Sex & Relationships

Women Who Like to Be Dominated in Bed: Talking to BDSM Submissives

Submissive kinky women are far from the shrinking violets that BDSM's critics have characterized them as being. Often they're women who know exactly what they want.

BDSM has come a long way in the last 20 years. A subculture that was once very underground has been infiltrating mainstream American pop culture in a major way since the early 1990s; pop stars like Christina Aguilera, Nine Inch Nails, Madonna and Joan Jett have employed BDSM imagery, and kinky references have popped up in mainstream television programs ranging from “Frasier” to “The Young and the Restless.”

Most college-age adults of the 1960s and '70s had no idea what a dominatrix was; now, it’s hard to find a college student who doesn’t know what a dominatrix is. But as ubiquitous as BDSM has become, there is one area of BDSM that continues to be widely misunderstood: female submission. From the anti-porn school of radical feminism exemplified by Catherine MacKinnon and the late Andrea Dworkin to Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Phyllis Schlafly on the religious right, BDSM’s opponents have often denounced female submission as misogyny taken to the extreme. Even people who are relatively BDSM-friendly may have some wrong ideas about women who volunteer to be tied up and spanked.

But the reality is that submissive kinky women are far from the shrinking violets that BDSM’s critics have characterized them as being, and in many cases, they are women who know exactly what they want in a relationship.

Outside of the BDSM scene, there are many misconceptions about submissive women. Non-kinky individuals might assume that submissive women are passive, indecisive or weak individuals who lack ambition—in other words, the anti-feminists. But spend some time around the BDSM community, and one encounters plenty of submissive women who describe themselves as card-carrying feminists. A female submissive might be a corporate lawyer or an emergency room physician, or she might be signing a major book deal. The fact that she is voluntarily submissive in the dungeon doesn’t mean that she is submissive outside of the dungeon.

One card-carrying feminist who is deeply involved in the BDSM community is New York City-based Susan Wright, founder/president of a sexual rights organization called the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF). Wright, who founded NCSF in 1997, is also a widely published science fiction author and a long-time member of the National Organization for Women (NOW). It was Wright who successfully petitioned NOW to drop its anti-BDSM position—and thanks to Wright, NOW’s official position against BDSM became a thing of the past.

“The common misconceptions about submissive women are that what they are doing is not consensual, that they have been coerced, or that they are doing something that they really don’t want to do,” Wright explained. “That’s a misconception because submissive women know exactly what kinds of partners they want and what they want to do and how they want to play. Submissive women have a fantasy. I think that everybody who is into BDSM has some type of fantasy that they want to fulfill, and that includes submissive women.”

Wright continued: “Being submissive is very compatible with feminism because it is choosing your own form of sexual expression. In the end, sexuality is empowering—and you can empower people in all the diverse ways that they enjoy sexuality. Power exchanges are one of those ways. That’s certainly why I did the SM policy project for the National Organization for Women. I’ve been a NOW member since I was 16, and when I found out that NOW had an anti-sadomasochism stance, I couldn’t understand why. I didn’t believe that feminism and BDSM were at all incompatible.”

Another self-described feminist who is quite active in the BDSM community is California-based Mollena Williams, who has written and lectured about female submission extensively. Williams stressed that there is absolutely no contradiction between the fact that she is openly submissive and the fact that she describes herself as a feminist. She emphasized that being submissive in a BDSM relationship doesn’t mean a woman is going to be submissive in all areas of her life.

“The fact is that in day-to-day life, you can’t walk around being submissive to everyone,” Williams asserted. “You have to make decisions. You can’t be submissive to the person in front of you on the freeway who is driving at 40 miles an hour; you have to make a decision and go around them. So the idea that your submission bleeds into the rest of your life in a way that cripples you is patently untrue. People outside of kink assume that that’s how submissive women live our lives, but it isn’t.”

