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Thinking Kink: Does Female Submission Mean Oppression?

Before I even get into the thorny issue of how the media represents female sexual submissives, I want to lay some groundwork. Today, I'll consider the idea that women's participation in BDSM, especially as a submissive, is inherently anti-feminist. Next post: the other side (that the female submissive who consensually participates in BDSM is empowered). Please remember: However much any of the views here piss people off, I am airing them because I believe in engaging with and critiquing beliefs that bug us.

cover of female sexual slavery, which is red and has the book title in white lettersIn the '70s and '80s, feminists were bitterly opposed over BDSM, and the women who volunteered to be dominated were the biggest source of contention. In her book Female Sexual Slavery, Kathleen Barry described BDSM as "a disguise for the act of sexually forcing a woman against her will." Lesbians who practiced BDSM didn't escape condemnation either. As Jocelyn Borycszka puts it in her forthcoming book Suspect Citizens, they were accused of simply replicating "the very masculine power dynamics used to perpetuate women's oppression." 

What of choice though, the concept simultaneously heralded and cursed by feminists? For some, choice is meaningless if it occurs in a system of oppression. Diana Russell dismissed the "consent defense" when she  wrote about BDSM pornography: "Boiling candle wax was dripped onto a bound woman's breasts. Had she consented beforehand? Even if she had, this is a violent act." For anti-BDSM feminists, there can be no true choice in "responding to a model of sexual interaction that has been drummed into us throughout our lives." Furthermore, by agreeing to play a sexually submissive role, a woman is actively damaging feminism by "reinforcing the legitimacy of power imbalances outside the bedroom." (Nichols, Pagano & Rosoff as quoted by Margot Weiss.)

Some modern critics are more measured, however. Women and Gender Studies Professor Breanne Fahs, author of Performing Sex suggests that, "Pleasure does not preclude a self-critical approach." Fahs encourages women who enjoy submission to "direct a critical eye to why we do those things and what those behaviors say about the bigger stories of gender and power." She goes on to say that "it makes sense that women may internalize a need to distance themselves from their own desires by [for example] having rape fantasies." This echoes Norma Ramos' words in a 1995 issue of Ms. magazine, where she states that "women are socialized into actually getting sexual pleasure through their powerlessness."

Perhaps the resemblance of many play scenes to genuine depictions of violence against women is why some feminists simply do not believe female submission in BDSM can ever be consensual. A good example of this is the current debate around the RMCP officer recently outed as enjoying BDSM pornography which depicted submissive women. Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy writes that Cpl Jim Brown "fetishized the abuse and degradation of women" by possessing photographs of women in bondage, refusing to even entertain the possibility of consent or agency from the women who participated in the pictures.

The BDSM community isn't immune to criticism from within, either—Margot Weiss found that "many practitioners complained about sexism in the scene." Multiple women reported to Weiss that they were presumed to be submissive by virtue of their gender, regardless of their actual BDSM orientation. The automatic association of femaleness with passivity is troubling: BDSM is at its most difficult for feminists to defend when it reflects "normative gendered arrangements."

Women's sexual choices carry political weight, and in a society where equality is still lacking in so many fields, many feminists still feel that to surrender power in the bedroom is to surrender it elsewhere. Left-wing writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown echoed 30-year-old sentiments last week when she stated that the attraction of BDSM is merely a modern ploy to disempower women as they get closer to equality: "They have to be reminded of their place and must re-learn submission." So Professor Fahs may be right to say that "all sexual behaviors are at risk for distortion...by regressive forces" when the popularity of one erotic book is interpreted as evidence that "tired of the struggle for equality, women want to take refuge in being bossed around in the bedroom by a man."

But is the reactionary media's tendency to seize on any excuse to dismiss female empowerment reason enough for women to avoid sexually submissive behavior, or at least fantasies of it? Norma Ramos thinks so: "I'm getting sexual pleasure from [submission], so what do I do about this? You work to change that. You have to challenge it," she says. For some feminists, the only answer to a pervasive culture of sexual violence is for women who enjoy playing the sub to rewrite their fantasies.

