Note: this post is a bit feminist-theoretical.
I try to think seriously about about all comments on my work, but I usually just brush off the snide ones. Every once in a while, though, one arrows through and hits me where I’m vulnerable and shakes my confidence, and if it’s nastily phrased, then it hurts all the more. Seeps into me like poison.
Yep, this is another post about my S&M coming-out story, published in February by “Time Out Chicago”. (I’ve received some questions about when I’m going to start officially blogging for “Time Out” — the answer is that we’re still negotiating the terms of my blogging contract and I’m not sure when we’ll be done. I think we both really want this professional blogging gig to happen, so I’m confident that we’ll work it out, but it might take a while.)
Here’s a brief one-paragraph synopsis: my coming-out story talks about how I got drunk with a man named Richard at a party when I was 20; he started hurting me intensely; and I really got into it. I’d known a little bit about the existence of BDSM for a while — had experimented with light BDSM before, in fact — but this experience was much more intense, and in particular led me to the realization that I needed very dark and tearful masochistic encounters. As an independent, rational feminist, it was difficult for me to come to terms with my desires. It didn’t help that Richard and I weren’t well-suited romantically, although we were well-suited on an S&M level. Adjusting took a long time; but after seeing a Kink Aware therapist, coming out to my parents, exploring BDSM on my own terms, and having BDSM relationships with non-Richard men who suited me better romantically, I feel pretty much at peace with my BDSM identity.
I’ve gotten some great feedback on my coming-out story — primarily from submissive women who thanked me for articulating their experience. But here’s the comment that’s been upsetting me, from “emily”:
it’s great when people can come out, even under a pseudonym. but i have to say i have some real problems with the way the author has portrayed her “awakening.” should dominant men be rewarded for coaxing women into submission, assuring them that they can “tell”? the presentation, not the content, of this story is irresponsible and reproduces stereotypical gender roles. is the discovery of one’s sexuality dependent on her relationships? that’s the message i’m getting, whether or not it was intended
In a later comment, she adds:
whether or not you meant to, you implied that some women won’t know they’re submissive until a man figures it out for them. i think this is a really dangerous thing to do in our culture, and i think you know why. i don’t have any problem with your experiences, as i said. i have a problem with the way you’ve presented these ideas without thinking what they might mean in another context. just tacking on your personal bit about feminism isn’t enough. how can we hope to change the status quo if we dont acknowledge these issues? as a submissive feminist myself, i have no problem with your lifestyle or how you conduct your affairs, and i dont care whether or not you’re a switch. i DO care about women (and men) who get into abusive situations that start out as “safe, sane, and consenual” bdsm play. i take this personally. it just seems to me that this essay was more of a self-righteous paean than an educational article and probably should not have left your friend circle.
There’s a lot to unpack here. I think I’ll do it in sections.
Writing my coming-out story induced a lot of anxiety — not just because I was coming to terms with myself in the process, but also because I worried constantly about how readers might take it. Obviously, there’s always the saying “if you can’t please everyone then you might as well please yourself,” but with this … I guess I felt like there was a lot more than “pleasing everyone” at stake. It felt important to portray my experiences as accurately as possible — to write the experiences as close to how I felt them as possible — and yet I wondered how to angle them, too. Because what if a closeted BDSMer, new to everything, finds this and it’s their first exposure to the wider community? (Or what if an anti-BDSMer comes upon it looking for ways to use it as anti-BDSM ammunition?)
For instance, I wrote about, not just one, but two relationships that had their origins in drunken hookups. Will that encourage readers to unwisely push boundaries while drunk — even to take advantage of drunk people? (Which is particularly dangerous when S&M-ish violence is involved?) And yet there’s no denying that, in our culture, it’s incredibly common for alcohol to function as a social and sexual lubricant. Yes, some people use alcohol to take advantage of vulnerable partners, and that is unacceptable. But millions use it all the time as part of their normal, entirely consensual dating routine. I don’t actually much like that, as it happens — I’ll drink, and certainly I’ve been known to get trashed, but I’m happier at events where I feel like we’re all having fun sober; still, it really is an endemic part of most youth culture in America. (In fact, one thing I like about the BDSM community is that many BDSM events encourage sobriety or even require it.) When I describe my experiences, including some drunk consensual encounters, I’m describing reality — not just my reality, but that of millions of other young women.
I tried dealing with this kind of thing by shifting my tone at the end of the piece, pulling back and taking a more analytical stance rather than the up-close-and-personal moment-by-moment approach. For instance, I wrote: I fear that others will read this narrative as describing an assault, a near-rape — and a woman who tried to rationalize her experience by embracing it. That’s not what happened. … Conversely, I’m afraid that some conservative will read this and say: “Look how the feminist movement has failed us!” That’s not what happened, either. It felt incomplete, and yes, it felt tacked-on too; but I also didn’t feel like I could stack on an infinite number of more disclaimers and clarifications without losing reader interest or muddying my most important goal: making people like me feel better about their terrible horrible BDSM needs.
So the “irresponsible” charge, the charge of “not thinking about what [these experiences] might mean”, just kills me. It brings out something I feared so much, and maybe that I did not succeed in evading.
II. “Assuring them that they can ‘tell'”
should dominant men be rewarded for coaxing women into submission, assuring them that they can “tell”? … is the discovery of one’s sexuality dependent on her relationships? … whether or not you meant to, you implied that some women won’t know they’re submissive until a man figures it out for them. i think this is a really dangerous thing to do in our culture, and i think you know why.
