Ask A Feminist #4: Does my sex life let the side down?

// 2 February 2012

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A reader who felt alienated by some of the comments left under Nat’s recent post asks whether practising BDSM is incompatible with feminism.

yellow question mark chalked on a tarmac road

Dear Laura,

I’ve been into BDSM for all my adult life and am mostly submissive. I’m also bisexual, and have “played” with and submitted to women in the past, not just men. I’m fairly new to feminism and although some feminists don’t see an issue with BDSM, some certainly do, and it leaves me feeling intimidated and scared of being accused of not being a real feminist.

It seems for every person who says it’s absolutely fine to be “kinky” there are plenty out there telling me my desires are just a by-product of the patriarchy, pretty much implying I don’t know my own mind and body. Even if I was influenced in some way by patriarchal culture around me (I’m well aware I may well be) should I stop having the sex I enjoy because it offends some feminists? I don’t think that’s going to happen.

I managed to get through my teenage years without actually seeing a porn film so the vast majority of fantasies I have in my head are pretty much what I’ve had to cobble together myself. How the hell I got into BDSM I don’t know but it’s a very potent part of my sexuality and it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

So, is it really OK for someone like me to join in feminist discussions and be taken seriously? Can a woman with my desires ever really be considered a feminist? Or, despite all that I believe in and how I behave outside my bedroom, does what I do inside it let the whole side down?

– Kinky Feminist

When you’re new to feminism, it can be exciting and uplifting to find a community of people who finally “get it”. Adopting the feminist label makes you feel like a part of this community and so it can be upsetting when you read things implying that you don’t deserve it. However, feminism is a broad movement and there are as many different feminist viewpoints as there are feminists. There will always be someone for whom you’re not “feminist enough”. While this means both online and offline feminist communities may not be the 100% welcoming, supportive space you initially thought you’d found, it does mean that worrying about what other feminists think of you is a futile undertaking, and if you do feel uncomfortable around some feminists, there will always be others you’ll get on with like the proverbial burning house.

For me, what matters is not whether you meet the feminist club entry criteria set out by a given feminist, but whether you do what you can in your own life to support women and tackle the various forms of discrimination we face. It may be that alongside any efforts you make in this regard, you also engage in things that some feminists and even you yourself view us unhelpful or rooted in patriarchy. Given that we’ve all been socialised into and have to live within patriarchal society, it’d be pretty amazing if you didn’t.

A lot of feminists shave their legs, let male partners get away with not doing enough housework or buy clothing produced by women working in terrible conditions overseas, to name but a few activities that could be termed “letting the side down”. They may prefer they didn’t do these things, but for various reasons feel that it is too difficult to change, or they may not see them as problematic at all, again for a wide variety of reasons. But these activities don’t negate their work to support services for single mums, verbally challenge everyday sexism or contribute to the local rape crisis centre.

No feminist is perfect, and as long as on balance you do more to help women than to hinder them (unlike women such as Nadine Dorries, whose anti-choice agenda and activities more than overshadow her speaking up about the lack of women on the BBC), you have just as much right as the next person to consider yourself a feminist and join in feminist discussions. Even if some people think the kind of sex you like is anti-feminist.

Personally, I don’t think engaging in BDSM or submissive sex holds back women’s liberation. As I’ve discussed previously, there are many different reasons why people enjoy BDSM, and I think it’s simplistic and unhelpful to suggest that it always comes down to an assertion of male power over women and that BDSM therefore furthers gender inequality (although this may well be the case in some instances). Both non-BDSM and BDSM sex can be used to abuse, hurt and oppress women, and both can be enjoyed in a positive way that doesn’t hurt anyone: it all depends on the individuals involved.

If you’re happy with your sex life and don’t feel the feminist arguments against BDSM hold up to your experiences, then that particular feminist theory needn’t form part of your feminism. Focus on what matters to you, and remember: your opinion is no less valid then anyone else’s.

Photo by VirtualEyeSee, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

Want to Ask A Feminist? Email laura[at]thefword.org.uk.

Comments From You

Fembot // Posted 2 February 2012 at 1:39 pm

Thank you so much for this.

I’ve recently been exploring my submissive tendencies and this issue has cropped up for me too. Not so much in the sense other feminists have spoken negatively about it (I haven’t discussed it!) but that I have thought it myself. I’m a very strong feminist with a general concern for unhealthy relationship dynamics so the two combined in my head meant it was a bit of a head scramble so-to-speak to see if I did want to embrace my submissive feelings. I guess I’m the opposite of you: my feminist thoughts kicked in a long time before my submissive ones!