Next time: feminists defending BDSM and the female submissive.

Previously: Did Jared Leto and 30 Seconds to Mars Do BDSM Better?, Swinging Both Ways (Christian Grey Included)

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Comments

35 comments have been made. Post a comment.

The moment that so called

The moment that so called 'feminists' start policing other women who take an active control of their desires, because it doesn't fit into their needs regarding a sociopolitical movement, is when it is time to re-evaluate the intent behind those ideals. Better that, than to make it acceptable in suppressing the woman who has her desires and wants to own them. Not to mention, the whole notion of consent and how that is dictated by the submissive. Interested to see how the second part will be written.

hear hear

hear hear

agreed

I would agree, and go further by saying that this also presents a very limited view of the diversity and fluidity between the dominant and submissive roles within a sexual relationship that exists for many of us. Also, a sub holds the power to stop a situation if (s)he is uncomfortable. Part of the appeal of the lifestyle is to see how far you can push yourself and trust your partner. Since when is trust an ideal in opposition to the feminist cause?

The view of BDSM as anti-feninist also neglects to take into account the way different people process pain. Pain receptors in the muscles function differently for each individual--that's why people have different pain tolerances. For one, tickling may be excruciating while others enjoy the deep body ache that can come from games like rugby. Not all of us are of the same sensitivity and for some, like myself, that lack of sensitivity requires a rough lifestyle to feel and reach sexual pleasure.

Another reason why the F-word gets a bad rap...

In what decade of feminism was this piece written? So typical of academic feminists to analyze and judge by projecting the "power dynamic analysis" onto situations they've never experienced. As Anonymous states, for some it's about different ways people process pain. As someone who has had to disassociate from my body as a dialysis patient I have a different physical relationship to control, pain, pleasure and my body. This experience along with hyperactive pain receptors in my brain due to fibromyalgia make mild directed pain *I control* very relieving and arousing. Endorphins are released, I'm aware of multiple sensations, and I find myself moving back into my physical body in a healthy way. Being submissive allows me to give up control, trust and surrender in a way that provides tremendous peace and pleasure that counters the stressful hyper-vigilant state my body and mind go through daily.

Just to clarify...

Catherine is exploring one side of this argument in today's post, and in her next post she'll dissect the other side. I hope you'll read that one as well!

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

well, I think what some of

well, I think what some of the kink community is trying to tell you is that if these are the 'two sides of the argument,' then she doesn't understand or hasn't experienced the thing she's writing about... THAT'S what is typical of academic feminism, and as an academic feminist I own up to that issue too.

Some people presume to write

Some people presume to write about experiences that they don't share, and that's a problem throughout academia. But being an academic and having direct, extensive personal experience with an issue are definitely not mutually exclusive.

I think it's extremely presumptuous to assume that the author has no experience with BDSM, and all the commenters who seem to think that she is agreeing with or promoting these writers' negative views toward female subs have completely misinterpreted the post.

It has always seemed to me

It has always seemed to me that those who are against BDSM play have never spoken to those who engage in it. One of my very favorite things about BDSM play is that everything must be talked out, gone over, and agreed to before any play happens. There are strict protocols, safe words, and boundaries that are taken into consideration in BDSM play that aren't adhered to as well in so-called "vanilla" sex. In fact, nothing can really happen until the submissive party okays it. Additionally, I wonder if these writers still find it offensive to the movement if a woman identifies as a switch, that is, choosing when and with whom one is submissive and Dominant?

Can't wait for the next one. :]

BDSM

BDSM has nothing to do with unfeminist behaviour. In a real BDSM session it is all about the lust of the bottom. Before a session you have to talk about your desires and tabous. Its all about safe, sane, consensual. If some one hurt this statement, he is not into real BDSM. He is an asshole and jerk, that wants to wield power.
There is more to this obsession than pure violence...mostly women with sexuel abuse background try to process the memories of the abuse by replaying the scenes again and again - but its not possible to process those memories by replaying, it only gives them the feeling, that they are the directors in this roleplay now.

So if feminist with no experience in BDSM try to forbid other feminists with abuse background and BDSM obsession to make their experience and want to do what they really want or to have this sexuel chanel to feel real lust again, it is more anti-feminist, than everything else.

