What’s the Safe Word?

By Jamie L.

BDSM is probably one of the more common fetishes, and is often mentioned in modern media, though is rarely taken seriously. There are a wide variety of practices involved in BDSM, but for the sake of simplicity I will focus on the dominance and submission aspects, wherein one partner exerts sexual control over the other. The fact that there are no clear gender roles in the practice is particularly interesting. In fact, it is quite common that a female is dominant.

Anthropologists proscribing to feminist theory would most likely find this particularly fascinating. With the female taking a strong, dominant role in sexual conduct, it is a clear breach from standard gender norms, particularly in the 1960’s and 1970’s when BDSM was on the rise[1]. For Domme women it is a power shift. In a world which is largely male dominated, they have now are willingly given power, and they are able to take on a role that is different from what is seen to be the norm. A main point about BDSM that is often misconstrued is that it is all fully consensual. While many of the actions performed are forceful, it is built on a relationship of trust within the partnership. In a heterosexual pairing with female dominant, the male is willingly giving up his power to the female, and it is exhilarating for her.

Not only is BDSM changing up the normal gender roles of our society, but it is also differing from the expected rules of society. Practice Theory would look at modern America’s ‘rules’ of how sex should be and who would take on which role. While today, different sexual preferences, beliefs and practices are more widely accepted, people still rarely openly talk about sexual practices that are seen as taboo, so that people who participate in BDSM are unlikely to say so openly, leading to a gap between their public speech and private practice. Things are changing, but a large number of Americans still think sex should be between a man and a women who are married and that it should be for the purposes of creating new life. Sex should be “Biblical” (although, sex in the Bible is very different from what I assume these people are thinking of), and the man should have a dominant role in it. With female dominant fetishism, very few of those boxes are being checked. It doesn’t have to be a man and a woman, you don’t have to be married, it is rarely for the purpose of conceiving and gender or sex doesn’t really have in part in deciding who takes on what role.

[1] http://historyofbdsm.com/, accessed 8 October 2014

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32 Responses to What’s the Safe Word?

  1. I found your post to be very interesting. Although BDSM is something that I have no experience with, I found it to be very interesting the way that you brought in the feminist perspective. When I read the opening line of your post I was thinking “How could anyone ever want to do this.?” But then you answered it. In a society where men have most control, and overpower women and control them, it is natural that some women would be attracted to the idea of finally being in control. This is something that I had not thought of. I also thought your point of how these relationships are built on trust was interesting. When I pictured this act at first it almost seemed like it would be demoralizing. But having been in a long term relationship, I can see how a couple would generally get into this because they truly trust each other. In a way, most Americans would judge couples for taking part in this if they knew. But the act revolves around something that Americans value culturally: two people truly caring about each other being in a relationship. I think it is sort of ironic that when you put it your way, most Americans would be okay with it.

    • Kelly Curtis says:

      You make a good point in highlighting how women can find a sense of power in having control in a BDSM relationship, but there is also another side to this power struggle. Some men might find psychological relief in not having to be control anymore. How often do women defer to their partners in deciding what to do on date night? It’s hard to decide what you want–nearly impossible to decide what someone else wants. In BDSM, (at least from what I understand), the man is subjected to the will of the woman, or other partner, and no longer needs to worry about making the right decision.

  2. Kirsten Jaqua says:

    You did a great job of tying the two theories in to this topic. The section on practice theory was particularly interesting to me. A lot of fascinating research could be done on the subject of just how much people followed these ‘rules’ of appropriate sexuality in past generations and how much people simply carried on with whatever they enjoyed in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

    I also like Kelly’s point about the male perspective of the power role reversal. But I think it could go both ways. Some women might also like relinquishing the requirement of decision making to their partners.

    I would also add that a large part of the appeal of BDSM for some people is thrill seeking. Pain and pleasure both activate certain chemical responses in the body, and for thrill seekers the blend of the two in addition to the emotional fear/anticipation and accompanying rush of adrenaline for the subordinate party is important.

  3. Amy Knutson says:

    I like that this blog looks at something that is not generally looked at through an academic lens. One thing I think the author could have done to make this piece better is to clearly state what “BDSM” stands for. The readers may not all have prior knowledge of the concept and it is always good to explain acronyms even if they seem self explanatory. But all in all, I think the theories were well integrated and it was an interesting read.

