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On Politics and Paddling: Reconciling Feminist and Submissive Identities

March 26, 2010

A few nights ago, I [Marianne] had some of the most soulful sex of my life. Hair was stroked, eyes were locked, heck, there were butterfly kisses involved. This was the stuff that production companies pay big bucks to film and then artfully set to the latest Sufjan Stevens song. And it was great. Sometimes, you just need some nurturing, connected, vanilla-est-of-the-vanilla sex. But sometimes, you don’t. A confession: we both love rough, kinky, slap-me-on-the-ass-and-call-me-a-bitch sex. Both of us identify as rough-sex enthusiasts, masochists, submissives, and, here’s the kicker: committed feminists.

Feminism has informed a large part of our sexual identities. Our comfort with our bodies, our commitment to partner communication, our drive to seek pleasure for our own pleasure’s sake, and our quest to more fully explore, understand, and own our sexualities can be in large part attributed to our feminist sensibilities (thanks, Betty Dodson!). Given that our respective constructs of feminism are grounded firmly in a belief in the right to our own bodily autonomy, these aspects of our sexual selves seem to effortlessly and logically dovetail with our decidedly feminist self-concepts. That said, the intersection of our feminist identities and our sexual identities is significantly more strained when it comes to this kinkier aspect of our sex lives. It’s a tough position to navigate when you spend your days analyzing and decrying the latent sexism and evidence of patriarchy in everything from wrinkle-cream advertisements to classroom dynamics and then spend your nights begging your partner to cuff you, fuck you, and spank you until you bruise. It seems, in a word, incongruous.

This incongruity is something that I [M] have been struggling with for quite some time. There have been a few times when, mid-whack, I’ve been struck by something other than the hand hurtling rapidly towards my derriere: a twinge of guilt. Is what I’m doing (and loving) “bad for women?” Does my love for rough sex make me a bad feminist? Early into my exploration with spanking, I had a dream that I went to confession only to find Gloria Steinem in the place of a priest. When I confessed my bad girl fantasies, she furrowed her brow, flicked a highlighted strand out of her face, and told me to make three pro-choice calls to my senator as penance. While I fully recognize the absurdity of this dream and regard my commitment to feminism as something far more personal and far less guilt-driven that “penance,” I think this really speaks to the conflict that heterosexual feminist spank-enthusiasts everywhere face. Here is a realm of my life where I am actively encouraging a man to dominate me in a way that could easily be read as degrading. On paper, this is the kind of action that would enrage me. In action, though, it feels good and right and fulfilling.

Sex, to me [M], is an inherently political act. We can (and do) theorize until the cows come home about just how it is that our sexuality and sex acts are firmly rooted in a cultural web of sexism, gender roles, oppression, and internalization. And there is a lot of validity and importance in said theory. In practice, however, it is more complicating. If we truly believe that the personal is political, is there a way to practice both feminism and submission in an empowering way? Does this vintage mantra dictate that there is a “right” way to act in life’s more “personal” situations as well as life’s political ones? If so, what political statement am I making when I beg my boyfriend to come all over my face?

At first, an attempt at mitigating these two commonly co-occurring aspects of identity can seem truly and (trust us) maddeningly unresolvable. Initially dealing with these feelings left me [still M] feeling dismayed at myself for being somehow “un-feminist” and distressed, because it seemed as though my beloved feminism might be destructively and overbearingly orthodox. Ultimately, I was uncomfortable both with my own sexuality and desires and with an all-too-narrow understanding of what (and who) constitutes a feminist. I should note that this particular experience of dilemma, while a common one, is by no means necessary for someone who identifies both as a bottom and as a feminist. Case in point: Ginger.

G: While Marianne was being plagued by Gloria Steinem dreams, I was simply enjoying both my feminism and my masochism. I find this topic to be infinitely interesting and worth discussing, but it never actually affected my life; simply put, I’ve always just liked both.

