Women, agency and sexuality

// 4 February 2009

As a feminist who has spent a considerable amount of time struggling with my sexuality and sexual desires in the face of condemnation from certain feminist theorists and their followers, the following comment from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha really resonated with me:

…as second-wave feminism mainstreamed and got institutionalized (and whiteness and class priviilege was a huge part of that) that part of the movement did a lot to silence survivor voices and contribute to the professionalization of survivor culture. For example, saying that all sex workers who have survived violence are of course reenacting trauma if they’re doing sex work, instead of looking at the complex continuum of sex workers’ experiences doing sex work (and what sex workers, themselves, are saying about their experiences, instead of thinking that sex workers are too stupid to think for themselves); or enforcing an idea that all sex has to be vanilla or you’re re-traumatizing yourself…

In other words, while it is important to recognise the way in which our experiences and socialisation within patriarchy affect our sexualities, we must not allow this understanding to blinker us to women’s ability to overcome these experiences and socialisation and forge our own sexualities. It is both unfair and unhelpful to suggest that the only possible explanation for a woman choosing to engage in certain sexual practices is her experience at the hands of men or the way in which she has been socialised to express her sexuality within patriarchy. This becomes downright anti-women when it involves ignoring the voice of the woman concerned.

I’m going to pick up the old BDSM chestnut here because, along with sex work/prostitution, this is the area where the tendency outlined above can come in to play, and I have no experience of the latter. I have been told time and again that the only reason I could possibly like being tied up (etc, let’s not enter the land of TMI) by a man, is because patriarchy has hot wired me to get off on being “dominated” and “degraded”. The only possible reason a man could want to do this to me is because he’s been hot-wired (or, worse, it’s in his nature) to want to “dominate” and “degrade” me. No matter how calmly and carefully I try to explain that, actually, I like doing it because I enjoy the physical sensations, because pain can be pleasurable, because the trust aspect of letting another person be “in charge” of your body can be intensely enjoyable, that, actually, he likes doing it because he wants to give me pleasure, because I asked him to, because it just feels good, because – hell – we love each other’s bodies and love giving each other pleasure, I am told that I am deluded, that I need to “examine” myself more, that I need to stop engaging in something which reinforces patriarchal power relations.

Of course, the fact that we regularly swap roles is beside the point. He suddenly becomes in control when he’s tied up, goes the theory – either that or he’s feminised, take your pick of convenient explanations. The fact that we have a totally egalitarian relationship, that neither of us is bothered about transgressing gender roles or behaviours, that we love* and respect each other, does not change the fact that our sexual practice is 100% rooted in patriarchal misogyny.

Really? Because, you see, where I’m coming from, the assertion that patriarchy is so incredibly powerful that us poor, feeble women are unable to control our own sex lives, come up with our own sexual fantasies or have any kind of sexual agency whatsoever (unless, of course, it has been approved by Sheila Jeffreys et al), is way more misogynistic than my sex life (or my sweet, respectful, wonderful boyfriend thank you very much) will ever be.

*I’m not saying you have to be in love to engage in respectful sex, but to think he’s out to degrade and hurt me when we’re in love, well… Cue: “blinded by patriarchal notions of romantic love” etc etc…

Comments From You

Mary // Posted 5 February 2009 at 1:33 am

Thank you for saying this. I know feminist does not equal “man hater” and yet I do get the feeling from some feminists that we’re supposed to be separatists or something, and I think they’re overlooking some pretty important aspects of our nature, like our natural need to connect with other human beings, sexually and otherwise. Sex, for me, is about making that connection with your partner. If you’re making that connection in a healthy/loving/enjoyable way for everyone involved, how is that bad?

JenniferRuth // Posted 5 February 2009 at 9:27 am

Well, I see it from a different angle. Now, my partner and I enjoy certain aspects of BDSM in our relationship. Spanking and slave-play are something that both of us really get off on – with him dominating and me being submissive. However, I don’t believe that just because we enjoy these activities doesn’t mean it isn’t open to feminist analysis.

I believe that it is possible, even likely, that the patriarchy has shaped my likes and sexual needs as much as it has shaped my boyfriends. We can’t escape the fact that we were raised in a patriarchal society and neither can we opt out. The most we can do is recognise the systems of power and domination, spread awareness and organise to fight it (feminism being a major tool for all of this). The truth is that patriarchy IS incredibly powerful – our fantasies to appear out of thin air, they are created from our experiences and choices that we make in life. These choices and experiences are effected by patriarchy. So is it true that we ever have 100% agency? Even if it feels like we do?