  4. Maddie Ohaus says:

    I agree with Amy that this was a really interesting topic to touch on because it isn’t often talked about publicly. But I had no idea was BDSM stands for or really is. This post would of been better with more background information about the topic and explaining as to what the acronym stands for. But the post was still very inciting and the theories gave good points of view on the subject, especially the feminist theory. In world were sex is very male dominant its interesting any time the female gets to be the one in charge. Overall this was a super fascinating article.

  5. Cody Patten says:

    I also agree with Amy and Maddie, I actually have no idea what “BDSM” stands for and it would have been nice to get a little more background information on this topic. I still felt like this was a very helpful topic and seemed t be very interesting.

  6. I thought that this was a really interesting essay and very well thought out. I don’t know much about BDSM (though I know more now than I did before!) but I think that it’s a topic that I’d like to read more about in anthropology. You mention “biblical” sex and the ideas and expectations that people tend to have about what sex “should” be (ie heterosexual, no fetishes, men in the dominant/assertive role). Since this is set as the norm, other sexualities and orientations tend to be looked at as alternative (at best) and often just end up being the punchline of a joke, or even treated with outright hostility or hatred. Even if a particular fetish isn’t for everybody, I think that they are really interesting to look at from an anthropological perspective, and studying them with different theories might help us to be less biased in our approach. I especially liked that you used practice theory and feminist theory for this essay.

  7. Taylor Hill says:

    This essay was very interesting. I really liked how you talked about women being dominant instead of men. This is particularly interesting considering our culture is male dominated. It is always interesting to find something where women seem to be dominant, whatever the case may be. I also like your paragraph about practice theory. The fact that multiple people did not know what BDSM stood for (including myself) shows how much we really don’t talk about sex openly and how that leads to private practice and what people preach.

  8. Ian McClain says:

    I liked how you used practice theory to analyze this topic. Like you said, this seems like a perfect example of a disparity between what society “expects” to be happening and what is actually happening. BDSM seems like something that would be difficult to analyze using anthropological theories like functionalism, structuralism or structural functionalism, simply because it is so “out of the ordinary” when compared to many overarching societal norms and beliefs (especially looking at religious ideals about sex as you explained). However, it would be interesting to analyze this from from a Culture and Personality perspective which would look at the acceptance of BDSM across certain cultures and compare the “type” of individuals that are practicing to those that are not. If the dominance is given to women, I am curious if this would somehow be reflected outside of the bedroom? Would these women be considered “dominant” beyond private sexual practices? Is there a certain “type” that practices BDSM or is it more widespread among a diverse range of individuals?

  9. Taylor Thostenson says:

    I liked how you found a way to tie your essay to feminism, showing that women in this society have openly taken on a role that might not have been openly perceived centuries ago. I also thought it was good how you related it to practice theory by tying in how women’s role is often not perceived as such by society. I think it would be cool to know what a cultural aspect on this topic would be- viewing it from country to country. Overall great paper and props to you making a paper on BDSM sound so intuitive!

  10. Julia Marino says:

    Before reading your essay I honestly had no idea what BDSM is. After looking up this topic on the Internet I was able to learn more about BDSM and I applaud you for choosing this topic for our essay. I think if this paper was longer you could definitely provide more information on what BDSM is because as I can see through looking at a few of the comments above, I think there are a lot of people that do not even know what BDSM is. I found it particularly interesting in how you applied practice theory to the topic of BDSM. I absolutely agree that some people partaking in BDSM will choose to not be so open about their sexual practices. I think it would be interesting for you to look at an array of topics like BDSM and see where you are able to see differences and similarities between these unique practices.

  11. Stephanie Grossart says:

    The way BDSM is an outlet for desires that are not for public sharing makes me think of the Veiling book and their poems. They’re desires may not be as crazy as bdsm but they too look for an outlet to release their inner selves. Practice theory fits perfectly with BDSM. Because it is not as common people don’t come right out and tell everyone. There must be a safe place to divulge their interests. The fact that women are primarily the dominant partner is exceedingly interesting. With a world that is controlled by men it is funny to see men wanting to be dominated by women. Great topic!

