This is the second part of a two-part series on female submission and oppression. Read the first post here.
"[Some feminists believe] that our society is so patriarchal that women cannot validly participate in S/M...I don't suppose these authors would would say that our society is so patriarchal that a woman cannot validly consent to have an abortion." Jay Wiseman, author of S/M 101.
The woman who admits to enjoying sexual submission often finds herself stuck between the rock of a sexist society that tells her she's just exemplifying women's true nature, and the hard place of a feminist community that considers her brainwashed by the patriarchy. Why is a female submissive so rarely accepted as "a woman just plain getting her rocks off," Cliff Pervocracy wonders? A deeply unhelpful media may be part of the answer. As feminist kinkster Mollena Williams, co-author of Playing Well With Others, points out, "If people see the imagery of BDSM, whips, chains, pain, the serial killers of film and television...? Of course they may be repelled and confused." That itself doesn't make an activity wrong, or anti-feminist. The feminists who condemn female submissives "mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone," says pro-BDSM feminist Gayle Rubin. When women's sexual behavior is subject to negative scrutiny and found "wanting" by other women, it isn't feminism—it's bigotry, often fueled by little more than personal prejudices.
Sexual judgment can be a one-way street in the feminist community, with the supposedly all-knowing, superior feminist criticizing the "brainwashed," patriarchy-internalizing woman who enjoys BDSM. Yet no one dares ask what makes anti-BDSM feminists so neutral. Perhaps we feel it would be unsisterly, but what's sisterly about feminists telling other feminists that they are "dupes of the patriarchy?" Those who condemn female submissives need to consider what conditioning has created their own sexual compass before they judge others. As Cliff Pervocracy says, "I don't get on vanilla women's cases about how maybe they're only vanilla because society discourages women from unconventional sexual choices." Plus, the conditioning argument is overly simplistic—for Mollena Williams, coming out as a submissive involved rejecting, not embracing, much of her conditioning. She says, "I was taught that being strong was the first thing you had to be, especially ... as a black woman. To be submissive, to be obedient, was NOT acceptable."
Anti-BDSM feminists also need to understand the difference between consensual kink and violence against women, as they regularly fail to distinguish between the two. While a woman being dominated in a BDSM scenario and a rape scene may look similar to the untrained viewer, they're about as different from each other as skydiving and being shoved out of an airplane. In direct opposition to a culture which so often disregards women's consent and desire, BDSM places the submissive's right to choose—the right to change their mind, the right to say no, the right to pleasure—front and center. Since when did patriarchy care about women enjoying any of those privileges? BDSM often prioritizes consent and safety far more effectively, especially for heterosexual women, than the sexual culture of the vanilla mainstream.
That it's only women whose sexual tastes are dismissed as a mere result of sexist brainwashing is likely due to our culture's penchant for denying women their agency. When did you last hear of a man who enjoyed the services of a dominatrix being accused of not really wanting his salary, or the vote, or a life free from violence? Speculating that women enjoy sexual submission because "free will is such a burden for 21st century women" is to take a patronizing and limited view of women's intelligence and sexuality. People are aroused by many things that are not necessarily indicative of their wider lives. And why does no one ever consider that it is only when one's status in society is not in question that it feels safe to surrender power? As Stacey May Fowles writes, "the more I submitted sexually, the more I was able to be autonomous in my external life, the more I was able to achieve equality in my sexual and romantic partnerships."
By condemning subs, feminists are taking autonomy away from submissives. Fowles observes that, in the recent media shitstorm about 50 Shades, "no one took the time to actually even ask one [female] submissive what her personal wants or needs are." Cliff Pervocracy agrees: "When I look you in the eye and say 'I want this, I chose this, I sought this out,' believe me. If you trust women to know their own needs, believe me; and if you don't, don't call yourself a feminist."