Content notice: Toxic, sexist Christianity, rape culture
Gentle readers, few things make my brain overheat faster than “Christian BDSM.” Now, I guess I technically practice Christian BDSM because I’m a kinky Christian…whose play and dynamics are informed by my faith. But when I hear about “Christian BDSM,” what does it mean? Usually, it’s a kinky married man-woman couple that organizes a power exchange based on Bible verses like Ephesians 5:22, which says “Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord.” The couple often comes from an evangelical and biblical literalist standpoint.
Before I dive into that, I want to note that some Christians believe that BDSM is sinful, disrespectful at best and dangerously abusive at worst. This post doesn’t address that issue in depth. I’m also not specifically talking about “Christian Domestic Discipline,” though there can be some overlap between the rationale and practice of CDD and Christian D/s marriages. As the microcosm of Christian Fetlife discussion groups demonstrates, Christian kinksters are all over the map, from fundamentalists who believe in biblical headship to queer progressives like myself. Right now, I’m talking about a subset of Christians who believe that the Bible mandates male dominance and female submission in the context of marriage and use a combination of BDSM and evangelical/fundamentalist concepts. It’s difficult to research this topic; most of what I can say about it is anecdotal. But over time, I’ve seen enough to get a basic sense of the phenomenon (and for my brain to melt).
Conservative views have often seemed to float to the top when I’ve looked for information, whether I was googling or searching Fetlife. For example, the first (and most radical) Christian Fet group I found has discussion topics that include…
- The ‘sinfulness’ that occurs when women and ‘effeminate men’ have governing power in society
- Scriptural interpretation to support the subordination of women (using Genesis, for example, to say that Eve’s sin was a violation of the natural marriage hierarchy)
- Biblical polygyny and whether it is acceptable for a Christian man to have more than one wife in the modern day. Somewhat bizarrely, the forum has a sticky thread about “The Evils of Toxic Monogamy Culture” that blames an “egocentric and megalomaniacal version of feminism” for creating a culture in which a woman “threatens to leave because of her husband’s interest in another woman.”
Concepts like “headship” show up often in these kinds of discussions, along with assertions that women were created to submit and men to dominate. These kinksters see BDSM as a natural extension of the order of creation.
To be quite honest, I am appalled. Here’s why my brain melts: I respect the right of consenting adults to choose the relationship structures and, to an extent, the sexual ethics that work for them, regardless of whether I share them myself. But as other writers linked in this post have pointed out, consent is not given in a vacuum; it is influenced by all kinds of factors. Thus, my feelings are messy and uncomfortable.
When married kinky Christians cite scriptures to explain why men deserve to be in charge and to discipline their wives, I worry. Mainly, I worry that the consent in these dynamics, from the choice to engage in them to their ongoing maintenance, may be compromised by heavy social conditioning. What if you were indoctrinated in a fundamentalist Christian community where men were in charge, women were subordinated, female purity was emphasized, and sexual assault was covered up? If you still subscribe to that community’s doctrines as an adult (perhaps even still living in that community), can you engage in a healthy way with a lifestyle whose cornerstone is informed consent? If you start a power exchange, but one partner is thought to be more deserving of power by nature, what is exchanged?
In a lifestyle whose practitioners sometimes say “The difference between BDSM and abuse is consent” (a statement that I sort of but don’t entirely agree with), how can the partners decide when abuse is occurring? Who even gets to decide? Does the submissive partner have a say, and will she have the unconditional support of her faith community if she needs to leave the situation? Perhaps not, especially if that community doesn’t condone divorce. If the dominant partner is having problems (with shame, with jealousy, with bearing the weight of leadership, etc.), will he be able to lean on his partner, or will assumptions about what he should be able to handle as a Christian husband keep him from getting help? All of these questions trouble me when I consider such marriages on a personal, relational, and political level; they cause my general ethic of acceptance to break down.
When I ponder these issues, I think I gain some understanding of Christians who think that BDSM is naturally abusive; in their experience, especially if they swim in conservative circles that promote male “spiritual leadership,” it might be. If a marriage is sort of hierarchical to start with, the ‘lower’ partner may feel the need to guard fiercely against the prospect of abuse. Coming from a religious context with a gender hierarchy, perhaps what some people picture is husbands abusing their ‘God-given’ power by beating their wives under the pretext of BDSM.
Here’s how I would articulate the problem: the coercive, hierarchical fundamentalist framework in which the kink resides limits the options, both real and perceived, of the participants, creating a risky situation in which consent may be compromised.
I won’t tell individual Christian fundamentalists not to practice power exchange relationships (I can’t know and evaluate every single situation, and my opinion wouldn’t matter anyway). Yet, I can see the theological patterns and social circumstances that give me concern, and those I can challenge to an extent.
I am reminded of how much overlap exists between the patriarchal patterns of fundamentalist Christianity and culture at large in the United States. Even for those of us who didn’t grow up in evangelical purity culture (I just grow up around it), patriarchy and other systems of power and coercion shape our choices and limit our ability to consent. In my home state of North Carolina, for example, you can’t legally withdraw consent if vaginal intercourse is in progress. Guess who that benefits.
Legislation is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a great deal of work to do to create a better culture (to “unscrew” the sexual culture, as activist Jaclyn Friedman says). We do that work by educating ourselves, holding abusers accountable, supporting survivors, and making consent a baseline in our interpersonal relations (not just sexual ones), among other things.
For me as a Christian, part of my work is acknowledging the ways that Christian scriptural interpretation, theology, and culture have contributed to a coercive sexual culture and finding ways within my faith to shift that culture. I don’t expect to make fundamentalists change their core beliefs, but I do want to understand the sexual consent issues that permeate life in my notch of the Bible Belt. I want to take them seriously, illuminate them where I can, and assist others in our collective healing. That’s my ministry right now.
Kinky Christian writer Samantha Field wrote an excellent article (with resources) called “Kink 101 for Purity Culture Survivors” that I found part of the way through writing this post. Read her work for sex-positive post-purity culture recovery.
Queer feminist activist Kitty Stryker is a massive influence on my thinking about consent and consent culture. She was the first thinker I heard say that true ‘consent’ is never fully attainable in our society because so many coercive factors act upon us.
Feminist theorist Marilyn Frye’s essay “In and Out of Harm’s Way: Arrogance and Love” also heavily influences my views on consent and coercion.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline – Learn about the signs of abuse, find resources, and get help here.