Friday, 7 October 2011

On feminism and submission [sexual assault triggers, possibly NSFW]

GoblinPosted by Goblin

I’m a feminist. Which is to say, I believe passionately in equality regardless of pretty much anything, and am frequently and uncomfortably outspoken about the numerous instances of misogyny, oppression, and sheer bloody impoliteness contemporary society all too often throws at us. Occasionally I have hour-long arguments with anyone from friends to virtual strangers because they tossed some casually gender-essentialist remark over their shoulders.
(Admittedly, I also have precisely no smalltalk, so almost any conversation with anyone is likely to head into more-or-less sociopolitical territory fairly early on, but I remain unconvinced this is entirely a bad thing.) I would fight for any human being’s right to opportunity, expression, ambition and fulfilment regardless of gender, race, sexuality, religious affiliation, or geographical situation (yes, this does get exhausting) and tend to find the deliberate abuse – or even exercise – of power in everyday life, particularly when this interacts negatively with various axes of privilege, pretty repellent, actually. Before I start enumerating my sexual proclivities in unwelcome detail, for ideological reasons which will hopefully become apparent, it's worth pointing out that I tend to fancy geeks, of any gender – people who have enough intelligence and individuality to question or bypass socially determined templates for success. FTR, in particular, anybody projecting the trappings of aggressive macho-linity leaves me completely cold.


I’m also, inherently, sexually submissive. This is a term which differs widely in meaning and interpretation according to context, so I’ll explain precisely what it means to me. It’s important to me to be able to surrender to my partner during sex; to be dominated and controlled, to be able to let go. It turns me on. This is related to, but not contingent upon, the fact that I like it rough, as Lady Gaga put it: for me, good sex – psychologically and physically good sex – usually has an edge of coercive violence. Sometimes I fight back, sometimes I don’t, dependent on mood, moment, partner, dynamic, but the experience of physical surrender and overpowerment (is that a word?) is pretty consistent. It makes me feel safe, and cared for, and wanted. (Yes, I am aware that this is possibly an idiosyncratic reaction to being pinned down and knocked about, but bear with me here.) I’m very choosy about my sexual partners, partly because this leaves me so vulnerable – submission, for me (and a significant number of others) has to be *personal*, based on understanding and trust.

There’s a distinction to be drawn here between submission (to a dom/me, or dominant partner) and ‘bottoming’, as in the handily demonstrative Lashings song ‘You’re the Top’ – ‘bottom’ and ‘top’ simply refer to the position or role each person takes in any particular encounter, with ‘top’ meaning the person in control and ‘bottom’ meaning the person subject to pain/restraint/control/whatever. Submitting refers to the voluntary surrender of control to another/s, rather than (for example) simply being the person voluntarily subject to the physical experience of being beaten or bound. Submission is psychological surrender, bottoming is situational subjection to sensation. Anyway, the whole point of this post is not to introduce you lovely readers to my twisted sexual psyche, or to inflict upon you details of sexual interactions of which you may well be happily ignorant, thank you very much, but to explicate and discuss the various ways in which this submission, often if not always to a man, intersects with my feminism. Not just in terms of reconciling apparently contradictory behaviours and desires (fierce insistence on independence of mind/thought/action but intense emotional and physical craving for being controlled?) but in explaining a) how this component of my sexuality interacts with and stems from a feminised upbringing and experience of the world and b) the functions it serves in relationships also conditioned by my cis-femme cultural identity.

So. I was socialised female. This certainly wasn't as negative an experience for me as it could have been, and is for some folks; I *am* female, and pretty femme, as it happens. Give or take that I wear shorts under miniskirts for the pockets. I learnt, as I was growing up, that my satisfactions should come from prioritising others’ needs/desires/comforts. Women are socialised as carers. Even my parents, who bought me trucks and my brother dolls, were powerless to resist the forces of the world I saw around me, as manifest in their own roles, my contemporaries, the Daily Mail (delivered and devoured by me daily from the age of 5 or 6 onwards until I staged a rebellion at the age of 16) and 1980s kids’ tv. One of the major messages that I absorbed with my peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches was that explicated by Susie Orbach thus:

There exist in [many Western] women to some degree two deeply internalised taboos
        (which are socially reinforced). One is against the expression of dependency needs, and the 
        other is the taboo against initiating...A psychological consequence of the suppression of 
        women's desires for both dependency gratification and autonomy is that women do not
        feel good within themselves. They feel unentitled, they feel wrong. They constantly search 
to feel all right, and the approval of others temporarily quiets the uneasy feelings inside.

Whilst I’d like to hope this isn’t quite as universally true as Orbach suggests, in my case it’s gospel. And it’s relevant in almost every circumstance in which I interact with the world and with others. Obviously I have friendships and relationships where the expression of ‘dependency need’ and vulnerability is allowed, but they’re neurotically contingent on perceived mutuality. I instinctively crave the approval of others; I feel myself continually inadequate, oversensitive and needy, and shrink from appearing emotionally ‘demanding’ as I do from spiders.

However. It’s also centrally important to me in some (professional, intellectual, ethical, academic contexts) *not* to back down, not to avoid initiating or the expression of demand, to stand up for principles and for myself, to respect my own achievements and put forward my own arguments, and fight for ethical beliefs. To call people on dickheadism. To cause trouble when necessary, even if I end up crying on a friend’s shoulder afterwards from the stress of it all. Given that I’m a writer and academic, I spend a *lot* of time (from choice! I know, I know) having to defend beliefs and arguments that actually feel so close to an authentic expression of myself it’s hard not to take attacks personally. And where I *have* to initiate conflict, and negotiate negative opinions of myself and my views. And, sometimes, that’s tough. The kyriarchy is problematic, and I spend a lot of time in a wide variety of professional or social or personal situations voluntarily challenging it and being criticised, openly or otherwise, for that. Or just plain suffering the ill effects of its problems – like every other person on the planet. And it gets wearing –the fighting and the writing and the kyriarchy. There isn’t that much space to rest.