Flash back to M’s struggle: after years of all-too-often guilty indulgence in my kinkier side I have, thankfully, come to understand my kink and my feminism differently. I, too, have come to a place where I can be comfortable with “liking both.” Ultimately, we [both M and G] believe that safely and responsibly allowing ourselves to fully explore our sexual desires is an inherently feminist act. Ours is what we like to call a feminism of choice, and not simply reproductive choice. We believe that “choice feminism” is an endorsement of and an aim towards a world in which women and men can make well-informed choices on equal footing about all aspects of their lives, including gender performativity and sexual identity. And so, thank goodness, kink and feminism don’t have to be mutually exclusive after all! In fact, if you ascribe to our particular brand of feminism, choosing to be masochistic is an act of empowerment.

Context has a great deal to do with this new-found comfort. For us, rough sex isn’t casual. It’s a deliberate and consensual foray into power-play and one that requires significant thought, boundary establishment, and a foundation of trust. If a Paces hook-up slapped one of us out of the blue, we would leave and call Public Safety. For us, a partner’s knowledge of and pride in our feminist identity (and sensitivity to how that identity may complicate emotions around S&M exploits) is required before kinkier play could be comfortable and, by extension, enjoyable. By nature of how intimately acquainted one would have to be to gain both this knowledge and a significant level of trust in a partner, neither of us has ever explored sexual power-play outside of a committed monogamous relationship, a choice that has been integral to our comfortable exploration, but one that we realize might not work for everyone. Ultimately, this choice is one concerning respect, trust, and comfort, all of which we firmly believe one should have with a partner-in-kink. Because of this level of respect, we feel that we can actively choose to submit, choose to surrender, choose to live out a sexual fantasy. The reality is that, in these situations, we are very much in control. If we asked asked our partner to stop, either explicitly or through an established safe word, he would stop immediately. We have discussed boundaries before our power-play and make a point of debriefing after. Nothing is happening that we don’t want to have happen. If we don’t like something, we don’t do it again.

Rough sex has done a lot for us in our solo and partnered sex lives. On a purely sensuous note: It feels different. The contrast between a hard hair pull and that same old warm sexy feeling is exciting. The psychological level of engagement is also pretty hot. Most human beings, whether they admit it or not, are attracted on some level to what is deemed “wrong.” In a way, you’re getting off on the idea of what you’re doing, in addition to how it feels. Additionally, for me [M], the moment provided by surrendering to sensation alone is one of the few where I can actually shut off that nagging internal monologue of mine. I’m not thinking about next week’s research paper or wondering whether my thighs are jiggling oddly or fretting over how best to prep for tomorrow’s interview. Instead, I’m feeling and connecting and wanting and doing and being done to. It may seem paradoxical, but the level of freedom afforded me by my own submission is intoxicating. Additionally, roughing up your sex life can also provide an entirely new way to connect with your partner. Playing with power in bed can be part of a dialogue about power roles in the relationship more generally. Further, investigating your freakier side in partner play requires not only some explicit communication before and after, but can act as communication itself — ultimately, dominating and being dominated is about giving your partner what he or she wants and receiving what you want in return.

  • Marianne

    Hello, Readers!

    Hope you enjoyed the column. Thought I'd tack on a few of our more practical thoughts about turning desire into practice. If you're curious about incorporating BDSM into your sex life, you might find this helpful.

    A few tips before you go out and play:

    1) Safety First: People in the BDSM world often talk about a philosophy of SSC, or Safe, Sane, and Consensual play. At a bare minimum, this means establishing a safe-word (something you would NEVER scream during sex) or a safe-gesture if a gag is being used, setting and sticking to boundaries, never leaving alone a partner you have tied up or otherwise incapacitated, and doing your homework. Make sure you've investigated the safety precautions necessary for any toy or prop you're using. This includes everything from the hardcore (think studded cockrings) to the seemingly innocuous (i.e.: neckties). You can do some serious damage to your partner's wrists if you tie them up the wrong way. And remember, never spank, flog, paddle or punch the neck, lower back, kidneys, or joints. For further reading on safety and kink, we recommend the works of Jay Wiseman, an author and BDSM practitioner with EMS experience.

