From the title, I hope it is apparent that this is going to be a very NSFW post that is quite likely trigger inducing. Please avoid it if you do not want to see discussion of non-consensual themes or use of the f-slur.
A while back I had the idea for a series of blog posts talking about kinks that have not great social associations, or in some cases could be literal triggers for many people.
Against my better judgement, I’ve decided to do it.
I have to go back and say “well, why are some of these things kinks in the first place? Why do I see them so much?” And sometimes when you interview folks or do some deep self-assessing, you realize that indulgence in sexual interests can be a form of overcoming trauma and a form of comfort with a self-actualization fantasy.
We run into sex in a lot of online and offline spaces. When we encounter it, it’s rarely just people interacting in depictions of sexual release. Often we’ll hear people in more sexually positive areas describe themselves as “kinky.” Most of you know what a kink means but I’m gonna use an online dictionary’s definition for it anyway: a person’s unusual sexual preference. I think choice of the word “preference” might lead to some slippery slope semantic arguments(“if something isn’t a preference is it truly a kink???”) which I’m not interested in going into. For most intents and purposes of this blog, that definition is going to fit the topics I choose.
Being unusual is something that can makes a kink a social taboo to the macroculture it exists within, but that is not always the case. BDSM, for example, is almost a house hold term at this point considering the recent massive popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray to teen girls and middle aged moms across america and Europe. It’s trash, but I’m not here to dunk on it. That’s what youtube and the ninth circle of hell exists for. (I’m also aware that trash targeting teen and adult men is generally dunked on less and gets the nostalgia treatment way more often and Lindsay Ellis has made an entire video about this which is good and you should watch it.)
My point is, BDSM (Bondage, Domination, and Sadomasochism) is a common theme in depictions of sexuality in western culture and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. There are lots of flavors of BDSM: bondage, suspension, temperature stimulation, electrical stimulation, paddling, whipping, spanking, public humiliation, etc. There are usually three large themes at play in BDSM:
- Pain and or humiliation is experienced, causing pleasure
- There are Dom(inants) enacting the pain or humiliation and there are sub(missives) receiving the pain or humiliation.
- Both of the participants are enjoying their performed roles.
Non-con (and I am including “dub-con,” which some folks might say doesn’t exist),on the other hand, is the kink name for fictional or role-played scenarios where at least one character is subjected to sex without given consent.
These are very clearly different things. Sometimes it is common for both elements to appear in particular pieces of fiction but even when they are separated, they both have a dynamic in mind: human sexuality and how it responds to and interacts with external and internal pressures of power.
When kinks are expressed (be that through artistic creation, real time experiences, or discussion) I have to think about them in two contexts: what they do for the people who are involved in them (context), and what effect they have on the people who are bystanders, or participating second hand (impact).
In the case of BDSM (and as a person who has experienced both sides of the dom and sub role) I know that when I participate as a sub, it can be very cathartic for me. I didn’t have the funnest childhood, and I didn’t always have the highest self-esteem. I had internalized a lot of the negative things that were said about me, perceived them to be true, and had to carry that weight for a lot of my adolescent life. But sometimes, when I got into a particular mood or head space, I wanted to be called negative things or experience physical pain. Because, to my surprise, these experiences have caused me some of the hardest erections and strongest climaxes I’ve had in my life.
“Yes, please choke me. Yes, please call me a faggot and wipe your sweaty cock all over my face. Remind me of who I am.”
When in the sub role, I experience utter pleasure in that context, but the onlooker is not going to have access to my internal experiences. They don’t know what’s going through my head. They just hear or see the words (depending on whether or not this is an online or offline scenario). Language like that, at its mildest, is going to be a mood killer to many. Feelings of hatred, betrayal, or revulsion will be provoked in extreme cases. There are nasty, unpleasant words and themes being expressed there.
But what is contextually key is that the sub is using those words, subverting them, for their own sexual pleasure. In these scenarios, subs can recognize that their feelings are valid, and that there are real power structures that can control them and cause harm both internally and externally; but they can reclaim those feelings as their own in safe, controlled environments with somebody that they trust (or in the art that they create by themselves).
We get to recognize the external pressures of a patriarchal, rape-culture entrenched society (in this case, the theme that those who do not use their sexuality for power are meant to be used) and re-frame them on our own terms in a staged scenario. That is one way to cope with and to overcome trauma– drowning out our doubts or past experiences with orgasmic bliss and taking control of setting the tone and the mood.
The irony of this, however, comes with the observer participation. Somebody who watches BDSM porn with subs in it are subjected to performances that are often presented, on a shallow level, as exploiting imbalances of power. They do not have access to the head space of the sub. Of course, sometimes the viewer wants to be that sub in the pornography, but sometimes they want to be the dom. And in that case, it’s easy to confuse internally confronting the abuse of power with… abusing power. This may be why we have an entire BDSM subset dedicated to slave master lifestyles and using women as objects: Goreans.
I paired BDSM and Non-con because of this shared theme of power dynamics in sexuality. Although I must adamantly restate that they are not the same thing, societal dynamics of power play into both of them, and what counts as hegemonic power and privilege in the society and era of the time must be recognized in the art, story, live performance or video pornography. Most people reading this article live in a western culture that embraces casual rape, blames victims, and doles out permission from the highest levels of government to enact in sexual atrocities. It impossible to me, as a critic of media and as a producer of creative content, to say that non-con in fiction is innocent when it comes to how culture is shaped and what kind of atmosphere exists currently in a culture of consumerism. But I also cannot ignore that some of the biggest fans of non-con can be rape survivors or oppressed people who have to reset the stage of their trauma.
So when we come into contact with non-con content in an erotic context(because, frankly, it’s everywhere), we should ask:
- Who was it made by?
- Who was it meant for?
- Who is interacting with it and in what way?
- What is the role of power in the narrative (who is extorting it, who is extorted by it)?
- Is the explicit genre horror as well?
- How could this piece of media influence, or be a response to, other media before it?
We are culturally held responsible for what we do when creating, participating in, or cultivating an audience for taboo content. We must be aware of how it affects, or can affect, the people around us. If we seek out this content, especially if we intend to admonish its existence, we should be asking the questions posed above. Perhaps there is a good reason for why it exist. A marginalized person might have fantasies about being forced to do something they might be murdered for if they admitted wanting to do it willingly. But alone, marginalization isn’t an excuse. Perhaps there was no reason, or there was little thought put into the art or expression at all, and it’s just adding to a festering pile of narratives celebrating exploitation. Context and impact both extremely matter.