A great post by one of my favorite BDSM fiction writers, Annabel Joseph (and seriously, if you’re looking for some good M/f erotic writing with great characters, look no further), recently got me thinking again about why submissives get such a bad rap in our (and by that I mean US/North American) culture. Because, really, submissives get no respect. You see it all the time: the word “submissive” is said with a sneer or a pitying shrug – it’s understood as a synonym for “subserviant” or weak, and it’s assumed that the person is acting that way because they are either oppressed (they have no choice but to be submissive), lazy (they’d rather let someone else do all the work) or stupid/ignorant (poor girl, no one ever told her about feminism!).
I really think it comes down to two things: power and sexism.
First, sexism: submission is seen as a feminine trait in our culture. Saying this gets into touchy areas. So please not that I am not saying that submission is inherently feminine, or women are inherently submissive – just that submissiveness is a trait that is assumed by culture to be feminine. And our culture does not value feminine traits or behaviors as much as masculine traits or behaviors. You can see this in the wage gap: traditional “blue collar” jobs like plumbing and auto repair are paid much better than “pink collar” jobs like child care. This is a case where you can see how the literal value of “feminine” traits are less than those of “masculine” ones.
So is it any surprise that submissiveness would be devalued, sneered at, pitied? Of course, this makes it sting all the more when that disdain comes from a fellow feminist. But of course, feminism is never going to be totally separate from the culture that made it, so these subtle ideas about value creep in.
It can be particularly insidiuous, too, because most modern third-wave (or are we now on the fourth wave?) feminists will not explicitly shun consensual BDSM play. If directly challenged, most will say “well, of course you have the right to do whatever you want with your partner, go on with your bad self!” And they will mean it! I think most feminists I know would agree that consensual BDSM is just fine.
But once you get outside the realm of once-in-a-while-for-some-spice dominance and submission, things get hairier, and I think that’s where power comes in. It seems like, whenever I discuss relationships with my friends, it always comes down to power. It’s good to have it, and bad to not.
Which, again, is a reflection of our larger culture. We value the “winners” – the ones who beat everyone else, shout the loudest, make the most money. The measure of success is how much power you have – so no wonder those who would give up power willingly to someone else are disdained.
You even see the devaluing of submissives and submission in the BDSM community. There’s been a lot of good stuff written about this subject, but one of the best is this essay about domism. And one phenomenon that always amused me is how submissives – on fetlife, in blogs, in real life – will trip over themselves to insist that they are not submissive in their day-to-day lives. And really, with that sort of cultural baggage, can you blame them? I’ve been guilty of it myself.
One thing I recently realized was that I came to accept my own submissiveness around the same time that my career started really taking off, after literally years of struggle, false starts and frustration. At the time, I thought it was because I was feeling more successful and confident that I was able to indulge my submissive side. And I think that was part of it.
But the ironic thing is that my career only really started taking off when I relaxed about it. Someday I hope to write more about this process, but it’s a long story and this blog post is already getting long enough as it is. Let’s just say that, after years of perfectionism and holding myself to impossible standards, I finally had a breakthrough moment where I had to accept my “imperfections.”
That was when things in my career started to fall into place, and when I started to accept my submissiveness. And I think part of the problem was that I had so internalized all those cultural messages about submission – that it meant I was weak, that no smart, feminist man would ever respect a woman who wanted to submit. But once I was finally able to accept that I was never going to be this ideal self I had in mind – and that that ideal self was kind of a bullshit, no fun, obnoxious person anyway! – I was able to think more clearly about what I actually wanted, and open up to the idea of living out my fantasies.
So I’m just going to say this straight out: if you are a feminist, please stop dismissing or otherwise shaming people who choose to be submissive. Because when you do so, you are reinforcing sexist, patriarchal ideas, and that is not cool.