the thing about kinky rhetoric that really gets to me is this insistence that they can’t use standard verbal and physical signals to let up on whatever they’re doing, because let me tell you that it is perfectly possible to have kinky sex and use words and phrases like “stop”, “slow down”, “softer”, “no more” etc to manage the action. It is also entirely possible to listen to the person who is saying those things, rather than pretending everyone is incapable of controlling themselves until magical words are uttered. And, of course, just as importantly, it’s possible to recognize that third parties are under no obligation to understand what you’re doing, and if you want to avoid confusion or concern, talk in plain whatever-it-is-you-speak.
and if you’re sitting there FURIOUS because I clearly do not understand your domsubbheadspacescenemagic, I would like to say that I feel people who believe in domsubbheadspacescenemagic are indistinguishable from the more intense members of the Society for Creative Anachronism*. You can play with your friends all you like, but you can’t expect other people on the bus to respect your feudal authority. That’s just the way it is.
*don’t think the substantial overlap between these communities is coincidental, kids
When we talk about abusive relationships, we often talk about rape and sexual coercion. While these are certainly important topics, I think it’s equally important to discuss how consensual and seemingly mutually pleasurable sex can be used to manipulate one’s partner. That is a dynamic I am personally familiar with, and one that does not generate enough discussion in forums like Tumblr.
A typical pattern can be described like this:
1. The abusive partner and the victim initiate a consensual sexual relationship. At this point, the abuser is extremely attentive to their partner’s desires; they focus lavish attention on their partner, work hard to find what their partners enjoy most, and are quick to check themselves if they get a negative reaction. They will spend a lot of time discussing sex with their partners, obtaining and memorizing intimate information and (initially) putting it to use to pleasure their partner. At this point, the victim may find the abuser overly attentive or surprisingly interested in pleasuring them, but, as this all results in positive experiences, any misgivings are easily dismissed.
2. The abuser gradually becomes less attentive to their partner’s desires. At this point, the partner may feel as if they have been “greedy”, and has no problem with reciprocation, perhaps suspecting that they have selfishly ignored the abuser’s needs in favor of their own. The victim may be more open than usual in trying new things, both because the abuser has up to now treated them very well and because of the aforementioned need to reciprocate. The abuser is still attentive to the victim’s needs, and will continue to balance that against the gradual introduction of sexual acts that prioritize their own desires.
3. The abuser begins to withdraw affection outside sexual contexts. They will reduce the amount of attention they pay to their partners; casual conversation will diminish, and nonsexual acts of affection will dwindle. They may become cold and even hostile. During and after sex, however, they readily offer physical affection and conversation. As a result, the victim becomes increasingly concerned with being sexually desirable and pleasing to the abuser, and will prioritize the abuser’s pleasure at the expense of their own. They may attribute the abuser’s behavior to stress or anxiety. Society does, after all, romanticize such “brooding” behavior, especially in men. The victim may feel as though they have a responsibility to restore the abuser to good spirits, even if that means increasingly surrendering control of their sex life. Their self-concept may become hypersexualized, while they simultaneously lose a sense of their other, non-sexual qualities.
4. Full withdrawal. The abuser abruptly stops having sex with the victim, and rebuffs any attempt by the victim to initiate physical contact. The victim will become increasingly anxious and depressed. They may feel unattractive, or worry that they appear desperate or sexually voracious. The abuser may begin actively chastising the victim for being overly dependent on sex. At no point do they attempt to explain their behavior or reassure the victim that it has nothing to do with them. If they do permit sexual contact at this time, they will remain very cold, offer no affection and make no attempt to reciprocate. At this point, the victim may begin to wonder if they have anything to offer their partner besides sex; the abrupt and unexplained cessation of sexual activity can be emotionally devastating, especially in combination with emotional, verbal or physical abuse.
5. Reconciliation. Just as abruptly as they cut the victim off, the abuser will reinitiate sexual activity. The victim may feel excessively grateful, and is extraordinarily vulnerable to being manipulated into acts they may not truly be in the mood for. The victim is at this point so desperate for positive feedback from the abuser that they will endure sex that brings them minimal pleasure; they are focused on appeasing the abuser and alleviating the stress imposed by the dynamic. Gratification comes from the abuser’s positive reactions, not their own physical satisfation. The abuser is therefore free to ignore the victim’s needs and only reciprocate as much as necessary to keep the cycle alive.
Within kink communities, it’s really not hard to find dynamics that mimic this cycle exactly. The abusive partner will exploit BDSM rhetoric that normalizes abrupt withdrawal of affection, pushing “limits”, and creating a dependent submissive partner whose primary interest is not fully realized physical pleasure, but mental and/or emotional gratification that will only be offered to them if they obey the abuser’s ostensibly consensual rules. The fact remains that, in any relationship where sex is the primary if not sole vehicle for demonstrating affection towards and validating one’s partner, the potential for abuse to occur is extremely high, and very few observers will notice anything is amiss, since the victim appears so very invested in sexual contact (in some cases even more invested than the abuser). BDSM makes this worse by reifying that as an ideal and natural behavior of the submissive partner; pleasure at physical sensation becomes confounded with basic desires for affection and recognition as a worthwhile human being. It is an astonishingly common phenomenon that unfortunately is often silenced, because questioning it would require questioning common assertions that consent (enthusiastic consent, at that!) is all that is necessary in order to characterize a sexual relationship as healthy.
