Two weeks ago, a friend told me that her boyfriend choked her while the two were having a fight. I was really upset for my friend, by this act of violence and violation, and also confused. This same friend has admitted to me that she enjoys being choked in bed. Her story prompted me to think harder about the way that an act like choking can oscillate between spaces of pain/pleasure, consent/force, play/violence, complicating these definitions and boundaries, while possibly challenging notions of feminism.
I’ve since recounted this story to others, listening to their opinions and reactions. Admittedly, I feel unequipped to negotiate and process this alone; my desire for closure is eclipsed by the value of showing people that my friend’s story is linked to larger issues of violence, abuse, pleasure, and ambivalence. This includes my own ambivalence; I consider myself a feminist while also enjoying what I define as rough sex. So am I empowered, degraded, or both? It’s damn hard to tell.
I conducted an informal survey of my peers and friends, including a queer female studying sadomasochism, an East Asian Studies straight male graduate student, a queer female peer health educator involved in the Columbia/Barnard BDSM community, a black feminist who write, engages, and thinks about sex and racialization, a straight white female who had her first sexual experience with a woman, a straight female in a five-year long monogamous relationship, a straight male in said monogamous relationship, a straight female who proclaims a love for rough sex (but absolutely refuses blood play), a straight male writer in a two-plus year long relationship, a gay male in the midst of his first sexual relationship, and finally, my partner, a straight male. All the people I spoke to have been or currently are sexually active. The youngest is 21 years old, the oldest 25. In total, I spoke to ten individuals, often alone and online but sometimes in person and/or in groups. I asked:
What do you define as rough sex?
How do you set boundaries?
Can you be sexy and set boundaries?
Do you define yourself as feminist?
Though everyone gave me varied responses, I noticed consistent patterns emerging from them as a whole.
The first thing that everyone agrees on is that choking a person, no matter when or where, is extremely dangerous and needs to be considered carefully before enacted. My medically trained friend encouraged me to look up some statistics on fatalities in the bedroom via sexual fetishism. I Googled sexual fatalities; the first resource that popped up was a paper on accidental “coital deaths“. The abstract notes that accidental deaths are common and remain unreported, as they are “an unfortunate and embarrassing complication”. I feel like the stigma also relates to the taboo of publicly discussing kinky sex and fetishization. David Carradine, anyone?
The second thing that everyone agrees on is that individuals are entitled to decide for themselves what counts as sexually pleasurable. One gay male friend asserts that
Gay guys enjoy being manhandled!
while a straight male friend believes
Choking a person is psychologically equal to violence… more like a turn off
When I asked if he has or ever will engage in rough play during sex, he said no, absolutely not. My friends’ comments made me realize that for this group, real pressure does not lie in conforming to others’ sexuality but instead in figuring out one’s own preferences and communicating that clearly.
The third thing that everyone agrees on is the need for “a conversation” to happen, despite the difficulty of starting one and defining its exact terms. The black feminist writing her thesis on sex and racialization believes that rather than detracting from sexual excitability, communicating one’s desires sets up a framework of security and control:
so the actual sex becomes much better and therefore sexier
But as another friend astutely notes (and here’s where it gets sticky),
Permission isn’t always premeditated… permission often comes after the fact, even if there’s extensive discussion and planning before engaging in certain behavioral contexts, sexual or otherwise
Suddenly, this made me recall the first few times my partner and I started having sex. Without my permission, he pulled my hair, pinned me down, and used handcuffs. I’ll admit, I was surprised at first, because I’d never engaged in rough play, and we never had a discussion about this. It took time, energy, and sexual comfort to figure out that I like rough play, but I didn’t enter my relationship knowing that I wanted these things. I didn’t have a conversation. It’s troubling to realize that now, because I don’t know what I would have done had I felt violated. (A conversation w/my boyfriend about this is next, and I will post it here!)
The way I see things, violation can occur between the lines of sexual and nonsexual settings (in romantic relationships, casual hookups, flirtation), between premeditation and unexpectedness (rape fantasies, surprise seduction). This doesn’t mean that one should ever stop trying to communicate his or her own do’s and don’ts.
In discussing rough sex, unsurprisingly, no one agreed on what exactly constitutes the act. Some mentioned concrete methods involving handcuffs and spanking. Others got theoretical, discussing its ability to “blur the line between pain and pleasure”. Its meaning got clearer as I asked people to juxtapose rough sex against violence. Nearly everyone agreed on differences of intent:
Rough (consensual) sex is about mutual pleasure; violence is about one person’s assertion of power over another
No one could answer whether enjoying and engaging in rough sex is compatible with American feminist ideology, but I found an article on Heather Corinna’s Scarleteen immensely helpful in dissecting this question. Corinna writes:
I think it’s important to remember that at the heart of feminism is the goal for women to be able to have enjoyment of our lives and the freedom to make our own choices and take our own journeys. We all also get to have our own ideas and opinions about what feminism is or should be: not all feminist women agree that this thing or that is or is not feminist. It’s a movement made of people, and people vary and also adjust our ideas, and thus, the movement itself, as we all go through our own processes.
It’s frustrating to know that there isn’t always a universal, empirical way to categorize rough sex, violence, or consent, but it only drives me further to find answers. Aside from THE LINE Campaign, I’ve discovered resources that tease out so many facets of safe, consensual, kinky sex, a learning process that is both liberating but also confusing. Some resources, like Sinclair Sexsmith’s The Sugarbutch Chronicles, or the work of Ignacio Rivera, and various BDSM groups highlight individuals who think and rethink such issues on a daily basis. My queer friend who is involved in Conversio Virium, Columbia/Barnard’s BDSM Organization, feels like her BDSM peers are the most sexually open and communicative people she’s ever met.
I wonder if, with sexual preferences that are more unconventional and alternative, is it more necessary to be transparent in order to create consent? She brought up “Yes/Maybe/No” lists, in which people imagine different sexual acts and decide their desire to do each one. With all the sexual variety out there, I wouldn’t be surprised if no two lists match up entirely. I also can’t help but wonder if our sexual culture would improve if everyone created these “Yes/Maybe/No” lists.
Could a campaign to let our individual sexual preferences out in the open create alienation and separation, or foster empowerment, solidarity, and understanding?