I see no reason to emotionally beat myself up (or my parnter!) over any of this, but I think it is always worth thinking about this. In fact, I would say that confronting the truth that none of us have “free” agency (not even men, although they do enjoy a much greater degree of freedom) makes us the opposite of weak and feeble. It makes us challengers and gives us a deeper understanding of self and our sexuality, perhaps even allowing our sex lives to be a little less “rooted in patriarchal misogyny.”

And just to clarify, I don’t think that so-called “vanilla” sex is free from feminist analysis or criticism either. After all, it still exists under the patriarchy.

Laura // Posted 5 February 2009 at 11:01 am

Hi JenniferRuth,

I do agree both that sexuality is affected by patriarchy and that no one has 100% free agency. My point was more that we need to strike a balance between recognising and addressing this and respecting women’s ability to create and enjoy their own sexualities, even if those sexualities might not be to our own personal taste, or even comprehensible from our position.

Feminist analysis has played an important role in the development of my own sexuality – indeed I don’t think we can develop our own sexualities unless we recognise the ways in which we may have been affected by society – but analysis does not always lead everyone to the same conclusions. I think anti-BDSMers need to recognise that, rather than branding the men and women who take part in BDSM respectfully and consensually as misogynists/deluded patriarchy enablers.

Rachel // Posted 5 February 2009 at 11:12 am

I enjoy BDSM, often myself being submissive. Sometimes this is because I love the feeling of trusting my husband completely, and the closeness I feel to him when we’re engaging in this (for clarity, I also feel close to him when we engage in other sorts of sex too). It’s also because a bit of pain, lack of control over my movement etc produces adrenaline in me and heightens my senses. Recently I’ve also come to think that *sometimes* (and only sometimes) it’s because to enjoy being dominated by a man is something that I feel I *shouldn’t* enjoy (because I’m a feminist and because of lots of things that make up who I am) , and therefore I find being dominated by a man arousing precisely because its transgressive in terms of my world view. It’s not about what’s transgressive or taboo for anyone else, just my own point of view. I hope this makes sense.

verte // Posted 5 February 2009 at 12:26 pm

Hi Laura,

I seem to remember a bit of a grand debate on your old blog a couple of years ago about BDSM and it’s interesting that perhaps you’ve changed your perspective since then.

Recently I presented a paper which included interviews with women from the BDSM “community” who submit and their notions of agency in relation to feminism. I think neo-liberal values (the focus on self and self-actualisation) and an assumption that we are post-feminist had a huge part to play in the kind of discourses they used and came to the conclusion that the kind of women who DO tend to choose to submit tend to be those who are endowed with more agency relating to their race, class, monetary status, than their gender. It’s something I intend to work on in more intricate detail in future.

Would it be okay to link this excellent piece to SM-Feminist?

Laura // Posted 5 February 2009 at 1:30 pm

Hi verte,

Interesting findings.

You’re right, I have changed my perspective. Back then I had only just discovered the feminist critique of BDSM and was feeling both incredibly guilty for my sexual habits and frightened that I had no control over my sexuality, that patriarchy was ‘inside me’. I began questioning the motivations of both myself and my boyfriend at the time, and got to the point where I would no longer engage in anything even remotely related to BDSM.

In time, I decided that it is not sexual acts themselves that are problematic, but the intention with which they are performed. What matters most is the actual relationship between those involved, whether or not they respect each other and are exploring each other’s bodies and sexualities for positive reasons, not the conclusions that a passing observer (or anti-BDSM feminist theorist) might draw from what they see.

I’m glad I went through such an intense period of reflection; it has helped me become stronger and more certain in my sexuality, and it is for this reason that I abhor some feminists’ tendency to ignore women’s agency and ability to challenge and/or work with patriarchal socialisation in our sex lives: I HAVE examined myself, and I DO know what I’m doing and what I want when I engage in acts that some might label anti-feminist or anti-women.

Thanks for commenting, and you are more than welcome to link.

