Friday, 28 September 2007

People != Magnifying Glasses

Mandolin's long-awaited post to Alas, A Blog on BDSM is finally up now.

It's quite long and quite thoughtful. I'll excerpt here, but you really should read the whole thing. I first got wind of it being up from a friend who excerpted only parts of it, and the parts ze chose made it sound really demeaning and obnoxious. So just in case I do the same: read it all.

First, the background. She had a friend, who ended up in a profoundly harrowing abusive relationship:

He had given her a collar, which she was to wear at all times. When he came home from work, she was to present herself naked for his inspection, on all fours and acting like a dog until he gave her permission to be upright and human again. He would examine her body, and then examine the house. If everything was not as he preferred, he would beat her.

My friend told me, “I asked her to stop telling me about it. He bashes her head into the sink, over and over again. She won’t stop it. She won’t let me help her. I can’t bear to hear her anymore.”

I saw Christina once after the abuse started, when she stumbled back to her home state for a brief vacation, after which she returned to her abuser. She was pained, and tired. Before, she had been mercurial and childish. Now, she flashed between moments of intense childlike pouting, and a kind of hard-used suffering when she would suddenly become still and talk about her life in a halting, labored tone.

....They called their relationship BDSM.
And now for the thoughtful parts of the post:

Increasingly, I think this is an important point. Abusive men who would never frame their desire for control in terms of BDSM are still experiencing a desire for control. Submissive wives who are too timid to protest rape may not be thinking of themselves as sexual masochists, but they may be acting in ways that are consistent with submission.

On television, we see sexualized rape scenes. We see the torture of women framed as titilating. We see women wilting from abuse who are still being filmed as sex objects.

This is *unacknowledged* sadomasochism — it’s sadomasochism divorced from the safety rules of BDSM culture and unleashed into the mainstream. It’s BDSM without honest discussion or contemplation. It’s BDSM without the name BDSM. It’s BDSM that isn’t a game.

....BDSM culture frightens us because it shows us, naked and acknowledged, the sadistic behaviors that exist elsewhere. Sadism is scary. It can be very problematic. But proper use of BDSM culture is itself the salve. BDSM is a game. It has rules and escapes. It has limits and safe words. It defines boundaries. It stimulates articulation of power dynamics which otherwise fester unacknowledged. If everyone who fetishized control acknowledged it, and respected the rules of BDSM, probably the world would be a safer place.


My own comments over at Alas, reposted here:

I first saw an excerpt of this post that mentioned only the “unacknowledged sadomasochism” bit and I was really uneasy. Reading the whole thing… I’m still uneasy, but not quite in the same way. What happened to your friend is chilling and horrible, and you are in fact right that there exist people who use BDSM as a cover for their abusiveness.

Well, “cover” isn’t quite the word. I think it’s being used as more than that, as legitimation. I don’t know too much about your average abusive man, but I get the impression that a lot of them are aware on some level that the relationship they’re in is fucked up. I may be wrong, but I suspect that some “honeymoon period” expressions of guilt may have some sincerity, even if the person has no ability or desire to actually stop.

Where with a guy like this, he never has to feel guilt (or at least doesn’t have to acknowledge it) — he can tell himself that that’s what a harsh “Master” does and feel no guilt — as well as have permission to get off on behaving that way, as well.

And yes, knowing someone in a situation like that, especially meeting them before you’re aware of the community and the safeguards present in it (which, as should be obvious from this post, don’t always work — especially not when people become fascinated with the fringes and decide that the people who keep it “too safe” are pansies, which does happen), would make one really suspicious of BDSM. It should.

But I still feel profoundly uneasy with “the unacknowledged sadomasochism in everyday life” type thinking. It’s been very common in anti-SM feminist circles, and it very often takes on a life of its own and grows to the point where it’s no longer clear what “sadomasochism” is supposed to mean. Any social power dynamic becomes a less obvious “form” of “SM,” such that looking at us is a “useful tool” for understanding “hidden” social dynamics. We’re no longer a group, a subculture that deserves respectful ethnographic study. Rather, we’re treated as a tool, a handy magnifying glass for theory-making.

Which is how you get, for example, the absolutely endless heterocentricity in the theory. Any and all SM that’s worth talking about becomes male dominant/female submissive. No gay folks, and no femdom, because that’s not useful for the theory. That doesn’t provide your handy blown-up Patriarchy Microcosm.

