Posted at 16:10 on 5 Nov 2011 by Pandora / Blake
I was very young when I first started practising kink. Young enough that I hadn't really started to understand the nuances of consent, autonomy and privilege, and I hadn't politically 'awakened' to the oppressive patterns that are propagated within our culture. I knew I wasn't 'normal', that I was attracted to men and women, had kinky fantasies and was spectacularly bad at monogamy - but beyond that I hadn't started thinking critically about gender, sexuality and relationships.
I got together with both my long term partners before I started calling myself a feminist. (My feminism, btw, is sex-positive queer and trans feminism: in a nutshell, aiming to radically redefine our understanding of gender in order to improve social conditions for people at all points on the gender spectrum, rejecting inequality based on gender or sexuality and promoting sexual freedom and acceptance.) I've changed a lot as I've educated myself about gender and culture, and my relationships have had to change with me.
So has my feminism affected my submission and my D/S relationships?
The 'approved' answer for a lot of people seems to be "no". No, it hasn't affected my submission: of course I can be a feminist and a female submissive. It's my choice, my agency, my desires: what's the problem?
I believe all these things to be true.
But since feminist theory became a structural part of my thinking and cultural analysis, it's impossible to deny that yes, of course it has had an effect on my sexuality.
Mostly, that effect has been good. Sex positive feminism teaches us to reject patriarchal shame culture: neither male nor female sexuality is immoral, and it's healthy and affirming for women to express and explore their sexualities without feeling shame or guilt. Feminism has taught me to be more articulate about my desires, to ask my partners for what I want in bed without feeling embarrassment or guilt. It's taught me to practice safer sex, to negotiate boundaries and expectations clearly with new partners, to talk frankly and openly about sex with my lovers. (And this is to some extent about our feminism; my partners and I have all, collectively, got better as this over the last few years.) Both feminism and kink prioritise consent, negotiation and communication in sexual practice; there's no contradiction there.
I fell into feminism late, at the age of 23. I dont think its much of a coincidence that all my negative sexual experiences occured before this date, and all the positive ones after. [...]
I had submissive desires, but I didnt express them because he was very normal and not very sexually motivated. I couldnt imagine him having sexual kinks. I wanted to enjoy sex, and I encouraged it taking place, but it felt more like a duty. Pants off, do the deed, fake an orgasm, and about our merry way.
What changed, later in my life, is that eventually something snapped, and with the help of feminism and a considerable degree of choosiness regarding sexual partners, I learned to communicate my sexual desires frankly and honestly. My current sexual partners, and those Ive had sex with on a more casual basis since discovering feminism, have been supportive of my submissiveness and made me feel safe in communicating those desires. Ive felt far more empowered as a practicing submissive, having fantasies about being ordered and even forced almost everytime Ive had partner sex, than I ever did in a more conventional sexual relationship.
Despite Ogi Ogas, Why Feminism and Submission Are Great Bedfellows
Feminism has also taught me to examine my sexuality, and identify areas where my desires might have been affected by patriarchal memes. It's enabled me to start to dismantle the fatphobic misogyny and transphobia I was taught by the culture I was raised in. At 19 I tended not to sleep with fat women, trans or genderqueer people (fat men were less of a problem for me - go figure). At 27, I've realised it's naive to think of that as "just personal taste" and have started to challenge received wisdom about what qualities are sexually desirable. As a result, I've had some fantastic sex (and indeed relationships) with beautiful people I would otherwise not have considered as potential lovers.
Feminism and gender theory have allowed me to look at male submission with new eyes, to challenge the gender inequality in kinky porn. They have taught me to love looking at men as much as women, and to identify with my male submissive brothers. They've inspired me to get over my hangups about subbing to women, which I had few models for as I grew up (to the extent that I wasn't sure if I ever would), and they've helped me find the confidence to explore my switch side.
Feminism has also taught me to stand up for myself when I'm being bullied or silenced, and helped me reach a place where I am more grounded and secure in myself. It's even helped me get over my eating disorder. These are all good things; they've made me stronger and more capable. And honestly, I think a strong, independent, responsible submissive has far more to offer than a broken, insecure one who is desperately dependent on their dominant.
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. [...]
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.
But my feminist learning has, undeniably, triggered hiccups in my submissiveness too. The submission I knew as an unreconstructed teenager is no longer applicable. Then, I would have submitted uncomplainingly to a sexual relationship which always prioritised my dom's pleasure or orgasm over my own. These days, I'm less inclined to see that as an okay or healthy pattern, even within a D/S context. Then, I loved doing housework for my dom and was perfectly happy for this to be a one-way transaction. Now, I'm unwilling to use housework as a D/S exchange unless my partner's contribution to the household chores are fair in general. In other words, I'm unwilling to let D/S become an excuse for us to replicate patterns of gendered behaviour that continue to oppress women.
That last example is revealing. As a feminist, it's not that I'm unwilling to engage in consensual domestic service: only that I'm motivated to ensure that I only do so within a healthy, functional and balanced domestic relationship. In other words, feminism has helped me define the parameters of my submission and establish its boundaries.
