BDSM has its critics, and they have convincing arguments. However, most of them do not hold up to the lived experience and scientific evidence about kinksters. Here, I begin the development of a positive theory of BDSM.

positive theory of BDSM

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

If someone told you they are going to sit in silence for a week surrounded by other silent sitters, with a little walking and chores throughout the day, would you think they are doing something wrong?

Of course not. This is how a typical silent meditation retreat goes.

But if someone tells you they are going to be tied up and flogged or caned, you would have a completely different reaction–at least if you’re not kinky or kink-aware.

Except, in my experience (and I do have experience of both), the difference between those two things is a matter of technique, not purpose. They have the same goal: the breakdown of the self. They just achieve it in different ways.


One of the main criticism against kink is that it eroticizes violence, that it “makes abuse and domination sexy“. It is a common argument, and one that has some merit, at least superficially. Many BDSM practices have the appearance of abuse: being tied up and beaten, being humiliated, being dominated. To a common observer, these things indeed look violent, and often make them feel uncomfortable, or even angry. “How can they accept, or even want, to be treated this way?” they wonder.

Much of the criticism against BDSM comes from watching BDSM pornography. This pornography, of course, is a fantasy: it often excludes the negotiation that happens before, the times the scenes were stopped during, and the aftercare. That is one perception that (defunct, sadly) porn company Kink.com tried to fight by having a negotiation interview in the beginning, and an aftercare interview after the movie.

But some people may not be convinced, as these are actors. If they can act, they can certainly fake happy during these interviews. Fair point.

Except, these critics often do not have direct experience with consensual kink in a non-porn context. For example, they do not see what happens in my bedroom when E. and I negotiate, play, and then care for each other, or the hundreds of times I have seen people negotiate, play, and do aftercare in a public party setting. BDSM makes me feel loved, not violated. The scene is the salient bit, the thing that is most obvious and memorable. And yes, it often looks violent, humiliating, and downright abusive. But it is not.

BDSM practices are not about violence. They are about breaking down the self, the exact same purpose as meditation and other religious practices. People who practice BDSM do not seek to be hurt, degraded or humiliated: they simply use these techniques to break down the self, expose their vulnerability, and access higher levels of pleasure and consciousness as a result. If anything, BDSM is something that more people should do: evidence shows that kinksters are better a consent and more conscientious partners than non-kinksters.

My positive theory of kink is based on these premises:

  • BDSM is not violence
  • BDSM is a consensual practice
  • BDSM is not a mental illness

I will first address each of these points in turn.

BDSM is not violence

What is violence? The Oxford English Dictionary gives us: “Behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” This definition ignores non-physical forms of violence (emotional and financial in particular), so let us add these types of violence to the definition if you like.

But adding these words make no difference. The most important word here is intended. When distinguishing ordinary violence from BDSM scenes, intent is what matters. An ordinary domestic abuser intends to harm their partner. They intend to use forms of violence to control them, keep them fearful, and diminish their human potential. And, of course, the victim does not consent, not matter how much rationalization they make after the fact. Another example would be an accident. I punch E. in the face by accident, maybe trying to do something around him and I trip and my fist lands in his face. Am I being violent? Of course not, because I had no intent to harm. I am being clumsy, but not violent.

In BDSM, there is no intent to harm, damage or kill. Kink critics would say that the pain involved is evidence of intent to harm, but they misunderstand the purpose of the pain. In the case of violence, the pain is meant to keep victims under control, to make them fearful, to impose their will on their victim. In BDSM, the pain is meant to arouse, facilitate emotional release, and create connection. Surgeries are not violent simply because they involve pain; because the purpose is curative, we do not arrest surgeons for cutting people open with their consent. BDSM is not violent simply because it involves pain or uses techniques that appear violent.

Yes, sadists enjoy giving pain. But they enjoy the pain they give because they know the bottom/masochist enjoy it in one way or the other. Any non-abusive sadist would absolutely reject the idea of using pain to control, instil fear, or impose their will. (Yes, there are abusive sadists, but they are not practicing consensual BDSM, as I will discuss next).

A Hindu ascetic sitting on a bed of nails is not practicing violence upon themselves, just as BDSM practitioners are not violent towards each other. The goal is the same: break down the human self, the human ego, to access more essential and expansive forms of pleasure and connection with others and the world. Why is one acceptable and the other not? My theory is that it has to do with the sexual context of BDSM versus the “spiritual” context of Hindu ascetism, but that’s another argument that I will not engage in today.

In essence: BDSM is not violent because the intent is not harmful. It appears violent, but it is a misunderstanding of the purpose of BDSM. We accept many things that could appear violent (such as surgery) because they have a beneficial purpose. I argue that BDSM fits this category.

BDSM is a consensual practice

I want to insist that I am talking about consensual kink, not abuse. One of the issues levelled against kink in the article I linked to above is that “there are also predatory doms/sadists who knowingly take advantage of subs/masochists. They prey on those with low self-esteem and do not care that they perpetuate and deepen the damage.” Is this any different from non-kinky men who prey on and knowingly take advantage of women in subordinate positions? This is not something that happens only in kink, and in fact, I would argue, happens less in kink that in the general population, at least for people who are members of kink communities.

The cornerstone of BDSM is consent. Without consent, no BDSM can happen. Without consent, yes, BDSM is abuse. But consent changes the nature of the activity–just like consenting to your surgeon cutting you open is inherently different from your neighbour trying to forcibly do the same. Anti-BDSM feminists hold that the superficial nature of kink activities exclude consent as a rationalization, but as I have discussed above, BDSM practiced consensually is not violent.

When discussing BDSM, then, I assume that consent was given or obtained freely, without coercion, and with as full an understanding of the activities as is possible.

BDSM is not a mental illness

Another way anti-kink critics can deny the agency of kinksters is by affirming that they have a mental illness. If BDSM is not violent, and if it is practiced with consent, then the only reason someone would consent to such things is if they are somehow fundamentally broken. In the above-quoted critique, you will read “Given the psychological wounds and previous traumas that people carry into BDSM, the presence of ‘free choice’ should be critiqued, even if the presence of ‘consent’ is not denied” in section 17.

The writers, however, do not specify which psychological wounds and traumas are at play here. Are they talking about sexual abuse? Evidence shows that kinksters are not more likely to have been abused as the general population. In fact, kinksters are mentally healthy, well socialized individuals who generally lead productive and active lives. Calling kinksters mentally ill only works to stigmatize them further. Imagine the double stigma of being an LGTBQ kinkster!

Psychological work on BDSM practitioners has exploded lately, and it all comes to a similar conclusion: BDSM practitioners are not mentally ill. Assuming a mental illness may be helpful when trying to make a philosophical argument against kink, but it does not hold to evidence. I’m no philosopher myself, but as far as I know, philosophy based on false premises (such as kinksters are de facto mentally ill) is not valid, especially philosophy that invalidates the lived experience of thousands of stigmatized individuals.

Summary

In this post, I have established that BDSM is not violence, that it is based on consent, and that it is not a mental illness. With these premises in place, in my next post, I will describe how BDSM is a positive practice, something empowering for those who do it and something that creates strong connections between individuals and within communities. At the heart of my analysis, I will stick to the themes of pain as liberation, consent as morality, and acceptance as healthy.

Good advice? Helpful information? Thank me with a coffee!