Is BDSM a Matter of Sexual Orientation?

 Posted by on March 17, 2013
Mar 172013
 

BDSM as OrientationWilliam Saletan argues on slate.com that BDSM is not a sexual orientation. Dan Savage agrees (Dan would likely want me to clarify that he doesn’t agree with much else that Saletan says on this matter in case you don’t click on the link to Dan’s article). Let’s take a look at this question, shall we? Let’s start by looking at arguments offered for why BDSM is not a matter of sexual orientation.

 

Evaluating Arguments: Definition of sexual orientation refers to attraction based on sex and gender

The medical dictionary at thefreedictionary.com gives the following definition:

The direction of one’s sexual interest toward members of the same, opposite, or both sexes, especially a direction seen to be dictated by physiologic rather than sociologic forces. Replaces sexual preference in most contemporary uses.

Based on this definition Saletan and Savage would appear to be correct. Matter resolved, right? Not quite. Dan may be a god but he is not the Christian God and, therefore, I can say with authority that his word is not the bible!

A common issue I encounter in BDSM is that we have a limited vocabulary available to us. Many definitions in the dictionary do not yet account for BDSM. Thus, citing dictionary definitions does not adequately treat the matter.

Evaluating APA Definition

Here is what the American Psychological Association (APA) says about sexual orientation beyond attraction based on sex of a partner (emphasis added is mine):

APA: Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.

APA: Sexual orientation is commonly discussed as if it were solely a characteristic of an individual, like biological sex, gender identity, or age. This perspective is incomplete because sexual orientation is defined in terms of relationships with others. People express their sexual orientation through behaviors with others, including such simple actions as holding hands or kissing.

This definition goes deeper than that given by the dictionary and the bold text makes a case that BDSM could be described as a sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation and sexual identity are two related terms and there is as much universal agreement1 regarding the meaning of two as there is about the definition of submissive. Indeed both terms are defined and discussed in the context of homosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexuality, or asexuality (HBHA) but qualitatively they seem to also encompass BDSM. For example, why mention related behaviors and membership in a community (in the APA definition) if all that determines orientation is to which sex you are attracted—why not just leave it at attraction? If related behaviors and membership in a community are relevant HBHA then why are they not relevant when we speak of BDSM? Is directing the definition at HBHA for a specific reason, or is it arbitrary and the definition is directed at HBHA because that has been the primary focus for such attention (just like marriage was initially directed at heterosexual couples since that was the primary focus for such attention until we realized that the term was also needed by same sex couples)?

I identify as a man who enjoys the submissive role in BDSM—this point is a key part of my identity. When I am emotionally, romantically, and sexually attracted to a woman, I want to engage in submissive expressions of BDSM with her just like I want to engage in more conventional expressions like holding hands. It is not a choice to add variety to what I do and instead is an essential component of my relationship expression. My sexual wants and fantasies have always been based on submission to women.

This response is consistent with APA’s definition above. My sexual orientation (the text that follows comes from the APA definition) refers to my sense of identity based on my attraction to women and related behaviors, and my membership in a community of others who share those attractions [and behaviors]. My sexual orientation is defined in terms of relationships with others. I express this sexual orientation through behaviors with others, including simple actions as holding hands or kissing feet (ha!) or various expressions of submission.

Thus, my sexual orientation has two components: (1) heterosexuality, and (2) submission.

For some people BDSM is not an essential component to their relationship expression. As I indicate when I refer to KinSea scales, I see matters of sexuality to exist as continuums and there exists a continuum to describe an interest in BDSM. Just as someone who only occasionally engages in homosexual activity is covered by the continuum that describes preference for sex of partner, a person who occasionally engages in BDSM is covered by the continuum that describes an interest in BDSM. I see these various continuums to superimpose to define sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual orientation.

