Gender in pop culture redux: why “men can’t understand women!” is no excuse

One of my early posts on this blog was about gender roles in pop culture, particularly TV shows. I mentioned that Avatar: the Last Airbender is one of the few shows I’ve seen that gets full marks for gender equality, and hazarded the guess that Buffy the Vampire Slayer looked promising but I hadn’t seen enough of it. Now I’ve seen almost three seasons and I can pronounce: yes, Buffy gets 100 out of 100 for gender equality.

It’s not just about whether women are portrayed as tough or smart or competent. It’s about whether women are fully formed characters, with projects of their own, with complex motivations, with their own perspective on the world of the story. When you’re writing a story, for some of the characters you really get inside their heads and figure out what the world looks like from their point of view, and for some you just bring them in as set pieces. In too much pop culture, the female characters — even the smart, tough, competent ones — exist as set pieces for the more fully-realized male characters to interact with.

When I was younger I was talking with my dad about writing characters of the opposite gender, and he theorized that it would be easier for a woman to write from a man’s point of view than for a man to write from a woman’s. I’ve heard a similar sentiment a number of times since then, sometimes to excuse the fact that male writers (who, especially in the sci-fi/fantasy fiction worlds I like to hang out in, are still the majority) don’t write more and better female characters. To those who put forth that excuse, I have two words: Bull Shit. I don’t think women are inherently more complicated or mysterious than men, and whenever I see a man claiming that they are, I suspect he’s just excusing intellectual and emotional laziness.

When a man claims that it’s impossible to understand how a woman thinks, or when he tries to write a female character and fails, I think there’s one of two things going on. First, he may be failing to really see her as a subject, not an object of sexual interest. I’ve read men writing from a female point of view, usually in a sexual or romantic context, and the female character is thinking exactly what the male character would like her to be thinking. She is preoccupied with him and her responses to him, to the exclusion of other thoughts and objects. Real human beings don’t think that way: our complete preoccupation with each other lasts for tiny moments, and in between are all our other thoughts, interests, and concerns.

If you look back on your teenage years, undoubtedly you can recall a time when a person you were crushing on was behaving in a perplexing, unaccountable way. What did they mean? One minute they were sending you strong signals of interest, the next minute they showed complete indifference or dislike. What could be going on? What were they thinking, were they crazy? In retrospect you can (I hope!) see that all their perplexing, inconsistent behavior had a simple explanation: they weren’t really thinking about you in one way or another. You did not register for them. Moments you were sure were a sign of their secret passion for you were accidental, as were moments of brutal rejection. Their behavior was confusing only because you assumed that they were thinking about you as intently as you were thinking about them. They weren’t: they were in their own world, dealing with their own stuff, and you were barely a blip on the radar. (If that’s news to anybody reading, don’t go thinking you’re an eternal nobody: it’s almost certain that you have been in the position of Oblivious Unattainable One to someone else, as well. Really. Even you.)

This happens on an individual basis to boys and girls pretty evenly. But on an overall cultural basis, I think there’s a similar dynamic  going one-way from men to women. Men in our culture are encouraged to view themselves as subjects and women as objects, and when women go about acting as subjects in their own right, it’s darned confusing. Women’s behavior is confusing to men because men are falsely assuming that, at some level, it’s all about them. It really isn’t.

The second problem men have in understanding what goes on in a woman’s head is cultural. Women and men do grow up in somewhat different cultural landscapes, and there are communication patterns, social expectations, markers of status, and other cultural hallmarks unique to each gender. (Need I mention that the degree of difference between men and women, and the specific cultural distinctions, will vary widely depending what larger culture they are in?) A person coming from a different culture is likely to have different beliefs, different prejudices, different goals, and different habits. If we want to understand them, we have to put in a little work learning where they came from, what a particular action means to them, what values and taboos they’ve been given. (And then remember that they are individuals within their culture, with individual judgements on each aspect of it.)

Back to fiction. If you’re going to write, with any goal of creating realistic, multi-dimensional characters, you’re going to have to get comfortable with cultural research, with writing characters that grew up with different pressures and values than you did, but who retain individual judgement and perspective within their culture… just like you did. And get rid of the adolescent “everything my crush does is all about me” mentality. Dare to write women who have rich internal realities, for whom being pleasured by a man is only one among many important goals (or not a goal at all). If you can’t understand women well enough to write some solid, deep female characters, then you are failing in your job as a writer.

