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Archive for June 18th, 2009

Thanks in large part to Trinity, but also to a good friend of mine from grad school, I’ve been spending a lot of time over in some of the radical feminist blogs, particularly in the discussions about BDSM. My friend was hungry to find the intersection of radfem and BDSM online, in intelligent, academic discussions, but couldn’t find much. I have to say that even after some searching and much reading, I have to agree.

Even Trinity is tired, and I can’t blame her. Like so many of us, I get sucked into comment threads that infuriate me for hours, mainly because I can’t stand the idea that there are people out there who are supposed to believe in the total liberation of women, but not in a woman’s capacity to make choices about her own sexuality. I can sympathize with Trinity: I just have to go over there and prove them wrong, right?

But it’s exhausting. It’s draining, reading the same arguments over and over and trying to refute them with logic over and over. It’s like arguing with Objectivists: their theory of rationalism is completely airtight, and so if you disagree with any part of it, you’re just being irrational. All a certain kind of radical feminist has to do is drop the word “patriarchy” into the conversation, and automatically your arguments are moot because you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy. It’s circular, and completely unproductive.

But my friend – who by the way is a pro-porn, pro-sex-worker, pro-BDSM radical feminist – raised this question to me, and I felt the need to answer it.

A lot of pro-submissive blogs say, “True feminism would never judge a woman’s sexual choices or desires.” True. Unnegotiably true.

But does anybody have a real choice when awash in a culture that equates feminity with submission? That defines female identity via female sexuality? That objectifies all women, regardless of what they want? It makes me think of one of the cases we studied in my psychology class in college – a fifth grade teacher had one black student in her all white class. He was smart, played well with the other students, appeared to be comfortable and socialized just fine. But from day one in her class, he wore gloves. After a few weeks, she asked him about the gloves, and over a period of gentle questioning, she learned that he wore them not because he had a health problem, but so he couldn’t see his hands. During the day, when he was in the mirror-free environment of the school, the only reminder he had of his black skin was when he looked at his hands.

This is, of course, a horrifying parallel: what might we be doing, unconsciously, out of an internalization of misogyny? This is the radfems-against-BDSM’s main point, most of the time: how can we be sure that female submission – particularly to men – is a real choice with informed consent, when that woman is operating in a society that consistently reinforces the idea that women should in fact be subordinate to men?

I really want to address this right now, in a non-sarcastic way, not coming from a place of anger and disbelief. Because however wrong-headed I think some arguments are, I can’t ignore the seriousness of the question that engenders them.

My answer? We can’t be sure. We can’t be sure of anything. We hope that women who are choosing to be sexually submissive are doing it out of a combination of healthy self-aware sexuality, earnest desire, and personal power. We try and educate people about BDSM so that they can distinguish it from physical and emotional abuse. We examine our own desires when and if we find them disturbing to us, and try to ascertain – not necessarily where they are arising from, which in a patriarchy may indeed be a dead end – but where they are leading. How does our expression of our sexuality affect us, both in the moment and in the rest of our lives? Are we loving to our partners? Our children? Our friends? Are we happy and productive in our work? Does our sex leave us feeling fulfilled, joyful and relaxed?

These questions, of course, all have to do with the personal sphere: how do you experience your own sex life? If we agree that the personal is political, then we must look outward as well. But this, to me, is where radical feminist arguments get really problematic.

In the comment thread above, for example, Nine Deuce asks her readership whether a private sex act can be anti-feminist, as opposed to feminist or simply neutral. This led into a discussion of “degrading” acts, the most oft-referenced one being the “facial.” One commenter defined “degrading” as follows: “If you engage in a sex act that a reasonable person would agree is degrading or humilating, whether or not you do (this one is tricky, I know, and relates to the abovementioned brainwashing), then it’s anti-feminist.”

To which I say: okay, what? So you’re engaging in the act, you don’t find it degrading, but if some mythical “reasonable person” would, then it’s anti-feminist and you must have been brainwashed? Oh great, we’re back to Ayn Rand.

Sorry. I know, I said I wasn’t going to be sarcastic.

Another commenter responded rather brilliantly: “if we start off with the idea that men find certain sex acts degrading (and perpetrate them on women in order to express misogyny), and we then state that any reasonable person would also find these sex acts degrading, then are we not granting that men have established the standard of reasonability?”

