Submission, power, and sexism (and the importance of letting go)

26 Feb

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.

8 Responses to “Submission, power, and sexism (and the importance of letting go)”

  1. Lily February 26, 2012 at 12:01 PM #

    I think there’s a thread of ageism here too: look at how often slurs against submissives contain references to age or maturity. Submissives are referred to as “childlike” or “running away from adult responsibilities.” (The ageism isn’t just coming from vanillas and being directed at kinkyfolk, either; within the BDSM community, ageplay is one of the fetishes that other kinky people feel entitled to laugh at).

    One of the touchy things about the kind of BDSM where one partner willingly cedes the right to make certain decisions to a dominant partner is this: it screws with our culture’s idea of what it means to be an adult. In our society, making our own choices is one of the things that makes us an adult. Not having the right to make those choices — “Not under my roof!” is one of the cultural markers for still being a kid.

    The difference here is the same thing that distinguishes BDSM from abuse: consent. If I consent to allow someone else to make decisions for me, I’m still making a decision. I’m not being oppressed or treated like a child.

    (Oddly, it’s perfectly acceptable to hire a personal trainer to boss us around mercilessly at the gym, or to hire a therapist to help us sort out our inner lives. So I guess we’re okay with inviting in positive sources of authority — but only if we can fire them).

    • feministsub February 26, 2012 at 12:18 PM #

      Lily, that’s a great point. I think this goes along with the idea that submissives are “lazy” – looking for someone else to take the lead, do all the work.

      (Oddly, it’s perfectly acceptable to hire a personal trainer to boss us around mercilessly at the gym, or to hire a therapist to help us sort out our inner lives. So I guess we’re okay with inviting in positive sources of authority — but only if we can fire them).

      And only if it doesn’t have to do with sex, of course!

  2. thesecond February 26, 2012 at 12:03 PM #

    From my experience, the only people who really hate submissive women are a few pushy feminist women. Most men regard such ladies quite positively.

    http://emmatheemosemomusings.blogspot.com/2011/08/submissiveness-and-strength.html

    “What does it mean for a woman to be submissive? I asked that question at Chateau Heartiste not too long ago, and received some interesting points of view from men. I asked because “submissive” is such a dirty word. I don’t know why, but I know that you just aren’t supposed to be that nowadays.
    They told me that being submissive is being doting, caring, serving and putting out on demand. None of these things ever seemed like a sign of submissiveness to me, just a sign of being nice and caring about the guy. I used to think submissiveness was about liking to be ravished/dominated in bed. Oh well. If being doting, caring and serving are submissive, then I will continue being submissive.”

    The traits people regard as submissive are extremely attractive to the majority of men.

    “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.”

    More because childcare doesn’t require any exceptional training or skill, and comes naturally to most women. There’s a lot of women who want to take care of children and are excellent at it, but it’s damn hard to find a good mechanic. Do a job no one else can do and you’ll get oodles of cash.

    “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.”

    Could be that I guess. Or more likely, it’s because feminism wants women to be strong and independent and not need men for anything, and to do it all on their own.They’re all, “You can do whatever you want”. Teeth on edge, judgement in their eyes, disgust in their voice.

    “it always comes down to power. It’s good to have it, and bad to not.”

    That is a foolish perspective from your friends. Power comes with responsibilities, pain, and danger.

    “that no smart, feminist man would ever respect a woman who wanted to submit.”

    They don’t respect feminist women much, since feminist women tend to be rather rude. The line between being opinionated and an asshole is narrow and frequently ‘confident’ women don’t see anything wrong with being an asshole. Being submissive is no disadvantage.

    • feministsub February 26, 2012 at 12:26 PM #

      I think your knowledge of feminism and its ideology and history is really lacking – and I have certainly not found feminists as a group of people to be more rude than the population as a whole. If that’s been your experience, you may want to consider that you have been the common element in these interactions.

      More because childcare doesn’t require any exceptional training or skill, and comes naturally to most women.

      This is not only false – it’s insulting to caregivers. And an extra X chromosome doesn’t magically give women the ability to care for children effortlessly – if it did, there would not be a multibillion-dollar industry around child-raising education. Even before this industry existed, parents learned from other parents.

      Also, please note that this blog is called “Feminist Sub.” I’m not interested in debating the merits of feminism, so please do not take this as an invitation to do so. If you’d like resources to read, I’m happy to provide those.

