I’ve been afraid to post this photo. It’s been sitting in my queue for weeks. I’ve written about my frustration with BDSM bias, and my belief that those who view BDSM through the lens of misogyny condescend to women because they presume that women don’t realize they’re being “abused.” But I’m also aware that images of BDSM scenes can be triggering for those who do have a history of trauma.
One reader contacted me to tell me she had been triggered by some of my photos, but she had enough self-knowledge to realize that her reaction was separate from my intention when I posted the pictures. In spite of the feelings that were stirred up, she liked my blog and understood that its raison d’etre is to empower women — especially older women — to ignore slut-shaming and age-shaming cultural messages and embrace their sexuality.
After I heard from her, I started thinking about women who have been targets of violence, especially those who haven’t gotten out from under their trauma. Do I have an ethical obligation to these women, and if so, what does that look like, exactly? Do I stop posting photos depicting D/S role-play where the woman is submissive? Do I soften up my photographic content so it’s more sensual and less edgy? And what about my editorial content? Do I filter out aspects of sexuality that might be considered anti-feminist?
And if I did all these things, would I even have a blog?
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When the Ray Rice atrocity hit the cybersphere, it sparked an important conversation about violence against women. Rice’s wife, Janay Palmer, was criticized for defending, and staying with, the husband who beat her senseless and dragged her out of a casino elevator. Anyone who understands the psychology of abuse knows that Janay’s decision to stay with her abuser is evidence of a woman who feels — for whatever reason — that she has no choice.
Janay’s story is not the same as that of a woman with genuine self-agency, who consciously chooses to engage in sexual activity that involves carefully negotiated domination by a man who cares for her. Seen in this context, BDSM is the opposite of abuse — it’s an empowering and fulfilling experience. Professional dominatrix Sandra LaMorgese elaborates:
By practicing BDSM, I’ve come to understand that people are different and have very different desires, sexuality, hopes, dreams, loves, purposes, ambitions, and styles. If something or someone brings joy, happiness, pleasure, and love into our lives, how can that be wrong?
So many times we get caught up in one behavior being ‘good’ and one behavior being ‘bad.’ But when sex is consensual, there should be no rights or wrongs, morally speaking. The BDSM code is ‘Safe, Sane, and Consensual.’ It is an agreement that everyone in the room must agree to and it defines the framework of the fantasy. If the behavior fits within our desires and it makes us happy, then it’s all good. In fact, it’s healing.”
But where does that leave those of us who write about, and photograph, sexuality that goes against the mainstream? Just what is our responsibility to trauma survivors? I posed this question to journalist Jillian Keenan, who regularly writes about kink and is working on a book about Shakespeare and global sexuality that will be released by Harper Collins in 2016. This is what she told me:
I’m going to encourage my editors to include a trigger warning in the front pages, where the dedications go. I made that choice because, while I don’t know if descriptions of kink can trigger abuse survivors, I’d rather have an unnecessary trigger warning than provoke unnecessary trauma.”
Sex writer and educator Walker Thornton is the former Executive Director of a sexual assault crisis center. While not a survivor, she got into the work out of a desire to help women. I asked her if she thought BDSM writing or photojournalism could perpetuate violence against women. Here’s what she said:
The answer is a resounding no and sometimes a maybe. Those people who don’t pay enough attention to the real intent behind articles and photographs, or who come with agendas, will twist or misinterpret the work to reflect their own violent or misogynistic tendencies. Well-adjusted individuals are not going to be persuaded by imagery or words to become violent or hateful towards women.”
When I asked her about the necessity of trigger warnings such as the one Jillian Keenan plans to use in her book, Walker stated that there’s no clear-cut answer. She made a terrific point about triggers in general:
Each person has his or her own unique set of triggers. A woman who received unwanted attention to her long hair may be triggered by images where long hair is prominent. Another person might be triggered by a particular scent, a sound that was playing in the background, or a piece of furniture that resembled one present in her attack. It’s impossible to know what specific image will trigger someone. I’m not sure how feasible it would be to label each image. You could post a disclaimer and include a line indicating your concerns, but that has limitations as well. It’s a matter of interpretation and degrees.”
But does every trauma survivor need to avoid reminders of trauma in order to avoid re-traumatization? Could looking at images of abuse actually enable a person to work through the original trauma?
After witnessing horrific sexual violence to women In Haiti, journalist Mac McClelland developed such debilitating PTSD that she suffered uncontrollable bouts of crying and gagging. McClelland echoed Walker Thornton’s belief about triggers, writing in an article about her PTSD that “anything could trigger the sobbing and heaving.”
When McClelland told her therapist that her mind couldn’t separate sex from violence, and that she fantasized about having violent sex, her therapist suggested she find a partner who could make her fantasy a reality.
So she did. In a stunning piece about how she got over her PTSD, McClelland details the brutal rape she choreographed, enlisting the sexual services of a man who had long been trying to get in her pants. The unorthodox experiment had its desired effect.
In a few months, I’d feel ready to go back to Haiti. It would become pretty rare for a movie rape scene to trigger immediate, whiplash-inducing weeping. The flashbacks and the gagging fits would, for the most part, have ceased. A few months after that, I would report from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where every interview would be about sexual violence or murder, but I would function just fine. I’d see the French peacekeeper again in another country, where his big weight would feel appropriately weighty as I engaged him in absurdly sweet—like, European-earnest—sex.
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So to answer my own questions about the ethics of sex journalism, no, I don’t think it’s my responsibility to shy away from lightning-rod topics that merit exploration. As McClelland’s story proves, anything can trigger sexual trauma survivors, and, who knows? Seeing triggering images might even enable a woman to process her own traumatic memories.
In the case of artistic photography that’s staged to simulate a particular experience, what you see is often not what you imagine. I cropped the image above to create the heightened intensity of the dom-sub dynamic. The uncropped image, below, shows what was really going on: that my photography partner was amused, and I had an uncontrollable case of the giggles.
I really hope we can put to rest the notion that BDSM promotes violence, and that women who partake in, or depict BDSM, are anti-feminist. Then maybe we can get back to the purpose of art and writing: to create stories that deserve to be told.