Comprising desires: reconciling feminism and submission

Can we reconcile a desire to be dominated with feminist principles?

BDSM (for my purposes: dominance and submission, consensual bondage, sadism and masochism) has a bad press, with representations ranging from the cartoonish to the mindlessly violent. The concept of female submission makes many uneasy, particularly feminists. It’s easy to write an impassioned diatribe on the vital importance of “conventional” women’s pleasure, or to talk publicly and explicitly about sexual desire in general, but there are often only uncomfortable utterances on niche (yet common) sexual practices. The unspoken implications of labelling sexualities “deviant” potentially deter self-exploration for fear of compromising your reputation or sense of societal sexual morality. Even worse, you could feel guilty for your own fantasies.

You can be a feminist and adopt a submissive role in sex. Consensual BDSM is the polar opposite of a reality in which women face the threat of sexual violence, and is not a direct perpetuation of it. If you want statistics, then a 2008 study, conducted by the University of New South Wales for the Journal of Sexual Medicine, revealed that rates of sexual abuse and coercion were similar between BDSM practitioners and other Australians. The study concluded that BDSM is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority, not defined by a pathological symptom of past abuse.

In spite of this, because of mainstream attitudes, I do still at times feel that claiming submissive status makes me part of a social dynamic that seeks to violate all women. One reason why might be that ignorance of true BDSM culture has led to a bastardisation of it in mainstream/non-fetish pornography. When the rules of the counterculture are dissolved, the potential increases for viewers to believe women can be coerced or forced and the lines between rape and sex become blurred. In a generation where sexual maturity is shaped by watching internet pornography, the idea of forcing a woman into a sex act seems, although nominally “wrong”, completely commonplace and possibly quite sexy.

In contrast, true BDSM pornography is so excruciatingly aware of its own ability to perpetuate the idea that women yearn to be violated that it actually fights against that myth. At the end of almost every authentic BDSM set, you’ll see the protagonists smiling and happy, assuring us that what we’ve seen is just theatre acted out by consenting adults. Fetish porn is often a careful, aware construct that constantly references itself as such.

Nonetheless, ideological problems still arise when considering rape, bondage or humiliation fantasies, and the idea of a woman consenting to her own violation is perhaps confusing, even unsettling, to many. This desire in itself is very little considered, and the consenting woman offered little discourse. Rape is horrific, and it is a logical impossibility to will for your own true violation, but rape fantasies are common for between 31% and 57% of women. Through fantasy, one can reclaim and subvert the fear of real-life violation but, instead, such notions are facilely demonised as an example of male oppression. This silence is leading to a point where any transference of decision-making to a male by a woman is unacceptable; even Feminist pornographic depictions of women being dominated for pleasure are often those involving other women, as if and undermining same-sex BDSM couplings in the process. In reality, this inability to accept BDSM in the feminist dialogue is just a prejudice against power-play sex, or “kinkophobia” in general.

But this prejudice is ill-founded: a dom/sub trope may not appear to promote equality, but it is best understood as undermining rape culture and a “woman as object” mentality. Safe BDSM depends on a constant proclamation of enthusiastic consent, which mainstream sexuality has systematically dismantled. It’s irrelevant to me whether my desire to be demeaned is a product of a society that seeks to objectify women or not; that’s like castigating a chef in light of an obesity epidemic. It is more important to argue that BDSM itself is constantly about consent. Its dialogue and rules may dramatically differ from vanilla sex, but the very existence of a safe word is the ultimate in preventing violation. At any point and without reprisals the act can end, and thus can even be viewed as “safer” than regular sex. A safe psychological space is offered to the submissive to explore her boundaries; a space of endurance and of relief from responsibility and affection.

In accepting your desire for fictional power dynamics you have to realign those that you accept, though often contest, day-to-day. This in itself is empowering, even if the acts in isolation are not. Women who like to be beaten, choked, tied up and humiliated are still empowered. Those whose faces are ejaculated over, as is ubiquitous in mainstream porn, and increasingly common in mainstream sex, are arguably more degraded: their identity is masked, not only by semen but by the abstraction of their partner’s pleasure from their own internal body. Personally, the more I submit sexually, the more I feel able to be autonomous in my external life and the more I am able to achieve equality in my sexual and romantic partnerships. Trust is revived: giving someone the power to hurt you for pleasure is incredibly liberating. I have never found submission to go “beyond the bedroom” in my relationships, and though some couples choose this, an absolute surrender of power is certainly not inevitable. Nor does BDSM have to become the modus operandi for your entire sex life.

When women are consistently depicted as victims of both violence and culture, it’s difficult to see any other possibilities for sexual realization: “unconventional” female desire thus becomes a handicap; a symptom of a patriarchal ill rather than the individual’s liberation. To deem a woman a victim of a demeaning culture, based on her private fantasies, is condescendingly facile. Instead of marginalising this lifestyle choice, feminists should speak out against the mainstream appropriation of BDSM and endorse its safe, sane and consensual practice. In doing so we free ourselves from a framework never subscribed to in favour of safely shaping our own. Surely this is a worthwhile feminist ambition.

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