And what people are missing there is that gay leather, lesbian leather, femdom, etc. are not funny little outliers that don’t give you information about the patriarchy. They’re integral parts of the whole. If you look at the history of sadomasochistic subcultures in the US, you’ll find that a lot of what exists now in terms of community come from gay leather. The “feminist” focus on M/f dynamics is heterocentric in the extreme, and seeing feminists erase and neglect queer subcultures makes me very uncomfortable.

I’ve also talked incessantly, and I’m sure you’ve seen it from reading sm-f, about the way someone like me — a female who prefers the dominant role — gets ignored completely as some sort of rogue data point. Since I don’t square with the theory, and since people like me are rarer than the reverse, I get treated as someone who it would be derailing or tangential to bother to listen to at all.

I don’t have any problem with critiques of socially compulsory forms of male dominance over women. I share the worries you have about that. I don’t even have a problem with critiques of the heterosexual and pansexual (which reads, more often than not, “het men and bisexual women”) BDSM scene for not doing more to challenge these norms.

But I do object, and object strongly, to the “these people show us something about everyday life!” memes. I am not a magnifying glass. I am a person.

48 comments:

Myca said...

Interesting take . . . very interesting. I think I read her post less as "look at the things those BDSMers can show us" and more as "these impulses exist whether structured BDSM exists or not." A sort of "you can't argue real people out of existence," in other words.

I'll post more over there.

:-)

---Myca

devastatingyet said...

I'm another female dom, so please know that I share your general perspective. But I really don't think the existence of lesbian or F/m couples is much of a counter-argument to a standard feminist critique of bdsm. The fact that nasty patriarchal hierarchy bullshit even infects lesbian relationships is just a sign of its (patriarchy's) strength. And the idea that women can top or dominate men isn't really different from matriarchy as just another kind of patriarchy.

I don't share this analysis of bdsm, but I do understand it. It's quite possible I would share it if I didn't enjoy bdsm so dang much. You know?

Trinity said...

I'm not convinced that it's so benign. I think a lot of the sort of feminist theory that's centered primarily on "class man" and how it affects "class woman," rather than on how to actually improve the material situation of "class woman" is deeply guilty of a heterocentric myopia.

I'm also very wary of "tendrils of patriarcy" arguments, especially discussions about how said tendrils infect queer relationships. I don't know if you're queer or not from a quick peek at your blog, but I think there's a long history of people trying to theorize about patriarchy and lesbians without lesbian experiences, lives, or desires.

(Even from "political lesbians" of the "This is feminism, not sex" sort I think this can get gross, actually -- yes, there's the potential for sexual experience there, but is there really an understanding of queer history, communities, sexual desire as a shaping sort? I don't think so.)

For example, if you look at a lot of the radical, "BDSM-is-patriarchy-writ-large" arguments from the original sex wars, they were often joined at the hip with anti butch-femme sentiments, because both were supposedly dykes porting heteronormativity into their sex because the poor dears didn't know any better. Which is, I hope you'll agree, profoundly erasing of a whole slew of people's experiences and needs. (You can still see some remnants of this if you look at, for example, the grossness put forth by the Questioning Transgender folks.)

EthylBenzene said...

"The fact that nasty patriarchal hierarchy bullshit even infects lesbian relationships is just a sign of its (patriarchy's) strength. And the idea that women can top or dominate men isn't really different from matriarchy as just another kind of patriarchy."

I know you said you disagree with this analysis, but I just wanted to throw in my two cents. Trinity articulated most of the problems with this analysis, but something else kind of struck me.

In all this radfem anti-SM rhetoric, you rarely even see this (the above quote) level of "analysis" regarding lesbian BDSM or femdom around. As Trinity mentioned in the post, those folks are generally treated as invisible, extreme data points that may be treated as anomalous, taken out of the data set to make everything fit. IMO, ignoring the "rogue" data points is much more problematic than the weak "eh, it's all patriarchy" argument summarized above.

Since, as I've mentioned before, I'm coming from a "hard" science background rather than a "soft" science background, I might have a totally weird take on this. But (not to get too Popperian on you) it seems like any theory that needs to dismiss such a large chunk of "rogue" data is not much of a theory at all (completely aside from the fact that the actual theory in question is fairly flawed as well). You can't just ignore such a large part of the SM subculture, not to mention its history and roots, just to make your theory tidy. That's intellectually dishonest and lazy, IMHO.