From what I’ve found, many D/s relationships go against feminism – or indeed basic logic or healthy psychology. They’re rooted in a woman wanting to not have any thoughts for herself, a man who wants to purely control, and a bizarre belief that it is entirely natural for a woman to obey a man or even want to submit – rather than some women simply gaining a sexual thrill from it. I have also found though – in ignoring the many unhealthy or anti-feminist dynamics and thinking how *I* feel – that it is entirely possible to be a feminist and get off on submission. It’s actually making my submission feel more beautiful…and the man I’m with really agrees. I’d suggest ignoring the rest – whether it’s feminists who need to understand submission or submissives who really could do with some feminism – and concentrating on what you know. You know it doesn’t compromise your feminism, that in submitting you’re not saying a woman’s place is to obey a man etc. That’s what matters.

At risk of sounding like a feminist friend finder, if you ever want to chat about submission let me know. I’ve actually realised this week that it might be really beneficial to have that source of chatting about how you’re feeling – but as I say, most women online in D/s circles aren’t quite there shall we say! Either way, thanks for sharing.

Fembot // Posted 2 February 2012 at 2:18 pm

p.s. Or at least the sites I’ve found. If anyone knows otherwise, please share :)

Laurel // Posted 2 February 2012 at 2:22 pm

i think it tends to help to realise that the feminist movement is not amorphous. its like “the left”. there are LOADS of things that we can unite against, but we may find other aspects to be pointless. i think your other politics tend to come into it quite a lot. for many radical feminists, being a feminist is the biggest part of their politics, and any feminist discourse which doesnt focus primarily on how things affect women may be problematic to them, seeing as how so much of the rest of society focuses on male issues, and some of them may find veering onto things such as race and disability or transgender issues to be sidelining, whilst i would HOPE that most of them would accept at least some degree of intersectionality to stop us from making the same mistakes as in the past.

*a left-liberal will generally be hugely intersectionalist and want equal rights for everybody, and to discuss everything, but will often do less to question the roots of the systems themselves and it can end up being more about talk show panels, academic middle classes talking, discussion groups and theory, though sometimes missing the theory out when it comes to personal choices. for many of the slightly less-left liberals, feminism is all about having the freedom to make your own choices. the further left you go within liberal its about the decision to make informed choices and take responsibility for them if they impact on other people and your own welfare. this can range from the most socially conscious feminists to lipstick feminists, to green.

feminists more concerned with green issues may or may not be more essentialist and embracing of their “feminine” and “masculine”, depending on if theyre spiritual or not. some in these circles are “one love” and may be too privileged to notice that we are not all the same and that treating everybody the same is not always the way to beat systematic prejudices, but those who are more than hippies will often be the most intersectional, with a little class politics and considering the treatment of the world and animals in the same vain as the way humans exploit each other. these can be either the best or the worst at fulfilling the lines of safe spaces, however, much like many liberal and anarchist feminists, theyr strong adherance to safe spaces may seem too “middle class” or academic or alienating to the more traditional working class, and may seem to turn away people who need help most (extreme mental health issues, addiction, etc)

you so towards socialist reformers and you probably have a bit more class understanding within this and its more likely to worry about the legality of certain acts and the media’s propaganda and how big businesses exploit sexism. youre, likely to focus on things like equal pay and evening the balance like the liberal feminists, but with a slightly more radical method of improving standards for those at the bottom. if youre a more radical feminist in this group you would probably be in the anti-porn/sexploitation lobby, or at least the normalisation of the selling of women’s sexualities.

when you get into more revolutionary state socialism/communism you will find that there are even better plans for the poorest women in society, or the working ones at least, though you may find in non-explicitly-feminist groups that they view this as identity politics and havent put much thought into their own personal actions, feeling these systems cant be tackled until capitalism is gone. the harder left you go though, the stronger seeming women youll seem to find to fight against that.

grassroots community organising women, from poorer areas, and often women of colour, and those who work with vulnerable people or are vulnerable themselves often have some of the most radical critique for persons not of colour to address within themselves. they may or may not have ideologies for the transformation of society, but engaging and supporting the people in this area you will find the best understanding of what it wrong with it in the first place. most of them wont complain what you do in your own bedroom. they have enough shit going on

various religious and specifically cultural feminisms will vary in different ways.

