(This post was originally published on my other blog.)

A couple days ago I shared my series of posts starting with “Dominants are rapists” on a few different subreddits to see what the reactions would be like in each of them. (Spoiler alert: /r/BDSMcommunity was, characteristically, mostly full of shit, and it sailed over the heads of /r/feminisms, too. Shocker.) But there was one thread in which a couple people actually read it, and genuinely tried to understand:

I think you touch on one thing that is wayyyy off in modern western culture—that submission is somehow violation. When I’m with a sub, I never think I’m violating them. I’m not taking anything from them, in fact I’m giving something to them. I’m helping them on a journey to a place I, as a Dom, could never go. […] It takes blood (sometimes literally), sweat, and tears to get to that place like that. And when it’s done and I’m holding and caressing the dear lady in her after-glow, sometimes a certain quiet sadness hits me, because I know I will NEVER feel like she feels at that moment.

It seemed worth dipping my toes in these waters, so I did:

I think this highlights the core issue at play: you consider violation as categorically negative. That’s, to use your frame, “wayyyy off.” Moreover, the fact that “when you’re with a sub, you never think you’re violating them” is kind of at the core of why “Dominants are rapists.” That’s, like, literally the way rapists talk.

Still apparently genuinely trying to understand, this person had some questions:

Can you help me understand how you make that connection? If it is just a definition of a word, we can certainly change the word.

The logic I was trying to portray is: – Violation is bad. – Good play isn’t violation. – A good Dom doesn’t violate his sub. – Therefore a good Dom and play isn’t bad.

My answer was too long to post on Reddit, so I’m putting it here:

Sure, I’ll try. But, since you asked, and there’s no bumper sticker slogan for this stuff, my response is long. I hope it’s not TL;DR for you.

Anyway, it was your logic to which I pointed as “wayyyy off.” The very first step in your chain of reasoning (“violation is bad”) is either flawed or needs unpacking. If you can’t conceive of BDSM experiences that are violating and “good,” or that are “bad” and not violating, then there is no room for anything other than a black-and-white, this-or-that worldview. Such worldviews with no nuance are what creates the dominant/submissive binary in the first place, much in the same way as they create the man/woman binary. This, in turn, leads to the man-woman-attraction binary (i.e., heterosexism), which erases the possibility for queer people’s cultural existences, and so on.

So the very first thing you need to do is unpack “violation.” To do that, I suggest starting by reading “help me disimplify/deconstruct rape and sex.” Here’s the most important excerpt in case you feel the full thing is too long and won’t read it (even though I think it would really help if you read the whole thing):

Newmahr returns to examinations of the intersection of sex and violence by examining the nature of intimacy:

The challenges in understanding intimacy parallel the problems in conceptualizing violence, pain, and eroticism. Trapped in moral frameworks and tethered to political agendas, these ideas are rarely deconstructed. SM forces us to confront the apparent inconsistencies and paradoxes contained within them. In doing so, we can trace conceptual links between intimacy, eroticism, and violence that move beyond psychological models of innate drives and pathologies.

Newmahr independently theorizes intimacy not as only lovey-dovey, good feelings of “connection” and “energy,” which are words most members of the BDSM Scene use instead of intimacy, but rather as “access to otherwise unknown parts of people.” (And that, I’ll note, is a remarkably similar articulation to the powerful articulations by asexual activists.) With this amoral, apolitical framework of intimacy, society can be reexamined in a more constructive way.

[…Later, Newmahr] continues:

Understanding intimacy as the experience of achieving access to protected aspects of others’ selves provides a theoretical framework for understanding the intimacy of interpersonal violence. Nonconsensual violence (what most people mean when they say “real violence”) transgresses physical, social, emotional, and ethical boundaries between actors. Perpetrators of interpersonal violence gain access to experiences of others that most do not. The “sneaky thrills” that Jack Katz finds among thieves are intimate thrills (1988). The sexual metaphor he uncovers in the narratives of the thieves follows, for the thrill in both heteronormative eroticism and theft lies in gaining access. To violate, and to be violated, are intimate experiences. If we cease to reserve the word “intimate” for situations that are desirable or healthy, we can see, for example, the intimacy of violent crime. Rape, which many of us would shudder to consider “intimacy,” is so heinous precisely because it is so intimate.

