Playing Safe: BDSM & The Ethics of Justice and Care By Angelina Duell


This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium,  Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

Angelina Duell is a 3rd year Masters of Divinity candidate whose focus is Religious Education. Her hope is to become the Director of Religious Education at a Catholic parish and to develop curriculum that emphasizes developing the skill sets to find your own answers rather than providing dogmatic answers. She also loves horror movies and baking. 

It is Wednesday night and I am alone in the house. It’s dark; the only light is from my computer screen. A bead of sweat rolls from my brow as I delicately tap the keys of my keyboard until two words stare back at me, “BDSM feminism.” With bated breath, I press enter.

Just kidding. 

I am home alone but all the lights are on and I am chatting with a college friend on Facebook while making Mac and cheese. We are joking about the kink cluster. Given the statistics about BDSM it seems as though a disproportionate amount of the adult population interested in these forms of sexual expression attended our school. As a progressive Catholic woman these conversations are always valuable to me, especially if you type in “BDSM Christianity” and see website after website about how it is acceptable as long as the submissive is a woman and the dominant is a man. Thanks, Ephesians 5:22-26. As someone who is involved in parish ministry I know that it is important to remember that people who are in the BDSM scene are also in our parishes and need as much support and pastoral care as everyone else. This care is difficult to give if you don’t have criteria by which to make value judgments on whether a relationship is healthy or abusive. In my initial research, I found nothing that addressed this topic; unfortunately, my initial and supposedly taboo search reveals that there is only one thing worth saying on the subject: these two identities of bdsm practitioner and feminist are not mutually exclusive. Sweet. Tell me something new. So I begin a new search: “BDSM ethics of care.” I then find this website: Promise to Play Safe.

Our readings in class over the past few weeks have been about the ethics of care and the ethics of justice. I am new to feminism from an academic perspective so please bear with me if my understanding is inaccurate. I believe the ethics of care uses concrete relationships as its starting point for decision making whereas the ethics of justice uses abstract absolute principles as its staring point. BDSM relationships can be categorized as either healthy or abusive through an ethics of justice based in the principles of consent, trust, respect, safety and sanity. However, each of those principles can only be judged within the context of a relationship, how the one-caring treats the cared-for and vice versa (it is a two way street after all) because, like all relationships, BDSM relationships are unique and each should be judged independently from others, even though they should all be held to the same set of ethical principles.

In Sarah Ruddick’s article, “Injustice in Families: Assault and Domination” she defines the ethics of justice as having four major themes. I will use these themes for my discussion here. First, the ethics of justice assumes agents are individuals. Ruddick critiques this point by saying that family identities are “constructed within and by relationships, not as detached individuals.” Any discussion of relationships must affirm this critique.

Ruddick’s second point is that individuals are defined in terms of similar characteristics; they are “ “disembodied”…from actual social relations and thus able to stand in for each other.” We can posit absolute principles based on assumptions about the shared fundamental attributes of all agents. While each BDSM relationship is unique, there are similar characteristics that all submissives should have, that all dominants should have, and that should govern the relationship. Promise to Play Safe suggests that both partners in a relationship should treat the other through the lens of consent, trust and respect. As in any relationship, if one partner does not consent, then the relationship is inherently abusive. Because of the various modes of sexual expression found within BDSM culture, if there is no trust between the partners, consent cannot take place. If you don’t trust someone in day-to-day life, why would you trust her to tie you up? That’s how you wake up in a bathtub full of ice with your kidney missing. Respect, as defined by the PtPS, means that each partner views the other as a “whole person”, not her/his other half and accords them the dignity inherent in respect.  The characteristics that govern BDSM relationships are summed up in the phrase, “Safe, Sane and Consensual” and the relationship is measured accordingly.

Ruddick’s third point is that the ethics of justice posits the “fundamental equality of persons as a normative presupposition or moral ideal.” Based on the understanding of BDSM constructed thus far, the underlying assumption is that both parties in the relationship are equal, both have the right to name their desires, to negotiate power, to say no, etc. Unlike in the family dynamic wherein there are parties who are unequal (Parents / children) the ethics of justice assumption of equality can be used as a standard for judging whether or not a BDSM relationship is healthy or abusive.

