Kinky sex isn’t new in the land of Kama Sutra. Typically, BDSM challenges gender stereotypes. Here, consent is given proactively. Its power lies in our ability to withdraw it.

by Jaya Sharma

378474_169685763175411_1397856151_nBefore I joined the BDSM community at the age of 46, I never thought of myself as ‘kinky’. Today, six years down the line, I wonder whether I was kinky even before I discovered this erotic practice of ‘bondage domination sado masochism’. For instance, I’ve always loved that difficult-to-describe thing that the lal mirch kaa achar does to my mouth. And my love for the almost too-embarrassing-to-mention, Hai re hai, neend nahin aaye and Ik meethi si chubhan variety of old Hindi songs and the mercifully more sophisticated, Mai Ree, Main kase kahun. What are these if not emotional masochism at play? Not to forget words like vyakul, tadapna, bekarar that I adore. And lest I be accused of being a Hindustani chauvinist, quick WhatsApp messages to friends reveal that there are phrases like vingal in Malayalam, byakul (almost cheating here) in Bengali, jor in Marwari, and hook or tees in Punjabi. I’m not sure about English though, as it doesn’t seem to lend itself to the ‘mixedupness’ of the pain-pleasure, of emotions.

In the ragas I sing as a student of Hindustani music, I’ve always known that discipline can enable tremendous creativity. Any raga permits only particular notes; sometimes only in a particular order. It is precisely this discipline that allows for a magical spontaneity and crazy creativity. An almost trance-like feeling overtakes me when I sing—as a medium, all I can do is to interfere thus, as little as possible with the flow of notes. These experiences are evidence perhaps that I was always kinky and that perhaps everyone is. And this makes perfect sense because life is like that—it doesn’t follow straight lines, and what is kink if not a twist in the line?

319023_169962549814399_1423985854_nMoving from the seemingly non-erotic to the sexual—it was also the love bites, my eyes being closed, hands held in a strong grip above me, that whisper in my ear demanding that I say thank you every time I reached an orgasm. Kinky, no? And these were ‘pre-BDSM days’.

The point I’m making here is critical. We should not think of ‘kinky’, as something out there, at a safe distance away from us, something that only a certain section of ‘perverted’ people do using handcuffs and whips. I want to make this distinction between kinky, which I feel we all are at some level, and that which is practised by those in the BDSM community. The difference being that in BDSM we allow ourselves to be led into greater intensity by surrendering more to pleasure-in-pain, freedom-in-discipline kind of erotic energy.

Before I share what BDSM has meant to me, I’d like to get some of the remnants of the E.L. James bestseller, Fifty Shades of Crap…oops…Fifty Shades of Grey, I meant, out of the way, that’s commonly perceived to have shattered the silence and stigmatisation around BDSM. Unlike Christian Grey, Dominants are not control freaks as they consciously and deliberately wield control over another, for their erotic fulfillment. Submissives, too, are nothing like Anastasia Steele, whining and pathetic. Submissives, deliberately choose to give up control, as an act of agency, for their erotic fulfillment, and, so powerful, in fact is the Submissive, that the Dominant can dominate only because the Submissive submits. Also, unlike Steele, who swings between being turned on and feeling violated, BDSM has no room for violation. Since consent, and more precisely, proactive, enthusiastic consent, is at the heart of BDSM, by definition, BDSM is what violation is not.

clip_10-2Another myth encouraged by the red room in Fifty Shades of Grey is that BDSM is all about pain. In fact, BDSM could be about power play, entirely, for example, the Dominant controlling the actions of the Submissive that may not involve any pain at all. In the practice there are a million others things that are done that involve no pain. Actually, not every member of the BDSM community is turned on by pain. Also, many of us in the BDSM community enjoy fetishes and might not be either into Domination/Submission or pain, at all. Our fetish could be about an object or a body part that turns us on. Consent, of course, naturally comes into play if the object of lust is a part of a living being.

Moving from what BDSM is not, I would now like to share what BDSM is for me..

