Shades of Grey: Too Queer or Not Queer Enough? - Devidas

All is not black and white… and we want to explore the shades of grey. Feminism is diverse and we don’t always agree totally with one another, though we may share a similar perspective.

One of the issues that is controversial is that of S&M, frequently used as a short form for BDSM (for those who are wondering what this is, please go the Did you Know section). When it comes to BDSM, there are usually two reactions – people either get a gleam in their eye or look disgusted. Anything that is not vanilla sex is dismissed as abusive. Which of course brings us to the question of what is the standard by which we judge the acceptability of a sexual activity.

Today people claim rights on the basis of an identity – heterosexual, woman, lesbian, etc. That is, on the basis of what they are. But they are still discriminated against on the basis of what they do. So, people who practise BDSM, irrespective of their gender or sexuality, are left outside the pale. This is not to say that we are suggesting that sexually, anything goes. What we are asking is: what is the basis on which we decide what is acceptable?

People claim rights on the basis what they are.
But they are still discriminated against on the basis of what they do.
What is the standard by which we judge the acceptability of a sexual activity?


Because I Don’t Have a Voice

Came across a fabulous book today – Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India. It’s an excellent read and very diverse in its spread from conceptual writing to personal narratives via stories of struggles. Felt a bit sad though. Like others before it, this collection too ignores all us BDSMers. In the introduction the editors note, ‘For far too long, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have simply been the distant and hypothetical theories and ideas, looked upon either with pity, curiosity or disdain.’ Hey – spare a thought for us BDSMers. Even the marginalised seem to forget about us.

The rise of the queer movement suggested there was space for us – to finally escape the world of alphabets … BDSM, LGBT, GLBT, LGBTK, LGBTXYZ … whatever. But maybe it was too early for us to celebrate. Queer politics in India still ends up being LGBTK and transgender politics. Maybe it’s because there are not enough BDSMers out there … but you still don’t feel like there’s space to discuss BDSM in queer groups. I guess it’s easier if you’re a gay leatherman or a lesbian domme, but what if you’re a heterosexual BDSMer. Maybe you even live up to the hetero normative ideal … marriage, children, blah blah. That definitely doesn’t sound queer … but your sexual practices and identities are still classified as pathological disorders. Queer but not queer enough? Or maybe too queer!

Khanna’s piece, in the same collection, though is refreshing. If who I fuck doesn’t matter, how I do it shouldn’t … or even if I don’t. Even if I like to be teased and humiliated; tied and whipped; trampled and fucked … whatever. Like Khanna, I wish I could ditch the label (BDSM) too … but right now I need to belong, to be heard and to have a voice.

Of Brands and Labels

BDSM, even as an umbrella term is too vague. Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sado-Masochism. There’s a whole lot there. Where do I fit in? Do I need to fit in? Do I really need to label myself? Can I label myself? Where do I begin? I’m attracted to women as of now – so I assume that makes me heterosexual. I long to be dominated – so that makes me a submissive.  Am definitely not a switch! I hope to live in an unequal relationship with a mistress – that would make me a slave. I like to be fucked and used and shared, so a slut I am. I love to be whipped and hurt, so a painslut or a bottom. I crave being bound in latex and PVC and anything else – guess that makes me a gimp. I enjoy being ridden – horse or pony? Even a live dildo?

I dream of surrendering myself completely to a dominant woman – maybe I’m a female supremacist. I’m definitely a foot worshipper, a shoe fetishist, a pussy-licker. Every time I see a stiletto, I think of deep throating it. Forget breasts – I’m a foot, pussy and ass boy. When I was a child, Wonder Woman excited me as did the snobby Veronica from those ubiquitous Archie comics (Betty was just too boring and vanilla!). Growing up, I was always attracted to the ‘wrong woman’ – the one who treated me badly. Liz Taylor as Cleopatra kept me awake many a night, as did Venus in Furs – my favourite classic. Discovering the Internet was almost manna from heaven. I realised there was a world full of people like me. Now I’ve come to terms with the fact that I crave what others call an ‘abusive’ relationship. I need what others call ‘violence’. I don’t know about you, but when I hear Jessica Simpson singing ‘one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you’, all I can say is, ‘Please Ma’am, can I have some more?’

A Question of Consent

‘Did you get turned on by the Abu-Ghraib pictures?’ asked a friend who’s still not too comfortable with my ‘quirks’ (as she puts it politely!). ‘Ewwwwww – of course not! What kind of a person would get turned on by that?’ The irony of my words was quite sickening. I’ve probably seen far more violent and brutal images on the thousands of BDSM and femdom websites I’ve surfed. Any dominatrix there would make Private Lyddie England look like a girl scout.  And yet – I was disgusted by Abu Ghraib. In fact there was no confusion or conflict in my mind whatsoever.

