Is The BDSM Community Really Non-Judgmental?


Yesterday, Jezebel posted an article about a woman whose post on Fetlife (a social networking site for the BDSM world) about an experience of sexual assault resulted in the usual slut-shaming and victim-blaming. It’s worth checking out, and if you’re on Fetlife, take a look at the original post. The Jez piece ends:

Dayna’s experience with FetLife reminds us of Rebecca Watson’s horrific account of rampant misogyny in the skeptic community. You’d expect a certain amount of enlightenment from a social network that celebrates alternative sexuality, right? Well, looks like you’d be sorely disappointed.

As someone who has moved through different facets of the BDSM world for a while, as well as many other communities of erotic affiliation, I’ve seen this pattern play out before. A lot of these crowds present themselves as non-judgmental and welcoming, but sooner or later, they don’t manage to live up to the expectations that message creates and people become disillusioned. In my experience, that’s at least partly because those expectations are unrealistic, and I think it’s worth unpacking them to see if there’s anything we can do about them.

I do find that the BDSM world is much less judgmental about certain things, most of which center on sexuality. There’s far more freedom to explore your desires and fantasies, to talk about them, to seek partners openly and without shame, and to change over time as your experiences inform and shift what turns you on. There’s also a wider range of attractiveness than is generally found in the vanilla world, more room to be sexual and sexy in community spaces, and far more tools for exploring and identifying what “sexy” means to you.

At the same time, people in the BDSM world grew up in the same overarching culture that everyone else did and there’s no reason to expect them to not have absorbed many of the messages that pervade it. There’s racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, classism, cisgender privilege, transphobia, ableism, and every other kind of privilege/oppression you can name. Being kinky isn’t a get out of jail card. So expecting kinksters to not have internalized the same victim-blaming responses that vanilla folks often express is simply unrealistic.

I’ve found that the range of attitudes and beliefs is pretty much the same, no matter what community you’re looking at. What differs is the distribution. There are more people in the BDSM scene who have let go of judgment around sexual expression than elsewhere, but there are still plenty of folks who harbor deep judgment of other people’s sexualities. So expecting the BDSM community to be “enlightened” is setting yourself up for disappointment. For that matter, I’ve met Mormons and Catholics who are really non-judgmental about other people’s choices, as well as many who are as judgmental as the stereotype would lead you to expect. Far fewer of them are on the “accepting of sexual diversity” end of the spectrum, but they’re there.

I think that part of why so many people have these expectations is that they assume that folks who have developed some tools for shedding the sex-negative shaming that suffuses US culture should somehow know better. But then, people often expect gay folks to be able to empathize with people of color, and vice versa, simply because both groups experience oppression, harassment, and violence. How’s that working out for you?

Another related reason is that a lot of kinksters talk about the BDSM scene as being non-judgmental, often because they’ve found a measure of freedom and acceptance there. The relief one often feels when discovering that can be exciting and relieving, which makes it easy to overstate the case. I’ve seen the same thing happen when people discover the queer community, too. But even though they’re not willfully misrepresenting the BDSM community, it still creates false hopes.

Unfortunately these expectations lead to some bitterness. From the Jezebel piece:

Chalk off FetLife, a members-only social network run by and for fetish enthusiasts, as yet another purportedly non-judgmental, welcoming online community that hosts a shocking number of slut-shaming misogynist assholes.

Personally, I never thought that Fetlife, which, after all, has no screening mechanism for joining, wouldn’t have members with these sorts of attitudes. But that’s not because these folks are kinky. It’s because the world is full of slut-shaming misogyny. (I won’t use the word asshole as a pejorative because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with assholes. In my opinion, using sexual terms as pejoratives is a manifestation of sex-negativity.)

I think it’s time to let go of the idea that being kinky means you’re automatically non-judgmental. It might give you insight into respecting sexual diversity. And participation in BDSM community events (which is also not universal among Fetlife members) can introduce you to a wider range of people and practices, which can help you let go of sex-negativity and, to a lesser extent, body-shaming. But it doesn’t make you enlightened and it certainly doesn’t mean you understand and challenge the mechanisms that reinforce slut-shaming and sexual assault.

Perhaps if kinksters stopped presenting the BDSM world as more than it is, it would be easier for everyone, vanilla and kinky alike, to appreciate the unique opportunities it offers with less disappointment at its failings. And just maybe that would create more room to talk about how things like sexual assault, homophobia, racism, sexism, etc. manifest there.

At the same time, the Jezebel piece paints an inaccurate picture of the responses to Dayna’s post. Yes, there were plenty of replies that shamed and blamed her. And there were also responses like these:

You are the one person that did nothing wrong. Don’t be angry at yourself.
All your other anger? That is righteous.

That is sickening.
I don’t even know what to say, except that I am so sorry.

I send hugs. Big warm ones. I’m so sorry you had that happen to you. A few halloweens ago I had similar. It’s horrible and it’s not ok. But you will be ok. Be kind to yourself.

I’m glad you’re alright, if not unscathed. It wasn’t your fault. Not remotely. Not ever. I just wish more people would give a fuck about bad things happening in front of their eyes.

So sorry this happened to you and thank you for sharing even though I know it must’ve been difficult. I’ll join everyone else in being outraged at the ass-twats who did nothing to help you. I hope the jerk who did this gets what he deserves since you are probably not the first woman he’s done this to.