Advertisements

It’s not me, it’s my body

Ah, the people you meet on OkCupid. I’ve been corresponding recently with a bisexual transwoman who started off with a mention of how she’s been having trouble connecting with both men and women because of her gender identity. She said that she was hoping my interest in human sexuality would make me at least interested in talking to her, and she was right… I know a number of transmen (including my brother and sometime collaborator on this blog), but no transwomen, and I was interested in hearing about her experiences. I wrote back to this effect and commiserated about the difficulties being transgender must pose in dating. She responded with more details about the frustrations she’s had, and as I read it I started to suspect that her difficulties with dating go much deeper than her gender identity.

I’m not disputing the fact that being trans dramatically narrows your pool of dating prospects, and that someone unfamiliar with trans people and trans issues can respond pretty badly, even if they aren’t -phobic per se. But this woman, as best I can tell from a couple of emails, isn’t just trans — she’s deeply insecure, craving validation from others, unsure of what gender identity she actually has or wants to have, and has processed some traumatic events in ways I’m not sure are healthy (read: they sound pretty unhealthy to me, but I don’t want to be overly confident about a stranger’s mental health either way.) And all these things, assuming that I’m reading her right, would be offputting and red-flaggy even to someone who was totally attracted to her body and gender presentation.

Please don’t think I’m slagging on her, or anyone, for being insecure and craving validation and everything else. I’ve been there… most of us have. I’m not saying those things make you a bad or unworthy person; I’m just saying they make you even more hampered in the dating department than you otherwise would be. Confidence is sexy; insecurity and neediness not so much. And someone who’s been through a couple of drama-charged relationships with people who don’t have their personal-identity-shit together yet is going to be justifiably wary of dating someone else who vibes that way. So if I had to guess, this girl’s struggles with finding a date are partly due to her having a smallish niche of people who would be interested in her, and partly due to broadcasting I HAVE ISSUES loudly enough to scare off the people she meets within that small niche.

What’s interesting to me is that she puts all her difficulty on the former: “nobody wants someone like me.” (Meaning, someone with my particular gender presentation.) She’s blamed it all on those tangible, physical things about her, mainly things that will not change or things that will only intensify as she matures. In my experience, this is terribly common. I know that ten years ago, when I though nobody wanted me and I was someone magically repellent to all boys, I blamed it on my average-sized (as opposed to skinny) figure, and my inability to giggle helplessly and bat my eyes. The same basic idea is at the heart of the Nice Guys™ who complain that women never want Nice Guys. Short men, tall women, and anybody who’s skinnier or fatter than the Cultural Ideal will, if they have a hard time getting a date, usually blame their bodies for this. In general, it seems to me, people will fix on some aspect of themselves that’s either unchangeable (height, personality, basic body type) or a virtue (intelligence, niceness) and blame their romantic difficulties entirely on this aspect.

When you look at it, it’s obvious this approach is counterproductive. Attributing your troubles to something that you either can’t or shouldn’t change just means that your troubles are unsolvable. If, instead, the problem is due to something in your manner, approach, or maturity level, that should be encouraging, since those are things you can change. Perversely, though, I think people find it more psychologically comfortable to blame the immutable. First of all, it means less work. There’s nothing you can do about it, so you needn’t bother to try. Second, it allows you to put the actual burden of guilt onto the entire body of people you’re attracted to (who aren’t attracted back, which in your head at this point is all of them.) When I thought the boys didn’t like me because I wasn’t skinny or vapid enough for them, what I was really doing was saying that all the boys had horrible taste. It was, at bottom, their fault for not being attracted to me, not my fault for being unattractive (in ways that had nothing to do with my intelligence or body type.) Personal growth is hard; self-righteous resentment is easy.

The truth is that if you look around, you will see plenty of happily partnered people with the immutable characteristics you blame for your own loneliness. The truth is that nearly every personal quality is attractive to somebody, and even more strikingly, people are often moved to abandon their usual “type” for someone who’s awesome in other ways. (Although fixating on a single person in hopes that this will happen is usually an exercise in futility. Please don’t try it.) Everybody’s attractions are somewhat fluid, and someone who generally liked size four blondes might someday find himself falling for a supremely confident and sexy size twelve brunette.

