The Slice
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If S&M Is Going Mainstream, Why Are Lawmakers Banning It?

If S&M Is Going Mainstream, Why Are Lawmakers Banning It?

She’s a new myth, this high-powered female CEO who yearns to be whipped and gagged after office hours. We saw her on the runway this season in the Givenchy harnesses and the luxury faux-bondage gear she can certainly afford with her six-figure salary. And we saw her in Reddit forums, where she insisted, “I am a woman who holds strong values, opinions and positions in my work and volunteer life. When it comes to sex, I don’t want to be in charge anymore. It’s my time to finally take a break!”

After suburban moms started reading 50 Shades of Grey in their book clubs, newspapers sent their reporters out to the local sex clubs. The New York Times heralded BDSM “A Hush Hush Topic No More” after visiting a club called Paddles that they found “unexpectedly wholesome.” All in all, the kinksters came across remarkably suburban. They couldn’t use their real names because they had good jobs and mortgages and neighbors out in Long Island. But under the surface of this wave of articles quick to announce deviance as the new normal, there was an urge to make sense of it.

The Secret Sub Boss Lady emerged as a comforting archetype that did the job of explaining. Aside from essentializing female submission—was she being more of a lady in the sheets than a freak in them?—she seemed like a progressive new twist on the male CEO who liked having his nipples clamped in the bedroom. It was about balance: So much time spent bossing people around created a need to be bossed. According to Katie Roiphe, the popularity of 50 Shades and its sub heroine is directly related to more and more women surpassing men in college and the workplace. They want a fantasy to escape the pressures of economic participation. But to say a woman needing a break from power means we’ve achieved gender equality is about as logical as saying that we live in a post-racial society just because the president is black.

This month, British regulators banned spanking, caning, humiliation, aggressive whipping, choking, face-sitting and physical restraint from porn made in the UK. The BBFC’s targeting of BDSM is, more than anything else, symbolic, since there is little real prohibition. You can still wank off to kinky Yankee porn, for instance, since the ban is only on the content of videos produced in the UK and doesn’t extend to content made elsewhere.

The ban doesn’t mean much except that BDSM is still taboo. The UK legislation is a simultaneous urge of inclusion and exclusion, acknowledging that we will still watch it but reiterating that it’s not to be considered normal. And the restrictions are unmistakably gendered. Female ejaculation is banned. (Just imagine if the money shot was banned from porn.) So is face-sitting, an act that carries no real danger, but is an explicit performance of a woman’s power over a man. If squirting is against the rules, its telling just what the rules are upholding. Tying an image of female pleasure into a blacklist that includes tying up reveals that erotic bondage and discipline are also threatening to a patriarchal status quo.

Sex that honestly explores power relations is equal parts appetizing and threatening.

I’m mostly talking about kink in the cultural imagination more than its pluralistic practices, but my first introduction to BDSM framed it as something that explicitly busted binaries and challenged traditional power structures. There was that workshop at my college by Pat Califia, the renaissance (trans)man and self-proclaimed “sex radical,” who has been an icon in the BDSM community for decades, highly visible before his transition as a leatherdyke lesbian. Califia’s brand of BDSM is noticeably political and in line with its queer roots. Although you can find examples dating back as far as the Greeks of pain and pleasure as strange bedfellows, modern BDSM had its beginnings in queer communities in the 20th-century in Europe and North America, starting with post-WWII gay bike clubs.

At its core, BDSM makes an uneven distribution of power explicit. Its performances of sub/dom or master/slave echo and amplify the uneven roles we have in life outside of sexual play—boss and worker, husband and wife, corrections officer and prisoner. This erotic theatre has a way of revealing the arbitrary nature of all of these performances. It suggests that it just might be possible for power to be distributed differently than the way we know it. And, in the world of BDSM, these roles are always a choice, making even roles with a lack of power paradoxically empowering.

Meanwhile, we’re at a moment when governments and corporations alike are encroaching on our civil liberties and class inequalities are becoming increasingly exasperated—even as we keep challenging these same sources of power and turning inequality into a mainstream conversation. Sex that honestly explores power relations is equal parts appetizing and threatening. Although BDSM is more visible than ever, visibility isn’t always a pit-stop on the way to real tolerance and acceptance, nor a sign that its radical politics are achieving widespread play.

Years before 50 Shades of Grey became a book people openly read on the subway, bondage has been creeping its way into the mainstream. Almost 15 years ago, leather and whips were helping to sell products as innocuous as sensible furniture. In a 2001 Ikea ad, the “uptight” next-door neighbor’s wife is dressed as a dominatrix cracking a whip on the sofa. There’s another even racier Ikea ad for a Swedish audience where teenagers come home to their parents role-playing a dominatrix and an adult baby.

Here, kink is at once weird and deviant and totally banal. It’s normalizing danger in the safest way possible. Kink is just an eccentricity of an otherwise normal nuclear family with sensible furniture.

BDSM has historically been about disrupting traditional economic structures; the lesbian-made BDSM porn movement in the eighties, for example, was intended to allow women to profit off the consumption of their own images as opposed to straight men. But BDSM has been, to some extent, subsumed into capitalism rather than challenging it. Even the BDSM lifestyle itself has been commodified. There are pricey workshops, club memberships, and trade shows full of booths of PVC products marketed toward upper-middle class leisure fetishists. Sometimes buying the latest ball-gag is also buying into late-capitalism identity consumerism.

The millions of women who bought 50 Shades proved there was a market for explicit negotiations of power that they experience more subtly day-to-day. But it’s hard to overlook that its leather and chains are accessorizing a deeper conservatism. The book—a traditional romance novel at heart—has been described as “mommy porn,” the particular bondage-lite fantasies being written for the same demographic diet yogurts and low-fat lattes are marketed toward: white women. White women who still suffer from the patriarchy but reap the rewards of white supremacy—50 Shades of Grey is for white women, Lean In is for white women, #solidarityisforwhitewomen. As a white woman, I find it hard to call anything for white women radical, but then the British government goes and bans female ejaculation, and I’m another white woman writing a think-piece trying to explain it all, when maybe that urge is part of the problem.

In the wake of 50 Shades, there’s been a wave of articles trying to make sense of the desires for pain, restraint, domination, and submission, which might seem necessary for an alternative lifestyle to achieve tolerance and ultimately acceptance. But sometimes there’s a fine line between rationalizing and pathologizing. To say desire is explainable and a product of circumstance is to reduce us to clockwork.

Sex and desire are sometimes portrayed as the last reprieve of something human in the iron cage of rationality. In French novelist Michel Houllebecq’s smutty sex tourism novel Platform, his protagonist, a middle-aged French bureaucrat, rails against BDSM for its rationality: “Organized S&M with its rules could only exist among overcultured, cerebral people for whom sex has lost all attraction.”

But the conversion of pain and pleasure is precisely at odds with logic. Foucault describes it as “unreason transformed into the delirium of the heart.” The desire for submission is never as simple as the success of working women or daddy issues or dopamine responses to pain or any of the other ways we try to make sense of something that maybe isn’t supposed to. The anxieties around kink might be able to be analyzed, but what turns us on often isn’t. And in an era of techno-rationality and increasing inequality, where big data is supposed to hold all the answers and the numbers only spell out a growing gap between rich and poor, that’s what still makes it so threatening—maybe even radical.

Whitney Mallett is a writer living in New York. She also produces TV and documentary film and is finishing a short about gospel mime.