Women’s BDSM for the unfamiliar

We think we know all about BDSM. We think it’s something very far removed from us. We think of pain and handcuffs and leather, and scary people being turned on by doing nasty things to each other. We react with fear, disgust or giggles. We say: women don’t do things like that to each other, or, if they do then they shouldn’t. But why?

Eva is the current chairperson of Wild Side, a women’s BDSM social and educational group based in the COC (the Dutch LGBT association) in Amsterdam that welcomes beginners. Most members are lesbians, but there are also bisexuals, transgender people, and even heterosexual women who like to play with women from time to time, be it in a sexual or a non-sexual way. Wild Side tries to be as inclusive as possible. There are many transgender people (in different stages of transition) in the scene, because it allows them the freedom to experiment with (gender) roles as well as with submissiveness and sensations. If you feel you belong in the women’s BDSM scene, then you are welcome – the emphasis is on inclusiveness, tolerance and the appreciation of diversity.

It is the only organisation of its kind in the Netherlands, “unfortunately,” says Eva, “because I think that the taboo relating to BDSM is greater than that relating to lesbianism”. Anyone who wants to can contact Eva: her email address and her phone number are on the Wild Side website. Eliza and her girlfriend Erika do not belong to a group or a club, but, rather, their community is determined by a process of bonding with “other people who are doing terrible things to other people”, Erika says and she laughs. BDSM clubs don’t just educate but also function as a social group: “it’s more of a sexual network in the first place, and then you stay because you make bonds with people”.

In Eva’s eyes, BDSM is just one of many forms of sexuality. On TV “you see people dressed in leather doing all sorts of difficult things”. The media likes to concentrate on the visual impact of BDSM practices. It aims to shock and titillate, in the process ignoring everything that could help us understand what moves and motivates people to participate in it. When presented as a caricature stripped of the dimensions of love and trust and devoid of any emotional context whatsoever, it becomes impossible not to see BDSM as, at best, slightly ridiculous, or, at worst, troubling and deranged. As a result, most people never get to find out that the BDSM scene is as varied as the non-BDSM scene. “There are as many styles as there are players”, Eva says, describing it as a bit like a salad bar where everyone picks what they want, and where their choices are also influenced by who they happen to be with at the time.

We’re familiar with the terminology – “fetish” and “BDSM” are widely used words – so familiar, in fact, that it’s easy to think that we know it all, but what does it really mean? Eva explains that people with a fetish eroticise certain objects (for instance, leather and rubber clothing). This can form part of their BDSM experience, but, she emphasises, having a fetish does not in itself mean that you are necessarily into BDSM. Eliza can understand our confusion, because it’s not as simple as some make it out to be. “People have their careers invested in determining what fetishes are”. For her the distinction between them and BDSM is perfectly clear: they are inanimate objects that elicit sexual desire, whereas BDSM is all about “pain becoming pleasure”. For her girlfriend Erika, a fetish is something that can make you orgasm when you’re working with it, or seeing it, or even just thinking about it: “it triggers something on another level that is not the practise of it”. Eliza is unsure whether a fetish works for her separately from the person with whom it is associated. She needs the context of a specific someone if the object is to turn her on.

BDSM is all about making your fantasies reality in a safe environment. The key to that is that “everything is with mutual consent”. There are games with submission and dominance: it’s not always about humiliation or pain (Eva prefers the term “sensations”). Pain is a subjective experience that some are able to eroticise if the context is right and the increase in intensity gradual. It triggers the release of adrenaline and endorphins, so it hurts, but there’s also excitement and a natural high. There is always a need for negotiation. Even if you’re in a relationship with another player, you could both be into different practices. But isn’t BDSM a contradiction of love? “Absolutely not”, says Eva: it demands and creates a bond of trust, “you depend on each other at that moment”. You can’t fake BDSM: the exposure is much greater than in vanilla sex. Transman Patrick Califa (one of the founders of the first lesbian BDSM support group) says that “by engaging in a stigmatised act, a person who does BDSM has taken a great risk. Their level of trust has probably been higher than someone who merely agrees to engage in heterosexual vanilla intercourse.” Is it a swingers’ scene? “It varies”, says Eva. Some women only play with their partner, while others have multiple partners. It is also not uncommon for someone to have a relationship with a non-BDSM partner.

