It’s a feminist submissive thing

1 Jun

(Yes, I am totally dating myself with the reference in that title.)

Sometimes, being a feminist submissive means threading the finest of needles.

Earlier this week, I got involved in an online discussion prompted by a question from a self-identified feminist submissive about taking her fiance/master’s name after marrying. It was clear that this was a serious conflict for her – on the one hand, she liked the idea of being able to do this thing that showed the world she was “his.”  But on the other hand, she worried that this was an unfeminist act.

And I feel her! I think I’ve come really, really far in reconciling my own feminist and submissive identities, but I still have those moments of feeling like my submission is inherently and irrevocably at odds with my feminism.

Just last week, I was reading about a particularly insular and patriarchal religious sect, and I came across this snippet:

The real issue is sex. Not the act, but what it signifies — male control of women. That old story.

Ouch. Punch in the gut.

Rationally, I know that consensual, negotiated sex that really, really gets me off is totally different from a deeply patriarchal religion where no one’s roles are freely chosen. But damn if there isn’t a part of me that doesn’t feel a twinge about the fact that I (with my privileged education and vast amounts of personal freedom and mobility) eroticize this very “old story.”

Male control of women? That is quite literally what gets me off.

So in my response to the woman getting married, I tried to thread the feminist submissive needle carefully. I empathized with the complexity and told her that it was ok to feel a bit ambivalent, but that it was also ok for her to choose whatever she wanted to do.

And there were some other good responses. But there were a few that got under my skin, and at first, I couldn’t quite figure out why. They were all saying some variation on, “That’s not what feminism is about! Feminism is about choice!”

The “feminism is about choice!” response to feminist concerns about submission has never sat well with me, but I’ve never been quite able to put my finger on exactly why I found it so grating. I mean, I don’t actually agree that feminism is only about choice, but that wasn’t the only reason it bothered me.

Finally it hit me, and you’ll have to forgive me if this seems stunningly obvious: I dislike this response because, to a certain kind of feminist, it’s just deeply unhelpful. And maybe even harmful.

For a long time, I actually felt sort of weirdly shamed by this argument, on both sides.

On the one hand, I felt embarrassed that I’d let my politics so blind me to what I wanted sexually. It made me feel tricked. And on the other hand, it made me feel like I really was rejecting my feminist values by embracing my submissive side. Because again, my brand of feminism does not believe feminism is all about choice. Our choices are informed by culture and socialization, and make statements about our values and beliefs.

That’s obviously not to say that a feminist should only do ever do things that are perfectly in line with his or her feminist values, or that they are a Bad Feminist if they do something that seems to go in line with gender norms, for instance. But rather, that yes, it is complicated. Because life is complicated. Politics are complicated. Relationships are complicated.

So hey, feminist submissives (and doms and switches and whatever elses), you go on with your bad complicated selves. Complicated people make the best lovers, anyway.

21 Responses to “It’s a feminist submissive thing”

  1. Kitty the Submissive Wife June 2, 2012 at 6:15 AM #

    Can I just say – What you said. All of it. I may be in the exact same spot of not quite resolved, a bit of shame, a bit of reveling and all on me.

    But I love your realization – it is not a very helpful answer. Don’t we do that a lot – give not very helpful answers? I will think on this more.

    • feministsub June 2, 2012 at 10:14 AM #

      Yep. I know people who say that ARE trying to be helpful, but to me it just never was.

  2. Tomio Hall-Black June 2, 2012 at 9:22 AM #

    Strictly speaking, I don’t think that feminism is about choice at all. It’s about liberating women from the pre-conceived and prepackaged roles that “society” has approved for them to live their lives within. Choice is secondary to that goal (again, this is my thinking only) in that once a person breaks out of a straight-jacket they get to choose what to do with their hands. But the purpose of breaking out of the straight-jacket isn’t necessarily to choose what to do with one’s hands, it is simply to be out of confinement. Freedom, while important, is incidental to the initial goal.

    To carry that metaphor a bit further, if a person were to break out of a straight-jacket, and yet choose to sit with their arms wrapped around their bodies in exactly the same fashion as when the straight-jacket was on (struggling with how to word that better, but hoping everyone follows); then we can ask if the person is any better for not having the straight-jacket on. On the one hand, they are not – their hands are no more useful than before. The reasons for their comfort with the position might be some form of conditioning, and therefore they would not be truly “free” of the straight-jacket until they were deprogrammed. But it is possible, as well, that they simply find that position comforting for non-programmed reasons. Who can tell the difference when not even the person involved in the behavior knows?

    This is the paradox where many such feminist-choice discussions get stuck upon the shoals and devolve into symbolic arguments.

    B.F. Skinner viewed “freedom” as illusory, at best. Freedom, to him, was simply the freedom to place one’s self under a preferred set of controls, since it is impossible to break entirely free of controls. So if one is confined is a straight-jacket; then they cannot be free (assuming it is non-consensual). However, once the straight-jacket is off, so long as they are not responding to external pressures to resume the straight-jacketed position; then they are infinitely better off because they have chosen the controls to which they respond.

