Is BDSM violence?

My community has non-violence as a core ideal.  This seems like an easy one to agree on.  But i remember finding myself uncomfortable when i was giving a tour to a group of Richmond vegans, who asked about how we killed the cows we eat.  “With a shotgun,” i replied.  “Hardly seems non-violent,” one pointed out to me.
The current debate about non-violence is around BDSM.  Specifically, should the community conduct BDSM workshops at our annual Women’s Gathering.  This is not an issue about feminism as it is sometimes framed.  Twin Oaks does not have an agreement about being a feminist community, though we often talk about our feminist principals in our presentations and our propaganda.  There is no generally agreed definition of feminism (i have always liked the idea that feminism was the practice of the philosophy of anarchism – but this will upset some folks).  But even if there were an agreed definition of feminism, Twin Oaks did not subscribe to this belief set at our inception and we do not embrace new philosophies easily now.  We are an “embrace diversity” community, which often means there is no consensus.

this picture is for Shal

Many members argue compellingly that if there is consent in rough sex play, then it is not violent.  And one might think that this would be a way out of this bind, but our community history gets in our way.
Some years back, well before i joined in 1998, the community hosted a couple or refugees from Latin America.  They used to occasionally physically fight.  When confronted about this by concerned members of the community they both said “oh this is how we resolve our problems, it is consensual, so it is not violence.”  The community wrestled with this rationale.  And ultimately, we could not deal with this and asked them to move on.
I support consenting adults being able to do whatever they like.  I don’t want my community policing what people do in their bedrooms.  And i don’t want to pretend that this is an easy issue.  Perhaps a good definition of violence will get us there.  You got one ?
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]

About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

21 responses to “Is BDSM violence?”

  1. Heather says :

    First of all, a good website/blog that frequently discusses this topic is Yes Means Yes, I recommend it. Here is something that I wrote for a zine some time ago, that may be relevant:

    “So if you’re in a situation in which you are being dominated and it hurts or goes beyond what you’re comfortable with or violates you in some way – that is not BDSM – that is assault. To practice BDSM correctly is to discuss, in explicit detail, quite regularly, your boundaries. To have safe words. To acknowledge the heightened risks and learn how to deal with them safely. To be a responsible, caring top. With great power comes great responsibility, as they say, and that translates into this world of kink. The sort of trust this creates between partners is massive and holds within it an adrenaline rush and intimacy which is incredibly unique. A friend of mine put it this way, “When I am submissive I am handing over my body and my emotions to my partner knowing he won’t let anything bad happen to me. Allowing this to happen is the most deeply relaxing experience I have ever had. It makes me feel safe and cared for and allows me to let go completely.”

    It seems to me that there is a fine line to be drawn and to accept BDSM in your community is to take something of a risk. To understand that it could be a great example of communication and consent being practiced well or that someone(s) may falter and it can transition into violence. Of course I would hope that you all could come to a place where you accept it and fit it into your system. I am a believer that when BDSM is practiced right (healthy, safely) it can be an extremely liberating practice that helps us see violence and power in a different light. If you want to read the full piece I wrote for the zine just email me.

  2. Watermelon says :

    As a person that was lived in you community and had to have several really weird conversations with people about how I was getting fucked(quite well, often and vigorously with a nice hard edge to it that often left marks ) and how they felt about it. Since I has having a consensual experience I personally could give two rough fucks about their feelings.

    It boils down to people being threatened by what they don’t understand and uncomfortable cause its not what they are into. They need to get over that what if the issue was sodomy or oral sex???

    Limiting someones sexual experience and expression is puritanical fascism of the highest order.

  3. Eve Bruce says :

    Any physical contact is on a continuum from gentle to uncomfortable to painful to, well – fatal.

    Consensual contact, whether erotic/sexual or conflict resolution – or even games and play – require clear communication. Heather points this out very well.

    In the case of BDSM, this communication is done beforehand, with a clear stop sign set. The stop signal is set not only becuse one person’s limit is very different from another’s, but because in any moment your own limits will change. In the heat of passion, limits of comfort and acceptability to oneself change drastically.