Finally, Ruddick’s fourth theme is “an allegedly unfair policy or relationship is tested for justice by determining whether rational, self-interested individuals would consent to it.” And here is where the principles of consent, trust, respect, safety and sanity come into play again. If these principles are missing from the relationship, then we must question the rationality and self-interest of the individuals involved. However, because no BDSM relationship looks like another BDSM relationship, the question must be asked who assesses whether or not these principles are present? Because of the taboo stigma surrounding BDSM relationships, it must be the people in the relationship, with support from those within the community. Should the opportunity arise that you are asked to give pastoral care to people in a D/s relationship, I hope you keep this post in mind.

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Categories: Ethics, Feminism, Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue, Feminist Theology

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16 replies

  1. Angelina – we teachers are not kidding when we say that we learn new things from our students all the time! All of your hyperlinked websites were new to me, as was the idea of thinking through the difference between and ethics of justice vs. an ethics of care approach using BSDM relationships as one’s site of analysis.

    A few affirmations: (1) churches do indeed need to come to terms with the broad spectrum of human sexuality if they are to be able to provide effective pastoral care to their parishioners, (2) while you did not make this point explicit, I believe you offered a way to integrate the “justice” and “care” approaches: justice-considerations are satisfied through the principles of “consent, trust, respect, safety and sanity,” while the “tribunal” (to use Noddings’ pejorative term) that determines whether those principles are being upheld “must be [none other than] the people in the relationship, with support from those within the community”–thus giving primacy to the “caring” dyad and their interpersonal “chains” (no pun intended, I mean Noddings use of the term here).

    I don’t have any experience with BDSM relationships (professional, academic, personal, or otherwise), so I can only provide knee-jerk responses. With that caveat, it seems to me that much hangs on the role that “those within the [BDSM] community” will play. In light of your somewhat ambiguous current phrasing, it is not clear to me, for example, if the BDSM community in your assessment can have a trumping voice over those of the two involved in the relationships (i.e., what if the two involved stipulate the satisfaction of respect, trust, consent, etc. but those in the larger BDSM community either disagree internally whether those principles are present OR conclude differently (that there is insufficient safety, sanity, etc.)? I would imagine that the stakes, at least for feminists, would be raised in cases where you have Ephesians 5:22-26 (cf, other haustafeln) being played out in the bedroom as well.

    Wonderful post! I am loving the serious consideration of sexuality you have been drawing the CST community towards (first with the character you played in the Vagina Monologues and now this)!

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  2. Dear Dr. Kao,
    Thanks for your comment =) The involvement of the community in the goings on of a particular relationships is pretty murky. In order to do so we have to assume the people involved are comfortable enough to even be a part of the community. Many of the people I knew in college had an interested and were involved in relationships prior to joining a community. There is the perennial problem of being identified and the negative repercussions that could have on your outside life keep many people from being involved, which is unfortunate and problematic. However, those I have spoken to within the community say that open dialogue is key and all participants are encouraged to form friendships simply because who else are you going to talk about these sorts of things to?

    Luckily these days there are plenty of resources for kink-aware psychologists, etc, but before that it was pretty difficult to find anyone in the helping professions who was aware of this form of sexual/life expression. But going back to the community, the authors of the website write, “the line between intensity and abuse in power exchange relationships can be hard to distinguish, especially for those who are newer to BDSM,” so there is a sense of hierarchy within the community commensurate with experience level. A person who is doing something questionable is more willing to hear advice from someone who has been involved longer. I haven’t heard any stories of people being out of line with these values within the community and what was done to correct it, so I can only speculate about how much of a role the community actually takes.

    However, to offer a parallel experience, we knew a vanilla couple back in New York in which the husband wasn’t pulling his share of the weight in household responsibilities. Between his wife and myself and my partner making small comments he began to pick up the slack. I imagine it may be similar in the BDSM community. Should I come across a situation I will certainly write on it.

    But to actually answer your question, I think that it is the couple ultimately trumps the community. If a couple doesn’t like the community’s assessment of them, they can always choose to pull away from it and because of the murky legal situation and general lack of public knowledge there is not much recourse from the outside world.