  3. Conina February 26, 2012 at 5:56 PM #

    This is one of the things I have struggled with in the past – reconciling what I “should” be as a feminist with the deep-seated need I have to be submissive.

    Then I read a fine article, years ago, on how feeling free to be submissive was exactly the kind of choice feminism was designed to allow, and suddenly, the chains on my brain released and I was good. It all made sense.

    I read a lot more, recently, about how submission isn’t valued even amongst kinky folks, and I find myself glad not to be part of a “scene.” I know my husband values mine; he tells me so all the time. But I do see a lot of examples of dynamics in which it certainly seems the submissive isn’t particularly valued at all… and yet, the relationship continues. Perhaps because of the underlying devaluation the submissive feels in the first place?

    This post is much like the first article I mentioned – it makes my brain happy.

    • feministsub February 27, 2012 at 1:58 PM #

      I’m glad this made your brain happy! I love reading your blog too.

      Also, your comment reminded me that I’d forgotten to link to the piece I mentioned, Domism: Role Essentialism and Sexism Intersectionality in the BDSM Scene. So thank you!

      But I do see a lot of examples of dynamics in which it certainly seems the submissive isn’t particularly valued at all… and yet, the relationship continues. Perhaps because of the underlying devaluation the submissive feels in the first place?

      This is something I’ve noticed as well. Some submissive blogs make my heart hurt. And I know we’re not supposed to judge others’ kinks, but it’s really hard for me to not see some of these relationships as abusive. And I think the devaluation of submission is part of that – even the idea that submissives would need to be “under consideration” by a dominant, but not the other way around. I even think a lot of the narratives in the BDSM community about how few “real” Doms there are out there plays into that, giving some subs the idea that they should just be happy with what scraps they can get.

      Whew, maybe I need to write a whole post about this!

  4. Keksas April 25, 2012 at 5:44 AM #

    Hi,
    I’m glad to find your blog. I am also feminist and submissive. Actually I started bdsm only recently, although I liked it from long ago (sometimes I used to do it alone). I am in a relationship with my boyfriend for a long time already and only recently started to tell him bit by bit that I like it and that I would like to try it with him. I feared that he wouldn’t understand me, but he did and I like it.
    But what is still troubling me is how it will affect our everyday life. He’s far from feminist, and he likes a stereotyped family model where a woman does all work at house (we live in Lithuania, former USSR, so there are interesting issues about feminism, sexism and gender roles which are probably a little different from western countries). I don’t like that and we keep arguing about that. He tells me to make meal for him or to do other housework and it makes him angry when I don’t do it. I’m trying to talk to him quite often about that and it seems to help, now he’s trying to be less controlling and does more work at home. But I wonder now, how the fact that I like to be submissive in bed will change our relationships. Well, we’ll see about that.
    I also want to note one thing about what you write in your post. I don’t know much about bdsm yet, as I’m new, but I think that being submissive and being week are two completely different things. It really requires a lot of strength to be submissive in many points of view. I mean, you have to be strong to endure some things, even simple, but also you need to be strong to accept your submissiveness to yourself and to tell about it to others.

  5. Alterity March 16, 2013 at 9:14 AM #

    I too am feminist, submissive, and relatively new to bdsm. I’m struggling really hard to reconcile what feels so mutually exclusive. I’ve always had a great deal of self esteem, but as I grew older (I’m 40) I began to notice that I took delight in being controlled in bed as well as out of it. I was raised, like so many other women, to have collapsed boundaries (aka codependence) as they are so intertwined with femininity. (That article on Domism and Role Essentialism hits the nail on the head.) I, along with so many other children of my generation with divorced parents, witnessed my mother’s experience of going from being an unemployed, uneducated, but fantastic housewife, mother, homemaker to a divorced, penniless, vulnerable, powerless victim who would not have found herself in such a position had she followed a different path in life. Having a deep sense of self worth and an awareness of the socioeconomic-political roles at play, I turned my experiences into a personal worldview that valued caregiving and the domestic sphere that was traditionally considered labor of love to be done primarily by women. I thought that by valuing this historically devalued role, I was turning weakness into strength, at least in my small atomistic sphere. Being nice, caring, giving, and good only served to hold me back from succeeding in anything: my career and my personal life suffered and all that I ever got from being like this were spiritual points. I am still a nice girl, finishing last, as Men Marry Bitches, i.e. women with boundaries, who give ultimatums, cloaked or blatant. I guess my point is that I have a very hard time seeing submission as anything other than weakness, impossible to coexist with feminism.

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