But. (This will make sense soon, I hope.) There’s one area in my life where I don’t have to do any of that if I don’t want to, and where these things can be openly discussed and negotiated. And that is sex. I’ve been lucky: never really had any hang-ups about sex, despite some fairly awful adolescent coercions (age 16, I bit a boy who tried to force fellatio). I was largely introduced to it as an expression of love and trust, and have maintained it ever since as a genuine expression of caring and intimacy, whether relationship-based or otherwise. And in bed (or field, or roof, or van, or terrace, or on one memorable occasion airplane toilet) all I need to pay attention to is my desires and needs, and those of my partner/s, and so the (considerable) parts of me that want to stop fighting, to give in, to let somebody else take control, to be vulnerable and needy and desperate and violent and screaming and looked after and cared for, can come out to play.
Certainly, this isn’t the only relevant sexual expression of socioideological situation. I’m pretty sure a number of people – maybe even me, if I had a job or a life situation or personality less troublesomely expressive – go the other way, have sex as a space where it *is* alright to impose desire, demand, maybe pain, on a willing partner.* To release aggression or frustration. (The latter *is* true for me, but I can usually only fight in the comforting certainty a) of mutuality and b) that I will lose, be overpowered and comforted, that I can express every bit of violence I have and it will still be welcomed and safely contained.)

For me, the degree to which I can express these things, the degree to which I can submit, is directly correlative to my instinctive comfort with my partners and their perceived understanding of me – the more I feel known and knowing, the greater the intimacy, the more I can let go. It’s not necessarily about the length of time I’ve known someone, but the depth – one lover I willingly subbed on instinct to after a vague acquaintance and 5 hours talking in a pub; several relatively long-term partners I couldn’t’ve subbed to in a million years. It’s dependent on their desire and need for me to do so, too – again, mutuality is key. Mutuality, and respect – the certain knowledge that they think not less of me for letting go, but more.

Submission – and rough sex – serve other functions, too. In relationships, small r, I am the arch negotiator; I spend a lot of time essentially concerned primarily with the other party’s desires and needs rather than my own. (Hah, yes, see above. This is sometimes dysfunctional). I don’t tend to fight with partners; my relationships, big r, tend to be very big on long angst-ridden discussions and rather low on thrown plates or verbal aggression. But in any relationship, there are tensions and difficulties and anger – and sex tends to be, for me and mine, a healthy and mutually satisfying way of negotiating those feelings, as well as more complex ones like anger with somebody for your vulnerability to them, anger with yourself for allowing that vulnerability, and so on. (Nb. I tend to date sensitive and mildly overthinky people for whom these things are issues. Like Ani, I need somebody to be 'a tortured soul, some of the time.’)

The point I’ve been rambling towards is that for me, sexual submission not only enables me to negotiate the problems of contemporary femininity Orbach outlined above, but to overcome them. It’s space to breathe. I don’t need to worry about imposing myself, being demanding or initiating, if I’m being pinned down or tied up and taken. I don’t need to worry about expressing my needs for closeness or initimacy or orgasm if I’m being held and manipulating into coming. I don’t need to worry that my self-expression, my passions, my violent impulses, my needs or frustrations or rage, are fundamentally unacceptable if they’re turning someone on. I don’t need to feel myself unlovable or unwelcome or unneeded if somebody’s need and desire for me are so great they’re being coercive, or slowly and gently and willingly making me come again and again. I don’t need to worry I’m unacceptable and wrong if I can give myself to somebody, let them strip away all the barriers and all the defences and welcome and value the person they find there. Ultimately – and ultimately is somewhere I can only go in a loving relationship – I don’t need to feel I’m unlovable if, in extremis and surrender, I am loved.

And besides, it’s a *lot* of fun.

*Nb. Another important and relevant distinction is that between submission – the voluntary surrender of control I’m discussing – and masochism, which means enjoyment of physical pain. I’m not particularly masochist, I certainly don’t enjoy pain for pain’s sake, but when aroused my perception of mild pain tends to become simply that of intense sensation. Hence my use of the language of violence in this piece.


  1. Wow, best explanation of submission I've ever read!

  2. A lot of the things that I get out of submission are to do with subverting my 'nice girls don't' upbringing. I was raised in a matriarchal family, had a feminist mother but one who was also very steeped in the austere moraility of her particular branch of christianity. So a lot of it is about either having a safe space where I am the 'good girl' even when what makes me that is doing the things bad girls do (because I'm doing what I'm told/ being forced) or it's about just pushing through the bad girl stuff and accompanying punishment and having that cathartic release that comes with playing with that. Some of that involves some pretty gendered headfuckery (mostly around language) but stuff that comes from inside my brain and not assumptions from outside/ the other person.

    I have played with people who think that submission is inherantly female and dominance inherantly male. I'm not interested in doing that again, unless someone takes 'inherant' to mean 'socially conditioned' and wants to fuck with/ explore that.

    Similarly (on the rare occasions that I switch) I find it very hard to be dominant to (perhaps only cis) men if they want that in a very conventional way. That is, I find femdom norms and tropes to be as objectifying and as prescriptive regarding femininity as I find assumptions about female submission. It _has_ to be more individual than that and without all that male gaze b/s.

    Finally, I totally get that thing about safety and being acceptable and knowing for sure that the other person wants you because there is (consensual) force or restraint involved. Even more so if there's an aspect of D/s because if they've seen the little black cracks in your mind and they still want you, then that's where the trust comes from that lets the really fun stuff happen.

  3. Great post, and thanks for introducing me to the term Kyriarchy. :)