EthylBenzene said...

By referencing Popper I was referring to the fact that it seems like the very existence of these folks falsifies any anti-SM radfem theory. I meant to include more about that but it got too long. Sorry for any confusion. Hurray falsifiability!

Cheshire said...

I guess what I was trying to say (which is not to claim that I didn't stuff up)
was that lots of people have power dynamics one of the reasons I like D/s is that it gives you a langauge to talk about this stuff, D/s gives those who work within it a change to go "not that's not part of what being a dom/sub/pet whatever means to me" that isn't part of _my_ power exchange where as in vanilla relationships it is much easier to say "power what are you talking about this is what every-good boy/girlfriend does" and because cause of that ignore the issue.

Iamcuriousblue said...

"In all this radfem anti-SM rhetoric, you rarely even see this (the above quote) level of "analysis" regarding lesbian BDSM or femdom around. As Trinity mentioned in the post, those folks are generally treated as invisible, extreme data points that may be treated as anomalous, taken out of the data set to make everything fit."

One has to wonder what would happen if they looked at femdom subcultures seriously. Because some of the stuff I've seen coming from some of those people, at least the ones that place a lot of importance on the idea of "female supremacy", bear more than a passing resemblance to the kind of rhetoric I see in radfem writings.

If they looked at that branch of BDSM and saw what kind of mirror that held up to their own subculture and to the unacknowledged power dynamics that go on there, I'm not sure if they'd be too comfortable with what they're seeing. One reason the subject gets avoided entirely, I'd guess.

Trinity said...

"But (not to get too Popperian on you) it seems like any theory that needs to dismiss such a large chunk of "rogue" data is not much of a theory at all (completely aside from the fact that the actual theory in question is fairly flawed as well). You can't just ignore such a large part of the SM subculture, not to mention its history and roots, just to make your theory tidy."

YES. The general tactic is just what you describe: "well, these people here must be 'aping' those people there, so I don't have to do any unique analysis and I'm DONE! yay!"

When, really: how do you know aping is going on? What did you analyze, and how closely, to see this aping? Is there any chance that the aped version is actually slightly different? What do you say when people argue that it is and give details?

That's why I'm not buying it. Because the answer to that is merely repetition of "Patriarchy is Powerful!" or directly being TOLD "you're just derailing! Everyone knows that powerful MEN are who's actually important!"

which, um, you might look into how feminist that is, ladies, thanks.

Trinity said...

"at least the ones that place a lot of importance on the idea of "female supremacy", bear more than a passing resemblance to the kind of rhetoric I see in radfem writings."

YEP. Just look at Domina Goddess so and so rabbitting on about "testosterone poisoning", men as "the violent gender," male sexuality as the source of violence, etc. Creepytastic.

belledame222 said...

I think maybe the problem I often see in the "BDSM is an expression of patriarchy or vice versa" thing is an implicit,

"if there were no such thing as institutionalized male-over-female sexism, there would be no such thing as power imbalance, eroticized or otherwise, much less abuse. Further, everything always reduces down to Male Over Female (which is both Bad and Inescapable), even if it isn't."

Trinity said...

"if there were no such thing as institutionalized male-over-female sexism, there would be no such thing as power imbalance, eroticized or otherwise, much less abuse. Further, everything always reduces down to Male Over Female (which is both Bad and Inescapable), even if it isn't."

That too.

Ugh ugh getitoffmemaw. ew.

Trinity said...

which is a big part of why I *don't* agree with devastatingyet.

okay, so what if the leathermen are "aping"?

what are they aping? heterosexuals? doesn't seem likely to me, what with the whole hypermasculinity deal. "NO FEMS!" = oh so hetero, amirite?

What it is likely they WERE drawing from, at least if you follow the apocryphal stories that they were originally WWII vets, was military heirarchy and homosocial behavior, tossing in some actual sex.

Now is that bad? Well, maybe -- "no fems" is one bad thing that might come from it (misogyny.) And one could come up, also, with some interesting and probably reasonable theories about what it means to pattern your life around the military, a group with profoundly rigid hierarchies and in which you're, well, being trained to kill people (and actually doing it, most likely, as these were supposedly actual vets.)

But that raises the question: why should all the theories of aping go back to patriarchy patriarchy always patriarchy? That sends up red flags to me of the "I'm concerned about patriarchy and therefore am trying to shoehorn any hierarchy into it" sort.