And so, in much the same way as rape is so heinous precisely because it is so intimate, it is also so “violent” precisely because it is sexual.

It’s important to grok this because it’s fundamental to BDSM itself. In general terms, BDSM’ers have supported the “rape cannot be sex and sex cannot be rape” political ideology of second-wave feminists for a long time. Despite their support, second-wave feminists generally hated BDSM’ers because they viewed BDSM as inherently violent (and thus not sex) whereas BDSM’ers viewed it as primarily sex (and thus not “violence” even if it was “violent”).

There’s an obvious tension in BDSM’ers logic here: is BDSM violence or sex or both or neither? If it is violence, but violence cannot be sex, how is BDSM sex? If it’s not violence, and thus can be legitimately classified as “sex,” what do we make of experiences in which people orgasm from pain and the literal, sometimes extreme, damaging of human tissue? Is such pain from physical injury—ephemeral or otherwise—not violence?

My point is that all ideological structures attempting to segregate violence and sex shatter when confronted by these questions. Clearly, BDSM is violence, but it is also clearly “sex” (or, at the very least, sexual). BDSM’s mere existence destroys the second-wave’rs ideas that “violence cannot be sex.” That explains why they’re made so uncomfortable by BDSM in the first place.

But if that’s all true, then the inverse assertion, that “sex cannot be violence” must also be called into question. And that’s really uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially BDSM’ers, because there’s a deeply-held, highly emotionally and politically charged belief that “rape is not sex, but rather violence.” But if sex can be violence, rape (which is “violence”) can be sex.

Today’s BDSM discourse effectively took the second-wave feminist’s ideas of the incompatibility of violence with sex and mutated them so that they applied to “BDSM” and “abuse.” This produced the oft-repeated phrase, “BDSM is not abuse,” or, more precisely: “what is BDSM cannot be abuse and what is abuse cannot be BDSM.” And the entire argument for this seems to be that “consent” is the distinguishing factor. But if you actually take the time to examine this premise, it’s just as flimsy an idea as its ancestor.

It should be obvious on its face that if you believe a certain premise is flawed, like “what is violence cannot be sex and what is sex cannot be violence,” and all you do is replace two of the words in the statement, you’re not going to come up with anything robust. But apparently BDSM’ers missed this simple point because, so far, they’ve attempted to resolve this tension by highlighting what they understand as “consent.” It’s even in their motto: “Safe, sane, and consensual.”

That’s why the series of articles linked in this thread start out by talking about consent. The articles explore notions of “violation” similarly to how the “deconstruct rape and sex” article explores violence.

The very first post in the series addresses what “violation” means. Spoiler alert: it concludes that a violation is not “whether [some activity] was consensual,” but rather that a violation is defined by what happens when the person processes their feelings about the experience. The most relevant excerpt in that post, again, in case it’s TL;DR for you is here:

Treating consent like a contract is how many people think and behave, but that doesn’t make it unflawed:

There’s a way of talking about consent that’s currently dominating the conversation about rape culture and I think it’s…flawed, to say the least. Let’s call it the “consent-as-permission” model.

The consent-as-permission model defines “consent” as the act of communicating to someone that it is okay for them to interact with you in a particular way. I “consented” to sex if you asked me, “Do you want to have sex?” and I said “yes.” (Or, under the Enthusiastic Consent variant, if I said, “YES!”) It’s essentially a legalistic model that asks questions like, “What counts as a ‘yes’?” “Under what circumstances is a ‘yes’ inadmissible?” “In the case of a dispute, what kinds of documentation are required to prove the presence or absence of a ‘yes’?” The consent-as-permission model makes consent very much about what we say or don’t say to each other. It treats rape primarily as the violation of a contract. It has very little to say about how our erotic experiences feel.