JenniferRuth // Posted 5 February 2009 at 1:41 pm

Hi Laura –

Thanks for your reply. I agree that a balance does need to be struck – but I really think it is only on extreme fringes of radical feminism that accuse women of being enablers and colluders to patriarchy. Often (and this is just ancedotal from my own experience) discussion on BDSM in a radical feminist blogs are often diverted from patriarchal analysis by those who think that any criticism is a condemnation.

It has often surprised me how quickly people can get defensive when it is their predilections being discussed and how unwilling they are to investigate the possibility that their choices may be not be 100% freely made.

Maybe I visit the right blogs. I don’t know. However, I have seen people attack “anti-BDSM” posts on radical feminist blogs with very little reason to do so. I have seen very few “anti-BDSM” posts “branding the men and women who take part in BDSM respectfully and consensually as misogynists/deluded patriarchy enablers.”

It is a touchy subject, I guess!

@ Rachel

“Recently I’ve also come to think that *sometimes* (and only sometimes) it’s because to enjoy being dominated by a man is something that I feel I *shouldn’t* enjoy (because I’m a feminist and because of lots of things that make up who I am) , and therefore I find being dominated by a man arousing precisely because its transgressive in terms of my world view”

I totally understand what you mean by this! I have often wondered about this in regards to myself.

Gen. C // Posted 5 February 2009 at 2:26 pm

“I am told that I am deluded, that I need to “examine” myself more, that I need to stop engaging in something which reinforces patriarchal power relations”

This. For me it smacks of, “Silly little woman, let me tell you how it *really* is.” I wouldn’t tolerate it from anyone, let alone feminism.

I am a smart woman, who knows her mind and body and who just happens to enjoy BDSM every now and again as a switch.

Not that there’s anything wrong with critiquing BDSM, its origins and the media’s perception of it and the people who engage in it. Some of the best critiques I have come across, come from those who are in the BDSM community, I think there would be better understanding we as feminists engaged with them on that basis, I think we could learn a lot from each other.

Lisa // Posted 5 February 2009 at 3:50 pm

There’s another aspect to domination – the selection. There are only a handful of people (male or female) that I would ever allow to dominate me BUT I would be more than happy to dominate a lot of people.

Similarly condoms also have this selction aspect in that regardless of the intellectual, responsible decisions re safe sex, my standards are not so high if he’s covered than if it’s ‘for real’ – even if it’s just a hypothetical daydream about the guy opposite me on the bus ! Other women have also said this to me too – they’re a lot more choosy if that little piece of rubber is removed from the equation but also it’s more exciting -even just the thought of him coming freely (as it were) is a lot more arousing. Perhaps instincts with respect to a possible pregnancy really affect some women ? (they do me anyway). I also find I’m more into women those times in my life when pregnancy would have been a disaster and a lot more into men when it wouldn’t be a problem.

What many of us have written here just goes to illustrate that female sexuality can be very fluid and highly dependant on a women’s circumstances so it is impossible for outsiders to pass judgment as to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sex. It’s a shame that some women in the feminist movement have given the impression that ‘bad naughty girls’ are traitors to the cause because of what turns them on. I think it’s a big problem now with a significant number of hetrosexual women thinking that they can’t be feminists because they’d have to start policing their sex life to conform !

Shell // Posted 5 February 2009 at 6:23 pm

TO ME, BDSM is slightly less oppressive. It always seems both partners are really consenting in their sexual life choice and both are doing things to celebrate their sexual freedom.

Why do i think BDSM is more acceptable than most mainstream “Teenage Slut Gets Seeing To” stuff. :/

Cara // Posted 5 February 2009 at 8:59 pm

Hmmm. I have been following this, but yet to work out what I think…

I do think questioning something is different to condemning it.

I am reminded of when I stated that I was an atheist and that people should consider their religious beliefs. This was interpreted by some as an attack on religion.

Hell, we ALL do things that may be influenced by patriarchy. I like to wear high heels, for example.

I don’t pretend wearing heels is like, empowering (I hate that word).

I do think I should be free to wear them.

I don’t think we should assume a woman who has certain sexual tastes is a deludede colluding sexbot. Nor should we assume she hasn’t questioned or reflected on those tastes herself.

On the other hand, no-one’s choices should be sacrosanct. (And I did say choices. I don’t think criticism necessarily amounts to saying women have no agency. No-one has 100% free agency, no-one has *no* agency, either). I do think there is a certain amount of defensiveness, when another feminist hasn’t said ‘OMG EUW don’t do x sexual act’ but rather ‘think about x sexual act’.

