I have been carrying on this conversation privately with Becstar for most of the past week. I'm really happy with the way it has turned out, so here is a (only slightly abridged) reprint of the dialogue.
Bec: "I wonder why if gender is not relevant in the BDSM community why so many more women put themselves into submissive positions than men? I've probably asked that before but it just doesn't make sense to me at all."
Me: "Well, I think there's a difference between how I'm defining BDSM and submission and what you mean by the terms. If you mean the sort of default roles that people can fall into when the don't really think about things, then I probably agree with a lot of what you have to say. Most of that stuff is totally messed up and a lot of women do take on negative roles to please men, but that's not what I (or Trinity or most of the other people I know) mean by BDSM.
When I say BDSM I mean something general, but also fairly specific. BDSM generally stands for bondage, discipline, domination, submission, sadism and masochism (yeah, I know there's an extra D & S), particularly as these things relate to sexuality. The most important parts of BDSM as a mode of sexuality are consent and safety. We know that what we are doing can be dangerous, that if we are not careful someone could be seriously emotionally or physically harmed. Most people who practice BDSM have thought more about sexual negotiation and consent than probably the majority of vanilla people.
So the point of all this is that if we're talking about the not explicitly negotiated and consensual social type of submission then you are probably right, it is gendered. And it s definitely problematic. But that really isn't what most people mean by BDSM. BDSM as a sexual subculture has strong roots in the gay male "leather" community, and is also common among lesbians. There are transgender and cissexual people who practice BDSM, and also lots of people of all genders and sexual orientations who "switch," taking on both dominant and submissive roles. There are also lots of straight or bi male submissives. The only place where patriarchal conditioning can really be seen rearing it's ugly head is in the lower numbers of straight or bi female dominants. Oh, and there are plenty of people who do BDSM as "tops" or "bottoms" without dominance or submission being part of the interaction."
Bec: "I've never really heard a good explanation as to the difference between top/dom or bottom/sub. Could you explain it a bit more?
I'm sure there are aspects of BDSM which aren't gendered but when it comes to heterosexual partnerships I have to wonder. The lack of dominant females I think says a lot and should be discussed more than it is (it tends to always be passed over along the lines of "well, plenty of men are sub too" without explaining then why there is such a high number of dominant men).
Only vaguely related as well but I always read of people using the orgasm as a justification of their behaviour. Given that adrenaline produced in a negative way (eg. rape) can also cause (female) orgasms I don't think the fact that it gets someone of is a seriously lacking explanation. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Also, I gave you my version of what BDSM is - what's yours?"
Me: "As far as the top/dom bottom/sub thing goes, I guess I would say that most doms top but not all tops dom, does that make any sense at all? Not all BDSM incorporates domination/submission aspects. There are some people who are just masochists, but definitely not submissive, who just play with pain on a fairly equal footing with those who are dishing it out. There are also people who only submit, with little or no pain involved. I guess subbing involves more submission - willingly, actively submitting - than bottoming does. It's also sort of a personal distinction for the people involved. For me, I pretty much always bottom (I will switch, but only very rarely, it's not really my thing), but I only sometimes submit. It's sort of an issue of mindset. I'm not really sure that I'm helping to clarify anything.
I thought I tried to tell you how I define BDSM in my last email, but maybe I didn't do the best job. It's a blanket term that means lots of different things to different people. For me, and most other people who practice it, the most important aspect is the explicit focus on safety, negotiation and consent. Without that, regardless of the particular activity involved, I wouldn't call it BDSM and I might call it abuse.
As for the whole "it gets me off so it must be okay" thing, I don't really go for that. I think it's okay because it's consensual, no one is being harmed, and for a lot of people (myself included) it can be a very positive and affirming experience. Personally, I feel so much better, more grounded and sure of myself, since I started finally accepting how I really felt and acting on it.
In regards to the whole, "if it's hetero, it's gendered" bit I'm not really sure what to say other than that for me, and a lot of other people, it's really not. And there are a whole lot of hetero relationships where the partners switch, so neither one is in the dominant role all the time. There definitely are dominant women (Trinity doesn't like it when people imply that she doesn't exist), just less, which I suspect has a lot to do with the fact that women are socialized to be "nice" and "gentle," which can be sort of counter to the dominant role."
