Reconciling feminism and submission
March 28, 2012 9:53 AM   Subscribe

How have you (or have you not) reconciled your feminism with an unexpected and expanding sense of submission, which is not limited to the merely or nearly sexual?

How have you (or have you not) reconciled your feminism and your submission?

I've read scattered articles on the Internet, some proposing that submission and feminism cannot be satisfactorily reconciled in our Western society and others arguing that they can.  Everything I've read comes from someone with very entrenched interests in one 
side of the debate.  I've yet to see something from anyone in my situation. (cis-gendered female entering into a consensual D/s-even-outside-the-bedroom relationship with a cis-gendered male)

I'm turning to you good people for links, anecdotes or private emails which can be sent to

I am a proud feminist, have been active on some important issues and am kicking butt in a male-dominated field.  I've always looked for and found equitable relationships, while gravitating toward men who were dominant in the bedroom. I have no issues with that. 

Until now. This one lets his dominance creep out of the bedroom in surprising ways. Even more surprisingly, and alarmingly, I find I like them.  Being sent on the occasional errand, being instructed to wear my hair a certain way or call him by a certain startling endearment... Those things took me by surprise but also felt good. He is willing to scale these things back if necessary and definitely observes my hard limits but he does gently press my soft ones in a smiley playful way an cheerfully encourages me to give up more control. 

More worrying, I think there may be a tendency for him to also be wearing his dominant mantle when we argue. I don't mean that he shoves me down and beats me, of course, but I think I detect some condescension in the way he addresses me when we talk out our problems. He also likes to dictate the terms under which we get together to hammer things out, expecting a certain tone and approach from me. 

On the other hand, I am prone to flying off the handle in my other relationships. He takes a much more adult, pragmatic tact so it may make sense for him to set some of those terms and he is very willing to listen to me and consider my arguments.  In the end, I tend to end up agreeing with him on most things, but he also has considerable powers of persuasion.   

An important note is that he does identify as a feminist himself and feels strongly about women's issues outside of the context of our relationship. 

It's not that I'm unhappy in the structure of our relationship. I'm not. But I do believe that the personal is political. The way we choose to live our individual lives helps to build a community and world structure that we believe in. 

I'm not looking for straight up DTMFA because I would give that to myself the moment I felt this tipped into a negative relationship instead of a loving one. I'm also not particularly looking for perspectives from people who don't have at least some strongly positive feelings about feminism.  I'm just looking for feedback / thoughts or tactics on if and how the two things can be reconciled OR information about how & why you believe they cannot.

Thanks in advance for your thoughts & help. Anonymous for professional reasons but more than happy to answer any questions via email. 

Possibly relevant:  I'm in my late 20s, he's in his 30s. No kids involved. We live in a liberal west coast city. Neither of us is involved in or feels drawn to "the scene".  
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

Addressing onlly the feminism aspect: My view of what feminism is is very, very strongly about choice. It's about the fact that women should have a choice to live whatever life they want. If this is the lifestyle you choose, as long as you go into it fully aware of what you're doing, then that fits completely into my model of feminism. If you felt that you didn't have a choice, or like if you instead wanted to be dominant you wouldn't be able to do that because you're a woman (and I don't mean in this relationship, I mean in general), or that other women should make the same choices as you (or shouldn't make different choices from you), or shouldn't be able to decide at all, I would have a problem with that. But as long as everyone can make their own choices about how they live their life, I do not think that has any conflict with feminism.
posted by brainmouse at 9:57 AM on March 28, 2012 [23 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, please just wait til you've read the post to answer, thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:05 AM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have now read your post. Sent you email.

If he is arguing with his dominant mantle on, why don't you two negotiate some clear signals taking it off? You two are equal in humanity and agency etc.. argue that way, have cues to take role hats off and hash it out as equals.

I've been doing this shit for ten years and that one still trips me up. Stuff starts happening is important to step back and go, hold on, what's happening here, do we want it to happen? How can we be in control of it?

Properly done this stuff takes literally hours of frequent discussion. Properly done it increases intimacy and self awareness both.
posted by By The Grace of God at 10:09 AM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

One of the parts of D/s interactions that I've always found fascinating is that the person directing the proceedings is just as often the sub as it is the Dom. For example:

You could allow your partner to dominate you, in and out of the bedroom, but ONLY when you're wearing a certain necklace. You get to experiment with the lifestyle while still maintaining boundaries. Thus you can allow your partner to make you dress up or go on errands, but the necklace comes off when you need to have a serious discussion. This has a powerful signaling effect both when its put on (foreplay) and when its taken off (we need to talk.)
posted by modernserf at 10:12 AM on March 28, 2012 [13 favorites]

More worrying, I think there may be a tendency for him to also be wearing his dominant mantle when we argue. I don't mean that he shoves me down and beats me, of course, but I think I detect some condescension in the way he addresses me when we talk out our problems. He also likes to dictate the terms under which we get together to hammer things out, expecting a certain tone and approach from me.

