A decade before 50 Shades, closet kinksters were finding a way to come out via Steven Shainberg's exercise in office S&M, Secretary. While this tense and sexy movie may have avoided coming off like a bad porn script, did Secretary do much to challenge the stereotype of the typical "weak female" submissive?
The woman who admits to enjoying sexual submission often finds herself stuck between the rock of a sexist society that tells her she's just exemplifying women's true nature, and the hard place of a feminist community that considers her brainwashed by the patriarchy. Why is a female submissive so rarely accepted as "a woman just plain getting her rocks off," Cliff Pervocracy wonders? A deeply unhelpful media may be part of the answer. As feminist kinkster Mollena Williams, co-author of Playing Well With Others, points out, "If people see the imagery of BDSM, whips, chains, pain, the serial killers of film and television...? Of course they may be repelled and confused." That itself doesn't make an activity wrong, or anti-feminist. The feminists who condemn female submissives "mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone," says pro-BDSM feminist Gayle Rubin. When women's sexual behavior is subject to negative scrutiny and found "wanting" by other women, it isn't feminism—it's bigotry, often fueled by little more than personal prejudices.
Before I even get into the thorny issue of how the media represents female sexual submissives, I want to lay some groundwork and represent feminists on both sides of the debate: Is the female submissive who consensually participates in BDSM empowered or betraying the sisterhood?