Recent news of BDSM in Iceland joining up with the National Queer Organisation should have been a non-controversy. While for the most part, a great many people did welcome the news, voices of criticism have arisen that are eerily familiar, and reflect not only a distinct lack of understanding of what BDSM entails; it also reflects the importance of intersectionality.
One of the main objections that has arisen regarding BDSM in Iceland being brought into the National Queer Organisation’s fold is that BDSM is not a sexual orientation, but a sexual behaviour. People who practice BDSM are not subject to any significant discrimination or prejudice, critics argue, and the personal experiences that these people speak from can therefore be dismissed and ignored.
I was reluctant to write on this subject because there are a number of misconceptions about BDSM, and a person can get pretty tired of having to have the same conversation over and over. But given the oddly familiar rhetoric that has arisen in the wake of this recent news, I feel it’s more important to come forward than to roll my eyes and keep scrolling.
While not an active member of the BDSM community in Iceland, I am one of the many people for whom BDSM is a sexual orientation. I have been aware of it since the dawn of my sexuality. It is as much a part of my orientation as my heterosexuality, and likely always will be. Similar to the adage that comments about feminism underline feminism’s importance, recent discussions about BDSM underline the importance of those of us who can afford to do so speaking openly and honestly about what BDSM actually entails. For the purposes of simplicity and clarity, I should emphasise that I am speaking for myself here – I can’t cover all the bases in the space provided, so bear in mind I’m using a narrow scope.
To my mind, the most important aspect of BDSM is the concept of consent. As in all sexuality, informed and enthusiastic consent is crucial. When two (or more) people want to engage in BDSM play, before anyone so much as touches each other, there’s going to be a whole lot of talking it out. Most people are aware that in one-on-one BDSM play, there is a dominant party (or a “Dom”) and a submissive one (also called a “sub”), although one should also have in mind that this isn’t a bright line. What far too many don’t realize is that it’s actually the sub who holds all the power here: as a Dom, I must respect the ground rules and boundaries established by the sub. They’re the ones who set down what may and may not happen, the ones who say when the play starts, and when it stops, and where the boundaries are. No respectful Dom who wants to stay in the community – and wants to avoid possible criminal prosecution – would dream of not abiding this, myself included.
This simple concept is sadly all too often overlooked when people who don’t practice it talk about BDSM. It certainly doesn’t help when mainstream depictions of BDSM – looking at you, 50 Shades – ignore that consent even exists. So the general public can perhaps be forgiven if their concept of what BDSM entails is a bit skewed. But it has made me reluctant in the past to talk about being a Dom, because while enthusiastic and informed consent is fundamental and necessary to me, the prejudice remains.
What isn’t so great is the lack of self-reflection that shows when people who do not even practice BDSM feel they have the other authority to tell those who do that it’s not an orientation but a lifestyle choice. Members of the queer community have fought for decades to have their sexual orientations recognised as such, and it’s a struggle that continues to this day. It is therefore sad and frustrating to hear voices arise within this community using the exact same arguments that have been used against them, often to justify discrimination and oppression, only aiming them at another group of people.
Human rights don’t just apply to people you agree with. They’re not called “friend’s rights”, after all. We apply them to everyone. People who deny kinksters the right to define their orientation and dismiss their personal experiences with prejudice are only proving the point. Fighting oppression and liberating the marginalised should be everyone’s fight. We cannot do this if we lack the awareness of our own prejudices, and discriminate against others in ways we would never want to be discriminated against ourselves. We are all in this together. It’s high time we started acting like it.
If you want to learn more about BDSM and related concepts, this is a fairly generalised place to start. There are numerous other sources you can turn to as well, far too numerous to list here. Stay tuned – we may report on this in greater depth in the near future.