leaves the house or goes to work (which most people in 24/7 SM relationships do). you have no way of knowing who she truly is or how that relationship actually works.

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