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Images of women crying out in pain and receiving a sound beating don’t usually scream “feminist.” For some, it’s cause for alarm, calling up notions of rape and patriarchal power and privilege. For others, though, BDSM fits hand in hand with sex-positive feminism.

BDSM encompasses a wide variety of behaviors, kinks, and actions, but literally it boils down to: bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. Which can mean anything from erotic tickling to a 24/7 slave-master relationship to spanking to, yes, a Dom and his very bad, very naughty female submissive.

It’s okay if pain scares you, but many anti-BDSM sentiments stem from ignorance and sex-negativity.It’s understandable why men beating up women for pleasure can make some people squirm (and not in a good way), but BDSM can be a very feminist lifestyle. First, not all subs are women and not all Doms (Dommes) are men, but that’s neither here nor there for those absolutely offended by this deplorable abuse of women. But let’s get down to–how do you say?–brass tacks.

Much of BDSM is power play, and gosh, if examining power relations within sex isn’t so Women’s Studies, God help those poor, misguided womyn. Power always lurks in the sexual setting, whether it’s a violent upset in power in the case of rape, or whether it’s simply a matter of giving or receiving. Some like it equal, some like it hot, and some like a good foot to the face as they’re bent over against a wall taking it up the rear. You know.

That doesn’t mean that partners in BDSM don’t treat each other with respect and care, even in slave relationships. Outside the bedroom (err, dungeon), you treat your girl to a nice dinner, but she’ll get her just desserts as soon as the door closes.

Because of the nature of the beast, BDSM requires a lot of communication between the partners involved and informed consent for the activities in which they engage. Most vanilla hetero couplings don’t go to such extents to ensure safety and consent.

Those women being flogged to violent shades of fuchsia? They’ve consented to the activity, understanding the pain they are about to experience. Their Doms may wield the necessary tools to discipline the mischievous monsters, but the play can stop at any time: safe words allow the participants to say “no more” when the session has gone too far. In order for BDSM to work its magic, the activity has to be safe, sane, and consensual.

That means the partners are sober and in the right emotional/mental mindset. They know how to tie the right knots, where not to hit someone, and how hard they can hit them. But most importantly, they agree to mutually defined activities and boundaries before they start.

For contemporary feminism, consent is one of the words du jour. Consent allows women (and men) the power to say yes or no to sex before it happens or even during the act. It puts partners on equal footing and holds them responsible to each other and ultimately the law (i.e. rape law).

A common misconception about BDSM is that it’s a form of domestic abuse or violence against women. Admittedly, it is possible, like in any relationship, that (nonconsensual) abuse can exist in BDSM relationships. But that’s missing the point. In sadomasochist sessions, pain and pleasure intertwine. Slapping, pinching, spanking, whipping, and clamping (just to name a few) pain the sub, but that’s what the sub wants…and deserves, wink wink nudge nudge.

Kinksters don’t beat up their partners because they want to (bad) hurt someone but because they want to (good) pain someone. Sure, they can be cruel and sadistic and impressively imaginative in their evil ways, but it’s no fun when the other partner isn’t secretly enjoying it.

San Francisco has a burgeoning BDSM community, but like much of what makes San Francisco special, not everyone is DTF.

It’s okay if pain scares you, but many anti-BDSM sentiments stem from ignorance and sex-negativity. Sex isn’t the root of all evil, doesn’t inherently demean women, and isn’t an essentially destructive force…but in BDSM you can reexamine what constitutes sex and toe the line between pain and pleasure, good and bad.

Image from nasty days.

The Sexual Manifesto is Christine Borden’s weekly column on sex in the city, sex and culture, and, well, sex. Got a tip for Christine (and it’s not in your pants)? Email her at christine@sfappeal.com.

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  • bloomsm

    BDSM can be completely feminist. If someone thinks it is not, they are probably not clear on the concept.

  • generic

    E. Edward Grey: It’s your behavior.
    Lee: What about my behavior?
    E. Edward Grey: It’s very bad.

    Secretary, 2002