The Ethics of Kink: Making Moral Sense of Sadomasochism
Very soon after its publication in 2011, ’50 Shades’ became a dirty word in the adult and kink communities and industries. We quickly learned to hate it. Not necessarily the book, but the fact that we had all become Christian Grey’s submissives over night. We just couldn’t escape it.
I was at an erotic poetry reading one night that year in London. It was a regular event and we’d been doing it for years. The crowd was bigger than usual that night, and during a break, myself and some of the other erotic writers stepped outside for some air to catch up. Two young women from the crowd joined us. At one point, one of them asked us, “soooo do you all start doing this because of 50 Shades?”
All of the writers bristled with polite, British anger. We’d been writing kink for years and resented EL James’ success, considering her work inferior to our own, and her understanding of BDSM to be not just bad, but potentially dangerous. We’d all discussed at length, over and over again, whether Christian Grey was a dominant, or just a good ol’ fashioned sociopath. We believed the latter.
We were kinky people, it was underground, the BDSM community was ‘our thing.’ We were aghast to see BDSM go mainstream. It felt like our dirty little secret was out, without undergoing strict moral and ethical vetting first. Kink had been stolen from us before we had a chance to make sure it was released to the public responsibly.
We were heartbroken, because we knew there were ethical questions to be answered first. The practice of sadomasochism generally involves a dominant partner degrading, humiliating, or inflicting pain on a submissive partner, generally for the dominant’s pleasure.
That simple definition immediately raises some serious ethical questions. On of the key tenets of ethics states that it is fundamentally and morally wrong to use someone as a means to an end. The implication is that it’s ethical to respect another’s value as a human. Anything less would be unethical. How, then, do we reconcile the conflict between degrading, humiliating or hurting someone while also respecting their value as a human?
And I’ll go further. Kink and BDSM activity often incorporate the use of highly offensive, sexist or racist language that we would consider totally unacceptable in any other social context. So how can we justify morally the use of highly sexist language and still to respect their inherent value?
Every thoughtful and reflective dom will at one point or another wrestle with the conflict of being mean to someone they love. If they experience that conflict, they’re a sociopath, and sociopathy is defined partially by unethical behaviour. A sociopath has no respect for anyone but themselves, and that implies to me that the disrespect inherent in healthy BDSM is actually simulated.
The attraction to sadomasochism for partners who clearly respect each other is in pretending they don’t, safely. Perhaps the best way to consider the position of ethics in S&M is as a kind of make-believe. Consider children playing cowboys and Indians. As we mature, we might see the inherent racism in that make-believe, but it’s not real. BDSM, by extension, should be seen as the recognition of mutual value, rather than objects used purely unethically, as means to an end.
Let’s go deeper still. A lot of people struggle to understand how a feminist can be a submissive in a heterosexual relationship. Surely female empowerment and female submission are incompatible?
I don’t believe so. They’re not only compatible, in many cases they’re synonymous: submission IS empowerment. Taking the concept of make-believe and running with it, the consensual and conscious decision to give up sexual control for a time becomes an enfranchised one, instead of a disenfranchised one.
There is power in the act of willingly giving up power. It’s these complexities and contradictions that make BDSM so intensely thrilling and satisfying.
Stear N-H (2009). “Sadomasochism as Make-Believe,” Hypatia 24(2): 1–38.
Weiss, M. (2011) Techniques of Pleasure. BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, Durham and London, Duke University Press.
Brogaard, B (2019). “S&M’s Ethical Predicament,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-mysteries-love/201909/sadomasochisms-ethical-predicament
With 16 years in the adult industry, including many years at LELO, it’s fair to say Stu has been around the sex toy block a few times. As LELO’s resident sex geek, he’s been featured in the Independent, the Guardian, HuffPost, Vice, Cosmopolitan, and anywhere people talk about sex. Here on Volonte, he turns his spotlight onto the important events affecting sex right now in a regular op-ed. Views are his own.