Is it “unfeminist” to be into bondage, submission/domination, and other “kinky” things? —Anna, New York City

I hereby present my humble yet convenient go-to rule when it comes to defining what is or isn’t feminist:

If you’re telling women what they can and can’t to do with their lives and their bodies, it’s probably not feminism.

This self-made rule is particularly useful when it comes to private, personal, no-one’s-business-but-your-own decisions. Making your own reproductive choices? Ensuring you have adequate access to health information and care? Taking care of your body and personal safety? Being free to decide when, if, how, and with whom to have sex? It’s fair to say all of these are pretty basic feminist ideals we’d all be proud to uphold.

Following this logic, you would think it was far more “unfeminist” to tell someone they’re not allowed to have the specific kind of sex they like than it is to have some healthy, safe kinky fun with a consenting partner. Obviously not every person looks, feels, acts, and fucks the same way, so the room for sexual difference should be a huge part of feminism, right? This seems simple enough, but for some reason there can be a knee-jerk reaction, an obvious discomfort, when BDSM is brought up. What is it about BDSM between consenting parties that scares people—including feminists—so much?

BDSM stands for “bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism,” and it encompasses a whole range of sexual play that involves exchanges of power and/or control and/or pain, from blindfolding your partner during sex to full-on Secretary-level psychosexual games. BDSM is usually classified as a “kink,” which is just a word for sexual practices that aren’t mainstream (yet), or that aren’t talked about openly.

Feminist writers far more gifted than myself have been arguing over the rights and wrongs of BDSM for decades, with no real firm conclusion. On the extreme end, objections to it include the extreme accusations that it’s bad for our expectations of women (because, the thinking goes, female submission to a man in the bedroom encourages men to see women as generally subservient); or that it’s sanctioned abuse (one domestic-abuse charity recently organized a mass burning of copies of 50 Shades of Grey because the sexual relationship in the book includes a lot of BDSM play).

There are more-subtle anti-BDSM attitudes out there, too, like “that’s just weird,” which is understandable if you look how it’s usually portrayed in the media and in mainstream culture, which deal in caricatures: people who like that stuff are generally villains or victims on a crime procedural, or the punchline to a lazy joke. But the truth is, kinky people are just as diverse in their reasons and methods as non-kinky people. We’re your neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family members. Those who want to demonize and dismiss us see only violence and abuse, and not the empowering, sexy, affirming (and fun) experiences that so many people around you love. It would take the average internet user mere seconds of Googling to find that healthy BDSM is about pleasure, and the enthusiastic consent and safety of everyone involved (something that feminism loves).

Some feminists assert that BDSM has nothing to do with feminism, that it is always abusive and harmful, and/or that people who are into pain and control are damaged victims or disturbed sadists, or that we have “internalized the patriarchy.” At the root of all this condemnation is a simple failure to respect that everyone has a right to do what they choose with their bodies as long as they respect the right of others to do the same. Thankfully, though, that attitude seems to be dying out. The prevailing feminist messaging right now, or at least in my experience, is one of sex-positivity and personal sexual choice.

When I published an essay on feminism and submission in the anthology Yes Means Yes! a few years ago, some of the most poignant and heartbreaking emails I received in response were from young women who acknowledged their impulse for kink, yet couldn’t comfortably talk about their desires. I am by no means a sex educator, and don’t believe I have any authority to tell anyone how to explore their sexual identity, but I do think that we too often assume that you young people don’t know what you want; we strip you of your agency, assuming you’re hapless victims of media or circumstance.

I don’t necessarily think it’s the responsibility of a movement to defend my specific personal identity, and I don’t object to feminists who don’t have any investment in what I want to do in the bedroom. What I do ask for is safe space in which to have to have the kinds of conversations necessary for making people feel OK about what they want and need, without judgment or reprisal. I would hope that feminism would help create this space.

Some people like pain. Some people like humiliation. Some people like to be tied up and some people like to do the tying. Some people grapple with these desires for an excruciatingly long time, wrestle with them endlessly, in a world that seeks to shame them for having them. The reality is that some people are going to be BDSM-inclined whether feminism likes it or not. I would hope that, at its core, feminism is not about denying or hiding that inclination, but rather about fighting for bodily autonomy and the right to personal pleasure that doesn’t harm others, and helping all kinds of people have happier, healthier, fuller, and safer lives, whatever that may mean. If exploring BDSM and kink in a safe and consensual way is part of that, then I support it. Otherwise, it’s probably not feminism. —Stacey May Fowles

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