Fifty shades: should BDSM become part of general sexual education?

“BDSM [Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism] might be mainstream now, but it has a new PR problem. I blame Christian Grey.” writes ‘sexual submissive’ Sophie Morgan in an article in the Guardian.

I started reading E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey but didn’t get very far. It’s very badly written (guess that’s no longer a secret) and, well, I found it incredibly boring (Pride and Prejudice is more exciting, I think). In any case, the book is just a starting point for something I began thinking about after a recent conversation with a friend who is part of the ‘BDSM  community’.

The legal status of BDSM varies from country to country. In the UK, it is illegal if it results in any injury which is more than “transient or trifling”. Possessing extreme pornography is a criminal offence, which, for obvious reasons, may be problematic for those who are into SM. Moreover, those who engage in any kind of BDSM are not legally protected against discrimination on the basis of their sexual preferences (for example, they can be, and have been, fired for that reason).

I haven’t studied the issue in depth, but it seems to me that BDSM should be legal, the main reason being that it concerns a consensual sexual act by adults that doesn’t cause harm to third parties. (There’s an interesting paper by Nafsika Athanassoulis arguing why SM can be considered a consensual sexual act). But I was thinking about a further question. Should we put more effort into breaking the BDSM taboo? For example, in countries where BDSM is legal, should it be part of general sexual education?


It seems that there are many misunderstandings and misconceptions about BDSM. In the Guardian article, Morgan mentions one of the most common ones: that ‘a submissive’ prefers to experience pain and degradation in her or his everyday life. (In Fifty Shades of Grey, a young woman has a 24/7 submissive relationship with Christian Grey, a rich dominant man.) Morgan writes that “being submissive is only one facet of the person I am – and not even the most important. I’m a 33-year-old girlfriend, daughter, sister, friend, journalist, Scrabble fiend, caffeine addict and dozens of other things besides…[...]… The sexual aspect of my relationship is completely separate from other aspects of it – I am in control of my finances, my reproductive health, my career, my social life and all the other things that feminism has fought for.”

Perhaps if people knew more about BDSM, they might be less inclined to have and express negative attitudes towards those who engage in it. Perhaps it would become more difficult to fire (or not employ) people because they are into BDSM. It would definitely become easier for those who feel drawn to it to ‘come out’, or to feel comfortable with themselves. (A parallel can be drawn with the growing acceptance of homosexuality.) An obvious way to break the taboo would be to make BDSM part of general sexual education (just like pornography and homosexual sex became part of it – at least in progressive countries like Belgium).

So I was wondering: are there any good reasons against making BDSM part of general sexual education? Three potential reasons came to my mind.

(1) Including BDSM in general sexual education may open the door to unguided experimenting, which could result in (potentially permanent) physical and psychological damage to those involved. Apparently those who are interested in BDSM typically find their way to it via SM clubs. These clubs have rules that their visitors need to abide by (e.g., consent, safe words, not getting drunk so as to avoid losing control). Respect seems to be a central value within the SM scene. Newcomers are initiated – not only to techniques but also to safety measures and rules. So one concern might be that ‘popularizing’ BDSM may result in more people engaging in it without such initiation, or without the relatively safe context these clubs offer. On the other hand, sexual education could perhaps do an equally good job as BDSM clubs do now.

(2) By including BDSM in standard sexual education we may promote morally objectionable social norms, such as the objectification of women. This is the reason why some oppose (the legalisation of) prostitution. However, I believe that it is precisely a lack of information about BDSM that may lie at the heart of this concern. As Morgan points out in her article, feminism and BDSM are perfectly compatible. It’s consensual and, moreover, it is well known that it’s not necessarily the woman who is the submissive. But there’s a related concern that perhaps may not be so easily dismissed. Unlike other ‘genres’ of sexual activity, BDSM seems to involve ignoring, or dismissing important and deeply embedded social norms and values, such as autonomy, respect and ‘do no harm’. Of course, those engaging in BDSM do not really dismiss these norms and values (there may be exceptions), but they temporarily act as if they do (I assume that’s what it’s all about). Perhaps then, if BDSM were part of general sexual education, the strict line between playing a rapist and being a rapist could be blurred. I’m mainly thinking of people who are not really into kinky games, but who use the general acceptance of BDSM as an easy excuse for sexual acts that do involve disrespect for the other.

