“Is BDSM Feminist?” is the Wrong Question to Ask


I’ve been having conversations about the meaning of BDSM for a long, long time. Part of that is that I’ve been doing various things that generally fall in the kink category since I was about 19. Part of that is that sex educators have these sorts of talks with a lot of different people. Part of it is that many of my friends, lovers, and play partners have been feminists of various flavors and although I don’t call myself a feminist, I’ve definitely been challenged, inspired, and supported by feminists. So I’m no stranger to discussions about kink, sex, politics, gender, and related issues.

One of the things that I’ve seen happen over and over is discussions (which often turn into arguments & flame wars) about whether BDSM is feminist. And I think that’s entirely the wrong question to ask.


It’s the wrong way to go because it’s an either/or question and the topic doesn’t fit neatly into a yes or no paradigm. But it’s also the wrong question because it distracts us from what I think is a more relevant question: what systems need to be in place to bring kinky sex and feminism/gender equality into alignment?

I find that a much more useful line of inquiry because it acknowledges the truth that each side of the either/or holds. For example, it is absolutely true that there are some people who use BDSM to camouflage the fact that they’re predators. There’s a reason that a lot of munches and social groups meant to introduce newbies to the BDSM world have “no cruising” rules. Some people (often, but not exclusively, men) seek inexperienced partners because they know that they can take advantage of them more easily. That also happens in the non-BDSM world, such as when young queers who have recently come out of the closet are pounced on by older folks who want to take advantage of fresh meat.

Further, there have been countless stories of people who have had tops cross boundaries, violate their agreements, or abuse them simply because they can. Given how rampant that is in the vanilla world, there’s no reason to think it’s any less possible in the BDSM world. Fortunately, people are beginning to speak up about that and address it.

But the fact that abuse exists in BDSM situations doesn’t mean that BDSM is inherently abusive. The assumption that it equals violence ignores the many reasons people do it and the myriad ways they do it. BDSM can be a path of intense personal transformation, silliness and fun, an ordeal journey within a spiritual practice, a set of sensations that some people enjoy, an opportunity to allow different facets of our psyches out to play, an excuse to wear costumes and drag, a series of lessons in communication and self-knowledge, and many other things.

In both my personal and professional experience, any of those possibilities has room for two (or more) people to come together as equals, find common ground between their desires and fantasies, and enjoy an experience that can be sensual, sweet, hot, and profound. They can also part as equals, with mutual care and respect. However, that almost always rests on an awareness of the potential of BDSM to be abusive and a willingness to create and abide by agreements that keep that from happening. It also requires the capacity to acknowledge when people get hurt despite the best of intentions, to do what needs to happen to help them and the relationship heal, and to learn from the experience. And given how our desires are influenced by what we see and learn from the world around us, it works best when the players have genuinely explored their motivations and examined how sexism, homophobia, transphobia, sex-negativity and other expressions of injustice have affected us. [Hint: if you’re convinced that you’ve somehow managed to not be affected by them, odds are that you are. Just saying.]


None of those systems are beginner-level skills. They come with practice, with the willingness to learn, and with the support of our role models, friends, lovers, and communities. Unfortunately, as the media has taken advantage of the opportunity to use BDSM as a marketing tool, more and more people are doing it without any idea of the physical, emotional, sexual, and relationship skills that help ensure pleasure, joy, and fun. And all too often, someone gets hurt, simply because they don’t know what they’re doing.

On the flip side, the BDSM crowd often ignores the way in which the very limited images of kink that make it into the mainstream shape us. The vast majority of those representations focus on a very narrow slice of the BDSM world and fundamentally, that’s no different than the very specific representations of sex that we see in the mainstream. In fact, they tend to be very similar- sexually available women who are ready to serve the almighty penis in any way men want. Sure, you’ll see some of that at some BDSM events, but you’ll also see many, many, MANY other possibilities that people enjoy. But unfortunately, anyone unfamiliar with that can easily assume that BDSM is what they see in movies or on TV. Remember- no media representations of anything are accurate. If you’ve ever been in a courtroom, you know that it’s nothing like Law and Order. If you’ve ever been in an emergency room, you know that it’s nothing like what happens on TV. It’s no different when it comes to BDSM.

The overwhelming trend is to show that small portion of the incredible range of possibilities, and that affects how kinky people see what’s available to them. It also gets reinforced by some aspects of the kink world. How many kink events feature performances by young, skinny, able-bodied women on display for the crowd? What would it be like to show something besides the same-old, same-old? I’m just as bored with the homogeneity among “sexy” kinky images as I am by vanilla imagery that features the same body types and tropes that we’ve been seeing for years. Separate from any other analysis we might bring to bear, it’s just getting boring.


We also need to include an understanding that one of the hurdles we face in trying to have these discussions is that a lot of BDSM practices can be triggering for other people. When I first went to play parties, the sound of someone being spanked freaked me out. I wasn’t able to distinguish between the sound of flesh being slapped and the story in my head about what was happening and what that meant. I most certainly understand the frustrations of kinksters when people accuse them of being abusive because they can’t tell the difference, either. But unless we can bring some fierce compassion to the situation, we’re never going to get past the “no it isn’t/yes it is!” fights.

