choke me, daddy? the subversive power of consensual pain
Have you ever played around with power roles in the bedroom? Maybe you’ve tried some teacher/student role play? Maybe you’ve dabbled in restraints or spanking? Maybe you’ve had a partner ask you to choke them during sex? It can be a turn-on to be given total power over your partner’s body, or to give up control and lose yourself deliciously in surrender.
But have you ever wondered about where these power dynamics come from, or whether it’s “okay” to use them for pleasure? I started wondering when I read two books, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall—longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction—and Daddy by Madison Young.
Madison Young is a feminist BDSM model and performance artist. Her memoir Daddy tells several parallel stories: the development of her kinky sexuality as a submissive, the narrative of her success as a business owner, and her complex relationships with her distant father, and her lover, James Mogul, whom she affectionately calls ‘Daddy.’
Ghost Wall is a fictional novella. The story is set in the north of England on an archaeological excursion: a professor and three of his students have set up camp and are living like Iron Age people as a learning experience. With them is Sylvie, a teenage girl who has been forced to attend the trip with her mother and father. The story is told from Sylvie’s perspective and her father emerges quickly as a volatile antagonist.
These works, although different in genre, subject, and theme, both have an interest in dynamics of submission and domination in intimate relationships. And they both portray feminine protagonists who submit to a dominant masculine figure.
Young’s memoir celebrates power play as a form of sexual pleasure between consenting partners. Submission, within agreed upon rules, is thrilling for her and she revels in being tied up, “forced” to perform sex acts on her partner, the dominant James, or ‘Daddy,’ with whom she gleefully takes on the role of ‘Little Girl.’ Young’s Little Girl is in need of protection, and looks to Daddy as a source of paternal comfort, but she also longs to be sexually exploited by Daddy and used for his pleasure.
This dynamic isn’t restricted to their sexual play, and permeates their relationship. Ultimately, Young consents to becoming her Daddy’s property. Held captive in a locked cage during a week-long power play that transforms their relationship, she tells him giddily, ‘I belong to you, Sir.’
In Moss’s Ghost Wall, the teenage Sylvie belongs to her father in a very different way. Sylvie’s father is violent and domineering, and the threat he poses to Sylvie’s safety and ultimately to her life swells silently as the narrative unfolds. On the expedition, Sylvie’s father dictates where she sleeps (in a tent with him and Sylvie’s mother—’he wanted to be able to see what I was up to’); where she’s permitted to venture in the isolated landscape on which they’re camped; what she wears (an authentic Iron Age style hemp tunic); and when and how she eats. He does this through explicit orders but also through the threat of violence, which Sylvie has learned to fear.
In order to survive, Sylvie has become deeply attuned to his moods. Sylvie is often disciplined through fear simply by a look from her father, or one of his anxious mannerisms, which act as tells of an impending outburst that will likely result in bruises or worse for Sylvie or her mother.
Sylvie’s submission is deeply psychological but woven inextricably with the physical sensation of violence. Unlike Madison in Daddy, Sylvie has no power to negotiate the conditions of her subordination, and it’s been thrust upon her rather than sought out as a lifestyle choice.
The only reason it occurred to me that these works could illuminate one another is that I read them back to back, completely by chance. Young’s memoir is a true story about playing pretend, and Ghost Wall is fiction about real domination and submission. The question that arose for me was whether it is frivolous or freeing to play with power when it draws on such an insidious and crushing reality: patriarchal oppression.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m pro-kink. There’s a vital difference between real violence and domination, and BDSM. The best BDSM relationships, whether lasting or one-off, are ones in which the participants negotiate boundaries, agree on limits, and in which pain and the surrender or possession of power are sources of pleasure for all. Consent is key.
Finding what thrills and fulfills you sexually should be a priority for everyone, IMO, and more power to you if you’re courageous enough to seek out relationships that enable you to achieve your pleasure.
Particularly for femme folk, trans folk, queer folk, and kinksters, we probably didn’t grow up seeing our desires and sexualities celebrated in mainstream cultures, so it’s vitally important that people like Madison Young are doing this in books and other forms. As activist kween Marian Wright Edelman said, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’
But what do we play with when we play with dominant and submissive roles? The most striking thing that consensual pain play does is to reconfigure interpersonal violence, domination, and submission in a really subversive way.
As an example, there are two eerily parallel scenes in Daddy and Ghost Wall where the protagonists endure extreme pain.
In Ghost Wall, Sylvie’s father catches her bathing naked in a stream, which he told her not to do. As punishment he positions her against a tree and lashes her back with his leather belt:
as his arm rose and swung and rose again, as the belt sang through the sunny air, I thought hard about the tree between my hands, about the cells in its leaves photosynthesizing the afternoon sun, about the berries ripening hour by hour, the impalpable pulse of sap under my palms, the reach of roots below my feet and deep into the earth… I thought about the leather of his belt, the animal from whose skin it was made, about the sensations that skin had known before the fear and pain of the end. Itching, scratching, wind and rain and sun. About the flaying, the tanning.
Similarly, Madison is made to stand in a military torture position, on tiptoes, facing a wall, arms up, hands against the wall, restraints fastened around her wrists and ankles. As her muscles cramp and Daddy whips and verbally abuses her, she uses a meditation technique to get through the pain:
I trembled and stared at the chip in the concrete wall. Just a chip in the rock, a tiny flaw. I memorized it, dove into it, shrunk my body down to size so I could explore it like a crater. I filled it with water and went for a swim, my body floating effortlessly in the pool contained in that crater.
Even if the power dynamic is a performance, the pain inflicted by the dominant person is real. And in both scenes, the pain inflicted through violence has transformational effects.
For Sylvie, the transformation is damaging and psychological. She blames herself for drawing her father’s anger, and her father’s power over her is reinforced. Her submission becomes so total that she willingly puts her life in danger. I’ll avoid spoilers, but the important thing is that pain and violence are tools of power used to oppress Sylvie.
For Madison and James, though, dominance and submission are things to “toy around with”; a simulation that, although embodied via real experiences, is ultimately a construction, a game. And it’s one that they both enjoy, and have control over.
After the intense experience with pain described above, Madison feels closer to James than ever. She feels sexually liberated and fulfilled, and a deep and loving emotional bond arises between the two.
What became really apparent for me is that consensual BDSM experiences involving pain and power play have the power to undermine patriarchal oppression. Violence and the pain are transformed from tools of oppression to tools of liberation. This is incredibly powerful work.
So go forth and enjoy your kinks. So long as it’s safe and consensual, you might just be helping to overthrow the patriarchy.
Emma Maguire writes essays, short stories, and academic work about gender, sexualities, and interesting things. You can find her on twitter @emma_tsv and at www.emmamaguire.wordpress.com