think about it
Your cart is empty

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

10 thoughts on “submissive sex – anti-feminist or not?

  1. I agree in part, in that when sex is consensual, between two respecting adults, then it shouldn’t really matter what the sex is like (submissive, BDSM, really lame and corny/romantic, whatever). Its your choice what your sex life is like. And in the context of a respectful relationship, submission in one area is not necessarily submission in other areas.

    What worries me more is, why are some women (myself included) attracted to submissive sex. We are all products of our culture/society, after all. I don’t think we’re born enjoying a particular kind of sex. The kind of sex we like is an expression of parts of our personality. So, where along the way did I learn to like being dominated?

    Is it just that – as a strong woman in other areas of my life – I enjoy the intimacy and vulnerability of handing over control to someone I trust? Or is it that our culture (through pornography, TV, magazine, the Twilight Movies…etc.) has taught me that as a woman, I enjoy being submissive during sex. That men are powerful, and that women are weak/vulnerable/at their mercy?

    Why is it that books like Fifty Shades of Grey become popular? Is it feeding our socialised preference for submissive sex? Is it contributing to the cultural norm of submissive sex, or a product of it? Would this book have been as popular, if the woman had been dominant and the man submissive?

    And finally (and this is more of a thought bubble, than a real thought), what effect does your sex have on your relationship? Are they two different worlds, the bed room, and everywhere else? Or does the way you behave during sex inform your understanding of each other, and effect your relationship dynamic?

  2. I definitely see where you’re coming from – I wonder what it is that compels me to enjoy being smaller than my boyfriend, or often mroe vulnerable – especially during sex.

    Whilst I don’t doubt that there is an element of gender-based socialisation that happens here (often disguised by the word ‘primal’) it should stand to reason that such socialisation, if so efective in the bedroom, would also be equally pervasive in other areas of our relationship or lives generally.

    And it really isn’t – I don’t think that the kind of sex you have has to have an impact in any other part of your relationship – other than the sheer intimacy of the act bringing you closer within the relationship (that’s in the case of intimate sex – casual sex is another thing altogether in my mind, and can be equally pleasurable in a different way).

    I don’t know if that makes sense, but I guess what I’m trying to say is, even if we are socialised to enjoy certain behaviours on an irrational level, so long as rationally you maintain equality and respect in a relationship, what happened between the sheets should be entirely up to you.

  3. I heard from people who have read the book that it initially started as fan fiction and the author is in the media industry herself (explains the publicity and how it’s being run). I’ve also heard that the sex portrayed isn’t exactly a typical BDSM relationship — the core elements of BDSM being safe, sane (problematic word choice, I know!) and consensual.

    I’ve definitely been conflicted in the type of errr, intimacy I enjoy and whether I am being influenced, or if it makes me a “bad” feminist. I don’t think we can escape that influence, but we can recognise it and challenge it.

  4. This was such a great read. Every now and then I’ve found myself wondering the same thing about my sexual preferences and whether they conflict with my feminist nature, too. But I think you’re right, sex is a shared intimate thing, and how you do it has no impact on whether you are a feminist or not, as long as you are healthy, comfortable and satisfied!
    Awesome post!

    chloe –

  5. I’m sexually dominant and my girlfriend is sexually submissive. I’ll just speak for myself.

    When I first started to think about sex, fantasised would be a better term, well I won’t overshare but my fantasies at 14 definatly didn’t come from any culture I had been exposed to. Quite the opposite. As I got a bit older and saw BDSM represented in TV shows I was freaked out. It was always a sexualy abusive (not dominant) man killing and terrorisim reluctant women. It didn’t match my fantasies exactly because the girl (at that point my crush in highschool) always loved it.

    So there I was early to mid teens convinced that any idea that a girl could enjoy the kind of things I wanted to do was a delusion on my part and a dangerous one. So I tried to suppress that part of me and attempted vanilla relatioships. However by supprssing my seuxality the relationships were doomed from the start.

    I haven’t read the book but from what I gather it is about a realisitc potrail as blue velvet (I hate it when people say that is a BDSM scene…. it is abuse, nothing more or less).

    Just for the record, my girl friend is more successful in her carrer, more educated, more driven, and outside the bedroom our relationship is quite even, except perhaps she likes to sit at my feet when she is reading and a few other things like that I won’t share.

    PS: I hope you are going to do your next article on sexually dominant women. Its world I have never gotten into. Doors tend to close on dom men who ask questions.

  6. A close friend of mine who I think of as a very strong feminist once admitted that she loved playing the submissive in the bedroom. She said that it was such a feeling of liberation to be able to give up all control to someone you fully trusted, especially since she was so strong in her daily life and career.
    Sweetie and I love to switch roles. It IS wonderful to trust another person so much that you can share a fantasy and for a moment pretend to be something or someone you’re usually not.

  7. This is an issue I have also contemplated. There is a part of me that really rejects the idea that what goes on in the bedroom can be separate from the rest of your life, like sexual preference/choice occurs in a vacuum. It reminds me of when women say that they chose to change their name upon marriage and that this was their personal choice and has absolutely no feminist implications, rubbish!

    So I’ve been forced to conclude that perhaps my attraction to male Dom/female sub sex is so…intense, specifically because it is, to me, anti-feminist. As you put it I am a ‘strong feminist’ too, so being submissive in the bedroom is my ultimate taboo, which makes it incredibly hot. Of course it all has to be completely consensual with a partner one trusts implicitly etc etc. This then of course raises the question of why taboo is such a turn on, but that’s for another discussion, or perhaps it’s just my catholic upbringing!

  8. With you on this one Zoya – what you do in bed is your own business, as long as it’s safe and consensual.
    I am a strong feminist and also enjoy a submissive role from time to time. I don’t think this is about any socialized “kink” or as a result of the media… I honestly think its because I am such an over-thinker! I have to be in control in every area of my life, to manage my work, colleagues, expectations of friends and family, etc. So for me, being able to let go of control means I can enjoy… Intimacy more because I don’t have to worry about what will happen next or that someone isn’t getting what they want. I trust my husband to know what I like, and I can just let go and enjoy it. Our relationship is based on respect and he’s my favorite feminist!
    I recently read the trilogy, and for the record while it starts out BDSM, the female character is ultimately uncomfortable with the extremes of this lifestyle and a mutually satisfying compromise is reached. It’s not great literature, but it’s not as dark as some of the criticisms suggest. It’s as much about the fantasy of someone being changed by your love as it is about sexual dominance. Also, it started out as fanfic for Twilight, so the central relationship has some of those elements: dangerous male fancies innocent female but is frightened he will corrupt/vampirise her, but in the end realizes he can’t live without her… Blah blah. It’s mills and Boone with 300 sex scenes…

  9. The way I have come to terms with my own submissive sexual tendencies is to examine them carefully, but also to have a good long think about what submission means to me.
    Being submissive, to me, is not about being weak, but about being strong. It takes strength and enormous force of will to not only surrender to someone else, but endure pain for their enjoyment. For this reason, I don’t believe my submissiveness is a product of the society around me that tells me women are weak and fragile.

    • as long as you feel secure and respected by your partner, why should you feel the need to analyze your sexuality. i love my partner. i respect and care for her. during sex she loves to pretend she is a young, and i mean young girl. she loves the feeling of being ashamed, degraded and humiliated. it took me a while to get my head around it, but now i, we accept it as just a sex game. it is nothing to do with her being weak or fragile. and it has nothing to do with the rest of the world. after ten years together it is just about what WE enjoy. looking forward to the next 10,20, 30 years together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *