Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Feminism in Female Sexual Submission

Thank you to Deity for calling attention to the following essay by re-posting this abridged version on his FetLife wall. Discussion of the many interesting points raised is invited and very welcome.

Originally posted at the The JadeGate:

The Feminism in Female Sexual Submission

Please go here to read all of this excellent article by Stacey May Fowles on the tricky subjects of Feminism, BDSM and Rape. Below are some excerpts of the piece which was in turn excerpted from the book, Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti. Copyright (c) January 2009.

"Because I'm a feminist who enjoys domination, bondage and pain in the bedroom, it should be pretty obvious why I often remain mute and, well, pretty closeted about my sexuality. While it's easy for me 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, I often shy away from conversations about my personal sexual choices. Despite the fact that I've been on a long, intentional path to finally feel empowered by, and open about, my decision to be a sexual submissive, the reception I receive regarding this decision is not always all that warm."

"BDSM (for my purposes, bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and the concept of female submission makes feminists really uncomfortable. I can certainly understand why, but I also believe that safe, sane and consensual BDSM exists as a polar opposite of a reality in which women constantly face the threat of sexual violence."


"Sexually submissive feminists already have a hard enough time finding a voice in the discourse, and their desire to be demeaned is often left out of the conversation. Because of this, the opportunity to articulate the political ramifications of rape fantasy happens rarely, if at all.

"You can blame this silence on the fact that BDSM is generally poorly -- often cartoonishly -- represented. Cinematic depictions are generally hastily drawn caricatures, pushing participants onto the fringes and increasing the stigma that surrounds their personal and professional choices. While mainstream film and television occasionally offer up an empowered, vaguely fleshed-out and somewhat sympathetic professional female dom (think Lady Heather from "CSI"), those women who are sexually submissive by choice seem to be invisible. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that they are left out of the picture because, quite simply, they scare us. Feminist pornographic depictions of women being dominated for pleasure are often those involving other women -- that's a safe explicit image, because the idea of a male inflicting pain on a consenting woman is just too hard for many people to stomach. For many viewers it hits too close to home -- the idea of a female submissive's consensual exchange of her authority to make decisions (temporarily or long-term) for a dominant's agreement to make decisions for her just doesn't sit well with the feminist community."


"It's taken me many years of unlearning mainstream power dynamics to understand and accept my own desire for fictional, fetishized ones. Despite this deliberate journey of self-discovery and the accompanying (and perhaps contradictory) feelings of being in total control, it's pretty evident that the feminist movement at large is not really ready to admit that women who like to be hit, choked, tied up and humiliated are empowered. Personally, the more I submitted sexually, the more I was able to be autonomous in my external life, the more I was able to achieve equality in my sexual and romantic partnerships, and the more genuine I felt as a human being. Regardless, I always felt that by claiming submissive status I was being highlighted as part of a social dynamic that sought to violate all women. Sadly, claims of sexual emancipation do not translate into acceptance for submissives -- the best a submissive can hope for is to be labeled and condescended to as a damaged victim choosing submission as a way of healing from or processing past trauma and abuse.

"Whether or not it's difficult to accept that the desire to be demeaned is not a product of a society that seeks to objectify women, I would argue that, regardless of appearance, by its very nature BDSM is constantly about consent. Of course, its language and rules differ significantly from vanilla sexual scenes, but the very existence of a safe word is the ultimate in preventing violation -- it suggests that at any moment, regardless of expectations or interpretations on the part of either party, the act can and will end. Ignoring the safe word is a clear act of violation that is not up for any debate. Because of this, BDSM sex, even with all its violent connotations, can be much "safer" than non-safe-word sex. While not very romantic in the traditional sense, the rules are clear -- at any moment a woman (or man) can say no, regardless of the script she (or he) is using."


"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."


"Paradoxically, sexual submission and rape fantasy can only be acceptable in a culture that doesn't condone them. On a simplistic level, a fetish is only a fetish when it falls outside the realm of the real, and, as I mentioned, the reason why some feminists fear or loathe the BDSM scene is that it is all too familiar. When a woman is subjected to (or enjoying, depending on who is viewing and participating) torture, humiliation and pain, many feminists see the 6 o'clock news, not a pleasurable fantasy, regardless of context. Even someone who identifies as a sexual submissive, someone like me, can understand why it's difficult to view these scenes objectively. Many fantasies are taboo for precisely that reason -- it's close to impossible to step beyond the notion that a man interested in domination is akin to a rapist, or that if a woman submits she is a helpless victim of rape culture. But consenting BDSM practitioners would argue that their community at large responsibly enacts desires without harm, celebrating female desire and (as is so fundamental in dismantling rape culture) making (her) pleasure central."


"...The average computer user can have instant access to a full catalog of BDSM practices, ranging from light, soft-core spanking to hard-core torture, in a matter of seconds. This kind of constant, unrestrained availability trains viewers who don't have a BDSM cultural awareness, investment or education to believe that what women want is to be coerced and, in some cases, forced into acts they don't consent to. Over the years, various interpretations of the genre have made it into straight porn, without any suggestion of artifice -- women on leashes, in handcuffs, gagged, tied up and told to "like it" are all commonplace imagery in contemporary pornography.

"While the serious BDSM practitioner thrives on that artifice, 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. Couple that private home viewing to get off with the proliferation of graphic crime shows on prime-time television and torture porn masquerading as "psychological thrillers" in theaters, and our cultural imagery screams that "women as sexual victims" is an acceptable reality. For someone who is raised, and reaches sexual maturity, in this environment, the idea of forcing a woman into a sex act seems, although logically "wrong," completely commonplace and possibly quite sexy."


The reality is that the activities and pornographic imagery of BDSM culture are problematic only because we have reached a point where a woman's desire is completely demeaned and dismissed. If women's pleasure were paramount, this argument (and the feminist fear of sexual submission) wouldn't exist. When women are consistently depicted as victims of both violence and culture, it's difficult to see any other possibilities. Feminists have a responsibility not only to fight and speak out against the mainstream appropriation of BDSM, but also to support BDSM practitioners who endorse safe, sane and consensual practice.

"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."


Greenwoman said...

Nice article. Well written. Can't think of a think to add to it.

K...gonna go see what else there is here to read. *smiles*

O said...

This I'll have to come back to. You're right, it does raise many interesting points; unfortunately I disagree with some of them and can't yet quite articulate why. I'll come back when I've figured it out.

Thank you for giving me a lot to think about. I value that.