This is a longer version of an article that originally appeared at Role/Reboot.
Much is being made of the highly successful S&M erotica novel 50 Shades of Grey. People are blaming feminism for making women into submissives, blaming feminism for preventing women from being submissives, blaming women for having sexual desires at all, and a whole lot of other boring and typical stuff that comes up in any conversation about women and S&M. News flash: it’s not the feminist revolution that is “causing” women to have fantasies of submission. S&M fantasies have been around since the beginning of time.
As an S&M writer, I hear a lot of allegations about how “all” (or “almost all”) women are sexually submissive and how this must Mean Something. This is echoed in the coverage of 50 Shades of Grey, in which everyone is demanding to know What It All Means About Women. I wrote a piece a while back called “‘Inherent Female Submission': The Wrong Question,” in which I took on a lot of this stuff. But there’s another submerged question here — about men. There’s plenty of talk and stereotypes about how men are inherently violent, or more aggressive than women, or “the dominant sex.”
As I said in my previous article: I think it’s quite questionable whether women are “inherently submissive,” but my conclusion is that I don’t care. It doesn’t actually matter to me whether women in general are “inherently submissive” (though I really don’t think women are), or whether submissive women’s preferences are philosophically Deep And Meaningful (though I’m not convinced they are). What matters is:
1. How women (or any other people) can explore sexually submissive preferences consensually,
2. How women (or any other people) can compartmentalize submissive preferences so that their whole lives are safe and fulfilling and happy, and
3. How women (or any other people) can be treated well in arenas that aren’t even relevant to their sexuality — like the workplace.
This is also how I feel about these ideas of “inherent male violence.” I don’t buy that men are “the dominant sex” or that men are “inherently violent.” Based on what I’ve read, it seems quite clear that individuals with higher testosterone levels — who are, incidentally, not always men — often experience more aggressive feelings. Yet that’s a far cry from large-scale generalizations, and it’s also frequently irrelevant to questions about how people can best deal with those aggressive feelings. Plus, psychological submission can be a very separate thing from physical aggression levels.
Much of the time, when it comes to aggression, anger management is the answer, the same way a naturally shy or submissive person needs to learn to set boundaries. But there are circumstances where catharsis is completely acceptable. Lots of perfectly decent men have urges towards violent dominance; what do they do about it? How much do they agonize, like Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey, and how much do they explore their desires in a consensual and reasonable way?
I always thought that the late-90s movie Fight Club was fascinating primarily because of its lens on masculinity and violence. It’s not just about the violence men to do each other, but to themselves. Quotes include “You have to give up; you have to know that someday you’re gonna die,” and “The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.” I first watched it before I knew much about S&M, but now whenever I think about it, I think about how the idea of a fight club — where people would get together and fight, for catharsis and community — is so very reminiscent of how a lot of people experience S&M. Fight Club even has safewords. Someone says stop, you stop. I obviously don’t support the endpoint of the Fight Club story (i.e., blowing up buildings), but the idea of establishing a men’s community via a fight club seems reasonable to me.
So, what are the practicalities of dealing with aggressive or dominant tendencies in the sexual arena? As an S&M person, I’ve experimented with dominance as well as submission, but because violence is so associated with masculinity, I turned to some egalitarian male S&Mers for advice. I believe that even for non-S&M people, their perspectives make a really good lens for ideas of gender and violence and power. Of course, the first thing one of my friends told me was: “I’m not sure I really see dominance in general as being particularly masculine. I don’t really think it’s a gender associated thing.”
That gentleman, who comments around the Internet under the name Scootah, went on to add: “I’ve certainly worried about my kinks in the past. I mean fundamentally, I get really, really turned on by grabbing someone by the hair, throwing them into the wall, backhanding them, etc. That’s a pretty disturbing thought for an egalitarian who’s worked with abuse victims. I spend a lot of time considering the ethics of my kinks; my partners’ enthusiastic consent is a major priority.”
Jay Wiseman, author of the famous S&M primer SM101, talks about his own early fears towards the beginning of that book. He writes about how he began having sadistic fantasies, and went to the public library to research them. All he could find was portraits of serial killers, which scared the hell out of him. He writes:
I decided to keep myself under surveillance. I made up my mind that I was not going to hurt anybody. If I thought I was turning into someone that would harm somebody else, then I would either put myself in a mental institution or commit suicide. And thus I lived, waiting and watching to see if I was turning into someone that I needed to shoot.
Fortunately, Wiseman found partners who were open to exploring S&M with him, and went on to write extensively about safety and consent and communication within S&M. Trying to communicate in an egalitarian way is arguably the most complicated part of any S&M encounter; as Scootah told me, “There are certainly elements that could potentially unbalance a relationship in my favor. I’m a big reasonably strong guy. I do usually make more money than my partners. I also have this whole sense of position in the local S&M community. I mostly just try to be aware of those things. I try to be very careful about not taking advantage of that and negotiate clearly and not pressure people.”
There are lots of ways to do clear negotiation, including asking open-ended questions before any S&M actually happens: “What are you interested in? Could you go into that more?” There’s also a huge emphasis on talking through the S&M encounter afterwards, as part of the post-S&M processing we call aftercare. As another gent who goes by Noir said: “It really helped me to have a few great, feminist S&M partners. Having that echo of ‘it’s OK, I want this,’ as well as the honest feedback when I do wrong really helped shape how I experience S&M, and with who. It’s meant I learned how better to read and grasp the people in my, er, grasp.”
