Tuesday, 22 July 2008

BDSM and Anarchism...

First of all, a link: Subversive Submissive finds a critique of BDSM on an anarchist website, and has something to say about it.
I happened upon this thread on an anarchist message board, flag.blackened.net.

It always makes me a little irritated when I see BDSM misrepresented in the mainstream media. It makes me sad to see feminists critiquing other women for their kinky sexual orientations/practices. But it breaks my fucking heart when I see anarchists doing it. Why? I suppose because “anarchist” is probably the closest I come to really embracing a label to define myself, and when I see people using that label as a justification to trash my sexuality, it hits pretty hard.

....I thought about signing up on the message board in question in order to respond to some of this bullshit, but decided against it for now. Here are some of the things I’d address, were I to bite the bullet and get involved in the argument:

[numbering off because I'm not quoting every point and the numbering is automatic]
  1. Giving legitimacy to BDSM as a sexual practice is not the same as giving legitimacy to the idea of domination/submission as a model for human relationships. Period. Kinky people play with power and hierarchy. It’s like saying none of us should play Monopoly, because it imitates and thus legitimizes a capitalist economic system.
  2. The idea that in a perfect anarchist society, people would be better able to dissuade kinky people from engaging in such “negative” behaviors begs the question of BDSM being inherently “negative.” It isn’t.
  3. Playing with domination in a sexual relationship is not the same thing as an inegalitarian or hierarchical relationship. It is not inherently harmful or “addictive.”
  4. BDSM is not only performed as a paid service, nor is it necessarily linked to pornography or any other kind of sex work. The vast majority of people who practice BDSM are not sex workers.
  5. Finally: it’s not okay to treat another person’s sexuality or subculture as merely an “intellectual curiosity,” something to entertain you. If you’re curious about it, educate yourself, don’t simply start making ignorant comments on a message board.
First, I want to say that I think her points are excellent; I quote as many points from her list as I do because, well, it's awesome.

Second, though, I want to talk about 1 and 2 (at least as numbered in this post.) Because, while I see her point and think she argues well, I'm... well... weird, in not agreeing.

Because to me, even after all these years of "sex wars" bickering, I still am not clear on something big.

That is... in feminist or anarchist or a few other circles, "hierarchical" or "inegalitarian" seem to be used interchangeably to indicate forms of "domination and submission," which is in turn seen as across-the-board bad. BDSM is seen as an odd kind of exception, the little thing after the pesky asterisk. We didn't mean YOU/US.

This works in two major ways.

1) It assumes that BDSM is about scenes. The word "play" is a popular one here, as is the word "drama," "scene," erotic theater. BDSM is not "inegalitarian" because it is a sex game, something people play at, like playing at Monopoly. Just as I can play at robber-baron with my friends around the boardgame even if I'm the reddest Marxist there ever was, I can be totally devoted to nonhierarchical relationships and still play Nero in bed.

My issue with this is that not all SM is play. Some people dominate and submit not for a scene, but as part of a relationship. Still others see dominance and submission as personality traits that come out in their intimate lives, or as deep needs that they would be lost and unfulfilled without. While the players could simply throw these people under the bus, I don't see that as any kind of good strategy. And I'm not just saying that because I'm one of them.

I'm saying it because, well, people will always be aware that we're not all just playing. They'll accuse us, even the honest dramatists, of lying or hiding something. If we don't have an adequate way of explaining the people who do have power exchanges outside of bed, the "well, but that has to affect you SOMEHOW!" and "But THOSE people are Gorean!" and "Ever hear of TiH?" questions will never cease.

It is definitely true that some of us are playing and that's it, and there's no reason those people should have to defend a lifestyle they may well not share, not understand, and not even like. However, I'd like to think that we're all in this together, if not because we want to be, then because the theory laid out against us makes us be. We don't have to approve of one another to have a defense that doesn't rely on vast numbers of us not existing.

2) BDSM is in fact a lifestyle or relationship style for some people, but it's different because of consent. The word "hierarchy" covertly implies some sort of nonconsensual structure. Therefore, BDSM is one of a tiny handful of power dynamics that actually count as "egalitarian," because anything consensual does.

This is the one that confuses me most, which is unfortunate since I already reject 1).