    Thanks for the comment =)

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  3. Angelina: Again, still learning lots! The question for me, of course, is what vantage point you are taking. You provided a DESCRIPTION of what typically happens, the question then becomes what NORMATIVE judgment you render about it (i.e., affirm the status quo conventions in the BDSM world, or offer a critique). To bring back other readings, Alison Jaggar, you may recall, wants to make sure that the “close attention to the specifics of small-scale situations” does not “obscure perception of the larger social context in which they are embedded” (p. 195). What I have in mind is this – while there is no need to make an a priori assumption that BSDM practitioners are necessarily pathological, it would still be appropriate for an outsider to ask in any BDSM relationship (or even non-BDSM relationship) if there are “outside” factors driving one of the partners’ needs to be dominated, humiliated, controlled (or to be the one doing the domination, etc.). Theorists critical of care approaches also worry about the dogmatism and paternalism involved in the assumptions of the one-caring (that they can adequately distinguish real from pseudo-needs) and to complicate matters, consent (by the cared-for) for some theorists is not enough to pass moral muster (recall Jaggar’s examples of incest and footbinding).

    Final point – the privacy and thus lack of community accountability to BDSM relationships does not seem to me to be unique to BDSM relationships (because how many non-BDSM couples involve larger communities of people into their sex lives?) And certainly legitimate concerns for privacy as well as taboos about talking about (any kind of) sex make any kind of external critique of sexual relationships uncommon (thus also contributing to difficulties for assessing abuse in sexual relationships).

    Class (and the public): what say you?

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    • I think your comments about the community and BDSM are entirely worth highlighting. For me, the community in BDSM provides an important place to learn about sexual ethics for the kink and vanilla communities alike.

      A friend of mine went through a mentoring/apprenticeship to become a Dom. She joined a BDSM organization, went to classes to learn proper techniques, and even practiced under one-on-one training with another Dom and an experienced sub. In this process she learned about what practices and techniques as a Dom she was comfortable with and what actions or toys she would never include in her own scenes. The community she joined became a place for her to explore her own sexuality and her sexuality’s intersections with BDSM with a safety net of sorts. Etiquette is extremely important in the BDSM community and is something that is learned from the behavior and wisdom of the more experienced members. While this apprenticeship model was partly driven by my friend’s task oriented and self-made curriculum approach to life, I got the impression that this path with community guidance toward mastering the BDSM sexual expression is a preferred option into entering the BDSM community. The community wants to form D/s individuals in that practice the BDSM sexuality in “safe, sane, and consensual manner” because it makes for a healthier sexual and BDSM community all around.

      What I, a rather vanilla individual, learned form being a listening ear during this very kinky friend’s journey is that a healthy sexual ethic is communal.

      As sexual beings, we all have ideas about who we want to partner with, what we like, and what our boundaries are. Forming a community that we can explore those ideas with people (other than our partners) is an important way for understanding our own desires and maintaining our own boundaries.

      It’s a good way for realizing what could potentially be pleasurable. I recall one conversation with a friend where we explained to her where her clitoris was because it got left out of her childhood sexual education. The BDSM community teaches the use of toys and the precise sensations that come from each implement and the boundaries that should be used with each one; we vanilla folk could learn to being open to teaching one another about the precise parts and actions of our bodies that are receptive to sexual pleasure and that every body finds different sensations uncomfortable. The community then can be a descriptive place to learn about what pleasure can look like and how to express what not to do to our partners.

      A community is also a good way for ensuring that I maintain my own sexual ethic. There have been times when I was talked out of something that I knew would feel wonderful in the moment, but would have more emotional ramifications that the physical pleasure would warrant. (Or to be more specific, the time when a best friend sent me “Don’t have sex” text messages when I was having coffee with an ex-boyfriend.) I came to realize that if I felt uncomfortable about sharing my sexual choices with my closest confidants, then I needed to reevaluate if my actions were aligning with my values about my own sexuality. As far as my limited knowledge goes, this general guide of community maintaining boundaries holds true in the BDSM world as well; if someone doesn’t feel comfortable about sharing what is going on in a BDSM scene or relationship to someone else in that community, it’s usually a clear signal that something has gone too far. A community is the people I trust will guide me away from violating my own protections and boundaries. This normative aspect of the community is a way of ensuring that the sexual ethic created by me and approved by my community is maintained.