We don’t have sex in a vacuum free from the contaxt of society, much as we might wish we did.

That said, I can see why certain radical feminists who insist that women who do x are colluders get other feminists’ backs up.

I don’t think excessive criticism, calling women colluders and collaborators etc., is helpful – but on the other hand, no choice should be immune from analysis. I have to say that I personally am happier for having questioned my own sexual preferences/ tastes (and my political / moral beliefs, too). Reflectiveness is never a bad thing.

laura agustin // Posted 6 February 2009 at 9:28 am

I wanted to address your point about victimisation, because it’s another oft-misunderstood one. Some years back I wrote a piece for the journal Development about a widespread trend to victimise migrants in general as desperate, forced, preference-less. I wasn’t talking about women who sell sex but all migrants, and the argument was far from a reductionist interpretation that some critics have invoked about my work in general. The word victim means something in law, where crimes have victims and perpetrators. But very often those victims are made to take on a victim identity that cannot be shucked off once they begin to recover. Very few of even the trafficked women I’ve spoken to over the past fifteen years want to be considered a permanent victim, they don’t want to be called ‘you poor thing’, they want to move on and be able to see the bad events as just that, events, not the basis for a new lifelong damaged identity.

Anyone interested can read Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants at http://www.nodo50.org/Laura_Agustin/forget-victimisation-granting-agency-to-migrants

A lot of the material on my website is about this issue. The anti-rescue poster migrants working in a Thai brothel specifies, in their own words, why the victim identify doesn’t help them: http://www.nodo50.org/Laura_Agustin/the-full-poster-why-brothel-workers-oppose-raids-and-rescues

Best, Laura Agustin

Border Thinking

Polly styrene // Posted 6 February 2009 at 11:13 am

All sexuality (including sexual orientation) is constructed. No one is born with anything other than the neural pathways and genital organs that together lead to orgasm.

The things that ‘give people pleasure’ are therefore quite definitely the product of their total life experiences. Including the sex of the people we’re attracted to, what we do with them, everything. And mind and body are connected, not disconnected. And sex is not completely separate from the rest of our lives. Hence the radical feminist analysis of how BDSM reflects patriarchal power structures.

I don’t give a flying f**k what anyone does behind closed doors. What I do object to is the endless straw arguments that radical feminists are somehow ‘enforcing’ sexuality radical feminists do not have the power to ‘enforce’ anything. A critical analyis is not the same as enforcing something. No radical feminist is stopping Laura Woodhouse doing anything at all.

Can I suggest to Ms Woodhouse that if she has as much agency and control over her sexual fantasies as she claims she has she simply ignores people who tell her the things she objects to?

It’s more than a bit ridiculous to claim that she’s not influenced by patriarchy at all, but that the comments of radical feminists leave her powerless to resist.

What I think is ‘anti women’ is the constant bashing of second wave/radical feminists on the F word, a supposedly feminist blog.

Laura // Posted 6 February 2009 at 11:51 am

Polly,

I’m not claiming that radical feminists are getting in the way of my sex life; I’m simply critiquing a critique. Just to reiterate, my main points are:

1) Focusing too heavily on patriarchy’s role in shaping women’s sexuality is to deny women’s ability to fight against socialisation and to shape our own lives and sexualities. Painting women as eternal victims seems pretty pessimistic and unhelpful to me.

2) Making assumptions about what goes on in people’s heads when they engage in certain sex acts, as well as about the way in which engaging in those sex acts affects the way in which they relate to other people (the whole ‘BDSM harms all women’ argument) is both unfair and a highly unstable basis for a theory in my opinion.

As it happens, I agree with a great deal of radical feminist thought, and it informs much of my posting here, but while I find the theory interesting, I do not agree with the radical feminist analysis of BDSM as it applies in practice.

If you choose only to comment on and highlight the F Word posts which disagree with certain aspects of radical feminist thinking, that is your prerogative, but to claim that we are ‘constantly bashing’ second wave/radical feminists is to misrepresent the blog based on a selective view of what we publish.

Faith from Feminist Nation // Posted 6 February 2009 at 12:50 pm

“As it happens, I agree with a great deal of radical feminist thought, and it informs much of my posting here, but while I find the theory interesting, I do not agree with the radical feminist analysis of BDSM as it applies in practice.”

