For every one of us who wants to celebrate kink and BDSM as empowering examples of free self-expression, you’ll find several others who think of it as being a perversion of healthy sexuality - and at least one who thinks of it as a dangerous tool of the patriarchy. We’ve all had this argument before. The trouble is, all three of those groups are probably wrong.
Sex-Critical Feminist Submission
The Problem With Sex-Positivity
We pride ourselves on being ‘sex-positive’. It’s a phrase I’ve used a thousand times, but it’s not without its problems - after all, our predilections are not formed in a vacuum. The things we’re into all have to come from somewhere, and that ‘somewhere’ is generally found in either our own personal histories or the society we live in. I’m into a small collection of things that are generally considered pretty damn taboo, and while I don’t want to change that I would like to understand it. Sex is not some super-special cordoned-off bonus level to which the game’s core mechanics do not apply - it seems spurious to suggest that a kink for rape play has nothing to do with having lived my whole life in rape culture.
Our kinks are, as the saying goes, okay - but they are not untouchable, they shouldn’t go unexamined and they cannot merely be given a free pass. Examining the origins of our kinks makes us more aware of our own psychological makeups and helps us to be better critical thinkers, and those are both things we’re all going to need if we want to be a force for good in society. This sort of comprehension arms us with the tools necessary not only to understand our life choices, but also to defend them against those who may take them from us
There’s a lot of talk in BDSM communities about how vast the depth and breadth of who we are can be, and those points are valid. There are dominants, switches and submissives of all possible types, genders and orientations out there; the world contains literally millions of people who destroy the popular conceptions of what BDSM practitioners are “usually like”. But we have to face up to it: on an ordinary night in an ordinary fetish club, you’ll see more female subs with male doms than you will any other configuration. Hell, sometimes I’m one of them. On an individual level we should all get on with doing whatever the fuck is right for us, obviously, but collectively - what does that mean?
Examining Female Submission
The short answer to that question is “we don’t know”. Very little study has been conducted in this area, and we have very little idea
where kinks come from: if they’re hard-wired, if they’re universal, if they’re nature or nurture or simply the human condition. I personally have a few pop-psychology theories that seem applicable and ring true, though, and some of them might help to explain why it is that so much of kink actually just upholds the societal norms it claims to subvert.
- For a lot of people, kinks and fetishes seem to come from a place of personal taboo. This is particularly true of homophobia play, race play and Nazi scenes - all of which are surprisingly common amongst gay men, people of colour and kink practitioners of Jewish descent respectively. On a more personal level, I’m pretty convinced that many of my kinks exist not despite my feminism but because of it - because there’s something deep, dark and psychologically exciting about taboo.
- It is entirely possible that this is also about reclamation, about dragging something hidden out into the light where it’s less terrifying. “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself”, as Harry Potter is fond of saying, and the same may well be true of slurs and subjugation. When we as women and as feminists submit to something that is undoubtedly male authority, we are doing so entirely on our own terms - a luxury we do not usually have.
- Society is, effectively, brainwashing. There’s a good chance that we like a lot of these things simply because they’re what we know - because our sexualities are an amped-up, high-octane version of the rest of our worlds and lives. This might be the most troubling of the potential explanations, in a “the patriarchal enforcement is coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!” kind of a way.
Humans, however liberated and unusual, have a strong tendency to behave in the ways that they are expected to behave. There seems a sort of grim inevitability to the fact that the maledom/femsub dynamic is so prevalent: well, of course it is, because...because...because that’s how the world works. I think it’s as important for feminism for us to think about this more as it is for our own communities and introspective tendencies.
I don’t exclusively sleep with people of any particular gender, but I am exclusively a submissive - which means that I have no idea what any of this looks like from the other side. I’d be interested to find out more about how female-attracted male dominants who are also feminist allies think about this; please do drop me a line on Twitter if you’d like to continue the conversation.
Abi Brown is a freelance writer and general pen-for-hire devoted to genre fiction, social justice and M.A.C lipstick. Follow her on her website or @see_abi_write.