Feminism & submission I
When I was 17, newly anarchist and recently gaining a decent understanding of feminism, I read the book Direct Action by Ann Hansen. In it, she describes her work with the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade, a group of militant feminist women who operated in the Vancouver area in the 80s. They had decided shut down (i.e. firebomb) a pornography chain called Red Hot Video, which sold porn they saw as being particularly degrading to women. I don’t remember the exact descriptions from the book, but basically this place sold BDSM porn.
I was torn because on the one hand I thought they had a point that the men consuming this porn would have a very fucked up idea of what women like, it would be damaging to the men as human beings and potentially to the women they have in their lives. I do not think I was entirely wrong on this. I was also big into militant direct action. I thought if you wanted to do something you should do it right, and these women certainly did it right.
On the other hand I had been aware for a few years that the fantasies I had always made for myself while alone in bed at night were the same kinds of things these women were willing to firebomb against. I knew that I had porn on my computer they would want to destroy.
I reacted by trying to rid myself of kink, not for the first nor last time. But eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore, I came back to the sexy sexy submission fantasies and pain play. I couldn’t just ignore it, I had to integrate feminism and submission. I like to be internally consistent.
What feminism is
I hold with a definition of feminism based on older Second Wave ideas. It is far more demanding than the popular “women are equal” casually dropped by liberals and other conservatives wishing to prove how progressive they are. I have added to the original definition the insights provided by intersectionalist feminists and anarchism This definition has three points:
- In the world we live in, all women are oppressed and exploited by a system known as patriarchy. This is to say that our power is systemically taken from us. It is concentrated in the hands of the men around us to a certain extent, and those above us more so.
- Gender-based oppression is related to and reliant upon other systems of oppression, such as racism, ablism, class, homophobia etc. These various systems affect every person differently, people face different sorts of troubles and posses different types of privilege; these serve to divide us from one another so that we remain weak. No one form can be fixed without simultaneously working on the others. Change must occur at the system level, these problems are not individual.
- This situation is neither divinely ordained nor biologically inevitable. It is the result of decisions which have been made within human culture.
- This situation is not desirable, and it is necessary that we combat it.
This is not everyone’s definition, it is perhaps not even a popular definition, however I think it is most useful.
What feminism is not
I think a lot of confusion about feminism comes from a period (I think this was the 80s and/or 90s) where feminism as a powerful force was on the decline and to make it more palatable, the concept and responsibilities (see #4 above) of of applying this term to oneself were diluted substantially. I don’t know which came first, but I think the decline of feminism and it’s tendency towards wanting to be easily accepted with the cool kids are related to each other.
This is where we get ideas like “feminism is about women being able to choose” and “feminism is about women being equal.” The concepts of choice and equality being strongly associated with the women’s liberation movement through highly visible and moderately successful campaigns such as “Pro choice” and “Equal pay for equal work.”
Notice my definition above did not contain the word “choice” or “equality.” This was not accidental as I do not believe them to be integral parts of the feminist project.
The concept of “choice” particularly is troublesome. In a highly consumerist culture, choice often comes down to objects and employment. A lot of women seem to be under the genuine impression that the wearing of pants has great social justice value. Ignore that the pants are tight-fitting to make men like us more,and that they poorly-manufactured by even poorer people.
Of course the concept that choice = feminism has been taken by many women kinksters, especially submissive, wishing to defend themselves against a percieved attack on them by feminists. I have seen more times than I can count the tired old argument “well if I choose to live my life as a slave than it is a feminist choice!”
Sorry ladies, but just because you choose to do something does not mean you are a feminist. Nor do it mean the choice you made is a feminist choice. The feminist movement has made many new choices available to women. For example many rich white women who have careers outside the home now choose to hire immigrant women of colour to clean their homes and care for their children. This is not a feminist act, because it relies upon the domination of third-world economies by those of the first world, and on the continued subjegation of the women of those nations. This is a choice which is predicated upon systems of opression being firmly in place. Yet it is a choice many would not have had reason to make without the feminist movement.
Submission & consent
Creating a definition of submission is harder for me to come up with than the definition of feminism. I suppose years of arguing about the hows and whys of feminist action have given me lots of practice. I find myself arguing substantially less about submission.
I would say a broad definition of submission is a decision taken by one individual to allow themselves to be controlled bodily and emotionally, within agreed limits, for a certain time. The submissive is as cooperative as they can be with this.
In the extremely-common heterosexual pairing of a dominant man and a submissive woman, this can bear a striking resemblance to an abusive patriarchal sexual relationships. While some women are still bodily forced into genuine abusive relationships, many enter apparently of their own free will. This is a reason why many feminists have a hard time with the “choice” line presented by many submissive women. I think given the cultural context, this is an extremely valid criticism.
This isn’t to say that women are incapable of giving consent, but that our consent has historically been manipulated and coerced, and that things are not always as they appear on the surface. I think it is important for people playing games with power to be hyper aware of how gender, race, and other factors may impact our pay and our ability to consent to it.
People tend to act out on an individual level the systems of power and privilege which are enforced at a systemic level. One of the things women are taught in our culture is to do as men desire. And men are taught that they are entitled to their desires. So it could be happening that an individual woman is engaging in BDSM activities that she is not fully consenting to, just as she could be engaging in vanilla sex she is not fully consenting to.
However I do think that many, many women consent to engaging in acts which in another context would be horrific. I know I have. I also think that the extensive negotiations engaged in by BDSM people prior to playing are able to couter-balance the extra danger kink can create. Personally I can think of more times I was pressured into vanilla sex I didn’t really want than times I had kinky play under those cicumstances.
I think the anti-kink aspect of the feminist movement has been emphasized in the BDSM community by people not necissarily friendly to feminism, who enjoy having the logical upper hand. I often see references to anti-kink feminists (and almost as often pro kink feminists, usually sex workers). But what about other feminist endevours relevant to kink and sexuality? What about anti-rape campaigns? Women’s shelters? Maternity leave? Child care? Patient-centered health care? Safer sex education? The battle for contraceptives, information and abortion? Organizations which help women to leave relationships which genuinely are abusive?
I had more to say but this is plenty long as it is and I am tired so I’m stopping here.
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