Home > D/s, My writing, Uncategorized > Feminism & submission I

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. This situation is neither divinely ordained nor biologically inevitable.  It is the result of decisions which have been made within human culture.
  4. 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.

Anti feminists

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.

  1. M
    March 19, 2009 at 12:43 am

    It is difficult to remedy two seemingly competing viewpoints when they’re held so closely…. but by thinking it through, and deconstructing them both, you’re on the right path. I don’t know if you’ll ever really remedy those views, but you’ll find your equilibrium, and can be satisfied that you made the effort.

    I think that the problem with contemporary feminism is that it suffers from the same things we were talking about today – the “me” generation that wants things as quickly and easily as possible. The quest for self fulfillment has fragmented a powerful movement, and silenced a powerful ideal. As many gains as were made in formal equality rights are being simultaneously eroded by the ever-increasing sexualizing of women’s bodies, increasingly misogynistic pop culture, and the decline of the North American Male. (Essentially the sapping of “traditional” male qualities of courtesy, class, drive, and grace – it has been argued that the male gender has been set adrift since the achievement of second-wave rights, and hasn’t adjusted to the new reality. The longer we are without a positive and constructive ideal of the “new man”, the longer we will continue to accept patriarchy… whole different can of worms!)

    One thing that’s often silent in feminism is the male voice. Pushed to the side, marginalized, the male feminist’s opinion is rarely welcomed. Men and women are more alike than we would like to admit. We both have a vested interest in dismantling patriarchy. We both have a vested interest in re-defining the male gender. We’re both able to help one another…

    So as I read your article, I can’t help but to see it in light of what I just wrote. You are not alone in your conflicted feelings. Thinking women and men the world over have the same trepidations – but you’re one of the few brave enough to explore it.

    • spokewench
      March 19, 2009 at 9:50 am

      Can you provide some evidence for the idea that men’s voices are pushed aside by feminists?

  2. M
    March 20, 2009 at 7:09 am

    There are two ideas in what I wrote:

    1. That the male gender has been displaced from its traditional gender role, but has not yet found a new ideal to aspire to.

    2. That the voices of male feminists are marginalized. Men are told that they cannot possibly understand the plight of women because they have never lived the experience. Genuine interest in womens’ issues is stifled because of a combination of distrust and knee-jerk reactionism (my personal favourite – from my first-year Women’s Studies prof – “Do you really believe that, or are you just saying this for my benefit?”). Also, patriarchy goes a long way to paint feminism as a dirty word – the feminist male who will admit he is a feminist in front of other males is a rare breed as a result.

    Just a few examples from my own experience.

  3. March 26, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Hi Spokewench,

    I hope you don’t mind if I join this conversation a little late.

    > they had a point that the men consuming this porn would have a very fucked up idea of what women like

    I dispute this, in fact they probably have an accurate idea of what -some- women like, given the vast differences of opinion on what is sexy and fun among the women I’ve known. It is disempowering of those women to make judgments on what they find arousing, so we should desist, their arousal response is their own to master and decide.

    > it would be damaging to the men as human beings and potentially to the women they have in their lives.

    And in my opinion, either way, porn is fiction the way space opera is fiction and over the years all attempts to draw conclusions from the effects of consuming pornography on the behaviour of men have failed to find any evidence of resulting abuse, and in fact there may be an anti-correlation as a result of the outlet for fantasy that does not involve imposing one’s fantasies on non-consenters: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pornography#Effect_on_sex_crimes.

    > 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 think they were making an inappropriate judgment on your sexuality, as a woman. This is a sad invasion of your private space (and actually I think the same is true for the judgment they made on men’s sexuality). Our society, in large part in thanks to progressive movements and direct action, has mostly moved beyond imposing it’s will on people’s sexuality.

