Blog Post Written By: Adrie Rose
CW/TW: sexual violence, BDSM
Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity
For a newcomer, BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism) is a daunting minefield of acronyms, power plays, and difficult conversations. Almost always linked to sexual gratification (and sometimes denial), BDSM requires an open mind, firm boundaries, and a willingness to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Despite the runaway success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series, mentioning the “lifestyle” in mixed company can result in dirty looks or an unshakeable social pariah label. Like any kink, BDSM encourages practitioners to get up close and personal with their deepest, darkest desires and interrogate what gets them off.
Given the divisive nature of BDSM (think power plays, intentional pain,, and taboo fantasy), it should come as no surprise that there’s a consumer demand for non-threatening opportunities to learn in private. Concerns about body image, privacy, racism in fetish communities, the threat of real violence or consent violations, and the health of potential partners -- especially in the midst of an ongoing pandemic -- contribute to misgivings about public interactions and explorations. While written literature has its place, one further carved out by the rise of #smuttok, video pornography reigns supreme in the modern world when exploring sexual fantasy.
It’s true that a subgenre of porn exists for almost every predilection. If you can dream of it, you’re probably not the first. But if you are, you’re likely only ever a digital pebble toss away from someone willing to make it. Sex work is not immune to the rise of the creator economy, especially with the Covid-19 pandemic causing increased financial strain for those most represented like Black and Indigenous women, undocumented migrants, and single parents. Sites like OnlyFans, ManyVids, and Pornhub offer women, trans people, and disabled people an opportunity to make money on their own terms, adapting their schedules as needed, without threat of workplace discrimination or harassment. As a result, the opportunities to indulge in a little kinky extracurricular education are more abundant than ever.
In appropriate “supply meet demand” fashion, BDSM themed pornography is more popular than ever. The simplest explanation is that more creators means more content and a greater likelihood of finding a niche with a simple keyword search. If you’re willing to traipse through the explanatory weeds, an argument could be made that the current sociopolitical climate has encouraged people to be more adventurous and more honest regarding their sexual desires. As younger demographics dominate the news cycle and political discussion, demands for more sexual expression and openness are becoming louder. Another, equally likely, explanation is that internet porn is a relatively new invention and the world’s varied interests are just starting to catch up.
Of course, with popularity and visibility comes scrutiny -- especially when it concerns an industry that is constantly up for political discussion. Criticisms of sex work, particularly porn, are commonplace in every arena, virtual or digital. A common refrain is that BDSM themed porn is contributing to normalized violence against women in sexual situations. Some, like Xaya Lovelle (stage name), a BDSM creator, might argue that the key difference between rough sex play and sexual violence as a weapon is consent.
“I am obviously against harmful sex, but consent (active and informed) is an essential factor in preventing harm. In my personal experience, others trying to set boundaries for me has led to harm and trauma, because it doesn't give me space to create and enforce boundaries for myself. And as a survivor, I don't feel that visible "violence" really defines that which has harmed me; my rapists were vanilla. No one should be able to claim consent on my behalf.”
Mistress Harley (stage name), a findomme and techdomme, would likely agree.
“Practitioners of BDSM have a vernacular to discuss people's desires, limits, and establish consensuality of play between partners. The shorthand for these is "RACK" (Risk Aware Consensual Kink), meaning you understand the risks of whatever particular fetish you are engaged in, and that you consent to those risks. "SCC" is another popular shorthand for "Safe, Sane and Consensual" establishing that all parties have agreed and believe their activities to be safe for their own risk tolerances.”
One of the most popular admonishments when it comes to sex is that the job must be empowering before those in the industry can be taken seriously. For many women, particularly those who grew into their feminism with Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin leading public discourse, the call to recognize the validity of an occupation that encourages sexual fantasy for the consumption of men might have a hard time getting through.
Empowerment is, of course, a fractious topic when it comes to sex work of any kind. The need to assign moral value to an occupation isn’t uncommon, but it seems especially linked to the commercialization of sexual gratification. Plenty of sex workers will tell you they feel ambivalence or apathy towards the occupation. It’s simply a means to an end, the most accommodating occupation for their specific needs. Some, like Lovelle, will tell you that the creation of artistic content is the most empowering aspect of the job.
“I don't think all that much about empowerment regarding my work, but artistic empowerment comes to mind first. It's more artistically empowering not to have subject matter that's off-limits, and to explore subject matter where I have more expertise and experience.”
More than a few, like Lauren Kiley (stage name), a BDSM creator and performer will tell you that true empowerment comes in controlling your own work environment and forming organic relationships with your fellow creators.
“What I find empowering about creating BDSM content over the past decade in particular is that the means of production have become more accessible for both kinksters and content creators. We are able to reach each other to form communities and support far more easily.”
Others might tell you it’s a drain on their energy and their spirit, with a quick reminder that any job can be draining, especially when it involves customer service. And others, like Chloe Corrupt (stage name), a BDSM creator, will tell you they’ve never felt more empowered than they are when trading in sexual content because the power dynamic challenges the prejudices levied against their communities.
“Sadly, the primary point of contact for most people with trans bodies and trans sexuality seems to be porn. Not every trans woman can be the typical 18-25yo, 120-pound, “passing” starlet. And when the only time bodies that deviate from that norm are seen, they’re presented as an object of degradation. I aim to change that by being unapologetically powerful, dominant, and toppy on screen.”
Arguments about the necessity of sex work are nothing new. For as long as people have traded sexual gratification for material needs, there have been whispers turned to political action attempting to regulate the desires of others. Because porn is a relatively modern idea, it’s not a stretch to believe that the only hindrance to its development was the invention of moving films if one takes a very strict definition. Even so, the power play and sexual dynamics of BDSM are well-documented and date to the pre-modern era. Given this storied history, one would hope the public conversation on sexual commodification and kink would begin to evolve beyond common complaints about empowerment or dubious consent. Yet, arguments that would feel at home during the Sex Wars of the 1970s and 80s continue to make the rounds despite the protestations of those most involved. Perhaps, the key to ending the endless debate is taking their lead.
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