    2) Needing some inspiration/an icebreaker? Use us! (No, not like that.) If you're feeling shy, we'd love to be your excuse to bring kink up with your partner. Use reading this column as a jumping off-point. Think something along the lines of "Babe, you know those sometimes-too-alliterative, cheeky sex columnists? Well, they got me thinking…" If your hesitation is more rooted in what to do rather that what to say, look no further than your laptop. Watching some well-produced porn with that special someone can be of great help. Not only can it help you and your partner figure out just what it is that turns you on, but it can help banish those pre-spanking jitters. Aside from being hot, it can be funny. Embrace that. Use it to your advantage. If the porn absorbs some of the awkward from the situation, you don't have to.

    3) Power doesn't have to be dichotomous. Just because we like to take it doesn't mean we don't also like to dish it. Sometimes bottoms like to rise to the top, sometimes tops only want to surrender, and sometimes sex is hottest when it's a battle on equal footing. For further reading on that last scenario, we'd like to point you in the direction of our dignified predecessor, The Bone Doctor, here.

    With that, Swatties, we'd like to encourage you to go forth and explore! Get down with your bad selves (and your bad, bad partners). Just remember to be safe, keep the lines of communication open, and, in the event that you're experiencing some of the conflict we discussed earlier, remember that you are not alone.

    Your occasionally obedient columnist,

  • Ginger

    Oops, link didn't work — check out The Bone Doctor's article about fighting sex:

  • 01′ siweL kraM

    In times when I'm feeling down about the College and things I don't like, I love being reminded of the really smart and meaningful work that my fellow students do, in and out of classes. Fantastic column, M & G!

  • Justin ’10

    "Here [G.S. Dream] is a realm of my life where I am actively encouraging a man to dominate me in a way that could easily be read as degrading. On paper, this is the kind of action that would enrage me. In action, though, it feels good and right and fulfilling." – M.

    M., I think your dilemma is pretty justified, and one that applies not just to feminist lifestyle but all human endeavors/projects. If, as you said, the "personal is the political," then surely it also runs the other way (the political is the personal). Individuals make up the social, but the social also makes the individual.

    What happens when (you recognize that) your desires are not your own but the product of a larger social collective, when you are invaded by others? What if what feels good is what the larger (patriarchal) social order wants to feel good?

    A random thought, not viz. feminism but spending energy for unnecessary commodity:
    I have some friends back home spending massive amounts of time working jobs they hate (earning minimum wage at Starbucks, food service, etc.) not to save for college/car, but instead to buy that new pair of $200+ UGGS they so desperately want. Really? All that misery for some furry boots? Are those really their desires?

    Back to your question: I don't know if I buy G.'s argument for "choice feminism," claiming that the one-on-one BDSM stuff and changing larger social/political patriarchal consciousness are not mutually exclusive. Maybe gender play on the small scale can be infectious and someday change how the larger social order functions. But the masochism? Doesn't that bring us back to binaries of power? Domination/oppression? Even if there’s a pre-sex agreement?

    We also choose to agree (at least to some extent) to participate in society, too, if we’re paying taxes and taking advantage (as dominators? probably) in what society offers (Swarthmore education). I hate to say it, but even the oppressed to a certain extent agree to participate. That’s not to place blame. The house is definitely holding all the cards. You don’t pay rent, don’t uphold provisions in landlord/tenet agreements? Even the fucked up ones? Kicked out of public housing for a year, at least in south GA.

    If there’s no larger message in the masochism, if it’s simply fun behind closed doors, maybe o.k. But if you're looking to place political significance in your lifestyle choices, it seems the masochism/feminism combo becomes problematic.

    (That is, if the aim of feminism is gender equality. But if feminism is just to replace Patriarchy with its mirror image—Matriarchy, which it seems feminism obvious isn't—then the masochism/feminism probably wouldn't causes problems.

    Just some thoughts. Correct me where I’m totally misguided. I don’t read near as much feminist writers as I should. Great column.

  • Ginger

    Thanks for your comments and ideas! I, too, will never understand frantically saving up for Uggs. To explain our concept of "choice feminism" a little further: There is power in masochism, in that we have made the choice to make it a part of our sex lives. Like we said, if someone we didn't know well tried to make us submit, or automatically assumed our submission, that would be a BIG RED FLAG. However, by saying, "I am CHOOSING this," we are exercising power in some ways, and acknowledging that we know what we want out of our sex-having escapades.