    Whether there is a stop signal that is determined from before physical contact or not, willingness and ability to communicate moment to moment, to see and hear each other (verbally and nonverbally) and to accept other’s limit is – of course – essential in open clear communication. When either willingness or ability to communicate is absent, violence and assault is possible.

    When open communication is honored and practised in all interactions within a community, and between couples and groups, physical interactions are able to explore edges with integrity.

    Remembering that all physical interactions exist on a continuum, BDSM definitely has a place in communal living in my opinion, and for that matter consensual physical fighting and play.

  4. Brian Adler says :

    IMO violence defining violence as non-consensual interaction is more than protective enough of one’s well being. Oh and by that definition a lot of the screaming that occasionally happens at people at TO wouldn’t be permissible. But to even consider defining violence in a way that it applies to consensual interaction of whatever kind is absurd. To whom is the interaction violent?

    The essence here is that some people don’t understand that human beings don’t suffer what happens, they suffer their interpretation of what happens. There is actually no exception to this. So violence at it’s core is anything that the person experiencing it, interprets as violence. Clearly, in BDSM neither participant is interpreting harm, else they wouldn’t be doing it. Can we miss the forest for the trees any worse?

  5. Brian Adler says :

    OK so here is my definition of violence (and I WISH I were still a member so I could debate this).

    Violence is “non-consensual relationship/interaction” in all forms. This necessarily excludes any form of interaction that is consensual.

  6. Deus says :

    The fact is… BDSM can be violent. It, however, is not necessarily violence. I’m curious to know if a “harm none” philosophy would be more appropriate than a “non violent” one. We are an inherently violent species. We are hunters.. we are lovers.. and these are violent activities. We can choose, however, to limit the harm we inflict on others and the world around us.

    Now, supporting Adler’s statement.. Violence roots it self in the word violate, which suggests primarily a non consensual activity. Some BDSM is centered around the exploration of the act of violation. Humiliation, play rape, torture. Consensual or not, I would still argue that these activities are violent. But are they harmful to those taking part. I would so, in general, no.

  7. Kala says :

    I appreciate that in this essay you hint at this key truth: given a community that agrees to kill and eat other thinking creatures but is at the same time debating whether consensual kink is “violence” and negative for the community… definitions of violence can clearly be extremely arbitrary and based on cultural norms, fears and ignorances that are, honestly, carried over into the community from default society.

    I was personally very surprised to see this is an issue in a progressive community at this point in history. Everyone has their own perspective, but purely from my own perspective (early-30s female who was born in, and spent much of my childhood in, rural communes), I was very surprised to see a large, progressive community still concerned that BDSM is violence in 2010.

    If you actually look at kink communities, you’ll find that the most respected and rewarded community leaders/writers/organizers are mostly females — feminist sex-positive females. Kink communities are, I will argue based on more than a decade of personal experience, significantly more feminist and female-empowering than default society in general.

    This is an issue that even some relatively insular and traditional communities haven’t debated for many years. As an example, it’s been 15+ years since “is kink violence?” was a central issue at Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. And MWMF is famously and proudly conservative on other issues — most importantly its exclusion of a lot of the ‘female’ gender spectrum (on which question, if I remember correctly, Twin Oaks is much more progressive in its own annual women’s gathering!).

  8. Muhjesbud Maharish says :

    It also suprises me as well that a clear perspective of violence has not yet been reached in terms of sexual activities, especially in the personal privacy of one’s own closed doors.

    As a potential newcomer (no pun) to egalitarian community living, but a long time skilled surviving denizen of the rest of the outside real world, it seems that when some aspire to improve upon a flawed society, they always fail to commensurately improve upon the flawed perceptions of the individual first…

    Until this occurs, the debate will always wind up with the reflection of the flawed society we are attempting to abandon. The issue then, will always remain a matter of subjective analysis, or, as we used to say in the trenches, one’s person’s violence is another’s three legged dance contest.