  12. Kelsey Spalding says:

    Choosing BDSM for your topic and applying it to anthropological theories I think required some out of the box thinking and I found your essay choice very interesting especially as this is on the forefront of media these days especially with books such as fifty shades of grey being made into movies. Though I generally think of BDSM as men dominating women, you brought up a good point on how roles could be reversed. Both your theories were applied nicely to the topic offering perceptive perspectives. The practice theory i think especially fits because I agree there is a severe discrepancy in sexual discourses over what people say they do and what people actually do, and BDSM applies perfectly to the discourse. Anyways, inventive topic and way to think out of the box.

  13. Michaela Cavanagh says:

    I wasn’t completely sure what BDSM stood for so I had to look it up but after I did, I thought your essay gave light to the positive outcomes from BDSM that you prove through feminist theory and practice theory. The way you backed up your theories I think will make more people open to this topic.

  14. MelissaDanielle Lauro says:

    BDSM is not an acronym, as the letters stand for different things depending on the context and the person and it is actually not universally agreed upon what the specific letters stand for, which is perhaps why the author did not state it in the essay. I think I would be interesting to consider male dominant BDSM and perhaps why a woman would be attracted to this.

  15. Logan Arlen says:

    In a mostly male dominant society it is easy to see why women would be drawn to an activity that allows them to express their desires to be in control. It also seems that in our society Mens’ sexuality is more celebrated than womens’, who are often shamed for expressing themselves in a overtly sexualized manner. Its a good thing that woman have a way to express themselves without being criticized.

  16. Maddi Kraft says:

    Feminist anthropology is such a great lens to look at BD through!I really appreciate how you didn’t get caught up in the taboo of BDSM but intend looked at from an anthropologists point of view. In comparison to the male dominated society a dominant woman in the bedroom is such a confusing thing, especially because being dominated by a woman isn’t only exhilarating for her but also for her partner. although I really love how you took a feminist anthropological view on this, I also think it would be interesting to see, in a male dominated world, what its like for a man in this situation.

  17. Camille says:

    I really like your use of practice theory into all of this and it is a very insightful article! Relationships, BDSM, and male/female dominance has really become such a more versatile topic than back in the day. The feminist anthropological view is also interesting from their perspective on female dominance in the bedroom and how it has changed gender roles/views in society.

  18. Annie Birkeland says:

    I was surprised by the fact that there aren’t structured gender roles in BDSM. I did not realize that women were often in control. I just know that in Fifty Shades of Grey, the male character Christian seems to be the dominant one. He is very controlling in the book, and I assumed that was the dynamic in BDSM. I think the fact that women are in control and exerting sexual dominance sheds a whole new light on the practice. I can see the appeal of traditional role reversal and how people would be curious and intrigued by it. It is definitely interesting that Hollywood chose to portray BDSM with male dominance instead of the woman in control.

  19. Ben Sardinsky says:

    Jamie L.
    Your practice theory view of female dominant BDSM from a female ego, as a as a normally subversive agent in a dominant role, raises the issue of the male ego who prefers being submissive. Does this trend in the bedroom hold true beyond that closed door? That is, is there a public desire of some males to hold or experience less pressure to hold dominant positions, or does this trend show a personal/psychological desire for less rigid gender expectations by most members of society?

  20. Carly Morrison says:

    First of all, I would also like to applaud you for choosing a taboo and difficult topic!
    I think that subcultures such as BDSM are fascinating insights to how people deal with certain hegemonic forces. In BDSM, when the male is the submissive and the female is the dominant, it is a challenge to the typical gender roles of our culture. In this space, it appears that these roles can be challenged. However in daily life that challenge may not be practiced. In this we see how people abide by these roles in certain spaces and challenge them in spaces where a challenge is safe and acceptable.
    I was also wondering about the role of the dominatrix in the BDSM culture. A dominatrix is practicing all of the intimacies of BDSM but under the context of an exchange for money. What does this say about trust in BDSM? It also makes me think about the forces of culture that push someone towards the need to be dominated, even at the high price of hiring a dominatrix. And what of the dominatrix, a sex worker who’s role only exists partially because of personal exploitation and exploitation of a system that creates people seeking for sexual encounters that are culturally seen as taboo.