    Sorry this is so long…

    So if you, as a feminist, are capable of having a relationship that is not male-dominated, but choose, of your own free will (Skinner scoffs at the notion of free will, as well) to place yourself under that set of controls…then you are perfectly free and exercising your will. This, I believe, IS the goal of feminism since you are not stuck with adhering to prepackaged and predetermined roles…as you have said, you choose this because it is your kink.

    I hope that is a bit more helpful than “it’s about choice.”

    • feministsub June 2, 2012 at 10:13 AM #

      Tomio, brilliant as always. I think I’ll have more to say later, just wanted to say how much I love this comment.

  3. Conina June 2, 2012 at 11:52 AM #

    I didn’t change my name. I sometimes have that same response to it, so desperately wanting to be labeled as HIS… but at the same time, I know that that’s just a social norm and it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone but me – it would just be compliance with social norms.

    And.. it’s not about choice, right, but about the freedom to make your own choices. The freedom to choose how to vote, how to live, who to love, how to fuck, and have no one else sticking their noses and opinions and values into it, forcing you to comply with what they think is best. Just yours. Which sounds like a different phrasing of the same damn thing, but, isn’t.

    Well, Tomio said it more brilliantly. So. (I only read his after I typed mine)

    • feministsub June 5, 2012 at 8:37 AM #

      Honestly, I don’t think I would change my name either for the same reasons as you – but I know that, should the time come, there will be a part of me that will want to.

      And you’re right – it isn’t the same thing, but the nuance is difficult to articulate (for everyone except Tomio! ;) )

      • Tomio Hall-Black June 5, 2012 at 9:26 AM #

        Actually, I have spoken with Mistress about taking Her name if/when we marry…

      • feministsub June 5, 2012 at 9:35 AM #

        @Tomio – awwwwww. :)

  4. Lily June 2, 2012 at 5:58 PM #

    You’ve encountered Judith Butler, right?

    Her notion of “gender splendor” really resonates with me. By “gender splendor” she means really immersing yourself and reveling in all the trappings of your gender, whatever that might be for you.

    I think a lot of M/f and Taken In Hand stuff is fun and compelling for the people who do it because they’re engaging in precisely that kind of gender splendor — they’re taking the gender expression that really moves them and acting it out, a bit like an opera, big and flashy and splashy.

    But I have to believe that consciously enacting a gender role has to be better than thoughtlessly enacting received wisdom about “men” and “women.” And some people doing M/f D/s are doing exactly that. (Others aren’t, of course).

    I did actually take my husband’s name. At the time, I wasn’t acting on anything kinky — I actually loved the novelty of having a whole new name.

    (Heh. I was excited to see this entry pop up in my reader, and then I clicked through and thought “Tomio Black commented, this is gonna be good!”)

    • Tomio Hall-Black June 2, 2012 at 6:13 PM #

      You guys are really good for a guy’s ego…thank you, each, for your kind words.

      • feministsub June 5, 2012 at 8:39 AM #

        I think the proper way for you to thank us is to update your blog more frequently. Clearly, the public demands your words! ;)

        (Not that I’m one to talk …)

    • feministsub June 5, 2012 at 10:24 AM #

      You know, I have to admit that I am not properly familiar with Judith Butler – definitely a gap that I will need to address! But yes, I really like that idea of gender splendor – which I’ve always thought of as “gender performance.”

  5. doobedoo June 4, 2012 at 1:42 PM #

    surely feminism is about being able to choose and not be forced into something, so this could include the choice to be a sub/dom or something (or to explore that side of your sexuality) and not conform to an idea of how people should behave that’s based on patriarchal assumptions about women that’s been handed down by the church or a religion. so if that means that you enjoy being submissive its still a feminist thing because you are exercising the choice to have sex how you want

    well that’s how i see it anyway

  6. doobedoo June 4, 2012 at 1:46 PM #

    recently ive been er slightly pissed off by these “radical feminists” (that i dont consider feminist at all) that want to stop people enjoying bdsm, or for that matter they want to stop people being transsexuals, or whatever, which i think is just ridiculous, because they are still dictating to women how they should behave, and have an idea in their heads that women cant enjoy sex, but have invented different reasons for it

    • feministsub June 5, 2012 at 8:42 AM #

      You know, I don’t agree with radical feminism, but I at least understand where much of it is coming from. But the transphobia – I REALLY do not get that and it’s like “really, are you that determined to be a fringe group?!” I feel the same way about the arguments that women don’t enjoy sex – but that just makes me feel sad for them. I think there’s a lot of pain and trauma there.

      • doobedoo June 7, 2012 at 5:10 AM #

        Yeah totally understand, i used to think a bit like that too. I think a lot of them have been very badly hurt and are responding to that, it is very obvious that a lot of them have been seriously abused in the past, although that doesnt give them an excuse. It is more sadder than anything.

