Things I Learned From My Feminist Theory Class (or, I Am a Bad Feminist)

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 naïve 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)

30 replies on “Things I Learned From My Feminist Theory Class (or, I Am a Bad Feminist)”

Good article. I agree with most of the others here who say that there was an obvious issue with the instructor allowing the discussion to be so aggressive and one-dimensional.  There’s a couple of points I’d like to make, if I could:

And it would be nice if some of the people in Women’s Studies Programs would lead the way in this stance.


Speaking of blanket statements… While your experience in this class (and maybe the entirety of you minor), this class isn’t the discipline. There’s a lot of depth and variety in the field, and a number of sex-positive feminists who are writing and teaching in it. I had one incredibly poor instructor in a woman’s studies class — she was old school 2nd wave who had us pull our desks into a circle so we’d all be equal and used a lot of what I’d call ‘ya-ya’ speech. But she also had incredibly limited experiences with world feminism (her area of expertise was the French Revolution) and seriously poor teaching skills. Her reading selection and ability to control the class reflected this. But that isn’t really a slight on Women’s Studies as a field — it’s a reflection on her and the department.

This is connected — it’s my experience, as an Old, and an Old Feminist,  that individuals who are just coming to the ‘field’ — either in acceptance of feminist principals or academics — tend to be ones who .. get very excited about it. It can be a very liberating moment for people who have felt constrained or marginalized. And new liberation leads to 1) absolutist statements about ‘what feminism is’ and ‘what feminists do’ and ‘choose’ 2) a certain bent of extremism. It’s a lot harder to see the shades of gray, you know?

None of this justifies your treatment or exclusion, of course, and I’m not trying to. I just recognized a lot of your story.

Seems bizarre to have such a close-minded class discussion in a women’s studies class. I’m sorry your prof didn’t mediate better! Kudos for standing up for yourself in the class, and thank you for sharing here. BDSM is very much outside my reality, and I don’t think I would enjoy the power play, but good for you for owning that and educating people like me.

I find myself nodding my head at many facets in this piece and seeing a bit of my own experience. Part of me wants to say that this rigidity is a very academic trait, but also, i feel like in undergrad when many people are really just being introduced to many of these theories and a sense of righteousness sets in (it did for me at one point).

Personally, I have come to a point where I don’t identify as a feminist, but let me break that down. It is not that the word feminist scares me, it is that I find it easier to try and live my life through a set of principles, which I believe are feminist. This gets all the folks mad, because i turns into oh you like this, this, and this – your a feminist! or see! i told you identifying as a feminist is ridiculous! or my personal favorite, being called the tool of the patriarchy. In many ways, this decision has come not from the dissapointment from a political movement, but from the experiences I’ve had in that movement where feminism is used as a cover or righteous posturing, rather than for a template on how to live your life.

But being a “bad feminist” in essence, frees you. You realize that everyone has very different agenda’s and that even in a movement (or a class) that prides itself on “togetherness”, you saw how quickly the tides can turn if you do not have the pre-approved cause. I don’t think this is a reflection on all experiences, and I certainly hope your peers will grow and open their minds, but I think in the meantime, it puts you in a place of power, where you can know firsthand how not to alienate people because they hold different opinions that stray from the “idea”.



I’ve written before for Persephone about what Third Wave Feminism means and is often thought to mean (usually fairly different, alas), and I …well, I’m not surprised, though I am disappointed (lord, I sound like my mother.)

I think it’s – shock horror – OK for something to be influenced by patriarchal tradition, and even reminiscent of it, and for us to partake in it without implicitly supporting or reinforcing its possible patriarchal overtones. I don’t think anyone’s sexuality evolves in a vacuum, and I think it’s entirely possible that some of the themes of BDSM evolve from social inequality, and that social inequality is bad – but that doesn’t necessarily make the expression of that sexual interest inherently negative towards women. As you said, the very strong culture of consent in the BDSM community is A Good Thing.

What gets me is the inability of some forms of feminism to tolerate any contradiction whatsoever. You can hold two contradictory ideas in your head at once and try to reconcile them; the vast majority of pro-choice people do (“baby-death is not fun” with “abortion should still be free”). Yes, many of our sexual activities are influenced by patriarchy, and possibly even are defined by it. The same’s true of gay male sexuality (there’s an almost pathological fetish for straight men, skeezily often based on rejection or outright homophobia by the straight man in question). We want to end that sexism, and that homophobia. It’s less clear cut whether the expression of any sexuality influenced by that is bad bad very bad.