Laura,

I only wish to add some of my own personal experience with BDSM. I’m not going to get into the pro/anti BDSM debate.

I recently told my sexual partner of over 5 years that we would no longer be doing anything BDSM related. Our relationship has often involved engaging in bondage with him as the top and me as the bottom. I did not make this decision based on my desires going away. I made this decision based on him openly admitting that his desires to restrain me were sexist in nature. He admitted this quite freely as he has done in a roundabout way in the past as well. I asked him a simple direct question: Are your desires to restrain me sexist in nature?

He admitted that they were.

I will also say that I am quite clear that many to most of my sexual desires to be a sub come from my experience of living my life within a patriarchal society. There is no doubt in my mind about that. None whatsoever. I do not believe that it is all related to my experiences with sexist men and patriarchal society, but I’m damn sure positive a great deal of my submissive tendencies are…without a shadow of a doubt.

Laura // Posted 6 February 2009 at 12:57 pm

Thank you for sharing your experience, Faith. I should have written that I do not believe that radical feminist theory on BDSM is applicable in all cases.

Holly Combe // Posted 6 February 2009 at 6:29 pm

Brilliant piece, Laura. Feminism should not be yet another way to make women feel guilty. As if we don’t already have enough of that from more traditional society already! Some of the (sometimes rather personal) criticism you are receiving for your honesty about your sexuality reminds me of the way a Feminists Against Censorship member got piled on at Feminist Fightback a few years back when she dared to talk about similar issues.

Actually, I think seeing that affected me more than I realised at the time. Even as a feminist with apparently “correct” vanilla tastes (albeit with the occasional desire to spank her boyfriend’s bottom), I knew my overly “liberal” views on sexuality were not welcome by some. I knew taking my arguments to the next level would mean openly questioning and critiquing well-respected ideas and that this would lead to me being on the receiving end of some very real hostility.

Saying this may be nothing new but, as far as I’m concerned, policing each other’s sexual choices doesn’t actually help us collectively. Isn’t that what traditionalism did to us in the first place? Critiquing and questioning the notion of choice, within the context of addressing each other as equals, is fine (even necessary) but I don’t think we have the right to tell each other that we somehow owe it to the greater good to deny our own sexualities. We don’t have the right to insult and dismiss each other on the basis of sexual preference. Feminism will never change the world with that kind of attitude because huge numbers of women who could actually carve their own important niches in the movement (and therefore contribute to it) will simply reject it.

Lucy // Posted 8 February 2009 at 11:49 am

For me, the eroticisation of power play in sex comes not only from patriarchal gender stereotypes, but from the taboo that the physicality of sex has been for so long. Whether referring to the loss of virginity as giving a flower, or talking about intercourse as if it is a union of souls, the introduction of spirituality…. all this is not always so easy to reconcile with the force of what so often resembles wrestling more than ballet. While this gracelessness is somewhat taboo it can be eroticised to the point where any recognition of power struggle or the violence of intercorse could be considered D&S….

Having said that, I still think that downplaying the role of patriarchal standards in your sexual motivations is dangerous, which is why this post just didn’t sound right to me. Although it’s probably not an accurate representation of your understanding of the topic, this post did read a bit like a defensive rebuttal of any criticism of your choices, rather than a aknowledgement of the limits of a particular theory.

For example, Isn’t criticizing this critique simply because it underestimates female agency a bit of a straw man? And to suggest that such a critique is motivated, even in part, by a simple distaste for or lack of understanding of your kink is also fairly inappropriate*.

My experience has been in some ways in line with that of Faith. If you are to aknowledge the societal causes of sexual violence, i don’t know how it’s possible to ignore the role of patriatchal ideas of sexuality on your (and your partners’) motivations in the way that you have. To tell myself that my partner’s desires to dominate me didn’t come, in part, from a desire to inflict his strength upon me, would be lying to myself…. However, in turn, to consider any manifestation of this powerplay universally harmful is, too, somewhat unhelpful. If one can recognise all of this and still chooses to participate in D&S with other individuals who also recognise the root of their desires, but want to indulge them in a safe way, I do think it can be healthy. If you’re just ignoring it, pretending that your desires are innocent and organic, how is that helpful?

*”My point was more that we need to strike a balance between recognising and addressing this and respecting women’s ability to create and enjoy their own sexualities, even if those sexualities might not be to our own personal taste, or even comprehensible from our position.

verte // Posted 9 February 2009 at 12:29 pm

Hey Holly,

Yup, that woman who dared speak about BDSM and was yelled at from the back til she cried at Feminist Fightback several years ago was me.