That's no bad thing. I've got over the idea which I had when I was younger that being more submissive in a D/S exchange somehow equated to being "better" in a moral sense. When I was 19 I looked at 24/7 relationships and wondered if they represented something I should aspire to. Now, I know I am a fiercely independent, proud individual who thrives on self-sufficiency. At the moment I'm mostly living on D's generosity, and while I hugely appreciate his support, in a way it's also driving me nuts. I'm someone who needs, financially, to stand on her own two feet; who needs independent means with which she can be generous to her loved ones, rather than depending on the generosity of others.
As a feminist adult, I've come to terms with the realisation that I'm not 100% submissive - and accepted that that's nothing to feel guilty about. When I started on my kinky journey I didn't know how submissive I would turn out to be. At 27, I have a clearer idea.
- I'm not submissive with everyone. On the contrary, I only give my primary romantic partners that gift.
- Within those relationships, I'm not always submissive. When it comes to my finances, my work, my art, my schedule, my friendships, my sexual affairs with other people, how I spend my time, I'm naturally very dominant. I juggle several professional roles with various creative and political projects, and within that, I thrive on pushing myself hard and making my own decisions. What's more, this dominance over certain areas of my life doesn't devalue my submission in other areas.
- My dom can't tell me that I need to work harder. But they can tell me that I need to look after myself better; that I need to take time off or relax more.
- I can't hear any comment or criticism of my eating patterns. As a recoverer from an eating disorder, that's entirely my own business. But (once I've stated an intention to do so in general) I can be prompted to go to the gym, and I can be told I need to have some juice rather than another glass of wine. Our D/S dynamic undercuts my pride and makes it easier to accept good advice.
- I won't believe I'm behaving badly on their say so, just because I'm their sub. But if they can reasonably persuade me that I've been in the wrong, I can accept (and will sometimes even ask for) corporal punishment as a way to resolve my remorse and guilt.
- If I'm stressed and struggling to make a decision, and actually any of the options I'm considering would do, I'll sometimes ask my dom to make it for me simply to save on faff. I value their opinions highly and will tend to take their advice, especially on personal or social matters, or in areas where they have greater expertise. (But that's not really submission in a power exchange sense, is it? That's just not being an arrogant dick.)
It probably goes without saying that the place I am most submissive is the bedroom. So has my feminism affected that?
The principles of sexual agency, communication, confidence and self-love that I have learned from feminism have a complicated relationship with my kink. Sexual agency for a sexual submissive and masochist are not straightforward. I want my pleasures to be tended, yes: I want orgasms, I want to be spanked, I want to be beaten. These are all direct wants which it's possible for me to ask for, and feminism has taught me that it's okay to ask for what I want in bed. The sex I'm having has improved as a result.
But, sexually, I also have other, more subtle wants. Sometimes, when I'm with my doms, I want my wants to be ignored. I want to be used without reference to my pleasure. I want to play non-consent scenes. I want to surrender to my dom's will, trust them to push me through my fear and uncertainty, and be carried by them on a journey that leaves me sated and reeling. I want to experience the joys and thrills of relinquishing control and responsibility.
My doms are respectful, socially conscientious men and feminist allies. They are willing to listen to me. If I say I want to be beaten with such-and-such an implement, I'm expressing my masochistic desires and sexual agency as a bottom, but am I submitting?
Asking to be dominated, rather than simply topped, is a much bigger, more complex beast. It requires a great deal more trust and puts my dom in a far greater position of responsibility. I am, in effect, gifting my sexual agency to my dom for the duration of an individual scene.
If our D/S dynamic ever steps beyond the bedroom, I am gifting not just my sexual agency, but (an aspect of) my agency itself. That gift is not absolute - I'm not a slave and never will be - and is defined by carefully negotiated boundaries, but it involves giving up power nonetheless.
Making that gift is not inherently unfeminist. We give up or delegate power all the time - to employers, clients and political representatives. Giving it to a trusted partner is arguably a safer bet. Feminism has taught me to value, recognise and act on my agency and responsibility, and that validation has, I think, increased the value of the gift. Giving submission as a feminist is a different, more conscious act, involving a subtler understanding of the interaction between my short-term and long-term desires, and requiring, if anything, even greater trust in and respect for my dom.
My submission has needed to be re-built within the empowered, reconstructed self that has emerged as I've grown up. What that means in practice is that I need to have a very clear idea of what I want and what I'm asking for; and be willing to take responsibility for my reactions if I get it. It also means that I can take responsibility for the decision to accept an experience I don't particularly want right now as a gesture of submission to my dom's will. Submission is not my default: every time I choose to submit, that is a deliberate and conscious act of will.
Acts of submission are often harder for me to give, these days, and they're rarer than they were eight years ago: but that makes them more precious. Now that I have more self-worth, more independence, more strength of mind, I need to give that much more if I want to experience the joys of submission. I think that overall, the difficult submission of a feminist adult is healthier, more meaningful and more rewarding than it was when it was easy.