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BDSM and Feminism: Notes on an Impasse

May 23, 2012, 4:38 pm

Today’s guest blogger is Margot D. Weiss, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Anthropology, Wesleyan University, Middletown CT. She is the author of 2012 Lambda Award finalist Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality (Duke, 2011.)

Last month, Newsweek published a cover story by Katie Roiphe with the headline “The Fantasy Life of Working Women: Why Surrender is a Feminist Dream.” The story purports to account for the run-away success of domination/submission narratives, taking E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey as a case in point. James’s book – the first in a trilogy of erotic novels – is Twilight fan fiction turned New York Times bestseller with movie rights. Banned in several public libraries, it’s a tale of the “dark desires” sparked by the romance between college student Anastasia Steele and businessman Christian Grey. The book is a BDSM-themed Cinderella story.

In her essay, Roiphe suggests that there is a correlation between women’s rising economic power and an increase in their fantasies of submission. While some have dismissed Roiphe’s story as Newsweek’s version of trolling, many sex-positive feminists took to the blogosphere to right her many wrongs. I will leave to Roiphe’s critics the question of whether there is an increase in these fantasies, her specious correlation, her heteronormativity, and what women’s new “empowerment” might look like. I will also refrain from summarizing the research on why women read romance novels (but see Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, for one) and on how popular representations of BDSM often offer titillation without challenging a heteronormative narrative (as in the film Secretary).

Instead, I want to use the flurry of sex-positive feminist critiques of Roiphe’s story to reflect on the current impasse in the debate between sex-positive and sex-negative, or pro-BDSM and anti-BDSM, feminism. This debate is due for an overhaul, and I hope that recasting it might clear a path toward a more productive discussion about the feminist politics of desire.

While a few have picked up on Roiphe’s suggestion that BDSM (especially submission or masochism) might function as a pleasurable escape from the demands of contemporary life – and this is a decades-old debate in BDSM scholarship – most feminist bloggers have taken issue with Roiphe’s take on feminists. Roiphe writes:

feminists have long been perplexed by our continuing investment in this fantasy, the residual desire to be controlled or dominated in the romantic sphere. They 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.

In response, bloggers have argued that feminism is about choice: “It is unclear which rock Roiphe is living under since ‘a woman getting what she wants sexually is very feminist,’” writes Shira Tarrant, quoting Shawna Kenney on Alternet. Or, as Dana Goldstein writes, “asking for what you want in bed is a feminist political act.”

Sex-positive feminism, for these commentators, is about the right to pursue sexual pleasure, about an individual’s ability to ask for and get whatever it is she wants. And BDSM’s practices of negotiation, of direct conversation about sexual likes and dislikes, and of self-exploration are empowering for many – perhaps especially for women (as a post on Feminists For Choice argues). But as an anthropologist and a queer studies scholar who has learned more than a little from the philosopher Michel Foucault, I am wary of the claim that embracing our inner sexual desires is a sure path to liberation. And, as a queer and materialist feminist, I worry about how these debates pare down politics to sexual choices. This seems to me a liberal understanding, where our fantasies and desire are private, ours alone to discover and nurture, and detached from a social or political world. Is that really all we might say about feminist sexual politics?

In the same essay, Goldstein writes that “more women than men may tend toward submission—in part because Western culture fetishizes male strength and female fragility.” Although there are plenty of submissive men in BDSM communities (pansexual, straight, and queer), I think she is gesturing toward a crucial, and often missed, point: BDSM, like all sexualities, is a product of our social environment, not an age-old, unchanging orientation. Our desires reflect and refract – even when they rework – our social relationships and historical locations. This does not mean that women are necessarily submissive and men dominant. But it does mean that gendered relations of power structure our sexual desires – even in consensual BDSM spaces (where sexist assumptions about manly dominance and feminine submission remain depressingly common).

That our sexual desires are based in our social world sounds simple until we are asked to consider the politics of those desires. This was, of course, the central issue in the 1970s and 1980s feminist sex wars – radical feminists roundly critiqued BDSM as patriarchal, racist, and imperialist, while sex-radical feminists like those in Samois understood it as a stigmatized sexual practice. But we do not have to argue that BDSM is the same as patriarchy or racism to see that our sexual desires are forged within our social world – a world of inequality, of non-consensual power. So, when we analyze a fantasy rape scene, for example, we might say that it enables us to explore our fears of rape, or that it can challenge or even dismantle rape culture. But we cannot say that rape fantasies are “just fantasies” as though this means that they are disconnected from real-world violence and sexualized gender oppression.

This point is not terribly fashionable, and in making it one runs the risk of being accused of a prudish sex-negativity that, in its worst form, disempowers women. Take, for example, Maya Dusenbery’s feministing essay. Chastising Roiphe for claiming that feminists are “perplexed” or “appalled” by BDSM fantasies, Dusenbery writes, “I am in no way surprised that many women, who have been socialized in a culture in which male sexuality is linked to domination and in which women are taught their sexual power comes from being wanted, have fantasies of submission.” Dusenbery is criticized for that line by a reader, who suspects that this amounts to “internalized patriarchy.” She responds:

I see your point, and that’s definitely not what I meant to imply! Basically, I think that everyone’s sexuality is mediated by their socialization. Generally, like on the broad cultural level, I do think that the fact that more women than men tend to have submission fantasies (even those that don’t identify as submissives) is related to the way we’re socialized to understand sexuality. Would you disagree with that? When it comes to actual individual women, I would absolutely never say that submissive desires are because of internalized patriarchy. I don’t believe that at all. As I said later in the piece, I think people–women and men–like submission because it’s sexy.

The stigmatization of women’s sexuality and the pathologization of BDSM together make Dusenbery’s cultural point a crucial one: it is not that some women are victims, deviant, or damaged (as her later interview with Natalie Zina Walschots makes clear). But in this case, the need to defend BDSM short-circuits a discussion, an analysis, and a real consideration of the politics of our sexual desires: submission is sexy because it’s sexy.

Debates about BDSM often rapidly devolve in this way. Criticisms of BDSM’s politics are countered with platitudes about how a fantasy is just a fantasy – and let’s just leave it at that. But leaving it there leaves out any analysis of the social or historical conditions for an individual’s desire, just as it leaves out the rich and complex discussions of feminism and power within BDSM communities. And so instead of asking why individuals get off on submission fantasies – or defending our right to do so – I think we need to start elsewhere.

We might ask why we are encouraged to imagine our sexuality – our desires, practices, and fantasies – as private, detached from and irrelevant to our shared social world (as I try to do by theorizing sexuality and neoliberalism in my book Techniques of Pleasure). We might try to create sexual spaces where oppression is challenged, alongside the many BDSM bloggers, writers, speakers, community organizers, and cultural critics already having a far more complex conversation about desire and its politics.

Whatever we do, we need to think a bit harder about the connections between our desires and our social world. We need to challenge the known-in-advance political claims of both sides of this debate, where BDSM is from the start either feminist (because it gives one the freedom to choose one’s sexuality) or oppressive (because it reenacts patriarchal domination). And we need to admit that we do not already know the politics of our desires – a recognition that might point to new paths, new questions, and new  politics.

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