Williams said that although BDSM is much more visible in mainstream pop culture than it was 30 or 40 years ago, female submission can still be a controversial subject—which is why, she said, a soap opera or sitcom that depicts BDSM in a lighthearted way is more likely to depict a woman as dominant rather than submissive. “Some people have a reaction to BDSM based on the gender involved,” Williams noted. “Seeing a submissive man doesn’t bother them, but seeing a submissive woman does. The idea of a dominatrix is kind of hot and sexy to them, but seeing a submissive female makes them uncomfortable. If you see a man crawling across the floor to a woman and licking her high-heel boots, it’s like, ‘Ooo, that’s a bit naughty.’ But if you get a movie like 9½ Weeks where the female is the submissive, people have a harder time digesting that.”

Because female submission is still widely misunderstood, Williams said, one of her goals has been to help women realize that if they have submission fantasies, there is nothing wrong with that.

Rachel Kramer Bussel has also been doing her part to promote understanding of female submission. Bussel, a widely published sex writer and editor of two books on the subject of female submission has had much to say about her own experiences as a submissive. She said that being submissive is actually a feminist act because a submissive woman and her dominant partners spend a lot of time discussing what does and doesn’t turn her on. Bussel said a dominant/submissive relationship may have more of a feminist component than a vanilla relationship because the woman’s likes and dislikes are discussed in such great detail.

“There’s no reason why a woman’s feminist thoughts or credentials or beliefs should be somehow demoted because she’s sexually submissive,” Bussel said. “If you are a feminist and you tap into that as a submissive, it can be empowering—maybe not in a political way, but in a personal way. Being submissive can be less about kink and more about finding what turns you on—and that discovery process can be empowering. There’s a stereotype that being in a dominant/submissive relationship means that the submissive isn’t figuring out what she wants, but I think that negotiating the terms of the relationship and mutually figuring out what both of you want can be an empowering experience. The process of figuring out what your boundaries are—whether it’s by trial and error or fantasies—can be a confidence-building experience. It’s the opposite of passive, I would say.”

Indeed, a considerable amount of negotiation inevitably occurs in BDSM relationships. The very fact that a submissive is agreeing to be restrained gives the top a considerable amount of responsibility; thus, dominant males who act responsibly go to great lengths to ascertain what a submissive woman does or doesn’t enjoy. A submissive woman, for example, might tell her dom that her fantasies involve being bound, gagged and spanked but not whipped—in which case, she won’t be whipped. A submissive woman might want a lot of bondage but no pain; or, on the other hand, whipping might be a big part of her fantasies. Different submissive women have different fantasies, and Bussel said that dominant men who spend a lot of time hearing intricate, detailed descriptions of a woman’s needs and desires may become better listeners than vanilla men.

“In kinky relationships,” Bussel explained, “there is always going to be some degree of negotiation. There is always going to be some degree of trying to figure out what the other person likes and doesn’t like—and I think that doesn’t always happen in non-kinky relationships. That process of negotiating is healthy for both parties in a relationship, but there isn’t always enough negotiating in non-kinky relationships. I can definitely say that the men that I’ve submitted to are very respectful and are men I would consider feminists. The dominant men I’ve been submissive with have been very respectful of my career and very supportive of me; they’re good guys, for lack of a better word.”

Bussel added: “It’s a huge mistake to assume that submissive women are weak or that men who want to dominate women in the bedroom are sexist pigs. For scenes to work, you have to let go, to some extent, of that organized, take-charge persona. You have to let go of that take-charge aspect of your personality in order for the submissive fantasy to work. But that doesn’t mean that women who are submissive in a relationship or submissive in a fantasy are submissive in all aspects of our lives. There’s a big difference between structural sexism and negotiating power with someone you trust in the bedroom. Giving up power, within boundaries, for X amount of time is not societal sexism. I think that one thing some non-kinky people miss is that a submissive woman isn’t giving up power in her daily life.”

Many BDSM-related articles have tried to shed some light on what submissive males are like both inside and outside of the dungeon—and those men have often been characterized as busy, overworked white-collar professionals who use submission as a way to unwind and escape. When the accountant or IT professional is hogtied, ballgagged and locked in a cage (either by a professional dominatrix or his dominant girlfriend or boyfriend), he is temporarily liberated from all the decision-making and responsibility he faces in his professional life. And similarly, there are submissive women who have so much responsibility working as doctors or attorneys that they need a place in their lives where they can let someone else take charge for once. But Wright said that while some submissive females do fit the profile of the overworked, stressed-out MBA, others could be anything.

