Feminism and submissive desires

There’s a really interesting article on Alternet by a very reflective feminist who is sexually submissive. She emphasises the importance of consent and safe words in the BDSM community, which is a very important but familiar move.

A dom/sub dynamic doesn’t appear to promote equality, but for most serious practitioners, the trust and respect that exist in power exchange actually transcend a mainstream “woman as object” or rape mentality. For BDSM to exist safely, it has to be founded on a constant proclamation of enthusiastic consent, which mainstream sexuality has systematically dismantled.

However, she doesn’t stop there. She moves on to worries about what happens as BDSM imagery becomes more prevalent in mainstream culture, where all the emphasis on consent is absent. And she doesn’t shy away from the strongest form of these worries.

Herein lies the problem — with the advent and proliferation of Internet pornography, the fantasy of rape, torture and bondage becomes an issue of access. No longer reserved for an informed, invested viewer who carefully sought it out after a trip to a fetish bookstore, BDSM is represented in every porn portal on the Internet…the average young, male, heterosexual porn audience member begins to believe that forcing women into sex acts is the norm — the imagery’s constant, instant availability makes rape and sex one and the same for the mainstream viewer.

Her solution?

When the mainstream appropriation of BDSM models is successfully critiqued, dismantled and corrected, a woman can then feel safe to desire to be demeaned, bound, gagged and “forced” into sex by her lover. In turn, feminists would feel safe accepting that desire, because it would be clear consensual submission. Because “she was asking for it” would finally be true.

It’s a very good and complex article, although short. However, I’m not sure it’s wholly coherent. She says that feminist opposition to BDSM must be understood as “kinkophobia”. But she also goes on to admit that in the actual world that we have, with lots of sexual violence, BDSM is genuinely problematic for feminists in certain ways. That seems to me at odds with the insistence that those who raise these worries must be considered “kinkophobes”. Anyway, go have a look!

10 thoughts on “Feminism and submissive desires

  1. I don’t know exactly what ‘phobia’ discourse in general is meant to mean (homophobia, transphobia, etc.) so I can’t comment on the word ‘kinkphobia’ itself, but there is certainly a reality here – both of shame and self-doubt on the part of many SM-people and also of rudeness, condescension, and ridicule on the part of some feminists. Not all, and estimating numbers based on the internet is almost impossible.

    That said, I’ve seen several thoughtful defences of BDSM, like this one, and never really seen a convincing criticism – criticisms always seem to work on straw-women and simplistic assumptions, often treating people as being entirely pavlovian. I think it turns some BDSM-practicing women away from more radical forms of feminism, which is a pity.

  2. I’m a bit skeptical of anyone who claims to have “unlearned mainstream power dynamics.” I’m not even sure that’s possible while still participating in this culture, and I don’t like how she goes on to accuse new porn consumers of being “trained” to see women in certain ways. They haven’t “carefully sought it out after a trip to a fetish bookstore,” as if easier access renders the consumption somehow less honest.

    Maybe Ms. Fowles lives out her fantasies entirely in her bedroom. Maybe she speaks of her submissiveness only to her partner and never embodies it outside of her carefully planned artifices. But do all subs/doms behave in such a way? Is it likely that even a small percentage do? Most of us publicize sexual desires in myriad ways every day, and often without any intent to do so (via, eg., clothing, whom we talk to, the magazines we pick up or where we sit on a bus). Are we to believe that BDSM practitioners never behave in line with their sexual desires, especially when that behavior would fit certain cultural stereotypes and is likely to be rewarded?

    I also take issue with the (as I see it) arbitrary value she’s placed on consent. I trust that she values it, which is fine, but it’s not at all clear to me that consent deserves such a high place in sub/dom culture. If this article were written by a male dom who enjoyed fantasizing about raping women, wouldn’t we expect he would derive even more pleasure from a non-consensual rape? If an apparently submissive actress in some rape/torture porn were in fact submissive, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume she’s enjoying it more as a result, even if the male doms are merely coworkers rather than trusted partners?

    Finally, I wonder how this defense compares with feminist defenses of stripping?

  3. Jay, I am not sure what you mean by an arbitrary value that she has put on consent. Non-consensual sexual contact is usually illegal, I think. So she’s hardly articulating a private value. Given your example, perhaps you mean that her assurrance that consent is always part of BDSM encounters is questionable.

  4. I’ve read the article twice and still find it very puzzling. Here are three things:

    1. Is the BDSM culture integrated into her sexual and romantic relationships. I can’t tell whether she is open about it in private or not. And there are all sorts of questions about whether her self-reporting on its effects on her is accurate – Jay above also raises some of these questions.

    2. There are tons of opportunities in ordinary life for playing out the submissive, traditional feminine role and equally large numbers of games that allow one to occupy all sorts of roles normally not available to one. Some people go away for weekends to play war games, or Western frontier games, etc. I can imagine racing around shooting people with a paint gun would release a lot of tension. Somewhat similarly, doing the traditional housewife thing for a while might give one some pleasure. E.g., (trying to) give a very traditional formal dinner for friends. I’m wondering if seeing BDSM as one of these would give one some insight into a proper critical stance. Or does sex and presumably body penetration make all the difference?

