The Fantasy of Acceptable 'Non-Consent': Why the Female Sexual Submissive Scares Us (and Why She Shouldn't)
The following excerpt is from the bookYes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape,edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) January 2009.
Because I'm a feminist who enjoys domination, bondage and pain in the bedroom, it should be pretty obvious why I often remain mute and, well, pretty closeted about my sexuality. While it's easy for me to write an impassioned diatribe on the vital importance of "conventional" women's pleasure, or to talk publicly and explicitly about sexual desire in general, I often shy away from conversations about my personal sexual choices. Despite the fact that I've been on a long, intentional path to finally feel empowered by, and open about, my decision to be a sexual submissive, the reception I receive regarding this decision is not always all that warm.
BDSM (for my purposes, bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and the concept of female submission makes feminists really uncomfortable. I can certainly understand why, but I also believe that safe, sane and consensual BDSM exists as a polar opposite of a reality in which women constantly face the threat of sexual violence.
As someone who works in the feminist media and who advocates against violence against women and for rape survivors' rights, I never really felt I was allowed to participate in the fantasy of my own violation. There is a guilt and shame in having the luxury to decide to act on this desire -- to consent to this kind of "nonconsent." It seems to suggest you haven't known true sexual violence, cannot truly understand how traumatic it can be, if you're willing to incorporate a fictional version of it into your "play." But this simply isn't true: A 2007 study conducted in Australia revealed that rates of sexual abuse and coercion were similar between BDSM practitioners and other Australians. The study concluded that BDSM is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority, not defined by a pathological symptom of past abuse.
But when you throw a little rape, bondage or humiliation fantasy into the mix, a whole set of ideological problems arises. The idea of a woman consenting to be violated via play not only is difficult terrain to negotiate politically, but also is rarely discussed beyond BDSM practitioners themselves. Sexually submissive feminists already have a hard enough time finding a voice in the discourse, and their desire to be demeaned is often left out of the conversation. Because of this, the opportunity to articulate the political ramifications of rape fantasy happens rarely, if at all.
You can blame this silence on the fact that BDSM is generally poorly -- often cartoonishly -- represented. Cinematic depictions are generally hastily drawn caricatures, pushing participants onto the fringes and increasing the stigma that surrounds their personal and professional choices. While mainstream film and television occasionally offer up an empowered, vaguely fleshed-out and somewhat sympathetic professional female dom (think Lady Heather from "CSI"), those women who are sexually submissive by choice seem to be invisible. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that they are left out of the picture because, quite simply, they scare us. Feminist pornographic depictions of women being dominated for pleasure are often those involving other women -- that's a safe explicit image, because the idea of a male inflicting pain on a consenting woman is just too hard for many people to stomach. For many viewers it hits too close to home -- the idea of a female submissive's consensual exchange of her authority to make decisions (temporarily or long-term) for a dominant's agreement to make decisions for her just doesn't sit well with the feminist community.
It's important to point out that, however you attempt to excuse it, this inability to accept BDSM into the feminist dialogue is really just a form of kinkophobia, a widely accepted prejudice against the practice of power-exchange sex. Patrick Califia, writer and advocate of BDSM pornography and practice, wisely states that "internalized kinkophobia is the unique sense of shame that many, if not most, sadomasochists feel about their participation in a deviant society." This hatred of self can be particularly strong among feminist submissives, when an entire community that they identify with either dismisses their desires or pegs them as unwitting victims.
It's taken me many years of unlearning mainstream power dynamics to understand and accept my own desire for fictional, fetishized ones. Despite this deliberate journey of self-discovery and the accompanying (and perhaps contradictory) feelings of being in total control, it's pretty evident that the feminist movement at large is not really ready to admit that women who like to be hit, choked, tied up and humiliated are empowered. Personally, the more I submitted sexually, the more I was able to be autonomous in my external life, the more I was able to achieve equality in my sexual and romantic partnerships, and the more genuine I felt as a human being. Regardless, I always felt that by claiming submissive status I was being highlighted as part of a social dynamic that sought to violate all women. Sadly, claims of sexual emancipation do not translate into acceptance for submissives -- the best a submissive can hope for is to be labeled and condescended to as a damaged victim choosing submission as a way of healing from or processing past trauma and abuse.
