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Controversial Issues in BDSM

Breath play, sexual predators, mental conditions, switching, domestic discipline, and other topics debated in the BDSM community.

Close-up portrait of two girls, one with hand on throat of the other
Shutterstock image 45577204 by AirCam.PRO

Controversies and debates are good. That’s how we learn from each other and reach a consensus on the important matters. Most of today’s BDSM culture arose from past debates.

However, there are still some unresolved issues. I list here 12 of them, trying to present both sides fairly and to withhold my own position.

Each one of these issues deserves an article for itself. However, I think that is nice to have them all in one place to decide on their relative importance. I put those that I think are more controversial towards the top of the list.

1) How to fight predators in the BDSM community

I put this one at the top because it is so controversial that is tearing some BDSM communities apart.

Fetlife.com, the gathering site of millions of kinksters around the world, is routinely accused of not being tough enough on sex predators. Of enabling them. Of silencing victims.

Is this a Trojan Horse used by radical feminists to keep attacking BDSM, after being defeated in the Feminist Sex Wars?

Or are there conspiracies to protect some powerful people so that they can continue to prey on unsuspecting victims?

Have some people been falsely accused of breaking consent and being predators?

Or is the BDSM community too soft on sexual predators?

2) Is breath play safe?

Proponents of breath play say that it is perfectly safe when done the right way. It induces an altered state of consciousness that is very pleasurable and different from that produced by drugs. Asphyxiation also increases enormously the intensity of orgasm.

Opponents say that breath play is the most life-threatening BDSM activity, by far. There is no really safe way to do it because it is impossible to predict how the cardiovascular system is going to react. Repeated asphyxia may cause hidden brain damage. The pleasure it provides can be reached by other means, and it is certainly not worth the risk.

3) SSC or RACK?

SSC - safe, sane and consensual - is the old standard, created in 1983 to define the limits between ethical BDSM and abuse. It is defended as the clearer and safer standard. These are the best criteria to present to the vanilla society. If things go wrong in a scene, do you want to tell a judge and jury that you were practicing “safe, sane and consensual” or “risk-aware consensual kink”?

RACK - risk-aware consensual kink - was proposed later (1990s?) by people who thought that BDSM could never be totally safe or sane. ‘Safe and sane’ provided an excuse to be judgmental about some of the more extreme BDSM practices. It is up to the participants to inform themselves and decide what risks they are will to take, i.e., be “risk-aware”. Informed consent should be the main, and perhaps the only, concern.

4) Should people with mental problems practice BDSM?

What do we exactly mean by ‘sane’ in SSC?

It is usually understood as being aware of the potential psychological trauma that can be caused by BDSM.

But there are people who are more psychologically vulnerable. And there are those who argue that they should not play in the bottom or submissive roles, because this would be inherently unsafe for them. At the very least, they should disclose their mental problems to their scene partners. And aren’t people with mental problems disqualified to play as tops or dominants?

On the other hand, isn’t excluding neurodivergent people from the BDSM community discriminatory and ableist? It is the prerogative of each person to decide what is safe for them.

Besides, there are a multitude of mental diseases. If we started judging people because of that, we may end up excluding those that are aware of them and taking care of themselves with medication or therapy, while accepting those in denial about their mental problems.

5) Is BDSM therapeutic?

A lot of neurodivergent people who practice BDSM will tell you that, in fact, BDSM is good for them and helps them deal with their problems. BDSM can also help with chronic pain by teaching people emotionally healthy ways to deal with pain.

However, other bristle at the idea that BDSM can be therapeutic. ‘BDSM is not therapy!’ they say. Shouldn’t therapy be left to qualified psychologists? Should tops walk into a minefield of hidden traumas in their bottoms?

6) Drug use in BDSM

There is a consensus that people should not be on drugs during a BDSM scene. Dominants cannot make safe decisions if they are high. Submissives cannot give full consent or use a safeword if they are on drugs.

However, I suspect that there is a bit of hypocrisy in this. That, in reality, there are people who use drugs in BDSM scenes.

Shouldn’t this be just another decision that people are allowed to make after informing themselves?

We are just awakening from a lot of misinformation spread by the government during the War on Drugs. President Nixon imposed a classification of drug risks based on his political ideas, because he didn’t like “those hippies”. In doing that, he destroyed the therapeutic potential of cannabis and psychotropic substances, which was being investigated in the 60s and is back into consideration today.

Not all drugs are the same.

