submissive sex – anti-feminist or not?
Often the issue that arises from flying the feminist flag is that people expect you to align all of your beliefs within a perceived system of norms that align with what they view as ‘feminism’. For a movement as multi-faceted, widely dispersed and fragmented as feminism is, this is nigh on impossible.
Every feminist (much like every person) is unique, and their approach to feminism will be united by several key concepts (e.g. gender equality) that are approached in different ways. This doesn’t seem like rocket science to me, but for some reason cohesion within the movement is considered necessary by many people, despite being an impossible goal.
One key area within feminism where a lot of differences are sparked between groups of feminists is sexuality, and what is or isn’t considered ok.
Some things are universal of course – rape is inherently wrong, consensual sex is generally considered to be right (Andrea Dworkin may disagree, but we’ll leave that for now). Where things take on a level of greyness is when you start getting more specific. What about pornography? What kind of consensual sex is ok? Is there such a thing as ‘feminist’ sex or ‘anti-feminist’ sex?
Some would argue ‘yes’, but I’m going to argue emphatically ‘no’ to that last one. To me, sexuality is entirely personal, and as long as the sex is what you want and it’s good, there’s nothing that’s up for debate.
However, even I sometimes feel limited in my sexual activity by a sense of obligation to take the act on in a feminist way. Sex is ultimately a vulnerable act – it’s a moment when you allow yourself to be completely intimate with someone else – but being vulnerable, or in a position of submission feels at odds with my feminism at times, forcing me to examine the way gender roles are prescribed during sex.
I am, of course, talking about heterosexual sex at this point, and I have no really concept of whether similar issues arise for non-hetero interactions. But recently, some controversy arose in the media sphere about the new cult-classic ‘mummy porn’ novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. The novel, written by E L James, portrays a relationship between a young woman and slightly older man, in which the sexual nature of the relationship is characterised by a power-play in which the woman is subjugated by the man and is at his mercy throughout the act – like any, run-of-the-mill BDSM plot. Having not read the book, I have no idea how the sex is portrayed, and whether or not the female character is depicted as being comfortable in this situation, empowered, whether she enjoys herself, or what their relationship is like outside of the bedroom.
But what I did find interesting were the comments I read on a number of articles about the book, many of which were calling it a ‘step back for feminism’, based entirely on the nature of the sex it portrays.
Now, hold on just a minute – does consensual sex between two adults that involves power-play and male dominance automatically have to be anti-feminist? Isn’t it possible to both enjoy being dominated in the bedroom and be a feminist?
I consider myself to be quite a strong feminist. There is no way of judging the level of someone’s feminism, so I’m not going to bother listing my various backgrounds or feminist ‘qualifications’. But let’s just say, feminism influences everything about my life, not least of all my relationship. My boyfriend and I engage in healthy feminist debate frequently, we have a very equal view of our relationship, and I feel confident in his respect for me in every way.
But in the bedroom, (apologies for the overshare), I love it when he takes charge, and controls the experience – it’s surprising, exciting ,and I revel in being dominated by him because I know that I am safe, that a moment of subjugation in our bed doesn’t in anyway suggest submission anywhere else, and that he is well aware of what is and isn’t ok by my standards.
In my opinion, being able to engage in whatever kind of safe, consensual sex you want is a basic right. That I feel implicitly judged by some invisible feminist overseer at times like those described above suggests that there is a critical element to contemporary feminist thought that perhaps isn’t entirely fair.
Criticising a book like Fifty Shades of Grey for being anti-feminist based on its plot or characters or themes is one thing – but basing criticism of the book on the fact that the specific sexual act within places the woman in a powerless position seems unfair to me, particularly if the will of the woman is ignored when judging the situation.
Yes, it would be a problem if all sex as portrayed in popular culture showed women to be helpless and submissive during the act, but I think we can safely say that this isn’t the case (though there are many valid criticisms of the portrayal of female sexuality in popular culture in general).
Sex is a highly personal experience in most cases, and can draw out likes and dislikes that may not reflect our general attitudes or beliefs, but which are related to a more visceral level of physical experience that is not ruled by rational thought a lot of the time.
What you like is what you like, and as long as it is safe and doesn’t harm your partner, I say exercise your feminist right to express yourself freely – be that in a submissive, or dominant way!
By Zoya Patel