 

Sexuality and Sexual Orientation is Complex

How would you describe a woman who identifies as a lesbian and has:

  1. Emotional relationships exclusively with women but will occasionally have a sexual encounter with a man?
  2.  Emotional and sexual relationship with a person who has feminine energy but male sex and gender?
  3. Sexual relationship with a woman who has masculine energy?

What about a genderfluid or androgynous person who is attracted only to others who are similar? This complexity of sexual orientation increases when we bring BDSM into the picture. How would you describe a woman who chooses women for emotional and sexual intimacy but likes to dominantly use a strap-on on men?

Truth is diversity in human sexuality and identity makes sexual orientation too complex to be defined simply by the dictionary definitions given at top, or even by the second dimension I suggest when I describe my sexual orientation.

 

Evaluating Arguments: BDSM is a lifestyle or preference.

Some people suggest using the terms lifestyle or preference to refer to a want for BDSM. It is not a lifestyle or preference for me. It is not something that I came upon as a good way to live but something that is intrinsic to my identity and has been since early childhood—when my vision of the ideal lifestyle was based on action figures and toys! If you think lifestyle is an adequate term to describe an aspect intrinsic to identity, why is the term orientation needed at all? Why not just say some people live the heterosexual lifestyle and some people live the homosexual lifestyle and so on?

Sexual preference was abandoned in favor of sexual orientation to describe HBHA to emphasize that it is not a choice but how one is wired. The same is true for me for BDSM.

 

Evaluating Arguments: BDSM is what you do, orientation is what you are

Sexual  behavior is what you do. Your orientation is how you identify and what you are. A gay man is not gay because he has sex with other men; he has sex with other men because he is gay.

BDSM activities are what I do as sexual behavior. Orientation is what you are and submissive is what I am. I don’t identify as a submissive because I do BDSM, but instead I do BDSM because I identify as a submissive.

 

Evaluating Arguments: Homosexuality is an orientation because you can’t hide it easily but submission is not because you can hide it easily.

You can indeed hide homosexuality—ask people who for decades hid their homosexual identity and people who still do hide it. Indeed it is much harder to hide a homosexual identity than a BDSM identity.

If orientation is defined only by whether you can hide it, why is heterosexuality or bisexuality considered an orientation?

And if orientation is determined by whether you need to hide it, then what about homosexual persons who are single? Are they of homosexual orientation only when they are partnered and when the question about whether they need to hide their relationship arises?

A minority sexual orientation is not about whether you can hide your sexual behavior—it is about whether you feel a need to hide how you identify for sexual behavior. It is about how you identify, and whether you can be accepted for your identity.

 

Evaluating Arguments: People don’t have to know or see what you do so why the need to share that you have a BDSM orientation?

The question about which behavior can be done publicly is determined by norms for propriety for that setting. It would be odd for a BDSM couple to do a spanking at an office party, just as it would be odd for a non-BDSM couple to have oral sex at the office party. But if it is a party where sex is being had publicly by different orientations then so what if my partner puts clothespins on my nipples?

This argument runs parallel to the hiding argument; according to it, a single gay person has no reason to reveal or be open about their identity, which is incorrect and breaks this argument.

A gay couple doesn’t need to give a blow by blow account of who blew who and those into BDSM don’t need to have a photo at work showing their butterfly board (ask Salestan what it is if you don’t know) in action. Instead what each hopes for is to simply be able to say how they identify and be accepted for it.

 

Evaluating Arguments: Heterosexual kinky people enjoy heterosexual privilege and cannot know what it is like for queer people, and heterosexual BDSM people should not use the term sexual orientation to describe how they relate to BDSM because it would be disrespectful to queer people.

Sexual orientation includes heterosexuality—it is not a term used only by queer sexual orientations and, so, to use the term is not to commandeer a term that is otherwise used by them. And use of sexual orientation to describe BDSM is not limited to heterosexual people—it encompasses all into BDSM including those who also identify as queer.

 

Why the want to use sexual orientation to describe BDSM?

