“Fifty Shades of Grey”: Dominatrixes take on Roiphe

As usual, Katie Roiphe misses the point. Women aren't the only ones who find escape in submission

Topics: BDSM, Gender Roles, Katie Roiphe, Sex,

"Fifty Shades of Grey": Dominatrixes take on Roiphe(Credit: Vala Grenier)

What about men? That was the first thought that came to mind after reading Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story on the BDSM-themed “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon, in which she controversially speculated that women’s current fascination with the book’s story line of female submission was the result of the “pressure of economic participation” and the “hard work” of striving for equality. The desire for submission is hardly something unique to women.

Who understands this better than professional dominatrixes? With so many speculating this week on Roiphe’s article, I decided to hand the microphone over to women with a unique perspective on the dynamics in power and play.

Several said that Roiphe is actually on to something when she talks about submission as an escape from life’s stresses — only, this reasonable point is overwritten by her wrongheaded focus on women and the impact of feminism. Roiphe wonders whether there is “something exhausting about the relentless responsibility of a contemporary woman’s life … all that strength and independence and desire and going out into the world,” and suggests “that, for some, the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality.” What about the exhausting, relentless responsibility of contemporary people’s lives?

Many men who turn to submissive fantasies do so for precisely the sort of vacation from responsibility that Roiphe suggests women are seeking. Olivia Severine, a transsexual dominatrix living in San Francisco, says most of her clients were “very high-powered” men weighed down by responsibility. “They came to see me as a brief escape when no one was looking at them for direction or leadership,” she says. “The time with me is when they were told what to do, what to feel and how to act … and all the weight of their careers, families, lives, is lifted from them for a cherished few hours.”



Mistress Shae Flanigan, a Los Angeles dominatrix, says her clients are “CEOs, high-ranking managers, lawyers and wonderfully brilliant men from all over the business spectrum.” What they have in common is “that they come to me to create an environment where they don’t need to think,” she says. “Where they can trust me to keep them safe while I weave together an enticing, thrilling, euphoric and painful world where it is literally impossible to think.”

It isn’t that these guys wish they had less real-world power — it’s just, power is stressful, and submission provides a release. “BDSM is a hell of a lot more affordable of a vacation than the Bahamas, I promise you,” says Flanigan.

Melissa Febos, author of “Whip Smart,” a book about her time as a pro-domme, tells me, “As someone who spent nearly four years catering to the submissive fantasies of men, and who eventually had to acknowledge her own submissive fantasies, I can say with some certainty that I think all people experience anxiety about power,” she says. “Aren’t our objects of eroticization often the things we feel unreconciled about?”

Most of Febos’ clients “experienced an imbalance of power in their lives,” she says. For some it was “extreme disempowerment,” like child abuse, racism or poverty; for others, it was “an overwhelming burden of power,” related to everything from wealth to politics. (“During the Republican convention, business at the dungeon boomed,” she says.) All of that is to say that “eroticization stemming from anxiety is not gender-specific,” Febos explains — nor is it specific to the relative power one has in the real world.

“Everyone, regardless of career choice or level of importance, is saddled with the burden of making important decisions about their own lives and the lives of the people around them,” Domina Nyx of New York City points out.

While Natasha Strange, who has worked as a domme for almost 20 years, has had plenty of “men who are powerful and want to give up control for a bit,” she’s also had tons of “musicians, cab drivers, pharmacy reps, teachers and your basic blue-collar workers who are just kinky and want to feel desired for an hour or three.” Interestingly enough, she says, “The very first female client I had was a housewife and a mother of two.”

As Febos suggested, these desires can arise from disempowerment. While New York-based Maya Midnight has some high-powered clients — after all, they are the ones most capable of regularly paying for her services — she says, “I get far more clients who experience loss of power in their day-to-day lives and have fetishized it.”

Roiphe’s suggestion that women’s submission fantasies are indicative of an underlying longing for the way things used to be, pre-feminism, seems particularly questionable when compared to “race play,” which Mistress Justine Cross describes in an email as “capitalizing on themes of racism in mainstream society, i.e., degrading a submissive using racial slurs, and redeploying those themes for sexual pleasure.” It seems patently absurd to suggest that an African-American man who eroticizes racism has a deep-seated desire for the days before the civil-rights movement. Should it be different when it comes to a woman longing to play-act a “sexist” fantasy?

Often enough, the “roots,” as Midnight calls it, of submissive desires can seem rather random: “One client saw a movie when he was a teenager where a woman kicked a man in the balls and has been into ball-busting ever since,” she says. “As a child, I got told off for hitting a man in the crotch with my stuffed penguin and now I love hurting balls. Go figure.” Sometimes these desires emerge at a young age (dominatrix Cybill Troy tells me, “I have personal slaves as well as clients who showed signs of their interests as young as toddlers … a 3-year-old with a tendency to crawl into cupboards who grows up to love being caged and contained both physically and mentally, for example”); other times they only surface well into adulthood.

Some believe that S/M fantasies are like dreams in that they can be difficult to fully make sense of: “I believe that they come from creative and imaginative minds that may mix the powers of everyday rituals and roles into a more complicated and interesting puzzle than the usual vanilla missionary routine,” says Yin Q., a dominatrix turned BDSM educator.

Of course, actually visiting a dom or dominatrix is much different from reading a page-turner about an S/M relationship. “Fifty Shades of Grey” tells us what many women want to read about, but it doesn’t tell us what these women are actually doing in the bedroom. Lady Cyn Aptic of Los Angeles points out, “In many cases people’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs and they prefer the fantasy to reality.”

That fantasy has become much more mainstream as the sartorial trappings of BDSM have been adopted by some of pop music’s biggest female stars, with Rihanna and Lady Gaga devoting songs to “S&M” and liking it “rough” (as I wrote about in a piece last year headlined, “Is kink the new girl-on-girl kiss?”). “I think there’s been a trend toward making the naughty more mainstream; it’s just a modern version of the bodice ripper,” says Olivia Vexx of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” “[It's acceptable now for] a soccer mom to go buy a bodice and a whip.” Strange says, “When I started as a domme, it was near impossible to find thigh-high boots” — but now she says, “I can go to pretty much any suburban mall.” Maybe we’re finding more evidence at this cultural moment of women entertaining submission fantasies simply because it’s more acceptable.

But even in the worst-case, end-of-times scenario that Roiphe is right and “Fifty Shades of Grey” is so popular because of women’s current anxieties about equality (such as it is), that doesn’t mean that it’s “evidence of unhappiness, or an invalidation of feminism,” says Febos. In fact, she suggests that it’s “just the opposite” — it might actually be a sign of progress that millions of women are so hungrily pursuing sexual fantasies independent of men.

Contrary to Roiphe’s belief, there are plenty of feminists who are neither “perplexed,” as she puts it, by submissive desires nor find it contradictory to their politics. Febos, who considers herself a feminist and also has submissive fantasies, says, “I still live in a culture that floods my consciousness with instructions to be a passive, sexual object; that my only power rests in my sexuality as defined by men’s desire,” she says. “Mightn’t this create some anxiety in my own psyche? I think so. Have I eroticized those messages in order to locate them somewhere that won’t impede my progress as an empowered, independent woman in the rest of my life? Maybe so. But so what?”

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>