    What I find to be REALLY problematic here is the question of WHY it is that I like this. Has the pornographic trope of a man dominating a woman so permeated my psyche that I think it is pleasurable? I really hope not. I also don't think there is a SINGLE sexy thing about patriarchy.

    Another thing to think about: having equal footing with a partner during rough sex (a la the fighting sex discussed by the Bone Doctor). In this way, the power ebbs and flows, and both partners submit AND dominate, which gels pretty well with feminist ideals of equality.

    Again, thanks for reading and discussing!

  • Justin ’10

    I understand the "choice feminism" idea you go through in paragraph 1, agree with the difference between play, escapades.

    But, as I said, I don't fully buy it b/c of what you say in paragraph 2, the "WHY."

    As for your last point, I don't buy the "ebbs and flows idea," even if the play is there. Not to say it isn't interesting. Christian ethics is fascinating in this respect (masters become slaves, slaves the masters).

    But, the binary is still there, so it seems it wouldn't gel. And even if it's play, b/c it's happening in an intersubjective frame where one has already assented (perhaps chosen) to dominate, one to submit. If it's reversed, then one still dominates, one still submits.

    If you're construing equality as the product of these binary reversals–the ebb and flow–then o.k. But is that the ideal to ascribe to? Dominate to make things right? That's also an argument for war.

  • Justin ’10

    Ha! Also post-secondary education.

  • Marianne

    Hi Justin!

    I'd like to pitch in another two-cents about why I feel my feminism and (occasional) masochism can peacefully coexist. As Ginger mentions above, partner choice here is crucial. I would only choose to engage in these activities with someone I knew and trusted, specifically, someone I knew and trusted to be a feminist ally. The only times I have felt comfortable experimenting with power play have been with partners with whom I have shared equal "power" in the relationship at large and who have explicitly espoused feminism as a personal/relationship philosophy.

    In that context, I feel confident that I am submitting to that partner alone, not to society at large. I choose to investigate a part of myself I would not otherwise, giving myself over fully to him, and sharing an intense, emotional, and often transgressive experience. My willingness to "give" here is rooted in my trust in my partner as a loving, caring, individual, not in my perception of his masculinity. Given this, I think that power does in fact, to use Ginger's words, "ebb and flow" through the relationship as a whole as well as the specific sexual enounter.

    There was an interesting argument among feminists in the 1980s affectionately referred to as the "Sex Wars" which you might find interesting. A group of feminists were arguing that feminists who practiced kink were, in fact, bad feminists who, unenlightened in the ways of the patriarchy, replicated it in their bedrooms. Ultimately, they argued, no woman could choose to engage in BDSM sex, because society had already made the choice for her. It was a pretty big deal. Like a screaming matches, blacklisting, academic-career-ending big deal. The argument against this camp of strict vanilla sex advocates was that they too were denying women the ability to make choice. It's worth checking out if you're interested further in this question. Makes for some pretty juicy philosophizing about human agency.

    As I'm sure you guessed, I side pretty conclusively with the dissenters. This kind of moralistic policing seems eerily reminiscent of centuries of external controls placed on female sexuality. I think it's pretty patronizing to tell women that their choices aren't really their own. Would you be as comfortable having this argument with a woman who, after access to and completion of an excellent education and the beginning of a promising career, made the choice to become a stay-at-home mother? Assuming that she and her partner had a serious discussion about who/if anyone were staying at home and the decision wasn't made by default due to her being female, I doubt it.

    This seems to be the same issue. A woman choosing to perform an action traditionally associated with the oppressed female is not then de facto oppressed herself. Not if she's been given a very legitimate outlet to opt out. Not if she's been given all the tools to make the opposing choice.

    I simply don't see power in this (or my) context to be so static or so dichotomous. I'm curious to hear your thoughts. Thanks for engaging!

  • Justin ’10

    I stand corrected on your "Sex Wars" point, on prioritizing the choice.