On the one hand, the USA has been having an opioid epidemic for two decades that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. However, it was not started by “those hippies”, but by the greed of Purdue Pharma and the wrongdoing of many American doctors that prescribed their product, OxyContin, without checking is addictive potential. The danger of opioid abuse in the BDSM community is very small.

On the other hand, the legalization of cannabis in most of the USA has made us aware that it is not as dangerous as we were told. Famous podcaster Dan Savage often recommends cannabis to deal with sexual problems. It is certainly healthier than the long-held tradition of getting drunk to ease sexual inhibitions during sex.

The argument that submissives shouldn't take drugs because it prevents them from consenting and using the safeword is weakened by the fact that endorphins released during a BDSM scene are just as potent as any opiate. When they enter the sub space, submissives become just as unable to make decisions and use a safeword as if they were high.

Taking a little cannabis to relax and overcome inhibitions produces a much less altered state of mind. Today, many people take micro-doses of cannabis and psychotropics like Psilocybe mushrooms and LSD in their daily life.

Then again, drugs can incapacitate you from entering the submission space. Or create unpredictable problems by interacting with it.

Maybe is time to have an honest conversation about this?

7) Is BDSM a sexual orientation?

The politically correct belief is that homosexuality is from birth and unchangeable.

People are attracted to people of the same gender because they are born that way. But people who like spankings, bondage or submission, somehow, picked those sexual tastes later in life. Never mind that a lot of BDSMers had kinky fantasies early in their childhood. We cannot even suggest that children can be sexual, let alone be perverts!

Maybe the problem is that ‘sexual orientation’ are words that convey a lot of political privilege these days. If BDSM was a sexual orientation, then we would have the same right not to be discriminated against that gays and lesbians have. And they would have to stop criminalizing BDSM, as still happens in many countries where gay sex has been legal for a long, long time.

8) Is domestic discipline part of BDSM?

Most people who practice domestic discipline see themselves as different from BDSMers. They dislike the fetish clothes, the special furniture, the implements and the attitude of BDSM. They wear normal clothes and don’t go to kinky parties. They just have a person who is in charge, some rules that need to be followed, and punishments when those rules are broken.

In particular, people who practice Christian domestic discipline are very adamant that they are not like ‘those perverts’. They are just following the will of God, clearly explained in the Bible, that a wife must obey and be disciplined by her husband.

People into BDSM just shrug and say: “You have similar fantasies than us, just a different style. The basics are the same: submission and spankings. But it’s okay if you want to feel special. Everybody does.”

9) Are switches authentic dominants and submissives?

Switches, in case you didn’t know, are people who like to change roles between dominant and submissive, or between top and bottom. They are BDSM sluts who want to have their cake and eat it, too. They don’t care if they are tops or bottoms, as long as somebody gets spanked.

There always has been an anti-switch attitude in the BDSM community. Some people think that being dominant or submissive is something essential to their personality, so that they could never be in the opposite role. Which is fine. The unspoken corollary, however, is that switches do not have that essence, so when they are dominants or submissives, they are faking it.

On the other hand, there are those who say that experiencing BDSM from both sides makes it possible to truly empathize with your partner. You know exactly how they feel. And, to truly master an implement like a cane or a whip, you need to know what it feels like.

10) Is BDSM a game or a lifestyle?

This is an old debate of the 90s that seems to have largely died off. However, some of its undercurrents still persist.

Lifestylers look down on ‘gamers’ as unauthentic. They feel that being dominant or submissive is something essential to their personalities, not an outfit that they put on and take off. BDSM is something that completely permeates their life, an attitude that is always present. They don’t have ‘roles’. They do not ‘play’. They do not have ‘scenes’.

Most of us see BDSM as a game. Scenes that we play for a time, and then we go back to our egalitarian roles. Being dominant or submissive may be something that we feel deeply, but it is a role that we only adopt in appropriate times. And there is nothing wrong with that.

11) Is kink different from BDSM?

It seems that all BDSM is kink, but not all kink is BDSM. However, it is not clear what are those kinky activities beside BDSM. Some people say that anal sex and even oral sex are kink. Others say that just wearing sexy clothes like leather or rubber is kinky. Have BDSM looks, like wearing a collar, come into fashion to the detriment of authentic BDSM?

12) Who is really in control, the submissive or the dominant?

Some people say that the submissive is the one really in control in a BDSM scene, because negotiations, limits, and having a safeword determine that the scene really plays to their fantasies.

Other people say that the dominant is, and should be, in control. He starts with the fantasies and desires of the submissive and gradually folds them to his/her will.

Yet other people say that both the dominant and the submissive are in service to the scene, which is something beautiful that they create together and ends up enveloping them.

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