    Therefore no real consensus could ever be reached that would apply to and resolve future potentialities in total satisfaction for all.

    This is why the status quo has rules and laws in at least an attempt to clearly define the parameters of right and wrong behavior, and the consenus is for all in social agreement to adhere to these general guidelines, regardless of their personal beliefs, for the general well being of all in the relative community.

    Sometimes in certain insulating enviroments, for instance like the super rich who don’t have to integrate with the cultural social masses if they don’t feel like it, their interpretation of violence might eaily be less inured to reality and their sensibilities perhaps hypersenitive in their own artificial world. It might be ‘violence’ to them if their air conditioning was not working on a hot day.

    Similarly, the lifestyle of a relatively isolated community that has maintained itself apart from the ‘world’ for a time period which precludes recollection of past social life, laws, demands, and reality, could provide the luxury of nothing else to worry about except things like at what point unusual sexual activity turns violent.

    Just like someone said above, there are relative degrees and evolutions of behavior.

    So if one escapes from the status quo reality but doesn’t recall past tempered systems of justice and laws, although sometimes flawed, but nevertheless well defined based on generations of human interactional situations, then one may indulge in the fantasy that they now live in their own world, safe and sound, free from all violence.

    Thus unecumbered by the ‘old way and rules’ It is now necessary, due to the absense of the real interpretations of dangerous violence in the ‘old world’ and now percieve sexual violence ‘violent interaction and screaming of perhaps mentally or emotionally dysfunctional persons, (or maybe just a monstrously endowed male attempting love (not violence) with a consenting, responsive, and receptive partner, whose female equipment simply cannot accomodate the connection…

    …to redefine the concept of sexual ‘violence’?

    hmmmm. What comes to mind is the sexually abused cliche’ ‘those who fail to recall history, are doomed to repeat it?

    Folks, the problem throughout history with all egalitarian communal groups is that invariably, due to this illusion of autonomy, Which often brings out the best and worst in human nature, most eventually regress to totalitarianism. Or other forms of ‘clans’ where a dominant heirarchy exists, and the whole flawed system starts all over again.

    Wouldn’t it be better, for the time being, to not be so interested in micro managing other people’s personal sex lives and intimate private practices, as long as it doesn’t aggregiously affect the rest of the neighbors?

    After all, that’s how the corrupted goverments of society we all wanted to get away from started out in the first place?

    And last time i checked, even an ‘egalitarian community’ is not a ‘sovereign nation’. So if somebody gets illegally violent (again, there’s always the thing which concerns definitions and understanding of such) in a ‘community’, and hurts someone badly enough,

    They will be taken away and ‘hurt back’ by the dominant outside monster community.

    So why worry about it so much? Focus, instead, your thought energy more on yourself. Integrate this with higher love of advanced consciousness instead of the prurient manifestations of carnal slavery…

    And then go, in peace and enlightenment, in the complete absense of all violence!

  9. Kurt Weyhrich says :

    This is kind of a late comment, but I just came across your interesting article and may have an answer to your question “what is violence”
    In my opinion violence is any act that forces another to do what any other person desires. So any consensual physical activities that involve force would not be an act of violence, and coercion would also be considered violence. I always considered an egalitarian minded person to be one who does not use any means to “get” other people to do what they want.

  10. John says :

    To me the statement that consensual violence is not violent seems to be nonsense. Boxing is consensual, it is also violent. Shooting the cow is violent, but presumably seen to be justifiable. For BDSM practitioners the pleasure justifies the pain (so to speak). Violence is an intrinsic part of BDSM. Whether it is logically or morally justifiable is a different issue.

    As I see it, this is a community conflict between two ideals. Does the practice of BDSM affect the community? Does conducting a workshop introduce an wider acceptance of diversity into the community? Or does it introduce a wider acceptance of violence? Or both? If the opposing ideals contradict each other how do you resolve them? Do you compromise? Does the community? It’s fairly clear and widely accepted that what goes on behind closed doors is private and should be irrelevant to the community at large. But a workshop is public event and unless a paranoid level of care is taken, couldn’t it easily become a forum for the acceptance or even promotion of violence in the form of BDSM?

