If Armie Hammer abuses women, it’s not because he’s into BDSM

As the editor of a soon-to-launch BDSM advocacy site, my Google alert for “BDSM” has daily presented me the saga of the actor Armie Hammer, a would-be Marquis de Sade who allegedly wants to make sexual slaves of his girlfriends, and gets off on the idea of consuming pieces of their flesh. “I am 100% cannibal,” he says in purported screenshots of his texts. The media consensus on Hammer is best summed up by last week’s Us Weekly magazine in which the blue-eyed Hammer gazes out from the cover beside the headline that trumpets his “Twisted Double Life. Worse Than Anyone Knows.” The editors then added the words “Sick Fantasies” and “Possessed by the Devil” for good measure. Yet, despite this literal demonization of the man, the Daily Mail now tells me that Hammer has said through texts that “I’ve gotten a lot of offers from girls who said I can eat pieces of them haha.”

What gives?  Why do most people who read the salacious details of Hammer’s sex life, and the accounts of women who say they’ve been traumatized by their relationship with him, agree that he is a danger to women, yet some women are apparently willing to line up to be eaten? Could one woman’s abuser seriously be another woman’s dream dominant?

In addressing this thorny question, I do not wish to downplay the experiences of Hammer’s unhappy ex-girlfriends, who report feeling manipulated and abused by him to the point of needing post-traumatic therapy. Having once escaped an abuser myself, I believe these women, and don’t blame them for thinking that only by going public can other women be protected from him.  I am not going to defend Hammer against their claims of abuse. I am, however, going to defend BDSM – the umbrella term for kinky pursuits like bondage and discipline — against the way the desires of a BDSM dominant are being depicted as “disturbing” or “disgusting” or abusive to women.

Despite slow steps toward a more sex-positive culture, kink-shaming is still widely accepted, especially when it puts women in the submissive role. Smart writers are making good points that Hammer has no business hiding behind the kink-shaming card, and I agree. But that doesn’t mean the kink-shaming isn’t happening. Hammer merely following BDSM-themed hashtags about Shibari rope bondage or knife skills was described by Page Six as an “alarming revelation.” Meanwhile, in comment sections below any Hammer story, readers often agree that only “sick” people want to control women or engage in BDSM. Yet, recent science does not support this characterization.

Yes, psychology professionals did once consider the desire to indulge in sadomasochistic BDSM practices a mental disorder.  But, in 2010, the American Psychiatric Association finally declared fetishism and BDSM to no longer be a pathology, while the release fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013 also absolved BDSM of the stigma of disorder. That same year, the Journal of Sexual Medicine published a study that found “favorable psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners compared with the control group.” According to the study’s authors “BDSM practitioners were less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, and had higher subjective well-being.”

Visit any munch or meeting within a BDSM community, and you will hear adherents extol the benefits of power exchange to their relationships – benefits such as more open communication, greater trust, and greater intimacy, not to mention much hotter sex. (To understand why Dominance and submission, or D/s, feeds sexual energy, see the work of Tantric philosopher David Deida and his theory of sexual polarity. Meanwhile, practitioners who engage in bondage and discipline are likely to wax poetic about the intense pleasures to be found in the giving and receiving of pain. (Hello endorphins!)  When my husband and I began exploring BDSM six years ago, we were so thrilled with the way it transformed our sexual life and deepened our relationship that we published a book about our experience to encourage other curious beginners.

Still, the question remains, if BDSM is experienced as a positive by most of its practitioners, why did Hammer’s relationships end up in such bitterness and recrimination?  

Rolling Stone magazine, at least, seemed to recognize that the problem was not BDSM itself; their take  suggested the real problem was violations of consent. Of course, we don’t know to what degree Hammer negotiated consent with his paramours, or how much he employed the manipulation and coercion of which he’s been accused. Matters of consent are notoriously fraught when men and women so often perceive their sexual interactions differently.  Remember the Aziz Ansari debacle? Consent in BDSM is even more complex.