What comes first then: lesbian or BDSM? Eliza defines herself as a pervert. As for the rest of her sexuality, queer probably fits best. Before Erika, she had a long term relationship with a transman, so lesbian doesn’t quite feel right. For Erika, “definition is only important for political purposes, to make a point, to show visibility”. BDSM is a strategy for her and not who she is. For Eva, BDSM is her sexual orientation, but she is also a lesbian. “I like vanilla from time to time, but it isn’t the main mode of my sexuality. For others it’s more something they do as well as vanilla, as a component of the sex.” Wild Side welcomes lesbian, bisexual and straight women, and also transgender people who feel they belong there. Erika thinks that, for some, BDSM is what counts: “People are there with other people primarily not because of their gender but because they bond on that level”, and restrictions don’t help people to feel free enough to express their desires. Patrick Califa once said that “fantasies about physical restraint and corporal punishment were part of my psyche since I was a very small child. If I have a sexual orientation, it’s not about the gender of my partner, it’s about BDSM.” Nevertheless, he sees labels as “the beginning rather than the end of getting to know a person” and stresses that “it is crucial to remind yourself that not everybody who shares a label will be the same in every other respect”.

So why BDSM? Eva’s childhood fantasies became more clearly submissive in her teens. A boyfriend liked to tie her up, but then vanilla sex would follow. After more years of vanilla sex – and her first girlfriend – she found a Wild Side brochure and what she was looking for. Eliza was always into rough sex. She started practising BDSM games with other people, before going to the Wet Spot in Seattle (a sex-positive community centre) to learn more. She now has her own “loose-knit network”. The progression was gradual – the differences between BDSM and vanilla practices can be subtle. Holding your lover’s hands down while you’re having sex is similar to tying her hands with rope, but it’s the huge imaginative leap of “the rope coming into play that adds that extra element that heightens it.” Erika says that when you talk to some people about sex, then “you hear things that sound very similar to BDSM sex practices”, but they still view BDSM as something completely separate from their own experience. As soon as you “introduce that topic to them in connection with what they’re doing”, they don’t want to talk about it anymore. She thinks it’s time we talked openly about sex and dared to ask questions.

Why do many lesbians hate BDSM? According to Patrick Califa, “there are always going to be some cultural feminists who think that women are good and men are bad; that you can’t change your gender; that it’s wrong to sleep with men; bisexual can’t be trusted; porn is evil and sexist and causes violence against women; etc.” They see BDSM as disempowering and violent (and therefore “male”), ignoring the fact that it’s consensual. Eva reasons: “You can only play with inequality if you start off being equal with each other, so it’s not about abuse.” You cannot give power away if you don’t have it. Erika suggests that women who say BDSM is rape and that (even consensual) “violence” between lesbians should be banned, don’t understand the pain/pleasure circuit, and confuse abuse with BDSM. “They don’t believe a woman would want that and agree to that.” To them, this desire is sick and therefore “you aren’t able to actually give consent for yourself”. She agrees that violence against women is disturbing, but she wishes they understood consensuality and the definition of violence. Their attitude reminds her of those who tell lesbians that they “should be with the right man”. It’s little wonder that many BDSM lesbians talk about a second coming out. “It really affects lesbians who already feel excluded from the straight community”, says Erika. Being made to feel different within a minority can be extremely alienating. Eliza finds the discrimination in the lesbian community very upsetting. “It’s my home but it’s fucked up”, she says.

The expression of our sexuality is partly influenced by our experiences, good and bad. If something feels good, we do it again, and go a little bit further each time. Those who insist that BDSM results from trauma and is therefore disturbed, probably think that the women I met need therapy. The only thing is, they’re not remotely disturbed. They’re strong, intelligent, warm, funny and confident, and more balanced and at peace with themselves than many other women I know. Then why are we so bothered by lesbian BDSM? Bungee jumping is terrifying but we let it happen. Straight sex turns some of us off, but we let it happen. The way I see it, what other people choose to do among themselves is really none of my business.

Patrick Califa can’t understand “the need to justify getting tied up and beaten when the desire to do that is valid in and of itself, and doesn’t require any sort of apology or dressing up.” He thinks it’s not up to outsiders to differentiate between the so-called positive and negative influences that bring people to BDSM. “We’re such complex creatures, the only person who can really make such judgments is the individual who is involved in the experience.” In his eyes, BDSM “perverts” are revolutionaries who test issues like freedom and the right of the state to control what we do with our bodies. If one minority is legislated against, then which minority will be next? A less free society is a danger to us all.

© Ronete Cohen 2006

BDSM lexicon

Players: participants in BDSM

Vanilla: non-BDSM sex

Top: the one who receives the bottom’s power, the one in the dominant role

Bottom: the one who gives the top power, the one in the submissive role

Fetish: something not directly sexual that is eroticised

Wild Side: http://www.wildside.dds.nl

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