5 Cliches About BDSM That BDSMers Should Stop Repeating

Myths, lies, and cliches about BDSM. When will they end?

A good first step would be if BDSMers didn’t repeat them.

It’s a problem. After 30+ years in the Scene, it’s painfully obvious to me that BDSMers still buy into cliches that they once heard at a class or read in a book without examining whether those cliches actually hold up to real-life experience. I think it’s because many BDSMers don’t complete the coming out process in their own mind. Instead of stepping out of the BDSM closet, they haul their vanilla closet with them. The skanky skeletons in that closet include racial privilege, gender privilege, sexual privilege, ableist privilege, and negative attitudes not only towards fetishes and turn-ons we don’t understand but towards the things that DO turn us on.

Most BDSM/Leather newbies get radicalized as they slowly flip internal switches, electrified by energy and power. They discover that BDSM is incredibly hot and profoundly freeing. For some people, that period of enlightenment more or less ends when they have finally given themselves permission to enjoy the things they enjoy. But the complete process is not limited to self-interest. The next step is to expand your thinking beyond yourself to a greater, more mature philosophy about human sexuality itself. That means, for example, not being squeamish about sexual things: being able to watch or think about fetishes you don’t understand without getting all high and mighty, modifying and adapting your earliest assumptions when you first got into the Scene to reflect the Scene as it actually is, and learning every lesson BDSM gave you to push you to another level of wisdom. .

Your growth ideally will continue for your whole life. BDSM can be a journey of enlightenment into human nature, adaptability and creativity, and wisdom about how power relationships can work for you or against you. BDSM can be your Zen, your meditation, your hobby or your foundation for a world-view. You may not even find out what it is until the end of your life and you’re reflecting back. One thing BDSM should never be is static. If you still believe exactly the same things you did 20 or 30 years ago, where have you been, cohabiting with Rip Van Winkle?

In Different Loving Too, some of our oldest and wiser BDSM leaders talked extensively about how they continue to improve through the lessons they learn from BDSM. They continue to redefine the nature of personal freedom, they continue to question authorities and social constructs they once accepted, and they fluidly evolve into self-actualized, sexually mature beings. Even BDSMers in their 70s and 80s continue to grow as new switches get jiggled, as old ideological paradigms are abandoned and as they open themselves up to all the possibilities for personal happiness. At 62, I plan to be more enlightened 20 years from now than I am today, just as today I am not the same woman who once wrote Different Loving. That was so 25 years ago and while I’m proud of the work, I know I would write it differently today because I’m 25 years further along on my own BDSM journey. Things happened since then. Changes occurred. Personal growth, too.

Now let’s talk about five cliches still in circulation about BDSM that seriously need to stop.

 

Cliche #1: It looks terrible for BDSM when a BDSMer turns out to be a criminal

 

When a church pastor is revealed to be a rapist or child-predator, does it look bad for the entire religion? When a college professor in New York preys on students do we expect college professors across the nation to apologize for them or express shame? No. Murder and criminal mayhem are committed by people we thought were trustworthy every day in America. We know that such criminals don’t represent everyone in their communities. They are effectively dangerous insiders — people who seem righteous on the surface but don’t actually believe in the values they claim to embrace. In other words, we recognize that in any large group, no matter how well-intentioned and respectable, there might at any time be sociopaths, psychopaths, and the proverbial “bad seed.” Many Christians have learned the hard way that not all Christians follow Christ’s teachings. It doesn’t mean you throw Jesus out with the baptismal water.

We know that, right? So why is it that when a BDSMer commits some reprehensible crime, BDSMers start whining how bad it looks for the Community or how our education has failed if we didn’t produce 100% good people?

I think it’s the mental prison that all oppressed minorities inhabit until they grow some pride and define themselves on their own terms, not according to the definitions of their oppressors. People who nurture the anxiety that there is something fundamentally unsavory and dangerous about BDSM are the ones who are most likely to consider it a stain on our collective conscience.

When I was a kid, my parents always urged me to keep my head down, stay invisible, and not to cause trouble (oops, they totally failed there). When news broke that a Jew committed a crime, they melted down. “This is bad for the Jews,” they’d fret and pace. They remembered pogroms. They remembered Nazis. They relived an explosion of anti-Semitism during the Rosenberg trials.  They lost sleep worrying that if it was known there were some “bad Jews” that the death of good Jews would follow.

Frantz Fanon and James Baldwin wrote extensively about what happens to people (in their case, black) who lived under European colonialism and American slavery, respectively, and continued to struggle in the shadow of collective fear. I can relate because a different but emotionally similar shadow of fear smothered my parents’ lives. They went to their graves still living in the shtetl of their minds.

