Nostalgia for Inequality

Liberal religion is committed to the proposition that men and women are equal, and that relationships between them should be equal partnerships. That principle has been extended to same sex couples, and even multi-partnered relationships. No matter the configuration of a relationship, we believe that everyone comes to it as a voluntary and equal partner.

There is a lot of dispute about the origins, but the ideas of the equality of the sexes is only several centuries old. The norm that sexual relationships should be voluntary, mutual, consenting, reciprocally pleasurable is quite new in human history.

"Let's Go Crazy"
Which brings us to BDSM and "50 Shades of Gray".

There is controversy as to whether the film depicts "healthy" BDSM or the abuse of a young woman. Both sides of that debate, though, accept, in principle, that sexual relationships ought to be voluntary, mutual, consenting and reciprocally pleasurable.

BDSM positions itself as a kind of sex play within the norms of sexual egalitarianism. And like all play, it has an "as if" quality. Let's have sex "as if" I were your sexual slave, "as if" I had unlimited power over you. Let's have sex "as if" all the roles were reversed, and men were completely subservient to women.

Your pour the wine; I'll light the candles. Make sure the kids are asleep.

And most BDSM sex is even more playful. I'll pretend that all this is really happening to me, by me, through me, while I have sex with myself. It's playful thoughts.

It is also the eroticization of power, of domination and subordination.

Later on, when the play is over, we can go back to the real world, where men and women are equal, and sexual relationships are mutual and voluntary, and where we are horrified to read real stories of kidnapped women kept in dungeons and sexually abused. The world, also, of international sex trafficking and forced prostitution. The play world of voluntary BDSM and the real world of sexual abuse co-exist.

It's play, but it's atavistic play, deliberately recreating social arrangements of a previous, pre-feminist era. And it depends on a degree of privilege; all play does. Unless one is a person with sexual agency, autonomy over their sexual self and activity, one cannot give it up in play.

I am not here to judge other people's sex play and fantasy lives. They have their own sincerity and authenticity.

But I do want to know why. Why this, at a time when the hidden codes of domination and subordination between people are being interrogated and exposed as never before. Is it like ethnic joking, a seemingly playful subversion of new multicultural sensitivities?  Is this nostalgia for the old ways of being human in which unequal power and sexuality were welded together?


  1. Steve Cook10:14 PM

    It is my faith that sex and physical love are to be life-enhancing, adding to, not diminishing, the "worth and dignity" of the person, if we wish to use UU boilerplate. Freely chosen or not, how degradation, humiliation, beating and abuse are to enhance worth and dignity; how they are add to even a little more Love to the world completely escapes me.

  2. I'm anxious to see a discussion on this. It touches on and connects two topics which UUs often find confusing: sex and power. Especially power. UUs would rather admit having farted than having power.

    Steve, there's an assumption I think you're making: Sex is roughly equivalent to physical love. I'm going to say instead that sex is roughly equivalent to pleasure.

  3. Steve Cook10:58 AM

    I am making no such assumption. I wrote the above given the context of this discussion concerning a book and movie that (as far as I can tell; I have no intention of spending a dime for either) posits abusive sexual activity as a vehicle for "love." I am completely clear that love and sex and touching and non-sexual physical contact can all be quite separate or can be co-mingled in a variety of ways depending on intention. My point is that deliberate abuse, even if consented to by an adult, is not, in my view, loving.

  4. First, I as a genderqueer person, I notice that there are some assumptions about gender roles and BDSM which of course the book/movie further support. In the BDSM world, people of all genders play all kinds of roles. Many people are what are called “switches” meaning they like to switch between the roles. Domination and submission, typically through bondage and role play, have some things in common with power and oppression- they are about control and trust. My issue with “50 Shades of Grey” is that it conflates the power and oppression dynamic of sexism with the sexual play of domination and submission.

    I think there are a few things to keep in mind about BDSM.

    1) If it isn't fun and pleasurable, then it is not BDSM it's abuse.

