I was reading a book of Audre Lorde essays the other day called "A Burst of Light" which contains an interview called "Sadomasochism: Not About Condemnation" from the summer of 1980. Reading the title, I was like "Cool, an article about how S/M isn't the devil, right?" Wrong. It was actually an interview about how s/m is inherently bad and wrong and shouldn't be practiced.
I think the crux of the article is really stated in this paragraph: "Sadomasochism is an institutionalized celebration of dominant/subordinate relationships. And, it prepares us either to accept subordination or enforce dominance. Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically.
"Sadomasochism feeds the belief that domination is inevitable and legitimately enjoyable."
This argument really only holds if you take a few specific beliefs to be "true": "Power inequalities are something that we can rid society of" and "the bedroom is completely and totally tied to the rest of life" are perhaps the most obvious ones. Lorde states during the interview that she believes both of these things, but I'm not so sure. I think that many of the power dynamics that are evident all around us are generally fucked up, but I am not sure that a world without any sort of power differences is possible or maybe even desirable. For one thing, it seems kind of simplistic to take the idea of "power" as a single monolithic entity without distinguishing between different types of power. I think that in general power is an unexamined catchall word that doesn't acknowledge that we all have strengths and weaknesses that could fall under the catagory of power/powerlessness, without which the world might be pretty darn boring. Lorde is using the word in its most explicit (in the context of the feminist essay) meaning, that of subordination and exploitation. In the context of S/M this might not be entirely out of line (although I imagine a lot of S/M people have a much more, um, playful take on subordination that Lorde does), but I still have a problem with the generalization that "power inequality is inherently bad."
The second belief, that the bedroom is totally connected to everything else, is more complicated for me. I do think that my bedroom and the rest of my life are tied together, and I do think that they inform each other. What bothers me about the way Lorde treats this one is that she assumes that the acting out of S/M desires in the bedroom means that you will unwillingly continue to act out sadistic domination or whimpering subordination in your everyday life. She seems to feel that we can't analyze our bedroom play to inform our lives, that instead we will continue to act out our power plays like robots and oppress or be oppressed by those around us without a thought in our heads. She says "Those involved in sadomasochism are acting out the intolerance of differences which we all learn: superiority and thereby the right to dominate. The conflict is supposedly self-limiting because it happens behind bedroom doors. Can this be so, when the erotic empowers, nourishes, and permeates all our lives?"
Maybe it's because it's 2006 and I've spent too much time reading Pat Califia and Carol Queen and Kate Bornstein (why are so many people I admire so very into talking about S/M?). I just don't buy that. I think that, if anything, people who are at least aware of the way it feels to be consciously subordinate or consciously dominant might be more able to recognize and rechannel those tendancies in the rest of their lives. I don't believe that S/M play is self-limiting, but I don't buy that all of its effects, at least for careful and aware practitioners, are negative. For instance, Kate Bornstein writes quite movingly (to me, anyway) about how some s/m practitioners are way more willing to envision genderless indentity or flexible gender identity because they are more willing to "play" with other things that we take for granted, like power. She writes "If living gender-free can shine a light on personal identity, than living with S/M can illuminate inter-personal dynamics. S/M as a sexual preference is an alternative to the gay/straight dichotomy served up by this culture."
The article did make some good points, about anti-progressivism in the gay white male community in particular and about the capitalism that is tied into S/M as it is into everything. ("Who profits from lesbians beating each other?" Lorde asks.) It would be interesting to see if Lorde would have said the same things today as she did in 1980, since there seems to have been a huge overall shift in theory about sadomasochistic behavior and perhaps about sexual behavior in general (but like I said, maybe it's just who I read...). I'd like to think that our understandings and interpretations of such things only become more nuanced and open with time, instead of being so... condemnatory.