For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been participating in some blog discussions about the nature of kinky sex and how it relates to issues of sexism. Some of those conversations have been on some radical feminist sites like this one and while I think that there’s some really great stuff that can be found in those discussions, there’s also a lot that I find troubling.
At the moment, the thing that’s bugging me is the idea that BDSM is unnatural. Or for that matter, that homosexuality, oral sex, anal sex, group sex, sex toys, masturbation, or anything else you can name is “unnatural.” There are actually two aspects of this that I dislike, although they both come back to sex-negativity.
First, there’s this idea that natural = good. We hear this a lot, and it’s a pretty compelling idea, given how many problems we face are the result of human activity. But as the sage Terry Pratchett points out, “living in trees and eating your dinner while it’s still wriggling is also natural.” If you want to have natural sex, you can’t use lubricants, sexy music, chocolate sauce, pillows, or for that matter, a bed. None of those things exist in nature so how can they be “natural”? There’s a consistent pattern of calling something unnatural simple because we don’t like and/or understand it. Have we really forgotten that homosexuality was called the “abominable and detestable crime against nature”?
Sexual diversity is, in fact natural. There’s a lot more diversity among people and among animals in general than most folks realize and most of it is, in fact, benign. In her amazing article Thinking Sex, Gayle Rubin points out that the lack of a concept of benign sexual diversity is deeply intertwined with sex-negativity. If you haven’t read the article, click on the link. It’s worth it.
Second, most of the time when people call some sort of sexual activity unnatural, they’re using the term to shame the folks who do it into complying with some expectation of what people “should” do. In my experience, the word “should” is usually used to control through shame. To try to control people’s sexualities through shame is to use the same tools that have reinforced erotophobia for centuries.
Now, I’m not arguing that everything that people do is ok and that there can’t be any limits. It’s just that I beleive that the limits that we use will work best when they’re based on compassion and awareness of sexual diversity, when they’re based on whether someone is doing harm to themselves or other people, and whether the authenticity and integrity of the people involved is respected. You can be as kinky as possible and still be within those boundaries, and you can have the sorts of sex that are usually considered “natural” and be outside those bounds.
That’s because I’m less interested in what people do and more interested in how they experience it. I refuse to label anyone’s experience for them. To me, that is one of the sources of abuse, no matter what the intentions behind it are.
Please note: I’m not suggesting that all feminists or all radical feminists fall into the trap of calling some sex “unnatural.” I also firmly believe that feminist perspectives have a lot to offer an exploration of sex-positivity. But that’ll have to wait for another post.