    But, as for my own ideas on the issues at large—not asking questions in the terms presented by your column, but rather how I actually feel about it (or maybe want to feel about it)—I wish I was so optimistic about the grassroots movement between person in bedroom and person at ballot box.

    Maybe the difference between us is your emphasis on the personal as political, in terms of how you define the personal in relating it to the political.

    In contrast to how the terms were related above, I don't see the person in the bedroom as the same as the person in public. The bedroom isn’t necessarily as a launching pad for liberation. Nor necessarily a place for oppression. It certainly can be a place for those two things. (Germ for an idea, locale for domestic violence.)

    Are people really the same in the bedroom and then outside it? I know I'm not. Social arrangements seem to be negotiated by persons as they make decisions in public (you have to negotiate them with others, most of the time outside of bedrooms, hence they become social arrangements). Extended to your column, I don’t mind the masochism stuff. Whatever makes you happy, I’m for it.

    I'm not saying that a major player (political mover and shaker) cannot be influenced to do something in public by what happens in the bedroom. My God, that certainly happens. But the decision/action has to be made in public for it to actually affect how individuals (in public) are socially arranged.

    So am I saying that consciousness can be socially constructed both in/outside of bedroom? Yes. But necessarily so? No. Like you said, you’ve thought about this a great deal and are choosing to submit “to that partner alone, not to society at large.” And if you choose to make that an impetus for agency—for how you act and vote and live in public in terms of gender equality—then that’s wonderful.

    But how you value the bedroom act is not necessarily the same as how others value that act. Nor probably will it be. It’s hard to accept, but I’m not optimistic that people think as much as they should (sometimes not even that I do) that they’re (we’re) not simply vehicles cranked up and put into motion by power.

    So would I patronize my (future?) wife about being a stay at home mom? Yeah, right.

  • werewolfbarmitzvah

    ::cough cough:: any kinky-minded Swatties want to come together and compare nipple piercings?

    Just curious–holla if you got 'em.

  • Mark

    I do ;D

  • AM

    @Werewolfbarmitzvah —

    I think most people have already seen mine.

  • uretha franklin

    I don't think there's anything "un-feminist" about wanting my girlfriend to come all over my face.

    Or my cock.
    Or my econ problem set.

    Whatever makes her happy.

    @werewolfbarmitzvah–very funny, I too watch 30 Rock.

  • Ginger

    (1) Werewolf barmitzvah, spooky, scary! Boys becoming men, men becoming wolves!
    (2) Werewolfbarmitzvah: Mariane and I are curious as to how nipple piercings have enhanced (or not?) your sex life! Enlighten?

  • werewolfbarmitzvah

    Oh they've enhanced every aspect of my life–from studying in the dark recesses of McCabe to masturbatory fantasies in the men's restroom in LPAC.

    Also–dressing and undressing really shouldn't be as fun as it is now. Talk about "the look, the feel… of cotton". It's the fabric of my sex life.

    The piercings, I mean.


  • slaphappy

    I just want to express my extreme delight at seeing an article such as this on the Daily Gazette.

    Now, I would like to express my sextreme desire for a paddling whilst in line for Pasta Bar.

  • Will

    You should be ashamed of yourself, all of you.

  • Walter Cronkite

    Thanks, Will. College journalism and discussion can be better than this.

  • L

    Dan Savage has addressed this issue many times in his columns and podcasts in response (usually) not to "feminists" into BDSM but conflicted over performing oral sex on their boyfriends.

    Ginger: why does liking BDSM have to be a testament to the omnipresence of the patriarchy (man dominating woman)? Would you think differently if you were not engaging in BDSM with someone who identifies as male? Or, if you were into dominating not being dominated? Also, as they say, the submissive is the one really in control, so perhaps you are just subverting from the inside.

  • Ginger

    Hi L,

    The oral sex issue is also an interesting one. I think Marianne would agree with me that there is a ton of power in giving oral sex: you have his tenderest parts in your control, you have the power to stop and start and tease and play. Awesome stuff.