    With regards to what feminism is, I read your definition with interest, and while sophisticated I worry about it’s complexity and nuance in that I feel the best definitions of feminism are the ones that resonate with the maximum number of people. I feel it’s important to recruit the most people to the cause as possible, to give the cause itself a veneer at least of being the mainstream centre of where society wants to go with itself even if it’s not there yet, and to avoid marginalization. I realize you don’t care much about marginalization. Anyway, I mention this only to introduce this definition of feminism that I promote, that is simple, and resonates with just about everyone that I would consider a friend: “being a feminist means believing that men and women do not hold equal places in our society, and that must and can be remedied”. My definition avoids words like “patriarchy” that inherently seeks to blame – blaming people never helps, and especially eliminates the chance of recruiting them to your agenda. It does use the word “equal”, sorry. 🙂 While it’s undeniable that all systems of oppression are woven with a common thread, I find it distracting to think about them all, and furthermore this in my mind increases the likelihood that the problem will be seen as overwhelming and insoluble by the reader. Your points 3 and 4 are built into mine by saying that it must and can be remedied so on these points we are in full agreement.

    Anyway, this is all just an aside so you can see where I’m coming from. The rest of your article shows a couple more important differences in strategy with regards to resolving this whole matter, but not too many differences in opinion. I am a recruiter, shift the middle and try to influence the mainstream vision in the direction I want it to go kind of a guy; you are more of an attack the opposite fringe kinda gal. It’s all good, I think a successful overall approach probably needs both kinds of actors.

    So, you go on to discuss choice, and I think choice is empowering, and oppression is disempowering, and so to think of these as totally different spheres is probably wrong. However, they are not opposite sides of a single issue and so I take your point. I also have some other quibbles but I don’t want to leave you with an impression of negativity so I’ll move on.

    Right, to the meaty part. Submission and consent.

    > 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.

    No doubt, a “resemblance”, the relevance of which is seriously in question in my mind. But while perhaps not quite as common it is also very common for the man to be the submissive, so much so that in our society’s mind’s eye, the whole BDSM scene can be visualized as the “dominatrix” in costume. Certainly we can agree this is not a fair comment on the matriarchy.

    Perhaps sexual turn-ons and societal inequities really are simply different spheres? And their occasional superficial resemblances are best left acknowledged with a “hey that’s neat but not actually relevant?”

    So, on to consent. To me, consent is mandatory, but to a certain degree not enough. Here’s where I get myself into trouble with regards to some of my previous assertions, but I think you will see the trouble is again rather superficial. You can consent to something and still not feel fairly treated by it. I don’t think, in the typical d/s scenario you have in mind in this exercise of reconciliation with feminism, relies so much on consent alone. It relies on what drives ones’ fantasies, and sexuality. I am not entirely comfortable with a m/f d/s scenario wherein all I know is that the woman is “consenting”… it’s not a strong enough word. It carries baggage for me, the way one might consent to a breathalyzer exam or something. To me it has to be more than consent, it has to be interest and curiosity at a minimum, and preferably shared excitement and arousal, well beyond plain consent that fuels the scene. This is clearly what you are alluding to when you mention “sexy sexy submission”. Far, far more than simple consent.

    In any event, I grant that it may seem I’m contradicting myself somewhat here, thinking that oppression and d/s are interrelated in this specific scenario, of an enthusiastic male dominant leveraging the “patriarchy” to coerce consent from a woman. Well I guess it could happen. But I don’t think we’re talking about typical d/s here, this is more a dominant abusing his power on an unwilling submissive. Never good. And while using the patriarchy as a possible lever, it’s one among many, and it’s more likely that other nefarious levers are in play too in this scenario. Again, I think this is altogether different from what you’re talking about when you mention “sexy sexy submission”.

    Now – the idea you have that anti-kink feminism is not mainstream feminism and gets underlined by anti-feminists as part of a broader pr strategy is very very interesting and strikes me as likely true. Anti-feminists love to paint feminists as radical invaders of the private realm whenever they can, since most anti-feminists themselves are accused of that (and rightfully so) all too often.

    Leaving it at that for now. I look forward to your next piece on the subject.

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