I think this might be the worrying thing here. In this kind of a more...24/7 relationship you both need to be able to table the power dynamic for major conflicts. You also need to have the underlying sense that he absolutely respects you and doesn't think he's entitled to be dominant.

I don't think doing this outside of bdsm-spaces is okay because it contributes to harmful myths about how women like to be treated and might trigger or upset abuse survivors/witnesses. In a more D/s oriented space or in private, go for it.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:13 AM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I like him to be bossy in bed. Outside of the sexual arena, I'm happy to wear the perfume, hairdo, high heels he requests (ordering me about would not have the desired outcome.) Requests work fine with me, as it's my choice and if my choice means pleasing my husband, then whoop-de-do! But being ordered to run an errand would just bug me. I never pay any attention to what feminists are supposed to do because I figure, if I'm doing it, it's feminism. And I'm a very confrontational and aggressive when I'm arguing/passionately discussing something, with just about everyone. If you don't like him to dictate terms, don't let him. It's okay to have two different styles and to keep conflicting opinions in your head.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:17 AM on March 28, 2012

I don't necessarily see submission and feminism as being mutually exclusive; there are times when it's nice to not have to make all the decisions, and let someone else take a turn at the steering wheel for a while.

Where I guess I guess I have a question is - does he expect to be in the "lead" all the time? Are there aspects of your relationship where you're the one "leading"? Can you agree to disagree on a point, and not have him insist, whether overtly or through persuasion, that you bow to his point of view? If there's some give and take, some areas where you can still feel like you're in charge, I think you're likely fine.

However, the condescension thing and the insistence on a certain tone and approach to problem solving from you stuck out at me from your description. That could just be my buttons being pushed by proxy, but I view that as potentially problematic. I'd raise that worry with him, that if he expects a certain tone and approach to problem solving from you, you also have a right to expect not to be condescended to, particularly when your hackles are up. He may not realize he's doing it, despite his protestations of being a feminist.

I would also see if there are any soft limits of his you can press! These things go both ways, you know. It's give and take. :)
posted by LN at 10:48 AM on March 28, 2012

One aspect to consider (which does complicate things) is how, often, a lot of what we consider choices are very much gender-role-related stuff that we've internalized.

An example: let's say the boyfriend and I were discussing marriage in very vague, putting-feelers-out, terms. After a year, maybe I started thinking about how I wanted to talk about marriage in very real, practical terms. The idea of doing so was kind of scary - this is a high-stakes conversation, I have anxiety issues about bringing up "serious" topics, whatever - so I ended up deferring to the idea that I'll wait until he brings it up. After all, he probably will! We've already talked about it a bit already! What harm is there in letting him do it, if it makes it less scary?! This is a choice I've made! And I am in truly no rush!

Actually, though, when I really sit with it, I realize that a lot of why it seems scary to me is that I'm surrounded by a culture in which men are given the lead in making or starting major relationship decisions. There is this internalized idea, a bit, that he should bring it up, or that it is risky for me to do so, or that letting him set the pace of that discussion is a safer, more desirable choice.

Did I choose it?
But you know, on close investigation, I wanted to bring it up, and a lot the reason why I didn't is because I've internalized some cultural BS that, frankly, doesn't actually apply to my relationship.

The same can be said for a lot of the other trappings of traditional femininity: yes, a lot of feminists choose that it's okay to wear makeup. And it's totally okay. But I think there are a lot of people out there who don't actually interrogate why they make the choices they do. Damn, I could tell you about the time I stopped shaving my pits for a year - such a small stupid thing, and it wasn't that I wasn't all for equality before, but the truth is that I had been shaving for decades just because that is "how things are." I never really thought about it. And then I stopped for a year, the world didn't end, and I thought, "sweet! now I do know that I can choose."

So: You already know this. I think this is why you are having trouble reconciling this situation, especially the out-of-the-bedroom stuff. You are probably aware on some level that, despite the independent feminist you are, you were raised in a particular culture and may be doing things because of that. This is one reason why issues of choice get so sticky; I mean, we're all down for the rah-rah wear your high heels and live your life! camp, but at the same time, a lot of what we consider choices aren't made as independently as we would like. There's a lot of stuff out there that impacts our decisions.