AND, men as tops always control about how the bottom feels in a session, there are safe words, etc to completely stop a session, i there is something wrong, The top is there to give women more orgasmn than in a normal vanilla sex practic. There is more lust and satisaction for women with this obsession as in a vanilla experience...

I fucking hate the argument

I fucking hate the argument that BDSM sex is all about the bottom. It views the top as a tool and not another person with agency and desires. Some tops are really into being tops and that's okay. Some bottoms could take or leave being bottoms, but they are invested in their partners pleasure and so they play the submissive sometimes. Sex and BDSM sex are so much more complex than "it's all about the bottom" or "it's all about lots of orgasms". Sex is a way that people interact with each other and it's unique to the people engaged in it. And tops' sexual desire matters, it just fucking does, tops don't exist for the service of bottoms, tops are people with sexual desires too. Tops aren't vibrators set to maximum orgasm production.

And seriously, fuck this bullshit: "The top is there to give women more orgasmn than in a normal vanilla sex practic. There is more lust and satisaction for women with this obsession as in a vanilla experience"

BDSM sex might be better for you but it's not better, more orgasmic, more lustful or more satisfying for everybody. And saying so denies the legitimacy of other types of sexual experiences and sexual beings *cough* anti-feminist *cough*. I get that people who are into BDSM are shamed left and right and told their kinks are twisted perversions, but there's no need to start seeing yourself and the type of sex you are into as superior, it just makes you sound like an asshole.

Hi Catherine, This is an an

Hi Catherine,
This is an an interesting topic to explore within a context of feminism, no doubt. Just to clarify, I did not say, in my post, that the women in the photos with the RCMP officer did not consent, nor did I assume they didn't have agency. What I'm interested in is not necessarily what people do within the privacy of their own bedrooms, meaning that I don't think that BDSM is necessarily 'good' or 'bad'. I do think it's interesting and important to explore our behaviour and actions, how our sexualities are shaped, how we understand sex, etc., within a patriarchal culture. So how might these images sexualizing violence have a larger impact on women? Were Brown's fantasies shaped by a misogynist world? Probably. I think we are all impacted, in one way or another, by a context of inequity, objectification, porn, and living in a rape culture. It's unreasonable to think that our private lives and the things that turn us on aren't impacted by these things and by this context.
Meghan

thanks for your response and

thanks for your response and clarification Meghan. I appreciate you adding your views to the debate. As you can see from the comments on this post it is clearly something that a lot of women and feminists are feeling strongly about.

Pretty solid, but there's one

Pretty solid, but there's one part that bothers me; how can anyone prove that "the attraction of BDSM is merely a modern ploy to disempower women as they get closer to equality"? It's almost irritating to have someone tell someone else "oh well no, you don't really enjoy the things you think you do, you're just being told you enjoy it, but you're not supposed to." Who suddenly decided we can tell each other what we are and are not supposed to like? I think it's fair to examine where the desire to engage in kink culture comes from, but to flat out say "you're not supposed to like this" shuts down that whole avenue of discovery.

Submission and language

I am a straight female feminist with submissive fantasies that I have not acted out as of yet. It's great to read discussion on the subject here as I've always found the thought troublesome. For me, the fetish comes from finding controlled pain and restraint pleasurable, so consent definitely plays a big part in it. I do not enjoy pain I have no control over. What bothers me more than the physical pain aspect of it is that degradation also plays an important role in my turn on. Misogynist and harassing vocabulary is a big feminist no-no, so fetishizing it doesn't feel right. I'd like to see this side of bdsm explored more in possible future articles. I'm looking forward to the second part of the series.

"I'm getting sexual pleasure

"I'm getting sexual pleasure from [submission], so what do I do about this? You work to change that. You have to challenge it,"

What, like 'curing' gays? I dunno, I spent 20 years trying to suppress and bury my submissive tendencies and it made me miserable. And it didn't work. I know anecdote is not the singular of data, but that's good enough for me. If it helps, it still makes my feminist self uncomfortable, especially as I'm a cismale genderqueer - double dodgy. Sexuality doesn't do convenient, I'm afraid.