  21. Nayantara Nelson says:

    I love how this topic is something that people are hesitant to discuss and how it “could be deemed” as something difficult to write about. While not comparing the emotional outcome for both reader and writer regarding “taboo” sex practices (possibly slight embarrassment or intrigue) to the emotions sparked regarding gruesome death and cruelty, your article brings up a question touched on during a recitation for this course. I had presented Dr. McGranahan’s article concerning self-immolation of Tibetan protesters and it had raised the question “how do anthropologist write on uncomfortable topics?” “what is the emotional impact of these subjects?” questions that weren’t fully answered. I assume this article was more fun to write about than other topics but I was honestly surprised it was written for a class, and I really appreciate how it confirmed to me a much broader and accepting discussion space than a high school class.
    To better relate with the specifics of your article regarding the lack of gender specification, I wonder exactly how the reactions to this topic from American college students differ from those of people our age in male dominant countries with the ideals pertaining to “strict purpose sex.”

  22. Josie Anderson says:

    I love how you brought up that BDSM is changing up gender roles!! I was wondering what a functionalist anthropologist would say about it. What do you think the function of this is in our society?? Other than satisfying sexual needs, of course. Does it fulfill any emotional needs, perhaps??

  23. Lexi Eagle says:

    I thought the analysis with feminist theory was thoughtful and I appreciated that the author included the treatment of sex as a taboo, and particularly BDSM as a taboo, in the practice theory analysis. I think that the recognition of a divide between private sexual practices and public life was good, but it also applies to “conventional” sex, though perhaps not on the same scale as it does to BDSM. It could have been more interesting to discuss how society treats BDSM participants and views BDSM in general (think 50 Shades of Grey) versus how they view themselves and their sexual practices.

  24. Larkin says:

    I think this is a really interesting topic, I like that you focused more on female dominators rather than male. Though I don’t have vast knowledge of what BDSM is, when I do hear about it, it is still more common for me to hear about male dominating and females being the submissive. I also think it’s interesting that when it comes to males being the submissive, there’s a sense of vulnerability that the man experiences that he doesn’t want the world to know about. However, with female submissive I get the sense that this role is more glorified within our culture, so although we do see gender roles getting tested in BDSM I still think these practices are rooted in the male dominant female and male gender roles.

  25. Somehow you took a topic that might make people uncomfortable or even a little outraged and turned it into something interesting and quite informative. I like the use of feminist anthropology here and really focusing on the idea of flipping the gender roles. Well done!

  26. Sydney Britsch says:

    This was an interesting article to read. I think this topic is intriguing mainly for the fact that this is a rare example of women being able to play a dominant role and men willingly being submissive. I wonder if this could be looked at similarly to that of poetry for the Awlad ‘Ali. This could be a necessary way for women to break out of hegemony and be open about what might normally be seen as taboo in public and in turn keep the society functioning. It is interesting to think about the other possible perspectives regarding this topic.

  27. Frank Minor says:

    I like how you applied the feminist theory to this phenomenon, for lack of better words. Its pretty interesting how domination and submission are so big in society, usually with the male in the dominant position. However, in privacy, this is reversed, because those who participate in it are embarrassed for breaking the norms, so that’s interesting, never crossed my mind

  28. AYURU KONDO says:

    I think this is interesting theme. And this is first time I heard the word BDSM. I think Americans sexual performance is wide. In Japan, it became wider than before, but we still sometime not allowed these performance. In this article, this BDSM fetishes is also concerned to social power. I agree that. In Japan we have a word “herbivorous men”, it means “herbivorous men is a Japanese term for young men who are not interested in sex or in advancing their careers. “. I think other country have such kind of change too.

  29. Stephanie Scattergood says:

    I found this fascinating! With the recent trend in the 50 shades trilogy BDSM especially became prominent in the media. One things that may be interesting to look into further is the usage of safe words by women rather than by men, or how with the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey there may be an increasing interest in the BDSM community.

  30. Charlotte Thompson says:

    I loved this article, you wrote an essay on a hard topic to elaborate on without being crude or offensive. I like that you concluded your essay with a critique of societies view of BDSM,I think that it is a way for women to break free of societal norms and feel empowered in the secrecy of a trusting relationship.

  31. Alexis Johnson says:

    I really like all the ideals and aspects you pointed out in this article. Especially the mention about “biblical” sex, cause really what is “biblical” sex, it’s probably a different idea among all people who refer to that. Also I really like the you chose feminist theory and pointing out that most of the time a woman is a Domme in this male dominated world, completely turning the tables.

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