(3) Including BDSM in general sexual education may put soft pressure on young adolescents to engage with it. What I have in mind is the idea that ‘if you haven’t tried it all (or enjoy it all) you’re not a fully sexually developed individual’. While the same concern may apply to other sexual practices that are now included in sexual education, the physical and psychological consequences of engaging in BDSM under pressure may be more serious. On the other hand, we may wonder whether it is overly paternalistic to protect (young) people in this way. Also, good sexual education stresses the message that it’s fine if you like certain things, but it is equally fine if you don’t – preferences differ.

I do not have a conclusion. I think sexual education should be as inclusive as possible, but I also think that the above mentioned concerns are serious ones that need to be addressed.

References:

Athanassoulis Nafsika. The role of consent in sado-masochistic practices. Res Publica 2002;8(2): 141-55.

Morgan Sophie. ‘I like submissive sex but Fifty Shades is not about fun: it’s about abuse’. The Guardian 25 Aug 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/aug/25/fifty-shades-submissive-sophie-morgan.

 

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12 Responses to Fifty shades: should BDSM become part of general sexual education?

  • Erin Rose says:

    This book doesn’t even begin to touch the surface of the world of BDSM. Anyone in the real world of the lifestyle and not the pretend mommy porn world will tell you that. Most of the people reading these books are doing it for an escape. Just like any other romance novel. Half of them would run away terrified if they ever came in contact with a sex dungeon. I doubt its enough to cause alarm in sex education class.

  • Guilty says:

    1) Is pretty much a non-issue. If BDSM was made part of any curriculum, that would be the perfect time and place to inform people that BDSM might be risky and that people should inform themselves first before engaging in the more dangerous parts of ot. That said, most peopl do not tend to set out with the most dangerous stuff, but with furry cuffs and a wooden spoon. As a third counter argument, they might run into bdsm on the net or in the media anyway, with even less warnings than in an educational setting.

    2) There is a strong presupposition here that BDSM involves objectification of women. That remains to be seen. Besides, as women are active in all roles, wouldn’t there be any risk of objectifying men as well? It is often mentioned that with fetishism the object is more important than the person, and there are probably cases where that is so, but the average BDSM practitioner doesn’t fit that profile. As for the worry that the line between playing rapist and being rapist might be blurred, any sex education (with or without bdsm included) should stress that sexual activity should always be consensual. Within BDSM that line is not blurred, on the contrary, it is made much more explicit and consensuality is pretty much the defining characteristic.

    3) Try to read this argument again but than related to gays. It is a ridiculous argument. Besides, as stated under 2, sex eductaion should stress and stress again that people should not engage in sexual behaviour they don’t want.

    What worries me most is that most of the arguments presented by tou are founded in a lack of knowledge on BDSM and its practice. And perhaps that is the one argument I can think of against including it in the curriculum. There are few teachers who know enough about BDSM to actually teach about it correctly.

  • Katrien Devolder says:

    Thanks for your reply, Guilty. I think you interpreted my post too much as arguing against including BDSM in sex education. That was not my intention. As I wrote, I’m for including as much as possible in sex education – but that doesn’t mean one should not carefully address certain concerns. That’s what I intended to do. It’s true that I don’t know very much about BDSM, but enough I think to be able to think about the ethical issues.

    Now regarding your points. I fully agree with your first point. I think that sexual education can do as well, or better than current websites, clubs etc. Regarding the second point – I wrote that the concern about objectification of women could be quite easily dismissed – so here we seem to agree too. My worry about blurring the boundary between playing rapist and being a rapist remains though. I’m not particularly worried about people genuinely interested in SM. Their interest in it is likely t o make them more open to advice from insiders, and to seeing it as a ‘game’ etc. I’m more worried about those who are not interested in it, but use sexual education about it as an excuse to really dismiss important values such as respect (or don’t use it as an excuse but are just confused about the boundary). So that’s not at all an attack on those who are into BDSM. It’s just a worry about a possible side effect (that may not occur, I don’t know) of including BDSM in sexual education. I just think we can’t ignore that risk and should think about it (I’m not saying it is a conclusive argument for banning BDSM from sexual education).

    • Danielle says:

      Actually, BDSM-related articles taught my teenage self more about what consent is and isn’t than sex ed ever managed. And this is coming from someone who grew up in what is possibly the most sexually liberal country on the planet (the Netherlands).