Remember you did nothing wrong! Please take good care of yourself–talk to a professional if you can; something like this can eat away at your psyche.

Wow, I’m so sorry you had this experience. Not your fault, and yeah, your anger sounds entirely rational to me.

You did nothing wrong. It’s not your fault.

I love you for having the courage to post this. Thank you for expressing the feelings that I don’t have the words to express. What are we going to do the change this aspect of our societal paradigm?

So why did the Jezebel piece paint a portrait of the kink community as a monolithic entity that universally blamed Dayna? Was the author cherry-picking in order to vilify a community that already gets a fair amount of abuse? Was she triggered by the victim-blaming and didn’t see the other responses? Was she ignoring the nuances of the situation in order to write a more attention-grabbing piece? It could have been any of these, or something else. But whatever her motivations, I don’t appreciate her demonizing BDSM.

I’d really like to stop seeing the BDSM world presented as all-this or all-that. It’s just as multi-faceted as any other group of people and you’ll find both incredible support and friendships on Fetlife, as well as creeps, trolls, and jerks. When it comes down to it, it’s just people, with all of their flaws and gifts. Once you accept that, you can take what it has to offer without setting yourself up for disappointment.

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6 Responses so far.

  1. What a thoughtful, and thought-provoking response. I have had my share of disappointments with fetlife and the BDSM community, for exactly that — the false expectations that the marginalized will have more tolerance, empathy for and understanding of others who are being marginalized. But history shows this to be untrue — after all, I may be a pervert, but someone else may be a far greater pervert than me 🙂 Anyhow, the way I have dealt with my disappointments is exactly through this: realizing that the BDSM community is just like any other, and will have a variety of people. Among the friends I have chosen, based simply on our kinks, I constantly see people expressing opinions I find narrow-minded and even misogynistic/racist/sexist (might be time to clean up my friend list!), but I remind myself that I shouldn’t be shocked — you can certain play together if your kinks match up, but it’s naive to expect a deeper connection based just on that. 

    Nevertheless, just like you, I believe that there are a lot of lessons that can be learned through BDSM, which can also be very useful and applicable in our vanilla lives: lessons about oneself, the power dynamics we’re in, as well as treatment of others. But one shouldn’t believe that simply belonging to the community will somehow make you a smarter, more self-aware and tolerant person — it takes a lot more than that. Just like any education system, BDSM presents us with the tools, but whether we choose to pick them up and use them ethically and intelligently is up to us. 

  2. Mindet says:

    Great article.  I particularly like your last point.  Especially for anyone who feels like a bit of an outsider it can be tempting to convince oneself that there is a whole community which constitutes a safe place.  Maybe nowhere is safe (at least at this point of human history), and it’s better to try to come to terms with that before looking outside oneself for security, I don’t know.
     
    Otherwise, I think there are different types of expectation.  I get that expectation for what oneself will find, will feel, will experience can be setting oneself up for disappointment.  On the other hand, expecting high standards of ethical behaviour from other people is in my opinion a good thing.  In my experience, if you have low expectations of people they will struggle to surpass them and often even live down to them.  I guess there’s an element of confirmation bias there too in that if you expect unethical behaviour you are more likely to be drawn to people who fulfill your expectations.  If more people had high expectations of other people’s behaviour and made an issue of it when they fell short rather than shrugging it off and saying “I shouldn’t have expected better” I think it would do a lot of good.

  3. “In my opinion, using sexual terms as pejoratives is a manifestation of sex-negativity.)”  I agree, as I wrote in something I apparently only shared in Livejournal and Facebook, about the word “slutty”: http://dawnd.livejournal.com/517055.html .  Thanks for reminding me that assholes are ok, too, and not to use that word as a put-down. I’ll be more mindful in the future!

  4. Dr.Jesus says:

    I was all set to argue with you, then:
    <blockquote>I’d really like to stop seeing the BDSM world presented as all-this or all-that. It’s just as multi-faceted as any other group of people and you’ll find both incredible support and friendships on Fetlife, as well as creeps, trolls, and jerks. When it comes down to it, it’s just people, with all of their flaws and gifts. Once you accept that, you can take what it has to offer without setting yourself up for disappointment.</blockquote>
    Your bottom line is the same as mine.  Different communities may get different slices of the spectra of human health, attitude, understanding, reasonableness, etc., but they all remain a spectrum no matter how far left or right their mean or median may fall on any given line.  And each and every one of them has at least one asshole, for good or ill.

  5. Mike Wilson says:

    In the 15+ years I have been active – i.e. going to clubs and munches – in the BDSM community (mainly locally, in Essex UK) I have found people to be far more open-minded in respect of all the ‘isms” quoted in the 3rd paragraph, with the possible exception of racism which I would say is about the same as in the vanilla world.

  6. Sorkado says:

    I believe that there are a lot of lessons that can be learned through BDSM, which can also be very useful and applicable in our vanilla lives: lessons about oneself, the power dynamics we’re in, as well as treatment of others. But one shouldn’t believe that simply belonging to the community will somehow make you a smarter, more self-aware and tolerant person — it takes a lot more than that. Just like any education system, BDSM presents us with the tools, but whether we choose to pick them up and use them ethically and intelligently is up to us.

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