I’ve been getting some grief from the approximately three people who know about my BDSM novella The Locked Heart. To their credit, they read it (in one case, while wearing vinyl gloves) before they started in on me.
Their argument goes like this:
I don’t understand how you can write about a liberated woman and make her sexually submissive. Darby’s bright, educated [she has an MBA], and independent. But as soon as she meets some tall, dark & handsome sexual dominant, she swoons like a veritable Victorian miss. That’s repugnant in today’s culture. Women have fought hard for the right to be the equal of men in the workplace and in the bedroom. How can you write about someone who is induced to relinquish that equality just so that she can “sleep” with a sexy guy?
I must be awfully fond of paradoxes, because I love the idea that feminism has given women the power in the bedroom to such an extent that they feel free and comfortable handing that power over to a man they trust. Fifty years ago, I think the same sexual dynamic would have been more morally questionable. In the mid-20th century, a woman opting to be sexually submissive might well have been “induced” to such behavior.
But today–well, today I think it’s another story. Darby’s financially secure, with a good job and the ability to support herself comfortably. (As a lawyer, I suspect a man doing Darby’s job might make more money but that’s because I’m convinced some industries still have a mindset that believes a single woman doesn’t need to “make as much” as a married man, or a married man with kids. That it’s not okay but the possible difference in wages doesn’t change the fact that Darby makes more than enough money to meet her needs.) Because she’s not dependent on a man, a precarious financial position can’t be used to pressure her into engaging in power-exchange sex.
If you believe, as my cross-examiners do, that women can be subtly influenced to their detriment, you believe either that women are ninnies–none of us does that, right?–or you believe that smart women, taking all the factors into consideration, still believe they need to play along to get along. Only where would a 28-year-old woman like Darby get that idea? Young women today may be concerned about sexual politics in the abstract but they don’t reflect that fear in their own lives.
I made Darby just a bit younger than myself; there are associates at my law firm who are Darby’s age. From talking to them, I got a picture more of personal and financial entitlement than of deprivation. (Law school loans coupled with an iffy legal market have blunted that feeling of utter financial assurance, but ours is a solid firm and these are top-notch law school grads, so their insecurity is more theoretical than actual.)
I asked several women colleagues about sexual power dynamics. They provided a range of answers–everything from “Yuck!” to a sly acknowledgement from one woman that she’d tried it both ways but rather preferred having her boyfriend on his back, handcuffed to the headboard–but no one objected on feminist grounds.
When I asked about the feminist perspective, the same women agreed that in general, they’d be concerned about a friend who was sexually submissive. Not because Germaine Greer would come personally to berate them for supporting female castration in the form of BDSM. Rather, the women all said they’d need to know that their friend was going into a sexually unequal relationship with all her safeguards in place.
In other words, it’s not objectionable on philosophical grounds, at least not for my twentysomething colleagues. It’s only objectionable if a specific woman wasn’t being safe.
That’s my defense: Women have earned the right to make an empowered decision that they’d like to be submissive in the bedroom. There’s a wide range of ways that decision can be implemented, everything from giggly sessions with pink fuzzy novelty restraints to a total power exchange where even a safe word is eschewed. (That last situation is the one that earns a “Yuck!” from me. But I believe a woman could make that choice and still be uncastrated when she did it.)
In fact, I worry that radical feminists sound odd when they insist that BDSM is antithetical to feminism. It’s as if there can be no power exchange, however well-negotiated or however short in duration, that isn’t a slap in the face of women like Germaine Greer, who fought hard to get us the autonomy a sexual submissive is handing away. Radical feminists seem to want us to adhere to a code of empowerment, to ignore our potential desire to submit because it has to have been induced by a man.
In that scenario, a woman in the bedroom has to give her power over to the feminists, allowing them to make her choice for her. Should we all be aware that 60 years ago we wouldn’t have had that power in the bedroom? Of course. Should we be grateful to the women (and some men) who pushed all of us to a place where we are closer to equal? Of course.But I don’t think we owe much more allegiance than that. Yes, even when some submissive women will be taken advantage of.
It’s a bit like the proud parents who give their daughter a bicycle. Teach her to wear a helmet and obey all the rules, but then let her ride the bike.