      I’m not suggesting that a community means that we have to broadcast all of our sexual choices all the time, because sexuality is still a deeply intimate part of what we are as humans, but I am suggesting that we should not construct or maintain our sexual ethic for ourselves in isolation.

      It’s still interesting to me that I found this normative communal understanding for my own sexuality from something outside of my own heteronormative preferences. I do not think I would have had as strong communitarian understanding of my own sexuality if I had not had that friendship with an individual going through training to become a Dom. In a sense, my own life is an example of how this community approach to sexuality can be realized and the very healthy and positive outcomes that stem from it.

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      • Hey Ruth,
        Awesome comment. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
        I really liked your point, “we should not construct or maintain our sexual ethic for ourselves in isolation.” I also think this is true across the board in all relationships.

        And now you have me thinking about technology/internet and how we create community therein. For example, let’s say you’re the kink next door who lives in middle of nowhere Texas with your kink partner and access to a physical local community is pretty much non-existent. But you have the internet and can do research, participate in the online community, etc. Does that satisfy your idea of people not existing in isolation?

        Or let’s go a step further. Let’s say that you are in a BDSM relationship but are not involved in the physical or virtual community due to fears about being “found out.” Is it enough to read websites like PtPS and get other view points in that manner? Or should everyone really have another flesh and blood confidant?

        Just curious =)

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  4. There has been a big debate on this in the feminist community since the 1970s and 1980s, with some saying that women have the right to express their sexuality any way they choose and others saying that feminists should not endorse forms of relationships that re-play domination and submission because feminism is about ending all forms of domination. The conversation I am thinking about was initiated by lesbian feminists who were asking the feminist community to endorse s&m as a feminist choice. If Plumwood and I are right (see my recent post) there is no question that there are “outside” (of individuals) factors involved, insofar as domination achieved through violence and the fear of violence permeates our culture.

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  5. Angelina – forgot to mention and especially in light of Carol’s comment, perhaps you can the skeleton of a final paper project here?

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  6. I appreciate the desire to bring a workable framework to the ethics of BDSM. I think it has some strengths and weaknesses that are worth pulling out.

    1) I appreciate the point of reference being the family rather than the single individual. In a forthcoming post of my own, I argue that part of what makes us human is our interactions with other humans. There is a vast difference between a submissive man and a Dominant Woman and a D/s couple.

    2) I would disagree with the statement: “…there are similar characteristics that all submissives should have, that all dominants should have, and that should govern the relationship.” Especially when the laundry list at Promise to Play Safe is examined (e.g., Dominants attend educational events, Dominants ALWAYS engage in safe sex practices [what about a married couple trying to get pregnant?], the submissive makes friends in the community [so what happened to the idea that I, as a submissive, maintain an independent life, including who I get to associate with?], submissives use their safeword [um – not if it isn’t CALLED FOR!]) what is discovered is not a list of traits, but an effort of an individual to impose THEIR view of BDSM on everyone involved. Many BDSM folks mock this as advancing “The One Twoo Way.”

    3) Also the statement “…if there is no trust between the partners, consent cannot take place.” Isn’t strictly true. Consent is consent, and just means a person agrees to something. In a vanilla sense, a person may consent to sex, yet not trust their partner to prevent pregnancy. I may not trust someone with my money, but that doesn’t mean that they would do me bodily injury or violate strict limits. Just because a person is foolish (or even downright usurious) in one context does not mean they are untrustworthy in ALL situations.

    4) “Respect, as defined by the PtPS, means that each partner views the other as a “whole person”, not her/his other half and accords them the dignity inherent in respect.” This assumes that viewing someone as “my other half” defaults as not seeing them as a “whole person.” There is no D/s relationship without both the D and the s…so each partner complements the other in ways that aren’t necessarily true for other relationships. One can be both a completely and separate individual, and someone’s “other half” too.

