Unlearning Purity Culture: Beyond Vanilla (Part 1)

When Mark Driscoll's Real Marriage came out, there was a controversial chapter called "Can We _____?" that caused a stir amongst evangelicals because it took a slightly more liberal approach to some things that happen in the bedroom. Even so, it never touched on things like kink, BDSM, or other sexual practices often considered more "deviant" by the mainstream. With (blech) 50 Shades of Grey shoving an unrealistic and abusive portrayal of BDSM into the public eye, it seems appropriate to address the topic in this space while discussing sexual ethics.

Unfortunately, I'm not qualified to discuss this topic in any more than the basic terms, so Henri, a pseudonymous reader who is experienced in BDSM, has volunteered to write a small series of posts to address the question of kink within Christian circles. I'll let him take it from here.


When I was 14, I sat on a moonlit beach in front of a raging bonfire. My youth leader said, “Anything you need to give to God, any sin you want to repent of, write it on a note card and put it in the fire.”

I wrote “Bondage” on my note and folded it so nobody could read it, then I threw it into the flames.

When I was 24, I sat on my couch cuddling a girl who I had spent the past hour spanking, tying up, and ordering around. She looked at me seriously and said “Henri, when you dominate someone, you give them a gift.”

I had come a long way in ten years.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.

Hi, I’m Henri. That’s not my real name -- I chose it for this post in honor of Henri Nouwen, who was a brilliant writer and who was also a (celibate) sexual minority. I’m not using my real name because I’m a kinky Christian, and it’s not exactly safe to be open about fetishes in the Christian community.

I’ve been interested in BDSM since I was a child. For most of my life, I’ve felt like it was something shameful and evil. Today, I believe there is nothing wrong with BDSM, and that  BDSM play is a powerful way for partners to share affection, intimacy and trust with each other.

My hope with this post is to explain what BDSM is, why I think it can be a healthy part of loving sexual intimacy, and why I don’t see any inherent conflict between Christianity and BDSM.

This is a two post series, so in the post that follows, I will discuss how kinky folks can integrate their kinkiness with a Christian sexual ethic and also explain about how non-kinky folks can learn from their kinky brethren.

My hope is to start a conversation about how everyone can be accepted in church -- regardless of how they are wired sexually -- and how everyone can show Christlike love and honor to their partner -- regardless of how they are wired sexually.

So let’s dive in.

What is BDSM?

BDSM (which stands for Bondage, Domination/Discipline, Sadism and Masochism) is an umbrella term for a variety of activities where one partner surrenders power to the other. This might be the power to do something to them (for instance, one partner gives the other partner the power to tie them up, or spank them) or the power to tell them to do something (for instance, one partner gives the other partner the power to order them around.)

When someone is interested in BDSM, they are often said to be “kinky,” and when someone is not kinky, they are “vanilla.” Estimates of how many people are interested in BDSM vary wildly, but probably somewhere between 1.8% and 10% of the population participate in BDSM activities.

Kinky people can be interested in giving power, receiving power, or both. Men and women can both be interested in giving or receiving -- while I am a male dominant, there are plenty of men who enjoy submitting. It’s unknown why people gain an interest in BDSM, but there is no evidence that an interest in BDSM is caused by abuse, trauma, psychological issues, or sin (in fact, one study showed BDSM practitioners are more psychologically healthy than the rest of the population).

The important thing about BDSM is that all power exchange is 100% voluntary and 100% revocable. In other words, I can’t tie my partner up unless she explicitly consents to it. And if at any moment she decides she’s uncomfortable, all she has to do is tell me, and I will immediately stop what I’m doing and set her free.

So you can think of it like role-playing; the dominant partner doesn’t truly control the submissive partner, but both parties agree to act as though the dominant partner is in control. It’s similar to live action role play -- it’s fun to pretend you are a mighty warrior, but nobody is actually trying to hurt each other (and hopefully nobody actually thinks they are an orc.)

Consent and revocability separate BDSM from abuse. In an abusive relationship, the victim of abuse does not voluntarily consent to the abuse (or if they do, this is because of manipulation by the abuser), and the abuser will not stop if the victim of abuse asks them to.

In BDSM, everything that happens is totally voluntary, and there are numerous safety checks to ensure that the submissive is enjoying themselves and able to say no if needed.

Lots of other people have given great explanations of BDSM, so if you’re curious to learn more there are lots of resources out there. Laci Green has a (SFW) BDSM 101 video, the Wikipedia entry is a good in-depth explanation of BDSM (although with some moderately NSFW photos) and Xeromag has a wonderful explanation of what BDSM is and why it’s healthy (although again, with NSFW photos)

Why do I like BDSM?

There are a variety of reasons why I like BDSM. It’s fun, it’s creative, it makes it easy to feel present with my partner, and it can be really hot.

But mainly, I like BDSM because BDSM is intimate. When a girl submits to me, she offers me tremendous trust and vulnerability. She trusts that, even though I might cause her pain, I will never harm her. She trusts that, even though I can tell her what to do, I will never lead her into something that is against her best interest.

It’s kind of like the intimacy of leading a partner in a dance or catching a partner during a trust fall, except times a billion. Simply put, BDSM is a way for my partner and I to tell each other, “I love you and I trust you and I want to be close to you.”

Can Christians do BDSM?

Yes, if you do it in a loving way.