I’ve got a lot of thoughts about kink and feminism that I hope to expand upon once work calms down, but let me start with this: I am extremely leery of any community that cannot stop talking about how they’re all about CONSENT and TRUST. That seems counterintuitive, but the reality is this; the more people around you spouting stuff about how “consent is sexy!” and “ultimate trust is transcendent!” and “True BDSM is about consent!”, the harder it is to not consent and pretend you completely trust your partners. Because not consenting would be unsexy. It would be unevolved, primitive, the opposite of transcendent. It would mean that, should you find yourself uncomfortable and lacking trust and feeling guilty about not consenting, you have failed . Have you noticed how BDSM practitioners vastly prefer talking about “limits” (i.e., things to be pushed) vs. boundaries (i.e., preexisting, non-negotiable restrictions)? Or how victim-blaming within kink communities often involves asserting that the victim didn’t understand their limits?
Consent and trust cannot be guaranteed in any interaction. When they are presented as inherent qualities of a community, it sets off alarms, because I know that that is a community that values surrendering trust and giving consent over being trustworthy and not taking consent for granted. When I hear elaborate descriptions about the WONDER and the BEAUTY of ULTIMATE TRUST, I wonder why no one is simply talking about the joy of pleasuring a partner and taking every precaution to ensure they are not hurt, even if that means abandoning theatrics or ruining a scene or stopping without hearing a safeword. Why they cannot talk about their partners as ordinary human beings without resorting to titles and roles and constantly reemphasizing sexual power dynamics. When I hear someone assert that “true” BDSM never results in abuse or rape, I wonder why they’re so eager to discredit and disavow victims who say otherwise. “You must have been doing it wrong” is not a statement that gains my confidence; it implies that you do not trust my judgment, and if you don’t trust my judgment, how can I trust you to respect my boundaries and assertions?
One big reason I resent cis straight kinksters and asexuals trying to appropriate the queer tag is because their main justifications for doing so reduce queer identity to fucking. And yes, part of being queer involves who you want to fuck, but we are not protective of our ranks because we think we have some exclusive right to regale our coworkers and relatives with accounts of how we want to fuck (if anyone), what we wear when we fuck, what we like to be called when we fuck, etc. Our homophobic society, however, declares that that is our sole motivation for organizing, fighting, and banding together. We are constructed as sex-crazed perverts out to rape and convert innocents into our ranks. Therefore, when cis straight BDSM practitioners and ageplay fetishists and even the asexuals come up and say, “Hey, I’ve also based my identity around my particular type of fucking/non-fucking, so you must let me in”, we are not surprised, but we do find it profoundly homophobic and offensive. Why would we want people like that around us?
So here’s my view: kink is not, in fact, sacred, and it’s dangerous to imply that we must refrain from critiquing or saying anything negative about it.
I’ve written about this before re: BDSM and my own kink for sexual submission/masochism. As a woman, I recognize that there is no fucking way I can ever disentangle this from sexism, because I grew up in a misogynistic culture that glorifies violence against women, and it will likely still be one when I die. This is not going to stop me from engaging in things I find enjoyable, but I do believe that I have responsibility to both entertain feminist critique of those acts and understand that the cultural context I live in means that other women might be very uncomfortable with what I do, for reasons other than oppressive killjoy vanilla prudery.
There is a valid place for the expression “your kink is not my kink”. It is important to have tolerance for acts outside the line of standard heteronormatively-defined sex. “Kink” is defined against a cultural norm, and quite a bit of what falls under that big umbrella involves queer sex and women enjoying sex on their own terms, rejecting culturally imposed ideas about who we should fuck and how, or if any actual fucking is required at all. With that said, no kink exists separate from larger society. Quite a bit of kink still revolves around defining who or what is to be objectified and who does the objectifying. There is no fetish, no kink, that is not informed by the cultural baggage we have all accumulated, and those who have power in “vanilla” society still have that power when they define their kinks. That power is still just as effective at abusing, exploiting, and harming others.
The problem with using the concept of “kink-shaming” to ward off any criticism of any goddamn thing people jack off to is that it ignores this power. A man who has fantasies about raping unconscious women is a man who lives in a patriarchal society where that sort of thing happens all the time, even if he has never actually tried it. Someone who draws sexual images of children draws in a society where child molestation is very common and very underreported, and it is absurd to expect anyone to shut their mouth if they see that same individual being left alone with kids. Rapists enjoy violent porn, even if nonviolent people do too. It’s abhorrent to tell a rape victim she’s “kink shaming” if someone’s love of simulated rape porn disturbs her. When someone’s kink reflects real-world, nonconsensual violence, there is absolutely nothing wrong with people reacting negatively. There is a fuckton wrong with attempting to silence them by accusing them of shaming people who want to impose their celebration of rape and violence on others. That is intolerable. The idea that the feelings of the one who revels in rape and violence come before those who have been or may be raped and assaulted is at the very heart of rape culture. No one is obligated to tolerate manifestations of rape culture, whether it translates into actual acts or not.
Long story short, I’ve got no issues with anything that occurs between consenting adult humans, or between consenting adult humans and inanimate objects, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to be told that I must entertain any discussion that centers around someone getting off on victimizing people or animals. That ain’t just kink, that’s the patriarchy.