“An empowered submissive? You mean, a woman who is sexually empowered by her role as a submissive? A woman who isn’t a passive victim in receiving torture, but takes an active role in being dominated?”
Yes, that is exactly what I mean.
A number of years ago, I found myself in a discussion group about sexuality. We were a group of (mostly) ardent feminists, discussing how sex can be empowering for women, and how we can use sex to express our independence, freedom, empowerment, etc etc. We covered a number of topics; how to continue your sex life after a sexual assault, exploring different parts of your sexuality without embarrassment and shame, creating and watching feminist pornography, and eventually domination in the bedroom.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that many people in the room felt that the only way a woman could be empowered in her sexuality was to take control and be dominant. Our discussions of pornography proved my assumption: (straight) feminist pornography is when women are taking control of men and doing what they want, empowering both the doer and the viewer. Maybe it involved whips and chains, maybe it didn’t, but either way, SHE was the dominant and he was the submissive. As we continued the discussion, I was alienated and all alone.
You see, I’m a sexual submissive. I’m a masochist. I’m a woman. And I’m a feminist. At the time, I thought the world was about to implode. Or, at least my world.
(Definition: a sexual submissive, as the name implies, submits in sexual situations to a ‘master’. In my case, this master is always male. As a masochist, I enjoy receiving pain and sexual torture, independent or coinciding with pleasure. And I’m NOT talking Fifty Shades of Grey s**t. Look up some (good) BDSM porn to find out what I’m talking about, if you must)
Being still a bit naïve at the time, and not completely comfortable with my sexuality and choices, I sat in complete silence and astonishment for the rest of the discussion. I listened as my friends and colleagues upheld stereotypes of female submission, decried BDSM (heterosexual) pornography, and basically bashed everything that I sexually enjoyed. I never thought to challenge them about women submitting to men. I was too ashamed of myself and choices to consider raising the point.
Instead, I went home and tried to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. Was there something wrong? There had to be! I was an independent, fiercely strong and determined woman. I was a loud and very proud feminist. Yet I would beg to have a man sexually torture me. I craved it, even as I was a crying mess downing a bottle of wine after that discussion group. The next day I engaged in my roughest session to date, fully giving in to everything I knew my body and mind wanted. It was clear, I had a problem.
I knew I couldn’t stop being a sexual submissive. That much was clear. But I also wasn’t going to give up my feminist identity. I was determined they could work together. So, I came up with two options: 1) hide it, or 2) figure out how my feminism could still work with my sexual choices. Turned out, I needed a combination of both.
As it unfolded, it became clear that reconciling my feminism with my sexual submission was the only way to go. I began to read. I read nearly everything about female submission I could get my hands on. I read erotica, blogs, sexuality information sites, academic texts, magazines, men’s perspectives, women’s perspectives… anything and everything. What did I find about submission and feminism? Nothing. I found a little about submission in homosexual relationships, and some erotica about empowered women being “forced” (consensually) to submit. But nothing about the problem I was facing. Absolutely nothing.
Finally, a couple years later as I was browsing the bookstore with no particular goal in mind, I came across a text by one of my favorite feminist authors. I flipped through the table of contents, let my jaw drop for a few moments, went and paid for the book immediately, and rushed home to read it. I had found it, an article about a feminist submissive. I read the short article at least five times before I let out a sigh of relief. Someone understood me and was speaking to me. But most of all, someone had found the answer that I had been searching for.
Did I make my sexual choice of my own free will? Yes… Did I enjoy my sexual choice? Yes… Then isn’t that, in itself, empowering?…. YES!
It was a simple, but staggering revelation. My choice, my openness to what I want and enjoy, and my acceptance of it was the empowering part of my sexuality. That is what made my sexuality fit with my feminism. It was that simple.
So why couldn’t my friends at the discussion group see that? The conclusion was so basic, something we, as feminists, readily applied to other sexual choices. But then I realized they were clouded by stereotypes. They (like many many people in the world) envisioned a female submissive that submits for her master’s pleasure and not her own. They saw a helpless woman, a victim of men, that was being tortured, maybe even against her will, but certainly not for her pleasure. The world (this wasn’t just about my feminist friends) couldn’t comprehend a woman enjoying, even begging, for that pain. To them, they only saw the almighty patriarchy at work.
The more I thought about it, the more my entire perception shifted. I realized that being a submissive was actually about empowerment, not the other way around. First of all, when you are ‘submitting’, contrary to popular imaginings, the focus is actually on you, the submissive. You are receiving the pain or the pleasure, you are the focus of your master’s attention, and really you are the star of the show. A skilled master will get pleasure out of just you – they will be satisfied by seeing your pain, pleasure, submission, etc. This is sounding like the fiercely independent and confident woman I pride myself on being…
Submission is also about giving in. It is being confident enough with yourself, sexuality and partner to just give up that control. Ultimately though, the control still resides with you. As the submissive, you still decide what limits there are and when things need to stop. You are consenting, enthusiastically, to the situation. In itself, that is also about empowerment. When I consent to being submissive, I leave behind all the burdens of decision making, independence and control that plague my day to day life. Instead, I get to just sit back, take some orders and get some amazing pleasure. That is also empowering. I’m not some helpless victim taking the pain so my man will be happy. Hell no. I WANT that pain, and I want him to give it to me.
Even after my sexual revelation, I still continue to hide this part of my identity. Today, I write this under an anonymous title, because even very few of my friends know about this part of my identity. Is it because I’m ashamed? Certainly not, I got over that a while ago. Part of it is professional and job related, of course. But I’ve realized I mainly hide it not from embarrassment, but because I do not want to explain to every passerby why I do what I do. For many, they ask out of curiosity. But for me, this is my sexual choice. I don’t want to have to break down all of those stereotypes running through your head. I don’t want you to think you can take advantage of me because I like being controlled. And I especially don’t want to explain to you why I like the feeling of pain sometimes more than sexual release. This is my sexuality, I’m cool and open to it if people respectfully ask. But my personal choices are not up as a public service announcement. I prefer to choose who I tell. That’s empowering, too.
Almost 7 years have passed since my crisis, and 5 years have now passed since my major revelation and the first time I wrote about it. My world didn’t implode and I was able to see how my feminism not only fits, but is actually directly related to my sexuality as a submissive. I would love to see ‘the world’ get over its stereotypes of female submission, but popular culture never seems to help my cause (Fifty Shades of Grey has put my sexual identity back at least fifty years…).
Maybe one day I’ll put myself out there more, show that I am proud of who I am and tell all of you to try submission at least once, because it is super fun. But until then, I’ll stick to the determination that my own choices are empowering for me, because they are my own. I know what I like and I’ve moved beyond accepting it to actually embracing it full on.
Yes, I’m still a feminist, a sex positive feminist who understands the issues of choice and enthusiastic consent. I’m also still a submissive who continues to empower myself with my sexual choices. The combination of these identities has allowed me not only to explore my sexuality, but the core of my identity.
[Contributed by Lucy Bee]