From my own experience, I can tell you that although my period of loneliness and insecurity was long and painful, I now receive a surplus of attention, and my body type and intelligence haven’t changed. What has changed? Well. I grew up a little. I got comfortable with sexuality (being acutely uncomfortable with sexuality makes you less sexually attractive… who knew?) I made decisions that made me feel confident and attractive, even if they went against conventions of what most people like (cutting my hair super-short was the big one.) It was a slow growth process, and hearing it will be slow is incredibly frustrating to somebody in the “nobody wants me” doldrums but in the end, I’m far better off having made that slow crawl than I’d be if I’d sat and pickled in my resentment. (Also unsexy: hating everybody you’re attracted to. MRAs and PUAs, I’m talking to you.)

There’s a lot more I could say on this subject, but I want to hear from you first: do you agree with my impression that unhappily dateless people are quicker to blame unchangeable or virtuous traits in themselves than things they can or should change? Have you been there in the past? Are you there now? What say you?

Wolf-whistles and double standards

As I’ve mentioned previously, much of my quiet-computer-time lately has been spent rereading archives of my favorite cozy blogs, including the very wonderful Yarn Harlot. Because it is a knitting blog, the demographic of her readership is highly skewed towards the female, although there is a small, proud contingent of male knitters and supporters as well. One thing I’ve noticed is that several times, in telling stories about her day, she’s posted pictures of attractive gentlemen (friends and relatives of hers), and she invariably gets comments of the “hubba, hubba… is he single?” variety.

The assumption that the writers and the commenters and I all carry around that is that it’s charming and complimentary to the man in question. I don’t perceive the person making the “hubba, hubba” comment as shallow or immature, and I don’t think anyone else does either. But if the genders were reversed, I would. A comment like “Tim is quite as delicious-looking as that cake” would be creepy and irritating if it were a man saying, “Tess is quite as delicious-looking as that cake.” Once again, it’s quite apparent that we see women’s sexual desire as harmless and complimentary, while we see men’s sexual desire as creepy and predatory.

There are a number of things behind this. First, our cultural paradigm is that men are always reacting sexually to people, whether they say it aloud or not, while women rarely are. A man is presumed to be constantly thinking “Ooh, what a hottie!” whenever there are attractive women around, but it would be obnoxious if he said it every time he thought it, so we expect him to keep his thoughts to himself. A woman, on the other hand, is presumed to feel sexual interest rarely enough that she can afford to say it every time she thinks it, without it becoming the only thing she ever says. So commenting publicly on someone’s hotness is viewed as a sign of poor self-restraint in men, in a way that just doesn’t apply for women.

Second, some males do engage in some pretty gross and creepy sexual evaluations of attractive women. Some males are predatory, cruel, and dishonest in sexual relationships (some females, too, but the cultural stereotype is that it’s mainly males). Some males have a hard time thinking of an attractive woman as anything but a sex object. Because of these things, any male comment on a woman’s sexuality is guilty, or at least suspect, by association. That sounds unfair, and it is, but I think part of the reason for the strong association is that even men who don’t, themselves, demean and belittle sexy women don’t do a lot to punish that kind of talk in other men. Because I’m a woman, I don’t have a lot of experience with this, but my impression is that dudes are pretty vigorous in defending their dudely privilege, and any man who dared to say, “Um, what you just said was disrespectful and misogynistic” would be socially punished. (Men? Am I right?)

So, for me, a man has to build up some serious feminist cred before I can hear him going “Hubba, hubba,” without harboring doubts about his maturity and level of respect for women. (There are a number of men of my acquaintance who have done this, by the way.) And at this point, I honestly don’t know whether that’s something I should apologize for or not. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be the case, but in an ideal world, the first factor I mentioned would be diminished and the second nonexistent. Since we live in the real world, I’m provisionally comfortable with my prejudice, though always open to new ideas that might change my perspective. Thoughts?

Mums

As a child, I always identified with my father more than my mother. My father was the bookish one, the odd one, the introverted intuitive with an innate grasp of language and problem-solving and a fumbling awkwardness in social dynamics. My father was my role model, the person I was going to be like when I grew up, the person who (as I got older) I feared being like when I grew up. It’s not that I considered and rejected my mother for that role; it’s simply that there’s a natural affinity between my father’s temperament and mine, while my mother and I are very different.

