Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Parsing, Semantics, Technicalities, and Prohibited Sex

Clarisse Thorn is “a feminist, sex-positive educator who has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences” and recently wrote a two-part piece on “BDSM versus Sex.” I’m not into BDSM, but there were some parts of her well-written piece that I wanted to note.

The first part of her piece is about “The Political Side of BDSM versus Sex.”

Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual? A lot of people see BDSM as something that “always” includes sex, or is “always sexual in some way”.


“BDSM versus sex” could be viewed as a facet of that constant and irritating question — “What is sex, anyway?” I’ve always found that the more you look at the line between “what is sex” and “what is not sex”, the more blurred the line becomes.

Further clarifying…

So we already have this weird ongoing debate, about what “qualifies” as sex. And you throw in fetishes such as BDSM, and everyone gets confused all over again. A cultural example of this confusion came up in 2009, when a bunch of professional dominatrixes got arrested in New York City … for being dominatrixes … which everyone previously believed was legal. Flutter, flutter, argue, argue, and it turns out that “prostitution” (which is illegal in New York) is defined as “sexual conduct for money”.

But what does “sexual conduct” mean? At least one previous court had set the precedent that BDSM-for-pay is not the same as “sexual conduct for money” … and yet, in 2009, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office decided that “sexual conduct” means “anything that is arousing to the participants” … and then decided that this suddenly meant they ought to go arrest dominatrixes. It’s not clear why the Manhattan DA did not, then, also begin arresting strippers. And what about random vanilla couples on a standard date-type thing, where the woman makes eyes at the man over dinner, and the man pays for the meal? Sounds like “sexual conduct for money” to me. Which could totally be prostitution, folks, so watch your backs.

She taps into the solidarity thing

It’s just one more example of how sexual stigma for “different kinds of sex” is constantly intertwined. No type of consensual sexuality can express itself freely until people agree that “among consenting adults, there is no ‘should’.” The Romans, those ancient imperialists, used to say: “Divide and conquer.” When consensual sexualities are scared of each other, we will continue to be conquered. As long as “vanilla” people are afraid of “BDSM” … as long as “BDSMers” are afraid of being seen as “sexual” … as long as the social penalties for being a “slut” or a “whore” are incredibly steep … as long as sex workers are stigmatized and criminalized … everyone will be bound by these oppressive standards.

In the second part of the piece, “The Embodied Side of BDSM versus Sex,” she writes…

Some polyamorous BDSMers have very different rules about having sex with outsiders, as opposed to doing BDSM with outsiders. For example, during the time when I was considering a transition to polyamory, I myself had a couple relationships where we were sexually monogamous — yet my partners agreed that I could do BDSM with people who weren’t my partner. Those particular partners felt jealous and threatened by the idea of me having sex with another man, but they didn’t mind if I did BDSM with another man.

It is one thing for adults to come up with agreements between each other. It is entirely different for someone who isn’t involved to attempt to control the behavior of other consenting adults. There are places in the world where the laws are so homophobic it is illegal for two men to be seen holding hands. In some places in the US, it is illegal, essentially, for a man to say he has more than one wife, while having sex with strangers and impregnating multiple women is legal. Giving a sibling a hug, a massage, and kisses is legal as long as neither the massage nor the kisses involve their genitals.

There is a messy patchwork of laws that don’t make sense. What we need, whichever country we live in, is nationwide legalization for consensual behavior between consenting adults. An adult should be free to share hugs, kisses, love, sex, BDSM, dinner, dancing, money, Scrabble, residence, and marriage with any consenting adults. To get there sooner rather than later, we need solidarity.
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