In Ireland, Graham Dwyer, a married architect, has been convicted of the murder of Elaine O’Hara, a childcare worker with whom he was engaged in a BDSM relationship. The motive was sexual gratification. O’Hara was vulnerable, suffering from mental health issues, and Dwyer exploited this, banking on the likelihood that her disappearance would be read as suicide. He hid evidence of the murder at the bottom of a reservoir. If it were not for 2013’s unusually hot, dry summer, that’s where the truth would have remained, and Dwyer would be walking free.
A woman is dead: another victim of intimate partner violence. And treating her death with due respect should mean an examination of the social context that allowed a man to convince a woman that his sexual desire to stab and kill her was within the bounds of the acceptable. It should mean attention to the cultural mainstreaming of BDSM.
On Valentine’s Day this year, Universal Pictures released its film adaptation of EL James’s erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Back in 2012, the Guardian asked me to review the book to mark the sale of its ten-millionth copy. I kept it light — riffing on James’s infamously terrible prose and characterisation, and musing as to whether the far-away film version wouldn’t leave us feeling a little less glib and little more, well, worried. The day is come, and I admit a heavier feeling. What is, at heart, the tale of an abusive relationship in which a reluctant, inexperienced and infatuated young girl is controlled and beaten by a rich sadist, is now being offered up as a sweet Valentine’s Day treat for naughty couples.
BDSM communities have been quick to distance themselves from Fifty Shades, and, indeed, from any beliefs or behaviours incompatible with informed, enthusiastic and uncoerced consent. This is because BDSM communities are often, in my experience, very politically switched-on places. However, it’s also my experience that kink communities are reluctant to acknowledge problems with the ideologies underlying their sexual practices, focusing instead on the pleasure or relationship benefits to be gained from BDSM.
I’m making this critique not as a judgemental outsider, but as someone who participates in BDSM behaviours and events and understands the excitement to be found therein. I’m making this critique not as a kink-shamer, but as a challenge to myself: what are my reasons and justifications for inviting or accepting male sexual violence? And, at this point in history, when kink is becoming ubiquitous, I’m calling on all responsible, egalitarian kinksters to take a step back from personal desire and pleasure and ask similar questions.
We live in a sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist society. This gross fact informs our identities, our beliefs and our desires: it’s part of us at the most fundamental cognitive level. A prevalent theory in kink communities is that BDSM creates a sandbox or play space around impulses that have their roots in sexism or other prejudice, consensually mirroring non-consensual societal power dynamics. The sandbox allows role play that expurgates, inverts or otherwise contains hierarchical desires. It may give subs control over situations that would — in reality — make them feel powerless, or allow doms to cathartically express violent urges: in short, the sandbox gets it all out of our systems.
Except, this isn’t how human psychology functions. We do not siphon off fiction or play from our social realities. Rather, the values and norms of the fictions we consume or participate in suffuse our world views and influence our actions.
Participating in violent sports or fictions does not always make us less violent, in fact it can do the opposite. Watching aggressive pornography does not quell our desire for aggressive pornography, but, contrarily, can create a desire for increased violence. If we know and believe this about video games, movies and porn, then why do we suddenly deny it when it comes to BDSM? Perhaps it’s because it makes us feel defensive, and so, instead of conscientiously examining a) the social conditions that have led to our fetishisation of female pain and submission, and b) the ways in which our sexual practices strengthen and reinforce those social conditions, we shout “kink-shamer”.
In the 1970s, this issue split second wave feminism. Activists such as Robin Morgan, Alice Walker and everyone’s favourite straw-woman Andrea Dworkin wrote smart, impassioned rhetoric against BDSM. And sex-positive feminists such as Susie Bright and Candida Royalle reacted just as passionately and intelligently, with publications and erotic projects proclaiming that they’d fought long and hard for their sexual liberation, and they weren’t going to be told what to do with their beds and bodies by priest, pastor or feminist sister. In 2015, at this powerful moment in feminism and with this sea-change in social attitudes towards BDSM, I believe it’s time to reopen the debate in a spirit of solidarity, openness and honesty. I believe that we owe this to vulnerable women, like Elaine O’Hara, whose submissive desires can leave them open to male aggression in the most tragic of ways. – By Emer O’Toole
Image – AFP