"Inherent Female Submission:" The Wrong Question

This is a guest post by Clarisse Thorn. It originally appeared on Clarisse’s blog on July 1, 2011.

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I get a certain question occasionally, from straight dudes who’ve had a number of sexual partners. It goes something like this:

All the women I’ve slept with liked pain. They asked me to hurt them or to dominate them in bed. I did it, and enjoyed it; I loved how much it turned them on … it turned them on a lot. But I keep thinking about it now. Why are all women into being submissive and/or masochistic in bed? What does that mean?

They ask me this question in vaguely worried tones. Sometimes they say things like, “It’s really creepy.” It is obvious that these dudes are rather concerned about this Terrible Truth.

Here’s my short answer for those guys: If you know women who are submissive and/or masochistic in bed, that means those particular women like being submissive and/or masochistic in bed.It doesn’t mean anything else.

You’re still here? Ah, well. I figured that wouldn’t satisfy. So here’s a longer answer:

Firstly, if you’re a straight dude, and you’re drawing conclusions about “all women” based on the women you get involved with, then stop. Just stop. Even if you have slept with zillions of women, you don’t actually know what all women want, because:

A) Your experience of women is limited to women who got involved with you. You are screening for certain qualities, sometimes consciously, and sometimes unconsciously or by accident. If you tend to enjoy the dominant role, for example, or if you use a dominant style of flirtation, then you could be screening for submissive female partners, whether you intend to or not.

B) Everyone has biases, including you. I love the old saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If you have a bias towards seeing women as sexually submissive (and you almost certainly do, because female sexual submission is a hugely prevalent cultural trope), then you’re more likely to see female submission in places where it does not exist.

C) Women, like people of all genders, are demonstrably varied. You really don’t think non-submissive straight women exist? Why then, it must be so inconvenient when I point you to the work of blatantly dominant women, huh? It’s shocking, I know … next I’ll be telling you that queer and asexual women exist! (Not to mention women who switch among roles — from submissive to dominant, from sadistic to masochistic. I primarily go for submissive masochism, but still, I myself play for both teams.)

The thing is, though … no matter how many holes I can poke in these dudes’ anecdotal “data”, I can’t bring myself to worry like they do. Even if a brilliant, well-reviewed study came out tomorrow and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that 100% of women are submissive masochists in bed, I wouldn’t care. (I bet you my left ear this study will never happen, but I’m just saying, even if it did, I wouldn’t care.)

Let me say it really clearly: Even if most women are submissive masochists in bed (and I’m not convinced most women are), there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t care.

Why don’t I care? Because all this anxiety and argument about submission — and in particular, what it means for women to be submissive; whether all women are submissive; whether women are “inherently” or “biologically” submissive; whether BDSM is an orientation or not … this is all the wrong question.

I’ll note that the research seems to indicate that more kinky women are submissives than dominant. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about the tastes of women who don’t identify as kinky. And it’s probably biased by culture, in that everything from fashion photos to romance novels emphasizes female submission and male dominance. Within BDSM culture, female dominance and male submission are often disappeared, much to the justified frustration of actual female dominants and male submissives. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail — sometimes including our own psyches and sexualities. Plus, if the only available patterns for kink emphasize something a person doesn’t like, then that person will probably avoid kink. Note that in the research I linked to, for example, the percentage of submissive women was higher in samples from within the BDSM subculture than in samples from outside the BDSM subculture … perhaps because many BDSM subcultural gatherings emphasize female submission and thereby alienate women who are primarily dominant. Anyway, regardless … this is still the wrong question.

In short, “inherent female submission” is the wrong question.

Certainly, I’ve fought through a lot of personal fears about what my interest in BDSM meant for me as a feminist … but these days I have trouble understanding what, exactly, got me so upset. I can’t believe how long it took me to outthink those fears. Now, it just seems instinctively obvious to me that:

1) The only reason these conversations happen at all is that BDSM, and especially submission, is seen as broken and problematic and screwed-up and a sign of weakness. What if we viewed S&M proclivities as a superpower rather than a perversion? What if submission and masochism, in particular, were viewed as signs of strength and endurance and emotional complexity, rather than weakness?

