From the archives – 9/23/11 – our first FAR year!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Angelina 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.