Bec: "I know it seems to be thought that I am conflating BDSM with abuse but what about experiences likethisfrom a BDSM porn site which supposedly is tighter than most about consent issues? Of course there's the issue of whetherkink.comis representative of 'true' BDSM, which I can't answer. I also don't mean that as a porn reference point but how when I think of BDSM I think that in a power exchange surely consent is hard to regulate and not always heeded. I also have compared it to videos/blogs I've seen which pretty much say that all women want to be dominated by men.
To be honest the difference between subbing and bottoming makes little to no sense to me. How is it possible to be the one who is being "topped" without giving over any power? How is power given over when being submissive? Are the acts difference and that's how I don't know how power can be exchanged or not exchanged when the same acts are being played out.
Have you come across people who do consider themselves into BDSM but don't pay as much attention to safety, consent and negotiation? When people have preconceived notions that women are supposed to be submissive how does this allow for true negotiation and ultimately the safety of the woman involved?
I'll admit that as a response to my aforementioned experience with "BDSM" or "abuse" or whatever you want to call it that I wanted to be dominant simply because I wanted my agency back and I wanted revenge. In fact, I still do to an extent. I don't think it matters what sex it is being played out upon I don't see how it stops being degrading to the submissive. How does it? I just deal with maledom/femsub because it seems more prevalent in ways I find problematic.
Also people in those blogs keep saying that all of this type of stuff as been written on extensively and yet it doesn't seem to be all that accessible for those not already involved in it. Do you know where any of these illusive writings are?"
Me: "Look, I'm not saying that BDSM relationships are never abusive, that would be silly and wrong. There is the possibility of abuse in all kinds of relationship and BDSM is no exception. I'm just saying that BDSM isn't inherently any more abusive than any other type of relationship. In fact, since there is such a focus on consent there might even be slightly less opportunity for abuse (although when it does occur it can be terrible because of the type of trust involved).
As far as thekink.comthing goes, I don't tend to think that any porn is really indicative of anybody's real sexuality (even if teenagers with no other education do model things on it). Mostly I'm just annoyed with that line of thought because to me the two things don't really seem related. If someone wants to talk about porn that's fine and if they want to talk about kink that's fine too, but when they act like both are really the same topic I mostly just end up confused. It's like if I was drawing conclusions about people's actual vanilla relationships based on diamond commercials or something (that's not the best analogy, romantic comedies maybe?). Why would anyone assume that a fantasy-based commercial product would be in any way indicative of somebody's real life? Especially since the primary porn fantasy isn't even really BDSM it's that other creepy nonconsensual d/s thing.
In terms of the "preconceived notions about women" thing, I don't really know because I wouldn't date anyone (kinky or otherwise) who thought that my submission was based on anything other than submission. Luckily I haven't really run into all that many people that hold that sort of view about much of anything, although this is probably due primarily to location.
As for "how it stops being degrading to the submissive" I don't really know what to say other than that it shouldn't start that way so there should be nothing to stop. I do it because I enjoy it, if it felt bad or degrading I wouldn't want to do it. Readthis postI just put up, maybe that will help.
Can you really not see how the same action can mean different things depending on the context? That seems really strange to me. I mean, isn't that often the fundamental difference between sex and rape. The exact same actions can be ecstasy or torture depending on whether they are wanted or not.
For at least some writings about it all check the archives of Trinity'spro-sm feministsite. There's a lot of discussion and links about most of the issues we've talked about plus some others. There are also quite a few books written by people in the community that you could fine online or at a decent woman-owned sex shop."
Bec: "Okay, the fact that both BDSM and vanilla relationships can be abusive makes sense, as does the porn not reflecting reality (although I do believe that mainstream porn leads to violence in vanilla relationships but that's a whole other issue).
I really cannot see the difference between the same act just because the context is different. I think one reason for this is that the people I have been talking to about it on feministing seem really not to care where the actions are coming from. To use my own past I don't see why the person who did those things to me can move onto a submissive woman and have those behaviours legitimized despite the fact that he didn't really give a crap whether he had consent or not. The same goes for arguments for men within BDSM who want to rape women but know its wrong and so do it with consent. I don't see why not only acting out but actually desiring a behaviour which is so dehumanising can come from a healthy place. I don't see why consent can suddenly transform a horrible act into a good one when every other aspect remains the same.