2) Sexual kinks don’t necessarily affect one’s performance in non-sexual fields. A sexually submissive woman won’t make a bad CEO (at least, not because she’s sexually submissive). I mean, come on, it’s not like there aren’t sexually submissive men in powerful corporate positions. When I was younger I remember being scared that, in some bizarre way, I was betraying women’s liberation by being sexually submissive; this seems ridiculous to me now. That fear can only survive in an culture where people are looking for excuses — no matter how flimsy — to control and disempower women. Because it doesn’t make any damn sense on its own.

3) Rape is still rape. Everyone still has a right to consent, including submissives. A submissive partner (of any gender) must be able to withdraw consent, and a dominant partner (of any gender) must make space for them to withdraw consent. It’s always great when both partners can have an honest conversation about desire, trying to avoid pressure and unfair expectations (whether those expectations arise from sexist culture or from whatever else). Safewords are one frequently-recommended communication tactic for those who have rape fantasies, although they aren’t the only tactic. What really burns me about many discussions of “inherent female submission” is that they have horrible overtones of blaming the victim and justifying rape … much like “she was wearing a short skirt, so she was asking for it”. In reality, “inherent female submission” says absolutely nothing about women’s right to choose our partners and protect our bodily integrity. Female submissives have made it perfectly clear that we do, in fact, claim that right.

I think most of the dudes who ask this question come to me, a feminist, and they ask this question in hushed and worried tones, because they are decent guys and they are concerned about The Consequences Of This Terrible Truth. I’d venture a guess that they’ve met other dudes who talk nonstop about how women are vain and stupid and hysterical and, snicker snicker, why do we let those dumb bitches even vote and, oh by the way, did you know that lots of girls like to be choked and isn’t that sooo significant …? And so these decent guys who are talking to me — they have learned to associate discussions of female sexual submission with anti-feminism, and with attempts to disempower women in other spheres.

Being decent guys, this worries them, because they know that people of all genders deserve equal opportunity. But it is all a red herring! It’s a series of illusions thrown up by BDSM stigma; by the idea that sexual kinks always mean something about the rest of a person’s life; by people who don’t comprehend that everyone has the right to consent; and by blatant, uncomplicated misogyny! Female sexual submission isn’t even close to a threat to women’s liberation, unless we allow it to be. If we weren’t constantly forced to deal with the broken assumptions of a broken misogynist culture, this question would never occur to anyone!

It doesn’t matter nearly as much what the cultural patterns are around sexual submission, as it does how we deal with sexual submission. If your partner is submissive, you can respect their desires and also respect them as a person. As I already noted, in BDSM this means communicating carefully, like with safewords and/or other tactics. Some people can have great sexual communication that’s totally non-verbal — but I always encourage explicit verbal communication because for many people, it’s easier to make intentions and desires clear that way, and tactics like safewords provide a fallback in case there’s a mistake.

So: what does “inherent female submission” mean for women, for feminism, for equal rights, for women who work, for powerful women? For housewives? For disabled women? For female rape survivors? For rape survivors of other genders?

Say it with me now: It’s the wrong question. The mere act of asking this question implies a cultural context that is seeking excuses to disempower women. Female sexual submission means nothing

except what every woman wants it to mean, for herself.

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Some more related links (but the ones I already linked in the post are pretty awesome, I promise):

* The Fantasy of Acceptable “Non-Consent”: Why the Female Sexual Submissive Scares Us (and Why She Shouldn’t), with Stacey May Fowles (as seen in the incredible anthology Yes Means Yes)

* Domism: Role Essentialism and Sexism Intersectionality in the BDSM Scene, with Thomas MacAulay Millar (over at the Yes Means Yes blog)

* When Scientists Don’t Understand Sex: Feminism, Dominance, and Arousal, with Charlie Glickman (of the classic feminist sex toy store Good Vibrations)

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Clarisse Thorn is a feminist, sex-positive educator who has delivered sexuality workshops and lectures to a variety of audiences, including New York’s Museum of Sex, San Francisco’s Center for Sex and Culture, and universities across the USA. She created and curated the original Sex+++ sex-positive documentary film series at Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum; she has also volunteered as an archivist, curator and fundraiser for that venerable BDSM institution, the Leather Archives & Museum. Clarisse recently returned from working on HIV mitigation in southern Africa. Her writing has appeared across the internet in places like The Guardian, AlterNet, and Time Out Chicago. She blogs about feminist sexuality with a focus on S&M at clarissethorn.com and Feministe, and she tweets @clarissethorn.

Photo credit tsmall/Flickr

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