Breaking out of your internalized oppression, as writers wiser than I have numerously pointed out, is the first step towards genuine liberation. It doesn’t look bad for Christianity as a whole if a Christian ends up in jail, and it doesn’t look bad for people of color when a POC ends up in jail. It is the reality of life that some people would be awful no matter what faith, what economic status, what race or what sexual orientation they have. Because people!

Apply all that to BDSM. It’s up to you to break out of the idea that “it looks bad for BDSM” when someone who shares the sexual impulses commits a crime. It’s on them, not you. If they are predators, they are preying on us, not representing us. If they are people who don’t understand consent, they are not us, they are people who are using BDSM as an excuse to abuse other people. They don’t share our core values. They betrayed our core values.

Every community and group on earth has bad apples. The worms don’t define our BDSM community. We define us. And we work very very hard to define ourselves as ethical, compassionate, and consenting adults. That’s who we are.

Don’t act guilty and ashamed when a miscreant emerges. Shun them, shame them, and develop a sharper lens so you can identify criminals before they harm people, but, please, don’t blame BDSM for their existence.

 

 

Cliche #2: Submissives really run BDSM relationships because they get a safeword

I was surprised last week when someone tweeted me about this. I had no idea this age-old Internet debate about who holds power in a power relationship was still in play.

 

 

First, some background on this cliche. It has been a good teaching tool when presenting education on BDSM to non-kinky people because it drives home the point that submissive people are fully aware and consenting and that their input is a vital part of any BDSM relationship. It also explains, in very basic and digestible terms, that a submissive can stop the action when it gets too intense.

The deeper BDSM reality is that lots of long-time couples and Master/slave lifestyle relationships don’t use safewords because they already know each others’ limits. The sub isn’t limited to shouting “pineapple,” but is free to say “wow, can you stop, this really feels bad.” Sometimes the emotions of submission are stronger than a physical discomfort or fear. I have played with people who maybe should have used safewords to tell when a buckle was a little too tight but preferred to take the extra pain because they were basking in the pleasure of helplessness. They were there for the emotional and spiritual experience of BDSM and didn’t want to interrupt it.

Claiming that the sub holds all the power in the relationship because they can correct an error in the top’s judgment or stop the action does not mean the sub is on top or runs a relationship. Unless, of course, that is how the individual couple (or group’s) dynamic is explicitly structured.

BDSM is not one-way thinking, not about power dynamics or anything else. BDSM relationships are about a helluva lot more than the physical acts too. So who gets to define power and how power is shared is the product of negotiation, compromise, dialogue and mutual agreement between the adults who are doing the BDSM. Some submissives give blanket control and don’t want safewords, though they may still speak up in plain English when they aren’t happy about something. Some bottoms are more socially dominant than their tops and run a lot of different areas of their relationship. Some submissives are more socially shy and adore living in the shadow of their dominants. Some people have a “slave heart” and feel fulfilled by obedience in all respects. Some submissives need to have clearly delineated protocols and limits in place. Some submissives hate protocols and like to wing it. Some submissives make independent decisions without input from their doms (particularly when it comes to their careers and families). Some submissives share power equally with their tops outside of the bedroom/dungeon. And some subs prefer if the dom micromanages their lives.

I could literally list dozens of variations on power exchange because there are almost as many flavors of BDSM styles and relationships as there are BDSMers. All of them are real and legitimate expressions of BDSM. None should be judged. Master/slave relationships? Sure. Service doms? Sure. Do-me subs? Sure. Hedonistic switches blowing off steam? Yep. It’s all BDSM to me.

If you’re looking for hard-and-fast rules about how BDSM power relationships are supposed to work, you’ve come to the wrong dungeon. Like all human relationships, the best BDSM ones work when all partners care about each other’s happiness and well-being. How you organize your private power dynamic is much bigger than using safewords.

If you want to keep teaching it that way to straight people, go ahead: they don’t understand power dynamics the way seasoned BDSMers do, and it keeps it simple for them. But don’t kid yourself about BDSM power dynamics There is no conformity when it comes to power. It’s all about having free choice to live the dynamic that’s right for you.

 

Cliche #3: Submission is gendered.

 

Have you heard a professional dom talk about how male executives are so powerful in their daily lives, they need to compensate by giving up control to a master or mistress at the end of the day? Did you ever bump into people who say that women are more naturally inclined to be submissive than men?

Those claims are toxic sexist bullshit, no matter who says it.