        I do have problems with pornography and prostitution and that and i think they are real problems which are often ignored by parts of feminism.

        its just the obvious hatred which get’s to me. Like for example there was some comment on a feminist blog i was reading, about bdsm, where they were saying that people who liked it should never be allowed to talk about it and should just “shut up”. And isn’t it the case that this would make it worse for everyone because they are basically expecting everyone to be ashamed of themselves, and if nobody ever talks about something and it creates an atmosphere of fear, that will make it easier for abuses to occur. It seems completely counterproductive to whatever they want to achieve (i dont know what that is, lol).

        As for the transphobia thing, yeah I can’t understand that at all. It’s very sad :( I have friends who are transgendered and intersex and i cannot the torture they have to go through on a daily basis, even something as simple as going to a public toilet, or having to put up with everyone staring at them all the time. So why would anyone want to contribute to that, especially if they call themselves a feminist? I dont know.

  7. RogueBambi June 6, 2012 at 12:09 PM #

    Love the last sentence. And yes. I have the freedom to choose to submit to my husband. It wouldn’t be much fun, if there wasn’t a chance I might not.

  8. feministtalk June 14, 2012 at 10:51 AM #

    Awesome post. I find myself relating to you with some points that you made. I often believe that choosing to change your name is something that is traditionally done. Mainly because it has always existed in our society. Although some cultures allow the women to keep her name (not sure which, sorry). But i think the root of the problem with some women (who are feminists) is that by changing her name she is only following the patriarchal structure that the woman goes from her father to her husband so that she is now in the care of her husband. So this means she must take his name, which becomes a problem for some feminist. But when you think of it, it is a never ending cycle of last names because women still take after their father anyways, and it probably wont ever stop since women whether your mother or grandmother or great grandmother took a mans name. I also think that as feminists people are always watching our every move in order to verify how less or more of a feminist we are compared to them. I think we become feminists for our reasons and wanting to help empower women by becoming something better than what we normally think empowerment is. I still struggle between changing my last name, but I think if both parties are willing to compromise, then a hyphenated last name could be a solution?

  9. deviant wench July 11, 2012 at 10:32 PM #

    Speaking as another woman who identifies as both a sub and a feminist, to me, it IS about the choice. I’m not being forced into this role, in fact it’s one I’ve never taken until I met Himself and something just clicked inside me. It would be as unnatural to be told I CAN’T be submissive as would be to be told I MUST be submissive.

    It’s a false dichotomy, I think, like the working woman vs stay-at-home-mom thing. Feminism, to me, says that women can choose for themselves what roles they want to play in life, what career path they want to choose, whether or not marry or change their names. Saying a stay-at-home-mom can’t be a real feminist is as ridiculous as saying a working woman can’t be a real mother.

    I also look at the issue that submission isn’t sex- or gender-coded. I know gay subs, lesbian subs, transgender subs, and straight male subs. Would we think for one moment that they’re subs because it’s a traditionally expected role? No, because they are not in traditional male/female or male up/female down relationships. I think that makes it pretty clear that a submissive is a submissive, sex/gender identity aside, and if it happens to mimic “traditional” roles for straight submissive women and straight dominant men, then that’s a coincidence and not a cause.

    I am tired and I’m sure there’s a much better way of explaining what I’m thinking, but at the moment, I’m not capable of it, so I’m just going to give it up and hope it makes sense. :)

  10. thequeerinsideme October 19, 2012 at 3:22 PM #

    Oh, I love how subtly and yet, powerfully you present your argument…. I will admit I recoiled at first — for me, realizing that it was my choice, helped me embrace complexity of my contradictions. But now you’re making me word it differently, and perhaps more precisely — I know that I am influenced by the society I live in, as well as by my standing in that society, my gender, my upbringing, etc. I know that my fantasies (as well as a lot of things I choose to do in life) play into the patriarchal structure of this society. I also know that on some level, there’s no escaping the hegemony as long as I choose to remain a member — and that my consent can easily be “manufactured.” BUT I am aware of what I am doing — of the influences that lead to my consent, of the complications inherent in my desires, of the power dynamics I’m involved in, in bed and in the “real world,” — and it is this precise awareness that allows me to make an informed choice, still motivated by my body and ways it responds to socially acceptable and unacceptable stimuli, still not completely free, but feminist in ways that it is feminine, it is conscious, it is mine.

    So… not completely free, perhaps, but fully aware.

    P.S. bell hooks makes a similar argument somewhere about inter-racial sex and how not to let it become a simulation of a colonial playground. It seems that recognizing the power dynamics might allow us to stay on top of them even as we are submitting.

  11. Susan May 13, 2013 at 8:43 AM #

    In the bedroom, I am a submissive myself, and I embrace every moment of fulfillment my husband gives me. No one on the outside would ever know this of me; I’ve got a good managing job, and have no trouble at all living out my submissive side sexually with my hubby.

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