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

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.

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.”

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. 


Categories: Body, Sexual Ethics, Sexuality

Tags: , ,

18 replies

  1. Dear Angelina,

    You might be interested in my article from 2011 “Free to Lynch, Exploit, Rape and Torture: Capital and the crimes of pornographers.” Big Porn Inc edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

    I am critical of BDSM and have written several other articles including one in which I critique Fifty Shades of Grey. But I think this more philosophical one might be more useful for you.

    Best wishes,
    Dr Susan Hawthorne
    Adjunct Professor
    College of Arts, Society, and Education
    James Cook University, Townsville


    • Dear Dr. Hawthorne,
      I appreciate your feedback and look forward to having some time to delve into your academic articles. I think you’ll agree that most BDSM practitioners also have a fair amount of critique for 50 Shades of Grey and other media portrayals as they often can’t get past the visual representation of the kink/taboo fetish and are rarely, if ever, reflective of lived experience of real people.

      Based on the title of your article alone I would concur that the access we have to pornography today has drastically changed the landscape of how we think about sexual expression and the expectations we place on one another. I look forward to reading it.


  2. This is not a topic I’m interested in. But we all have First Amendment rights.


  3. I was struck by these words which I think are really important “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.” The ethics of care uses concrete relationships as a starting point – I like that. The abstract justice thing smacks of patriarchy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also paused on the sentence you quote here, Sara. Feminist theologians, as I understand it all, assert that all theological thinking (I think one can talk about ethics of care in the same breath) derives from human experience. What gets called “objective theology” (one can talk about abstract absolute principles here in the same breath) is really codified collective human experience. The question feminist theologians ask is: Whose experience is being taken into account? I suppose one must needs ask the individuals in each concrete relationship. However, given that we live within a social system–patriarchy–where men dominate women through systems of power that inform political, economic, and educational policies, the deck feels stacked against any kind of equality being played in BDSM.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hey Esther! I think you bring up a great point about how our cultural context plays out in relationships. If When re-reading this article (haven’t looked at it since graduate school) it’s limitations – the role of cultural context, social systems, and the role of community being not being addressed being two glaring omissions – became much more apparent.

        My best recommendation would be to engage in conversations with practitioners for more information; however, I think a common response you would hear may be “power differentials between partners (the impact of patriarchy being a prime example) play out in all types of romantic couples – BDSM practitioners are simply more honest about it up front.”

        My experience working with folks in this community is that, generally speaking, folks don’t fall into a BDSM relationship out of the blue. It usually seems to start with exposure to it as an option, lots of research and delving into BDSM blogs, forums, etc online, perhaps some in-person visits to local communities, before someone takes a step into this type of relationship. There are “part-time” BDSM relationships (ex: how this plays out only happens in the bedroom) and “full-time” (ex: a submissive gives their power to the dominant 24/7) and a lot of stuff in between. I think what a lot of folks (not necessarily you) miss about these types of relationships is the amount of dialogue that happens in healthy BDSM relationships around these questions of consent and power.


  4. Interesting post. I had to Google “BDSM”. What I don’t understand is why anyone would consider this kind of relationship “loving”.


    • My best recommendation would be to reach out to a practitioner either online (there are lots of communities) or IRL who is willing to answer your questions. There are lots of “sub-genres” within the BDSM community which are worth familiarizing oneself with. I think one of the draw backs of this article when I wrote it 7 years ago is that I didn’t address or explore this and therefore presented BDSM as one big umbrella, which is inaccurate and unhelpful to the reader. I also assumed that this term was common knowledge and didn’t explain it so that’s also unhelpful.

      I suppose my question back to you would be how do you define a “loving” relationship? What characteristics does your definition have that you believe practitioners of BDSM do not have or see played out in their own relationships?


  5. Interesting post. It’s hard for me to imagine a BDSM relationship that doesn’t echo the dominant/submissive roles in our culture — a patriarchal culture — roles that are usually detrimental to one, if not both of the parties.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My best recommendation would be to reach out to a practitioner and ask. You are correct that the cultural context and social location of the practitioners play a role in how the relationship plays out (as they do in “vanilla” relationships). These questions are definitely being asked within some parts of the BDSM community as well. This article is brief but may be helpful for you to read. The title is “Meet The Dominatrix Who Requires The Men Who Hire Her To Read Black Feminist Theory”


  6. Do check the links in your article to “Promise to Play Safe” and “the phrase.” In my browser they did not lead to where I think you intended. Thanks for writing on a controversial subject.


