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Social media, power games, and BDSM play (2021)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

It’s more and more common for me to encounter people shocked by BDSM imagery. Lately when the Swedish gallery Fotografiska posted a self-portrait of a thirty-year-old Chinese photographer in rope bondage. People on social media were outraged; they thought he was a child, in pain, or didn’t consent to his own selfie picture. After asking people why they are so affected by the image, it often came down to power.

It was horrible because someone took his power away. And it’s true, people today fear losing their power for good reasons. The world is full of authoritarian governments taking power away from its citizens. And narcissistic partners abusing a relationship to gain power over another person. And violent rapists have a power trip while damaging the victim for life. These examples are obviously horrible but then comes the greyscale; What about fossil fuel industries paying factory workers minimal wages. Or pornographic productions commodify sex to please a paying audience. Or social media companies using our private information to drive political agendas. Real-life is a cruel power game. And people are playing to win by taking power away from the looser. There are rules, in the shape of laws, social norms, and monetary transactions. And there is a constant ongoing debate of what is wrong and right, in this power game. Everyone knows about this game. And it’s almost impossible not to participate.

BDSM is different. BDSM is not a game, and it’s not about winning the power over another. BDSM is playing with power for the enjoyment of everyone involved. There is no winner or loser because it’s a win-win situation. That is why consent is so central to ensure the pleasure of the players. And why many people feel safer in a BDSM-club than a night-club. A pornographic movie aims to arouse the paying viewer with little consideration for the actors’ pleasure. A BDSM scene the opposite. The primary focus is on the people involved in the power play. If there is any external viewer, they are there to please the exhibitionistic desire of the players.

However, outside BDSM, it’s impossible not to be exposed to the game for power. We crave it, reject it, and are winner, losers and victims to it. There is little to no consent, and it’s so built into our way of relating that we no longer see it. It’s subconscious; this continuous gamification of everyday life. BDSM is one of the few places where adults can play with power, without fighting to win or fear losing. Please don’t destroy that. So when you see some provocative BDSM imagery, remember it’s not about you, the external viewer. No one is asking for your judgement of who is winning or losing. Because BDSM is not a game, it’s a play. You can either ignore it, or ask yourself (if you have the time, energy, and curiosity) – why a consensual power play triggers you? And maybe you will learn something about your relationship to power, if you dare to play, instead of trying to win the game.

I’m returning to the original image and the many reactions that made me write this text. Think about the power game that the photographer is forced to participate in by simply being born in authoritarian China with hardcore surveillance and censorship, and gulag-like reeducation camps for anyone that even attempts to challenge the game. The privilege of playing is not extended to him. But to you, it is. So use that, and play, with whatever you are curious about, or that triggers you.