I’m definitely a moderate feminist. Hell, some of the BDSM communities find many of my views ‘too feminist’ and dislike that I investigate the cultural and social implications of BDSM, that I examine sexual agency and question. It’s a tricky line to walk, but most women I’ve come across — more so within the fetish scene than almost any other I’ve encountered — are deeply concerned with claiming their own sexual agency and many identify as feminist.

Anyway, there’s quite a fearsome but very interesting debate going on at the moment across on SM-feminist. Definitely worth a read.

Laura // Posted 10 February 2009 at 10:32 am

Hi Lucy,

I like your first point about the physicality of sex being taboo – I haven’t really thought much about that before and will certainly be mulling it over for a while.

In response to both your second point, and Faith’s experience, I feel I should point out that my boyfriend and I always ensure we talk about the motivations behind what we are doing, how it makes us feel and what is going through our heads when we engage in certain sex acts. If either of us found that our feelings or motivations were in any way sexist or potentially harmful, we would change our sex habits, but, as I stated in my post, they are not.

I am not defending BDSM-type sex acts on the simple basis of what makes me feel good, but on my belief that women are capable of analysing our sexual desires and motivations and understanding what is and isn’t harmful to us. (Feminist analysis of sexuality is of course invaluable in this respect.) This does not mean that BDSM practice is always women friendly, or that it cannot be abusive or entered into for the wrong reasons; I just believe that abuse is caused by people, and or blaming women who like sex which could be labelled BDSM (a ridiculously wide ranging label anyway) for abuses committed against other women, or labelling us as deluded, isn’t going to help anyone.

SarahV // Posted 10 February 2009 at 6:40 pm

“I just believe that abuse is caused by people, and or blaming women who like sex which could be labelled BDSM (a ridiculously wide ranging label anyway) for abuses committed against other women, or labelling us as deluded, isn’t going to help anyone.”

Haven’t people already said this isn’t the case or problem?? It’s women ‘questioning’ what we take for granted as nature, I agree with Lucy, your argument sounds a tad jack straw and as if you need to be defensive.

I’m new to feminism but shouldn’t it be obvious we pave our own way of thinking for ourselves? And not so as to clash continually with others who at the root want the same things? There’s probably been thousands of theories on why many feminists nit- pick within the movement, so i’ll stop short for risk of sounding like a novice. But maybe it’s because we feel powerless to achieve anything outside the movement, so resort to ‘fighting’ within as this is the prevailing popular attitude towards feminism? Here I *question*… and as a lowly student you shoudn’t presume I’m pressing authority on what is and isn’t just because I’m a feminist. As with your post you do.

femmegaygal // Posted 12 February 2009 at 11:42 am

I like BDSM. My first experiences were dominating a man who was at the time my fiance. Since then I have been a dom with my ex girlfriend. I stopped doing it (much to the chargrin of my ex GF) upon reading a feminist critique. I mostly stopped because I hadn’t taken the time to think about the potential issues and my political views. Having now taken more time it seems to me that within my same sex relationship where the gender roles were not really relevant the patriachal argument doesn’t really make sense. My ex partner had BDSM fantasies for some time before we got together. While I had dabbled a little (really not a lot) again at the request of a previous partner, I hadn’t really done a lot. Her BDSM fantasies all involved being dominated by a woman. I just enjoyed her enjoying things. I am not saying that patriachy can’t affect female same sex relationships, but I don’t think it was an issue in our case.

I think that sex is only one aspect of a relationship. I think that whether in a same or opposite sex relationship BDSM can be a healthy part of a sexual relationship. I don’t think that it is always infomed or influenced by the structure of patriachy. I think it is an aspect of sexual orientation. I think the centrality of ‘safe, sane and consentual’ to the BDSM community is ultimately empowering for both the dom and the sub of whichever gender.

Joanna Barksdale // Posted 15 February 2009 at 8:10 am

Of course, the fact that we regularly swap roles is beside the point. He suddenly becomes in control when he’s tied up, goes the theory….

