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22. Why is SM taboo, and is SM criminal, unnatural, immoral, unethical,or unhealthy?

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This article is from the Bondage FAQ, by numerous contributors.

22. Why is SM taboo, and is SM criminal, unnatural, immoral, unethical,or unhealthy?

If what I've been saying in this FAQ is accurate, then why haven't more
people heard this? Why are the prevailing images of SM so negative?

There is no doubt that they _are_ negative. Not long ago I was informed
that there are some members of the Winnipeg (Canada) police department
who believe that soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm is "a textbook on how to
torture women for sexual pleasure. It's obscene." Said police were
considering how to deal with s.s.b-b on obscenity grounds. In England
in 1991, a group of gay men who had gathered for an SM play party in
which they were using whips for pleasure were arrested and charged with
battery, EVEN THOUGH they had all agreed to be doing exactly what they
were doing, and WANTED to be doing it. Consensual SM is illegal in
England. How can this be?

The crucial distinction here is between consent and non-consent. The
difference between whipping someone in a scene and assaulting them on
the street is the difference between sex and rape. If everyone involved
agrees to what is happening, it is not a crime. If they do not, then it
is. This distinction is not in principle difficult to understand, and
being involved in SM makes it very clear. SM practitioners are _more_
familiar with consent issues than most, and as such are _less_ likely to
commit crimes of the sort that people confuse with SM. And NONE of the
material in this FAQ advocates ANY kind of nonconsensual, criminal
behavior.

Unfortunately, there are many who would be arbiters of what others may
and may not legally consent to do. I believe that consenting adults
should be free to do as they wish in the privacy of their homes. There
are many who don't believe this is acceptable. It serves them to
confuse the issue by claiming "SM people are sadistic rapists" when in
fact we are nothing of the sort. Criminalizing consensual sexual
activities (sodomy, SM, even prostitution) is an old tradition, but in
my view, an unjustifiable one.

This problem is exacerbated by the body of "scholarly research" on SM
and related practices. Almost all the books written about SM and other
alternative practices in this century have been written by psychologists
and therapists (i.e. people outside the scene), and almostall have
portrayed SM as a dangerous practice, indulged in only by "unhealthy"
individuals. The reason? Healthy individuals weren't the subjects
being studied; rather, the subjects were all seeking psychological
treatment from the authors of the books! The "studies" completely
ignored the many many well-adjusted, happy people who were also into SM.
It's easy to conclude SM is harmful when your only experience is with
psychologically maladjusted SM people, and when you aren't interested in
presenting a balanced view (as few authors are--psychologists can be as
sexually judgmental as anyone).

More recent events in the psychiatric community have shown a change in
opinion about SM. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric
Conditions is a document produced by the American Psychiatric
Association. The DSM-III, published in the late '80s, classified
"sexual sadism" and "sexual masochism" as disorders for which treatment
was recommended. The APA, in the DSM-IV, reclassified SM as _not_
necessarily a disorder, unless the practice of the SM produces
clinically significant ongoing emotional trauma, or leads to death,
serious injury, or disability. The DSM-IV is recognition by the
theraputic community that SM can be practiced in a psychologically
healthy way.

As for "natural": people have practiced SM behaviors throughout history.
Many are the saints who scourged themselves in the name of the Lord.
Using intense sensation to reach altered states of mind is a practice as
old as humanity itself--and hence can be considered in no way
"unnatural".

Our society (as do most societies) tends to ostracize the different. If
you don't fit the mold, you're weird and dangerous. People into SM
don't fit the mold. This is why there is such pressure to remain
anonymous in the scene; people have lost their jobs, partners, children,
and liberty by having their sexual preferences revealed to their
community. This stems from the same source: lack of understanding of
what we do and why, and lack of respect for what is different.

