Friday, April 25, 1997

Lavender Forum—SM: It’s About Respect, Not Abuse

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #50, April 25, 1997)

Is SM: A) a sexual orientation, or is it B) a system of internalized violence?

The answer is: C) Neither of the above.

Is SM a sexual orientation? No, at least not in the way the words “sexual orientation” are generally used these days. The SM community refers to itself as “pansexual” because it is made up of members of every sexual orientation: lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, queer, and straight. (It is worth pointing out, however, that just because the community is pansexual doesn’t necessarily mean an individual member is pansexual.)

To understand why SM is not a “system of internalized violence” requires a closer look at SM is about—and what it isn’t. Imagine three groups of three people each. In each group, one person is being flogged by the other two. A person unacquainted with the dynamics involved in SM situations might see exactly the same thing happening in all three groups. Yet one of the groups is involved in SM, and the other two are not. What’s the difference?

The motivating forces behind the SM group’s actions are respect, trust, and love. The person being flogged asked the other two people to flog him because she or he respects them, trusts them and knows it will be pleasurable to be flogged by them. The floggers, in turn, love and respect the person they are flogging and are pleased that they can help this person achieve pleasure.

Notice that everyone in this group is being motivated by the same forces: respect, trust and love. There is no conflict here. This mutuality is the reason why SM scenes can be so powerful and so pleasurable for all concerned. This is how and why SM sex can be described by the SM community’s mantra: “Safe, sane, and consensual.” Because of the respect and love every group member feels for each other and for themselves, none of them would want to do something unsafe or insane which might endanger anyone. Because every group member trusts the other members and trusts themself, consensuality is possible.

Now let’s look at the second group, where the picture isn’t quite the same. Here, instead of unity of purpose, there is conflict. The two people doing the flogging are motivated by anger, hatred, and vengeance. They want to damage the person they’re flogging. The person being flogged did not ask for the flogging and does not want to be injured. This person is feeling threatened and fearful. Attacker does not respect victim, victim does not trust attacker. This is violence. This is abusive. This is not SM.

In the third group, the person being flogged asked for it. But he asked for it because his self-image is so poor he feels he deserves to be abused. While he may or may not respect the people he asked to flog him, he doesn’t respect himself. This, then, is internalized violence, but it’s not about SM. This is about martyrdom.

Some people may find SM offensive because they have been on the receiving end of abusive or violent behavior, and they may mistakenly associate SM with what they endured. They might be surprised to find that many members of the leather/SM community are also survivors of sexual abuse, childhood abuse, or domestic violence. These community members have found SM to be helpful in learning to trust again, and in reclaiming their personal power and self-respect.

The hallmark of SM is respect for oneself and others. But respect, or the lack thereof, is not easy for a casual onlooker to judge. Therefore, casual onlookers who think SM is degenerate and who therefore want to avoid it (and its practitioners) may try to find a more visible marker. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work very well. The big butch stud dressed head-to-toe in leather may not be into SM at all. Not all leatherfolk are into SM, and not all SM players are into leather. Just as you can’t always tell who’s gay and who’s straight by looking, you can’t always tell who’s kinky and who’s not by looking. You can’t always judge a sexual situation by looking, either.

Saying that SM “represents a system of internalized violence” is the same as Outpost saying that gay sex is a sin, a perversion and an abomination in the eyes of God. In each case, the person casting disapproval on certain sexual practices may be trying to deal with their own fears by projecting them onto others. If you think SM sex is violent and therefore people in leather make you fearful, ask yourself why—it may be your own capacity for violence you really fear.

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