In the week or so since people started discussing my and unquietpirate’s articles “Dominants are rapists,” “Prologue to Consent Is Not Enough,” and “More on ‘Dominants are rapists’: If ‘Consent Is Not Enough,’ what else do we need?“, “I want Dominants to spend more time with the parts of themselves they’re scared of” and “I want Submissives to take better care of themselves,” I’ve observed two main categories of reactions. Paraphrased, they sound something like this:

  1. “You can’t say ‘Dominants are rapists’ because that fundamentally fails to respect human agency, and you’re abusive for repeating it.”
  2. “You can’t say BDSM’ers can consent to ‘desirable violations,’ because that trivializes rape and abuse, so STFU, rape apologist.”

Both reactions were predictable. One need merely skim the social media content of the people responding with an eye towards where they’re coming from to see just how predictable. ;)

What’s actually interesting about these reactions is that they perfectly mirror one another while not actually addressing anything I’ve written. Bluntly, the first group of folks thinks what I’m saying is what they’re used to hearing from the second group of folks, and the second group of folks thinks what I’m saying is what they’re used to hearing from the first group. That’s the thing about saying something that won’t fit into a binarist’s worldview: they’ll only hear what they already feel comfortable hating.

You don’t need uncommon powers to notice that when two groups of people each disagree with a statement because they think it’s what the other group is saying, what’s actually being said is something neither group really understands. Moreover, the fact that the reactions identify themselves as being on “opposite sides” while attacking the same thing with the assumption that it comes from the “other side” suggests what I’m actually talking about is something new, or at least as-yet-unaddressed.

It’s obvious that what BDSM’ers object to when they hear “Dominants are rapists” is their interpretation of an elementary remapping of anti-SM second-wave feminism onto “D/s dynamics.” Inversely, what anti-SM’ers object to when they hear me talk about BDSM’s “magical” ability to offer “desirable violations” is the perceived legitimacy of a (“sex-positive”) subculture that engages a discourse which encourages coercive behavior. But what I’m actually talking about is both groups’ badly broken, at worst, and insufficiently developed, at best, models of understanding consent.

Put simply, both their models falsely and appallingly presume rape is inevitable. The problem is that “the rules” of contractual-consent (and the laws written based on those rules) don’t actually address people’s feelings of violation.

It’s those feelings that make BDSM so culturally polarizing, and magical, and vital to The Revolution, and awesome: it is one way to seek out and experience desirable violations. That is, BDSM is a way to have experiences one wants and—because human psychology is fascinating—sometimes that means having experiences that, on some level, one simultaneously does not want. Framed more politically, BDSM is a play space, a sandbox, in which to somatically experience the act of oppressing (“dominating”) and of being oppressed (“submitting”). And because BDSM does this both sexually and violently, it is an extremely powerful way to explore these highly charged concepts.

What that means is not that people who practice BDSM are all experiencing a “false consciousness,” or deluding themselves into thinking they’re consenting to things they want but that they really don’t want. (Although some people might be.) That argument does, in fact, erase people’s agency; it conceives of a world in which no one has any ability to consent to anything they want because their very wants are deemed illegitimate. But the above also does not mean that BDSM is somehow magically non-oppressive just because people metaphorically signed consent-contracts, even consent-contracts that are marginally more conscientious of the various signees’s cultural contexts.

It’s this ridiculous finger-pointing (“Your consent is compromised by patriarchy, you can’t choose violation!” “Fuck you, you’re taking away my agency! BDSM is not abuse, it’s not harmful because I consented!”) I find petty, and unhelpful, and so very wrong in every sense of the word. If we instead focused cultural resources on developing a compassionate discourse for understanding the ways that consent violations are gradated, that violations have degrees of impact informed by myriad factors, we might finally be able to stop repeating these boring, immature, circular arguments we’ve been having since the “Sex Wars” in the 80’s. And I think the fact that both of these factions apparently can’t even entertain the idea that what they’re responding to is not what I actually wrote should be taken as a giant, flashing neon sign that reads, “Everyone please shut the fuck up, so you can listen, and think.”

There are some giant, gaping, untended holes unquietpirate and I have both repeatedly pointed to in both “radfem/anti-SM/sex-negative” and “pro-BDSM/sex-positive” discourses. In an upcoming post, we’ll get into some even more excruciating detail related to how both those discourses fundamentally miss the point about consent. But, for now, all I’ve done is proposed you use a few basic questions to consider those problems.

And, look, you might very well do that and come away completely unchanged. I’m not here to tell you how to feel about your own ethics. But, if you’ve never even asked yourself the questions before, then you can’t claim moral high ground from me, and fuck you for trying.