“You can find all kinds of women who are submissive,” Wright noted. “You can find the entrepreneurial corporate leaders, and you can find women who want to be stay-at-home housewives. There are so many different kinds of women choosing to be submissive just as there are so many different kinds of women who are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. And this is a choice that we’re making. It isn’t a consequence of male domination in the past or a consequence of a patriarchal society.”

BDSM has a sizable vocabulary, and three of the most widely used BDSM terms are “top,” “bottom” and “switch.” Male and female dominants are known as “tops,” while male and female submissives (or “subs” for short) are called “bottoms.” And a “switch” is a man or woman who can be either a top or a bottom. There are BDSM women who only want to be dominant or only want to be submissive, but there are also female switches who enjoy being the whip-cracking dominatrix as much as they enjoy being the one getting whipped.

“At least one-third of the people in BDSM switch,” Wright observed. “There are a lot of people out there who want to be a top one night and want to be a bottom another night. Switches might want to be in control some nights but other nights, being submissive is more comforting for them.”

Switching, in fact, even found its way to what is widely regarded as the ultimate tale of female submission: The Story of O (L’Histoire d’O), an erotic novel by the late French author Anne Desclos, a.k.a. Pauline Réage or Dominique Aury, and first published in 1954. Twenty-one years later in 1975, French director Just Jaeckin made a film adaptation starring Corinne Clery as the submissive O and Udo Kier as her dominant lover René. Voluntarily obeying René’s commands, O agrees to be sexually submissive to other men—first to the men at a kinky chateau called Roissy, then to René’s stepbrother Sir Stephen (played by the late Anthony Steel). O ends up falling in love with the very dominant Sir Stephen, who isn't shy about chaining her up and whipping her. But at the very end of the film, O appears to be switching—and the viewer is led to believe that O is finding her inner dominatrix and getting ready to put Sir Stephen on the receiving end of the whip.

It’s safe to say that some of the world’s least homophobic straight men can be found in the BDSM community, where leathermen (kinky gay men known for their leather attire) have long been iconic figures. The Leather Man, a West Village BDSM shop that has been open in New York City since 1965, serves a predominantly gay clientele but has also had its share of loyal heterosexual customers over the years. Leathermen also have a lot of kinky lesbian admirers. That said, BDSM isn’t without lesbian critics—and Williams said while female submission can be controversial among heterosexuals, it can be even more controversial in the lesbian community.

“I can say that in the gay women’s community, submission is an even more difficult choice because you have very radical feminism and you have very big riffs,” Williams explained. “Leathersex and BDSM cause big riffs in the gay women’s community or queer women’s community because you have very radical feminists who say, ‘Not only are you betraying your feminism, but you are also mimicking a male-dominated society. You are mimicking male patterns of abuse.’ But that type of thinking really frustrates me. My response is, ‘Feminism is giving me the right to choose what is right for me, not giving you the right to choose what you think is right for me.’”

And in Williams’ view, most vanilla couples (both gay and straight) have some type of dominant/submissive element to their relationship regardless of what they know or don’t know about BDSM. “OK, let’s say that I walk a couple into a dungeon,” Williams said. “Here’s the whip, here’s the spanking bench. Who would be running the scene? Who would be the top? And 99 percent of the time, they know who has the upper hand in their relationship. Most relationships are like that. They might say, ‘Oh, we don’t do power in that way,’ but it’s still the same result. There is still a top and a bottom in that relationship even if they don’t consider themselves kinky. They haven’t necessarily negotiated that level of awareness, but they got to it somehow in their relationship. I think we have a shortcut in BDSM in that we’re like, ‘OK, that’s what you want. How can we work that out?’”

Williams added that in everyday life outside the dungeon, even the most dominant dungeonmaster has his submissive moments; he submits to a traffic light that has turned red, or he submits to a line at the grocery store. “I think that cognitively, we’re all kind of switches anyway,” Williams observed. “There are times in your life when you’re going to be submissive; there are times in your life when you’re doing to be dominant.”

And as Sir Stephen learned, even O eventually found her inner dominatrix.