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Thinking Kink: The Appeal of the Submissive Male

"Cis het men are brought up to fear that their masculinity could ever be called into question" – feminist and BDSM writer Thomas Macauley Millar.

"Strangely, my most clearly masculine S&M activity is masochism. I always feel very manly while taking pain." Pepper Mint, alternative sexuality advocate*.

In my last post I looked at how male submissives are one of the BDSM tropes that our gender-binary-worshipping media culture just doesn't know how to deal with. I want to think more about this, as well as the accompanying discomfort with female dominants that it implies. I recently wrote about how the makers of a video protesting street harassment against women (the wonderful "Men Who Say Shit To Men Who Say Shit To Women") received various abusive comments accusing them of being emasculated. My thoughts at the time:

What the critical commenters have revealed is their bizarre, confused conception of 'masculinity' and what it should look like. Being A Man, to these people, entails objectifying women, intimidating them, shouting them down ... This = strength, and strength = masculinity.

So how do we see stereotypically un-masculine behavior, such as sexual submission, represented in pop culture? Well, Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) gets dominatedsometimes by attempting to preserve manliness in other ways—e.g., by choosing a buff, burly, testosterone-charged subject, and ensuring he is only being "dominated" by a woman in a token, mild way that he could probably easily escape from if he wanted (like in this eye-candy-fest of a Sugababes video). We also see submissive imagery turned into a joke that only a man too vain to actually think through any of his actions would participate in (and yes, everything in my world does eventually come back to Zoolander, hence the photo). But—and here's a radical thought—we could recognize the sundry factors that may mean a person finds a submissive man preferable, and a man is happy to oblige.

One good example of this was in the 2006 movie Thumbsucker. We see neurotic, nervous protagonist Justin struggling to abandon his thumbsucking habit at the age of 17, whilst doing all the normal things teenagers do—trying out for the debate team, getting into soft drugs and falling in love with pouty-lipped classmate Rebecca. When all his dreams come true and Rebecca hits on Justin, she frames it in the form of a "game," blindfolding him before kissing him and guiding his hand to her breast. When—as any conscious person would probably do, but especially an excited 17-year-old boy—Justin tries to remove the blindfold, she stops him.

"Just touch, don't look," she whispers in his ear.

"Why?"

"Because those are the rules." And so it continues—every time Rebecca and Justin fool around, she runs the scene, and he lets her. He's always blindfolded, and she's always setting the pace. Until, after several encounters, Justin admits, "This thing bugs me. Why can't I see you?"

Rebecca repeats, "Those are the rules," and Justin rejects his submissive status with one question: "Why do you get to make up all the rules?", and removes his blindfold.

Justin (Lou Pucci) gets blindfolded in ThumbsukcerThen Rebecca admits the uncomfortable truth: "This was just a teenage experiment. I needed to educate myself...so I decided to pick someone like you. Someone I'd never get hurt by." Justin is understandably crushed and ends their "play sessions" there and then. But is Rebecca's confession really so terrible? Yes, using someone for an "experiment" is definitely not cool. But what's so wrong about choosing a sexual partner who you find non-threatening? Isn't it a good thing—when women are so regularly accused of being attracted to "bad boys"—to see a woman actively choosing a gentle, non-Alpha male? Or does the fact Rebecca only sees Justin as a passing phase in her education mean she's planning to move on to tougher, rougher guys?

Either way, it poses interesting questions about how we feel about submissive men. Most of my last post considered how the image of a submissive male bothers some other men, but what of the people deeply attracted to a man willing to surrender power? I mean cripes, I'm no dominatrix, but I'm sure I wasn't the only woman (or gay man) to melt a little when Justin Timberlake cooed "You see these shackles baby, I'm your slave/ I'll let you whip me if I misbehave" in SexyBack. Was his submissiveness sexy because he's a typical Alpha male in all other aspects, and his masculinity will therefore never be in question? Or was the appeal precisely the idea of breaking down a buff, self-assured man into a naughty schoolboy? One for any J-T fan to have a good long think about...