But think about this: I’ve had my boundaries violated in the past. You probably have, too. If that experience was traumatic, where did the trauma come from? Did it come from the fact that someone broke a rule? (Maybe. A trust violation can be traumatizing even if no other harm occurred.) Or did it come from the fact that someone interacted with me in a way that made me feel unsafe, hurt, and violated? Have you ever said, “Yes” and still come away feeling unsafe, hurt, and violated? I have.

In BDSM culture, you are not allowed to say “yes,” have everything go according to plan, and still come away feeling unsafe, hurt, and violated. That’s verboten ostensibly because BDSM is de-facto consensual (i.e., it cannot be abuse, because in their world, if it is abuse, it is not BDSM, which is obviously bullshit in exactly the same way that some BDSM’ers themselves critique the second-wave feminist notion that rape cannot be sex). So when something like this happens (and it *does* happen), the experience of violation is minimized if it’s even acknowledged at all.

In other words, contemporary BDSM logic frames violent sex as something you can consent to, but violation as something you cannot, because if you consented to violation in the first place, you are no longer allowed to describe your feelings about it as having been violative. (Think of all the discussion surrounding “consensual non-consent” for a really telling example.) You can describe your experiences in any number of other ways, like “challenging,” or “emotionally intense,” or even just plain “difficult to deal with.” In fact, BDSM’ers proudly declare such descriptions to be the goal of a good scene; that it was hard, but survivable, and that it “pushed limits.” But you’re not culturally allowed to declare you experienced a violation.

The reason for this is because in mainstream BDSM culture (and, yes, subcultures have a mainstream) consent is treated as a mechanism to negotiate for permission to perform certain acts, and, once obtained (or, under the “ongoing consent” model, continually re-obtained), no non-consensual violation of the permission to perform said acts can be said to have occurred. But there are two problems with this. First, consent is not the same as permission, and second, even if it were, permission is not actually the salient thing about experiences of violation (much like how rules do not matter as much as people’s experiences living under said rules).

So if people sometimes give others permission to do something in a BDSM context that they truly wanted and still come away “feeling unsafe, hurt, and violated,” what does that say about BDSM?

Here’s what it doesn’t say: it doesn’t say BDSM is categorically awful and should never be practiced by anyone, ever. It doesn’t say feeling unsafe, hurt, and violated is the fault of the person “who consented,” and that they should fucking know better before they put themselves in a situation where they can feel that way. It doesn’t even say feeling that way is always bad.

It just says, hey, sometimes that happens and it would probably be a good idea for everyone involved if we tried to give ourselves some tools to work through what that means for us. But right now, BDSM discourse is not doing that. Right now, culturally speaking, BDSM’ers are actually doing the exact opposite: they’re making sure that kind of conversation is squashed the moment it starts happening, so those tools won’t ever be developed.

Culturally speaking, BDSM discourse tries to convince submissives and dominants that feeling unsafe, hurt, and violated is never going to happen as long as you do all your homework, learn all the right knots, buy all the right toys, play with all the right people, and always “consent.” And if, after all that, you do end up feeling violated, it’s because you missed a step, or you did something wrong, or you don’t know yourself well enough to play with fire the way you are, or you just “don’t get it” because you’re “really vanilla.”

The reason BDSM culture is doing this is to protect the reputations of dominants, because dominants are justifiably terrified that if people start talking about experiences in which they felt hurt, unsafe, and violated—even if they use the “consent was obtained and therefore it’s okay” way of talking about it—that it will make the rest of the world look at them like they are rapists, and/or that it will make them feel like rapists. (Because apparently when someone thinks you’re a rapist, your life ends, or something? I don’t know, people don’t exactly have a good track record of reacting rationally when someone says “rape,” duh.)

And, I wish this bit of “common sense” were actually more common, it is morally wrong to prioritize the reputations of a whole class of people (“Dominants”) above the physical, emotional, and psychosexual well-being of another whole class of people (“submissives”).

So this leads us to the second link in your logical chain: “good play isn’t violation.” This is actually something @rubberduckiemethod touched on, above:

Obviously you don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you are feeling constantly violated, but challenged by the feeling of violation once in a while, maybe not so bad?

