14 May 2012

Thoughts on feminism and the politics of kink

There was a very interesting post on Feministing where Natalie Zina Walschots responded to a previous post which, while defending women's right to be kinky and submissive in the bedroom, still appears to support the idea that women only find submission erotic because we've been socially conditioned to do so. Walschots refutes this, saying "In these cases, the statement that submission is an extension of socialization is inadequate, and is similar to saying that someone becomes gay or straight because of the way they are socialized. There is so much more to it than that for someone who profoundly identifies as submissive."

It's a seductive argument. It's one I've heard before, and it's one that makes me feel better about the feminist guilt I sometimes feel for enjoying submission in the bedroom. However, unfortunately I'm not sure the comparison always holds up. Most of us (who aren't under the power of religious propaganda or other types of homophobia) accept that your sexual identity - in terms of who you're attracted to, at least - is part of your nature, and not something society can create for you. Most of us accept that society can't and doesn't 'make' anyone gay or straight. When it comes to kink, however, if your preference bears any resemblance to oppressive social structures - i.e. the demand for male dominance and female submission - you're accused of having been 'socialised' into finding that attractive.

I agree that it's massively offensive, hateful and simply untrue to posit that there is a 'cure' for gayness, or that any gay person should seek to alter their sexuality. But there are feminists who would say that that's exactly what I should be doing about my kinky side. Feminists arguing against prostitution and porn in books such as Not For Sale accuse any woman who has a sexual fantasy involving violence of being complicit in violence against other women. In this book it actually says, with a deeply moralistic tone, "too bad for the women and girls whose pain, death and humiliation are the impetus for orgasm... the sex radical wants her porn and her orgasm is more important than anything or anyone else". Nice. So my orgasms and the fantasies that contribute to them are now subject to the investigations of the feminist sex police?

There are scathing put-downs to this notion in the words of feminist and S&M-defender Gayle Rubin who says "I find the idea that I've been brainwashed infuriating and ludicrous." She goes on to note that those who condemn other's sexual tastes are operating under the mistaken idea "that there is one best way to do sex." Yup - anyone who glances through Cosmo, Company or Glamour magazine will definitely be inundated with articles supporting the view there is a 'right way' to have sex, that there is a universal concept of 'good sex' and if you're not adhering to it, you're at best, unfulfilled, and at worst, shirking some duty to your true self. And as Rubin notes, the result of this kind of thinking - whether it comes from the editors of a woman's magazine, or feminists, is the implication "that any woman who might actually enjoy [BDSM practices] must have something wrong with her."

This is exactly where I sometimes feel alienated from the sisterhood, to the point where I once left a feminist conference early because I did not want to listen to a presentation from anti-porn feminists. I knew it was only going to make me feel at odds with other feminists, complicit in the oppression of other women for having looked at and enjoyed BDSM porn, and worst of all, somehow 'sick' or 'warped'. If feminism really is a 'discussion, not a rulebook' as the fabulous young feminist Tavi Gevinson puts it, then why does it feel like so many feminists have set the rulebook on what Acceptable, Pro-Feminist sex should look like?

That's why it bothers me when, even in a piece purportedly supporting the right for women to be submissive, the author still says “I am in no way surprised that many women, who have been socialized in a culture in which male sexuality is linked to domination and in which women are taught their sexual power comes from being wanted, have fantasies of submission.” It appears that while reluctant to outright condemn female submissives, the author believes the person participating in such a fantasy still has to accept that their desires are a mere result of anti-woman conditioning. How the hell is a feminist supposed to reconcile those two notions and still have a satisyfing, guilt-free sex life?

Fortunately, other commenters are already on the case:

One says: "This line is problematic because it suggests that submissive desires and identity are a result of internalized patriarchy. I think a lot of those who identify as submissive would vigorously disagree, and actually find this assertion (which I admit is not uncommon) extremely patronizing."

Another points out that "women who are “professional” or for various reasons feel empowered and are feminists might be more interested/able/comfortable engaging in submission play because ... their status in the rest of their lives is not in question".

And my own PS would be -  my reasons for liking submission is not because I derive pleasure from being 'wanted'. I can feel 'wanted' in many ways, including entirely non-sexual ones, and that's all very nice, but it's certainly not essential to my self-esteem. I do not derive pleasure from being a 'passive object' - because as anyone involved in BDSM will tell you, no one in the community, submissive or dominant or switch, is truly passive - we've all made considered choices to participate in very specific scenarios. I simply like playing the sub because it makes me HORNY.

Also I think it's worth remembering that women don't generally 'become' submissives, or participate in the BDSM community, unless they already have a strong sexual leaning that way. It may certainly be easier to admit to it because of a society that approves female submission, but that's not the same as saying a sexist society causes us to find submission erotic. It's also worth noting that society's love of male dominance also makes it harder for male submissives to come out as wanting to be dominated, so they may hide their preferences in the shadows. Hence Katie Roiphe and everyone else's assumption that the world is being overrun by female submissives. Also, what so many people fail to recognise about BDSM, is that while the acts involved in it might look a lot like what society tells us is 'right', it actually rests on premises entirely at odds with a patriarchal society's demands for male dominance and female submission. If you're in a sexual scenario that demands your sexual submission without you having to consented to it or chosen it, that's not BDSM - that's just sexual abuse. BDSM puts the right to choose, the right to change your mind, the right to say no and the right to have your sexual tastes respected and met, front and center. Since when did patriarchy care about any of those things? Some might even say BDSM enshrines consent and safety far more effectively - especially for heterosexual women - than the sexual culture of the vanilla mainstream.

But there'll always be those who tell me I'm fooling myself. I remember a comment thread on a radical feminist website where one commentator stated that BDSM was attractive to some women because it was their only way of seeking some degree of safety away from the coercive, misogynistic culture of heterosexual vanilla relationships. This, in the commenters' eyes, didn't make kink any more respectable - it was simply the lesser of two evils. According to this way of thinking, a woman is participating in her own violation whatever she does - whether it's in a satin-sheeted bed surrounded by roses, soft music and candlelight, or on a hard floor surrounded by gags, cuffs and whips. In the latter scenario she might have the safety of a 'safe word' and 'ground rules' but according to the radfems, she's still just eroticising her own subordination. I feel that one can only think this if one believes all sex is inherently degrading to women, and unless you're a hardcore Andrea Dworkin fan, then like me, you probably don't agree with that.
Still, the questions remain: Can any of us ever step outside of the society that has shaped us long enough to examine what's really contributed to our tastes and preferences? And more importantly, should we have to? If, as a feminist, I baulk at how breast implants or posing for Page 3 are labelled 'empowering', do I also have a duty to question myself for finding submission a turn-on? I don't know. I do know that what makes me hot and what makes me orgasm feels far too instinctive, private and individual to be a sole result of what's on TV, the internet, magazines or music videos. I do know that the feeling of being 'naughty', going 'against the rules' and betraying norms is a great contributor to eroticism, hence the thrill of being a submissive female comes partly from the feeling of transgression. I know that as a person who spends a great deal of her life being fiercely in control, unwilling to delegate, and mistrustful of others, handing over power in the bedroom is cathartic, exhilarating and freeing. It's also simply a bloody great turn-on.

For today, I'll leave the last word to Gayle Rubin.
"People who have different sexual preferences are not sick, stupid, warped, brainwashed, under duress, dupes of the patriarchy ... The habit of explaining away sexual variation by putting it down needs to be broken."

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