After high school and before college, I took a job as a live-in nanny. It was perfect: I was still living in my parents’ city, but out of the house and for the first time financially independent of them. I worked 45 hours a week caring for two toddlers, and it was then that I began to understand many things. I loved the children, but it was draining on a level I’d never imagined. I noticed myself sneaking little bites of candy and junk food every day, repeatedly — not a habit I usually indulged — and realized that it was because these were small indulgences, ways to pamper myself in a day that was scheduled entirely around someone else’s needs. I realized that there was no mystical ordinance appointing my mother as Doer Of Housework, but that she was a person like me, who felt more or less the way I did about it, but did it anyway because somebody had to. (She noticed a marked change in my willingness to help out when I came home for a visit.) In short, I understood a little better exactly how much work mothering is, and by contrast, how joyfully and uncomplainingly my mother did it.

Several years and a college degree later, my mother had gone back to work outside the home as a nurse, and she helped me get a job as unit secretary on the labor floor where she worked. Here I got to see an entirely different side of her. I discovered that my mother was smart — that her work involved things like reading and interpreting a fetal monitoring strip, a tricky, nuanced thing that she was better at than many of the doctors. I discovered, though I had already suspected, that my mother is a very good person: honorable, friendly, professional, caring, intelligent, and creative. I got to know many of the nurses on the floor, got to see the way they related to each other as well as to the patients and other professionals, and my mother was, without bias, one of the most excellent human beings among them. She did not stoop to gossip and rivalries, she was generous with her time and wisdom, and she dealt with frustrations maturely, with as little collateral damage as possible.

She was also a badass: there was a doctor who all the nurses (and many of the patients) hated for his rudeness, his lack of respect, his frequent inappropriate comments to staff and patients alike, and his refusal to let anyone question what he’d said. My mother had a couple of storied confrontations with him where she firmly and appropriately let him know what was what. When things had gotten out of hand, she was instrumental in bringing a case for his suspension before the hospital’s board. In the complex political world of a hospital, challenging the doctors can be a dangerous move, but she stuck to it and she won. She tells us that when she was younger she was aggressive and willful; to people who have known her in my lifetime, she is almost uniformly perceived as friendly and easy to get along with, but she’s kept that strength and brings it to the forefront where it’s needed.

One thing my mother and I share is a love of crafting; while her primary hobby is quilting and mine is knitting, we love working meticulously to create some beautiful thing. Last winter I found a breathtakingly gorgeous silk/cashmere yarn, and I’ve spent much of the spring turning it into a lace shawl that is the loveliest thing I’ve made yet. I was intending it for myself, but as I got near the end I considered my mother, considered her love of plummy purple and other jewel tones, and I knew it had to be hers. She’ll open it today, and I hope it says something to her about how I appreciate her, all the work she’s put into me and my siblings, how much I love her despite our differences, and how proud I am to be her daughter.

Hierarchy of needs

My lovely man posted recently about why he hasn’t been posting as much recently — a thing which I refuse to allow myself to do, because once I get in the habit then half my posts began with “Sorry I haven’t posted in a while…” The blog will be updated when the blog is updated. (I also stop myself from making any but the vaguest promises about upcoming content. I learned on my earlier blogs — of which there have been an embarrassingly large amount, but that’s another issue — that any time I obligated my future self to write on a particular topic, my future self would go on strike and whole weeks would pass without a new post.)

But this isn’t about my bad blogging habits, this is about Shaun’s lack of posting, and my similar issues with reading. (My posting frequency hasn’t suffered, mostly because I wasn’t very regular to begin with, and also because getting a plug from the wonderful Figleaf was very motivating.) But my reading, let me tell you. While I keep up with all the wonderfully thinky blogs in my feed, I have had zero motivation to actually seek out new writings in the vein of philosophy, politics, religion, and sexuality. Whenever I discover a new blog that I like I go through a full archive trawl, basking in the rich wisdom, gaining new perspectives, learning about new issues.

But now? Now I struggle to even keep up with my subscription feed, and I find I have to skim over discussions of current events that upset or anger me (which seems to be a lot of them right now.) I find myself getting way, way too agitated and cranky and despondent. And the idea of reading some clever philosophy or commentary is just exhausting to me. What have I been doing instead? I’ve been archive-trawling some of my favorite daily-life blogs, people who write about knitting and home life. I open up my computer, I do the requisite subscription-reading, and then I go to whichever blog I’m currently trawling and read it for hours. These are archives I’ve read before. There’s nothing new here. It’s like re-reading a book (which, in fairness, I do a lot) except it’s re-reading a blog.