Noir also noted, “I strive to use dominance and submission as a tool for helping my partners become stronger, in ways that also feed my S&M preferences. For example, I tend to form long-term interests with women who want a ‘safe space’ to extend and explore their ability to be sluts, with all that can imply. But in the process, we also explore how becoming more confident in one’s sexuality also can reflect into everyday life. Also, just coming to spaces in the S&M community can be a goldmine of information. All a dominant man has to do is read, listen, open up and understand. One thing I learned was that my fears about reenforcing our messed-up society were shared by women into kink… but also that my ways of approaching the topic, as ‘oh, we’re so controlled by society!’ were themselves pushing too much agency out of women’s choices. There’s a balance there that we guys who identify as both feminist and kinky have to respect, and that can come from listening to feminist women struggle with these issues, themselves.”
The alternative sexuality advocate Pepper Mint (who has his own blog) told me that in terms of putting gender on his experiences, “I am a bit genderqueer, and I personally experience dominance with either a feminine or masculine vibe from moment to moment. Certain activities — like punching — feel masculine, while others — like whipping — feminine in the moment. Also, I switch, meaning that I don’t always take the dominant role. Strangely, my most clearly masculine S&M activity is masochism. I always feel very manly while taking pain. I don’t think I can clearly explain why these things have attached to gender in my head, though presumably I’m being affected by cultural tropes to some extent.”
The consensus in general was that dominance, whether masculine or feminine, is something that happens in an encounter… not outside it. As Pepper put it, “New guys often want to play hard or do hardcore things, and will often boast and swagger. Kinky women almost always recognize this as dangerous bullshit. Learn to chill out and not take yourself too seriously, and learn to start with a light careful touch when playing with someone new. Learn to ask for help and guidance, both from others in your S&M community and from your partners.”
Scootah agreed: “The first mistake I see newbie doms make is trying too hard to be some kind of bad ass. Admit your inexperience. Be seen learning. Be modest and have a good time. Learn to communicate well, and to really be friends with your prospective partners.”
For me, the bottom line of these conversations is that questioning gender roles, and understanding gender complications, is an ongoing process. People have a lot of urges and preferences that are politically inconvenient and which we will never fully understand. Whether we’re shaped by biology or culture, those feelings will still exist for now, and we have to deal with them. There are ways to do almost anything such that people respect each other, though — whatever the implications for gender or power. Violence is complicated ground, but it can be used in balanced and consensual ways that end up bonding people together. 50 Shades of Grey and Fight Club are both examples, and I haven’t even touched competitive sports!
Linkbait time! Here’s what some other folks are writing about Fifty Shades of Grey:
* Feminist writer Jaclyn Friedman — who, incidentally, recently released a great book designed to help women explore their sexuality on their own terms — wrote the tidiest rebuttal to Roiphe’s weirdness for The Guardian. Here’s a great quotation:
As a feminist, my problem with the mass-marketing of the pale, swooning female submissive tied up for the love of her man isn’t that she exists, but that no other kind of “taboo” sexual women seem to. We don’t get mainstream narratives inviting us to identify with women who like to dominate in bed, or mass-marketed portrayals of women of color and queer women as sexual heroines in control of their choices…. And therein lies the rub. When the media only repeats stories about one very narrow idea of “transgressive” female sexuality, it limits our sexual imaginations, and therefore the possibilities of our sexual lives.
* The sex & tech writer Violet Blue has a big link roundup, called Fifty Shades of Linkbait. It has some interesting articles, but I’m mostly linking to it because this line made me crack up:
Fifty Shades of Grey will be awesome for you if you secretly wish someone would do a Halle-Berry-as-Catwoman treatment to The Story Of O.
* A.V. Flox, the Love & Sex editor at BlogHer, wrote thoughtfully about The Troubling Message in Fifty Shades of Grey. Snip:
It is a story we have heard before, though I daresay Disney does a far better job in “Beauty and the Beast.” This, perhaps, is the most egregious attempt against people who live a BDSM lifestyle. Not only does Fifty Shades of Grey make broken monsters out of people who have examined their desires and had the courage to see where they will take them, but it promises readers that they can be cured — and cured through bad communication, passive aggression, and petulant fits, at that. … In telling us this story, E.L. James is directly tapping into this fantasy of transforming a lover to suit us perfectly. If I could forgive the damage she does BDSM in the process, I’d leave it alone. But I can’t.
* Remittance Girl, who does erotica, discussed lust and hypocrisy and transgression in Why Fifty Shades Of Grey Matters.
* Andrea Zanin, a.k.a. “Sex Geek,” has a detailed post from way after the Fifty Shades stuff reached its peak, that includes both a summary of recent critiques and her own detailed critique.
* Even McSweeney’s got in on the action with a little item called Fifty Shades to Leave Your Lover. I quote:
Just slip this restricting bodice over your back, Jack.
Make a new plan, as to our deployment of safe words and variations therein, Stan.
Note: This post was edited in late May 2012 to include the Wiseman quotation.