Sometime in my early teens, I set the background on my mobile phone to a picture of handcuffs with the phrase “naughty but nice” written underneath. It was pink, it was cute, and I liked it. My mother was horrified when she saw it. I couldn’t understand why. For me, I felt the phrase “naughty but nice” represented the duality of human nature — how we are neither wholly good nor bad. She told me it had something to do with sex. I didn’t understand. What in the world did handcuffs have to do with sex?
These days, in popular culture, awareness of BDSM is pretty high, but the public perception of it is still characterized by the same kind of confusion and bafflement that I felt when I discovered it was a thing. For some people, the practice is seen as dangerous or shameful. Others see it as a punchline.
God help the people who find it hot.
In such a world where Fifty Shades of Grey is a major talking point, portrayals of consensual BDSM relationships come like rain in a desert. The writing of Iron Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition has received huge amounts of praise from some quarters because, in the romance, Iron Bull gives you a safe word and plenty of chances to back out. The potential romantic relationship with him and the Inquisitor or with him and Dorian is definitely and refreshingly consensual.
I imagine at this point your senses are tingling. Like, what’s my point here?
I’d like to clearly state that I don’t think the writing of Iron Bull is problematic. I’m sensitive to the idea that other people have had issues with it because it triggered them. Iron Bull’s relationships aren’t, in my view, abusive, but quite unintentionally, they have reminded people of abusive relationships they’ve had.
Certainly, there seems to be a tightrope to tread when writing healthy BDSM, and there are other things to bear in mind beyond the issue of consent. However, I can’t really speak to this issue in particular, as it wasn’t an issue I personally had with it. No, I don’t have a problem with the writing. However, I do have an issue with a statement he makes. (We’ll get to that.)
Do you see the difference? Characters in games sometimes express points of view that are discriminatory, unreasonable, and/or hopefully wrong. And that’s fine — that’s writing. That’s reflective of the universal truth that humans are neither wholly good nor bad. No one’s an angel and there’s clearly no problem with Chell being adopted.
I realize that for those who perfectly understand the distinction, the above might have come across as downright patronizing. Still, I want to take every precaution to avoid being misunderstood.
Now, let’s get to this one thing that has me slippin’. This one thing that Iron Bull says pushed a berserk button that had hitherto laid dormant within me. I suppose, because he says this thing, I don’t understand why he’s held up by some folk as the patron saint of healthy BDSM. Anyway, here is the part that made me narrow my eyes and jump up and down like a bemused, angry frog.
[Sometime after a relationship has been established and sex has been had:]
INQUISITOR: You told me that this is what I needed. What do you mean by that?
IRON BULL: You’re the Inquisitor. You didn’t ask for this job, but you’ve taken on the responsibility. You’ve got thousands of lives riding on your decisions. You bear that weight all day. You need a place where you can be safe, knowing someone else is in charge for a bit.
Here we see Bull assuming that you’re into the masochistic side of an S and M relationship as a result of you being the boss outside of the bedroom. You need to have a life with balance. Some people are going to read this as a harmless assumption, and possibly an insightful one if you choose to accept Bull’s perception of your Inquisitor.
However, Bull assumes that your Inquisitor is into this kink for a reason and that he knows that reason. I have a massive problem with this because I’m a queer woman and, as such, am occasionally on the receiving end of similar psychologizations that people offer me — unsolicited — to account for how I ‘got this way.’ I must have had a terrible relationship with my father, or perhaps with my mother. I must have had bad experiences with men. It must have been the strict Catholic upbringing or the all-girls school or the feminism thing and on and on until the sun (or I) explode.
If you’re into BDSM and disclose this fact, you might be treated to an equally irritating laundry list of explanations for your interests. I brought up the problem I had with Bull’s dialogue at a party to this girl who’s into BDSM. In the conversation that sprung from that, she said that she absolutely hates when other members of the BDSM community assume that she can’t be a top because of her height and her being a woman. Yeah.
In times like this, I like to turn to the words of Isabela, god among pirates. “They don’t know me,” she tells Aveline, “I know me.”
You see, whenever a person’s sexual interests lay anywhere outside the realm of the vanilla, the armchair psychologists come flocking. Bull is one such armchair psychologist and, as such, I got beef with him.
Now, there are individuals who can account for their queerness or interest in S and M. Maybe they fit the stereotype and did have bad experiences or like to feel taken care of after a busy day being the CEO of a major corporation. However, these people are not the sum total of their kind. There is, and always has been, every manner of person. No one should have to justify their sexuality or various kinks to others in the same way that no fan of chips need justify their love of the foodstuff.
Again, I’d like to restate that I don’t have the problem with the writing. The Qunari are interesting folk (she says like they’re a real thing that exist) and sport takes on the universe that are different. For instance, they accept trans individuals (see: Krem), but they have a restrictive view of gender. The notion of a woman being a warrior is alien to them. So when Sten is sufficiently impressed with a woman Warden’s combat skills, he’ll begin to doubt her womanhood.
It’s cool that Iron Bull has such a unique worldview and, moreover, you can totally tell him that he’s wrong in his assumption. Isn’t that nice?
But maybe I’m being presumptive. Maybe Bull’s opinions on BDSM have nothing to do with him being a Qunari. Maybe I’m a hypocrite and a horrible person. Maybe I shamefully used Dragon Age as an excuse to talk about issues faced by the BDSM and queer communities. Maybe. I don’t feel the need to justify myself to you. You don’t know me; I know I like chips.