The word(s?) that came to me again and again, as I write this and threw me every time after I entered the world of BDSM world, was topsy-turvy. Quite the Alice in Wonderland experience this was, and continues to be. So, it was topsy-turvy when I discovered during my first session of three days in a Rishikesh hotel with a stranger, a gentleman and an incredible sadist, that pain could be pleasure too. Topsy-turvy was what I felt seeing my heterosexual, male, dear friend at a play party, with his quintessential Buddha-like smile that never leaves his face, even when he is being the vicious sadist that he is, lovingly playing with a gorgeous woman who has a penis. Roll into the present, where I don’t play with strangers, but with friends, because I need an emotional connect. Topsy-turvy, because the crazy intensity with these friends most often doesn’t involve acts that would pass as ‘sex’, or even when they are acts that might look to any looker-on (and voyeur is not a bad word in our world) to constitute sex, I most often will not experience them as sexual, because somehow the point is the power and the energy that flows. And the topsy-turvyness is made possible I realised because of consent.

As someone who came into the world of BDSM from the women’s movement, which I have been part of for over 30 years, and involved in a fair amount work against gender-based violence, I’m learning a great deal about consent in the BDSM community. There are for starters: simple, but powerful mechanisms of consent. The safe word, that can be as simple as ‘red’, to whatever one chooses, as long as it’s not so clever that one may not remember it at the moment it’s desperately needed, brings to an end instantly and unconditionally whatever is transpiring. There are also negotiations before hand, when one talks about the hard limits that are acts, which are complete no-no, and soft limits, being acts which one may be not entirely comfortable with, but willing to explore. Thus, consent is meaningful when it is not assumed, but given proactively and enthusiastically. Also, that the power of consent lies in our ability to withdraw it. There is a high level of articulation, and lines of communication are more well-defined, than in other relationships.

clip_8It is to a friend, however, a male submissive, who finds time from his work in real estate to be a hyper-kinky activist, that I owe my biggest learning about consent. He says that for him, consent is what keeps helping him get what he wants. In my feminist language, this means that BDSM enables a paradigm shift from consent as only ‘harm reduction’ to consent as ‘enabling of pleasure’.  Also, that BDSM allows for a paradigm shift from a ‘static’ view of consent to consent for the ‘exploration’ of desires. Although in BDSM, this aspect of exploration of desires is hyper-­evident, all of us seek to explore, in whatever way we can, our desires, and enjoy perhaps, our boundaries being pushed. This way of understanding consent is more in sync with the reality of how desires work for everyone. Also, with consent being at the heart of BDSM, we are, at the risk of sounding not so humble, experts in consent. I firmly believe that the safe word is something everyone should explore. When I hear the understandably fraught discussions in recent times about whether such and such case involved consent or sexual assault, I wish we all had the mechanisms and culture of explicitly negotiating consent (and no it doesn’t kill spontaneity, and yes, it can be very sexy), including using safe words so that there could be greater clarity on the part of everyone involved about whether or not there was consent, as well as about the sanctity of consent.

I have often felt that women find it hard to negotiate consent with their partners. Often men say, oh she’s saying ‘no’, but actually meaning ‘yes’. This misperception between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is used against women when sexually harassed or violated. In BDSM, there is space and clarity in being able to say yes and no. Normally, women can’t say ‘yes’ as they are then labelled as easily available, branded ‘sluts’, unlike BDSM where there is space to express our sexuality. The word slut is not an insult. Unlike in cases of marital rape, where consent is assumed, here, the principle of consent is an actualisation—a meaningful process.

At present, a small number—20 or so in the Kinky Collective, a group which creates awareness about BDSM—are spread across cities like Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. The larger BDSM community in India is sprawling; there are close to 50,000 people who meet online. There are also regular meet-ups in major cities. At workshops held in the privacy of homes, Kinky Collective creates spaces where members of the BDSM community frankly discuss issues and conduct skill sessions—training in wax play, rope-tying and whipping. There are rules. Never flog between rib cage and tailbone. Also, any activity that is non-consensual, is off limits.

clip_6-2Kinky sex as the Kama Sutra describes is certainly not new in India. Yet there remains a suffocating veil of silence. Open dialogue has begun—slowly, but surely. The Kinky Collective is reaching out to mental health professionals so that practitioners need not make up stories say when they visit a counsellor/psychoanalyst. This is critical to break the myth that BDSM isn’t a perversion. In fact, scientific studies have proven repeatedly that BDSM practitioners possess better mental health than the so-called ‘vanilla’ people. Also, in terms of medical practitioners, until there is openness, transparent medical advice on the safety of edgier BDSM practices: a critical concern for many will probably remain a murky area.

Other than strengthening the BDSM community through an online group, meet-ups, etc, the Kinky Collective also raises awareness about BDSM outside of the community, through workshops and related events. As a feminist, I have sometimes struggled and found ways to respond to concerns that often get raised during discussions on BDSM we organise During these interactions, two common concerns and responses are as follows:

Concern#1

The woman who submits to a man in BDSM is doing so because of patriarchy, in which a woman is meant to serve a man.

