Features

Illustration: Marta Kierkus.

When the mainstream and subcultures collide, misconceptions are inevitable

Subcultures can appear quite alien, strange, or even scary to the uninitiated. We can think back to the hippies of the 1960s, whose sex, drugs, and rock and roll threatened the mainstream way of life.

But in the year 2017, 30 per cent of women between the age of 15 and 19 have used oral contraceptives, our prime minister campaigned on a promise to legalize marijuana, and Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature. It is safe to say that the hippies may have been onto something that the mainstream was not ready for.

In the same way, the BDSM subculture may be onto something that the mainstream could benefit from. BDSM stands for bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism, and practitioners are constantly appropriating and redefining its meaning.

As a philosophy, BDSM is about making the implicit aspects of a relationship explicit. This allows practitioners to safely play with power dynamics (bondage and discipline), and with sensations (sadism and masochism). But this aspect of BDSM is sorely lacking in mainstream representations, such as E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, and the music video for Rihanna’s “S&M.”

Although Rihanna’s songs are catchy and James’ novels are entertaining, they also contribute to some of the myths surrounding BDSM. Thus, here are three big misconceptions about this subculture.

1) BDSM is abuse

Fifty Shades of Grey may be known for its abusive relationships, but this is not truly representative of BDSM in real life. A central tenet of this community is that all activities must be safe, sane, and consensual. For example, if you want to be safe, having utility scissors handy when playing with bondage is key. Meanwhile, debriefing a participant after a session can help ensure their mental health. Finally, maintaining consent before and during activities is best accomplished by negotiating everything beforehand.

2) BDSM adepts are pathological

A study by Dr. Pamela Connolly of the California Graduate Institute found that there was no significant difference in the prevalence of psychopathology between BDSM practitioners and the general public. In other words, whether you like a good spanking or prefer sticking to missionary style you are just as likely to live with mental illness.

3) BDSM and feminism are incompatible

The popular image of a male sadist leading a female masochist on a leash could give you this impression. Yet, if this relationship is operating in a safe, sane, and consensual context, and both partners enjoy the given activity, who are we to judge? It would be hard to argue that a philosophy that lets all genders explore their sexual fantasies is incompatible with feminism’s goal of gender equality. This perspective is well argued in Catherine Scott’s book Thinking Kink: The Collision of BDSM, Feminism and Popular Culture.

Just like with the hippie counterculture, the mainstream could learn something from the BDSM subculture and their strict emphasis on safe, sane, and consensual relationships that don’t take anything for granted.