    5) “…the ethics of justice posits the “fundamental equality of persons as a normative presupposition…the ethics of justice assumption of equality can be used as a standard for judging whether or not a BDSM relationship is healthy or abusive.”

    I think we have to be careful about how we toss around “equality” – and especially when talking about BDSM. I agree, absolutely, that each person is equal in worth – they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and retain their full human rights. However, the BDSM dynamic demands that the decision-making process be skewed toward the Dominant. It is impossible to truly submit to someone else’s desires and still retain a full measure of equality. I have a lot of problem saying that a dynamic that is going to be intentionally skewed with then be used to determine if a relationship is abusive – who gets to decide where the tipping point is? It leads to the “my kink is okay, yours is not” trope that so divides the BDSM community.

    6) “an allegedly unfair policy or relationship is tested for justice by determining whether rational, self-interested individuals would consent to it.” is VERY problematic. Within my own lifetime, BDSM – all of it – was considered a mental illness. Simply wanting any aspect of a BDSM relationship was considered evidence in and of itself for mental illness, and therefore I would have been considered not to be sane. “Sane” is a matter of perspective, too often. So what are we going to make off-limits today that might be acceptable tomorrow? More to the point, what kind of loving and affirming BDSM behaviors are we going to decide are always abusive simply because a “sane” person doesn’t see it as that?

    7) “If these principles are missing from the relationship, then we must question the rationality and self-interest of the individuals involved.” Well, since when is love subjected to rational analysis as part of a determination of abusiveness? Must a loving and affirming relationship be evaluated in terms of self-interest? I would guess that most not-BDSM relationships would be abusive if this is the criteria we are going to use.

    8) “Because of the taboo stigma surrounding BDSM relationships, it must be the people in the relationship, with support from those within the community.”

    I disagree. The BDSM community may be in an even worse position to determine if someone is abusive because they will want to protect the community from allegations of abuse – and therefore deny it ever happens. There is an unfolding case in Seattle now were a member of the BDSM community procured a prostitute and then proceeded to violate every single precept of safe and consensual sex, but was (and still is) defended by many by saying that no one “really understands” what happened.

    Perhaps the better path is to destigmatize human sexuality in general, and BDSM in particular. BDSM is not independent of our larger culture, in fact, it often acts as a magnifying glass.

    9) As a Christian, I often find examples within scripture, and this includes examples for my submission. Jesus loved the world so much that he suffered and died in order to accomplish a higher goal. Paul lived a life of total submission to the service of his Lord. Obviously, these are not examples of a BDSM relationship, but they provide an example of extreme submission and the fulfillment that can come from it. Is it sane? Perhaps, but it was NEVER self-interested or rational.

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    • Hello!~
      Firstly, thanks so much for your comment =) It’s good to know that people are actually reading this post.
      1) I agree, Ruddick makes a great point in her article and I affirm it whole heartedly.

      2) I’m glad you clicked on the links. I think the challenge when we look at any list like this is that there is the possibility of it being taken to be an imposition on the whole community. I was using it in my post as a framework because it was convenient and I tended to agree with much of what was being said. Is it not the case that I could have developed my own framework and would have received the same critique? However, at the end of the day we have to start looking at the popular phrase “safe, sane, consensual” and ask what it really means and how we can determine if it is or is not being lived out.

      For example, you took to task the idea that a submissive is required to make friends in the community. I don’t think the intention of the author is to say that you can’t have friends outside of the community or live an independent existence. But if, as you put forth in an earlier point, part of our humanness is determined by our interactions with others, what is it saying if we decide to have no friendly involvement whatsoever with the larger community?

      3) I see your point but I think in the particular context of a BDSM relationship, trust is an imperative to consent, especially when we consider the ‘riskier’ activities (choking, whip use, etc).

      4) I agree with your critique. I interpreted this statement to leave room for the both/and, whole *and* half, and to be a statement against viewing your partner as *only* your other half, i.e., not a separate individual.

      5) This is also a valuable critique. In my experience, while the decision making is skewed towards the Dominant, that doesn’t mean that the submissive doesn’t have equal voice in what takes place in the relationship. For example, you wrote “it is impossible to truly submit to someone else’s desires and still retain a full measure of equality,” and I agree. But my impression is that when you are submitting to a Dominant’s desires, those desires are mirrored in you, it is something that you also want; not only the submitting but the what you are submitting to, if that makes sense. If you are submitting to the desires of a Dominant and those desires make you uncomfortable and you do not have equal voice then how are we view that relationship?