Myca said...

But that raises the question: why should all the theories of aping go back to patriarchy patriarchy always patriarchy? That sends up red flags to me of the "I'm concerned about patriarchy and therefore am trying to shoehorn any hierarchy into it" sort.

But isn't this a natural consequence of the basic theory behind radical feminism?

I mean, if you believe that patriarchial othering and hierarchy is the most basic/original/originating form of hierarchical othering . . . then yeah, all hierarchy should reflect it, right?

EthylBenzene said...

"I mean, if you believe that patriarchial othering and hierarchy is the most basic/original/originating form of hierarchical othering . . . then yeah, all hierarchy should reflect it, right?"

And now we're back to a place where the Theory can never be wrong, which IMHO is when it becomes dogma...

Trinity said...

"I mean, if you believe that patriarchial othering and hierarchy is the most basic/original/originating form of hierarchical othering"

I was under the impression that a lot of people who call themselves radical feminists nowadays *don't* actually subscribe to that view any longer, aside from a few very strong holdovers like, say, Heart in the online sphere.

Myca said...

Really? Huh, I'd always considered that a big part of the definition of radical feminism. I'm none too fond of it as an article of faith, so if fewer folks are subscribing to it, that's great, but what would define radfem thought in its absence?

Trinity said...

Myca: You'd have to ask them, but back when I identified as a radfem it was based on the (false, I believe now) dichotomy between "radical feminism" and "liberal feminism." "Liberal feminism" was assumed to be a branch of feminism that advocated the removal of discriminatory social policy -- an attempt to use the laws and rules of the current social system to end discrimination against women, or to reform those laws and rules where they treated women as lesser or as unequal.

In contrast, "radical" feminism we saw as "getting to the root" of the problem. That "root" was a Marxist-influenced analysis of sexism as a shaping feature of society itself. Since all of society is constructed with patriarchy as its backdrop, the very social institutions "liberals" appeal to to end "discrimination" can be themselves gendered/sexist to the ground.

Similarly, the "liberal feminist" approach is assumed to be based on the idea of a neutral person with human rights. You shouldn't discriminate against or abuse a woman because she is fundamentally the same as a man. There is no essential difference that justifies her being treated as lesser. She ought to be treated in the same way as he is.

Thinkers like MacKinnon (can't remember the title of the essay now, Difference and Distinction or something like it, I really don't remember) reject this because they think that the truly respectful idea would be the "radical" one that you can only treat people "the same" if they are truly situated similarly. The "radical" view is rather that women are rarely if ever situated similarly to men. Instead, they are oppressed. Therefore they often need protections that a liberal approach, with its stress on "sameness", would deem "special rights." Or there are situations in women's lives that, since they don't occur often in men's lives, simply get ignored completely, on the theory that women are "the same" as men: eg. rape and domestic violence, both of which happen overwhelmingly to women at the hands of men. To treat women the same as men, in this instance, is to ignore the problem.

A truly "radical" approach, on this view, would overthrow the system itself, creating a new system whose distinctive feature was its respect for all, rather than its assumption of "sameness."

Views like this one are compatible with the view that sexism is the first and primary oppression, but also with the view that all oppressions work in a similar way and similar class-based analyses and solutions are necessary for other *isms.

I still find some aspects of these views compelling, but I think "liberal feminist" is, at least by now, a bogeyman. I haven't heard any feminist thinker ever claim that there are not particular differences in men's and women's material position that matter.

LaurynX. said...

I think maybe the problem I often see in the "BDSM is an expression of patriarchy or vice versa" thing is an implicit,

"if there were no such thing as institutionalized male-over-female sexism, there would be no such thing as power imbalance, eroticized or otherwise, much less abuse. Further, everything always reduces down to Male Over Female (which is both Bad and Inescapable), even if it isn't."


^^^Which is why I don't take rad-fems seriously. They are hopelessly stuck in a white middle class heterosexual "feminism"...thinking everything reduces to gender. It DOES NOT. The culture that is BDSM today borrows HEAVILY from gay leather men (NON-heterosexual) and colonial culture and symbolism, and colonialism had/has a HELL of a lot to do with RACE, ETHNICITY, and CLASS. Yet, because they are stuck in their bubble they can't look critically at BDSM culture. Nor do they ever see anyone but a white male (read: dominant) and white female (read: submissive).

Trinity said...