Funny how when we stop

Funny how when we stop guilt-tripping each other merely for being ourselves, and pretentiously claiming to be experts on the sexualities and subjective experiences of others, we can find such constructive ways of living our lives in peace.

What you are describing is also in my experience, very common, and really the bottom line. Try to live without your sexuality and you will feel miserable, because it is an inherently a part of you. With some dispositions like masochism (which isn't the same as submission but still part of BDSM) there is some evidence now that it is a combination of genetics and environment. I shouldn't even have to play this card, except that some can't respect the fact that others are inherently different than they are. Just because I like to be dominated in private doesn't mean I want one gender to rule the other in real life. At the end of the day I want a world that is egalitarian, equal and for all.

If you're a male submissive or in my case a male masochist, you've people telling you the dumbest things all the time too. Like those Male Rights Activist idiots saying you like what you like because society is 'feminazi-ed' or some such nonsense (apparently that somehow affected me in my patriarchal, conservative community by age 5). Fact is, I can't recall not liking what I like. I've always known what my sexuality is. It was never even a question. With time I've definitely expanded my sexual palette but I can't force myself to be attracted to things I'm not attracted to, and likewise I am attracted to what I am attracted to. Really, the only guilt and shame I have to work through is that that I have had drilled into my head by others over my lifetime, along with the fear of stigma.

I have several problems with

I have several problems with the idea that female submission is oppression.

Participation in BDSM is, at its heart, a very individual experience. Top, bottom, Dom, sub, switch, masochist, sadist, or any combination is going to yield different results, reactions, and sensations for each different person. I think to essentialize one gender's experience of one kind of play is very much robbing them of their agency.

I also think that the attitude also helps entrench some stereotypes even deeper. Being stereotypical, most people would say that submission is for women and domination is for men and, conversely, male subs are weak, un-men and female doms are being too aggressive. These are nasty, persistent stereotypes that go into policing genders and what roles we're allowed to take.

Rather than saying that women shouldn't submit because it is oppressive, I'd rather see all four stereotypes rooted out and done away with. Submission isn't necessarily oppression, the persistent stereotypes that submission and domination are inherently gendered things (making doing the "opposite" really bad) is the oppressive attitude.

Eff yeah

Oh yeah. BDSM has the potential for really scrambling what's expected of gendered behavior, and I think that's part of its appeal, at least for some feminists.

" You work to change that"

As a lesbian who participates in BDSM activities (as a sub) regularly, I struggle with the feminist view of it. I see both sides of it, as a lesbian who only submits to women, it is hard for me to watch other women submit to men. Yet I know I cannot just change my fantasies, so I don't expect other women in the scene to change theirs. A while back I actually tried to change my preferences because my partner at the time wasn't into it. I decided to be vanilla, but it just didn't work. I eventually broke it off with her because my needs weren't being met in a big way. I realized that my needing to submit is only from social conditioning in that power exchange was big in my family (my mother was/is the matriarch, and controls nearly everything in her household). This combined with how I learned to deal with pain (find it pleasurable) at young age due to intense cramps, is why I am the way I am--which is a very personal and individual thing. So it is rather infuriating for people to just assume I could change this about myself, just as it is infuriating for people to assume I could change my sexual orientation.
Culturally, I think BDSM is a good way to consciously work out power paradigms, so long as the play is safe, sane, and consensual. Otherwise we are working out these power schemas anyway, but they are subliminal, which leaves little hope for consent, and thus the want for power over/under rather than power with, perpetuates. To argue there is no real consent in BDSM is out of date. For those of us who were raised with feminism, there is no question of equality between the genders, and playing with power is simply fun. For the rest the of the world, it could be problematic because there is no fun or playing with power, there is only force.

"Multiple women reported to

"Multiple women reported to Weiss that they were presumed to be submissive by virtue of their gender, regardless of their actual BDSM orientation."