The OED tells me that a "hierarchy" is, among other things which strike me as less relevant:
A body of persons or things ranked in grades, orders, or classes, one above another; spec. in Natural Science and Logic, a system or series of terms of successive rank (as classes, orders, genera, species, etc.), used in classification.
So it's a rank ordering. And apparently nothing else. Now what's "egalitarian", Mr. OED?
That asserts the equality of mankind.
Okay, sure... I guess, then, BDSM is "egalitarian," as it doesn't say anything one way or the other about any humans being better than any other humans (unless one is making the mistake of assuming the gender supremacists speak for all of us -- and here I feel a need to note that there are female supremacists out there too. They're not just Goreans and their ilk.)

But hierarchical? Well, relationship D/s sure seems like it creates ranks to me. What is a pattern of deference, service, command, control, sometimes even consensual slavery and mastery if not a rank order?

I suppose one could say that it's a rank ordering but no one is "above" anyone else, if one assumes that "above" means "worth more than" or "better than." So it's a rank ordering where everyone is equal. Paradoxical, but correct.

Except that it relies on defining "equal" as "equal in worth," and I'm still not convinced that saying something includes a rank-ordering means inequality of worth, really. I don't quite see why that should be. I taught students -- surely I outranked them, otherwise they wouldn't have needed a teacher. But I was in no way worth more than they. Why teach them if they're presumed worthless?

So... my brain scrambles when I see "hierarchy" used as an all-purpose curse in Left Bloglandia. It just plain makes no sense to me. Hierarchies are everywhere. Many are pernicious. Some are not. Many are nonconsensual. Some are consensual. Many are imposed. Some are negotiated. Many are fixed. Some are dynamic and fluid.

And if, as I think we should, we presume that at least some BDSM does involve real power dynamics and not just, well, playing Monopoly, it makes no sense at all for us to try to disavow words like "hierarchy" to me. For many of us, the hierarchy is neither illusion nor game, but part of the point.

43 comments:

blessed-harlot said...

Just because it's play, doesn't mean it isn't true. I resonate a lot with play and drama language, but not as dismissive of identity or substance. What I've gotten out of a context of narrative theology, others are getting out of storytelling, or fandom, or therapy, or lots of other sources. It's another way to interact with story. What some may mean by the word 'play' is a kind of flexibility of personal plot, a midrash or holy improvisation on a storytelling theme. In one moment I may be 12 years old... in another I am 5. In both moments, I am playing (in more ways than one) but I am also deeply truthful about who I am. I am deeply truthful when I am submissive, and truthful when I insist on more egalitarian interactions. Play is one way to embody, in the fullest sense possible, contradictory and/or multilayered truths.

Trinity said...

Oh, I do agree with that. I just think that if we are going to say that play expresses something deep and inner, and something that can stay with us or change us or affect us, then when we play with power we're doing something real, too. We're not just trying something on and then totally abandoning it because we're anti-hierarchy, or some such silly nonsense.

emarkienna said...

Well, on the plus side, anarchists shouldn't ever want there to be laws against BDSM, they'll just think that we'll magically stop doing it if the conditions were right...

But yes, I agree with your points. We should be careful of arguing against this by saying "Well yes hierarchy is bad, but BDSM is just pretend stuff in the bedroom", because that still means they can criticise things like lifestyle D/S.

My argument would be that private consensual relationships should not be treated as political, and compared with non-consensual acts, or situations where one party is inherently in a position of power over the other one.

As you note, that BDSM is consensual is one important difference. But many anarchists oppose working for corporations because it is "hierarchy". Now, I disagree with them, but I can see some plausible point that, even though working for a corporation is consensual, the corporation typically is in a position of greater power than the individual, even before the person takes the job. Similarly we might talk about relationships between a teacher and student where, even if they are both above the age of consent, the teacher still has a position of power over the student.

But the difference with BDSM is that the "power" and "hierarchy" is not there to begin with, it is negotiated, and given consensually. I don't walk into a interview and say "Well actually I'm a big powerful company, would you like to work for me?" - I don't have that choice in the first place. In addition, BDSM is negotiated on an equal standing when there is no hierarchy, as opposed to say a teacher/student relationship, where the hierarchy exists beforehand and hence could mean the student is coerced in an unethical way.

SnowdropExplodes said...

Brilliant points.

I have found few better explanations of how this works, than relationship therapist Al Turtle's (I am also proud to admit to having engaged in email conversation with him about this, and being partly responsible for his explanation!). He explains,

"There are two ways for people to get along in this world... In the first, one person is above the other, with communication going from the upper to the lower. In the second people are side by side, with communication going both ways."