"It DOES NOT. The culture that is BDSM today borrows HEAVILY from gay leather men (NON-heterosexual) and colonial culture and symbolism, and colonialism had/has a HELL of a lot to do with RACE, ETHNICITY, and CLASS."

yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes... etc

i do give the writers of that horribly loathsome little book, Against Sadomasochism, some credit for exactly this: a willingness to say "this is mimicking patriarchy AND colonialism AND various other things (they were very big on criticizing Nazi roleplay, which... never seemed to be a big thing here, so I wonder: WAS it, in SF back then?)"

verte said...

I always forget Judith Butler contributed to Against Sadomasochism!

Though I was reading an interview with her yesterday in which she talks about changing her views on SM. And says something to the effect of "I was young, I was stupid, I was earnest...!"

Trinity said...

"I always forget Judith Butler contributed to Against Sadomasochism!"

She did?!?!??

*floor meets jaw(* Which article was hers?

"And says something to the effect of "I was young, I was stupid, I was earnest...!""

That's how anti-BDSM sentiment strikes me, too. It's all *earnestness* and *bleeding hearts* with very little logic in it.

I was just thinking of the article in that book by the woman talking about how she felt as a Jewish woman living in Frisco seeing sadomasochists walk by (I know she was mainly talking about Nazi play, in which case yeah, I get the squick, but if I recall right she extended it to "anyone in black leather who came from Over There, dun dun!")

and it just, y'know, it's all so EARNEST and full of FEELINGS

but, well, would it be okay for some brave soul to break through his shroud of masculinity and say "you know, my heart FLUTTERS and I'm SEIZED WITH FEAR when the fags walk by..."

it's all just so about emotions, and that really worries me. Not because I think emotions have no role in theory, especially when we're talking emotions that ARE brought on by colonialist history or by atrocity or by violence, but because... which emotions count? How much do they count for? Why? No one seems willing to tackle that head on.

CAll me cold, but I say reason wins. I know what my brain is doing when I have flashbacks, and it's not telling me coherent things about how to look at other people.

Myca said...

CAll me cold, but I say reason wins.

Cynthia Eller makes a great point when she discusses her methodology in writing The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, where she says something (vaguely) along the lines of 'It's not that your dreams and visionquests are not meaningful or real, it's just that since none of the rest of us can experience or consider them, they cannot be used as a meaningful foundation for discussion.'

Same thing here. I understand that there are people who are freaked out by this stuff.

I'm freaked out by spiders.

In the end 'freaked out' on its own doesn't mean much.

---Myca

subversive_sub said...

"I always forget Judith Butler contributed to Against Sadomasochism!"

Ditto with the jaw-dropping...sheesh. I think I'll have to find a copy, too curious now not to read it.

Trinity said...

"It's not that your dreams and visionquests are not meaningful or real, it's just that since none of the rest of us can experience or consider them, they cannot be used as a meaningful foundation for discussion."

Yeah. THAT. Or, well, we could be in a discussion wherein visionquests and dreams and intuition matter, but if that's the case then I should be able to talk about spirituality and BDSM and how they tie together for me. If we're getting into a discussion where those things matter, where those things are what count as evidence and matter, they all have to count.

And if none of them count, if we're having a discussion that's grounded in science and reason, well, then science and reason are our yardsticks.

If we're trying to juggle both sorts of evidence, then we have to have a framework for which matters when. And as important as my subjective experience of spiritual BDSM is to me, I say reason wins when the discussion is how to treat other people, how to understand what they do, etc.

verte said...

Just did a major search and it's Lesbian SM: The Politics of Dis-Illusion. I went straight to the library to find the damn book, but they don't have a copy. It was published in 1982, though! My jaw dropped too!

On earnestness - oh, I agree entirely. I mean, fine - theorise your squick! I do, sometimes. But when false earnestness becomes a reason to legislate (given UK extreme pornography leg.), yeah, very dangerous.

Interesting questions, though. I think Sheila Jeffries has pretty much made a career out of attempting to theorise her emotional squicks...

Trinity said...

"Just did a major search and it's Lesbian SM: The Politics of Dis-Illusion. I went straight to the library to find the damn book, but they don't have a copy. It was published in 1982, though! My jaw dropped too!"

Wow. I'm not sure whether to be glad to see some people realized what idiots they were in '82, or sad that there were actually OTHER BOOKS ABOUT THIS.

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