This comment struck me in particular. A very good friend of mine, a (mostly) gay man with a bit of a BDSM leaning was often mistook for a submissive when he would encounter just about anyone in the local BDSM scene, when in fact he leaned significantly more towards the dominant type. He isn't a "feminine" man by any means, but he is short, and cute, and he tended to blame this mistaken identity on his "schoolboy" appearance. I also know women who tend towards sexual submission in the bedroom but are assumed to be dominant based on their assertive personalities.

I think that the assumptions people make about a stranger's sexual proclivities are just as likely to be wrong no matter what their gender, orientation or authoritarian-inclination. People see what they want to see...

communication!!!!!

communication!!!!!

Heterosexually Biased

This only considers the heterosexual dominant and submissive dynamics. These arguments fall apart when you apply them to homosexual couples. A woman submitting to a dominant woman is outside of the oppressive patriarchal structure.

Not necessarily.

Gay women who practise S/M were regularly condemned by other feminists and lesbians, especially in the 70s and 80s. See Gayle Rubin's Deviations, where she speaks of how the lesbian S/M group Samois were accused of promoting 'hate speech'. Despite no men being involved in their sexual relationships, S/M lesbians were still accused of acting out patriarchal relationships of oppression with each other. The idea being, they were still so conditioned by the heterosexual model of domination and submission they had begun acting it out with each other.

See also the passage in my post - "Lesbians who practiced BDSM didn’t escape condemnation either. As Jocelyn Borycszka puts it in her forthcoming book Suspect Citizens, they were accused of simply replicating “the very masculine power dynamics used to perpetuate women’s oppression.”

Spell check

This is a minor issue, but as a Pole I am obliged to point it out: Jocelyn's surname is spelled Boryczka, without an "s." ("cz" in the Polish language is the equivalent to English "ch", though I'm not sure how Jocelyn Boryczka would herself choose to have it pronounced)

Hmmm

I appreciate why this entry was written. I am a submissive and realize it. There is a reason so many feminists were against women submitting to men--and yes, I believe that a large part of it is the environment we grow up in.
But how would it be a game-changer if it were a female-identified individual submitting to another woman? A more "masculine" woman? I bring this up because the anti-BDSM rhetoric many feminists have espoused resembles the academic feminist reaction to the butch/femme dynamic in many lesbian relationships. In both cases the argument was that each relationship supposedly parallels the destructive, heteronormative gender binary--the powerless female submissive stereotype, and the stereotype that butches are patriarch-wannabes. And, in both cases, this rhetoric marginalized rather than helped.

I see only one side.

Interesting. I don't see any plans to discuss the dominant woman/submissive male aspect of BDSM. Is that just assumed to be ok?

The is a myopic view of BDSM. Arguing the pros and cons of the submissive male without consideration of when the roles are recersed? This exercise feels very slanted. You want to talk equality fairly, BDSM his to be discussed from all views, male or female, dominant/submissive/switch, gay/straight/bi.

Please see these posts:

http://bitchmagazine.org/post/thinking-kink-the-attraction-of-the-submis...
http://bitchmagazine.org/post/thinking-kink-masculinity-and-submission-B...
http://bitchmagazine.org/post/thinking-kink-the-female-dominant-as-a-wor...
bitchmagazine.org/post/thinking-kink-the-female-dominant-as-a-working-girl-secret-diary-of-a-call-girl-feminist-magazine-BDSM-sex

If you click on my profile you can see all my previous posts and will find that various other forms of BDSM are discussed including male submissives, female dominants and switches. Gay BDSM is also coming up.

Happy reading!

Female Dominants

I wonder if the issue of sexually dominant women as partners and not hired professionals is ever going to be addressed. Popular culture seems to be ok with the Pro Domme because it's a form of sex work usually free of intercourse, but one very rarely sees a dominant woman depicted who isn't a sex worker. There's a great article in the sadly defunct Filament Magazine about Femdom on its own terms--not as titillation for the male gaze. http://issuu.com/filamentmag/docs/iss7preview

It seems like some people who

It seems like some people who are commenting haven't read the entire Think Kink series and are thinking this piece is the only part of BDSM that is being examined. It might help to have links to all of the essays somewhere on the page. I thought it was pretty clear but then again I have been looking forward to this series since you started it. Anyways, just a suggestion.

