In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock muses “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” after being mocked and derided for his outsider status as a Jew. Many in the BDSM community are left asking the same questions when confronted with social organizations, court systems, and general public opinion that seem to disregard or minimize the agency and well-being of those involved in alternative lifestyles. It not at all unusual to hear about individuals being denied jobs, doubted when pressing sexual assault charges, or considered subpar members of society when information arises that they’re kinky. Research by Steve Loughnan, Nick Haslam, Tess Murnane, Jeroen Vaes, Catherine Reynolds, and Caterina Suitner, a group of social scientists and psychologists, may help to explain why kinksters seem to have so much trouble getting the respect they desire.
One of the main problems may be that the terms BDSM, kink, and alternative lifestyle immediately equate to sex for many people, deviate sex at that. In a culture which often teaches us to view sex as something to be traded and bartered with, the people who are thought to engage in it on a regular basis can easily become seen as objects and service providers rather than full-fledged individuals. In short, they become objectified. While women are more susceptible to objectification in American culture, associating sex as the primary component in BDSM and kink may lead to the objectification of kinksters regardless of gender, sexuality, race, class, or creed.
Although objectification during a scene may be the epitome of hotness for some kinky individuals, most people rarely enjoy it in their day-to-day activities due to negative derivatives that come along with it. Loughnan et al. found that objectification leads to a deep sense of depersonalization, the denial of mind and moral concern to the objectified other. In fact, they discovered that when the average person is presented with images of scantily clad women and men and told the person in the photograph is experiencing intense amounts of pain, generally the viewer is more willing to allow that person to suffer than non-objectified individuals.
While the study focused on presenting participants with visual images and objectifying them via their clothing, there’s a strong likelihood that the result remain the same if one removes the visual and simply vocalizes information that easily allows the listener to objectify the subject. Here is where kinksters must beware, the mere mention of the words kink and BDSM may be enough to push one into the objectified Other category. Once solidly Othered, it’s very likely you will be deemed lacking in competence, higher thought, and emotional agency, making it easier to allow mistreatment.
We’ve seen this time and again – a rape victim is found to be into being flogged and suddenly they’re no longer an innocent victim, but making a big deal out of a hook-up gone wrong; a teacher is discovered to enjoy bondage and their ability to shape young minds is questioned; an actor admits they’ve even tried kinking it up in the bedroom and tabloids go crazy speculating about their over-the-top sexcapades being the cause of the end of their last relationship. While kinksters are always likely to find themselves Othered, they may do well to work at presenting BDSM as something more than just sex and, thus, reducing the rush to objectification.