When BDSM is used in a unhealthy, unloving way, it becomes a means to self-gratification and the objectification of the self or the other (just like any other unhealthy, unloving sexual expression.)

When BDSM is used in a healthy, loving way, it becomes a conduit of intimacy, love and trust (just like any other healthy, loving sexual expression.)

I’ll talk more about this in my next post, but my basic position is this: If you do BDSM in a responsible, loving, healthy way, then there’s nothing wrong with it.

Many Christians would disagree with me, so let me tackle four common arguments below.

Myth: BDSM is wrong because hurting your partner is wrong.

In BDSM, pain is caused in order to cause pleasure. For most BDSM practitioners, receiving pain is actually an enjoyable experience, because it triggers endorphins, and because it enhances the dominant/submissive experience.

I’ve heard people argue that someone enjoying pain is a sign of past trauma or mental problems, but that’s just not true. There are many common activities where people enjoy pain: just ask any marathon runner in the midst of a runner’s high.

It’s not wrong for a chef to cook a super spicy dinner for someone who loves Thai food, even though it will cause their mouth to burn and tears to run down their face. It’s not wrong for a masseuse to give a client a deep tissue massage, even though digging into their knots might cause the client to whimper and scream. And it’s not wrong for a dominant partner to cause pain to their submissive partner, as long as the submissive partner consents and enjoys the experience.

I don’t enjoy causing pain. I enjoy causing pleasure. If my partner receives pleasure from a back rub, I’m happy to give her a back rub. If my partner receives pleasure from a spanking, I’m happy to give her a spanking. Pain in BDSM is a means to an end -- and the end is pleasure.

Myth: BDSM is wrong because it’s too sexual.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not it’s bad for Christians to be sexual outside of marriage, I want to clarify something. BDSM is part of my sexuality, but BDSM activities are not inherently sexual. Let me explain.

I’m a heterosexual man. If I kiss my girlfriend, that’s an expression of my heterosexuality. But it’s not necessarily a sexual experience -- a kiss is intimate, but it might not be arousing or erotic.

Similarly, I’m a kinky man. If I tie my girlfriend’s hands before we cuddle, that’s an expression of my kinky sexuality. But it’s not necessarily a sexual experience -- cuddling is normally intimate for me but not erotic. Tying my partner’s hands makes it more intimate, not more erotic.

Of course, many BDSM activities are erotic. But just as you can choose a level of physical intensity that is appropriate for your sexual boundaries (perhaps you decide that french kissing is okay, but oral sex is not), you can choose a level of BDSM intensity that is also appropriate for your sexual boundaries.

Myth: BDSM is wrong because it’s wrong to control someone.

True control is based on fear. “I’m afraid of what you’ll do if I disobey, so I let you control me.” Controlling someone through fear is obviously evil.

Healthy BDSM is based on trust. “I trust you to have my best interests in mind, therefore I let you control me.” Or as a submissive friend put it:

When I submit to someone, I submit because I feel safe. It's intimate because there's someone I can trust - whether it's that I trust them to tie me up or I trust them to give me orders. I feel safe and protected, like I can be free and not worry.

In healthy BDSM, the submissive doesn’t feel demeaned or dehumanized. Instead, they feel safe and cared for. They freely submit because they trust the dominant and they enjoy surrendering to someone who they can trust. Just as you might yield to a trusted mentor, teacher or parent, a submissive yields to a trusted dominant.

If control comes from fear, then yes, it’s absolutely wrong. But because healthy submission comes from trust and love rather than fear, there’s nothing unhealthy about BDSM control.

Myth: BDSM is inherently depraved and perverted.

Even after reading every argument in defense of BDSM, some Christians will still believe that it is depraved or perverted. And obviously, if that’s you, then you shouldn’t participate in BDSM.

But the Bible doesn’t talk about BDSM. There’s no verse in the Bible saying that BDSM is perverted -- you just feel that way because BDSM is disgusting to you. And it’s unwise to make moral judgments based on your feelings. (Dr. Richard Beck’s Unclean is a great exploration of the problems that come when moral judgments are based on disgust.)

For instance, the thought of eating dog feels disgusting to me. And I might be tempted to say, “Everyone that eats dog must be sick and twisted.” But there are cultures where eating dog is totally normal, and they are disgusted by us for letting a food animal sleep in our bed!

If you feel like BDSM activities cause harm, then feel free to bring up the potential harm that you’re worried about. And if you feel like BDSM would be sinful for you, then by all means abstain.

But please recognize that feelings of disgust are not a fair basis for moral judgment of other people. Just as you wouldn’t want to throw your dog out because someone from another culture is disgusted by him sleeping in your bed, you shouldn’t reject another Christian for engaging in BDSM.

Conclusion

My core argument is that there is no inherent conflict between BDSM and Christianity. Like any intimate activity, choosing to engage in BDSM could be wise or unwise and loving or unloving. It all depends on the context, the state of your heart, the details of your relationship -- etc. That’s why it is very important to have conversations with trusted friends and mentors about what decisions in BDSM are healthy and loving and which are not.

So I’m not saying you should do whatever you want. But I am saying that it’s not wrong to be interested in BDSM, and it’s not wrong to participate in BDSM -- as long as you follow the same rules that you would in a vanilla relationship (i.e., be loving, wise and responsible).

Do you agree? Disagree? Post your questions in the comments. I’ll be monitoring the comments and responding as I’m able. If you’d like to ask me something privately, email Dianna and she will pass it on to me.