2011 1 Jul
I get a certain question occasionally, from straight dudes who’ve had a number of sexual partners. It goes something like this:
All the women I’ve slept with liked pain. They asked me to hurt them or to dominate them in bed. I did it, and enjoyed it; I loved how much it turned them on … it turned them on a lot. But I keep thinking about it now. Why are all women into being submissive and/or masochistic in bed? What does that mean?
They ask me this question in vaguely worried tones. Sometimes they say things like, “It’s really creepy.” It is obvious that these dudes are rather concerned about this Terrible Truth.
Here’s my short answer for those guys: If you know women who are submissive and/or masochistic in bed, that means those particular women like being submissive and/or masochistic in bed. It doesn’t mean anything else.
You’re still here? Ah, well. I figured that wouldn’t satisfy. So here’s a longer answer:
Firstly, if you’re a straight dude, and you’re drawing conclusions about “all women” based on the women you get involved with, then stop. Just stop. Even if you have slept with zillions of women, you don’t actually know what all women want, because:
A) Your experience of women is limited to women who got involved with you. You are screening for certain qualities, sometimes consciously, and sometimes unconsciously or by accident. If you tend to enjoy the dominant role, for example, or if you use a dominant style of flirtation, then you could be screening for submissive female partners, whether you intend to or not.
B) Everyone has biases, including you. I love the old saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If you have a bias towards seeing women as sexually submissive (and you almost certainly do, because female sexual submission is a hugely prevalent cultural trope), then you’re more likely to see female submission in places where it does not exist.
C) Women, like people of all genders, are demonstrably varied. You really don’t think non-submissive straight women exist? Why then, it must be so inconvenient when I point you to the work of blatantly dominant women, huh? It’s shocking, I know … next I’ll be telling you that queer and asexual women exist! (Not to mention women who switch among roles — from submissive to dominant, from sadistic to masochistic. I primarily go for submissive masochism, but still, I myself play for both teams.)
The thing is, though … no matter how many holes I can poke in these dudes’ anecdotal “data”, I can’t bring myself to worry like they do. Even if a brilliant, well-reviewed study came out tomorrow and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that 100% of women are submissive masochists in bed, I wouldn’t care. (I bet you my left ear this study will never happen, but I’m just saying, even if it did, I wouldn’t care.)
Let me say it really clearly: Even if most women are submissive masochists in bed (and I’m not convinced most women are), there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t care. [ 1 ]
Why don’t I care? Because all this anxiety and argument about submission — and in particular, what it means for women to be submissive; whether all women are submissive; whether women are “inherently” or “biologically” submissive; whether BDSM is an orientation or not … this is all the wrong question.
I’ll note that the research seems to indicate that more kinky women are submissives than dominant. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about the tastes of women who don’t identify as kinky. And it’s probably biased by culture, in that everything from fashion photos to romance novels emphasizes female submission and male dominance. Within BDSM culture, female dominance and male submission are often disappeared, much to the justified frustration of actual female dominants and male submissives. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail — sometimes including our own psyches and sexualities. Plus, if the only available patterns for kink emphasize something a person doesn’t like, then that person will probably avoid kink. Note that in the research I linked to, for example, the percentage of submissive women was higher in samples from within the BDSM subculture than in samples from outside the BDSM subculture … perhaps because many BDSM subcultural gatherings emphasize female submission and thereby alienate women who are primarily dominant. Anyway, regardless … this is still the wrong question.
In short, “inherent female submission” is the wrong question.
Certainly, I’ve fought through a lot of personal fears about what my interest in BDSM meant for me as a feminist … but these days I have trouble understanding what, exactly, got me so upset. I can’t believe how long it took me to outthink those fears. Now, it just seems instinctively obvious to me that: