In my last post, I wrote about how no, you numskulls, feminism is NOT the anti-Viagra. I ended by saying that gender equality has brought everybody a step closer to sexual fulfillment. I will admit, though, that to the casual eye any sexual dynamic involving male dominance and female submission can look anti-feminist. This problem is made even bigger by the fact that some people do want to carry their dominant or submissive roles outside the bedroom. If a woman calls her boyfriend Master and obeys his orders, can she still be a feminist? Can he?
I don’t want to go into all the intricacies of lifestyle BDSM; for one thing, it can get really esoteric really fast, and while I know the broad outlines of the territory, the more detailed I try to get the more likely I am to get stuff wrong. For another, it can get hugely contentious, and I would have to spend paragraph on paragraph explaining what I do and don’t mean, what I am and am not saying, and nobody wants to read that. Suffice it to say that there are a LOT of different ways people do BDSM, ranging from bedroom-only to 24/7 power-exchange relationships, and these happen between any combination of roles and genders, including male dominant/female submissive. Which, as I said before, can look anti-feminist to the casual eye. So let me explain why it’s not.
There are many schools of thought which claim that women are made to submit to men; that we are all healthiest and happiest when men are running the show and women are playing the supporting roles. Many of these schools of thought are religious, but they don’t have to be; anyone who wants to can do a little hack psychology and come up with an argument that women crave submission and dependence. It’s not anti-feminist, they’ll argue: it’s just expressing the facts about our natures. Women want to be taken care of by a strong man; they benefit from an arrangement where the man makes most of the decisions, controlling their mutual life for their mutual interest. Political correctness is standing in the way of what’s best for everybody.
One thing that makes these arguments viable is that they’re true — for some women. There are, indeed, women who feel happiest, most loved, most fulfilled, if their partner is making most of the decision, if they have clearly-defined roles. There are women who take deep satisfaction from serving their partner and catering to their wants and needs. Telling them that it’s wrong or a betrayal of the Sisterhood to live such a life is only going to make them less happy.
But. It’s so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be said, but apparently it does — just because some women operate that way doesn’t mean that all women do. Or that no men do. Or that recognizing that this dynamic works for some couples says anything, anything at all, about the fundamental natures of all women and men everywhere throughout the history of humanity.
I’ve long hypothesized that the most earnest and well-meaning proponents of the “Wives, submit to your husbands” creed in Christianity (which I’m picking on because it’s the one I know best) are women who do feel most fulfilled by a slight service/submission dynamic in their relationships. It’s easy for them to believe that God made women to submit to men, because they are made to submit to men. Or at least to the particular man they’ve married. They universalize their experience, as we all tend to do.
The thing I love about the kinky community is that you can’t get more than two steps into it without realizing that everyone has their own tastes, and what works for you is what works for me, and maybe we should just live and let live and enjoy the marvelous variety of human experience. There are people who try to claim that their way is The Right Way, of course, but they’re by far the minority. Mostly, people in the kink community understand that the woman sitting next to me, who loves calling her boyfriend Master and submitting to his whims, tells them absolutely nothing about me, my sexuality, my needs and interests. We may both have vaginas and two X chromosomes, but that doesn’t mean her good life is the same as mine.
Going back to more mainstream examples, say a woman who really likes her male partner to handle the budget and financial decisions. Or, here’s a more social example, and kind of a weird one: Shaun and I were at a Polyamory 101 meetup, a discussion group geared for people who were pretty new to the whole concept. Most of the attendees were male-female couples, though there were also a few female-female couples and some single people. At the beginning we went around and did introductions, and what Shaun and I both noticed — and were a little weirded out by — was that every single het couple, until it got to us, had the man speaking for both of them, and the woman nodding silently.
Shaun and I each spoke for ourselves, like the independent adults we are, and then as the introductions proceeded around the room, the former pattern continued: man speaks, woman silently agrees. I think maybe one or two of the other partnered women spoke, either with their partners or instead of them. It was weird.
That circle of introductions reminded me uncomfortably of religious meetings I’ve been in where a married woman is under social pressure to be silent and deferential as her husband speaks. I’d never have expected to see it in a group of relationship outlaws. I think there were a number of different things going on. Maybe some of the women were mostly there because their partners wanted to be and didn’t have a lot to say for themselves. For a lot of them, probably, it was simply that “the man speaks” was the pattern established ahead of them, and they conformed to it like good social animals. (I’ve also seen similar situations where the women do all the talking.) And some of them, I suspect, really do like having their man speak for them in public situations. It makes them feel comfortable and sheltered, or something.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the latter class of women — at least, nothing wrong from a feminist point of view. (In some cases, I think there may be a problem with maturity and growth, but that’s another topic.) Nor is there something wrong with a man who feels the same way. The problem comes in when those naturally-submissive women, assuming their preferred role, are used as part of an argument that all women prefer that role, or should. Or that for a man to prefer that role makes him less of a man. The problem comes in when, like good social animals, we try to mimic the behavior of people around us instead of thinking about what would be most satisfying to us. Because we have this tendency, it’s important to examine social patterns that encode male dominance and female submission, to point out the messages that are being carried within certain rituals (like the traditional marriage proposal.) And then, because the only feminism worth supporting is the kind that defends every woman’s right to live the way she desires, it’s important to let people embrace, or reject, or modify those rituals as they please.