Trump, Consent, and BDSM

This recent study is pretty interesting: “Participating in a Culture of Consent May Be Associated With Lower Rape-Supportive Beliefs,” by Kathryn R. Klement, Brad J. Sagarin, and Ellen M. Lee, in The Journal Of Sex Research.

Yes, unfortunately, I’m going to relate the results to the Trump campaign.

The upshot is that people who participate in BDSM (Bondage/Domination/Sado-Masochism) communities show “significantly lower levels of benevolent sexism, rape myth acceptance, and victim blaming” than did undergraduates or a group of adults. The samples aren’t great — too small, and participants weren’t randomly assigned to the groups. There’s also no causality here: for example, it’s not clear if people attracted to BDSM come with these attitudes or if participation in BDSM fosters them.

But I have no doubt that this characterization of the community is generally accurate. The people I know, female and male, who speak most passionately and consistently about consent and safety are all card-carrying members of the BDSM community.

This may seem paradoxical to some. BDSM scenes may appear, from the outside, to be forms of sexual assault, exploitation, or humiliation. What I fear many people don’t understand, however, is that such scenes are (ideally) meticulously negotiated beforehand, and only unfold in conditions of trust among all parties. I’m sure people fail all the time, sometimes willfully, in meeting ideals about consent and safety. But from everything I know, those ideals are a powerful force in shaping behavior.

In hearing debates about Trump’s misogyny and history of abuse, I’ve been struck by how confused people are about consent. It also makes me realize how much our society would benefit if we listened to what the BDSM community has to say.

The debate really pits two different paradigms against each other.

One insists men can say what they want to women and put their hands on women whenever the “uncontrollable urge” strikes; the way for women to control men’s wild urges is by concealing their bodies. The boundary between “male” and “female” is rigidly demarcated and policed; everything depends on that, because otherwise how can you allocate the power? If the man denies doing “what every man does,” as Trump has, then of course he is believed and his female accusers are denigrated as unattractive liars, or (if that doesn’t work) so sexy that the men just couldn’t control themselves. This attitude often goes hand in hand with the elevation of certain female body types, combined with disgust for women’s bodies generally. Recently, one troll on my Facebook wall criticized Michelle Obama for promoting Beyoncé as a role model because the pop star “grabs her own genitals ALL the time” in performance; this somehow (don’t ask me to explain the logic) cancels out Ms. Obama’s criticisms of Trump for grabbing other people’s genitals without permission. “Trump acknowledged the words he used but totally and firmly denies ANY sexual assaults on women,” writes my troll, as though this settles the issue. I’m not saying anything most of you don’t already know.

You can see the other paradigm in the results of this study. In this alternate paradigm, people of both sexes and all genders are asked to take responsibility for themselves and their desires. Men are not slaves to uncontrollable urges; women need to say what they want. Yes means yes and no means no. People do what they want with their own bodies and they control what happens to them. When someone takes that control away from another person — violating community norms of safety and consent — he or she can be ostracized. I’m not claiming the reality is perfect; I’m talking about paradigms, not the messiness and ambiguity of day-to-day life. In this paradigm, you don’t shift blame from the more-powerful to the less-powerful. You don’t assume men have more rights (and fewer responsibilities) than women. You don’t even necessarily divide humans into “men” and “women”; you accept that people play with masculine and feminine traits, and can be whatever they want to be. When “male” and “female” are negotiated and evolving and up for grabs, then so is the power.

I don’t think you need to be into BDSM to embrace this paradigm; BDSM is a part of the paradigm, and the intentionality it demands amplifies aspects of the paradigm that are sometimes hard to see. But BDSM isn’t really the point; it’s not really about what exact things you like to do in bed. It’s about respect, control, and power — but also equity, trust, and fairness. I know which paradigm I prefer.

Again: There are no utopias here. It’s worth noting that “BDSM practitioners did not differ significantly from college undergraduates or adult MTurk workers on measures of hostile sexism, expectations of sexual aggression, or acceptance of sexual aggression.” In other words, these attitudes cut across groups; the “Discussion” portion of the study contains some interesting speculation, some of it quite technical, about why that might be the case.