Feminism, Dominance, and Submission

It can seem a tall order to find literature about BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadomasochism) that is both erotic and cerebral, and that can depict a woman playing the submissive role without appearing to demean her. Several years ago, Katie Roiphe and other journalists seized on the popularity of E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey series to suggest that women who enjoy the bottom role in kink do so because their increasing economic and political power have begun to feel like too much of a chore. But it should be obvious that power willingly surrendered as part of an erotic game does not imply an eagerness to relinquish it elsewhere—after all, when did you last hear a man who visits a dominatrix being accused of not really wanting his salary, or indeed, the vote? Thankfully, as I found in researching my book on BDSM, feminism, and pop culture, strong counternarratives to the Roiphe theory do exist (yes, even in stories where women are the ones being spanked); rather than simply repeating or reversing the expected power dynamics, BDSM may offer an opportunity to rework, parody, or pervert them in more productive, surprising ways.

Jane Sexes it Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire edited by Merri Lisa Johnson

Seeking to address how “feminists who want to be fucked hard, held down, thrown against walls” might pursue pleasure without being accused of “eroticis[ing] the conditions of our own oppression,” this anthology looks at sex work, pornography, marriage, s/m, and the politics of strap-on play through a feminist lens. Sarah Smith’s “A Cock of One’s Own: Getting a Firm Grip on Sexual Power” reminds the reader that “a completely power-free society does not exist; neither does power-free sex. I’m not sure this is a bad thing.” Chris Daley, in her essay “Of the Flesh Fancy: Spanking and the Single Girl,” reflects on both the liberation and anxiety (“Was I still a feminist?”) of enjoying BDSM as a submissive to a male partner. Daley acknowledges the key mistake so easily made by progressives and conservatives alike—to ignore social structure, “obscuring the difference between women’s desires and systemic misogyny”—and claims that precisely “because feminism equipped me to cultivate equality in relationships with men, I can . . . give my partner a taste of power over me he’ll never experience in any other realm.”

The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir by Toni Bentley

“My transformation . . . was not from bottom to top, but from bottom to bottom.” Toni Bentley’s almost dreamy love letter to submission centers on the act of anal sex. As a former ballet dancer, Bentley may have an especially keen understanding of the point where pain and meticulous discipline give way to, indeed produce, something freer and less predictable. And far from reinforcing the tropes of meek female submissive and aggressive male dom, she describes a tightly controlled perfectionist seeking release, and a gentle man on the giving end. Bentley writes: “I do not believe that it is the arrogant, macho man who is the great ass-fucker . . . he’s too busy competing with other men.”

Coming to Power: Writing and Graphics on Lesbian S/M edited by Samois

Published in 1981, this compendium explores the divisive topic of lesbian BDSM. Having already had to fight for visibility in the gay community, where “leathermen” were far more readily accepted than their female counterparts, lesbians who practiced BDSM also met with condemnation from parts of the feminist community who viewed them as reenacting, and therefore endorsing, oppressive patriarchal power roles. At the time, Coming to Power was banned by some feminist bookstores and even compared to writings that promoted Nazism, slavery, and white supremacy. Yet feminism is central to this collection, which includes pieces such as “If I Ask You To Tie Me Up, Will You Still Want to Love Me?” an essay speaking back to anti-BDSM lesbians and feminists, and “Proper Orgy Behavior,” a nervous and aroused account of a lesbian’s first BDSM party, alongside plenty of erotic BDSM short stories. Dispensing firmly with the notion that “to have good mutual, equal, caring sex, it’s gotta be soft and tender”—a concept bemoaned by a lesbian BDSM couple interviewed in the book—this fierce, filthy, and intelligent anthology remains relevant for both queer and straight women wondering how to reconcile their feminism with kink.

The Fermata by Nicholson Baker

How can the story of a man who uses his ability to stop time in order to spy on women avoid being read as sleazy or objectifying? As Mary Gaitskill says of Baker’s tribute to voyeurism, “Misogynists will definitely not like The Fermata; there is not one iota of violence towards or contempt for women in this book.” Turning the most mundane detail into erotic poetry—“the hinges of my glasses are a woman’s hip-sockets: her long graceful legs open and straddle my head all day”—the protagonist, Arno, celebrates female sexuality in all its fleshy imperfection. The women he watches are refreshingly voracious, but what excites Arno the most is that “I can take off a woman’s clothes en passant . . . without my tender strippage interfering in any way with her life or mine.” Rather than objectifying the watched women, Arno focuses his intense attention on them, and lets them continue on their way.

Safe Word by Molly Weatherfield

Thematically similar to Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy, this is a multi-perspective smorgasbord of submission, corporal punishment, pony play, and 24/7 BDSM arrangements. Published by the feminist and queer-friendly Cleis Press, it is a sequel to Carrie’s Story and continues the tale of a woman who “chooses—consciously, thoughtfully, and in the spirit of adventure—to submit.” Although the French setting and “secret auction house of owners and slaves, with rules and rituals” pay more than a little tribute to the Story of O, the heroine is much more than just her orifices—as Anneke Jacob writes in the preface, “Carrie’s critical consciousness is the brain, bones and connective tissue of the book.”

“Secretary” and “A Romantic Weekend” by Mary Gaitskill (from Bad Behavior)

The indie movie Secretary is often cited as a more nuanced depiction than, say, certain other popular BDSM-themed fiction, of a woman choosing to play the sexual submissive, in this case with her employer. Much more so is Mary Gaitskill’s original short story, in which there is no mental illness driving the protagonist to mutilate herself, and little of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s unworldly vulnerability. What there is, however, is a woman finding fulfilment in kink: “I wanted to get that dumb paralegal out of the office so I could come back to the bathroom and masturbate”; “I was more excited, in fact, than I had ever been in my life.”

In “A Romantic Weekend,” Gaitskill addresses the unpalatable desires that may lurk behind BDSM dynamics—“he longed for a dim-eyed little slut with a big, bright mouth and black vinyl underwear”—and yet, while the anonymous male in the story may suggest torturing, gagging, and urinating on his female partner, he never actually does. Far from being cowed, she finds their interactions anti-climactic, shrugging, “You have really disappointed me.”

Catherine Scott's work has appeared in Ms., Bitch, and the Times Literary Supplement. Her book, Thinking Kink: The Collision of BDSM, Feminism, and Popular Culture, has just been published by McFarland.