      BDSM pushes the boundaries of what each partner is physically and emotionally comfortable with to their extremes. Because of that it only becomes that much more important to know exactly where those boundaries are and have absolute respect for them. It is *crucial* for each partner to be able to read the other and notice the difference between compliance and active consent, between what your partner is allowing because they think it makes you happy and what they want with every fiber of their being. SM sex requires explicit and detailed communication about what each person wants, doesn’t want, and may be willing to experiment with under specific circumstances, which is a great habit to develop even if you never get more kinky than handcuffs.

      The one phrase that pops up in every article, book, or blog post about BDSM that you will ever read is “safe, sane, and consensual.” The one thing anyone you ever ask about BDSM will make sure to emphasize is the absolute rule that when anyone involved says “stop” *everything* comes to a crashing halt, ropes are untied, blindfolds removed, you do whatever you need to comfort any upset parties, and then you have a calm discussion about what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future.

      In fact, I’d go so far as to say that what BDSM is about, at the very core, is actually consent. And those involved in it are better aware of what consent is and how important it is than the vast majority of sexually active people. The participants gain pleasure from being granted power over another person, granting another person power over them, having things done to them feel slightly (or very) dangerous but are also impossibly pleasurable, and above all the absolute knowledge that you are safe in your partner’s hands while all this is happening and everything stops at a moment’s notice if you wish it to. I don’t get off on hurting my partner. I get off on the absolute trust he places in me by allowing me to hurt him and the knowledge that he’s loving every second of it.

      Now, it might just be me, but isn’t this absolute importance of consent something we want to emphasize in sex ed? Isn’t the importance of paying close attention to your partner’s needs and absolutely respecting their limits something you want people to learn before they become sexually active? Isn’t is also important to teach people that your sexual needs and desires are all okay, as long as your partner (or partners) gives enthusiastic consent?

      The only item on your list that I agree with is that this might put pressure on people to experiment. One concern that you often encounter in comments by and conversations with those involved in the BDSM community is that for some people SM play isn’t so much about exploring your boundaries as pushing past them and then trying to adjust. This coming from people whose sexual tastes already run way beyond the norm. However, I think this can be countered by proper education. Just remind people that BDSM is a sexual preference, same as whether or not you like performing oral sex. I think it would also be a good idea to list a few things that anyone interested in BDSM could start with: biting, scratching, tying wrists in a way that you can still get out if you want to, that sort of thing. That way you guide any initial experiments teens might attempt and let them search for the heavier stuff on their own if they find out they like it.

  • Guilty says:

    Hi, no I don’t think you are arguing against it, Im merely countering the’counter arguments you give.

    With regard to those who might see BDSM as ane excuse to dismiss values as respect (the same might happen with porn and videogames by the way), methinks they are the group that is most in need of a thorough education on sexual matters. Educating them as far as possible, and their potential victims on a broad range of sexual matters with as core that noting is bad as long as it’s consensual should give them more grip on the boundaries while empowering possible victims as well, making them less vulnerable to predators (in and out of the bdsm scene). So, I see more of a chance there than a threat. Empower the potential victims and the perps are out of business.

  • MegaraB says:

    I teach Sex Ed in schools in the US. I train educators to teach sex ed and I advocate for sex ed. While I love that you ask this, we absolutely cannot teach BDSM in schools. The best reason here, thanks Guilty, is that most

    • MegaraB says:

      grr. darn phone …is that most people do not know enough about BDSM to teach it. Also, it is not age-appropriate, that is, youth do not have the relationship or communication skills to engage in complicated power exchange sex behaviors, but they think that they do, thus I agree with reason #3 that it would put some pressure on young people to engage in things that they are not ready for. THAT SAID, we definitely should be teaching them about Consent, why it’s important, how do give it, how to understand what is and is not consent, and this is the concept that is at the very heart of BDSM, as it should be at the very heart of every relationship interaction, sexual and otherwise. If you really really get Consent, you can apply that to many aspects of sex etc.

      • Jacob Kovacs says:

        MegaraB, part of your comment got me thinking (although this isn’t really a direct response to anything you wrote):

        “… youth do not have the relationship or communication skills to engage in complicated power exchange sex behaviors …”

        I also think that ethical BDSM requires advanced communication from participants, specifically negotiation. Negotiation requires self-knowledge and confidence; it depends on mutual respect.

        I don’t think young people are fundamentally unable to practice negotiation (like you seem to suggest); I support this skill being introduced early.