The first, he calls "Master/Slave", and he presents it as a negative dynamic for a personal relationship. The other, which he views as positive, he terms "Friend/Friend".

I wrote to him complaining about the use of Master/Slave, because of the positive definition for that term that we have.

As a result of the ensuing conversation he and I had, he came up with the following, which he placed as a separate piece linked from the first:

If you put the terms Master or Slave or Master/Slave into Internet search engines, you will turn up several whole communities of people that use these terms in a very positive sense. These relatively small, but widespread, communities participate in Dominant/Submissive relationships. They are sometimes called D/s, or M/s communities. As a counselor several times I have run into members of this community, and found them to be usually more informed about healthy relationship skills than the general public. What I found is that these people seek to participate in relationships of 'mutual informed consent', where both parties have agreed, sometimes in contract, to a division of responsibility between an enactor or decision maker and a follower/an obedient one/an aider. They may thus participate in sexual and other activities that are mutually satisfying and safe, while at the same time are outside the norms of “polite” society. The phrase “mutually informed consent” shifts these relationships, now using my terms, to be a Friend/Friend relationship with a Leader/Follower dynamic (See my paper on Power of Passivity to understand the risks.). The 'D/s' or ‘M/s’ communities use of Master/slave (notice the use of upper and lower case) refers to this Friend/Friend dynamic, and has no relationship to the 'Master/Slave' relationship that I describe and that I believe is ‘epidemic’ in normal long-term relationships. In fact, I gather that if the dynamic that I am describing begins to occur, the D/s or M/s relationship will likely collapse.


(All emphasis mine, added here).

Trinity said...

"Well, on the plus side, anarchists shouldn't ever want there to be laws against BDSM, they'll just think that we'll magically stop doing it if the conditions were right..."

True... but I've been told plenty of times by all kinds of people, shrinks and feminists and anarchists, that some magic day will come when I'll stop being me.

And honestly, some small part of me actually prefers the law. I'd rather be fighting against people who say I should be stopped from performing certain actions than people who say I should be an entirely different person.

Trinity said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trinity said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trinity said...

(deleted and reposted to correct a very unfortunate miswording)

"The phrase “mutually informed consent” shifts these relationships, now using my terms, to be a Friend/Friend relationship with a Leader/Follower dynamic (See my paper on Power of Passivity to understand the risks.)."

Yes, this, definitely. The problem I have, though, is when people try to claim that there is *only* "domination and submission" where those words are already negatively value-laden, and *then* tack on "leader and follower" as value-neutral or positive. I think the existence of "leader and follower" *proves* that "domination and submission" is inherently value-neutral in the first place.

(Which is, of course, not to deny that most social hierarchies are in fact nonconsensual and limiting, if not oppressive. It's just to, well, disagree wholeheartedly with this -- and therefore not be any kind of anarchist.)

Jenavira said...

(Er, hi, I read this blog sometimes because I'm interested in non-mainstream feminism and kind of abstractly in bdsm and you are interesting thinky people. *waves*)

Where you said --
I suppose one could say that it's a rank ordering but no one is "above" anyone else, if one assumes that "above" means "worth more than" or "better than." So it's a rank ordering where everyone is equal. Paradoxical, but correct.

Except that it relies on defining "equal" as "equal in worth," and I'm still not convinced that saying something includes a rank-ordering means inequality of worth, really. I don't quite see why that should be. I taught students -- surely I outranked them, otherwise they wouldn't have needed a teacher. But I was in no way worth more than they. Why teach them if they're presumed worthless?


Makes me think the word you're looking for is heterarchy, which I think is just a social sciences word right now but should really be more widely used because it's a tremendous concept. I learned it for talking about chieftan-based cultures in the Middle East, but it's also a perfect description of the student/teacher relationship: in a heterarchy, one person is currently more important/more authoritative/in charge of the other, but that doesn't have anything to do with their inherent worth or status. In another situation it could be the other way around, or they could both be ranked lower than someone else. It's the mental model I've always used for bdsm relationships, because it allows for power differentials without saying anything about value or inherent worth. (I'd link to the wikipedia article on heterarchies, but it sucks, and I can't find anything else that's not about corporate structure. I know there's some good anthropology papers out there *somewhere*...)

Trinity said...