So, I think it's okay to sit and really think about it. Discuss the situation with your SO. Don't feel pressured to reconcile this by the end of the week or anything. I think trying the suggestions above might help - by maybe compartmentalizing certain activities, or making sure you can "take the necklace" off to have meta-level conversations about whether this is working for you might not be a bad approach. It's okay to really think, try new things, and see how you feel. Maybe in six months, you'll realize that it's not reconcilable. Or maybe certain aspects of it are, and some aren't.

But if you're uncomfortable, I think you can take lots of time to dig deep and figure out why. It's also okay to put (even temporary, or even permanent) moratoriums (moratoria?) on certain activities while you process. This is especially true when you are dealing with a totally awesome, trustworthy, feminist dude - he's great, but he's probably got internalized things on his own, and might not realize some of the underlying dynamics behind his/both of your actions. This may take time, and a lot of talking, but I think it can be done.
posted by vivid postcard at 11:04 AM on March 28, 2012 [11 favorites]

There are a lot of people who write material on how to negotiate 24/7 D/s relationships healthily. Dossie Easton is someone who comes to mind.

I agree that one of the things you have a right to, as a woman, is to choose to be the sub in a 24/7 power exchange relationship. Plenty of men choose to be subs in same, and it doesn't undermine the patriarchy. There is room for all kinds of sex and play in a fully egalitarian society (to take Emma Goldman one step further).

That said, I do think being careful about not nonconsensually involving others in your scene is even more important in this case because your scene could, to an uninformed observer, be seen as a reinforcement or embodiment of traditionally sexist couple dynamics, rather than something hot for both of you because it meshes with your respective kinks.

It would be much more likely for me to see two strangers where a man was telling a woman to do something and think that he was a sexist douchecanoe than that this was a consensual scene that got them both off.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:07 AM on March 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

The only time I see submission and feminism in conflict is when people espouse concepts like "Women are all submissive at heart" (the Gorean bullshit, for instance). People of all genders whose kink is to be submissive are submissive, full stop.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:08 AM on March 28, 2012

Also, this: He also likes to dictate the terms under which we get together to hammer things out, expecting a certain tone and approach from me. .

This does worry me.
I think digging deep and feeling things out and exploring is great. But if you can't have equal, meta-conversations on how to even determine what the meta-conversations will be, I can't imagine how that could work happily in the long run, you know? But if this is addressed, maybe what I said above will apply more.
posted by vivid postcard at 11:08 AM on March 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think reducing feminism to "choice" is an oversimplification. It relies on the idea that we all arrive in the world as robotic rational actors who never change, who always have perfect information and equal access to resources, etc etc. Robot choosers always choose "freely", at least according to their original programming, because they are not constrained by a culture of misogyny, stuff that happened in childhood, unconscious anxieties and needs, etc. They also don't get into that whole thing of "it feels good, so it must be all right" that humans are prone to with the instant gratification.

To my mind, there's no such thing as "100% freely" choosing anything, so the question becomes "what are you choosing and why?" I am moderately skeptical of the usual feminist take on submission, sexual and otherwise, because it seems to claim that women are easily able to analyze and discount their experiences in our culture. Women are socialized to derive gratification from submitting in many areas of life, and it often ends up hurting us through our neglect of our own needs and abilities or active tolerance of harmful situations - the more so because, contrary to what everyone would like to believe, we can't tidily bracket our sexuality from the rest of our lives. This is strongly suggested by what you say about dominant behavior "spilling over" into areas of your life where you'd rather it wouldn't.

Given how men are socialized - to have their needs met by women, to decide for women, to have women modify their sexual behavior to meet men's needs- and given the messages that men receive about women in our culture - that women are valuable only in the ways that they meet men's needs (whether maiden, mother or crone; whether madonna or whore; whether secretary, nurse or waitress; whether submissive or domme)....well, I end up being just a little skeptical about many of the dominant dudes one meets.

It "feels good" to conform to cultural expectations. Especially if you've been doing the exhausting work of not-conforming. In my personal life, I've found all kinds of problematic things to "feel good" in the short term because I've been punished and discouraged for doing differently and it's such a relief to receive all the cultural strokes and validation for "doing it right". Many of those things have been bad for me and made me weaker and unhappier in the long term. So again, I'm moderately skeptical of the feminist "if it feels good, it's okay" approach to sexuality.

If I were in your shoes, I'd keep this relationship as light as possible as long as possible - don't live with the dude, don't enmesh your finances with the dude, make sure that you have ample, ample space to be your non-submissive self. If you find that your relationship seems to be modifying your behavior in public and with friends, it might be time to revisit.

Also, how do you negotiate things in public? If you're out with friends, does he decide where you go and what you do? That sort of thing would seem to fall into the "feels neat and erotic and intense now, long-term probably erodes the personality".