    2) There is a fine line between pleasure and pain than can be blurred during sex if the person knows what they are doing. One of my dearest friends, Curtis, is a gay man who has taught safe BDSM to hundreds of people. Once, when visiting from out of town, he brought some of his toys to teach to my roommates. One of my roommates picked up a pair of nipple clamps and applied them immediately. No preparation, no stimulation, no clue what he was doing. Needless to say- it hurt. Curtis pointed out that, yes, of course it hurt, because there was no foreplay or preparation leading up to it. In other words, you don’t just jump to the painful stuff- you build up slowly. As long as it continues to feel good, then it will be fun. The 50 book/movie misses this point. Sadism/masochism isn’t about pleasure in pain it is pleasure from the sensations that would typically cause pain.

    3) There is something naturally erotic about trusting your partner with your pleasure. This is true whether we are talking about vanilla play or BDSM play. Part of the fun in the submission/domination play is in the release of control and in the complete trust in another person. It is not unusual for someone who seems more passive in everyday life to be dominant in the bedroom or vice versa. The play becomes a place where we can explore our full selves and to enjoy it. In the BDSM community, if the person playing the submissive role isn’t into it, then it won’t happen. Or, if it does, you can bet the dominant will have a bad reputation very quickly and won’t find someone to play with anymore.

    4) As to the use of roles such as slave, prisoner, etc., there are many roles utilized in BDSM. When thinking about slave, I think it is helpful to think of being a slave to one’s desires rather than the historic role of masters and slaves. The “servant” play has more to do with the deep desire to satisfy the desires of the other person. When done well, the question of who the “servant” is- the person who is dominant or the person who is submissive- is blurred, as well. Ultimately, if both people do not want to please one another, then we have moved again from BDSM to abuse.
    So, when it comes to the dynamics of the old sexism, it has no real place in the BDSM world. That said, I think “50 Shades of Grey” does. It is written with those old dynamics in mind, but has no real basis in the lived out world of BDSM. I cringe to think of all the people who decided to try out BDSM because of these books and didn’t know what they were getting in to. If they based their play on antiquated notions of male/female dominance, then horrible damage has been brought to us as a society. This is where I think many in the BDSM community get angry with this book. It is also where I think we as ministers need to intervene. At the end of the day, “do no harm” is the best rule there is and I think the books/movie have failed in this horribly.

  5. Hey Tom, thanks for the post. Just wanted to invite another consideration on "...the idea of the equality of the sexes is only several centuries old." Check out for a different take on that. There are quite a few historians of ancient times who can point to evidence that the concept of equality between people - regardless of gender - is as old, old. Most cultures seem to have forgotten it, however.

    Meck Groot

  6. Thank you all for this discussion. Leather & Grace ~ Unitarian Universalists for BDSM Awarness is an organization devoted to educating all in our faith community about the realities of BDSM, kink and fetish sexual identity.

    Dominance & submission (D/s) is a complex phenomenon within the kink community, but we are still speaking of relationship paradigms that are consensual and negotiated, not imposed upon anyone. Even in democratic communities, we entrust a degree of power and authority to certain people, either through elections or some other vetting process; a similar dynamic of trust is involved in D/s relationships, including the right to dissolve said relationship.

    As for the impact of "Fifty Shades" ... While L&G shares with others in the BDSM/kink/fetish community real concerns about the portrayal in the books and the recent movie, we also recognize that some of the imagery and dialogue has stirred interest in many people, and welcome the opening of discussion on this area of human sexuality. It is why we sent this letter by email to UU ministers and religious educators months before, as well as being one of the reasons our website had devoted so much space to educational content.

    Leather & Grace is happy to answer specific questions, and to suggest ways that UU leaders may address this topic and extend welcome to kink-oriented people in our congregations.

  7. This is problematic amongst UU's who have been disturbingly silent during cultural conversations on violence against women and who have a continuing problem of sweeping clergy sexual abuse under the rug.


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