I’m not sure which annoys me more: hearing feminists dis BDSM as anti-feminist or hearing BDSM practitioners rag on feminism. As a feminist scholar and sex-educator, I work with feminism and with BDSM. So, it’s frustrating to hear the two categorized as incompatible.
People who want to have active, healthy sex lives need all the allies they can get in this world. Read on to learn about some commonalities between feminism and BDSM.

Feminism and BDSM Prioritize Honest Conversations About Sex

In a world where comprehensive, fact-based sex education is much needed and yet so rare, having honest conversations about sex is an activist undertaking in its own right. These honest conversations are one thing that both feminists and BDSM practitioners have in common.

As sex researcher Debby Herbenick, noted in her article for the New York Times, "...pornography is fiction. That’s part of why many people enjoy it. However, there’s a risk if young women and men misunderstand sex as a result of a porn-only sex education."

Many feminists argue for broader sex ed initiatives and more critical studies of porn to help ameliorate its effects. This is not because porn is inherently bad. It’s just not an accurate depiction of the variety of sexual behaviors or body types out there (witness the popularity of the amusing Porn Sex vs. Real Sex told with food video).

Similarly, BDSM practitioners have open, honest conversations about sex in order to figure out which kinds of sexual experiences they might want to explore. It's also used as a way to learn their partners' limits. Author Jessica O’Reilly, in her interview here at Kinkly, urges people to talk first and have sex later. In other words, honest discussion is the key to sexual exploration.

Yes, not every feminist is honest or positive about sex. There are some folks in radical feminism who believe that all heterosexual sex is rape . In this post, I’m using "feminism" to refer to sex-positive feminism. Charlie Glickman defines sex positivity as "the view that the only relevant measure of a sexual act, practice, or experience is the consent, pleasure, and well-being of the people engaged in it or the people affected by it." I also like kinky feminist blogger Pervocracy’s discussion of sex positivity, which engages with its ethical and behavioral dimensions.

In a similar vein, not all practitioners of BDSM are interested in being sexually honest or ethical. Thomas MacAulay Miller has a great blog post series on Yes Means Yes about problems with abuse in the BDSM scene. Does this mean all BDSM folks are terrible people? No. This simply reflects how in any demographic of people that you’ll get a selection of folks who are dishonest, manipulative, or flat-out abusive. Gotta love human nature.

Feminism and BDSM are Both Founded on Consent

For feminists, conversations about consent revolve around life in patriarchal conditions, and how women are devalued and objectified without their consent. For BDSM practitioners, conversations about consent are usually more practical, such as how consent is what differentiates kink from actual assault or abuse.

These discussions of consent are related. We need to examine the larger power relations that we’re born into and thus did not consent to, such as gender, ethnicity, social class, nationality, and so on. We need this examination just as much as we need to analyze the ways in which we consent to specific sexual acts.

Another point of overlap between how the two movements approach consent is that context is really important. As Ashley Manta points out in Why BDSM Might Be the Sanest Sex Out There "...those who enjoy BDSM enjoy it within a specific context, like during a scene. These folks are not pain addicts. They are not insane. They do not need therapy or a cure. And, in most cases, they are not victims of abuse."

In other words, it’s healthy to like specific behaviors that you’ve consented to in a given context. Similarly, for feminists the discussions of privilege are centered in the idea that privilege is always enmeshed in hierarchies; this is why there’s no equivalent "female privilege" to balance out "male privilege." Rather, it’s an effect of benevolent sexism. Which, again, is a structural problem that needs to be addressed.

Feminism and BDSM Defend the Right of Personal Choice

Even though I don’t particularly want to be a stay-at-home mother, as a feminist I have to defend any woman’s right to make that choice. Similarly, even if I thought that flogging didn’t sound sexy or fun, I would have to support a consenting adult's right to make that choice. In other words, we don't have to like someone else's choices in order to agree that they have a right to enjoy them.

There are tons of stereotypes about feminists and BDSM practitioners, ranging from the usual ideas about feminists hating men and being ugly to this hilarious comic about "straw feminists". There are plenty of misconceptions about BDSM too.

When you really look at it, feminism and BDSM should be allies in helping everyone achieve smarter sex that takes place within a more egalitarian world. Now, can't we all agree on that?