Those who do not squirm cannot feel their restraints: anarchism, BDSM and consensual power

This post was co-written with @jedweightman and can also be found at his blog.

Folk demography of the least scientific kind suggests two Venn circles with a curious amount of overlap: anarchism and kink.

The overrepresentation of kinky anarchists and anarcho-kinksters can perhaps be facetiously explained as hierarchy and power being the ultimate taboo to those who strive for its complete demise. It is not hard to imagine the hyper-masochistic types willingly turning their rear towards the hail of police batons, nor the sadist perfecting their flogging technique by hurling a brick through a bank window. After all, much of BDSM involves experimentation with the very kind of disparate power relations that anarchists seek to overturn in the political sphere: whilst TSG/activist roleplay is generally uncommon, if not unheard-of, both anarchist and kinky lifestyles share some analogous values.

The idea that the exercise of power should be something rooted in consensus and consent is common to both anarchist politics and the ethics of the BDSM community. In kinky circles, consent is key. Limits will be discussed, building an understanding of exactly what all parties involved are willing to participate in. Within a sexual context, power and hierarchy are explicitly set within a framework of mutual agreement and clear limits in order to de-tooth much of the harmful nature of such interactions, rendering the concepts safer and allowing for their experimentation as ‘play‘. Accountability, in the sense of zero-tolerance for those who abuse trust, and a mechanism for an instantaneous suspension and re-examination of a play scenario exist; those who fail to respect boundaries and consent are (in most cases) blacklisted from the kink scene. Communication is seen as a process: people can withdraw consent using a “safe word”.

Anarchists, meanwhile, accept that in some situations a leader, coordinator or facilitator will be needed. This can be found in 17th century proto-anarchist pirate communities, who had a captain who was directly selected by the group and recallable at any time and whose power only extended to making certain decisions ‘on mission’. Voluntary anarchist militias in the Ukraine at the time of the Russian Revolution and in Spain during the Civil War elected delegates to perform the functions of officers, but their authority came from the collective wishes of their fellow soldiers rather than the innate authority of the position. These were not without problems; efficient co-ordination against conventional military forces often conflicted with the attempts to respect ideals of autonomy. Similarly, anyone who has been in anarchist meetings will probably have experienced the trade-off between the speed of decision making and adherence to the ethics ofconsensus, but this worthwhile is the pursuit of truly democratic practice. Often anarchist organisation delegates responsibility for certain tasks to voluntary working groups or meeting facilitators. Any social power given is strictly limited (e.g. to organising certain activities), and is subject to withdrawal at any time by the will of participants, a democratic version of screaming out the name of a fruit when the beating goes beyond one’s limits. Crucial to both anarchist and BDSM circles is the attempt to ensure that such hierarchies, established because they’re either practical or fun, are fluid, properly scrutinised, organised consensually and explicitly temporary.

Neither community is entirely free from problems. In existing within a patriarchal, capitalist society, murky aspects are able to seep in. Even in kinky circles, traditional gender roles gain traction, with a common assumption that men are naturally dominant, and women, naturally submissive. The ‘professionalisation’ of the BDSM lifestyle often sees folk who are unable to afford entrance fees to kink clubs or custom-made equipment locked out of many of the spaces where one can experiment in a safe and non-judgmental context. Though it should be said that a sizeable community of DIY kinksters exists, it can be hard to find offline if one does not have the fortune of meeting like-minded people. Similarly, anarchist circles can also have problems negating privileges of class, gender and so on. In neither community are such problems insurmountable and both contain many individuals striving to overcome them.

Whilst the BDSM community is not without criticism, there is a strand of critique from self-identified radicals which repeatedly misses the point, neatly embodied by this fine specimen from po-faced tosspots and/or master trolls The Activists, (other things deemed ‘counter-revolutionary’ by this humourless project include television and comedy; one assumes they see sitcoms as oppressive slideshows of a thousand jackboots endlessly stamping on their miserable faces forever).

This type of judgmental attack on the kink scene is hinged on a construction of BDSM as sexual deviancy directly parallel to that of conservative ideologies. Those playing with power and pain in the bedroom are considered an aberration from good, honest revolutionary sex, presumably involving gritted teeth, the clutching of banners adorned with Che’s handsome face and neatly punctuated with a post-coital lecture on Mao’s little red book. This reactionary perspective posits a false dichotomy of ‘normal’ sex and ‘deviant’ sex, rather than the reality of a plethora of sexualities on innumerable intersecting spectra.

The radical strain of attack on BDSM further tends to imply that such sexual activity is a waste of time and energy that could better be spent serving the monolithic ‘Cause’. This is another manifestation of a prevalent dismissive attitude amongst certain revolutionary types; the belief that other struggles against oppression (feminism, queer and trans* issues, anti-racism, and accessibility for example) are secondary to the ‘true’ fight against capitalism. It goes beyond a necessary understanding of theory to an outright rejection of intersectionality and undermines the credibility of claims to be fighting for real egalitarianism.