Not to pry, but how do you square that circle? It would seem a coherent explanation that he is in control when he is actually in control and that he is being pleasured by you when you assume the power role. Playing dominatrix for a man is something men find quite enticing and pleasurable. (Obviously, you know this, or you would not do it — you are not dominating your boyfriend against his will, I assume.) The fact that you receive pleasure from being dominated and fulfilling his fantasy as a dominatrix would seem irrelevant to the fact that you are recapitulating social scripts given to you by the patriarchy. I really fail to understand how you could dominate your boyfriend without it being anything more than you servicing his fantasy, so I am curious what your theoretical explanation for that phenomenon is, other than “I like it, so stop criticizing me”. I don’t mean to sound harsh, I’m actually interested in the substantive response.

Laura // Posted 15 February 2009 at 1:28 pm

Hi Joanna,

My problem with this line of thinking is that it ignores the fact that perhaps when a man is ‘dominating’ he is also doing so in order to give the woman pleasure, that in acting out HER fantasies he capitulates to her, that she is actually in control. Why can’t my boyfriend dominating me be nothing more than him servicing my fantasy? Viewing the woman as a victim of patriarchal gender power relations whether she is being active or passive seems to me to reflect more on the viewer/theorist’s inability to see outside the patriarchal script than what is actually going on: you can’t see what’s going on in my head, or my boyfriend’s, and for me that is what matters: the intention behind the acts. In my case, I instigated all bdsm type sex we have: when he takes the active role, he does so because he wants to give me pleasure, because that is what I want him to do, not because he has an internal desire to dominate me in accordance with his socialisation in a sexist society.

Joanna Barksdale // Posted 15 February 2009 at 9:46 pm

My problem with this line of thinking is that it ignores the fact that perhaps when a man is ‘dominating’ he is also doing so in order to give the woman pleasure, that in acting out HER fantasies he capitulates to her, that she is actually in control. Why can’t my boyfriend dominating me be nothing more than him servicing my fantasy? … In my case, I instigated all bdsm type sex we have: when he takes the active role, he does so because he wants to give me pleasure, because that is what I want him to do, not because he has an internal desire to dominate me in accordance with his socialisation in a sexist society.

That is a fair enough response, that you are in control and dominating him the entire time, regardless of what roles are played, but I suppose that is problematic in its own right: if you concede that it would be wrong from him to be in control and dominate you the entire time, why isn’t it just as wrong the other way around? Shouldn’t radical feminists be knocking down the doors of your bedroom to liberate your boyfriend from your evil non-egalitarian clutches? And if it isn’t problematic that you are always in control and sexually dominating your boyfriend, then what is so wrong with patriarchy, if patriarchy simply consists of innumerable iterations of that dynamic, in reverse, played out across the culture? It seems there is something to the argument that if female domination is alright, then so is male domination. Or am I mistaken?

Laura // Posted 16 February 2009 at 11:12 am

Joanna,

I was merely illustrating that I don’t think the argument that women are always the victim/submissive in BDSM sex holds true.

Obviously this doesn’t apply to all people who engage in BDSM, but for us the ‘control’ and ‘dominance’ is not real no matter who is on top; it’s about heightening sensations and giving pleasure – either one of us could stop what’s happening at any time. Neither of us is in the other’s ‘clutches’ – we’re both happily and respectfully engaging in something that turns us on and, as adults, we are perfectly capable of seeing the difference between sexual role play and an actual power imbalance: something some anti-BDSM theorists seem incapable of doing.

Molly // Posted 5 May 2012 at 1:07 pm

“I could possibly like being tied up (etc, let’s not enter the land of TMI) by a man, is because patriarchy has hot wired me to get off on being “dominated” and “degraded”. The only possible reason a man could want to do this to me is because he’s been hot-wired (or, worse, it’s in his nature) to want to “dominate” and “degrade” me.” …..

And my argument to this line of thinking, a thinking I have been subjected too on many occasions as a submissive woman in a 24/7 d/s relationship is…. that surely being heterosexual is also ‘letting the side down’ as a feminist. Society indoctrinates heterosexual relationship and patriarchy has certainly hot wired us to be heterosexual…. therefore to be a ‘twue’ feminist you have to be a lesbian? Actually the case in point is about choice, not about going against conditioning. If it makes you happy being in a loving D/s relationship then Yay, if it makes you happy being a stay at home Mum then Yay…. I am proud of my sexuality and that I have I have a choice to embrace it and live it. That is positive feminism as far as I am concerned.

Mollyxxx

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