Bondage and Liberation

or, an anarchist’s guide to handcuffs

Anna Ronan
May 31, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by niu niu on Unsplash

Hello readers, today we’re going to talk about sex.

But wait — don’t you usually blog about anarchism and emotional awareness and the revolution and all that? Sit tight. We’ll get there. In the meantime, this is about my sexuality.

If you’re thinking you’re about to read 1000 words on Where I Fall on the Kinsey Scale*, put down your succulent collections and handcuff yourself to the bed because we’re here to talk about BDSM, short for Bible Discussion and Study Meetings.

*I am precisely 89.4% hetero

For anyone unfamiliar, BDSM is a triple acronym for Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadomasochism. You know, that kink shit.

Like most forms of sexual self-discovery, I’ve not always known that I was into this sort of thing. I didn’t come out of the womb in a dog collar. Arriving at the point today where I’d call myself kinky took years of exploration, experimentation and exes, but I’d say I developed an interest in sexual submission around age… 18? It took a couple more years to fully identify with submissiveness, and even then, like anyone, there are some submissive activities I enjoy and some I do not, what I’m into specifically has changed over the years, and it can still change depending on the person and my mood that day and whether or not Mercury is in retrograde.

You’re probably thinking — you’re an anti-authoritarian feminist anarchist and you like being told what to do by men? By particular men, under particular circumstances, hell yes I do.

Maybe it’s a form of escapism for me. Maybe it’s a safe space to live out an entirely different personality that doesn’t fit me outside the bedroom. Maybe I am just crazy, maybe it was the 60s, or maybe I was just a girl, interrupted.

Whatever the reason, I’m a sub. Hashtag #SUBLIFE

Unsurprisingly, I’ve heard all kinds of critiques over the years about how being a submissive woman who sleeps primarily with cis men is anti-feminist. Hell, I’ve been told by men I’m having sex with that they see dominating me as disrespectful and degrading, to which I can still only say: it’s not disrespectful if I enthusiastically consent to it, and yes, it is degrading ;)

I understand where these lines of thinking come from. I worry about them sometimes too. Am I playing into toxic gender roles and systemic misogyny by hypersexualizing myself or submitting to a man? Can this really be sexual liberation if its reinforcing systemic patterns of patriarchal domination? Are my personal desires strengthening patterns of oppression for others? Are these desires actually intrinsic to me or built by years of exposure to viewing female sexuality through The Male Gaze? Isn’t it more important to undo patriarchy first and practice the political as personal?

At this point, the only response I have to anyone who levies those critiques is: So, I’m only allowed to have satisfying sex after the revolution?

Yes, we live under a patriarchal system. Yes, all of our sexual desires are being constantly conditioned by media, from advertising to porn, that panders to a certain idea of the male fantasy and can go on to shape men’s and women’s and everyone else’s fantasies alike. Yes, I’m sure I picked up this submissive thing somewhere. Yes, that somewhere was probably problematic. Yes, everything is problematic. No, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. I suppose there is no ethical cumming under capitalism either.

But there are the ways we’d like the world to be in our idealized images of it, and there is, as they say, the real world.

For example, in my ideal world, nobody would become addicted to heroin. But as long as there are people addicted to heroin, there should be harm reduction infrastructure like clean needle exchanges and safe injection clinics, not to mention robust social programs to help anyone in need to recover from addiction and heal the pain in their lives that brought about the addiction spiral to begin with.

This is not to compare enjoying BDSM to heroin addiction by any means; simply that, the world is the way it is, and we have to work with it from there. I’d much rather have satisfying sex based on the desires I now have, wherever they came from, than attempt to mold my desires to some idealized form of how gender dynamics should work.

Maybe if I’d grown up in The World Beyond The Male Gaze, I wouldn’t be sexually submissive. Maybe I still would be. Maybe I’m just like this. Either way, I grew up in late capitalist America and here we all are, handcuffed to the bed on this sinking oppressive ship, with the un-lubed butt plug of climate catastrophe speeding towards our unprepared rings.

