If you had asked me this in 2011, I would have told you “self-harm has nothing to do with BDSM.” Here’s the core of the argument I made at the time:
To posit BDSM as self-harm (or, “self-abuse”), a position often advanced by anti-SM folk who like to capitalize on the fact that many BDSM’ers (including me, I’ll say publicly possibly for the first time) have a history of self-harm, is as ludicrous as saying masturbation is rape, not because masturbation is either negative or positive but because masturbation is necessarily a lone act and rape is not. Both BDSM and rape—regardless of any moral entanglements—necessarily involve multiple people. Self-harm, on the other hand, is by definition solitary.
I look back on that now and I think, “gosh, what a load of BDSM’er crap.”
What changed between then and now is my understanding of both self-injury and BDSM as potentially healing experiences as well as potentially destructive ones and, this is important, that they can be both those things in different ways at the same time. Further, an experience that someone (like me) once characterized as desirable can later feel traumatizing, and vice versa. Discourses that do not provide space for such after-the-fact evaluations are flawed.
I do think there is a substantive difference between “inflicting pain on oneself in nonsexual situations of emotional distress” and “playing with pain in the context of kink,” but I don’t think that the substance of this difference is a distinction between BDSM and self-harm. Rather, the distinction is between a sexualized context and a non-erotic one. In other words, I disagree with the premise of the question. The assertion “BDSM is self-harm” is not one I consider a nuanced kink-critical argument. (It may in fact be an argument “kink-critical” bloggers are making, but I think their analysis is banal.)
The temptation to explain an experience by pathologizing it is strong because it’s simple. For instance, “BDSM is wrong because it inflicts injury, and injury is wrong Because Magic, therefore BDSM is wrong.” Or, “self-harm is wrong because Mental Illness, and Mental Illness is bad Because Pathology, therefore self-harm is wrong.” Worse than being boring, this way of thinking does little to nothing to actually support people suffering from what their pathology-fetishist doctors call “mental illnesses,” nor does it do anything to preempt the cycle of abusive cultural indoctrinations that make our environments such ripe breeding grounds for the very behaviors we later pathologize.
Instead, it’s more useful to look at the makeup of an experience itself. What BDSM and SI both have in common are these three core characteristics:
- Trauma: Does the act trigger (and/or is it a response to) either a physically or emotionally traumatic experience?
- Eroticization: Is the act sexualized or not?
- Source: Is the act taken by the self or by another person?
These three characteristics can be combined in every possible way. For example, one could experience a non-traumagenic and non-sexual injury caused by oneself, such as certain First Aid techniques, e.g., re-opening a wound to remove a splinter. Or one could experience a sexual and non-traumatic act involving someone else, which is what most people would agree “healthy consensual sex” is supposed to be.
But one can also self-inflict a traumatic sexual experience, such as through maturbatory psychosexual self-harm.
What kink critical arguments against BDSM are saying is not “this is bad because it’s injurious,” or at least, I argue, they should not be saying that. What they are saying is, “it is an artifact of rape culture that many people’s sexual desires are infused with coercive characteristics.”
This is not a value judgement. Nowhere in that sentence are we saying that “BDSM is bad.” Hell, nowhere in that sentence are we even saying RAPE is bad. All we’re saying is that it should come as no surprise that rape fantasies are common in a hegemonic cultural context that eroticizes rape.
Two common reactions to this very obvious point are embodied by opposing schools of feminist thought, commonly dubbed “radical feminist” (radfem) on the one hand and “sex-positive” on the other. The radfems claim that rape culture creates a “false consciousness,” which means that if you appear to be choosing violation, you must not be authentically choosing. In other words, you have been brainwashed or are being threatened into giving permission. In contrast, the sex-positive (or “liberal feminist”) argument says that if you appear to be choosing violation or (psychosexual) injury, it must not actually be violation/injury. In other words, what might look like rape or violence is actually something else entirely (it’s only a “performance” of violence), if you’ve given permission for it.
I, personally, diverge from both of the positions I just described above.
I disagree with the radfem argument because I believe that it is not merely possible but sometimes life-savingly appropriate to intentionally and with full knowledge choose to have your consent violated. Everyone has had at least one situation in which they had to choose between the lesser of two evils. This job I hate, or that job which pays shit? Have sex with him even though I don’t really want to, or deal with his entitled ass if I refuse? Nevertheless, it is delusional to insist that making such a choice is not actually a choice.
But I also disagree with the sex-positive position because I do not believe that the act of making a fully informed choice somehow magically negates any possible injurious outcome of that choice. You don’t get to tell me that it wasn’t rape because I said yes at the time when the only options I were given were constrained by a coercive environment. And trying to make me believe it was my fault for choosing the lesser of two evils is abusive.
So, in other words, kink critical arguments aren’t (or shouldn’t) be trying to tell you, personally, what trauma you have or have not experienced. Nor should they be trying to convince you what you should or shouldn’t choose to experience in the first place. What they should be doing is pointing out that the BDSM’er rhetoric of “consent” is nothing other than Magical Thinking. It’s snake oil. You can buy it if you want. But chances are it’s the sort of thing you’d want to know more about before you bought it.