CW: sex, rape, sexual assault, BDSM
When you are discussing sexual assault and rape culture it becomes evident that most rapists have no idea that they are one – and that most men have very little concept of what constitutes sexual assault or harassment. Sexual assault in our cultural imagination is generally a very violent, bloody affair, or simply anything that you yourself would not personally like, regardless of context. Some straight people I know can only conceptualise sexual violence by imagining a gay person’s unwelcome advances.
My experience of sexual assault is one that follows the script. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. The story starts with me flirting and ends with us having sex. The thing I remember the most was not pain, but loneliness. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time with one person without talking. It became clear to me that he was following a script. I had been communicating to him in a code I didn’t know existed: a silent code of what women allegedly do to ask for sex without actually asking for it. And if you follow the script, apparently all is fair game. No blood, no foul.
As someone who has had the word “sex” pop up in almost all the units I took at university, I talk more about sex than the average person. But it took me a while to break through the deafening silence around sex, even and especially, amongst people who are having sex. I was 14 when I was taught how to put a condom on a banana, but 18 before I managed to successfully negotiate condom use. I was 20 before I really felt like my partner and I were on the same page about sex – how to keep it safe but also how to make it fun.
BDSM stands for bondage, dominance/discipline, submission/sadism and masochism. It refers to a broad range of sexual practices that play with interpersonal power dynamics and physical sensation. Most people think of the BDSM community as a kind of en masse gathering of BDSM enthusiasts in specially-built dungeons. But, in my experience, BDSM is most frequently practiced privately and sort of accidentally – especially as internet shopping has unleashed a Pandora’s Box of every sex gadget imaginable onto the average consumer.
For me, BDSM is primarily about language. There are words for roles and objects and activities, but also a greater willingness to just talk about sex. Although ‘sex’ in its most boring, unoriginal, heteronormative, ‘vanilla’ form is nonetheless a violent act of violation when performed without consent, it’s the notion that one might do something ‘freakier’ that tends to open up the dialogue. Practicing BDSM, or asking if you can do BDSM play, is an open admission that you like sex and you want to do it, which, despite our over-sexualised culture, is still taboo. Rape culture has built up strange taboos around talking about wanting sex, but none around taking it without permission.
For me, BDSM is primarily about language. There are words for roles and objects and activities, but also a greater willingness to just talk about sex.
One of the many consequences of being sexually assaulted was that I have had vaginismus ever since. Although my former partner and I eventually managed to have penetrative sex, penetration doesn’t work for me until a secure personal and sexual relationship has been established. To get around this I’ve been forced to be pretty blunt and loquacious about boundaries, even to almost-strangers. Every person I’ve slept with since then has had ‘the talk’. I refused to let vaginismus interfere with my sex life so I started every standard slightly-tipsy university hook up by boldly stating that sexual intercourse was off the menu. In being forced to have these very taboo conversations I started a dialogue. I started to talk more. I don’t like being on top. I absolutely insist on condoms. I like keeping my stockings on – I have weird feet but expensive taste in stockings. If you put all your weight on my hips I will absolutely not be able to walk tomorrow and I will not thank you for it.
Slowly, talking about what I do and do not like made my partners start to talk too. One of the first conversations I had about sex with a partner resulted in him asking me to put my hands under the pillow so we could pretend I was restrained. Sex became less scary without the silence. Even without my hands, I felt supremely in control and able to stop or start anything at will. It is very empowering – especially in a culture where women are expected to be polite and never voice discomfort – to create a situation where you are allowed to object and refuse.
I love BDSM. It feeds my curiosity just as sex in general does. I like playing with different sensations and exploring different power dynamics. It keeps things interesting and intense and breaks the ice, especially when I was navigating university hook up culture. But I like the conversations around BDSM just as much. You can’t talk in code when you’re rewriting the sexual script. There are words for things and roles and activities – and there are words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I’ve always found it strange that while our society is elbow-deep in rape culture, the notion that ‘boys can’t hit girls’ seems to be branded into many a male psyche. Encouraging people to break that taboo, just a little, teaches a lot of important lessons about consent. Namely, that consent has very little to do with what is being done, and is really about what someone does and doesn’t want to be done. I know BDSM spaces are not immune from instances of abuse and assault, but the language and dialogue that BDSM encourages makes me feel safe.