    3. I really dislike the somewhat psychoanalytic approach that would focus on the fact that she has chosen something she experiences as shameful and that she feels she must normally be silent about. However, I don’t know that we accept that it has nothing to do with what attracks her to BDSM. I just don’t know, but the public or private nature of an act can make a huge difference in the pleasure it provides. (Another reason for being anonymous here on the blog! We can at least pretend not to be the real person criticized. More seriously, it is very nice just to throw some thoghts to the wind, and not feel one is putting oneself up for judgment.)

  5. Thanks for the comments, jj.

    Yes, I meant that valuing consent in the context of sub/dom culture seems arbitrary – precisely because it subverts our traditional understanding of what is appropriate during a sexual encounter. (Is it even analytically possible to fantasize about a “consensual rape”?! As you said, there are lots of questions here.)

    This subject might be relevant to your (2), also. The problem is that it’s not really clear to me that “true” subs/doms always value the artifice over the actuality. (Which is not to say these folks necessarily attempt to live out their non-consensual fantasies, as there might be rational reasons to avoid doing so independent of the sexual aspects.) For some, like Ms. Fowles, it’s clear that the artifice is important. But we can easily imagine that some Vietnam reenactors, say, really would enjoy a stint in Vietnam (in some respects) precisely because it would allow them to, among other things, see what it’s like to kill actual humans.

  6. “Maybe Ms. Fowles lives out her fantasies entirely in her bedroom…But is it likely that even a small percentage of [subs/doms behave in such a way]?”

    With respect, yes, yes it is likely.

    “Are we to believe that BDSM practitioners never behave in line with their sexual desires?”

    No, we are to believe that they behave in line with their sexual desires sometimes and behave contrary to them at other times, just like everyone else. We are to believe that the increased frequency with which they ‘act out’ their fantasies in real life and the increased frequency with their self-awareness of their kink causes them to actually act against their fantasies in real life, are either similar in scale, or differ by an amount that strangers speculating on the internet cannot judge which will be greater.

    Your argument is like saying – surely, if I tell someone they’re going to jump off a bridge, they must be at least fractionally more likely to jump off a bridge, even if only a tiny amount. It neglects that being told this is just as likely to make them less likely to jump off a bridge (pay more attention to how to keep their balance, just be stubborn and not want to give me the satisfaction, whatever) as more.

    That at least is how it seems to me, although reading back over that I suspect my point isn’t very well-made.

    “it’s not at all clear to me that consent deserves such a high place in sub/dom culture”
    It deserves a high place in sexual culture full stop. It happens to have a high place in sub/dom culture because of the higher risk of people not liking what’s being done.

    “If this article were written by a male dom who enjoyed fantasizing about raping women, wouldn’t we expect he would derive even more pleasure from a non-consensual rape?”

    *raises hand* I am such a person, and no I would not derive pleasure from raping someone in reality. For the majority of subs/doms there is very little question – non-consensual sex is very very bad.

    I fear I am becoming defensive but I dislike what I see as the suggestion that subs/doms are either not quite sincere or accurate in claiming to value consent.

  7. I should note that everything I’ve read by doms accords with what Alderson says. Pat Califa is an excellent example. He is a very strong feminist, and very deeply opposed to violence– he not only has *no* desire to dominate non-consensually, he is repulsed by the idea. And Alderson is also right about consent– non-consensual sex is a great evil, and the BDSM culture is to be commended for the emphasis it places upon consent. Califia, for example, suggests that partners go through checklists of activities prior to a scene, discussing what is and isn’t OK with them. The emphasis on consent is not some facade slapped up to try to be more acceptable to outsiders.

    Now, might it still be true that some BDSM practitioners enjoy actual rape? Yes, but so do some non-BDSM practitioners. Might some BDSM practitioners pretend to care about consent and really not care? Sure, but so do some non-BDSM folks.

  8. I am a private (as opposed to ‘pro’ or ‘working girl’) Domme (I have one male sub) who has submission fantasies. I am a feminist. Consent is paramount to any true BDSM relationship. And when talking about women in submissive roles, we must separate many things. First, many people with submission fantasies are actually quite powerful and dominant in their everyday roles (my partner runs his own business and a big part of his self-concept is being powerful). One reason to seek a Dominant partner is to take a break from the daily drive for power and control. Handing over control on one’s own terms is actually an extension of one’s will, not an interruption of her will. Second, we can say that the crappy pornsteam portrayal of BDSM provides harmful narratives for a society, which is true only if the representations are not themselves produced in respecting, consensual relationships and if the representation of sexual power exchange is too one-sided. FemDom porn is actually on a rise in the U.S. Third, even if there is a legit problem with the representation of BDSM in porno, that does not mean that a person is incapable of deciding for herself to consent to a merely symbolic exchange of power with a partner of her choosing and at the time of her choosing. Wanting to have a single man you love and care for dominate you in a context of mutual benefit and consent does not mean that a woman doesn’t want equal access to education, jobs, and social esteem. A very personal sexual need or desire does not a political platform make (unless people are trying to hate on your sexuality). I think this last point speaks to the ‘kinkophobia’, which is perhaps an understandable position for a feminist. The sexual history of the world has been full of non-consensual real violence against women. For too long, all sex between men and women has seemed like violence against women. It’s no doubt confusing to understand how a woman can consent to something like being tied up, struck or called names. I am a powerful woman. I am strong in my feminism. But I am also strong enough to admit to myself that even though I usually want to be the top in charge, sometimes I want to be the sub bitch. I write this with all honesty and sincerity hoping that it will help some of you to understand the mentality behind a BDSM lifestyle.

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