Hi Jenavira!

I'd never before heard the term "heterarchy", and I'll have to look that one up. I have heard terms like "transformative power" used to describe dynamics like teacher-student or parent-child, where there is power wielded over people but it's wielded in ways that are supposed to help the person grow (and if you buy, say, Baumrind's parenting studies, also necessary for such growth.)

Thanks for chiming in!

Trinity said...

and yeah, that sounds an awful lot like how I see my relationship and see D/s. I see it as a distinction of *rank* but not of *worth*, and one that could easily go the other way if we had slightly different sexual and emotional proclivities.

Daisy Bond said...

I see it as a distinction of *rank* but not of *worth*, and one that could easily go the other way if we had slightly different sexual and emotional proclivities.

Which is as important, IMO, as consent is, in terms of differentiating between hierarchies that are oppressive and hierarchies that are neutral or empowering. Why is the hierarchy there? More importantly, what determines who is the more powerful person? In unjust hierarchies, things like corruption, sexism, and racism determine who has power; in just hierarchies, power is allotted based on who is best equipped to wield it -- it is allotted in the most mutually beneficial arrangement. Good leaders are, you know, good leaders: they have their power because they're the ones best suited to that role. Between parents and children, parents are better suited to decision making, for reasons that are obvious; it's the same between teachers and students, and (especially if we're talking about people who experience their D/s proclivities as inherent or orientational) it's the same in consensual power exchange.

(I know that this idea can be used by bad people to advocate bad things, but I'm using it under the assumption that racism, sexism, classism, ablism and similar ideologies are evil.)

D said...

"Well, on the plus side, anarchists shouldn't ever want there to be laws against BDSM, they'll just think that we'll magically stop doing it if the conditions were right..."

I would say that anarchists pushing anti-s/m ideology makes them complicit with state forces actually passing laws - or at least complicit with wider forces of sexual repression, even in the anarchists are simply intervening with ideas and not working directly for politicians.

I think our enemies roll a lot deeper than whatever law happens to be on the books against us.

verte said...

Hmmm, great post! I can't say I've ever met an anarchist who wasn't kinky, though -- but perhaps I know a very different of anarchist!

I would use the word hegemony rather than hierarchy for BDSM. A hegemony is a hierarchy that is consented to by the subordinate. Anarchists would probably say that hegemony is a system that indoctrinates us into dialectical systems of power without our awareness (much like The Patriarchy, I guess), and therefore BDSM practices are simply pandering to the system.

HOWEVER, I can't agree that hegemony is the current formation of how power is exerted politically. We're no longer living in an ideology-driven age, and I think it's fair to say that (certainly for my relationship) my ideas about BDSM do not have an ideology, per say, but that doesn't mean they're not political -- and I disagree with emarkienna when he talks about removing politics from the equation. Personally I don't think this is possible or desirable.

What IS possible, though, because we're no longer talking about a politics that has an ideological framework, is the idea that power is a force, an affect. Rather than being directed from above, it's all around us, from a huge multiplicity of directions -- including from within us.

What's bizarre to me about anarchists critiquing BDSM for being about systems of ideological hierarchy is that they tend to be the ones pushing the idea of post-hegemony forward more than most.

It's certainly the way I understand my own BDSM; that power is not simply directed from my partner to me, but that I'm enveloped in the power of the situation, the heady, erotic forces that drive the scene, the force of what is being done to me, and my own desire to be subordinate to all those things -- not just one person or one system, and certainly not one ideology.

Sorry -- this is a little wordy. But I think that's how I'd approach criticism from anarchists, and as someone with anarchist leanings myself, that's how I'd understand BDSM. Anarchism is surely, more than anything, about dismantling ideological systems. I don't believe BDSM needs to involve an ideological system.

And now I post...

Trinity said...

verte: I don't like "hegemony," simply because as I've heard it it tends to refer to groups, and I see BDSM as a lot more personal than that. Here's the OED:

"Leadership, predominance, preponderance; esp. the leadership or predominant authority of one state of a confederacy or union over the others: originally used in reference to the states of ancient Greece, whence transferred to the German states, and in other modern applications."

subversive_sub said...

Hi Trinity, lots to think about here!