    There are bigger issues here too, domestic violence and sexual abuse also go on behind closed doors and implied consent is often the defence of the abuser. Who is the arbiter of consent? What responsibility (if any) does the community have to protect the vulnerable as opposed to protecting the right to have a non-mainstream lifestyle.

    Interesting questions.

    So did the workshop go ahead? I would guess it did simply because those who promote extreme non-violence tend to be passive and those that practice BDSM would tend to be more (ahem) forceful!

  11. kelpie says :

    This is Keenan. I live at Twin Oaks where, as Paxus points out, the issue of BDSM (bondage, dominance and submission, discipline and sadomasochism) is being discussed. But Paxus misrepresents the issue. The question before the community is not “What should people be allowed to do in their bedrooms?” But, rather “What does Twin Oaks want to publicly support?” These are very, very different issues. Twin Oaks is very supportive of personal liberty (except for the prohibition against personal material gain) and all manner of personal behaviors are in evidence here—not all of them healthy. Behaviors that the community allows, may not be behaviors that the community wishes to publicly endorse. And, in a community that is always having a flow of membership, information that is online is going to affect who is interested in visiting the community—which then affects who joins.
    Obviously it is relevant to members what information gets posted about Twin Oaks. The non-violent culture of Twin Oaks has drawn a number of members who have experienced abuse and violence in their lives and Twin Oaks is a haven from those issues and fears around abuse. The words of BDSM—submission, sadism—make these members feel less safe. They claim that having these words in the public domain as describing Twin Oaks is at odds with our culture of non-violence and may draw people here who don’t share that value. What the community is facing, then, is how to balance the desire to put on a workshop—and post it online—with the concerns of members who feel threatened by that. Twin Oaks, as a community has not, as yet, made a decision to prohibit public postings of these workshops by Twin Oaks members, or whether to prohibit these workshops. The Womyn’s gathering is on Twin Oaks’ property, but is a separate entity from Twin Oaks, which muddies this whole process. In all of these complex issues, there is no “definition of violence” that will be of any use in resolving them.

    Another commenter, Watermelon, apparently an ex-member of Twin Oaks, mentions concerns about Twin Oaks’ “fascism” because of questions asked about some bruises. I can easily imagine that there were members here who would express concern about bruises appearing on someone. That’s the kind of community I would like to live in, really, where people are concerned about each other’s well-being. But I am quite certain that the community did not hand down a directive limiting Watermelon’s sex life. Twin Oaks is a diverse community. There are all manner of opinions here. The downside of membership is that sometimes you have to listen to people that you would rather not listen to. It is annoying, I know. But, it’s not fascism.

  12. Kristen says :

    not sure why Keenan’s comment appeared under my name. Just to be clear, we’re two completely different people, ‘tho he’s my partner.

  13. Anthony Baran says :

    So Martial Arts Training and Sparring is allowed on Twin Oaks or not?

  14. Paxus Calta-Star says :

    @Anthony: Martial Arts training is allowed and i assume sparing, but i am not aware of anyone doing it.

  15. Raoul Tennenbaum says :

    1> What is consensual? Is the beaten wife who refuses to press charges and returns to her husband of her own free will ‘consenting’? Or is it non-violent? Should she be prevented or left alone? Gary Gilmore, sentenced to death, demanded to be executed immediately. Is this implied or direct consent? If it is, is shooting him no longer violent?
    2> BDSM is violent. That’s why so many people enjoy it.
    3> If you enlist freely in the Army have you consented to untold thousands of people trying to kill you?

    4> Don’t redefine the word violence. If it’s definition doesn’t work, use another. Or make one up. The language is getting fuzzy enough.