      6) Yes, that was Ruddick’s point and critique. And I agree that it is a matter of perspective.

      7) I used those principles (as I mentioned above) as a framework. If one is in a relationship where they do not trust the other person, consent to what they are doing, respect the other person, and believe that what they are doing is both sane and safe for them, then don’t we need to ask why they are doing it? I think that you can take these words and define what they mean for you.

      8) I should have been clearer. What I meant by this was more on the lines of those within the community with whom you have a relationship. I have had friends ask me for advice on their relationships and when those questions arise I am “part of the community” and support the person as she/he finds her/his own answers. I didn’t see the community as a condemning or judging body, but as a supportive body. However, I agree with the concerns you have raised, they are deeply problematic.

      9) Cool ending comment =) There is definitely more in Scripture that we can point to than Ephesians.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. Have a great night
      -Angelina

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      • I appreciate that you have taken some time to think about these issues, and to de-stimatize them accordingly. Treating people as people first is always a great step, and one that you appear to be facilitating. Honestly, thank you very much.

        On point 2, you write: “Is it not the case that I could have developed my own framework and would have received the same critique? [imposing one’s own view as the correct one]”

        The answer is, some people would do so, yes. I would argue that it depends on what that framework is and how much diversity of application you are willing to tolerate. Drawing a framework, however, necessarily means that some things are left out while others are included. My objection is not so much with the idea of drawing limits, but with the specific limits that are used for that website.

        The point on a submissive making friends “within the community,” as it is used in the laundry list, is not simply encouraging a person not to be isolated. Every healthy human being needs to have human interaction. However, when a blanket statement is made that a friend or friends must be drawn from a specific group, that is controlling and directing someone’s social needs in a specific direction. What would be the point of forcing someone (because it is a blanket statement of what a person SHOULD do) to draw friends from a specific group? There are some dynamics of insular groups at work that I won’t get into right now, but the answer to that question is that it limits a person’s outside input and provides an underground feedback loop to the Dominant. This, in my opinion, is an open invitation to greater abuse potential.

        On point 3, I am only saying that we have to be careful about how we use words like “consent” and “trust.” As you point out, there are risky behaviors with the potential for horrifying outcomes. Analogies are great, but they also tend to leave out details. But yes, if one is going to allow another to tie them up; then they must trust them to do so safely and not to violate limits while held helpless.

        On point 5, you write: “But my impression is that when you are submitting to a Dominant’s desires, those desires are mirrored in you, it is something that you also want; not only the submitting but the what you are submitting to, if that makes sense.”

        It makes sense, but it is not always correct. In any relationship, there are things we do simply because we know it pleases the other person. In a vanilla sense, perhaps I make a special desert for my spouse, even though I hate it. I have no desire for the desert. But I desire to give them something I know they enjoy. This holds up under BDSM, as well. Perhaps I don’t enjoy….flogging (as a random example). But I know my partner does, and so I am willing to submit to it – not because it mirrors my desires, but because it fulfills another desire: the desire to give them something they truly enjoy.

        “If you are submitting to the desires of a Dominant and those desires make you uncomfortable and you do not have equal voice then how are we view that relationship?”
        This is why I am hesitant to submit my relationship for the approval of the community. What looks patently abusive to you might be loving and affirming to me. Meanwhile, something that looks rather benign could have far-reaching psychological and/or physical consequences and be abusive.

        There is also a lot of ground between having no voice and having equal voice. It is still possible to provide feedback and indicate preferences and allow another person to make the final choice about things. The potential for abuse is there, but that does not mean it is already.

        On point 7, you write: “If one is in a relationship where they do not trust the other person, consent to what they are doing, respect the other person, and believe that what they are doing is both sane and safe for them, then don’t we need to ask why they are doing it?”