But (stuff), you might say, what about dominant men? Isn’t there something at the very least unsettling about a man wanting to shove your face into a pillow until you double tap his wrist to let him know you can’t breathe? If he likes choking you, slapping you around, restraining you, telling you what to do, isn’t this indicative of some deeper tendency towards abusive behavior?

The short answer is: No.

The longer answer is: nonconsensual domination is abuse; consensual domination is consensual.

I have never met a Dom who liked dominating people who didn’t also like being dominated. Doms who dominate people who don’t want to be dominated are not Doms. They are abusers.

It is about damn time we understood, as an entire civilization, that violence just means “doing something to someone without their consent.” All forms of violating consent are forms of violence; all violence is non-consensual. The actual action does not determine whether a thing is violent; the desires of the parties involved and the active, enthusiastic consent given are all that matter.

For example, punching someone can be assault. It can also be a boxing match. And we should all understand the difference between sex and rape.

Violence is determined by agency and consent. If I do not have the agency to accept or refuse freely, my ability to give consent has been taken from me, and the action becomes violent. If I do not consent to an action that is done to me, that action becomes violent.

This is why any system of entrenched power hierarchy is a system of violence. This is why the state is inherently violent. This is why I even view making assumptions about other people to be a form of violence, however small. If I make assumptions about other people and by extension treat them according to my assumptions, I have not given them the chance to determine for themselves how they wish for me to treat them.

Consent is the cornerstone of a liberated society. All of my political organizing is rooted in actions that push society towards one that is founded on consent. Things like, direct democracy, workers’ cooperatives, abolishing the prison-industrial complex. The way I harp on about human relationships and interpersonal communication? You guessed it, all about consent. Being open about your feelings and needs with others, being upfront about your boundaries, listening to and respecting others’ boundaries.

Genuine consent requires self-awareness and self-acceptance. In order to voice your feelings and needs, you have to actually understand what they are, accept that you feel them, that you’re allowed to feel them, and work with them from there.

In fact, the only harmful way patriarchy has shaped my sex life is by creating a culture wherein I don’t always feel comfortable saying No to men, occasionally out of fear of reprisal in some form, but mostly from a lifetime of conditioning to do emotional labor for other people and try to ease their negative emotions. This pattern is itself a form of violence, because not being open about my feelings leads to the men I’m with sometimes harming me, and to them harming me without knowing that’s what they’re doing, and therefore, without consenting to. In general, I blame the systems (which are just patterns of behavior in our society that condition our behavior without our consent), not the individuals.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from BDSM, it’s consent. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the kink community understands consent better than almost any other community. Letting someone physically restrain you, or knowingly inflict pain, requires a profound level of honest discussion about boundaries, desires, trust and respect.

BDSM requires a level of authenticity, self-awareness and honest communication I wish could be present in every aspect of everyone’s lives. BDSM calls us to check in with ourselves, our needs and our boundaries in a deep, intimate way that few other activities do. It can teach us the difference between consensual action and violence, and help us to understand that an action that is consensual with one person in one environment is not consensual for all people in all environments. In the streets, I hate authority. In the sheets, well…

And since many of us grew up hearing the term “consent” almost exclusively in conversations about sex, sexual relationships can serve as important classrooms* for understanding consent more broadly.

*Teacher, I’m a naughty schoolgirl who failed my Consent 101 exam, what ever can I do to get a higher grade?

If every human interaction took consent as seriously as BDSM relationships do, I think the world might a hell of a lot closer to that ideal image we were talking about earlier. If we were pushed in all areas of our lives to think about our boundaries and our actual wants as seriously as we are in BDSM relationships, we’d also probably be healthier, happier, better-adjusted people on the whole.

BDSM, and sex more broadly, taught me consent. Through mistakes I and others made, I came to understand consent in a visceral, personal way that no anarchist theory could teach me. To me, it’s been liberating.

To you, I say: you have nothing to lose but your chains, but you could keep those chains in your closet in case you ever want to wear them with the enthusiastic consent of all parties involved.

Anna Ronan

Written by

Philosopher-king, pro bono. Writing for a world where many worlds fit. www.annaronan.com

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade