Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I was planning on using this week’s article to scratch the surface of sadomasochism to round out our understanding of BDSM, but then, I checked out comments on last week’s article. I changed my mind. Instead, this week, I’ll be answering Curious’s question. For those of you who didn’t see the comment, Curious wrote:
Have you ever considered that there are better ways to satisfy desire for approval than this? Would you consider writing a future column considering whether BDSM is an emotionally/psychologically healthy practice, and considering whether there are alternative ways to satisfy whatever BDSM does for you?
I’m going to try and tackle this issue. Make sure to check in after break for that sexy S&M article I owe you all.
The first thing I’d like to tackle in regards to Curious’s question is the assumption that BDSM is about “desire for approval.” It isn’t – it’s about the same thing that all relationships are about. BDSM is about desire for love. This desire is approached differently in BDSM, but it comes down to a desire for trust, adoration, compassion, connection, intimacy, and, yes, approval, a little bit, but that isn’t the main thing at stake here. There’s much more to BDSM than seeking approval.
Have you ever done a trust fall? You know it, I’m sure – someone stands behind you and you, with your eyes closed, fall back into their arms. BDSM is like the trust game. Just like the catcher, the Dominant is put in a situation where someone is relying on the dominant to protect them from harm. Like the falling party in the trust game, the submissive has to trust their partner and believe that their partner will not drop them to the ground. In a trust fall, for one split second, you don’t know if you’re going to hit the ground or be caught; for one moment, they don’t know if they’re going to miss catching you. And in that moment, there are all these emotions: fear, resignedness, exhilaration, excitement, anticipation – but above all, trust. That moment is made constant in the relationship between a Dominant and a submissive.
But BDSM is also like a relationship between two vanilla people: think about the moment you start falling for someone new, about every new thing you do together, about the steps of committing. BDSM is also about power – that’s been a common theme throughout the past few weeks – but so are vanilla relationships. Think about how common the phrase “…wears the pants” is in the context of a relationship: aside from being heteronormative, it’s about power. Every relationship is about a power exchange. The only difference between power in a BDSM relationship and a vanilla relationship is how explicit the power exchange is. A BDSM relationship and a vanilla relationship are, at the heart, achieving the same thing. They are simply different paths to get there.
So why choose a BDSM path over a vanilla one? Simple: it just works for some people. Just like how vanilla relationships work for other people. Some people like going on dates to amusement parks, others prefer dinner and a movie. Some people like hiking with their partner. Others would rather take a cooking class. And some people like Dominance and submission, or bondage, or discipline or sadomasochism, or any combination of those things. Just because a BDSM relationship is not “standard,” per se, doesn’t mean it’s deviant or wrong or dangerous. Different doesn’t mean bad, it means different.
The only time that a BDSM relationship can be dangerous is if the rules of SSC (Safe, Sane, and Consensual) aren’t being followed (any relationship at all is dangerous if the rules of SSC aren’t being followed). I’ve been part of this lifestyle for a long, long time and have never had a dangerous experience within the contexts of BDSM. In fact, I think that the amount of talking necessary to successfully existing in that context (be it for a scene or for a lifestyle) makes it healthier and safer than the less explicitly communicative alternative. The amount of processing I’ve done with Dominants about our relationship is astounding – we both had to recognize and talk about the desires in ourselves, what those desires meant for “us”. We had to talk about boundaries, establish a safe word, learn one another’s signs, familiarize ourselves with body language, learn to read each other. We couldn’t just jump into bed without talking about things. We couldn’t jump into a relationship without figuring out exactly what it meant. I think it’s a lot more “emotionally/psychologically healthy” than waking up in a stranger’s bed with a hangover, or starting to date someone and finding out a few weeks in that you’re looking for totally different things.
As far as alternative ways to satisfy what BDSM does for me, I have considered it. I have considered it, and determined that no, there aren’t alternative ways. Are there alternative ways to satisfy the feeling of a first kiss? Of holding someone’s hand? A first date? A one-year anniversary? There aren’t alternative ways to satisfy those feelings because those things are the feelings. BDSM is like that, too. That is the feeling.
People have a tendency to view things that they don’t understand as wrong. All this does, though, is create shame and guilt and silence. And when shame and guilt and silence surround behaviors, they are stigmatized more. Judging people because of how they choose to live their lives or how they choose to structure their relationships is dangerous.
So the short answer to your question Curious is yes. I have thought about substituting other things for BDSM. I have considered it. But then I realized that I do not exist to make life easier for other people. My desires are not subject to others’ needs to put me into a tiny vanilla box. BDSM keeps me healthy and happy and emotionally fulfilled. But hey, to each their own. There’s nothing wrong with candlelit dinners and gentle, romantic sex. I just prefer candles dripping on my skin, and sex with some bondage thrown in.
Since asking questions can be hard through The Daily Gazette, I’ve set up a tumblr for this column. Just remember that on The Daily Gazette, you don’t have to give your real email address! Additionally, you can ask questions anonymously or send me your feedback directly via tumblr – I’d love to hear from you. Check it out at swatknottygirl.tumblr.com!