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I’ve recently been watching online shibari tutorials in an attempt to start improving my extremely rudimentary rigging skills. It’s a way to entertain myself while I’m in COVID isolation, okay? (Oh yeah, I currently have COVID. So that’s fun.) I’m not expecting to be able to suspend people from the ceiling any time soon, but I’d like to be able to create ties that are sexy, secure… and, of course, safe.
But watching all these tutorials, and hunting around for bondage inspiration online, I kept running across something I have long known to be true but am now finding impossible to ignore: the online kinkosphere is still, broadly, ridiculously homogeneous in the images and representations it puts out. This isn’t just true in the world of bondage and shibari, but across the entire kink and BDSM space.
When you think of the word “submissive” as a noun, what type of person comes to mind? If the images we see again and again and again are any indication, you probably pictured a cisgender woman. She’s probably white, thin, impossibly flexible, under 25, entirely shaven from the neck down, and normatively attractive. She’s probably submitting to a man.
There are, of course, submissives who fit that description, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But this is the most common image we see by an absolute mile, despite the fact that it’s nowhere near accurate for the vast majority of submissives. It’s the image most commonly presented not just in BDSM porn, but also in educational contexts. And it’s a problem for a number of reasons.
I’m a cis female mostly-submissive, and even I feel alienated when teachers, presenters, speakers, and educators casually toss around she/her pronouns or talk about breasts and vulvas when referring to a hypothetical submissive or bottom. It makes me feel as though assumptions are being made about my role on account of my gender, and that doesn’t feel good.
If this feels bad for me, it must feel so much worse for male, trans, and non-binary subs. It requires such a small shift in language – changing “she” to “they” when you’re talking about a generic person, saying “chest” instead of “breasts”, saying “genitals” instead of “pussy” – to make so many more people feel welcome and included.
Once you start noticing this phenomenon, it’s everywhere. Take the “fetishes” function on Fetlife, for example. So many of the general fetishes are worded in such a way that assumes a male Dominant and female submissive, with absolutely no need to do so.
Recently, I tried to add a fetish to my profile that relates to a specific phrase I enjoy hearing from dominant partners during play. But the only version available was “When he says… [phrase].” But not all the people I submit to are hes! Why are we making this assumption about gender when there is absolutely no reason to do so? Why can’t my queer ass enjoy hearing that phrase from her or from them as well as from him?
Even hunting for stock images for the title header of this post, every single picture featuring a person that came up under “rope bondage” or “shibari” depicted a thin, young, normatively pretty white woman.
I am not exaggerating when I say that I am 1000% sure this issue is pushing people away from the kink community before they even find it. Think about it. For most people these days, the internet will be their first port of call when looking for information on any given subject.
Let’s say you want to get kinky with your partner in the bedroom, so you look for tutorials on rope or flogging or wax play. But no-one in any of the videos looks anything like you. Are you going to feel empowered, or alienated? Or let’s say you’re interested in going to a kinky party, but all the images you see of BDSM online look one very specific way. Are you going to feel excited to dive in, or worried that you’re not young or thin or hot or rich enough? Exactly.
And to circle back to those shibari videos that started me off down this train of thought: assumptions about who submissives are and what they look like are also, from an educational standpoint, just not very useful. It’s no use telling me that I will need two 10 metre ropes for a particular tie unless my bottom happens to be the exact same physical size and shape as your demo model. There’s no point teaching ties that will be impossible on anyone who isn’t an Olympic gymnast, when what people really need to know is how to safely adapt and customise those ties for the specific body they’re actually tying.
The reality of kink is so much more incredible than one type of image that happens to line up with the cisheteropatriarchy’s narrow beauty standards. Because there is no one way to be a submissive. Submissives can be cisgender or transgender. Male, female, non-binary, genderqueer, agender, or a myriad of other options. They might be straight, gay, bi, pan, or ace. Young, old, or middle aged. Fat or thin. Submissives can be of any race and from any background. They can be able bodied or disabled.
For that matter, so can Dominants.
The community is so much more beautiful, so much more varied, so much more infinitely diverse than the images you see in porn, in a lot of educational kink media, and on Fetlife’s dreaded Kinky&Popular page would have you believe.
So what does a submissive look like? Any way they damn well want.
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