        However, I think that teaching negotiation skills in sex ed — as you would have to, to treat BDSM ethically — would be a pretty radical departure from the rest of young people’s curriculum. I think it would introduce them to a norm of empowerment that’s largely absent in the rest of their lives (negotiation is a form of respect most adults are not willing to extend to young people).

        So for me, the question is not whether young people could handle learning complicated negotiation skills in their sex ed curriculum. It’s whether adults would tolerate youth being taught to communicate their needs and boundaries in an authoritative, mature way.

        Basically, I don’t think you can have a conversation about sex ed curricula without confronting the power relations between adults and young people.

  • Guilty says:

    @MegaraB
    > it is not age-appropriate, that is, youth do not have the relationship or communication skills to engage in complicated power exchange sex behaviors, but they think that they do

    That is not a fact, it is an opinion, or perhaps an ethical statement, but one I disagree with. Depending on what age range we are talking about, you can explain that there are different takes on sexuality on different levels. For instance, many people into kink explain it to their own (young) children as “mommy and daddy play cowboy and indian too”. Now, kids understand that perfectly, probably better than adults. Older children can of course be given more details. And from my experience in a TNG group (that is a BDSM group for young people – the next generation), there is a growing group of teenagers, mostly 16-18, but some as young as 14, actively seeking information for themselves about bdsm. Fortunately, nowadays they can find that info, whereas in my days that was quite difficult.

    The youngest indeed should not be engaging in complicated power exchange sex behavioursyet (or, for that matter, in most other sex behaviours), but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be given information or talk to like minded other youngsters. Kids learn about blowjobs too, long before they are mature enough to handle such an intimate sexual relation.

    So, if we are talking about primary school, I think you are right, it should not be in the curriculum. If we are talking about the upper half of high school – the moment they are likely to be taught about such things as homosexuality, HIV, genderdysforia, I see no reason why they should not be given some objective information about BDSM (at least that it exists and where they can go for more information) and other alternative sexualities such as polyamory.

    The question is what the true ethical grounds are for your opinion that kids can learn about sex, about STD’s, about gays, but not about other types of sexualities. My guess, it’s grounded consciously or unconciously in a sex-negative attitude. You believe kids shouldn’t be taught this because it might give them the wrong ideas about sex. Once you let go of the moral stance that BDSM is bad, dirty, sick, etc., but rather just something that is good for those who are into into it, there is no ethical reason why it couldn’t be taught.

  • Katrien Devolder says:

    Thanks to all for your interesting comments. I tend to agree with Guilty. Some objective information about BDSM in the last years of high school seems like a good idea. The main thing is that it becomes something that can be discussed openly. Those who are attracted to it should realise it’s fine and should just find their way to information about it easily. It could even be used as a starting point to stress the importance of mutual respect and consent etc. in sexual ‘activity’ in general.

  • The Guardian article seemed to be an attempt to shift the burden of ‘abuse’: don’t worry about my bedroom submission, it’s those hardcore 24/7 lifestyle types you should be concerned about… (I’ve certainly met submissives who like to experience pain, etc. in their day-to-day lives; the important question for them is who gets to administer it.) Erin Rose’s comment above possibly indicates the flip side of the coin, depending on what precisely is implied by ‘the real world of the lifestyle’.

    If BDSM were a thought experiment (‘What if there were people for whom a mutually satisfying relationship was a designedly unequal one that involved one partner imposing strict discipline upon the other…?’) it would probably be kicked around in introductory ethics classes without many eyelids being batted, like the story (see Three Worlds Collide) about the alien race whose reproductive biology was such that their fecundity outstripped the resources available to feed their babies, and they ended up with a society in which the word for ‘good’ meant literally ‘to eat children’. But BDSM is practised by human beings who have actually managed to make it work, with a decent success rate, for those involved in it.

    What seems to get some people worked up, then, isn’t knowledge of BDSM per se but BDSM as an actual possibility for living. In a society where BDSM was not only fully legal but fully accepted, whether to include it in the curriculum would be barely contentious; in a society where BDSM was fully legal but not widely accepted, such inclusion would look suspiciously like advocacy schooling, however it was actually taught. So there’s a problem not just of what it would be useful to people to learn in school, but of when and whether juvenile sexuality should be politicised. It may be that (2′) including BDSM in the curriculum would promote morally good social norms, e.g. regarding meaningfully negotiated consent–but it’s a further question whether that would be a good/right way of promoting good/right social tendencies.

  • lee says:

    wonder if the teacher would be holding a cane during the lesson. crap post and pointless discussion

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