I'll search through the archives of that blog and see if there's anything else that I find that I just don't get."
Bec: "Reading through the latest posts at your blog and from Letters from Gehenna is quite a strange experience. I was also ashamed about my sexuality despite the fact it was "vanilla" and that combined, I think, with my own sexual abuse when I was much younger led me to not be able to say no (and have actually said yes and pretended to take it when I actually hated every minute). I still can't to an extent and have to tell the boyfriend not to touch me when I feel that its going to be particularly bad. I'm not quite sure where it all fits given that I turned to "making love" in order that I wouldn't be hurt again but it only turned out that anything but the softest, most unselfish, most vanilla (think missionary only and no oral) type sex still completely freaked me out and i would end up saying yes again. Does it show sexual abuse can cement the ideas we already held about sex, of what we already desired? Definitely something to think about."
Me: "I'm really sorry you can relate so much to those posts. It's not a pleasant place to be. I know Dw3t-Hthr and I both chose to use our experiences for learning and growth, I hope you can do the same.
'To use my own past I don't see why the person who did those things to me can move onto a submissive woman and have those behaviours legitmised despite the fact that he didn't really give a crap whether he had consent or not.'
I see what you're saying but I don't think it would be likely to ever work out that way. What you've described doesn't sound like what submissive women want anymore than it was what you wanted. When you're dealing with things like BDSM, respecting consent and boundaries becomes even more important, not less. So someone who doesn't listen to the word "no" or respect their partner's limits probably isn't going to find a submissive woman who thinks he's a great catch. If he didn't care about your limits he won't care about hers either.
As far as the context thing goes, I'm not sure how to explain it except to give you examples. It seems really obvious to me that something wanted is different than something unwanted. How about accidental vs. planned pregnancy - all other aspects being equal, are they the same experience for the woman involved? Context is fundamental to our experiences of the world."
Bec: "I guess in regards to the legitimisation I figured that a sub woman would be more likely to say yes to the things he did to me without consent and so legitimise it in his own mind. I don't think it came out of a place of hatred but more of "this is what all women want and what I want". I wonder if he would be more capable to sticking to limits if he at least he got to be dominant some of the time...but then, like I said, it's probably to close to me still for me to be able to look at it properly.
In regards to context I think I get it on the side of the person it's happening to (pregnant woman or submissive) but not on the side of the person who is doing it (the dominant). I don't see why on that side consent makes any difference if ultimately you still want the act, consent or no."
Me: "Ah, okay. I think that maybe the assumption that someone who is dominant would "still want the act, consent or no" is flawed. Context works both ways; I mean, would you rather hang out with someone who's engaging and into the same things you are or someone who seemed blatantly preoccupied or bored every time you're together?
For most people, even if they don't want a serious relationship, sex is relational. It's not just about the mechanics, it's also about human interaction. And for most decent human beings, the difference between someone who's obviously turned on and enjoying them-self and someone who desperately wants it to stop is pretty obvious.
Plus generally speaking more people (of both sexes) have strong submissive desires than dominant ones. There are a lot of people who only started domming because their partner was submissive and wanted it. In my relationship, for example my partner isn't kinky so much as he is experimental and a reaction junkie. I came into the relationship as being submissive (and a little bit of a masochist), but he really just had more of an open to trying things attitude. It just didn't take very long for him to figure out which type of thing would get the best response and focus more on that. He doesn't have some sort of nebulous desire to tie women up and hit them regardless of context. He does it to me because of the obviously positive reaction that results; I'm noticeably "better" in bed when we're being kinky because I'm way more into it and therefore more fun to be with."
Bec: "I guess I don't think the difference between someone who wants it and someone who doesn't as all that huge of a gap, especially as I've stopped/never started enjoying myself and had my partner not notice/care and continue. I think part of it is that the look of pleasure and look of pain can seem awfully similar. In regards to dominant men I think my line of reasoning goes something like this: he desires to hurt women and see women in pain therefore acts that out in the bedroom and doesn't really care if he's *actually* hurting her (emotioanlly or physcially) because ultimately he's getting to play out his desire and see said woman in pain.