There are two things here that jump out for me – first, that Feminism isn’t improved through exclusion; refusing to compromise may look good on paper, but it does fuck all for those women over there (and quite frankly, I care more about what I can do practically for those women than if some greengrocer from Biggleswade gets her rocks off being spanked by a man in a lumberjack costume)  and secondly,  in the other direction actually, more third-wave feminists need to be open to the idea that their sexuality may not be entirely pure and unsullied. I sure as hell know that some of the stuff that attracts me is definitely influenced by my place in society, from the aforementioned homophobia to bloody class distinction (you know you’re British when your sexual fantasies are about class).

While I don’t believe that this was a brilliant display of wonderful feminists being wonderful people, I can’t deny that I have sympathy for the general argument that BDSM is influenced by social disparity.

As cheesy and creeper as this sounds, your article is what inspired me to try and get this posted. Especially because of the Second vs Third Wave ideas that you presented that seem to constantly plague specific discussions within feminist discourse.

I understand what you mean by some expressions of BDSM evolved from some social inequality (Marquis de Sade, anyone?) but that just because they evolved from them does not mean to engage in it is to practice or even believe in said inequality.

And just yes to everything else you said about discourse not being improved by exclusion. You are much more eloquent than me and probably would’ve have laid the smackdown on the student in my class.

I think discussions about choice feminism and what actually free choices are available in a patriarchy/kyriarchy etc. are super valuable precisely because there shouldn’t be a definite answer–it’s a huge bummer that your class discussions turned into jerk-tells-the-rest-of-you-you’re-wrong lessons. I find your perspective here really thought provoking, and I hope we can have more discussions here (the general “we” of Persephone, I mean) that lead us deeper into questioning these issues in a way your class didn’t quite manage.

I’m actually a little amazed to hear that BDSM is stigmatized even in an academic feminist setting. I think you were well within your rights to be outraged and amazed that you received the treatment you did for sticking up for it.

I wonder if the teacher has some personal reason to let this issue develop as it did in your class and let you be eaten alive by the wolves, as it were? It’s hard for me to find a intellectual defense for her leading the class in the direct (or allowing it to lead itself, for that matter).

Interesting, and timely. I often feel like a bad feminist because I don’t think I support legalising sex work, but that’s mainly because the feminist-leaning sites I go to online are very pro-legalisation.

I don’t have any kind of issue with BDSM and it baffles me that your teacher would be so out of touch on that.

As far as the sex work goes: I wish there was a way to legalize and regulate it so that only the people who get involved in sex work are the ones who actually, really want to. But I highly doubt that to be possible.

My professor continued to baffle me throughout the semester. This article is actually a reworking of my final paper I turned in to this class. I was very bitter about that class experience.

The legalization of sex work is something that would help (the amount of inane laws that just have to do with exotic clubs is absurd) but one of the things thats also a concern is what it means to be a visible sex worker-legally-and to have a record. Many folks don’t want that information known and it definitely can prevent future jobs if thats something they aspire for.  Theres always the swedish model, but even that presents serious issues, like anyone who lives in a house where there is a sex worker, can be prosecuted/thrown out the house. Also, sweden is following the course of iceland and instituting a “no exotic dance” law, which means essentially, no strippers aloud. which is absurd.

I think one of the hardest things about discussions around sex work is that is always very polarized. One side thinks its the worst thing ever, playing into the patriarchy, blah, blah, blah (Ashton Kutcher, I’m looking at your shit attempt to take down, meanwhile those in the sex industry feel like they have to defend even being there, when yes, like all things, it is an industry that has serious labor violations and serious issues.

I just finished reading this piece by Rachel Aimee – In search of stripper solidarity – that deals with unionizing sex workers (in this case, strippers). anyway, fantastic read, and this piece is also a fantastic read.

issues. they be hard.

Thank you for writing this! It always irritates me to no end when feminist people act closeminded about a feminist issue. It is NOT FEMINIST to do that. And, depending on what it is, it can absolutely create a hostile environment to, say, POC or trans* individuals.

Wow.  I am flabbergasted that your professor let the conversation head in that direction, and let you be demeaned.  I taught a course in Gender and Women’s Studies this year – it was on human trafficking so we didn’t discuss feminism much at all except for a quick introduction – and we had a wide variety of students and lots of differing opinions, but I was definitely not comfortable with blanket statements.  At ALL.  I had several students write thoughtful papers at the end why they thought legalizing prostitution would help diminish human trafficking, and several others who wrote thoughtful papers about why they thought legalizing prostitution was feeding into the problem.

Which is something of a digression, but – these courses are supposed to stimulate thought, not shut it down.  And not shut it down in the way that you were shut down.  Your classmates sound like assholes.

As for BDSM?  You get to do what makes you feel good.  Period, the end.

Yeah. I used the final paper for the class as a platform to detail exactly why I hated it so much. This article is a very sloppy reworking of said paper. I was seriously pissed all semester long because this sort of shit kept happening.

The “what feels good to you” stance didn’t fly with the classmate discussed in the article. Penetrative sex at all was a feminist sin.

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