The release of 50 Shades of Grey, an allegedly ‘BDSM’ fanfiction of Twilight, provoked general ridicule and mild excitement – but it just made me angry. As a survivor of both emotional abuse and sexual assault, BDSM has become a safe space for me to express and explore my sexuality, and facilitate productive conversations about safety and consent, even with casual partners. It has been in BDSM situations that I have felt comfortable saying stop, saying no, not faking orgasms, and not pretending something isn’t uncomfortable or painful. As many feminists on social media have stated, Christian Grey is not only a terrible person and a terrible partner, but he’s also a pretty lousy BDSM dom. Grey rarely follows standard BDSM protocols of safe words, discussion or aftercare. Unfortunately, manipulating broader social awareness and curiosity about BDSM to facilitate an abusive relationship is not unheard of and I urge anyone wishing to dabble in kink to do their research about what should and shouldn’t go down in a BDSM scene or relationship. Like all sexual encounters, you should never feel scared or unsafe at any time. It’s meant to be a game, with a certain element of make-believe and suspending disbelief. Everyone involved needs to be able to snap out of character at a second’s notice. Unfortunately, BDSM is used not only to excuse violence, but an interest in BDSM is sometimes weaponised in victim-blaming. A recreational interest in ‘edgy’ or ‘kinky’ stuff never excuses abuse or assault, in the same way that punching a pro wrestler outside of the boxing ring is still a felony.
The most important part about a BDSM relationship is aftercare – when everyone involved has some downtime, together, out of character. Mostly, I just like a cuddle. But it’s also important after doing anything intense to kind of unpack and unwind together. It’s important to make sure everyone’s on the same page. One of the biggest issues with hook up culture for me is that there is this expectation to pretend that it’s not weird to suddenly go from being on, in, or under someone to not talking. Sex, no matter how casual, no matter how vanilla, is still an intense and intimate experience, and I think women are straddled with a lot of unfair stereotypes that we’re incapable of having sex recreationally without immediately wanting to get hitched. In an effort to not get ‘attached’, I’ve had several male partners refuse to cuddle or talk or even look me in the eye when the sex is done, which is jarring, just plain rude, and wouldn’t really fly in a BDSM situation. It is much easier to process what has happened and to accept that something was just a one-off, if that is the case, if everyone involved is being honest and a bit vulnerable, rather than ploughing through a rather impersonal sexual script. The first person to introduce me to some, very light, bondage was a lovely guy, who was not afraid to just be a nice and thoughtful person due to some misguided attempt to stay detached. He gave me a piggyback when my feet hurt, made sure I had breakfast the morning after, and gave me a lift home. I never saw him again, and that’s okay. There were no messy confused feelings, just something fun and crazy from the halcyon days of fresher year to look back on and smile.
A recreational interest in ‘edgy’ or ‘kinky’ stuff never excuses abuse or assault, in the same way that punching a pro wrestler outside of the boxing ring is still a felony.
There is a general misconception about BDSM that scenes and relationships are structured primarily around the dominant partner’s desires and that submissives are coerced into going along with it. Just as with abuse in BDSM spaces, I won’t say this never happens, but as a usual sub I find this assumption a bit frustrating. I’m typically the one who introduces BDSM and takes charge of most of the conversations and negotiations, purely because I’m usually the person more accustomed to frank conversations about sex. As a small, queer Asian woman I normally can’t afford to be seen as meek, or even easy-going, with all the gendered and racialised stereotypes about submissive Asian women. I cannot afford to be a pushover if I want to break the glass ceiling or get people to treat me like an actual human being with real human rights. At any rate, I am naturally disposed to be quite assertive, even bossy. I have been a vocal feminist since high school and I’m generally not afraid of picking a fight or laying down the law. So it is nice sometimes, in my private life, to put on a different persona for a while. To simulate a loss of control in a very controlled environment. It’s a bit like going on a rollercoaster – we thrive off fear, but we don’t actually want to put ourselves in dangerous situations.
I try to resist pathologising the sexual desires of myself or the people around me. It’s hard to explain why I enjoy BDSM, but it’s also hard to explain why most humans enjoy recreationally smooshing their sweaty, germy bodies against other sweaty, germy bodies. It is a really taboo, subversive thing to be a woman who is interested in sex and is prepared to do some pretty weird and strange things to have a fun and fulfilling sex life. But living in a society that is afraid to talk about sex – afraid even, to admit to the existence of sexual desire – breeds a dangerous culture of miscommunication and silence on sex, consent and sexual violence. Whether or not your sexual proclivities include whips and handcuffs, I think everyone could benefit from sexual encounters and relationships that include conversations about consent and boundaries, an atmosphere where everyone can stop or refuse anything, for any reason, and where people are not afraid of the intense and confusing feelings that sex can sometimes provoke. Like all sexual taboos, shaming and persecuting BDSM and its enthusiasts only pushes it underground, where it is more likely that the rules will not be followed and abusive dynamics will be allowed to fester. BDSM, for me, has allowed me to be more open-minded and non-judgemental about the weird and wonderful spectrum of human sexuality, and to not be afraid to walk away from our society’s silent, violent sexual script.