    5> How about ‘It’s none of my business’? Is this group of people distributing nuclear waste? Do they wake you up at night? Are they frightening pets and livestock? Are the police out every night? Are they putting on shows? And not sharing the income? I could go on forever (and usually do) but will settle for IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. Assuming what they are doing is legal in your jurisdiction and you’re not forced to participate and they shut up when you ask them to shut up when they talk about it, what encourages you to review their actions?

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Raoul:

      You bring up some good points, and we still disagree. The beaten wife who brings home her partner would probably not respond “yes” to the question “do you want to be beaten?” Which would make it non-consenting, and thus violence and there are other issues at play (like she might not want to loose her husband to the dysfunctional penal system).

      How intervention should happen is well beyond the definition question of what is violence.

      If you enlist in the army you have consented to a situation where people might try to kill you, but again if asked “do you want to be killed by any of these people?” the answer is “no” and thus those trying to kill you (or the ones you are trying to kill who dont want this) are being violent.

      The reason it is important to keep using violence in the context of consent is because we want to give people who are consenting the freedom to choose what they want and we have social and legal restrictions on violence. I do agree there are often time when it makes sense to make up words. I’ve written about it https://paxus.wordpress.com/2011/10/11/missing-words/
      But this is not that case, in my thinking, we need to understand what makes up violence and consent is central to it (despite you counter examples).

      As for “none of your business” you dont have quite enuf caveats in your list. We both dont want the police showing up at our houses uninvited, and conflicts of rights (like your disturbed livestock or late party) are always the most interesting ethical problems. Fortunately, your nuclear waste example (which seems a bit irrelevant) is handled by both legality and a non-consensual definition of violence. I assume you were trying to bait me, you will have to try harder.

      • Sid says :

        The problem with a question like “Is BDSM violence?” is that it fails to take into consideration, certain subtleties in the WAY words are used. I’ve heard BDSM people say, “Nonconsensual play is not play. It’s abuse.” But then I’ll hear Doms talk about how much fun it is abusing their subs. They mean it in a consensual way. Someone up there said that violence derives from the word “violate”. Well, I’ve had Doms text me trashy messages like “I have a dozen delicious ways of violating you. I miss that writhing body. Dungeon awaits.”
        Almost every ugly, horrible word you can think of to describe violence has been retranslated into dirty talk in the BDSM scene. Subs say they want to be raped. How can anyone actually WANT to be raped, when the word “rape” implies that it’s against what the subject wants? Even the word “slave” is retranslated out of context. Linguistically, BDSM is a big mess of very delicate semantics. You cannot depend on solid definitions of words. You have to listen carefully to context.
        This creates an inherent mindfuck involved in the situation. Not everyone is bright enough to catch on to the paradoxical problem. BDSM is NOT one great, big, happy sandbox of joy. There are people who don’t know what they are doing and so there is very real risk. Part of the risk has to do with the fact that BDSM is philosophically paradoxical, and therefore is wide open vulnerable to conflicts of interest.

        For example, speaking as an experienced sub, I won’t go down for any Dom who identifies as a “healer” or “shaman” or “spiritual mentor”. Every Dom I’ve personally met who proclaims this has proven to be a selfish, arrogant, stupid fucker who makes up poetic gobbledegook to create his own cult of ego and engages in BDSM oriented rituals that don’t have any verifiable record of such healing. That whole sect of “shamanic BDSM” is 95% bullshit. I think there’s a HUGE conflict of interest in someone who claims to heal, yet has sadistic desires, especially if they have no professional experience as a therapist. That whole “I hurt but I heal. I get off on hurting but I care so I heal” is just too much mindfuck for me to deal with.
        I’ve actually lost interest in BDSM practice and drifted away from the community, after some 15+ years of play, when I began to see how many people just didn’t understand the paradox, the mindfuck and the possible conflicts of interest that goes along. Too many people just swim around IN the mindfuck, instead of seeing it for what it is.

  16. Mountain says :

    Just wondering — are any relationships at twin oaks characterized by a sub male / dominant female model? I would assume so, but from the comments it is not clear.

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