Feminism and female submission

3 May

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.

7 Responses to “Feminism and female submission”

  1. Miranda May 4, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    I completely dominate my husband. He is Alpha type to the extreme in every situation except our relationship.
    I ended up with a boyfriend who is very beta type in life except with me. With me he is bossy and demanding.
    They have nothing in common.
    Explain that one. lol

  2. Dominant man May 5, 2011 at 11:05 am #

    Thank you for this post, and your previous one. It’s a rare pleasure to read such a serious analysis of straight relationships involving female submission and male dominance. I think I agree entirely with your way of looking at them.

    I’m a man currently living in just such a relationship. My girlfriend and I met on the web, and both knew what we were looking for. We’d both been interested in BDSM and in male-led or “Taken in Hand” relationships for some time before we met. I won’t go into inappropriate details about how we live. But I do want to be clear that we fall into the category you describe. I expect her to address me with respect and to obey me – and for the most part she does. It might also be helpful to make clear that we’re not religious, and that we’re not part of, or attached to, any BDSM “scene”. I sometimes wonder how many couples live like we do, entirely in private. Not many, I’m sure, but perhaps a few more than we think.

    The fact that I desire and need to dominate my partner in relationships doesn’t mean that I think all women should be submissive to men. Far from it. I explain myself to myself by saying that the way I think and feel is a sexuality, not a social philosophy. I believe strongly in equality and in full respect for women in public and in relationships, by which I mean that they’re entitled to all the choices that men have, and that we should all have as many choices as possible that don’t harm others.

    What’s interesting is that the confusion between street and bedroom, as you put it (I’d say street and relationship, or street and household – for us, and for the other relationships you seem to be referring to, dominance and submission go well beyond the bedroom) affects both many of those who are interested in male-led relationships, and those who are hostile to them. On the Taken in Hand website for instance you’ll see many posts that imply that submission is natural for all or most women, and that oppose feminism; and at other places on the web – I’m thinking of some BDSM forums – you can find hostility to the Taken in Hand concept because it’s assumed everyone who does it believes in female submission generally. I suppose, to be fair, that since quite a few of us do seem to think that, it may not be so outrageous for outsiders to have that impression. A pity.

    What I think is misunderstood by some of those who fantasise about turning the clock back to before the “second wave” is that women did not have, in those days, the choices my girlfriend has today. I suppose she might have found herself the right kind of husband, and enjoyed marital bliss. But I think it’d be wrong to assume that that world was an emotional paradise for anyone, even couples like us. As I’ve said before, we’re not religious, but I would compare people in a sexual minority like my girlfriend and me to a religious minority, in the sense that we’re actually freer to be our true selves in a secular society that guarantees freedom for all, than we would be in a theocracy that might happen to approve of a lifestyle a little like ours. It seems to me that my girlfriend’s choice to be with me is an expression of her freedom as a woman and a result of feminism, not a rejection of it.

    Finally, you ask whether men and women like my girlfriend and me can still be feminists. This is one thing about which I won’t claim to speak for her, but I think she’d call herself a feminist, and I think she’s right. I don’t call myself a feminist, for a couple of reasons, although I’m supportive of many feminist attitudes and campaigns. First, I think there’s such a high risk of anyone who finds out about my private life thinking me a hypocrite that I think it unwise to be seen as taking a clear public stand on sex equality – though I do speak up about things like equal pay and equal opportunities. Second, I think there is a danger of me in some way overcompensating for my own private desires, or trying too hard, and I think it might be better somehow for the world of feminist activism if I didn’t mess around in there, however well meaning I might be. I think there’s a risk of some men coming over as patronising self-appointed white knights in the feminist struggle, and since some of the ways I think about some women might well be thought patronising by some, I think it’s best to make very sure I don’t start putting on my armour. Third, I think feminism is a women’s movement and that my place in it is to make the tea and cheer from the sidelines.

    • Ginny May 5, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your story! It sounds like you two are exactly the kind of couple I had in mind when writing. I’m sorry, though not surprised, to hear that there are voices in the Taken in Hand community that claim submission is natural to all women. It’s very hard to eradicate such an idea if it accords with the holder’s personal experience and desires.

      What I think is misunderstood by some of those who fantasise about turning the clock back to before the “second wave” is that women did not have, in those days, the choices my girlfriend has today… It seems to me that my girlfriend’s choice to be with me is an expression of her freedom as a woman and a result of feminism, not a rejection of it.

      Yes, exactly. Feminism is — or should be — aiming to give a woman freedom to pursue the life that she thinks is best for her, whether that fits somebody else’s idea of what’s appropriate or not. This goes for your girlfriend, as well as stay-at-home moms, sex workers, knitters, and any other woman that gets accused of being ‘anti-feminist’ or ‘setting the movement back’ by living as she desires.

  3. John May 21, 2011 at 9:20 pm #

    My wife is a very politically aware feminist. She is assertive, she has a leadership role in her career, and she pretty much kicks ass on a daily basis.

    We do not have anything resembling a Taken in Hand marriage. No one is in charge of anyone else. In the bedroom, however, it’s a totally different story. She wants to be pursued, captured, and dominated. She submits totally. In the past, this has meant vanilla sex with me as the instigator and driving force, with occasional plunges into light bondage and spanking.

    Recently, however, we came to an agreement that we both want me to be more aggressively dominant, and much to her delight I have introduced hair-pulling, choking (well, just pretend choking, really. No dangerous breath play), and hard spanking into my repertoire. Now she’s telling me she wants me to get a paddle to “punish” her with, and a collar and leash so she can be my pet/plaything. I like these ideas!

    My point is that feminism and female erotic submission are far from mutually exclusive, and that male dominance need not extend beyond the bedroom.

  4. Beckie September 9, 2011 at 5:08 am #

    I am a female in a D/s relationship… And of course, I submit to his every command. We live our day to day life in that sense, not just in the bedroom..
    He protects me, and takes care of me..Just like he said he would from the get go. But this is all still very new to me! I’ve read many forums and chat sites about the BDSM community, the lifestyle, etc. And its all very helpful to me. I’m glad to know people are open about this, and it’s discussed from different views! Thanks!

  5. Submissive April 8, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    Great article – I’m a feminist and a submissive woman and I my partner and I are moving from bedroom submission to submission in other areas. I find it very pleasing – exciting and natural-feeling all at the same time. I think my submission stems from my personality and that, romantically-speaking, I fit best with a certain type of dominant personality.

    I think both the article and ‘Dominant man’ nailed it. My preference says nothing about other women, just as it says nothing about other subs (whether they be male, female, or something else entirely), or other people with blonde hair, or whatever.

    I have also come across the idea that women are all naturally submissive, mainly online, not really at events, and that therefore dominant women or submissive men are somehow ‘wrong’. It’s a very difficult thing to read, especially from sites (like Humbled Females) where I’d hoped to find some level of fellow feeling.

    My partner doesn’t feel the need to find ‘fellow feeling’ online – he’s happy doing his own thing, but I find it’s useful to read how others are doing submission, and why. So, I’ll carry on using sites like Humbled Females and will just have to ignore the attitudes I don’t like! Which, really, is what you have to do anywhere on the web.

    Overall, I find those sites (HF or TiH) invaluable resources – just as sites like this are invaluable reminder that I’m not actually mad, and that I can be both submissive and a feminist :)

    Thank you for writing, and for the comments.

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