Thank you all for your comments.

I expected this post to get a lot of responses and stir a lot of emotions. I would ask that those who feel insulted or outraged by this post to please bear in mind my words in the first paragraph: "However much any of the views here piss people off, I am airing them because I believe in engaging with and critiquing beliefs that bug us." I do not necessarily agree with or endorse the views of the academic feminists I have quoted here. But I do not think it is worth denying that their views have become part of a heated discourse on a subject that is still being debated in the media today,

The very fact that this piece has had the most responses of my Thinking Kink series so far says to me that the issue of female submissives and feminism remains a hot potato, therefore I believe it's worth looking at views on both sides of the fence.

Please also bear in mind the last words of the post "Next time: feminists defending BDSM and the female submissive." I hope my next post will bring the balance that many feminist submissives feel is sorely lacking.

Submissive Feminist

I am a female submissive and have fantasized about things along those lines for quite a while. It took years for me to admit it out loud though because I thought that it was very un-feminist to *want* to give up control to a man. When I did admit some of the smaller (not so kinky) things I wanted to try to my then boyfriend he was disgusted and so I holed up even more thinking that I was sick and there was something seriously wrong with me.

There's an essay in the book Yes Means Yes on the idea of female submissiveness and even when I first read it I couldn't wrap my head around how feminism and submissiveness fit together. After a few readings (and quite a bit of time) I was able to finally reconcile and come to the conclusion that because I would be a consenting adult that it actually is feminist because I would be more sexually liberated then if I just stuck with vanilla sex.

I had kinky sex...and guess what, the world did not end

Yanno, some of the hottest sex I've ever had was followed immediately by the thought that Gloria Steinem was gonna personally come and yank my NOW membership card.

So far it hasn't happened, nor has EMILY'S List stopped cashing my checks.

Is it really feminism?

To my understanding the feminist movement is about empowerment and choice for all women. I don't believe that feminism is about controlling those choices. But that seems to be happening in concern to BDSM practices. If I choose to submit? Well it is argued that my environment and upbringing are negating my freedom to choose and/or the act that I am choosing cannot be consented to. Either way, a group of people are trying to ,at the very least, control what I can choose to do and what I cannot by attempting to demean me as a person. If that doesn't work, this same group will attempt to circumvent my freedom to choose by defining those acts as non consensual in an of themselves. This doesn't sound like feminism to me.

Feminism needs to concentrate on more important issues

Hello there,

What happens in the bedroom -- happens in the bedroom. What turns people on is a vast field as big as nature herself. Consensual sex is a) fine b) not about domination IN REAL LIFE. The point is that it is consensual, as stated above -- or below, depending on where this post lands. Okay, this may be weird, but many sexual desires are weird. The human condition is weird. "Love has pitched its tent in the place of excrement" -- Yeats. I am an active pro-women writer, director and producer. I have power. I have a voice. Feminism needs to focus on the thousands of women on this planet who have NO VOICE, no rights, can't vote or drive or are dying like flies in childbirth (Afghanistan, for example.) No one has figured out the unconscious mind and no one will in our lifetimes. However, there are places where women are being stoned to death. Some people like -- urine WHO CARES? How many women have died while I wrote this short paragraph? The story of the 18-year-old girl who was raped by the police in Afghanistan (tortured and raped by five policeman) and who's recourse to justice is that they have no penalty while she must kill herself -- that's the law -- seems like more of a concern. Some people are into scat too. SO WHAT?? Young girls are dying all over the world NOW. Focus on that. That's where my donations go and I suggest honestly that this is the most loving way to help our sister woman on this funny planet. The planet won't stop being funny i.e odd sexual desires. Can we focus on the women being tortured and killed right now? I submit this would be of greater value to female equality.

Thanks

Director Chic

Hear, Hear.

This.
Is exactly the sum of the argument.
This is the best comment on this page.

No it isn't feminism.

Feminism is about promoting freedom of choice for women.

Not replacing one form of oppression with another.

Feminism that is against BDSM isn't feminism.

It certainly isn't pro-choice.