        I was confining my comments to “rational and self-interest.” What is rational for an outside observer is not for someone involved, and vice versa. Plus, self-interest is a sticky concept. Tom Frank explored voting behavior in Kansas that puts the moral interest of society above economic self-interest in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” I know of people who point to it as evidence that conservative voters are insane, but the reality is that they define their self-interest in the morality of society as being higher than their economic self-interest. Obviously, we are not talking about voting in this conversation, but the objection stands – self-interest is not always so easily defined.

        On point 8, I’d refer back to my comment about insular communities. In some ways, the BDSM community can mirror the social control aspects of a religious cult. Even talking about past abuse in a BDSM relationship can subject a person to heavy persecution (for example: http://magazine.goodvibes.com/2011/07/12/i-never-called-it-rape-addressing-abuse-in-bdsm-communities/).

        Once again, let me thank you for hosting this conversation and making it accessible to a population that might not otherwise see it.

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  7. Hi Angelina,

    Your post really shocks me. Why? In my whole life I have never heard a word like BDSM before. At the first time I read your post, I could not understand what you mean for BDSM. But when I clicked on the word BDSM, it really shocks me. Even though I have been in the ministry for almost 9 years as a pastor, I never heard such kind of word and also never had experiences in my church, in my community as well as in our country Myanmar. Not only that word BDSM__ Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission/Sadism and Masochism, but also Promise to Play Safe: An Ethical guide to BDSM Safety for Dominants & Submissives, Positive Characteristics of both Dominant and Submissive really surprised me.

    It is no doubt that domestic violence; assault and domination in the families, rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassments, and sex trading, prostitution industry, and human trafficking are very much popular in our country. But, to the best of my knowledge, the practicing of BDSM is not popular yet in my country Myanmar. However, as this is the age of globalization, I hope it will come into the lifestyle of Myanmar people slowly or quickly in the days to come. In this sense, I totally agree with you that every pastor, minister in this modern age should be aware of this BDSM to apply as the ethics of care into the lifestyle of the congregations in the churches today. We should be ready to give pastoral care and counseling to those who are in BDSM Relationships.

    I came to learn many new and strange words and insights through your post. Thank you for your thoughtful experiences relating to the feminist ethics which are very much important for my ministry.

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    • Dear Sam,
      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your affirmation about the importance of being aware of this community. Especially, as you pointed out, with the pervasive nature of terrible sexual expression (rape, abuse, prostitution, etc – which are definitely also pervasive in the US) it’s important to be able to distinguish BDSM from these other things in giving appropriate pastoral care. But also to hold those relationships to a standard by which you and the parties involved can determine whether or not it is healthy. Great comment.

      Have a great day
      Angelina

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  8. Angelina – Let me start with, the world is lucky to have your voice in it. Dang. Thanks for tackling the hard (no pun intended) topics with humor, honesty, and candor. Knowing amazingly little about BDSM professionally (read: almost none) and none personally, I can but project. And I’ll admit to pre-conceived judgment; the power that I sense is involved in BDSM scares me, terrifies me, even conceptually. I have a gut-level response that says “but that’s exactly why women, men, etc” get abused, when sexual expression gets out of hand. But wait! Before you press the “delete” button, I need to explain. I can see, through the analysis you offered, not only that I was wrong, but indeed how so many of your conclusions – particularly from Roddick’s work – are not only spot-on, but also deeply apply to empowering individuals enough to help some (if not many) to avoid being in situations of abuse. So, I see BDSM empowerment as very relevant to the very community I thought it threatened. Such is the learning from feminist ethics and amazing colleagues/friends such as you. Great post(s)!

