Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality

Women's Perspectives of BDSM Power Exchange

Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality

Women's Perspectives of BDSM Power Exchange

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominant/submissive, sadist/masochist) power exchange relationships can be used to discuss the intersections of power and identity. Third wave feminism can also be used to discuss women's sexual identities and power by expanding the definition of this type of feminism to include women who choose alternative sexual practices and identities as a means of expressing themselves more authentically and fulfilling their sexual and emotional needs. Although some of these women may seem to be engaging in traditional submissive or subordinate sexual roles, BDSM allows women in these roles and in the dominant or top sexual roles to express and experience personal power through their sexual identities.

By asking the following questions I explore the dynamics of power and feminism through the lens of BDSM:

* What is power exchange in this context? What does it mean and how do women in particular do it and feel about it? Does engaging in SM power exchange affect other areas of their lives?

* Do women who engage in SM power exchange consider themselves feminists? If so, does identifying as a feminist contrast with sexual identities like submissive, slave, and other terms generally considered the antithesis to feminism?

So what then is power exchange and its significance to BDSM? Power exchange has been discussed in many texts (see Baldwin, 1993 and Miller and Devon, 1995 for some examples) and has come to be more academically accepted as the central focal point of BDSM relationships, rather than pain or other concepts. Power exchange within this context is often linked with various aspects of eroticism and sexuality and generally can be defined as the giving and/or receiving of "... sexual, sensual ... force or authority to, from, or with someone else" (Henkin and Holiday, 1996:29). Within the BDSM communities, this exchange is understood as the centering mechanism through which a host of erotic, sensual, sexual, and spiritual paths may cross.

Over the past ten years more social science studies have been published about BDSM, BDSM communities, and BDSM activities and behaviors concluding that these exchanges and identities are complex. For example, Taylor and Ussher (2001) conducted a study in order to further understand the complexity of individuals who practice SM. Although they did not set out to prove or disprove any hypotheses, their collection of data through interviews "... was used to generate a four-factor definition of SM: consensuality, an unequable balance of power, sexual arousal, and compatibility of definition" (2001: 293). This definition of SM acknowledges that the activities are consensual in nature and are being acted out as a means of sexual arousal, although not exclusively. This definition also acknowledges the important role of power exchange within BDSM activities and relationships, which may or may not include an element of pain.

At the same time, feminist scholars were also hotly debating BDSM sexuality from a sexual oppression standpoint. While "... some feminists regarded sadomasochistic sexual practices as inseparable from patriarchal hierarchies based on relations of dominance and subordination" others felt "... that sadomasochistic practices constituted a legitimate form of consensual sexual activity that women were entitled to enjoy without fear of discriminatory judgment by society or other feminists" (Chancer, 2000:2). This argument about BDSM sexual practices is an extension of the radical feminist versus third-wave feminist regarding sex work and pornography. While radical feminists believe that all of these are forms of patriarchal oppression and thus inherently negative towards women, third wave feminists generally agree that various sexual practices can be proactive, consensual, and positive experiences for women.

Cross and Matheson (2006) conducted studies to assess what was currently understood about sadomasochism with an eye toward testing popularly held academic views on the subject, including the radical feminist perspective that sadomasochism is fundamentally misogynistic. …

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