as for me, im an anarcha-feminist, and i find that to be hugely intersectional. a mix between the green, liberal and socialist traditions. id criticise that it often isnt well-read in radical feminist critiques when i think it should be, or that some of the more feminist groups may expect you to already be a militant anti-fascist and feminist who can lead the men into understanding what your needs are, which may be daunting if there arent many women involved in the group. anarchism usually accepts the radfem critique if it knows it, though often has other priorities, and so, for example, sex worker’s rights being won would largely come above secondary effects of the sex industry on women. queer and genderqueer politics and the free love movement have always been largely intertwined with anarchism and so things like BDSM would not be an issue so long as its questioned because we try to tear down all boxes in the first place, and youre more likely to find people who dont gender identify or are polyamorous (or bullshit both to fit in and sound progressive) etc etc.

once you find a group of people who most fit your mindset more then you find that you can discuss a much wider range of subjects and go more indepth rather than covering 101s all the time. rather than worrying about childspace and disabled access or safe spaces at feminist events, you can start discussing these things at social centres, bookfairs and meetings and fundraisers and demonstrations for all kinds of things. once you have an understanding of women being underrepresented and people accepting the feminist critique, THEN you can start discussing the men and boys, and everything else without worrying about it going off topic, because this wasnt the only space set aside to talk about issues affecting women, and those issues can be pulled up in any of the discussions without (too much) contention. if you have an end goal to which to reach to then you very often find that your feminist discussion and what you do in your private life will be much more in-line and productive. i think we need to have a solidarity and support for all other feminists who put more into improving life for women than taking it away, but i can honestly say that for me, spending my time arguing with feminists who want better representation of women in parliament and business, or for “banning” of things like pornography, would often be better spent debating ways to make sure women are able to take full part in tearing down parliaments and businesses and within workplace struggle and self managed communities and how we can better educated against materials which degrade women whilst supplying alternatives, and which things can be done within the capitalist system and what is appropriate now.

so my advice would be to read all kinds of feminism, but find a niche for BDSM feminists. its not as if youre stuck with them if youre view changes and you cant constantly be looking elsewhere. feel confident enough that something is right for you by having people around you who support it, and if you still feel like reading arguments that there is something wrong, you can re-assess yourself.

*excuse vast generalisations about different political groups’ feminist views. was just to make a point

Femiman // Posted 2 February 2012 at 2:41 pm

Domination and submission are worth exploring as long as they’re confined to the bedroom.

You shouldn’t beat yourself up over anything that turns you on.

Is there mutual consent?

Is there mutual respect?

Do you have agency in the relationship apart from when you enjoy being dominated?

Answer these questions to your satisfaction and remember it’s nobody’ business.

Many who enjoy submission as actually in powerful positions in life, judges and politicians give great trade to dominatrixes. Perhaps there is an increase in women turning towards submissive behaviour as they occupy more positions of power?

My girlfriend never allowed a man to dominate her sexually and was always the dominant party. She allows me to be sexually dominant because she sees me as the most feminist of her lovers in my words and actions in and outside the bedroom. The result is intense, uninhibited sex with the dominance pendulum swinging back and forth. Feminists have better sex.

Fembot // Posted 2 February 2012 at 4:06 pm

I agree a lot with two of your points Femiman. One, that there’s (sometimes) a big connection between power and stress and a desire to submit. I have a reasonable stressful job and I find submission a great source of calm and relaxation. And secondly, that – for feminist women – it’s often in finding a feminist man that they feel they can unleash their submission. I know when I started started to explore things I met several anti-feminist men and my desire to submit shrunk rapidly. The man I’m with, by contrast, respects me totally and defines as a feminist – really encouraging me in it also – and this has brought out my submissive desires more than I could have imagined.

I would have to disagree with you “as long as it’s confined the bedroom” line though. I know what you probably meant by that but actually, non-sexual (in the literally having sex sense as it’s all arousing) submission is a huge part of many people’s experiences with it. What you refer to is quite a limited form of submission and, for many people, submission is at its best when it goes outside the bedroom too. This is not anti-feminist, any more than being tied up in bed is. It’s important to clarify that I think, particularly on an article like this. Lots and lots of submissives like to submit in ways outside of the bedroom or literal sex. I know I do. You can totally have autonomy and free will in doing so, it’s just about attitudes, what you do, and who you’re with.

Andy // Posted 2 February 2012 at 4:14 pm

Step 1: Join FetLife

Step 2: search the groups for “feminism”

Step 3: bask in the company of so many others who don’t think that feminism and BDSM are incompatible

Tabitha Long // Posted 2 February 2012 at 4:38 pm

Hear hear to Femiman, I agree that feminists DO have better sex.