If it is “not so bad” to be “challenged by the feeling of violation once in a while,” and violation is more about people’s feelings of their experiences than about whether they broke one of any number of arbitrary rules or cultural doctrines, then it’s certainly false to say “good play isn’t violation.” BDSM’ers own rhetoric around (“consensually”) “pushing limits” makes this abundantly clear, too.

And that, of course, breaks the next link in your logical chain: “A good Dom doesn’t violate his sub.” (As an aside, I take issue with your gendering. People who identify as Dominant do not always use “his” pronouns.)

What a good dominant does is, according to the second post in the linked series, “facilitating experiences their submissive partners want to have.” You can agree or disagree with those semantics, but refuting the central point is no different than encouraging coercion and, when sex is involved, encouraging rape. Again, the most relevant excerpt:

There is a difference between wanting to play with someone sexually in a way that facilitates their submission and wanting to “dominate” someone.

If you enjoy playing with submissive people because you think submission is sexy, and you’re thrilled by the idea that someone might want to be submissive in a sexy way with you, and you want to do stuff that will make that easier and safer and more fun for them, that’s one thing. What that looks like is helping your submissive partner have experiences that they want to have — and because human psychology is fascinating, sometimes you do that by creating experiences that, on some level, they don’t want to have.

It’s that last bit that refers to violation: “experiences that they want to have—but because human psychology is fascinating—that they sometimes don’t want to have.” These experiences are what I’ll call “desirable violations.” And so, as difficult as it is to understand while still tethered to the broken-yet-contemporary framework of “consent-as-permission,” sometimes during BDSM, one partner “violates” another.

But leaving it here is incomplete and immoral because all it does is give a gigantic get-out-of-rape-free-card in the form of an excuse called “BDSM” or “master/slave relationships” or whatever the fuck words you want to use to label it to, y’know, rape people. Currently, since BDSM discourse does not actually resolve the central aspect of BDSM—the whole reason it is culturally polarizing, and problematic, and magical, and awesome—which is desirable violation (as evidenced by your question), all the BDSM subculture does is create a society whose details are different but whose overarching structures are identical to every other fucked up society. In other words, just like everywhere else, BDSM communities actively shelter rapists. They do it purposely on the micro-level in many cases of specific clubs and house parties, and they do it (albeit perhaps unintentionally/out of ignorance) on the macro level by engaging a discourse that encourages coercive behavior, that makes it acceptable and even desirable, as long as certain quid-pro-quos are met.

So to understand how the fuck that even happens, we need to call attention to the behavior of dominance itself. Again, from the second post:

It’s one thing to fetishistically desire to harm vulnerable people. It’s another thing to manifest that desire by actually pursuing erotic intimacy with vulnerable people who you can harm. And it is, in fact, even worse — not better — to achieve that intimacy by convincing said vulnerable people that *they* started it, that *they* invited you to hurt them, that *they* wanted it, that *they* said it was okay.

There are lots of people who enjoy sex that involves the sharing and exchange of submissive desire. Mainstream narratives about romantic lovemaking are packed with it. But the subset of submission-lovers who describe themselves as “Dominants” don’t seem interested in playing with someone because they’re excited about that individual’s personal expression of submission. Rather, they’re turned on by the idea of a “consenting” submissive partner, because that is the situation in which they are most likely to be able to get away with doing whatever they want.

The wording here is very careful and very important. A person who describes themselves as “Dominant” is, when stripped of all dressage, a “submission-lover,” as in “someone who loves submission.” The fact that “there are lots of people” who match that description is telling, too: people who identify themselves as “Dominants” are not the only people for whom others’ submission can be a turn-on. That’s the referent to the title of this thread: “Submissives need dominants like lesbians need men.”