    To answer your questions — First of all, I don't think BDSM is necessarily a testament to the omnipresence of patriarchy, I just think that I could be perceived that way and therefore find it interesting. Also, yeah, I would definitely think differently if I was engaging in BDSM with a female, but my long term partners have only been male thus far in my life, so I can't speak to what it would be like to engage in power play with a woman.

    We actually mention dominating versus being dominated in the first comment on this thread: Power doesn't have to be dichotomous. Just because we like to take it doesn't mean we don't also like to dish it. Sometimes bottoms like to rise to the top, sometimes tops only want to surrender, and sometimes sex is hottest when it's a battle on equal footing.

    For me, it is less of a problem and more of an interesting question. For Marianne, it was certainly a pretty deep internal issue, but ultimately we resolve it much like you do by saying "the submissive is the one really in control" — we have made the choice to engage in this kind of sex, and therefore are not being repressed into our submission by the patriarchy.

    Thanks for reading & commenting!

  • Marie Starr

    How serendipitous to have stumbled across this article! This is an issue I have been struggling with myself recently. Having been in a dominant/submissive relationship where the dominant did not end up having my best interests at heart as my first sexual relationship (and having been a survivor of sexual abuse prior to that) I spent a long time believing that my submissive tendencies were all part of my "problem" and that the only way to become a "healthy adult" was to divest myself of these desires.

    However, after spending nearly a decade trying to do so (including a marriage and divorce) I now find myself in a relationship in which the level of respect, honesty, and communication has far exceeded any relationship I have ever had with a man before. Within this relationship, I have found myself comfortable enough to once again explore dominance and submission and, in all honesty, it is by far the best sex I've ever had.

    Obviously, this is also due to being in an actual "healthy" relationship in which there is not only love felt by both people, but respect and compassion and an honest desire for the good of the other. But it is also due to the level of trust, which allows both individuals to truly be themselves without fears of judgment, safety or intent. I think your point about the level of trust is essential to this issue – both for highly personal reasons and pertaining to issues of feminism and the patriarchy.

    While I still question whether I always had submissive tendencies that were merely recognized by those who then chose to take advantage of them or whether I became submissive because of my past experiences, the point of the matter is that I am submissive. Whatever the reason behind it, I enjoy it and I have come to believe that the only way we can be "healthy adults" is by being our authentic selves.

    Feminism is, fundamentally, about a woman's right to choose. A woman's right to be her authentic self, whatever that may entail. While I think it is always necessary to at least be honest with ourselves (and as often as possible with others), I think this concept of "this is what a feminist looks like, this is what a feminist does or does not do" is one of the most detrimental factors of feminism. So many women do not want to be classified as feminists simply because they do not identify with the narrow perception of feminist they have been given.

    By repressing and/or denying our wants, needs and/or desires (whether in the bedroom or the boardroom), we become our own oppressors. The patriarchy (as debated as it might be in theory) is strong and pervasive enough in reality without our assistance. I, for one, believe the years I spent denying my own desires were years spent in forced submission (to an idea instead of forced submission to an individual). Neither one was "healthy," satisfying, or honest. Neither one allowed me to be authentically me.

    Thank you for your time and energy! I appreciate your curiosity, wonderment and candor.

  • Marianne

    Hey there Marie!

    Thank you for YOUR candor! It's great to hear that my struggle and Ginger's and my wrestling with this fraught topic resonates with someone. All too often, stories like this are silenced, either by the perceived or real judgment of others of the confusing conflictedness of their teller. Yours is a powerful and (in my opinion) representative history.

    The point you make equating suppression of your true self for fear of others (or your own) judgment to "forced submission" really spoke to my experience. Well said! I will definitely be incorporating it into my future conversations around this issue.

    Thanks for commenting and congrats on having the best sex of your life! That's no small feat. You'd better be proud of yourself. May it only get better from here! In the meantime, you should probably celebrate such a momentous occasion by indulging in a serious get-down session.

    Good luck in your future endeavors (theoretical, sexual, and otherwise)!

  • feminist

    "safely and responsibly allowing ourselves to fully explore our sexual desires is an inherently feminist act"

    Well said!

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