I think many feminists have a lot of faith in a strong individual subjectivity - that you can do whatever you like and maintain the same personality, because who you are in your head is stable and permanent. This has not been my experience of life.
posted by Frowner at 11:12 AM on March 28, 2012 [33 favorites]

If it works for you (and your partner), do it.

I'm not an expert in feminism, but I've read up on the subject some, and I've come to the conclusion that there as many different "brands" of feminism as there are people who are feminists. Some feminists will say "you shouldn't do X, it's [causes a specific problem, etc]", and some will say "go right ahead and do X". Both of those individuals are feminists. Both of them are entitled to call themselves feminists, even though their views are opposed. Personally, I subscribe to the view that an individual has complete say over what happens to and with their own body, and that includes doing things that I personally wouldn't be comfortable with.

Doing what you want to do, irrespective of how other people feel about it, takes courage. That, for me, is an important part of feminism - having the guts to say that you want A, B and C and going out and getting them, even if people try to stop you based on your gender.

Maybe I'm reading between the lines too much, but I'm more concerned about the face that he seeks to be dominant during arguments/discussions. Personally speaking, I'd want to deal with that before entering into a relationship where someone had power over me. I may be digging way too deep here, but I wonder if you're doing this because of him and not because of you.
posted by Solomon at 11:12 AM on March 28, 2012

(I guess what I was trying to say is that we all make complicated choices about complicated things all the time - so while I have some doubts about the philosophy of the whole submission thing, I'm more in the "if it feels good, do it safely and be critically self-aware" camp.)
posted by Frowner at 11:16 AM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me, embracing and pursuing submission has been empowering. It makes me feel awesome about my ability to identify what I want from my relationships and then go get it without shame.

I get the whole thing about how what seem like our own choices and desires are conditioned by the society we grow up in. I really do, and from time to time I spend a half hour or so worrying about it. But the reality of my own day-to-day life is that what turns me on and makes me happy is what turns me on and makes me happy. I just have zero interest in denying myself those things for some abstract political reason.

Be careful though. What you wrote about his communication style reminds me very much of a dominant guy I dated who turned out to be incredibly bad news. At the time I thought that I was learning important and healthy communication skills from him. In retrospect I was being subtly manipulated into accepting and absorbing his viewpoints as being more valid just because he was better at staying calm.
posted by ootandaboot at 11:18 AM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I am going to cite Sullivan's Corollary once again in a BDSM thread: "Bullies should not be dom(me)s and dom(me)s should not be bullies." Reading the smart writing out there in books and on blogs might help you feel like you have the information to make that distinction vis-a-vis your sweety.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:28 AM on March 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

At first, I was totally going to say, "In a respectful relationship, basically anything you agree on that turns you both on without damaging you psychologically is fabulous! The ability to have open, honest discussions about your sexuality with a partner and exercising that sexuality in ways that empower you are traits of a great feminist!"

Then I read an little farther. His fighting and communication style is a red flag for me. Caring about women's issues doesn't mean squat if he doesn't treat you respectfully at all times. He sounds like a bit of a bully at best, and like a emotional or physical abuser in the making at the worst.

You both absolutely have to learn talk this stuff out between you. Without healthy communication, a relationship can't be a good and safe one for a you as a person and a feminist.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:55 AM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

N-thing the suggestion to talk about it with him. Your question might as well be how to reconcile patriarchy and submission if the roles were reversed. You need to be able to talk about it openly no matter your roles. Figure out what each of you is comfortable with and if you can find common ground and it happens not to mesh with feminism/patriarchy/whatever, so what?
posted by Dragonness at 12:02 PM on March 28, 2012

You need to be able to argue and discuss and converse in ways that leave you feeling respected, listened-to, and happy. How you do that is another question -- the idea of being able to "take off the necklace" works for many people, but some find a way to have the respectful, empowering discussion without leaving their roles.

For an example that almost all of us see every day, think of a subordinate/superior interaction at work. The boss can have all the power, to the point of being able to fire the worker on the spot, or routinely instructing people to do dangerous and physically difficult tasks. And yet, it's possible for the two of them to have exactly the kind of respectful discussion, while staying completely in their roles, that people here are suggesting you guys need to be able to have.

In other words, just because you situationally give up some power doesn't mean you need to give up even an ounce of respect. Even if you get turned on by being called dirty names and "forced" to do naughty things, those commands should be coming from a place of respect and dignity.