Whether or not it's difficult to accept that the desire to be demeaned is not a product of a society that seeks to objectify women, I would argue that, regardless of appearance, by its very nature BDSM is constantly about consent. Of course, its language and rules differ significantly from vanilla sexual scenes, but the very existence of a safe word is the ultimate in preventing violation -- it suggests that at any moment, regardless of expectations or interpretations on the part of either party, the act can and will end. Ignoring the safe word is a clear act of violation that is not up for any debate. Because of this, BDSM sex, even with all its violent connotations, can be much "safer" than non-safe-word sex. While not very romantic in the traditional sense, the rules are clear -- at any moment a woman (or man) can say no, regardless of the script she (or he) is using.
The safe, sane, and consensual BDSM landscape is made up of stringent rules and safe practices designed to protect the feelings of everyone involved and to ensure constant, enthusiastic consent. The culture could not exist if this were not the case; a submissive participates in power exchange because a safe psychological space is offered up to do so. That space creates an opportunity for a display of endurance, a relief from responsibility, and feelings of affection and security. Before any "scene" begins, the rules are made clear and the limitations agreed upon.
Finding a partner or dom to play with is the ultimate achievement in trust, and giving someone the power to hurt you for pleasure is both liberating and powerful. The more I embrace submissive sexuality, the more I come to learn that, despite all appearances to the contrary, consensual, respectful SM relationships generally dismantle the very tropes that rape culture is founded on.
A dom/sub dynamic doesn't appear to promote equality, but for most serious practitioners, the trust and respect that exist in power exchange actually transcend a mainstream "woman as object" or rape mentality. For BDSM to exist safely, it has to be founded on a constant proclamation of enthusiastic consent, which mainstream sexuality has systematically dismantled.
This, of course, doesn't mean that BDSM culture is without blame or responsibility. Despite the obvious fact that domination and submission (and everything that comes with them) are in the realm of elaborate fantasy, it is interesting to examine how those lifestyle choices and depictions (both mainstream and countercultural) influence an overall rape culture that seeks to demean and demoralize woman. While consensual, informed BDSM is contrary to rape culture, more mainstream (or nonfetish) pornography that even vaguely simulates rape (of the "take it, bitch" and "you know you like it" variety) is quite the opposite. When those desires specific to BDSM are appropriated, watered down and corrupted, the complex rules that the counterculture is founded on are completely disposed of.
Herein lies the problem -- with the advent and proliferation of Internet pornography, the fantasy of rape, torture and bondage becomes an issue of access. No longer reserved for an informed, invested viewer who carefully sought it out after a trip to a fetish bookstore, BDSM is represented in every porn portal on the Internet. The average computer user can have instant access to a full catalog of BDSM practices, ranging from light, soft-core spanking to hard-core torture, in a matter of seconds. This kind of constant, unrestrained availability trains viewers who don't have a BDSM cultural awareness, investment or education to believe that what women want is to be coerced and, in some cases, forced into acts they don't consent to. Over the years, various interpretations of the genre have made it into straight porn, without any suggestion of artifice -- women on leashes, in handcuffs, gagged, tied up and told to "like it" are all commonplace imagery in contemporary pornography.
While the serious BDSM practitioner thrives on that artifice, the average young, male, heterosexual porn audience member begins to believe that forcing women into sex acts is the norm -- the imagery's constant, instant availability makes rape and sex one and the same for the mainstream viewer. Couple that private home viewing to get off with the proliferation of graphic crime shows on prime-time television and torture porn masquerading as "psychological thrillers" in theaters, and our cultural imagery screams that "women as sexual victims" is an acceptable reality. For someone who is raised, and reaches sexual maturity, in this environment, the idea of forcing a woman into a sex act seems, although logically "wrong," completely commonplace and possibly quite sexy.
The appropriation of BDSM imagery is problematic because while community members understand that it is important to be sensitive to the needs, boundaries and rules of players in order for a scene to function fairly and enjoyably, mainstream porn is primarily about getting off as quickly as possible. Add to that a disgraceful lack of sexual education (both in safety and in pleasure) across the country and a general belief perpetuated by the media that women are sex objects to be consumed, and you have a rape culture that started by borrowing from BDSM's images without reading its rules.
This reality raises some interesting questions for safe, sane and consensual BDSM practitioners. If, as someone who identifies as a sexual submissive, you like to fantasize about being raped, are you now complicit in this pervasive rape culture? Are you not only complicit, but also key in perpetuating the acceptability of violence, regardless of how private and personal your desire is? From another perspective -- are you actually a victim? Is your fantasy merely a product of a culture that coerces you into believing that kind of violence is acceptable or even desirable?
