Is BDSM Inescapably Racist?

I love the BDSM community. I love kink. It is integral to who I am and how I see the world. I love the aesthetic, the values, and the people who live BDSM. But I struggle with parts of of the practice and language of kink.

I have been struggling for a long time on resolving the M/s dynamic in kink, the language around this, and some kink play and my desire to be open and accepting and loving for all races in the community. When I initially got into BDSM, i didn’t think too much about the underpinnings of kink play. Then I watched Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs. He featured an interview with a gay couple, one Black and one White. The Black man was talking about understanding the history of race relations but being on his knees in front of a White South African made his dick rock hard. That made such an impression, I can still see the scene in my head nearly 30 years later.

This couple clearly loved each other and had great sex. However, as much as they were a couple and had their own dynamic they were not decoupled from history. That is what I want to address in this post.

M/s and Race

The Master/slave dynamic for me is deeply appealing. I am drawn to the idea of being owned and having a person love and care for me in the way a Master cares for his property. I generally enjoy slave auctions at dungeons and have no issue participating as a service bottom. That said, the base of the language is problematic.

Master/slave in the United States is inextricably linked to slavery. The historic cultural trauma and continuing practices of racial discrimination affects minorities every day in the United States. We have not done the healing we need to do as a country to be able to forgive and move forward.

Master/slave will continue to bring up images and allusions to chattel slavery until we heal as a country– which is decades or more down the line. For a White/White couple, the link to historic slavery may feel weak and unimportant. For interracial couples and Black/Black couples the connection is often deep and ever-present.

So far, there is no work exploring if couples where at least one of the people is Black opt to identify as D/s rather than M/s based on the language. There is very little discussion about race and roles in the community outside the Black kinksters I have met. There needs to be but it has not happened yet.

Practice and Play

Kinky play can often involve things that hark back to chattel slavery. Specifically single tail whipping and suspension. Again, I love both of these practices, but it changes when you engage with partners of different races.

Slaves were frequently whipped as punishment. They were whipped with single tails. There are pictures of the “trees” that some developed on their backs from the scaring of these whippings. There was nothing okay about either the practice of slavery or this type of punishment. If you have seechokecherry-treen the photos of slave “trees” it is something horrid you can’t un-see.

The whippings were brutal and unforgiving. When we teach about slavery in America, this type of brutal punishment is rarely mentioned and only people who delve beyond their high school text books tend to be aware of how brutal slavery was.

However, there is a deep cultural connection between whipping Black people and slavery. It becomes difficult to de-couple the two.

The other practice that dredges up images of slavery is suspension. Lynching often involved hanging. The cultural connection is so deep, the jazz song “Strangefruit” refers to the Black bodies that were lynched as “strangefruit” in the trees. Modern lynching more often involves shooting (and often by police) or burning, but historically lynchings involved hangings.

Hanging Black people was a celebrated practice in the American South. People used to take photos of lynchings and turn them into postcards (for those interested, there is a historic collection at withoutsanctuary.org). The long-term and deep cultural scarring of living in a country that celebrated murdering your community by enshrining the images of murdered bodies on postcards is hard to underestimate. So, when a Black person is suspended the link to images of lynching is strong and sometimes visceral for participants.

The Disconnect

The thing is, kink and BDSM is based in consent and desire to participate in these activities. There is nothing inherently racist with wanting to suspend or be suspended as a Black person. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be whipped or whipping a Black person as part of a kink. So participation in these activities is desirable and negotiated.

There is not a complete disconnect however. I had the great honor to teach at Boundless a few weeks ago. This is a fantastic event near Ukaih, CA on a beautiful private campground. The energy of the land was amazing. The people involved were great. I loved this event.

When I was booked to teach here, I asked my partner if he wanted to go. His reply was, “Its a bunch of White people in the woods with rope. Historically this goes poorly for people like me.” Which is true. Yes, he recognizes that this is a kink group and that as my partner he would be safe and I would never ask him to do something he didn’t want too. Nevertheless, the cultural implications were too deep for him to feel completely comfortable with going to the event (which is sad. The folks up there were great!!).

The event itself turned out to be very White. There were a few racial minorities, but the event was more White than most of the kink events in northern California. During my teaching session I brought up what my partner said. Afterward, I was having lunch with one of the few interracial couples in attendance. We came back to the idea that even with kinky folks, certain things still resonate with race tensions in the U.S.

The Black member of the couple talked about suspensions at the event. Apparently he had watched a Black woman get suspended the night before. There was a deep awareness between them that while they were at a kink event and that the activity was not based in acting out racial histories or were intended to be in any way racists, that the act of hanging a Black woman from a tree was something which would not be accepted by many people in the Black community. There was a sense of “this would be seen as wrong” by people who mattered to these individuals but they still had a desire to do this.

This is what I struggle with. Individuals have needs and desires that they need to fulfill. We should not be restricted by historical ties to certain activities and institutions. We need to move forward as a culture and individually from these past wounds. But we have not moved forward. The connection is still too deep and still too connected to practice some kink without pulling up memories and images of the horrific institution of chattel slavery.

I am not sure what we do as a kink community to move forward and help heal these cultural wounds. I am not sure what will ultimately make these practices and our language okay. I know we need to figure it out. We as a community need to have more conversations about race, and history and love and connection and community. We need to have a community where people can live out their desires and love and connect. I am just not sure what the next step is for us.

I would love your input. Feel free to reply below. I will approve comments without edit as soon as I get to my notifications.

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