Sadomasochism, Violence, and Pacifism

I started this post thinking about how one can reconcile being an ardent pacifist with being turned on by pain.  Actually, as I thought about it I determined that the answer to that question itself is pretty simple (hint, it has to do with consent) but I made some more interesting observations when thinking about what it is about violence that is so abhorrent to me.

I’m a big time pacifist.  I hate violence, and I’m the kind of person who would rather allow someone to victimize me than fight back.  That’s not to say that I wouldn’t try to use words, wit, creative solutions, or the simple solution of “run like hell” to get out of a sticky situation, and that’s also not to say that I in any way blame those who do respond to violence with violence.  It’s understandable, especially when you’re scared, when you’re being attacked, and it’s the only option.  But personally, I just really, really hate any kind of violence and I’ve never so much as smacked someone.

But why?

When I started thinking about it, I realized that it really comes back to the systemic nature of violence and war.  That system is patriarchal, violent, and aggressive.  It’s often imperialist, racist, and marginalizing.  It’s a system that celebrates one ideal (masculine, physically strong, able to destroy others) and posits that anyone who does not fit that ideal should be either protected, crushed, or ignored.

This kind of violence shows up everywhere.  We see it in war.  We see it in colonialism.  We see it in racism.  We see it in the treatment of people with disabilities and immigrants.  We see it in capitalism.

Sadomasochism doesn’t fall outside of this structure.  We all live in this world, and our sexuality is necessary a part of the world and affected by it.  To varying degrees, systemic violence may inform our practice of BDSM.  Some people may use BDSM as an outlet for aggressive tendencies, or as a healing mechanism for the wounds sustained by systemic violence, or to carry out violent fantasies that are embarrassing in a political context.  Pain can be about sensation, but it also be about violence for many perfectly safe, sane, and consensual practitioners.  And that’s okay.

What differentiates violence in a BDSM context, when practiced according to the dictates of SSC (or RACK), is (unsurprisingly) that the participants are willing.  However the practice relates to the system, the people practicing S&M are saying “I like this, I want to do this, and here’s how.”  It’s an exchange, not a one-sided act.  It’s conscious, and I think in many cases, examples of systemic violence aren’t.  I think a lot of people who hold a gun in an armed conflict, or rape a woman, or assault a transgendered person on the street, perpetrate violence almost mindlessly. Violence is so normalized as to make these options understandable to many, and celebrated by more than a few.  When practiced with a clear head, and according to the dictates of enthusiastic consent, S&M is anything but mindless.

This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.


  1. As someone who is as turned on by violent *consensual* sex as I am repulsed & saddened by that same degree of violence in any other context, such as those you mentioned above, I’m glad for the insights in this piece. Outside the world of BDSM (and I have issues with the idea of RACK for reasons that are a post in and of itself) this isn’t very well understood. Thank you for shedding some light on the dichotomies involved.

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