Growing up, I remember reading Uncle Tom’s cabin and getting very confused. Slavery was reprehensible but parts of the book turned me on. I wasn’t quite sure how to react. In history class, feudalism and whipping did the same. But by now, I know the importance of consent and Abu Ghraib is not confusing or contradictory in the least. I may get gratified with treatment far ‘worse’ than the Iraqi detainees in the prison suffered, but I chose that and I enjoy it. They had no choice in the matter. The quantum of violence is not the issue – consent is. Most BDSMers understand that. We may have rape fantasies but they’re precisely that – fantasies. Some radical feminists don’t understand that – they equate the violence of BDSMers with violence against women. The classic ‘Against Sadomasochism’ talks about SM as an offshoot of the patriarchal order. This, of course, gets more complicated in a femdom BDSM relationship with the man as bottom. While the pro-dommes may simply do this to fulfil male fantasies (and thus be co-opted by the patriarchal order), that still doesn’t explain the large number of lifestyle-dommes.

Maybe some of us are just wired this way – we weren’t abused children, we’re not mentally ill or naïve pawns in the broader patriarchal scheme. We’re not violent psychopaths and we do know the difference between a mistress-slave relationship and institutionalised or colonial slavery; and between Abu Ghraib and a BDSM scene.

‘Spanner’ in the Works

Read Dorothy’s friend goes to law school. It discusses the angst of a gay Harvard law student. Amongst the points it makes well is how the law refuses to recognise gay people except where their choices are criminalised. As if gay people don’t have jobs, buy property or breach contracts. And yet, when I think of BDSM and the law – I feel a bit envious. In a large number of countries, same-sex relations are no longer criminalised. In some there are even sexual orientation non-discrimination clauses in the law. Yet even in these progressive countries, BDSM and the law tend to have an antagonistic relationship, or at best a mutually exclusive one. The Spanner case in the UK is a good illustration. In 1987, 16 gay BDSMers were arrested and charged with a number of crimes. All the BDSM activities were conducted privately but the police found videotapes of the men engaging in BDSM and charged them with assault. Though ‘consent’ was raised as a defence, it was rejected by the Court on the grounds of ‘public policy’. Interestingly, one of the 16 men was convicted solely on the grounds of having aided and abetted others in his own assault. Almost as bizarre as India’s criminalisation of attempt to commit suicide, but the irony was completely lost on the UK Court. There have been other cases as well and the judgements have been inconsistent. The present situation in the UK is that the law does not recognise BDSM as an exception to assault charges. Sadomasochistic activity is an illegal assault if it results in marks or injuries which are ‘more than transient and trifling’.

Where does that leave us in India? Groups are still trying to get ‘unnatural offences’ away from our criminal law. Any chance that we might be able to argue BDSM and consent as an exception to assault and causing hurt? Asking for a bit much? Like with some child rights groups around Section 377, BDSM groups (if and when they do organise themselves in a campaign) are bound to run into the women’s movement on the defence of consent. And rightly so – with the huge problem of violence against women, a defence of consent to any assault is not conceivable in India. Anyway, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it; right now the law is blind to BDSM. Forget assault – even pornography is a problem. If I get caught with all the femdom art, pictures and movies I have on my computer, I’ll have a tough time convincing some judge that I’m not a sick pervert.

The various campaigns supporting the petition challenging Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code recognise that the law evolves in society. Thus the emphasis on public campaigning on challenging ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. Whether it be the gay pride parade in Kolkata or Summer in my Veins or even Kaanta Bai’s cameo in Kal Ho Na Ho, all these eventually permeate through the clichéd and over-hyped blindfold of justice. Judges and legislators too read the newspapers and watch television and movies.

Will the revolution ever be televised?

What hope does that leave for BDSMers? Is there even any caricature of BDSM on Indian television – the closest I can think of is the advert for (a matrimonial match making web portal) which shows a spoilt wife talking to her husband as one would do to a pet dog, and making him do her bidding. The advert ends with the line – ‘Don’t marry the worst mistake of your life’. The advert could have been so much better had it said something like, ‘whatever you want… we can find it for you’. Anyway, its sheer existence makes me wonder if this was the only outlet for some poor submissive ad-maker living his dreams though his copy for the advert. A number of references to ‘Joru ka Ghulam’ etc come to mind in older Hindi films. Pakeezah remains a foot fetishist’s dream, but there is little significant reference to any sort of BDSM in popular Hindi cinema or television.

The little that I’ve seen of American and British television and cinema suggests that the situation is only a few steps ahead there. There is little representation of BDSM that is neither caricature nor demonisation. (The Piano Teacher is a recent exception – for most part!). Of course there are little bits here and there and a number of Internet websites are devoted to clips and sequences in mainstream cinema and television that have reference to BDSM related activities. No chance however of a BDSM Will and Grace let alone a main character like in Six Feet Under. It was a pleasant surprise then to watch Desperate Housewives the other day where an important character (Rex) visits a neighbour who also moonlights as an occasional sex-worker, gets cuffed and trampled upon by her, in wonderful stilettos … all done tastefully (albeit not for long enough!), and with no moral judgement attached. Maybe, there’s some hope for us after all. In the meanwhile, the revolution may not be televised, but for us BDSMers, it will certainly be webcammed.

Devidas is my pen name. I apologise for not using my own name. Being on the margins and watching some in the queer movement has been a great source of inspiration. I hope it will inspire me sufficiently to be able to meaningfully engage with and within the queer movement, as also to write under my own name. Until then, comments are welcome at I would also like to acknowledge my partner’s support which makes a lot of my dreams possible.