I would argue that aside from a minority who are involved in BDSM for the ‘wrong’ reasons, the majority participate because it intellectualises sex, it takes it one step further. BDSM is a way to personalise your sexual experience and further explore your own beliefs about gender. Crikey, I can think of no better way to debunk stereotypes than to play with them – in and out of the bedroom.

As for the idea of ‘agency’ mentioned in other comments, give us some credit. Yes I am well aware that Patriarchal society has shaped who I am (that is why I am a FEMINIST) and it is my decision as an intelligent being to explore that any way I choose. Any one person’s idea of ‘choice’ is inevitably shaped by their environment – don’t insult me by suggesting I am not aware of this. It is exactly what makes BDSM practices interesting to me.

Blimey, if some people had their way, the only sex we’d be having would be blind, robotic f*cking with no emotion or intellect involved whatsoever. Count me out.

Jessamy // Posted 2 February 2012 at 6:20 pm

I’m a 30 year old bi woman who defines as submissive and masochistic. BDSM is the only sort of sex I enjoy, and while I certainly give how my sex life fits in with my feminism a good regular coat of thinking about, I’m largely comfortable with it. The key thing is keeping fantasy and reality separate.

Jessamy // Posted 2 February 2012 at 6:35 pm

Very well said Tabitha! Pretty much what I would have said if my brain weren’t on an off day due to cold and dark!

Ella Stevie // Posted 2 February 2012 at 7:15 pm

Having the same problem at the moment: trying to deal with sexual tendencies that seemingly (or that some would claim) don’t fit in with my ideals outside of the bedroom. But the more I think about it, the more I don’t see how being submissive sexually is incongruous with feminism. Feminism isn’t about being dominant, and should encourage people to make their own choices in the bedroom and explore their sexualities and desires. And I believe that it is my own choice to be submissive, not a result of patriarcal brainwashing, especially as I want to be submissive with women as well as men.

Fembot // Posted 2 February 2012 at 7:48 pm

Thank you Andy. I shall have a look!

Amanda McIndoe // Posted 2 February 2012 at 11:31 pm

Hi,

Wow, what a response. I’m very grateful for everyone’s advice. It’s a question I’ve been struggling with for a long time. I’m glad of the reassurances that I don’t have to fight with it any more. I am indeed with a feminist man and I would agree that it’s brought the sub out more because I feel safe and therefore able to just enjoy myself. It certainly does make a difference.And thanks everybody!

Amanda McIndoe // Posted 2 February 2012 at 11:41 pm

@Fembot, I do think it would be beneficial for me to talk to another BDSM feminist so yes I would like to chat sometime. By the way just to clarify, I was Kinky Feminist who asked this lol.

Femiman // Posted 3 February 2012 at 12:02 pm

So Fembot you would say that submission is OK as long as it’s done willingly in or outside of the bedroom. I can go along with that but I don’t really know much about submissive behaviour outside of literal sexual activity. We’re planning on taking it outside the bedroom when the weather gets warmer though.

Kink Unmasked // Posted 3 February 2012 at 12:17 pm

I’m a feminist and a submissive woman.

For me, submissive *is* my sexuality – for other feminists to suggest I deny myself any kind of sexual pleasure (because it’s hardly even sex for me if there’s no D/s content) to uphold the side would be pretty anti-feminist, essentially, wouldn’t it?

My conception of the D/s dynamic is that the sub partner and the dom partner are different but equal roles. You’re both (hopefully) getting off on what you’re doing, each role serves the other equally.

Any woman who gets judgmental on you for being a sexual submissive is flaunting her vanilla privilege.

My blog is at kinkunmasked.com and I’m on fetlife under jools_searching if you want to friend me!

Fembot // Posted 3 February 2012 at 1:15 pm

@ Kink unmasked

Completely agree re: equality. So many in the D/s world seem to think this is a contradiction but it works perfectly. Without it, I wouldn’t do it.

@ Femiman

Great! There’s a huge amount of sexual submissive behaviour outside literal sex – and it actually feeds into the literal sex amazingly. It provides a connection that can just be beyond powerful. Have a little investigation online if you like…your girlfriend may love it. Just the odd bit of play outside actual sex can be amazing. And yes – strong, autonomous and feminist ;) But if not, just enjoy what you do.

anywavewilldo // Posted 5 February 2012 at 2:45 pm

Vanilla privilege – that’s a term for real? I think that’s a very counterproductive way of looking at things, and an insult to anti-oppressive liberation movements. Not everything that is marginalised is desirable or about freedom.