This, exactly. And this is where this questioning of female agency – which is what this kind of thing most certainly is – really burns my ass. Not only are they saying that in a patriarchy, a woman’s ability to make choices for herself is compromised by the messages she receives from society. They’re also responding to this supposed state of reality by letting the patriarchy define the discourse of what women should rightfully choose for themselves! I.e.: if it’s a standard heteronormative sex act, or if it’s portrayed in mainstream media, or worse, if it’s been popularized in pornography – it must be wrong to desire it, and you can’t trust yourself as a woman if you do.

Which brings me to my firm and unshakeable belief about sexuality, BDSM, and the whole enchilada: however a woman chooses to express her sexuality, when it is her choice, is okay inasmuch as it causes her no harm either in the act itself or in the remainder of her life. And because the alternative – self- and other-policing, self-denial, shame and closeting – is so much more dire, the only choice we have is choice itself. We must be permitted to express ourselves in loving relationship in the way that makes the most sense to us, feels best to us, is hottest to us. Trying to cure someone of his or her kinky desires is not only futile, it’s monstrous. If we start questioning our ability to make choices for ourselves because we don’t live in a perfect society…I’ll let the reader speculate for a while, hopefully in abject horror, as to where that leads.

The other thing that I think a lot of radfems miss is the following: when two consenting, self-aware adults take an act that is supposed to be degrading and do it together in a loving context, this is a subversion of the dominant paradigm and thus has the potential for healing on a personal and on a political level.

I already talked a bunch about how BDSM can potentially be healing. On a personal level, I’ll add to it the concept of shame, since the subject of degradation is on the table. In my own experience as a submissive, I have had a lot of my shame stripped from me by what some might call “humiliation play.” While embarrassing, even mortifying at times, the further I go in this direction with my dominant – who incidentally, insists that this is not “humiliation,” as he is more interested in helping me break through unnecessary taboos than in making me feel bad – the result is that in my everyday life, I am more relaxed, less uptight, less worried about what people think, and prouder of who I am.

When BDSM play strips you down to your bare humanity, without all of the social constructs that cause neurosis – that’s subversive. That’s healing. That’s radical.

When people like us go out into the world and show how the patriarchy is broken – not by parrotting it, as we’re accused of, but by exaggerating it, fetishizing it, entering into its incredible power in a deliberate way and releasing that energy in ecstatic union – that’s radical.

Suppressing pornography doesn’t make it go away. Never has. Adding to the body of work pornography that you find more accurately expresses your truth – that’s a healing act.

Patriarchy exists. It is systematic, and deeply entrenched. But we cannot stop it by setting up a utopic alternative where freedom of choice in sexuality is even further suppressed because it frightens us to look at it. Another commenter on the same thread finished a comment by saying, “It might be difficult to imagine what a politically progressive sexuality would entail but I’d think it’s worth the effort anyway.” I don’t know. Sounds pretty boring to me. Not to mention terrifying. It may be true that certain kinds of kink arise out of patriarchy. I don’t know, and I don’t really care. I don’t think it’s so; if it is, then where does gay leather come from? Where does femdom come from? Why are there people who like to pop balloons? I think that kink arises from how everything in our lives affects us and can get kinked in our heads, usually at a young age. And I think erotic powerplay is so pervasive because power dynamics are an inescapable part of the human condition. The struggle for dominance is age-old and comes down to biology. And no, this is not going to be an evolutionary defense for Gor. I just think that feminists are fooling themselves if they think that in Teh Future of Post-Patriarchy, there will be no BDSM because everything will be all egalitarian and shit.

Oh crap, there’s the sarcasm again. Just a little speech impediment.

Patriarchy is the current reality. Power dynamics are an overarching reality – human beings organize themselves into hierarchies, no matter what utopian formula you try. The best thing we can do to reality is to embrace it if it works, and deliberately subvert it if it doesn’t. The more I do kink in my own life, the more I learn about my own assumptions, my own struggles with power, my own relationship to others. It makes me stronger, by showing me what I can take, by showing me what I’m capable of, by dancing me close to the edge and pulling me back. Playing with power is like taming fire. You have to take care not to get burned, but the benefits and the opportunity for growth are near-endless. You don’t want to let it get out of control and burn your house down. But the answer to that should never be to relinquish fire.

I’m sure I’ll be spending more time over at the radfem blogs, pissing myself off; it’s hard to stop. But I realized that I get a lot more joy out of reading beautiful things like this explication of the uses of the bizarre in kink. A blog I stumbled across by clicking off of the radfem blog comments when someone said something reasonable. I guess it wasn’t a total loss after all.

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