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  9. Oh Angelina,
    When I saw your facebook post the other night asking about BDSM v feminism, I thought, no — she’s not really going to write about BDSM for ethics…. is she? Your braininess and originality never disappoint. You make me feel like a naive 10 yr old. So far in the past are my musings and deeds that might approach kinky sex. You may not think this possible, but believe me, it is a luxury to be 57 and not have ovaries – no estrogen – no hormones to rattle me. Other than having anxiety while trying to originate academic thoughts when I am not intellectual, my life is calm. I feel clear-headed and happy most of the time. So I may not advance your argument much but I do have some thoughts and questions that come out of spiritual care concerns.
    (1) As someone who is concerned about spiritual care and spiritual health, I like what the “Promise to Play Safe” website says up front: “We suggest that BDSM safety begins in the soul of the practitioner and exists on four levels: ethical, emotional, personal, and physical safety. We believe that the gifts we give each other have equal spiritual value so the responsibility for maintaining safety on all of these levels is shared equally by the participants in a power exchange relationship.” I agree whole-heartedly that our care and concern for others begins in our souls and that our sexuality is imbued with spiritual gifts. However, in a power exchange relationship is it possible to share equally the responsibility of maintaining safety? I agree with Tomio, “It is impossible to truly submit to someone else’s desires and still retain a full measure of equality” (response 1, #5) I understand what you are saying in response to that critique as a kind of reciprocity, not equality. I doubt that, any relationship based in a “power exchange,” can share all elements equally. Perhaps a moment of equipoise? I don’t know.
    (2) In your response to Tomio you talk a great deal about trust and trust seems to be a trigger point for me in regard to BDSM. For me, to consider BDSM as a lifestyle and not just a periodic novelty, the level of trust required seems beyond what I am capable of. As well, from my hetero-mostly vanilla perspective, I feel a small fear response – perhaps a sense of loss of control, as I wonder if I could be involved in a BDSM relationship. With that said, I also wonder, if someone in a BDSM relationship came to me for spiritual care in regard to her relationship how I might respond; indeed if I could respond beyond lending an ear. I simply cannot grasp the trust necessary to be in a healthy BDSM relationship. The website sounds idealistic to me. It would be interesting and helpful to explore this topic further in light of spiritual care concerns.

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  10. Thank you for writing this. I have been active in the BDSM lifestyle for the past 16 years, and have been running educational group for the past five. There is a crying need for understanding and compassionate pastoral care that does not brand the person coming for help as insane or weak or helpless.

    While there are more resources than there use to be, and less stigma overall, people still lose their children for so much as admitting their personal sexual tastes might be unusual, and so many will refuse to seek help.

    I will admit that some people in the broader kink community try to hush things up and shove them under rugs, more and more are willing to stand up and speak publicly about both the good and the bad apects to this lifestyle.

    If it is of any help, while some individuals do get out of hand and do stupid or evil things, there has been a long time network amongst community leaders to share information about people who are problems. While we can’t press charges based on rumor or have people banned from public locations, many organizations do indeed ban individuals from their particular meetings and act as references and reference checkers for people who are trying to learn about potential new partners.

    BDSM relationships are as individual as any marriage, and like any life path, have unique and beautiful things to teach us all. Gaining overtly affirmative consent, being able to express exactly what your looking for, giving it everything once you’ve decided on a course of action, and trusting your partner with your emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual, safety are all things that anyone could learn and apply positively to their lives.

    And as far as the BDSM community goes, wine drinkers include those to go to Church and those who go to bars, and which would you trust with your safety more? It all depends on who you hang out with and their personal ethics, no matter what community you participate in.

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  11. Damn, Angelina! You straight-up killed it with this post!

    Kudos for tackling such a personal issue and recognizing kink as an ethical and pastoral area of much needed discussion. BDSM relationship’s playing at power roles also demands a Feminist critique. I can’t wait until we get into Mary Daly so we can come back to these issues of theism, sexuality and dominance/submission. I’d venture to say, and I’m aware of my generalizing tendencie here, that religious systems that recognize accrued sin also legitimize and, often, demand masochistic penance. Do you think there’s a theological dimension to BDSM? And if so, have we just stumbled upon a major paper? ^_^

    Though I’m much more vanilla than I’m willing to admit freely on the Internet, many close relations of mine are in or have been in the scene. It’s refreshing to hear criticism of the ethical implications and potentials for abuse within the subculture in general and the bedroom in particular. You’ve reminded us an ethics of justice must always inform that of care, especially given the fact that individuals hold disproportionate power or capabilitiesin relationships. I can see how the BDSM community, if ethically committed, could act as an interpersonal system of checks and balances against abuse. That’s why I love Promise to Play Safe; it’s a loyalty oath affirming a positive, nurturing standard for fabulous freakie-deakiness!

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