What this view denotes is an utter joylessness, eloquently condemned by Emma Goldman recounting an incident where a comrade told her the frivolity of her dancing would hurt the Cause, condemned by Goldman in this account of the incident:

I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. ~Living My Life, p. 56 (1931)

There are still those who would rather see a revolution of tedious types subsuming their will for the good of the party–sorry, revolution–but there will be many more who want joy in their new world. The idea of the Cause as this solemn mission requires the surrender of earthly pleasures for their ideals, the absurdity of the idea that we can win a worthy future of liberation through asceticism. If we are not to live the values of anarchism, then why fight for it? As Goldman didn’t quite say “if I can’t horizontally dance in it, it’s not my revolution”

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9 responses to “Those who do not squirm cannot feel their restraints: anarchism, BDSM and consensual power

  • Those who do not squirm cannot feel their restraints: Anarchism, BDSM and Consensual Power « black fantastic dust

    [...] This post was co-written with the wonderful @stavvers and can also be found at her blog, Another Angry Woman, here. [...]

  • Sasha

    Interesting post. However,i suspect positing that members of the BDSM community who fail to respect consent culture are excluded is…wishful thinking. Cf Kitty Stryker’s ‘i’m calling us out,community’ post,which i will link to asa not on my phone.
    Nb. I recognise this is a very minor issue and largely irrelevant to argument of post! it was just a nod to power in bdsm communities being more messy than it shd be.

    • stavvers

      Agree it’s not perfect, but theoretically, safeguarding mechanisms are in place, and on the whole it’s a lot safer to play than, say, the het dating scene!

  • Peter Maxwell

    I do have a small few bones to pick re some of your comments on the BDSM “community” / “scene” (whether those two concepts actually exist is an argument in itself):

    i. I’ve never heard of a masochist deliberately, or even by sub-concious intent, place themselves at the end of a Police baton for pleasure. The overwhelming number of masochists I’ve met – and that is a fairly large number – like pain for the “endorphine” hit (yes, I know it’s not technically endorphins either), and they know *exactly* how they like it. To place themselves in a position they have zero control over is *normally* anathema. There are folk who like unpredictability, but in my own experience that’s comparatively uncommon.

    ii. People are rarely “black-listed”, although one’s reputation is important and bad-apples can usually be identified if one asks around. The idea that “zero tolerance” policies are in place is a serious falsehood and could quickly get someone into trouble if they believed that to be the case.

    iii. As for traditional gender roles gaining traction, in my own locale it is actually usually presumed the opposite: that the female is the Dom/top and the male is the sub/bottom ;-) This may be a regional variation.

    iv. Again, as for “professionalism” creeping in, it isn’t really present where I live. The backgrounds of people going to event locally is diverse. Many folk I know that go to kink events are skint, entry fees are generally comparatively low and there’s always ways to be inventive with equipment, etc.

    Having said that, your likening of the kink community to the anarchist community is perhaps a relevant one (although don’t know many anarchists). The BDSM community tends to be rather horizontal/egalitarian because it usually needs the “Your kink is ok” type attitude to survive and issues such as gender, disability, age, etc are usually ignored in favour of more important questions like how to do such-and-such rope-work, whether the venue offers a good cup of tea and who has the biscuits.

  • Andreas

    See, I’ve rarely seen any overlap between the kinky and the revolutionaries. Most kinksters past the age of 25 tend to be white and well educated working people, not marxists, at least in my experience.

    You have to be at least *slightly* liberal to be kinky, but beyond that, kink appeals both to the marxist – that sees it as the destruction of traditional gender structure and sexual liberation – and to the staunch conservative who gets turned on by a little rough discipline.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the article, but I think you’re overly generalizing and not being specific enough. But yes, a revolution without dancing isn’t much of a revolution at all. Same goes with kink.

  • People I won’t have sex with, ever. « Another angry woman

    [...] upon in yesterday’s post on consensual power, BDSM and anarchism, tedious fuckwits The Activists think that sex is a waste of [...]

  • Train Riding Nobody (@Commuterist)

    “This type of judgmental attack on the kink scene is hinged on a construction of BDSM as sexual deviancy directly parallel to that of conservative ideologies.”

    Amen to this. Or rather, bollocks to it. Have had quite my fill of this line of argument now.

  • Daniel

    I only know of one other anarchist kinkster; this may be because people generally don’t wear their kink hearts on their sleeves like they do their political ones. And too much of my readings about the kink community seems to imply that not enough is done when consent is abused (c.f. Kitty Striker, referenced above). Finally, in my (admittedly limited) experience people who take sexual dominance seriously in their general lives are often complete arseholes the rest of the time. I think its something to do with always getting their own way..

  • maymay

    Meh. As an anarchist and BDSM’er, the analysis here seems trite and fluffy, more like a PR piece than critical self-reflection. As others have pointed out, the whitewashing of the problems within the the formal BDSM Scene is just glaring and, perhaps more to the point, the truly revolutionary potential of practicing BDSM (as a practice, not a “lifestyle”) is just…missing.

    You might be interested in reading “BDSM: Why it’s important to the revolution, and how we’re doing it wrong,” for more information. (Follow the links from there, too.) Note especially the parts that discuss the overlap between anti-authoritarianism and kink.

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