When it comes down to it, asking if BDSM is feminist is like asking if sex is feminist. The question misses the point because the more useful inquiry is what it takes to bring them together. We can discuss how the consensual exchange or erotic power within specific boundaries works. We can talk about the processes that help resolve and reconcile the inevitable missteps that sometimes happen. We can examine the differences between exploring our individual desires and genuine empowerment. We can create language that helps people find new ways to respect sexual diversity, without denigrating people whose preferences are different. We can talk about how media representations limit what options and possibilities we see. We can examine how institutionalized power imbalances shape our relationships and look for strategies to overcome and transcend them. We can look at how dominance is privileged over submission, how that intersects with heteronormative gender roles, and find strategies for changing that. We can ask someone how their heart and body were cared for. We can look at the nuances of consent, communication, power, and choice. In other words, we can look at the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the participants and the people affected by their actions.

Plenty of people have been and are doing that work, and many of them are feminists. But we can’t do it if we’re stuck in the either/or debate. It’s time to stop asking if BDSM is feminist and start asking better questions.

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7 Responses so far.

  1. Brad says:

    Personally, I find no interest in partisipating in BDSM,but also realize that some people do enjoy it and respect their right to participate in their own pleasures so long as nobody is force to do anything that they dom.t want to.  In any case, there MUST be some means of calling a halt to whatever activity is going on.

  2. Andee says:

    First, where does this question originate: from men or women?  Kinky men? Kinky women?  Also, being a feminists means that women are on equal standing with men economically, politically, family-wise and in the bedroom.  So, sex in whatever format can be “unfair” and “lopsided” so that the penis is the center of it all.  BDSM may or may not equalize sex roles; it depends on the players, doesn’t it? And it depends on the rules that hopefully get formulated upfront.  Also, it depends on knowing who you are and what your needs are.  Because BDSM incorporates a whole lot of different types of acts, it would allow for more play by women and would potentially be more enjoyable for women.

  3. Charlie,

    You are such an excellent writer.

    I am a follower of both Clarisse Thorn (clarissethorn.com) and The Kinky Little Girl (who is currently having site difficulty), both of whom have written on Feminist and abuse issues.  It is a subject worth extensive examination from all perspectives.  Both Feminist and more “traditional” (if that word can even be applied here) BDSM view should have, as each partner should have, equal value.

    I enjoy reading your work. 

  4. M says:

    I’ve considered myself a feminist since I was 19, and have certainly thought about this issue when I discovered not long ago that I’m kinky, and particularly that I enjoy being dominated.

    My take on feminism is that it’s about making it OK for people to be who they are, regardless of gender. By that way of thinking, as a feminist, if I enjoy being physically and psychologically dominated, that’s my right. And it’s my responsibility to play in a way that keeps myself and my partners as safe as possible, and to engage in dialogue that will ensure the ongoing health of our relationship, whatever it may be.

    Since I’ve been exploring kink, I’ve come across some real triggers (including being fully triggered during a rape scene about my dad’s abuse of me as a child). But I also feel more confident, more powerful, and happier because I can explore shadow places that, as an alpha woman, I really can’t explore in other places in my life.

    I’ve been lucky to have found play partners who are experienced, wise, compassionate, and able to be there for me when emotions come up. It’s all been very therapeutic for me.

    I don’t think BDSM in any way conflicts with feminism, at least as I see both of those things. Thanks for another insightful article!

  5. Lee says:

    I tried bdsm and met with a dominatrix, it probably sounds naive but I really regret it, it set something off in me and really messed me up, could you offer any advice?

  6. Lee,

    It is impossible to give any relevant with such little information.  I do not feel that a relationship with a paid Dominatrix can be representative of the entire realm of BDSM relationships.  You do not state what issues within you were activated nor how.

    In most cases, a professional Dominatrix deals with sadomasochistic or humiliation based activities, depending on their area, they do not typically legally engage in sexual activity.  But since the time is expensive, the client often does not spend the money on extensive negotiations nor willingly discuss emotional triggers.  That can, unfortunately, give rise to problems. 

    It would seem, at this point, that the issues you are dealing with come either from a poor choice in Dominatrix or historical issues within yourself.  Either way, they deserve some extensive contemplation on your part.

    I believe that within the realm of BDSM relationships there is room for intelligent, empathetic, growth based, communicative, healthy relationships, but the responsibility for creating them belongs on all partners.

    I wish you health and well being. 

  7. Lizzy says:

    A wonderfully insightful and generally balanced article, Charlie.  Over the past two years I have been mulling over thoughts about the relationship between BDSM and feminism, the respective ethoses of which I share a close affinity.  This has been one of the better articles in assisting my exploration of my feelings about and understanding of the relationship between these two components of my identity; your take-home message ‘ask the right questions’ is a refreshing and thought-provoking angle.
    Personally, the experience of relinquishing control and handing it over to someone trusted is feminist bliss; it is liberating to have no choice (a state I have consented to, of course) in that the submissive can enjoy a temporary freedom from the stress of decision-making and obeying without question.  Playing the reverse role offers a liberating feminist experience in equal measure; to be granted the opportunity to dominate and be completely responsible for the welfare and sexual pleasure of a partner who trusts you implicitly is a priviledge that can significantly deepen emotional and physical intimacy.
    I hope many others have the opportunity to read this article and find it as thought-provoking as I have.

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