Women, Sex and S&M: Mainstream Media Totally Wrong About Female Desire -- Again
April 16, 2012
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Spanking is en vogue. Or at least it’s popular to write about women who like to bend over. Jumping on the S&M bandwagon, writer Katie Roiphe’s cloying Newsweekcover story links wage-earning women with masochistic desire.
Roiphe reports that women comprise “almost 60 percent of college students…they are close to surpassing men as breadwinners, with four in 10 working women now outearning their husbands [and] women are less dependent or subjugated than before.” Yet, according to Roiphe, the recent spate of SM-tinged releases such as Fifty Shades of Grey, HBO’s Girls, and David Cronenberg’s psychoanalytic bio-fiction A Dangerous Method are evidence of a connection between women’s increasing clout and a concomitant drive to get spanked. At a time when women are gaining cultural and economic power, why are they seeking to be sexually dominated? Roiphe wonders.
The real question ought to be: In a tech-driven age, when accurate information is so easy to get, why is Roiphe so quick to gloss over the facts?
Assumptions about “our flailing men” is now a staple media theme. But the numbers show that rates of college enrollment are higher for both men and women, the most seriously underrepresented on campuses are black and Hispanic young men, and among elite universities (Stanford, Harvard, Yale), enrollment figures skew male. Roiphe’s account of labor disparities are similarly incorrect. Women’s post-recession unemployment recovery is flat, women represent only 3.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, and the wage gap still hovers at around 20 percent.
Then there’s the Republican War on Women, with its punitive, regressive reproductive laws that are sweeping state legislatures across the nation. There is nothing about these laws dialing back access to abortion or birth control that suggest women’s rights are on terra firma. The real place women are getting spanked is in state legislatures across the country. We are, in fact, facing a backlash era of the most serious sort.
Roiphe’s premises are flawed and so are her loosely drawn conclusions. She manages to flatten out a slew of issues in one fell swoop. She gets feminism wrong, backlash wrong, history, female desire, and SM/fantasy wrong. At the same time, Roiphe confuses the concepts of cause and effect and she conflates pop culture stories with real-life events. Roiphe writes that feminists are “on the record as appalled at how many strong, successful, independent women are caught up in elaborate fantasies of submission… It is perhaps inconvenient for feminism that the erotic imagination does not submit to politics, or even changing demographics,” she says in Newsweek.
Not true, says author Shawna Kenney. It may be that power is uncomfortable for women who are newer to the playing field. "But," she comments, "my immediate thought is 'What about submissive men?'”
Kenney’s first book, I Was a Teenage Dominatrix (optioned by Vince Vaughn and in development with FX) chronicles her adventures whipping, spanking and taunting powerful Washington, DC men as she paid her way through college. Kenney quickly realized that there are a million reasons men (and women) want to submit sexually. It is unclear which rock Roiphe is living under since “a woman getting what she wants sexually is very feminist,” Kenney notes. “We all love to play armchair psychologists. But I can say that as a former professional dominatrix, my male clients were sexually submissive for lots of different reasons." And, contrary to what Roiphe suggests, women are, too.
“It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace,” Roiphe writes. More accurately, it is intriguing that works highlighting a female submissive trope are being marketed at just the same moment when backlash politics are ascendant in this country. There is no evidence that spanking is on the rise. What is increasing is media’s prurient attention to book sales and movie deals that feature female sexual submission.
Yet, it remains that Roiphe speaks loudly and carries a big pen. Her views tend to go long because they sync up with existing sexist tropes and limited, gender-biased views on sexuality. Gloria Feldt, author of the book No-Excuses, observes that “co-option is rampant on all sides of this equation. It is so damn hard to change a culture while you're living in it. The rewards of living within the patriarchal narrative are so high and the benefits of bucking it so low for most people.”
In other words, just because spanking is pop-culture trending is not sufficient proof that female sexual submission is trending in real life. What is for sure, though, is that SM-Lite-For-The-Ladies is being marketed hard just when backlash politics are flaming.
Shira Tarrant is an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach, and the author of several books, including Men and Feminism (Seal Press). She is currently writing The Sex Wars: Pole Dancing, Porn and Other Things That Freak People Out. Read more at ShiraTarrant.com.