By Rob Jellinghaus
…is SM criminal, unnatural, immoral, unethical, or unhealthy?
If what we’ve been saying in this FAQ is accurate, then why haven’t more people heard this? Why are the prevailing images of SM so negative?
There is no doubt that they _are_ negative. Not long ago I was informed that there are some members of the Winnipeg (Canada) police department who believe that soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm is “a textbook on how to torture women for sexual pleasure. It’s obscene.” Said police were considering how to deal with s.s.b-b on obscenity grounds. In England in 1991, a group of gay men who had gathered for an SM play party in which they were using whips for pleasure were arrested and charged with battery, EVEN THOUGH they had all agreed to be doing exactly what they were doing, and WANTED to be doing it. Consensual SM is illegal in England. How can this be?
The crucial distinction here is between consent and non-consent. The difference between whipping someone in a scene and assaulting them on the street is the difference between sex and rape. If everyone involved agrees to what is happening, it is not a crime. If they do not, then it is. This distinction is not in principle difficult to understand, and being involved in SM makes it very clear. SM practitioners are _more_ familiar with consent issues than most, and as such are _less_ likely to commit crimes of the sort that people confuse with SM. And NONE of the material in this FAQ advocates ANY kind of nonconsensual, criminal behavior.
Unfortunately, there are many who would be arbiters of what others may and may not legally consent to do. I believe that consenting adults should be free to do as they wish in the privacy of their homes. There are many who don’t believe this is acceptable. It serves them to confuse the issue by claiming “SM people are sadistic rapists” when in fact we are nothing of the sort. Criminalizing consensual sexual activities (sodomy, SM, even prostitution) is an old tradition, but in my view, an unjustifiable one.
This problem is exacerbated by the body of “scholarly research” on SM and related practices. Almost all the books written about SM and other alternative practices in this century have been written by psychologists and therapists (i.e. people outside the scene), and almost all have portrayed SM as a dangerous practice, indulged in only by “unhealthy” individuals. The reason? Healthy individuals weren’t the subjects being studied; rather, the subjects were all seeking psychological treatment from the authors of the books! The “studies” completely ignored the many many well-adjusted, happy people who were also into SM. It’s easy to conclude SM is harmful when your only experience is with psychologically maladjusted SM people, and when you aren’t interested in presenting a balanced view (as few authors are–psychologists can be as sexually judgmental as anyone).
More recent events in the psychiatric community have shown a change in opinion about SM. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Conditions is a document produced by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM-III, published in the late ’80s, classified “sexual sadism” and “sexual masochism” as disorders for which treatment was recommended. The APA, in the DSM-IV, reclassified SM as _not_ necessarily a disorder, unless the practice of the SM produces clinically significant ongoing emotional trauma, or leads to death, serious injury, or disability. The DSM-IV is recognition by the therapeutic community that SM can be practiced in a psychologically healthy way. Specifically, _DSM IV_, © *1994*, page 529, §302.83, “sexual masochism”: Classed as a paraphilia, not a disorder, lacking negative implications unless “the fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” Sexual sadism is discussed 2 pages later, §302.84, with similar qualifications.
As for “natural”: people have practiced SM behaviors throughout history. Many are the saints who scourged themselves in the name of the Lord. Using intense sensation to reach altered states of mind is a practice as old as humanity itself–and hence can be considered in no way “unnatural”.
Our society (as do most societies) tends to ostracize the different. If you don’t fit the mold, you’re weird and dangerous. People into SM don’t fit the mold. This is why there is such pressure to remain anonymous in the scene; people have lost their jobs, partners, children, and liberty by having their sexual preferences revealed to their community. This stems from the same source: lack of understanding of what we do and why, and lack of respect for what is different.
Of course, there are plenty of people who just aren’t into SM. (Most people, in fact.) There’s nothing at all wrong with not being into SM, or with not wanting to be exposed to people who do various forms of SM; many people have emotional issues with some kinds of SM activities and may be repulsed or disturbed by witnessing them. These people should clearly avoid SM (and probably should avoid soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm). I would hope, however, that even these people would manage to learn about consensuality as it relates to SM, and learn how SM, practiced carefully, is not abuse.
Some people feel that any power exchange between people is unhealthy. The argument is that giving power to someone else is tantamount to giving away your essential right to self-determination, which must be considered an unqualified evil. Moreover, there is no doubt that many social evils–wars, abusive relationships, et al.–derive from one group of people seeking power over another; therefore, the argument proceeds, it is always wrong thusly to seek power.
In reality, there are many situations in life in which someone chooses to give some of their power over to another, because they trust that other to use that power wisely. Examples include entering the Army (which regulates your life for the duration of your service); getting married (which is often a commitment to abandon some of your personal autonomy); taking a job (which restricts your choices of how to spend your time); and, of course, entering a BDSM scene (during which your top has authority over what goes on). All these power exchanges are mutually agreed upon, and are mutually beneficial; when they stop being beneficial, the exchange itself should stop.
People whose moral codes state that all power exchange–consensual or otherwise–is wrong should clearly not be involved in BDSM. Certainly such people have a consistent ethical system that defines BDSM as immoral. Short of such an ethical system, however, it is hard to see how a BDSM relationship is any more intrinsically immoral than a stint in the Army, or a traditional ‘death-do-you-part’ marriage. As for me, I believe that in a free society, morality requires permitting each citizen to make his or her own choices of how to live, and how to express themselves, including sexually. Sexual rights are human rights. If we lose our freedom to love as we choose, we lose a vital part of what it is to be human.
These issues are very controversial, even now. In the 1992 Oregon state ballot, voters narrowly overturned a measure named OR 9, which contained the following paragraph:
“State, regional, and local government and their departments, agencies, and other entities, including specifically the State Department of Higher Education and the public schools, shall assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth that recognizes homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism, and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided.”
Homosexuality, sadism, and masochism are neither wrong nor unnatural. All three are consensual ways of living and loving that many people enjoy. They are not for everyone, but nor should everyone be told that they are for no one. Note also how this measure seeks to confuse the issue by grouping homosexuality, sadism, and masochism together with pedophilia, a practice which is in most places legally nonconsensual. (It is not my intent to enter here into the debate over whether children are ever capable of fully consenting to sexual acts. Suffice it to say that whether they can or not has no bearing on the fact that adults _can_ consent to SM play.) Legislating what consenting adults may and many not do in private is neither healthy nor democratic.
(In recent years there has been a spate of articles about how SM is entering the mainstream. Madonna’s book “Sex,” her movie “Body of Evidence,” and the movie “Exit to Eden” are examples of this trend. Hopefully this will lead to more people feeling free to express their love as _they_ choose–so long as it’s consensual!)
The most extreme forms of SM come closest to the line between consent and non-consent. Most SM people have established safewords which they will use if need be, though if they’ve known their partners for long, that’s rather seldom. Some people, though, do play without safewords–whether because they know their partners well enough to stay within their partners’ limits and read their partners’ responses, or because they enjoy the rush of playing without an escape clause. This latter sort of play is sometimes known as “consensual non-consensuality,” and involves scenes in which the bottom literally cannot escape from whatever the top wishes to do. This is very advanced SM; it requires exponentially more negotiation and introspection, and even then is hazardous. Not many people do this, or want to, but some people do, and find it exhilarating and uplifting. More info is available on s.s.b-b or in some of the references…or on s.s.b-b itself, which is one of the best places in the world to hear a myriad of voices speak out about their individual ways of doing and living SM.