    • Hello there! I wrote this article 7 years ago and wasn’t aware it was being republished. Unfortunately it appears that very useful website no longer exists. However, if you are looking for a good in-print resource I would recommend “The Topping Book” and the “Bottoming Book” by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy. Though they were published in 2003 they provide a pretty comprehensive overview.


  7. Insofar as almost all individuals are situated in communities in which patterns of domination are present and validated by cultures, the issue of consent is complicated as Ruddick points out. Some individuals “consent” to stay in relationships where they are regularly beaten because they “love” and care for the beater. Most of us would not agree this is a good choice, even though it is a choice, at least in some cases. Or to take another example, the Nordic model on prostitution rejects the “two consenting adults” can do whatever they want defense of prostitution: they say “we as a community” do not want to live in a society that sanctions the idea that some people have the right to sell their bodies for sex and other people have the right to buy this service. In the Nordic model the johns are arrested and the prostitutes are not; they are offered social services to change their lives. Some object to the Nordic model because it takes a stand that selling your body for sex and paying someone else for sex are not good ideas or good ways to live or good ways to organize societies.


    • You raise an excellent point regarding the complexity of “consent” as being a cultural construct as well as the challenge of how we define consent as individuals and as societal groups. However, I think when we try to categorize BDSM relationships within the context of physically or emotionally abusive relationships we stumble into being unable to provide meaningful pastoral care. My experience of providing pastoral care in any context is that we have to listen to the lived experience of the person(s) to whom we are providing care. In the same way that we are encouraged to practice “non-anxious presence” with people coming to us with other pastoral care needs, if we have an immediate knee-jerk response to this type of relationship it becomes an obstacle to us as practitioners and care givers.

      I wrote this article 7 years ago and recognize one of the drawbacks of the piece is not talking about the role of the BDSM community at-large in the individual relationships, which I think would speak more to your point. The BDSM community has as many, let’s call them, “sub-genres” and we do a disservice to those seeking pastoral care when they are lumped together in one umbrella.


  8. You know, it’s funny coming back to this blog post years after I wrote it and seeing a lot of the same sorts of comments as when it was initially published. What this blog post perhaps failed to do was to convey that it’s purpose was to provide a basic beginning framework for how to understand BDSM relationships in the context of pastoral care.

    As in many (if not all) instances of providing pastoral care it is not the role of the caregiver to pass judgment on the care receiver but to journey along side the person receiving care. If anything, reading many of these comments elucidates for me why so many people within the BDSM community eschew organized religion and would be unlikely to avail themselves of pastoral care in the first place. Within the Christian community the most commonly discussed form of BDSM openly is one that reinforces heteronormative, rigid gender binary, patriarchal norms with cherry picked scripture passages while simultaneously upholding white, American 1950s social mores.

    Given that this is perhaps a small fraction of how BDSM practitioners engage in sexual expression it’s no wonder that we seem to find ourselves at an impasse. If, as pastoral care givers, we cannot imagine a BDSM relationship as loving, equal, or liberating then how can we have any hope of providing good pastoral care when the opportunity arises?


    • I would say that there are many situations in which a pastoral care practitioner may not find the behavior of a parishoner to be in line with her or his own understanding of what a loving, equal, and liberating relationship looks like. In fact many parishoners these days are older white people who are to some degree or another involved in heterosexual marriages where the man implictly or explictly comes first and has the last word. I imagine there are also quite a few white parishoners who are somewhat or very racist. I think there are many situations in which the pastor tries to understand and love the person while at the same time not finding all of the person’s behaviors and attitudes to be liberating. What do you do in the above situations?


      • I think you would agree that pastoral care is, above all things, situational. Our first priority is to do no harm.

        However, it strikes me that we set ourselves up to do harm if we are unwilling to engage the care receiver on their own terms before passing judgment. Many of the comments below this article supports my concern.

        Given the limited scope of knowledge that exists around pastoral care and how it is or could be done with people in the BDSM community I believe that we do ourselves a disservice if we enter into a caregiving relationship with only our preconceived notions about these types of relationships – especially since for many these notions are based on media portrayals and critiques instead of engagement with those with lived experience.

        In the few folks I have worked with they aren’t coming because of concerns about the nature of their relationship. They’re coming for many of the same reasons other people come seeking care: loss of a loved one, tragedies in life, spiritual drought, etc. Their involvement in BDSM is just one of the many factors influencing their response to the given trauma and in these instances has been a source of love and strength, not an additional source of harm.

        So whatever my personal perspective may be how I respond to a care receiver is going to be based first on who is standing before me and what they tell me through a lens of asking internally how I can give care without doing further harm.


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