Tuesday, February 24, 2015

On Contracts, Covenants and SexUUality

One of the major elements of the "Fifty Shades" story is the contract Christian presents to Anastasia. Some people have praised it, as an example of the level of communication expected in BDSM from which many other folks could benefit.

I'm not so sure.

The whole process comes across to me more like a one-sided business acquisition – he wants her, he sees she’s attracted to him, he imposes a ready-made list of rules, he insists he knows what’s best for her.

Then again, the same could be said for many vanilla relationships …

Religious people often talk about the "marriage covenant"; indeed, such covenants existed well before governments required couples to obtain a license at some official location. Among many conservatives, such "covenants" seem as one-sided as the Fifty Shades contract, even if the rules are not as detailed. In both cases, one person presumes to have power and authority over another, and any negotiation is over what the former will grant the latter.

Some may talk about "equitable" contracts or agreements, but in my opinion there's a much more foundational issue here. Not the same way conservative Christians see "covenant" as a completely different category, but that covenantal agreements have a different basis and approach from other forms of contractual arrangements.

Business contracts and other such arrangements tend to be transactional; they focus on an exchange of resources, of what the participants are expected to do – "You give me X, and I give you Y." Covenants, on the other hand, tend towards the relational; they focus on a sharing of resources, intangible as well as tangible, and on who the participants are and what they bring in coming together. While this is not a strict dichotomy – covenants may include transactional arrangements – I see this difference as essential in the formation of any agreement between two or more people, whether in an intimate relationship or an intentional community.

Christian seems to view his potential relationship with Ana almost entirely in transactional terms: He gets to control her, do all sorts of things to her, and she in return gets him. (If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, I'm not oversimplifying; it's explicitly put that way in the dialogue). He doesn’t seem to care what she wants or has to offer, and even pushes her away (literally as well as figuratively) when she offers or seeks genuine intimacy with him.

Both my own experience, and that which I've heard from others in the BDSM or kink community, would tend more towards the covenantal. Before any play begins, there is a sharing of desires and expectations. Prospective partners begin with the premise that each has power, and that the flow of such power from one to another relies upon trust and understanding. Even when there are breaches of such agreements, it’s not merely "she did this thing that I didn't want" or "he told me he wanted this but he really didn't"; the transgression is described in terms of miscommunication, crossing boundaries, and violating trust. Sometimes, the breach is enough to cause estrangement – but other times, it leads to coming together once more to restore and strengthen right relationship.

Too often, our consumer culture reduces sexuality to what we do – from conventional intercourse to role-playing in fetish garb. We forget that what we desire to do is inextricably linked to who we are as unique persons, and how the doing may affect our being. May we remember who we are, and what we have to bring, whenever we come together.

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