As it happens, I do think that the discovery of one’s sexuality is partly dependent on relationships. Relationships often define what sexuality you can enact, what sexuality you can emotionally access, and often what kind of sexuality you know about in the first place. This is a topic I plan to expand on some other time; for now I’ll just quote the brilliant Pat Califia: People’s ability to understand their own emotional and physical experiences and sensations is limited by what is safe to ask or know, what systems of interpretation they have received for screening that raw material, and whether they find it possible to connect with anyone who thinks differently about these matters.
But I think that’s a bit of a different topic from whether some BDSMers can “tell” that others are into it (or whether that’s gendered, as emily implies when she writes about women not knowing they’re submissive until a man figures it out). I’ve thought about this a lot — in fact, one of my first posts here, way back in 2008, was titled “BDSM-dar” (like gaydar, but for BDSM!). Here’s a quotation:
When Richard went after me, he did not create anything in me — he drew out what was already there, something I’d been pressing back for years. Later, when I asked him how he knew, he smiled and said he could tell. That with me, it had been obvious. He called it SM-dar.
Now, there are some obvious reasons for why Richard might have been able to appear to sniff me out, and yet not actually sport any real special sense. The biggest: if he just asserts that lots of women are into BDSM, he’s bound to succeed some of the time, right? Maybe he doesn’t actually have SM-dar. Maybe he just discounts the cases where his “detection” doesn’t work, and plays up the ones where it does.
I don’t think so. I know Richard pretty well; I’ve seen him do a lot of interacting. Furthermore, I’ve actually seen him “detect” one or two other people with surprising accuracy. I say surprising, because initially I found the way he talked about SM-dar extremely irritating and presumptuous; so I was surprised when it worked with people besides myself.
I don’t feel very confident asserting that BDSM-dar exists; I feel like I’ve seen it in action, but that could just be bias and superstition on my part. I think it’s reasonable to assert that some BDSMers can find each other by tacit means, whether it’s by a mystical “dar”, interpreting body language, dropping subtle spoken hints, whatever. I don’t think that’s the same thing as asserting (as emily accuses) that dominant men should “coax” women into submission.
Personally, I initially found Richard’s SM-dar claims to be an arrogant turnoff; they didn’t coax me at all, and I wonder if they’d coax anyone. What seduced me was how he flirted with me, then pulled my hair, then sank his teeth into my skin — not his later spoken assertions that he could tell all along. In my experience, sexual evolution happens best in a low-pressure environment in which options are offered freely, rather than one in which someone else is making assertions about what you should want (well, unless we’re talking about a consensual power exchange scenario …).
But I guess emily is less concerned with the actual verbal statement of “I can tell,” and more concerned that I’m encouraging people to “put the option out there” aggressively, if they think a potential partner might be interested in BDSM. And … I suppose that I am, at that. I’m not sure that’s dangerous, though, as long as the initiator will pull back if they meet resistance or suspect that their partner isn’t totally comfortable — in fact, in my coming-out story, I give two examples of Richard doing just that.
III. “Stereotypical gender roles”
emily starts getting into this topic above, as well as when she says that my “irresponsible” piece “reinforces stereotypical gender roles”. This is the accusation that I take least seriously, but I thought it was worth taking on because it reflects a typical radical feminist argument — that submissive women ought not to express our desires, or at the very least ought not to talk about them, because that fits into The Patriarchy and is therefore dangerous. (As a matter of fact, I personally identify as a switch, which means I sometimes take the dominant role. Which kinda throws a wrench in the typical radical feminist accusation that I’ve simply got Patriarchy Stockholm Syndrome. But this is getting tangential.)
The most awful part about this argument is that it functions mainly to silence women — which is not a feminist thing to do. What space are we allowed to occupy if our sexual desires force us, by definition, into reinforcing stereotypical gender roles? The logical conclusion appears to be that, in order to Fight The Power, we’re obligated to make ourselves disappear.
emily seems to make a more nuanced claim — that she doesn’t care specifically about what I do; that the “presentation” of my story is the irresponsible part, not the “content”. She asks, “how can we hope to change the status quo if we dont acknowledge these issues?” But I’m not actually sure how my story could better have worked to change the status quo. I don’t represent myself as normative (do I?), and I give an example of a relationship that ultimately split up partly because my BDSM desires are so non-normative — were so much more hardcore than my boyfriend’s. If her fear is that people might generalize from my case to All Women, then I don’t see how that’s supported by what I wrote.
More importantly, although I’ll accept the criticism that I may have failed to adequately express feminist analysis with my story (much as it wounds me to the core!), I would never agree that submissive women are required to make every exegesis of their desires into a theoretical deconstruction of gender oppression. Because, again, telling submissive women that we ought to express our desires in One True Way borders on — can even function as — silencing us.
IV. “Abusive situations”
Finally, emily says she’s concerned about people who get into abusive situations that “start out as ‘safe, sane and consensual’ BDSM play”. I can only say that I did my best to represent how very non-abusive my experiences were. I noted that I never asked Richard to stop; I noted that he stopped on his own, more than once, when he felt that I wasn’t reacting in a way that made him feel safe as a dominant. In various places, the piece also links to Kink Aware Professionals, which includes BDSM-friendly doctors and therapists, and the Chicago Pansexual BDSM Calendar, which would enable anyone to enter the Chicago community and start getting tips on how to have consensual, well-informed, well-supported BDSM relationships.
How could what I wrote encourage abusive BDSM? Could I have represented it better?
it just seems to me that this essay was more of a self-righteous paean than an educational article and probably should not have left your friend circle.
“Shouldn’t have left your friend circle”? Who is this girl, and is she dating one of my exes?
Yeah okay, I couldn’t resist. But the rest of my questions are serious!