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The popular feminist discourse around BDSM is all about choice. Sexual submission and associated acts of degradation all get the feminist stamp of approval because they are quite decidedly “a choice”, and who is patriarchy to tell us we can’t have them. Who indeed? We can dismantle patriarchy, be slapped in the face by our lovers, have our delicious cake and eat it too. Any discrepancies between our great loves of feminism and power exchange are explained away by the all-mighty magic of “choice”. Quite marvellous, really.

But I can’t help but wonder what it would mean if we don’t actually get to choose our desires at all. Because I don’t think I chose mine. A certain feminist fantasy of BDSM seeks to remove us from the influence of patriarchy altogether, but I don’t think dear patriarchy is so easily rid of. Our desires don’t develop in a vacuum. Patriarchy weaves its way into most places, so it’s kind of fantastical to imagine that we’d elude all our classic assumptions about sex and gender in the bedroom of all places (…kitchen, laundry, dungeon, library, whatever). “My thoughts, desires, insecurities, and behaviours are not suddenly cordoned off from a larger culture once I close the bedroom door.

To quote liberally from this article:

To me, I just can’t see the point of being a feminist if I’m not going to ask ‘why?’ about most everything. I ask why I keep shaving my legs, why I’m unable to eat food for the entire day before a first date (I get nervous, you guys!), why I think buying shoes will make my life better, and I ask why I feel or think or do the things I do in bed with a man. Sometimes I even think about why I go to bed with men in the first place. Is this biological or social? Would I be a lesbian if I hadn’t been conditioned towards heterosexuality? Some of these questions I have answers to, others I’m not quite sure about. But I know this: much of my sexual history and behaviour has been determined by factors including my growing up a girl in a man’s world.

So it is that lately I’ve been asking myself why my sexual desires are what they are. Is it just a coincidence that they’re so complicit with patriarchy? Basic submission can perhaps be explained away, but it’s harder to convince yourself that you legitimately chose to lust quite specifically after a sick “know your place” sort of patriarchal power exchange. As a feminist, it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that your vagina is really into reenacting your own gendered oppression: worshipping hegemonic masculinity, being humiliated for your womanhood, the “eroticisation of a vastly horrific social order“. Excellent, just what I wanted. I endured patriarchy, and all I got was this stupid orgasm.

I can’t pretend like my desire to be demeaned and humiliated in a specifically gendered way has developed entirely independent of patriarchy. Perhaps reenactment is a way of dealing with trauma? Perhaps it’s all in the taboo? Whatever it is, it wouldn’t exist without patriarchy. Even when I’m fucking I can’t escape the blasted thing. When I think about it enough, it doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all.

Thankfully, even if it’s not entirely a choice, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong – and oh my Germaine, I don’t think it makes me “a bad feminist” after all. To quote liberally from here once again:

 “We can recognize our influences while still liking what we like.” We don’t have to have sex in any prescribed way simply because we are feminists. But to say that “sexism doesn’t get to dictate what I can and can’t enjoy” isn’t entirely true. Because in many ways it does and it has. All the fucked up ways I behave in my life were, as far as I can tell and in one way or another, determined by my experience being socialized in a patriarchal society. That doesn’t mean I need to hate myself for it. It doesn’t even mean I need to stop behaving in those ways or thinking those weird, unhealthy things about my face/life/body/boyfriends. But it sure doesn’t hurt to recognize how sexism factors into the equation. In fact, I think that understanding the way that sexism has messed with my head is the only way to overcome it (eventually).

So I shouldn’t feel guilty about my sexuality, and I shouldn’t stop spending my Friday nights over men’s knees, but I should definitely acknowledge what has influenced my desires. Identifying where patriarchy has tampered with us is part of the struggle to dismantle it.

I think it’s ok that patriarchy totally makes me wet. Different people’s desires have obviously evolved differently under the watchful eye of patriarchy, but mine are what they are as a (mostly) hetero cis-gendered female/femme who has lived with sexism as her constant companion, and they’re not dangerous. I’m thankful for sex-positive feminism, because it tells me not to be ashamed. I’m mindful too of the privilege that makes it possible for me to at least have the illusion of choice at all. But I’m starting to think that feminism and submission are not best reconciled by choice in the end. Alas!

As this lovely feminist writes, “You aren’t fucking in a bubble and yet you also can have your desire. Have it without shame.” That’s how I’m trying to have mine.

Michelle

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