So I was right. Clarisse Thorn’s piece on BDSM vs Sex did climb inside my brain and crawl around for a couple of days, so I was thinking about BDSM while I was cooking and shopping and stuff, the irony of which should become clear shortly.
The question she was looking to answer was basically:
Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual?
And I think the answer cuts to the heart of a question that seems simple until you start thinking about it, and then becomes completely unanswerable: what is sex? So even for those of you who are really bored with me talking about BDSM, there might be some interest in this.
I mean, given where we are (feminist website in a pretty liberal blogosphere), we can take for granted that “penis in vagina” is not a sufficiently broad definition of sex. But I think there is a default assumption, if we were going through a list of acts and considering how much they were “sex”, that penetrative acts (PIV, anal, pegging) are sex to a greater extent than non-penetrative acts. Then we take a moment to remember that lesbians can also have sex, and remember to include oral…
And things start to get a bit shaky. Frottage: is that sex? It fits our previously-proposed definition of “a situation where orgasm is appropriate”. So, touching? And there seems to be an unconscious, unthinking boundary in there somewhere – like the difference between touching someone’s outer thigh and touching their inner thigh – and it all gets grey and subjective and horribly complicated. Or, just the way I like it.
Clarisse’s articles include a quote I find quite useful:
“I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”
Eros: eroticism. Here, I think, is the difference between the two parts of Clarisse’s question. It might not be sex, but could still be sexual. And this is where I think BDSM offers a useful perspective, on the borders of the erotic.
(A couple of little sidebars before we get into the meat of this. I use “Dom/me” because I am bisexual, and my Dominant partner could be male or female. I also capitalise the Dominant. These are simply conventions; I don’t really give a rat’s who follows them or doesn’t.
Also, and more importantly, I think we’ve done quite a lot towards acceptance of submissive sexuality, particularly female subs. But I don’t think we’ve made quite as much progress accepting Dominant sexuality, particularly male. Which is odd, because I don’t think it’s really possible to properly respect my sexuality without also respecting the other side of the coin, the person who, without cruelty, wants to hurt me. That’s one of the reasons that I’ll continue to be vague about my Dom/mes, and use a sort of fluffy conditional present tense to disguise when particular things happened. One of the reasons. Nobody signed up to sleep with a sex columnist, after all.)
There’s an awfully broad palette of practise covered by the term “BDSM”, and people don’t use all of it. For me, humiliation and verbal abuse has never been a turn-on. For me, it’s about pain and restraint, but also obedience. When I wrote about BDSM for Public Address, I very much concentrated on the pain response, because that’s easy to understand. But it’s a very long way from all there is. And in this context, sex/sexual/eros, we’re mainly going to talk about obedience.
It’s actually pretty challenging for me. I’m not good at doing what I’m told. It’s much easier for me to be tied down than to be told to stay still, and do it through sheer will. (Really challenging? Being told to shut up.) And in a non-sexual context, nobody gets to tell me what to do. Nobody. I’ve always been really shit at taking direction even from bosses and clients.
In a BDSM context, though, obedience is heavily erotic. There’s a bit near the end of Secretary where Lee says to her poor hapless fiancé, “Does this look like something sexual?” She’s sitting at a desk. She’s doing what she’s told. It’s not sex. It is sexual.
Now, I will admit that I’ve never actually “played” with a Dom/me I wasn’t also having sex with. Perhaps because of my history, I have Trust Issues. Strangers are not going to have access to that level of intimacy with me. And for all it might appear that you can’t shut me up about it, my response as a sub is an intensely private thing to me – far beyond my vanilla sexual response.
BDSM allows you to take that level of response out of a conventionally sexual setting. (Yes, we have a very strong idea of “conventionally sexual”, that’s why the word “kink” exists.) For instance, my safe word is a concrete noun. And I can’t ever look at a “one of those things” without it being a visceral reminder of my deepest response. But also there was a day when I was kneeling to sweep my kitchen floor, and I was simply and suddenly overwhelmed, just from being on my (admittedly slightly bruised) knees.
I’m pretty sure lots of people have particular touchstones – songs, scents, situations – that remind them of something sexual or relationshippy. I do. And here I agree with Clarisse that it “feels different”. The non-BDSM frisson is pleasant, warm and soft. The BDSM one is a knife-sharp catch of breath, straight to the core. It’s not sex, clearly. But it is sexual. There is eros.
So where I was seeing Clarisse’s “sex” and “BDSM” as heavily-overlapping circles in a Venn diagram, I don’t think it’s the most useful image. There is, for instance, a point where she says,
I, Clarisse, can certainly attest that it’s common for people to have BDSM encounters that are “just” BDSM — “no sex involved”. For example — an encounter where one partner whips the other, or gets whipped, and there’s no genital contact or even discussion of genitals.
That seems to indicate to me that when she talks about “sex”, she’s using a narrower definition than I am. To me there’s an awful lot of sex that isn’t genitals. Mostly, though, I think the problem is that those mental circles have hard-drawn, mutually-agreed edges. And that doesn’t seem to be the case with “sex”.
The very concept of “kink” indicates something that “most people don’t find appropriately sexual”. And with BDSM it’s not just being turned on by pain that’s inappropriate. It’s also the concept of finding it arousing being told what dress to wear, or to have the salmon.
Anyway. When Clarisse says
Part of me felt like, “If my desire for pain and power is sexual, then it’s weird. If it’s not sexual, then it’s less weird.” … In contrast, I once met a couple who told me that it took them a long time to do BDSM that wasn’t part of sex. In their heads, the thought was more like: “If the desire for pain and power is sexual, then it’s not weird. But if it’s not sexual, then it’s really weird.”
I’m definitely more of the latter persuasion. For me, it would feel really uncomfortable if my desire for pain wasn’t sexual. But if not all of my sexuality is kink (and it really seriously isn’t by a very long way indeed) then perhaps not all of my kink is sexual. That instinctively feels wrong, though. What feels right, is a broader definition of what “sexual” is. What’s the difference between “sexual” and “sensual”? Are they both to some degree erotic? And does it matter anyway?
Here’s why it matters, and why I would never pressure anyone to move outside their accepted personal idea of “sex”: because sex is Wrong and Bad. Even if not in itself, then in certain situations. Clarisse talks about having partners who wouldn’t condone her having sex with other men, but were okay with her doing BDSM with them. Ergo, BDSM is not sex. It’s not cheating. We might laugh at the “eating ain’t cheating” Southern philosophy, but if people genuinely believe that, then they make decisions and take actions on that basis. I think it does help to be aware, though, that we might all be fudging those judgements (“that doesn’t count…”) to some extent.