Evaluating female submission

Does female sexual submission mean oppression?

Published July 9, 2012 7:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on Bitch Media.

Before I even get into the thorny issue of how the media represents female sexual submissives, I want to lay some groundwork. Today, I'll consider the idea that women’s participation in BDSM, especially as a submissive, is inherently anti-feminist. Next post: the other side (that the female submissive who consensually participates in BDSM is empowered). Please remember: However much any of the views here piss people off, I am airing them because I believe in engaging with and critiquing beliefs that bug us.

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In the '70s and '80s, feminists were bitterly opposed over BDSM, and the women who volunteered to be dominated were the biggest source of contention. In her book Female Sexual Slavery, Kathleen Barry described BDSM as “a disguise for the act of sexually forcing a woman against her will.” Lesbians who practiced BDSM didn’t escape condemnation either. As Jocelyn Borycszka puts it in her forthcoming book Suspect Citizens, they were accused of simply replicating “the very masculine power dynamics used to perpetuate women’s oppression.”

What of choice though, the concept simultaneously heralded and cursed by feminists? For some, choice is meaningless if it occurs in a system of oppression. Diana Russell dismissed the "consent defense" when she  wrote about BDSM pornography: “Boiling candle wax was dripped onto a bound woman’s breasts. Had she consented beforehand? Even if she had, this is a violent act.” For anti-BDSM feminists, there can be no true choice in “responding to a model of sexual interaction that has been drummed into us throughout our lives.” Furthermore, by agreeing to play a sexually submissive role, a woman is actively damaging feminism by "reinforcing the legitimacy of power imbalances outside the bedroom.” (Nichols, Pagano & Rosoff as quoted by Margot Weiss.)

Some modern critics are more measured, however. Women and Gender Studies Professor Breanne Fahs, author of Performing Sex suggests that, “Pleasure does not preclude a self-critical approach.” Fahs encourages women who enjoy submission to “direct a critical eye to why we do those things and what those behaviors say about the bigger stories of gender and power.” She goes on to say that “it makes sense that women may internalize a need to distance themselves from their own desires by [for example] having rape fantasies.” This echoes Norma Ramos’ words in a 1995 issue of Ms. magazine, where she states that “women are socialized into actually getting sexual pleasure through their powerlessness.”

Perhaps the resemblance of many play scenes to genuine depictions of violence against women is why some feminists simply do not believe female submission in BDSM can ever be consensual. A good example of this is the current debate around the RMCP officer recently outed as enjoying BDSM pornography which depicted submissive women. Canadian feminist Meghan Murphy writes that Cpl Jim Brown "fetishized the abuse and degradation of women" by possessing photographs of women in bondage, refusing to even entertain the possibility of consent or agency from the women who participated in the pictures.

The BDSM community isn't immune to criticism from within, either—Margot Weiss found that “many practitioners complained about sexism in the scene.” Multiple women reported to Weiss that they were presumed to be submissive by virtue of their gender, regardless of their actual BDSM orientation. The automatic association of femaleness with passivity is troubling: BDSM is at its most difficult for feminists to defend when it reflects “normative gendered arrangements.”

Women’s sexual choices carry political weight, and in a society where equality is still lacking in so many fields, many feminists still feel that to surrender power in the bedroom is to surrender it elsewhere. Left-wing writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown echoed 30-year-old sentiments last week when she stated that the attraction of BDSM is merely a modern ploy to disempower women as they get closer to equality: “They have to be reminded of their place and must re-learn submission.” So Professor Fahs may be right to say that “all sexual behaviors are at risk for distortion...by regressive forces” when the popularity of one erotic book is interpreted as evidence that “tired of the struggle for equality, women want to take refuge in being bossed around in the bedroom by a man.”

But is the reactionary media's tendency to seize on any excuse to dismiss female empowerment reason enough for women to avoid sexually submissive behavior, or at least fantasies of it? Norma Ramos thinks so: "I'm getting sexual pleasure from [submission], so what do I do about this? You work to change that. You have to challenge it," she says. For some feminists, the only answer to a pervasive culture of sexual violence is for women who enjoy playing the sub to rewrite their fantasies.


By Catherine Scott

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