Just to clarify -- when I use the word "play," I don't necessarily mean "scene" or "sex game." It was glib of me to compare it to a board game; I totally agree with you that it's the wrong tactic to try to argue "but we're just playing, it's not *real*." Because it *is* real, it is a deep part of our lives and our selves, and it is important. There are real power dynamics at work there, ones that intersect with our daily lives and with our everyday relationships. The point, for me, is that in BDSM we do so consciously and eagerly (not just with consent) -- and that, to me, is a form of playing with power, using it for enjoyment rather than simply allowing it to be imposed upon us.

So to me, d/s that takes place outside the bedroom and that exists to some degree in a relationship full-time is still play. I realize that this I'm using this term in a way that most people in the BDSM world are not using it, and that I probably need to write a little more specifically about what this concept means to me...maybe that should be a follow-up post.

I do want to stress that I was in fact using the word "hierarchy" very deliberately, not as an all-purpose curse. Anarchists are opposed to systems that place some people in higher positions than other people; that's how we use the word "hierarchy." (Again, we may have semantic arguments about this, but I'm speaking of how this word is popularly used and understood in a specifically anarchist context.) I don't believe that BDSM is hierarchical, in this sense, because it is a temporary relationship, not a system; the power exchange even in a 24/7 d/s relationship is too fluid and inconsistent to be a real hierarchy, IMO. I disagree that it is possible to have a hierarchy that deems all people equal of worth; if people in that system are truly equal, they are not in a hierarchy, but in a egalitarian system in which some people have different roles than others.

But this is turning into a political argument, and not at all what I set out to do here...erg. Point is, very thought-provoking post, and I definitely need to write more on this!

Dw3t-Hthr said...

My liege has been known to say something to the effect of "Just because we have different jobs doesn't mean anything about our value as people."

And I'm right with you on preferring people who want to force me to do something else to people who want to negate my self....

Trinity said...

"Anarchists are opposed to systems that place some people in higher positions than other people; that's how we use the word "hierarchy.""

Possibly semantics, but I may still disagree with you -- depending entirely on what a "system" is and how it works.

"the power exchange even in a 24/7 d/s relationship is too fluid and inconsistent to be a real hierarchy, IMO."

I'd say any real hierarchy *has to be* fluid and inconsistent *nodding to Foucault*, so I don't know that this claim holds for me. Though the claim might be that social systems can be more generally consistent than individuals. That may be so, but *again nodding to Foucault* I'm not sure that I think it is. Resistances are complicated.

And I have to say "different roles" in this context actually, well, bugs me. Because what roles are we choosing? We're choosing a ranking system. Papering over that by going "it's just different" (rather than explaining in detail why people's worth remains the same)... well, farbeit for me to say how other people live their lives, but to me that's lying by omission.

Trinity said...

and, well, not just "resistances are complicated," but also... any time that a system has the sheer number of people under it that a major social hierarchy does, consistency is impossible.

Trinity said...

"Why is the hierarchy there? More importantly, what determines who is the more powerful person? In unjust hierarchies, things like corruption, sexism, and racism determine who has power; in just hierarchies, power is allotted based on who is best equipped to wield it -- it is allotted in the most mutually beneficial arrangement. Good leaders are, you know, good leaders: they have their power because they're the ones best suited to that role."

Agreed 100%.

Anonymous said...

I think that most anarchists with a good grasp on the interlocking mechanisms of oppression wouldn't have a problem with kink. There are small-minded and dogmatic adherents to any philosophy and anarchism is no exception. The one good thing we are good at is talking them down--which is what is happening now. This list is remaking anarchism at this very moment. Anarchists are listening and thinking, BDSM will enter the into the anarchist discourse as a practice to be protected. A private sexual space of fantasy whose consensual dealings are no business of anarchist meddlings. Unless of course it is harmful, but when there is real harm, then it is no longer BDSM, and it is just abuse?

Trinity said...

anon, yeah, I think you're right. I was mainly using it as a springboard for, y'know, actually these people are right -- I'm not anti-power dynamics, actually, and not surprised this would be threatening to groups that seem to want to get rid of all of them.

Tiecuando said...

Okay, I don't even think this is open for debate. If a so called "anarchist" takes steps to prohibit consensual sexual practices in anyway, well then, they are a RULER!

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Since our founding in 2002, Hanbridge Mandarin has provided thousands of learners with high-quality campus-based courses, online classes, and intensive cultural immersion programs. Utilizing?easy, fun and rewarding methods, we work hard to ensure our students can understand, use and ultimately master Mandarin communication skills.


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