Woman as Submissive and man as Dominant is only combination.

There is also Woman as Dominant, man as Submissive

Transgender as Dominant, woman as Submissive.

Woman as Dominant, woman as Submissive, etc.

Men who are Submissive in their BDSM life can be highly dominating in the rest of their life.

Women who are Dominant in their BDSM life can be meek in the rest of their life. Women who are Submissive in their BDSM life could well be dominating in the rest of their life. There is, therefore, no easy connection between our fantasies and how we are in our BDSM lives, with the rest of our lives.

If a woman is serving a man because she is trapped in a patriarchal subservient role, this is her reality. Where is the fantasy? How is this play? Where is the consent? If there is no consent, it is not BDSM.

It is just good old patriarchy.

Concern#2

Those who watch ‘violent kinky’ porn will become violent.

‘Violent kinky’ is a contradiction in terms, because if there is consent, it is the opposite of violence.

Respectable academic research studies show that porn, like other media, does not impact us in any simple way. We do not start doing what we see. More commonsensically put, we do not start flying off balconies because we watch Superman movies.

BDSM provides a consensual way for fantasies to be expressed, towards erotic fulfillment.

In fact, I found many ways in which BDSM challenges gender stereotypes. Women as Dominants who are supremely, divinely, in control, not just of their own sexuality, but, of their Submissives! Male Submissives who are not able to be in control the way society always expects them to be. And how differently, I now view the Missionary position (as the ’80s song plays in my head—It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it). If the man on top is a Submissive and the woman below a Dominant, it doesn’t take much to guess who is in control.

Since I came to the world of BDSM from the LGBTQ movement, I’d be amazed to hear all that I had already heard before in the context of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders and queers. That feeling, almost impossible to imagine for those who have not experienced it, that there is no one else in the world, ‘like me’. The having to lead a double life. The not being able to tell best friends about one’s sexuality. The utterly terrifying prospect of having to marry someone who doesn’t share one’s sexuality. The fear of blackmail. The struggle to find professionals, such as doctors, mental health professionals or lawyers who are aware and non-judgmental. The commonalities were distressing.

There is one commonality however which I celebrate—both the LGBTQ community and the BDSM community are ‘queer’. We challenge notions of what is natural and normal.  Here, it’s important to note, however, that BDSM in fact contests not just ‘who’ one can desire, but ‘how one can desire’. There is much that becomes topsy-turvy, gets turned on its head, not least, that pain can be pleasure and submission powerful.

This opening up of horizons of ‘how’, we desire is what I feel BDSM offers to us all, not just those who belong to the BDSM community. Often my friends in the Kinky Collective and I experience an almost missionary zeal about the need to share this. The goal being not to ‘convert,’ since we all are already kinky at some level, but offer unconditional reassurance that all erotic fantasies are acceptable. The aim is also to create hope that it’s possible to make our fantasies come true and even to find ourselves playing out fantasies we didn’t know we could have. The magic of this being made possible by enthusiastic, proactive consent. May there prevail erotic fulfillment for all!

India’s underground BDSM practitioners harbour the hope that someday in a country of sexual stereotyping, where women are slut-shamed and men play a part chalked out by age-old patriarchy; where consent in sex and in marriages is treated like a privilege, mostly enjoyed by the more powerful partner, BDSM will be understood in its entirety, thereby being considered another expression of sexuality, and not just a synonym for sexually-deviant perverse and violent behavior.

Top ‘N Bottom Same Time

We have heard about dominants and submissives (the dominant enjoys being in charge, while the submissive enjoys receiving orders). But many BDSMers also use the terms “tops” and “bottoms” to describe themselves. A top could refer to a dominant or a sadist (someone who enjoys inflicting pain), while a bottom could refer to a submissive or a masochist (someone who enjoys receiving pain). This allows you to have a blanket term for those who generally like being on either the giving or receiving end in a BDSM encounter. And there’s no rule that says you can’t be both dominant and submissive, in different circumstances or with different partners.

Jaya Sharma is an activist and writer based in New Delhi. As part of a feminist NGO she worked on issues of gender and education for over 20 years. As a queer activist she was involved with queer forums in Delhi. She’s also a founder-member of the Kinky Collective that aims to raise BDSM awareness.

For more about Kinky Collective, https://www.facebook.com/kinkycollective/, kinkycollective.com.