I'm probably sounding like a broken record with my repetition of words like "respect" and "dignity," but that's because I think that they (along with love, caring, and other nice things) need to be at the center of the kind of relationship you are describing. Your submission only has meaning to the extent that you are empowered to give it -- if it is being coerced, forced, or taken, it isn't submission, just theft. He should be building you up and emphasizing your strength in every interaction, not making you feel small and weak, because the stronger you are, the more valuable (and capital-h-hawt) your submission becomes.
posted by Forktine at 4:33 PM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I wonder if your ability to deconstruct your various aspects of "self" is something your SO can do with his various aspects of "self"? I sense that you are deliberating over aspects of the relationship's operating mechanisms because your intellectual positioning is allowing you to do so - you can see that submission is a position you are taking up for the intimacy benefits it gives you, even as you know that submission is historically and culturally located in the feminine.

Can your SO observe his dominance as a position he is taking up for the purposes of your mutual enjoyment, or is it an unproblematic extension of Who He Is? In your life you are performing various aspects of your submissive self and your feminist-ideals vested self. I hear in your question that your SO has the tendency not to act with this separation in mind. FWIW I don't think a relationship discussion/argument can be negotiated in good faith if one person continues to operate in a place of 'play' if the goal is to sincerely expose and discuss relationship issues. I guess I'd [a submissive feminist] be looking for evidence that his dominance persona was one that he could control when it needs to be put to one side to enter good faith, equality-assured negotiations about concerns in the relationship.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:57 PM on March 28, 2012

I've written quite a lot about my own conflicts with submission and feminism here - check out my comment history if you're interested in reading more.

Anyway, I totally feel you. I struggled with this for a long, long time, to the point where it really kept me from having satisfying, healthy relationships. So I really, really had to reconcile it.

I agree with Frowner that feminism is about more than choice - we are products of a patriarchal culture, and that influences our desires and choices. BUT I do not think that is the whole story either, because I came from a super, super leftist, egalitarian background and I came out really damn submissive, at least sexually and in some ways romantically.

In the end, I just had to say, "you know what? This is what I need to be happy and healthy in a relationship, and I deserve to be happy and healthy." And frankly, it has absolutely nothing to do with my feminist activism or beliefs. The fact that I like to be submissive, in certain situations, with certain people, doesn't mean that all women should be submissive, or that (for instance) women deserve to be paid less than men, right?

One thing that bugs the HELL out of me about conversations like this is that somehow it always ends up being women who feel bad about themselves for not "living up" to feminism. Why are women the sole bearers of this burden?

As for your situation with your SO, I think you've gotten some really good advice here. I know for myself that I've been surprised at how difficult it can sometimes be for me to assert my own boundaries and needs in a D/s setting - but it's really, really important to do so. Your SO is not the "more valuable person" of the relationship, and you need to be able to have discussions about your relationship in a way that works for both of you. I like forktine's focus on respect and dignity.
posted by the essence of class and fanciness at 9:19 PM on March 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

In terms of your autonomy and the 24/7 nature of the relationship, it sounds like it might be super fun for a while, and then the dynamic will feel really stale.

Ride it for as long as you're enjoying it!

Make sure you check in with yourself often. If it starts feeling icky, notice - then stop to change it or exit the relationship.

BDSM is some heady heady shit to play with. It can enhance your life or fuck you up. To me, the feminism issue is secondary, related, but secondary.

If this starts changing you in ways that don't feel like "you", quit.

Keep it in mind always that submission is a role you've chosen, not who you ARE.
posted by jbenben at 11:19 PM on March 28, 2012

As a feminist and a sexually submissive woman, I've pondered the same things. People in this thread have some excellent advice. I do agree that although it may seem on the surface to be contradictory, there is nothing anti-feminist about your choice as long as it's your choice. If the D/s dynamic is sliding into your daily life and you don't like it, don't do it. However if you're enjoying these little chores and direction, there is no reason not to continue. You do really have to express your concerns to your partner, you know. He's dominant, not telepathic. I'm guilty myself of not always being forthright about what I want and don't want and I know it can seem awkward to do so. I don't enjoy hours long negotiations or contracts (as in one relationship I had where the negotiation process took longer than any such thing should and was sooo unsexy), as to me it seems to leech the spontaneity out of things, but a chat over dinner or drinks in a public place can not only be edifying but rather exciting. Feel free to memail me any time.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 1:20 AM on March 29, 2012

some of the best D/S sessions I had were with a "old school militant" feminist. She loved being submissive, but felt a little guilty and conflicted about it. The tension that created was fantastic.
Be aware that in some people the roles in the bedroom may "creep" into real life. That's why it's important to talk these things out. Taking things outside the bedroom poses it's own risks and rewards. Good luck.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 2:02 AM on March 31, 2012

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