Alternatively, is your desire (however bastardized and appropriated) still your own -- your fantasy of "nonconsent" yours to choose and act out in a consenting environment? A personal choice when feminist ideology emphasizes choice above all else?
And finally, and perhaps most important, with all of its limitations, safe words, time limits and explicitly negotiated understandings of what is allowed -- is the consensual SM relationship actually the ultimate in trust and collaborative "performance," its rules and artifice the very antithesis of rape?
Paradoxically, sexual submission and rape fantasy can only be acceptable in a culture that doesn't condone them. On a simplistic level, a fetish is only a fetish when it falls outside the realm of the real, and, as I mentioned, the reason why some feminists fear or loathe the BDSM scene is that it is all too familiar. When a woman is subjected to (or enjoying, depending on who is viewing and participating) torture, humiliation and pain, many feminists see the 6 o'clock news, not a pleasurable fantasy, regardless of context. Even someone who identifies as a sexual submissive, someone like me, can understand why it's difficult to view these scenes objectively. Many fantasies are taboo for precisely that reason -- it's close to impossible to step beyond the notion that a man interested in domination is akin to a rapist, or that if a woman submits she is a helpless victim of rape culture. But consenting BDSM practitioners would argue that their community at large responsibly enacts desires without harm, celebrating female desire and (as is so fundamental in dismantling rape culture) making (her) pleasure central.
As a community, feminists need to truly examine whether or not it's condescending to say to a woman who chooses the fantasy of rape that she is a victim of a culture that seeks to demean, humiliate and violate women, whether or not it's acceptable to accuse her of being misguided, misinformed or even mentally ill.
The reality is that when two people consent to fabricate a scene of nonconsent in the privacy of their own erotic lives, they are not consenting to perpetuate the violation of women everywhere. The true problem lies in mainstream pornography's appropriation of fetish tropes -- while BDSM practitioners are generally serious about and invested in the ideological beliefs behind their lifestyle choices, the average mainstream porn user doesn't usually take the time to understand the finer points of dominance and submission (or consent and safety) before he casually witnesses a violation scene in a mainstream pornographic film or image.
While early black-and-white fantasy films of Bettie Page being kidnapped and tied up by a group of insatiable femmes are generally viewed as light, harmless, erotic fun, that kind of imagery, when injected into mainstream pornography (and even Hollywood), can have epic cultural ramifications. Sadly, gratuitous depictions of violence against women on the big screen have effectively taken the taboo-play element out of fetish imagery. Bombarded with an onslaught of violent images in which a woman is the victim, viewers fail to see where fantasy and fetish end and reality begins.
BDSM pornography is so excruciatingly aware of its own ability to perpetuate the idea that women yearn to be violated that it actually fights against that myth. At the end of almost every authentic BDSM photo set, you'll see a single appended photo of the participants, smiling and happy, assuring us that what we've seen is theater acted out by consenting adults, proving that fetish porn often exists as a careful, aware construct that constantly references itself as such.
The reality is that the activities and pornographic imagery of BDSM culture are problematic only because we have reached a point where a woman's desire is completely demeaned and dismissed. If women's pleasure were paramount, this argument (and the feminist fear of sexual submission) wouldn't exist. When women are consistently depicted as victims of both violence and culture, it's difficult to see any other possibilities. Feminists have a responsibility not only to fight and speak out against the mainstream appropriation of BDSM, but also to support BDSM practitioners who endorse safe, sane and consensual practice.
When the mainstream appropriation of BDSM models is successfully critiqued, dismantled and corrected, a woman can then feel safe to desire to be demeaned, bound, gagged and "forced" into sex by her lover. In turn, feminists would feel safe accepting that desire, because it would be clear consensual submission. Because "she was asking for it" would finally be true.
If you want to read more about Media Matters, try:
- "Offensive Feminism: The Conservative Gender Norms That Perpetuate Rape Culture, and How Feminists Can Fight Back," by Jill Filipovic
- "An Old Enemy in a New Outfit: How Date Rape Became Gray Rape and Why It Matters," by Lisa Jervis
- "Purely Rape: The Myth of Sexual Purity and How It Reinforces Rape Culture," by Jessica Valenti
If you want to read more about Much Taboo About Nothing, try:
- "A Love Letter from an Anti-Rape Activist to Her Feminist Sex-Toy Store," by Lee Jacobs Riggs
- "The Process-Oriented Virgin," by Hanne Blank
- "Real Sex Education," by Cara Kulwicki