In terms of people who kind of fell into being dominant I can understand that more than someone who actually wants to hurt another person because I can see how context would make a huge difference. I just can't see how context would make a difference to someone who actually desired to hurt someone.
And if this question is too personal at all feel free to ignore it, but how does one be submissive without being masochistic? Is it more about say being ordered to do something rather than being hit? The only other thing I can think of is humiliation which I see as fairly masochistic as well."
Me: "Hmm, well I've also had the experience of someone not noticing/caring whether I was into it or not (although he wasn't kinky). But generally speaking, in that type of situation the person in question doesn't necessarily enjoy seeing people in pain, they're just self-centered and oblivious or an asshole. If it's the first talking to the should solve the situation, if it's the second it will obvious when the don't respond well to talking (at which point you should probably find a new partner). I realize that being able to comfortably verbalize about it can be a challenge, I've struggled with it a lot myself.
Most people who are dominant, as opposed to abusive (not that there's no overlap, but it's a fairly small one), don't actually want to cause real harm to their partners, even if they do want to hurt them. I know the difference might not seem too obvious, but there is one. To harm is to cause lasting damage; hurt, on the other hand, is fleeting and does not cause any real damage. I think most doms have spent a considerable amount of time obsessively thinking about how to reconcile their fantasies with the fact that they don't want to leave anyone broken. Even at the more selfish end of things, if you really like hurting people it makes sense to do it as consensually as possible because you're much more likely to be asked to repeat the performance than if you completely disregard the other person's feelings.
As far as being submissive but not masochistic, I'm maybe not the best person to ask (I'm definitely not the right person to ask about humiliation, it's totally not my kink). I'm not really into intense pain, but I do like at least some. That being said, I have done (and do) plenty of things that could qualify as submissive without masochism so I'll try.
This may or may not have been obvious based on other things I've written, but I really like being tied up. The feeling of rope on my skin just totally does it for me. The conventional stereotype is that he would tie me up and then hit me or be rough (which I do also like), but I've definitely had some pretty fun experiences where he will tie me up (and occasionally blindfold me) and then be nice to me. Really nice - hours of soft, slow gentle caresses nice. Plus, a lot of submissives are very service oriented - not just following orders, but proactively finding ways to be helpful. For example, I'm a math major and tutor. We've definitely turned homework help into foreplay on more than one occasion."
Bec: "'don't actually want to cause real harm to their partners, even if they do want to hurt them'
That actually makes sense to me. I guess I always associated dominant's desires to be rough with actually wanting to harm the person which is why I had such problems with it. The being service-orientated also makes sense. And one of my absolute-all-time-favourite things is being caressed so I can definitely understand that, even if I'm not into ropes.
Thanks for answering all my questions :) While I'm still personally squicked out by the thought of being submissive (way too many flashbacks involved in all of that) and think I can kind of understand why others want to be (and how it can be healthy for them). I think I'll still lurk around in the various blogs though for the time being because while I don't have any more of the "obvious" questions I'm still interested in the other ins and outs of it. In fact, if anything, in a bizarre way all of this made me realise exactly how unhealthy (for me) my own "submissive" type fantasies were in the past and that it definitely was more harmful than helpful given my headspace. Its also cleared up a bit more what kind of headspace I will have to get to if the boyfriend continues to experiment with switching, and the fact that it probably isn't going to happen for quite a while yet (if ever, if the links between being handled like that and my abuse persist)."
Me: "I'm glad I could help. Thanks for taking the time to really listen and think things through, a lot of people don't. I hope everything goes well for you in your relationship in the future. If you ever have anymore questions feel free to ask."
Bec: "I know it may not be the norm but I think there are people out there who do want to know but after coming after those who use questions as a form of attack can never really get an answer. I don't even think a person needs to be into BDSM to for a discussion of it to really enlighten a conversation on sexuality as a whole. Like for instance the fact that I think I would be okay saying absolutely no way to the boyfriend wanting me to be submissive because I learnt that it definitely would not be healthy for me."
I'm a mathematics major in my mid-twenties. I'm also a (usually) submissive, queer, Jewish feminist woman (sort of). Mostly, this is just a way for me to get out all the ideas I don't have a chance to discuss in real life.