Imagine a time in which there was no terminology to differentiate between HBHA sexual orientations. Why was there ever a need to define heterosexuality and homosexuality as two sexual orientations? And why was there a need to add bisexuality to the mix, followed by describing this facet of orientation as a continuum? What reason led us to coin these terms, and what benefit do they bring today?

Words give form to thoughts and communicate ideas. And so these words and terms give form to thoughts that allow one to communicate their identity. This communication helps us understand and be understood for matters that relate to identity, commonality, and compatibility.

Whatever information or benefit is had by using HBHA to describe sexual orientation also applies to BDSM—it provides a way to communicate and better understand a person’s identity and with whom they share commonality and compatibility. The three (or 4 in some cases) choices for sexual orientation given by the dictionary definition are not enough to describe the complexity of sexual orientations. Language evolves when we expand our vocabulary or broaden our definitions because we find existing words lacking. If sexual orientation refers only to HBHA then we need to either broaden the definition of sexual orientation or coin new terms.

Let’s examine the word orientation. Definitions at thefreedictionary.com  include:

A tendency of thought; a general inclination: a Marxist orientation.

Basic beliefs or preferences (sexual orientation)

Thus, sexual orientation can be used to describe the general sexual inclination and preferences. There is no reason this inclination has to be limited to describing to which sexes or genders one is attracted. Using this term to also refer to an inclination for BDSM makes literal sense.

I’ve made a case for why a term for BDSM is a matter of identity and orientation and why using sexual orientation to encompass BDSM makes sense. If you have an issue with this term, I’d love to hear your case. If you’ve got a better term, terrific! I’ll call it sexual banana if you can convince me that that’s the term that makes sense. But then give me that better term.

 

1The three credible sources below do not agree on the use of sexual orientation and sexual identity.

 

From chapter Sexual Identity as a Universal Process in book Handbook of Identity Theory and Research:

 

A number of scholars have argued that sexual identity would be more reliably accessed, and validly represented, if it were disentangled from sexual orientation (e.g. Chung and Katayama, 1996; Drescher, 1998a, 1998b; Drescher, Stein, and Byne, 2005; Rust, 2003; Stein, 1999; Worthington et al., 2002). Our conceptualization of sexual orientation refers to an individual’s patterns of sexual, romantic, and affectional arousal and desire for other persons based on those persons’ gender and sex characteristics [American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation, 2009].  Sexual orientation is linked with individual physiological drives that are beyond conscious choice and that involve strong emotional feelings (e.g. falling in love). Sexual orientation identity is what we term the individual’s conscious acknowledgement and internalization of sexual orientation.

 

We conceptualize sexual orientation identity as subsuming sexual orientation.

 

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From Article  listed below:

Sexuality includes intimacy, eroticism, sexual activities, one‘s communication of sexuality (e.g., sexual behaviors and self (expression), and the characteristics of an individual one finds sexually attractive (Gilbert & Scher, 1999). Sexual identity is a subjective and individualized pattern of sexual arousal, desire, fantasies and response to cultural norms (Parson, 1985).

Article: Haizlip Breyan N. (2011), A Qualitative Examination of the Heterosexual Influence on the Counseling Process. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. 16, 47-55.

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From a [glossary][http://feminism.eserver.org/sexual-gender-identity.txt] provided by Feminism and Women’s Studies website created by members of Carnegie Mellon University Women’s Center:

 

Sexual Identity: How one thinks of oneself, in terms of being significantly attracted to members of the same or the other sex. Based on one’s internal experience, as opposed to which gender one’s actual sexual partners belong to. (See sexual orientation/preference.).

 

Sexual Orientation/Preference: How one thinks of her/himself, in terms of being significantly attracted to members the same or the other sex. Sexual orientation emphasizes that some people feel that one has no control or influence over the development of one’s sexual and romantic attractions or one’s sexual orientation. Sexual preference emphasizes that some people feel that one does or should have some control or influence over the development of one’s sexual and romantic attractions or sexual one’s orientation.

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