Kinksters heroically try to simplify that complexity through firm ethics rules, and most organized BDSM communities insist on members taking a “BDSM 101” course to encourage negotiation, safewords and other guidelines of consent. But these rules, while helpful guardrails in the beginning, can become impractical in a long-term power exchange relationship. It is not easy to risk the ire of the feminist scolds in the media—as well as the one in my own head—to admit this, but one of the primary motivations to sexually submit is not merely the desire to please the dominant, but to relinquish the stress of choice. A true submissive (as opposed to a “bottom” who is role-playing powerlessness for the duration of a “scene”) doesn’t always want to be asked permission; rather, we may long to be overcome, to be “ravished.” It can feel hugely liberating to not have to constantly analyze my own fleeting desires, and to surrender my body to my dominant.

On the flip side, a true dominant often longs to throw off the shackles of “acceptable” behavior and be liberated to control the object of his or her sexual affection without being considered a monster. Thus, many D/s couples enjoy heading down the more dangerous road beyond strict consent, crossing boundaries together, thrilling each other with their transgressive daring.  “It’s called consensual non-consent,” Hammer allegedly said in one of his texts, “and I am very down.” True, when pushing envelopes, it is sometimes easy to drift over the line of what feels healthy, and to scare each other by going too far.  But, as long as there is a foundation of open communication and trust, it is not overly difficult to navigate such bumps in the road. That is why a D/s relationship requires scrupulous honesty between both partners.

On the surface, Hammer appears to have been upfront and honest about his BDSM desires — exactly why the story is so titillating. “I’m going to train you and turn you in to my perfect little pet,” he told ex-girlfriend Paige Lorenz according to her interview with Page Six.  In another alleged text, he wrote, “I decide when you eat, when you sleep, when you use the bathroom, everything.” Such language might shock those unfamiliar with BDSM, but it is pretty run-of-the-mill talk between couples in a power exchange relationship. So is another text that reads: “If I fucked you into a vegetative state, I’d keep you, feed you, wash you and keep fucking you until you are so sore and broken.” Yes, some of the purported “cannibal” texts, like telling a girlfriend he wants to be able to tell her to slit her wrists and use her blood as lube for anal, were on the more extreme side. But the desire to consume, or be consumed by, the other is a common D/s fantasy. And no one could say Hammer wasn’t being open and honest about what turned him on.  

His girlfriends, however, may not have been so upfront about their reluctance to give up control to him and his desires. “I kind of sat back and let it happen,” Lorenz told Page Six. “I wanted him to like me and feel like I was down for what he wanted.”

If someone decides to undertake the role of submissive in a power exchange relationship without feeling a true desire for surrender, then that person is playacting, trashing their own boundaries in the process, and of course, they will come to resent it.  And, if Hammer’s exes led him to believe they were “down” to submit to him, then discovered along the way they didn’t like his self-proclaimed rape-y version of D/s, it would seem unfair to retroactively interpret his desires as abusive. One could argue that then exposing the private details of their sexual relationships with Hammer without his agreement is a consent violation against him. That is what Bill Maher argued on Real Time last week, saying the exes haven’t taken “ownership of their own choices.” 

Yet, the argument that Hammer was the one who was done wrong comes shamefully close to victim-blaming. It is also beside the point. Ultimately, the dominant is the leader of a BDSM relationship and responsible for what happens within it.  It is the dominant’s responsibility to care for his or her submissive counterpart, and to elicit from the sub how she truly feels in response to their bedroom activities and adjust accordingly. If he does it right, a good dominant may hurt his submissive to his heart’s content, and leave her purring in satisfaction, proud to show off her bruises or knife scars on FetLife.  If he does it wrong, a dominant can cause terrible damage to his submissive, and leave her feeling abused and broken. Or, as one woman allegedly texted to Hammer after a rape scene, “crawling away and crying hysterically.”

I hope for Hammer’s sake, and especially for the sake of the young women who become starry-eyed over him, that he stops trying to “groom” women to his tastes and finds a submissive who feels an answering pull toward the extremes of his dark longings. Ironically, his avenging exes seem to have done him a favor and made it more possible he will. They are, after all, lining up to eaten.

 

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