I’m writing from an anarcha/rad feminist perspective: If I believe in no gods, no slaves, no masters for all human society then why would I make an exception for the erotic? I don’t think having orgasms while ‘playing’ with power is a good way to dissolve kyriarchy because orgasm is a fairly good motivator to keep repeating the same behaviour.

The kink/ vanilla dichotomy is fairly stupid as power relations exist in all sexual interactions. I try and have sex that doesn’t make power differences more – this doesn’t make it vanilla.

If I object to women thinking it’s cool to play at Nazis, or plantations, or rape then I’m not being vanilla privileged I’m calling out racism and sexism like I would in any other setting..

I don’t think D/ s sex is feminist – but getting into purity politics about who is a good feminist is fairly pointless on an individual level – yes the white supremacist, capitalist, hetpatriarchy is in everything we do: but we do choose, we do name better and worse; right and wrong – or we wouldn’t be feminists.

If you’re gonna do kink then do free range kink – but don’t think this is going to bring down ‘the system’ and perhaps consider the ways in which it might be holding it up.

Fembot // Posted 5 February 2012 at 8:19 pm

Can a private relationship between two psychologically healthy individuals (in this context, feminist) actually uphold patriarchy? I’m not convinced. Can relationships that are based on taking advantage of unhealthy thoughts or esteem or a belief that one party is unequal? I would say so. But that’s the same for vanilla relationships as much as D/s ones.

Tabitha Long // Posted 5 February 2012 at 10:54 pm

@anywavewilldo – Blimey, I may not agree with you entirely, but your post sure does make me want to sit down and talk through these ideas with a whiskey in hand (or other beverage of choice!)

I do think d/s play is a way to ‘explore the ropes that bind us’, as it were, and a natural part of exploring our environment. That said, couldn’t agree more with your comment about orgasm being a dangerous tool for encouraging specific behaviour. As with every part of life, sex shouldn’t be devoid of ethical consideration.

anywavewilldo // Posted 6 February 2012 at 11:56 am

@fembot – nothing is private in that it is outside of patriarchy [or other parts of kyriarchy] – we are inside it and it is inside us – we are also partly free and our choices and behaviour matter inside any room and whoever is present. Do you really think you can close a door on the world and fuck in isolation?

safe, sane and entusiastic consent is possible to many things that do not liberate women in general: from hiring a nanny while her kids are brought up by a relative ‘back home’; to cosmetic surgery that errodes another woman’s body confidence and class-marked access to a certain sort or appearance; to heterosexual D O->/s 0+ sex with an-oh-so-feminist man

@Tabitha Long – I think the kink talk about playing with power to unmask it is largely empty rhetoric (though maybe not entirely) – go have a look at the reception Kitty Stryker is getting for challenging her own kink community about consent for example: folk saying safe words are only for the weak and why would a dom ‘allow’ a sub to ‘choose’ when to stop… blah blah blah. There are certainly other ways to do it; political activism, art, CR groups, drama, clowning, martial arts

everyone: is feminism norming to a place where the worst thing we can do is ‘upset’ someone, or call out actions? to mix my metaphors: you can’t upset an applecart without breaking some eggs

anywavewilldo // Posted 6 February 2012 at 12:15 pm

ps – folk might want to take a look at Kitty Stryker’s blog and her work on power and consent – including the link pasted to a blog carnival of personal stories:

please note I’m flagging up as not safe for work, p0rn, abuse/rape and BDSM inc. bondage photos on lower posts if you wish to avoid

http://purrversatility.blogspot.com/2012/02/safeward-blog-carnival-2-part-2-trigger.html

Alice // Posted 26 February 2012 at 9:46 pm

I don’t know when I started liking BDSM but I remember being strangely attracted to the idea of being tied up when I was as young as 9 or 10. To me, it’s a part of my sexuality and who I am, just like being bisexual – something predetermined that I have no control over. I don’t know why I like it either, and don’t appreciate suggestions that I have some sort of messed-up secret desire to see women degraded against their will or that I’m a victim of abuse. I feel like I’m often judged for my sexual interests and labelled as a walking contradiction, but enjoying consensual BDSM play with safe words has nothing to do with my outlook on feminism. Being submissive is not a female-only desire and being tied down doesn’t make a person any less of a feminist. It can even be incredibly empowering, because with the use of a safe word the submissive is in control of the boundaries. Yes, there is abuse within the BDSM scene, just as there is abuse within the vanilla sex scene, and I think bloggers like Kitty Stryker do a great job of highlighting the non-consensual abuse that some women are subjected to. But through discussion, assertiveness and mutual respect, BDSM can be fun and enjoyable for both parties.

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