I made a hasty decision to drag out my college experience (thus avoiding the real world) during what should have been my senior year by deciding to tack two minors on to my degree. An extra semester’s worth of credits that would apply to either a Minor in Sexualities or a Minor in Women’s Studies had been earned throughout my undergrad by my signing up for superfluous classes because the topics piqued my interest better than the ones required by the registrar. I chose Women’s Studies as a minor over Sexualities because it seemed like a broader umbrella under which to study and I figured that I am defined firstly as a woman and secondly by my sexuality.
The lofty goal of Feminist Theory (according to the professor) was to identify which aspect of contemporary feminism and action was most important in moving forward and why. Frankly, I thought it would be the ability for us to accept another woman’s autonomy to make decisions for herself. Or at the very least for us to try and understand her choice before harshly judging and/or regarding her as a bad feminist. Silly me.
The opposite of this utopian ideology of mine was brought into glaring revelation during a class discussion on prostitution that veered into the topic of BDSM, in which one member of the class, who was vehemently opposed to both, was regarded (and continually regarded throughout the semester) as an expert on the subject and everyone else was therefore either woefully ignorant or just plain wrong. When I posited the idea that BDSM and/or sex work could perhaps be a legitimate and empowering sexual identity/career for a woman, even for one who played the submissive role, it was swiftly shut down as a possibility at all and that I was incredibly naÃ¯ve for even entertaining such notions.
The discussion started out by centering around the word “CHOICE” and how that word is approached by second- and third-wave feminists (in which y’all might have seen me express an interest on this site), specifically in regard to sex work and whether or not a woman can ever honestly choose such a career for herself. Patriarchy, subjugation, coercion, sex trafficking, drug addiction, lack of “honest” options were brought up as reasons why sex work can never really be a career legitimately chosen by the women who engage in it. These are all justifiable and valid concerns and in (probably) most cases are true, but as I learned from Jezebel and Persephone and other feminist-leaning blogs, blanket statements are not only harmful to furthering the conversation at hand, they are just not true. Which is what I decided was a good point to bring up during the discussion. And I got SLAMMED for it. That “expert” student told me I was flat out WRONG, that women can never and would never make the decision to engage voluntarily into sex work, and that if they do, the ONLY women who do are “rich, middle-aged white ladies who play dominatrix for sad, old, rich white men.” This then morphed into arguing the legitimacy of BDSM. The general consensus was that the notion of a “woman submissive” clashes too much with feminism and was not an acceptable sexually identity for a “true” feminist. I found this position to be not only extraordinarily closed-minded for a classroom of supposed feminists, but also extremely marginalizing toward alternative sexualities.
Here’s the thing: I understand that some women are forced into prostitution (by others, lack of options, what have you). It happens. I wish it didn’t. I never tried to refute these sad facts. But one cannot possibly argue that such is the case for every single woman across the board. And to blow off the women who choose sex work (legitimately choose it of their own and complete volition) as “middle- and upper-class white ladies who play dominatrix from their mansions and condos” is just as ridiculous and harmful to feminism as saying sex trafficking doesn’t exist. Blanket statements and generalizations do no one any favors. To deny any one woman’s autonomy to make a choice for herself is fundamentally anti-woman and anti-feminist. To say a woman who chooses to be a prostitute is merely a pawn of misogyny and worthy of contempt from so-called “liberated” women is hypocritical. To then argue that BDSM is not a legitimate sexual lifestyle choice is also bafflingly hypocritical and narrow minded.
Stacy May Fowels is another feminist who also identifies as a woman submissive and articulated the conflict most feminists have in her article, “Fantasy of acceptable ‘Non-consent’: why the female sexual submissive scares us (and why she shouldn’t).” From her article:
“Because I’m a feminist who enjoys domination, bondage and pain in the bedroom, it should be pretty obvious why I often remain mute and, well, pretty closeted about my sexuality…. It’s important to point out that, however you attempt to excuse it, this inability to accept BDSM into the feminist dialogue is really just a form of kinkophobia, a widely accepted prejudice against the practice of power-exchange sex”¦. Whether or not it’s difficult to accept that the desire to be demeaned is not a product of a society that seeks to objectify women, I would argue that, regardless of appearance, by its very nature BDSM is constantly about consent.” (Fowels).
We stay silent because of the vitriol we receive during discussions. My sexual autonomy and identity was not only questioned and judged, it was REFUSED to me by a group of college-educated, liberal women during what was supposed to be a thoughtful and open conversation regarding sex work and choice. For the rest of the semester, I felt alienated by my peers who repeatedly told me how wrong I was, that I didn’t know what I was talking about/was a bad feminist, and therefore, also implied that I was on some level stupid – in what should have been mostly a safe space.
Fowels uses her essay to explain her struggles with reconciling her feminist identity with that of her discovery of her kink, and how the two don’t need to be “reconciled” because they can co-exist. For my part, my own venture into BDSM has been highly empowering. I spent five years (from the time I was in eighth grade until the fall semester of my sophomore year at college) in a relationship where rape was colored under the pretenses of “love” and “uncontrollable” attraction. I would wake up with my boyfriend inside of me, and when I would attempt to protest, he would then stroke my hair and use other facsimiles of Hollywood and tell me he was just too overcome with “love” and “desire.” He used the same tropes repeatedly in order to coerce me into (or brush off events that already happened) many unwanted sexual encounters that relied on altruistic consent or none whatsoever. By the time I finally figured out that the relationship was abusive (in numerous other ways to boot) and left, a light and “loving” graze of his finger down my forearm would set my nerves on fire like a red-hot knife was being dragged across it. When I started engaging in consensual sex, I started playing around with light BDSM. Light, loving touches and words created a visceral reaction in my body that was overcome by the discovery of this new identity. Everything that happens during BDSM happens according to my rules. It happens how I want it, when I want it, and if it doesn’t happen that way nothing else happens at all. As a submissive, I control the power because I am the one who hands it out. And to tell me otherwise (or to denigrate my experience with it or call me a bad feminist because of it) is to treat me the same way and with as little respect to my autonomy as my abusive ex did.
In conclusion, what I learned from Feminist Theory was that I was a bad feminist and an oppressed and stupid woman. What I wish I had learned, and an ideal I had hoped would round out contemporary feminism, is that open-minded regarding a woman’s sexual autonomy is a good thing. And it would be nice if some of the people in Women’s Studies Programs would lead the way in this stance. Women’s Studies is not like math or physics or biology. We are not to be bound by theories and generalizations. It is our experiences, our differences, which make us the women we are in the world and shape how we live in it. Theories do not apply to our day-to-day lives. They can’t because of their over-generalizing nature. To say they do demeans our individual experiences, which hinders our ability to work collectively. And to engage each other in this way as feminists is harmful and alienating.
Fowles, Stacey May. fantasy of acceptable ‘Non-consent’: why the female sexual submissive scares us (and why she shouldn’t); AlterNet, December 29, 2008 (AN MRB-LAX090116-008)