Of course, there are plenty of people who just aren't into SM. (Most
people, in fact.) There's nothing at all wrong with not being into SM,
or with not wanting to be exposed to people who do various forms of SM;
many people have emotional issues with some kinds of SM activities and
may be repulsed or disturbed by witnessing them. These people should
clearly avoid SM (and probably should avoid
soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm). I would hope, however, that even these
people would manage to learn about consensuality as it relates to SM,
and learn how SM, practiced carefully, is not abuse.

Some people feel that any power exchange between people is unhealthy.
The argument is that giving power to someone else is tantamount to
giving away your essential right to self-determination, which must be
considered an unqualified evil. Moreover, there is no doubt that many
social evils--wars, abusive relationships, et al.--derive from one group
of people seeking power over another; therefore, the argument proceeds,
it is always wrong thusly to seek power.

In reality, there are many situations in life in which someone chooses
to give some of their power over to another, because they trust that
other to use that power wisely. Examples include entering the Army
(which regulates your life for the duration of your service); getting
married (which is often a commitment to abandon some of your personal
autonomy); taking a job (which restricts your choices of how to spend
your time); and, of course, entering a BDSM scene (during which your top
has authority over what goes on). All these power exchanges are
mutually agreed upon, and are mutually beneficial; when they stop being
beneficial, the exchange itself should stop.

People whose moral codes state that all power exchange--consensual or
otherwise--is wrong should clearly not be involved in BDSM. Certainly
such people have a consistent ethical system that defines BDSM as
immoral. Short of such an ethical system, however, it is hard to see
how a BDSM relationship is any more intrinsically immoral than a stint
in the Army, or a traditional 'death-do-you-part' marriage. As for me,
I believe that in a free society, morality requires permitting each
citizen to make his or her own choices of how to live, and how to
express themselves, including sexually. Sexual rights are human rights.
If we lose our freedom to love as we choose, we lose a vital part of
what it is to be human.

These issues are very controversial, even now. In the 1992 Oregon state
ballot, voters narrowly overturned a measure named OR 9, which contained
the following paragraph:

"State, regional, and local government and their departments, agencies,
and other entities, including specifically the State Department of
Higher Education and the public schools, shall assist in setting a
standard for Oregon's youth that recognizes homosexuality, pedophilia,
sadism, and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and
that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided."

Homosexuality, sadism, and masochism are neither wrong nor unnatural.
All three are consensual ways of living and loving that many people
enjoy. They are not for everyone, but nor should everyone be told that
they are for no one. Note also how this measure seeks to confuse the
issue by grouping homosexuality, sadism, and masochism together with
pedophilia, a practice which is in most places legally nonconsensual.
(It is not my intent to enter here into the debate over whether children
are ever capable of fully consenting to sexual acts. Suffice it to say
that whether they can or not has no bearing on the fact that adults
_can_ consent to SM play.) Legislating what consenting adults may and
many not do in private is neither healthy nor democratic.

(In recent years there has been a spate of articles about how SM is
entering the mainstream. Madonna's book _Sex_, her movie _Body of
Evidence_, and the movie _Exit to Eden_ are examples of this trend.
Hopefully this will lead to more people feeling free to express their
love as _they_ choose--so long as it's consensual!)

The most extreme forms of SM come closest to the line between consent
and non-consent. Most SM people have established safewords which they
will use if need be, though if they've known their partners for long,
that's rather seldom. Some people, though, do play without
safewords--whether because they know their partners well enough to stay
within their partners' limits and read their partners' responses, or
because they enjoy the rush of playing without an escape clause. This
latter sort of play is sometimes known as "consensual
non-consensuality," and involves scenes in which the bottom literally
cannot escape from whatever the top wishes to do. This is very advanced
SM; it requires exponentially more negotiation and introspection, and
even then is hazardous. Not many people do this, or want to, but some
people do, and find it exhilarating and uplifting. More info is
available on s.s.b-b or in some of the references... or on s.s.b-b
itself, which is one of the best places in the world to hear a myriad of
voices speak out about their individual ways of doing and living SM.

 

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