*Both quotes originally appeared in Clarisse Thorne's excellent book The S&M Feminist

Previously: Masculinity and Submission, Belle De Jour and the Professional Domme

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Comments

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*raises hand*

I melted

Alpha Males

I've really been enjoying this series. Here is a great blog written by a male submissive who often addresses the cultural cliches surrounding submissive men: http://maybemaimed.com/

It's sad that even in these discussions of male submission, there still has to be some "Alpha Male" element. There's a real cultural narrative about men having *so much* power and that being the cause of their submissiveness. Even in the Sherlock episode, the clients are all in macho professions or very wealthy. The trope of the submissive guy is that his responsibility and power become such a burden that he needs to surrender it within a safe, *temporary* framework. There has to be so much reassurance that despite the man's interest in being submissive, he's still a "real man" at work or whatever. And the notion that his "Alpha Male" qualities make his submissiveness more appealing means we're still buying the masculine narrative, even if it is temporarily overturned.

I reject that, because that narrative still stigmatizes vulnerability. That entire binary framework of Alpha Males at the top of the pyramid and everyone else is just another way to preserve masculine privilege.

Thank you so much for saying

Thank you so much for saying this. I am a submissive man. Outside the bedroom I don't let people walk all over me, but neither do I have a lot of, or seek out, power over others. I am extremely empathic, but sometimes I am vulnerable. To think that in order to express my sexual submissivity I would have to basically be so dominant in my everyday life as to turn play into a kind of ironic theater is about as antithetical to my desires as something could get.

Words like yours help me feel OK with who I am, but too often I pathologize my sexual desires and end up feeling like I have some mental disease.

ugh i feel you i've had to

ugh i feel you i've had to keep resisting the urge to pathologize myself lately... being a sub makes me so happy, I wish I didn't have to work so much to defend my orientation from people who don't understand. it'd also be nice to know a few more male subs

From Another Perspective...

I will admit I'm coming at this from a possibly odd angle. Anyway, in addition to the issues it causes submissive men, the "alpha male sub" idea is kind of insulting to dominant women, too. I'm a switch, don't even really identify as female, and I still get annoyed with the implication that women obviously can't want to be dominant in real life. Because obviously, they still have to want a manly macho man outside of the bedroom (note sarcasm). It seems to basically tell men they can't ever be submissive beyond as a fantasy, and tell women they all still really want to be submissive a majority of the time.

Disclaimer: I don't mean to say that alpha male submissives are bad, or criticize anyone who likes them. I know a few, am quite good friends with one, and it's not an issue. I just get tired of it being the only sort of submissive guy that's supposed to be acceptable.

Thinking Kink - the article

What a interesting article is here. From my point of view, I don't want to be an alpha male, ever. I think it's an awful concept, because it refers (sub-textually maybe) to a man defined as 'alpha' in relation to women. I want to be able to be assertive in my day to day life, in the same sense as I expect any healthy man or woman to be assertive, but in a relationship I am submissive, and (if I have any attractiveness at all) I want it to be because that submissiveness is the heart and soul of me, not because I am an alpha male playing with the turn-on that surrender gives. The issue for 'genuine' submissives of either sex is that they need to be matched with 'genuine' dominants; and that means genuine dominants who are not just getting off on the idea they are alpha-people, but who recognise what a submissive partner can do for them and what they as a dominant partner can do for their submissive. Submissive males, I think, worry that many, in fact a majority of, women expect what this article calls 'the male narrative' to be played out in a relationship, and that advertising their own submissiveness will be seen as 'leaning on' a potential female partner, pressurising her to be what the submissive male needs her to be. This article suggests, cautiously albeit, that some (maybe many) women can be happy and themselves in a dominant role, and that a submissive male partner can play his part in her fulfilment. That is a thought I would like to feel is true.

Loved your comment. I'm a

Loved your comment. I'm a female dominant, and I really hate that people like us end up feeling so repressed.

M