Submission is not gendered. First, in the great wide world of wealthy male executives, the vast majority prefer a blow-job to a trip to a stern person in leather boots. The idea that a man is submissive only because he is socially powerful is a cliche based on toxic masculinity and ends up making ordinary guys without high-powered jobs feel even worse about themselves. What’s their excuse for dreaming about licking their dominant’s boots? Second, did it ever occur to anyone that maybe some men became powerful executives because they need to emotionally compensate for their deep-down need to submit? It has to me: I’ve met many a self-identified male dom and even more closeted male subs who hid their submissive desires for fear people would think they were weak.

What skews the picture of submission in BDSM is that we live in a world which undervalues women and conditions them to think of themselves as loyal followers rather than leaders. Yes, maybe more women are comfortable asserting their submissive identity in a world which treats women as second-class citizens because it follows the vanilla social narrative all around us. And, for sure, men are uncomfortable asserting their submissive identity in a world that keeps telling them that if they aren’t dominant, they aren’t “real men.” But if you’ve spent more than 10 minutes in BDSM, you should, by now, know that men are just as likely as women to crave sexual surrender in a power context, regardless of economic class, race or religion. It just takes very brave people to break away from the social conditioning that assigns them roles that are unnatural to their souls.

If we could remove all the toxic social conditioning (which we cannot), perhaps the millions of men accessing pro-dom and pro-dom porn sites might actually feel free to come out, along with millions of women who prefer taking control in bed to surrendering it. I know it took me years to break the belief that good girls can’t be sadistic in bed.

One day, maybe science will cough up a few facts on how genes influence the normal human impulse towards submission. Maybe, possibly, we will find out if gender plays a role. More likely, we’ll discover it’s something men, women and transgender people share equally. For now, what we do know is that the impulse towards submission is a universal human urge that is acted out as diversely as humanity itself. For some, it may be devotion to religious dogma. For others, it is serving in the military. And for BDSMers, it’s about the power roles that bring them the most pleasure.

Submission is not gender-based. If you still think it is, maybe you need to check the skeletons in your vanilla closet and give them a kinky make-over.

 

Cliche #4: BDSM is Monolithic

 

OMG, please stop describing BDSM as if there was only one narrative. Please stop perpetuating myths about the right way to do BDSM, about special arcane knowledge that some master or mistress alone possesses, about mythic societies and secret BDSM cults. BDSM is not a dark art or received wisdom. BDSM is a pathway to radical erotic pleasure.

Beyond our shared interest in BDSM acts and Leather culture, little else links us a community — not our politics, not our ethics, not our personal morality. The honest way to educate about BDSM is to make it clear that BDSM is a multitude of different voices, not a monolithic force. My experience of BDSM as a queer white dominatrix is different from my Leather brother’s experience as a heterosexual African-American master, which is different from my Leather sister’s experience of being a lesbian Asian-American submissive which is different from my wheelchair-bound friend’s experience of BDSM and disability, and all of that is different from what transgender people experience in BDSM. BDSM isn’t a world unto itself, it’s an amalgam of scores of different little worlds and different social experiences. Diversity is our strength! So stop speaking for all of us as if you know how every BDSMer feels. Speak for yourself. Check your BDSM privilege and keep it real.

We stick together because we are an oppressed minority in a vanilla world, not because we all share the same social values.

 

Cliche #5: BDSM is perverted.

No, it isn’t — not unless you think there is really such a thing as “normal” sex and that missionary position sex between man and woman is the only “right” expression of human sexuality. If you don’t believe that reproductive sex is the only right way to have sex, then you shouldn’t believe you are perverted for liking other types of intimacy, whether that’s oral sex, anal sex, or hanging upside down in a latex bondage suit in your spare time.

Until a few years ago, I would sometimes archly refer to myself as a pervert because the word struck me as hilariously old-fashioned, out of a Victorian bodice-ripper. Pervert was right up there for me with hussy and dastardly scoundrel — stuff that’s fun to say because it’s so out of date. I stopped saying it when I realized some people were taking me seriously. OMG. No. I used the term the way some people of color have appropriated the N-word. In other words, if you’re going to call me that, I’m going to call me that and take control of it and own it and let you know you don’t control the narrative on its meaning anymore, you posturing poltroon.

There is nothing perverted about playing hard and rough with your bodies and minds. Your body is your birthright.

A long time ago someone asked me “what was the most perverted thing you ever heard?” My answer, “The most sexually perverted thing I ever heard was two people who do the same exact thing every time they have sex.”

In the 21st century, the only perverts are the ones who deny themselves the sexual bliss they were born for, who refuse to learn from history, who can’t think outside of the box, who resist scientific evidence, and who can’t handle the fact that sex and gender expressions are eternal variables in the human equation.

The most perverted thing about me is that I am proud to defend truth and reality.


 

 

Let’s change the narrative by throwing away old BDSM cliches and stressing the fact that, like every other intimate sex act between people who trust each other, BDSM is dimensional, consensual, and normal.