And when I think about writing, I want to write about the pretty lace scarf I’m creating, about my cats, about the interesting people I passed on the street. I don’t want to write anything that requires wrangling with tough issues, that invites argument and criticism (although normally I’m very open to both things.) I want to read, write, and watch things that are fun, light, and pleasant, and eschew the difficult, complex, and controversial.

I would beat myself up for this, but it’s happened enough before that I think I know what’s going on. It’s a hierarcy of needs thing. I’m living in a new city where exactly one person knows and loves me, between us my boyfriend and I have half a job, and we probably have to move again in two months. Right now I’m hanging around levels 2 and 3 of Maslow’s hierarchy, struggling to get my physical and basic emotional needs met, and I don’t have a lot of space for the “morality, creativity, problem-solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts” level.

It helps to recognize that this is temporary, it’s a stage-of-life thing, and that endlessly reading cozy knitting blogs does not mean that I’ve permanently lost my ability to tackle tough issues. (Not that knitting blogs are dumb and mindless: please don’t think that. Knitters are smart, creative, often politically engaged, and waaay cuter and hipper than you might think. Reading knitting blogs isn’t like eating potato chips, it’s like eating mashed potatoes: substantial and comforting.)

Anyway. Goodness knows what you’ll see on this blog in the weeks to come, while we get our lives sorted out. I’ll try to keep it thinky, at least from time to time, but there may be more day-in-the-life stuff, and possibly even (sorry!) a knitting post or two.

Feminism and female submission

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.

Feminism and male dominance (the good kind)

Why Feminism is the Anti-Viagra: could you imagine a title more calculated to warm my feminist, sex-loving heart? Based on the title of that article, as well as some write-ups of sketchy work they’ve done in the past, I was all geared up to hate the authors. But I read the article, along with parts 2 and 3, and found myself in sympathy with much of what they had to say. The fact that sex and gender are such politically charged questions make scientific research difficult; having politically incorrect fantasies is often unreasonably stigmatized; the neuroscience behind different sexual tastes doesn’t have any bearing on human rights. I agree with most of what they say on these issues.

However. Feminism is the anti-Viagra? Nuh-uh. In this, their-jumping-off point, they make a critical and common error: confusing the street and the bedroom. Almost any time you hear someone raising questions about whether a woman can be sexually submissive and still a feminist, whether a man can be sexually dominant and still respect women, you know they’ve made this error.

The writers begin by claiming “Gender equality inhibits arousal”; that low libido in women can be blamed partly on feminism’s insistence on equality and respect. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they made this statement carelessly, without thinking through its foundations and ramifications. Because if they were going to make it seriously, they’d have to argue that not only are men more often inclined to be sexually dominant and women more often inclined to be sexually submissive, but that social inequality makes it easier for people to imagine and enact male dominant/female submissive bedroom dynamics. And they’d have to argue that women’s libidos were higher in the pre-feminist days.

I don’t buy it. I don’t think Ozzy and Harriet were doing sizzling Dom/sub scenes in the bedroom (although I’m sure there’s fanfic of it somewhere.) Nor do I imagine that the institutionalized prostitution of most pre-modern marriages had most of the women panting with desire for the men they had to fuck in order to keep a roof over their heads. Yes, male dominance and female submission are common fantasies for both sexes, and yes, that appears politically incorrect from a naïve point of view, but that doesn’t mean that feminism has made sexual fulfillment harder to come by. Quite the reverse.

There are two things you have to understand about erotic submission. First, it has little to do with power dynamics in nonsexual contexts. Indeed, it’s been observed that executive or political power often goes hand-in-hand with sexual submissiveness. Just because a man treats a woman as his equal on the street doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t rough her up in the bedroom (in a good way.)

Second, erotic submission only works if it’s freely chosen by the submissive. Fiction and fantasies of being dominated are always, always in the writer/fantasist’s control, and happening according to his or her desires. Just try walking up to a submissive at a BDSM party and ordering them around, and see how well that works for you. Someone who’s turned on by erotic submission is usually very clear about who they want to be dominated by, and when, and how.

Given that last point, it’s plain that feminism makes sexual dominance and submission more possible, not less. The more choice a woman has about who to be sexual with, and when, the more possible it is for her to enjoy Dom/sub fantasies and roleplaying. Gender equality has not made sexual arousal more difficult; it’s taken a step toward making things easier. Claiming anything else (without serious comparative evidence of the state of affairs before feminism) is foolish.