But there’s a deeper implication here, too: if people who are not “dominant” are also turned on by “submissive desire,” what are “submissive” people turned on by? If you think the answer is always “dominance” (as @brainwired1 seems to when they very stupidly say, “Submissives need to submit to someone,”) you are making the same class of mistake—namely, a false cause logical fallacy—as believing that women, even lesbians, are always turned on by a penis or a facsimile of one such as a dildo. That logical fallacy is where the belief that “lesbians can’t have real sex” comes from, which is just as ludicrous a belief as “submissives need to submit to someone.”

And, let’s face it, Dominants will rightfully flip their shit when they realize they are as necessary to submissive people’s sexual fulfillment as men are to lesbians’. This, too, relates to something @rubberduckiemethod pointed out before:

To the second article. “In BDSM culture, Dominants are taught to make submissives dependent on their dominance, rather than facilitating experiences their submissive partners want to have.” Think that could use a little exploration.

The point here is that BDSM culture teaches submissive that they need dominants. When you have a culture that tells a certain population that they absolutely need another, different, population in order to have fill-in-the-blank, what you have is interdependency in the best case where fill-in-the-blank is a discretionary item (like handcrafted cabinets), and abusive control in the worst where fill-in-the-blank is something necessary (like sexual autonomy).

Telling submissive people they need dominants for sexual fulfillment is like telling women they need men for sexual fulfillment. It’s just not true. And although lots of women like men, and lots of submissive people like dominants, that doesn’t make consistent, systemic, hegemonic, omnipresent cultural messaging telling submissives that they need dominants any more true or righteous or ethical or helpful. What it makes it is oppressive.

Predictably, Dominant people who are long used to being revered in their communities (especially Dominant people with poor ethics or immature senses of self-worth) are terrified when they realize they are, well, not even ancillary to the whole kinky sex thing. We’ve seen this pattern before, of course. It’s the same way men—or, in the case of @DebasedAndRebased, domme lesbians—who have those traits of immaturity react when they realize they’re not the center of their target-identity fetish’s sexual world; that is, when straight men (who could be described as women-fetishists) realize that not all women are into “men,” and likewise, when dominants (who could be described as submissive-fetishists) realize not all submissives are into “dominants.”

So what do we have so far?

  • We understand that “violation” is not always bad, and that it is sometimes desirable.
  • We understand that BDSM play is itself a form of desirable violation.
  • We understand that what distinguishes “a good dominant” from “a rapist” is that the former facilitates experiences their partner wants to have because they are excited by that person’s expression of submission and does not make their partner do whatever they, themselves, want because they were given a “get-out-of-raping-me-free card” by their partner.
  • We understand that dominance is not actually an integral, required, or necessary component of BDSM, and that by extension “Dominants” are also not actually vital characters.

This is where the third post leaves off. Again, the relevant excerpt:

Most people who call themselves “Dominants” are submission-lovers (or possibly “submission-fetishists,” which can be a legitimate fetish to have but not an ethical way to treat other people) whose poor understanding of consent, terrified self-image, and weak personal ethics, combine to make them massively practiced at and invested in the perpetuation of rape apologia on an overwhelming scale. Each of these three faults is designed into many “Dominant” people by their environment, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

And my point is, if our environment weren’t designed to train rapists, if the BDSM culture didn’t fashion itself into a rape school, no one would see anything special or ethical or fun about domination, even people who think submission is sexy. Because, bluntly, Submission’s where the magic happens.

That’s where we get to the metaphorical climax of this opus: what have you, as “a good dom,” actually done to make sure your “play isn’t bad”?

And that’s also where this ends, because that’s not a question I can answer. If you’re someone with some ethical backbone, you’ll start interrogating your previously held assumptions about WIITWD, about the sex you have, about your motivations for having it, and even what and who you’re attracted to, perhaps by re-reading this series of posts. Because if you’ve only ever thought or imagined that things could be a certain way, and one day you learn that, actually, there are other ways those things could be, how “consensual” was your prior behavior? Did you really, truly have “fully informed consent”?

Doesn’t seem likely, y’know?

And, look, questioning all this stuff about yourself and your past is not going to be easy. It may not even be fun (although it sure as shit might). What it will be, though, is worth it. :)