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It’s About Choice, Dammit

Posted in Austin, Occupy Wall Street, and Sex & Relationships

Yesterday, I found my twitter feed buzzing about Katie Roiphe’s lurid Newsweek cover story, “Spanking Goes Mainstream.” And with good reason: much like many members of the Republican Party, Roiphe wants to take us back decades. With a wave of her magic wand, Roiphe imagines away years of sex-positive feminism and instead takes us back to a time when the idea that women have rich, complex sexual fantasy lives was shocking and strange. Suddenly we’re back in 1973, when Nancy Friday published My Secret Garden to much nervous giggling around the Mad Men-esque water coolers of the day.

Dr. Allison Absinthe, a friend of mine from Houston, got frothy about a quote from the article. She replaced a key word to highlight the absurdity — a woman’s sexual fantasies have no bearing on her choice of feminism.

Does her outfit tell you if this woman is a feminist? Newsweek thinks so. Photo by Rachel Kramer Bussel.

I understand why my friends were so worked up. As if it’s not bad enough that we have to refight battles over reproductive rights, sex education, and contraception we should have won long ago, now women and men are back to defending our right to sexual fantasies. The article focuses entirely on the apparently newsworthy fact that some successful heterosexual women choose to submit to men in the bedroom. It completely ignores the booming demand for professional female dominants, whose clients are primarily men.

And it assumes that political belief and the fight for equality are somehow undermined by these fantasies. Last year, my lover Mizz Honey J wrote “A Feminist Defense of Consensual Nonconsent” for this blog, in which she said:

My sexual activities are not how I define myself. Consensual non-consent is something I enjoy, but it is no more a part of me than my love for my cat or my ability to write fiction. Consensual non-consent and submission are how my id works out the stress that is constantly being dumped on my superego. Allowing myself to let go, having my partner take control over me physically and mentally is an amazing release.

Over on Feministing, Maya’s “What Katie Roiphe Gets Wrong About Fantasies of Sexual Submission” includes this comment:

“Why is it so interesting to surrender?” Seriously, is this even a question? We’re talking about sex. One of the researchers described the fantasies as the “wish to be beyond will, beyond thought?” Who doesn’t have that wish? Or Susan Sontag’s description: “the voluptuous yearning toward the extinction of one’s consciousness?” I mean, this makes sexual submission sound like the BEST THING EVER. Do we even ask men if they have fantasies like that? Because I’m pretty sure they do. I mean, basically I think that women and men are interested in sexual submission because it’s hot.

Let’s consider some C words for a moment: words like consent, control, and choice. No matter how wild our fantasies get, no matter what kinky games we play and how much a part of the BDSM lifestyle we become, a healthy relationship means that all participants have control over and consent in their sex lives. A rape fantasy is not about a desire to be raped; it is wanting to surrender to a chosen lover’s overwhelming desire. None of this would be hot if someone were truly forced into the situation, without consent or choice. A human with a rape fantasy doesn’t want to be raped any more than having sex with a person in a catsuit is committing bestiality.

On Alternet, Shira Tarrant speaks to professional dominatrix Shawna Kenney:

 It is unclear which rock Roiphe is living under since “a woman getting what she wants sexually is very feminist,” Kenney notes. “We all love to play armchair psychologists. But I can say that as a former professional dominatrix, my male clients were sexually submissive for lots of different reasons.” And, contrary to what Roiphe suggests, women are, too.

As Tarrant and many other writers point out, what’s noteworthy is not so much that women continue to have fantasies of submission, but that the mainstream media is highlighting this fact at a time when women’s rights are under attack. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 916 Bills affecting Reproductive Rights were introduced in just one quarter of 2011. Politicians refer to womenas livestock, condemned to breeding the next generation of wage slaves if this the Handmaid’s Tale future comes to pass. Are we to believe that women secretly want this treatment too, because some want to submit to men in the bedroom?

But what sane woman in control of her life would choose such treatment from anyone?



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  • Stacey Langley

    Hey, “My Secret Garden” was hidden under my bed for all of my teenage years.

    • Kit

      @Stacey: I also read Friday’s collections of fantasies during my teen years. I love the diversity of fantasies reflected in My Secret Garden, Women On Top, etc, but I sometimes feel like Friday herself had opinions I couldn’t agree with — she seems to feel like fantasies of dominant women are empowering, and always seemed a bit disappointed in women with fantasies of submission.

  • Miriam

    I am so tired of the intellectual dishonesty in people writing about BDSM as though it only consists of female submissives and male dominants. There is no excuse at this point in time for overlooking male submissives/female dominants (by some accounts, the most common grouping in BDSM), male/male power play, female/female power play, group power play, switches. I’m sure there are other overlooked configurations that I haven’t thought of because I’m ranting.

    • Kit

      @Miriam: The viewpoint is still so simplistic. It’s like when the mainstream media kept discovering the fact that comics could have substance and be about topics other than superheroes, then proceeded to publish that same story over & over for decades. We keep having the same conversations, and now it seems like we’re rolling back the dialog to where it was decades ago.

      There is so much more depth & potential to human fantasy beyond what is depicted. Thanks for giving us a balanced take on Roiphe’s piece in your second comment. I appreciate your perspective as its a little less fired up and a bit more clear thinking than my own on this topic, which definitely pushes my buttons.

  • Miriam

    I was guilty of ranting before reading Roiphe’s article and now that I read it, I’m going to modify my rant a teeny bit. I don’t think Roiphe intended to criticize women for having erotic fantasies of submission. I think her intent was to support its coexistence with female independence and success while exploring how a poorly written e-published book has gotten so successful.

    However, I think she focused on the wrong thing in her article. IMHO, the question she should be exploring is not why do women fantasize about submission, but why is it that the alternate configurations of power play that I mentioned above get ignored in contemporary mainstream depictions of BDSM… especially because that is NOT the case historically. She mentions The Story of O but doesn’t mention Venus in Furs or any of the examples of female sadism in Marquis de Sade–not to mention the MANY examples of female sadism in Victorian BDSM writings.

  • Miriam

    Oh, I agree with you that Roiphe said nothing new or interesting in her piece. I’m a little surprised given her capsule bio that she doesn’t seem to have a more in-depth familiarity with BDSM, but I’m not familiar with the focus of Roiphe’s general work… although I do have a strong negative association with her name, which makes me think I’ve disliked writings of hers in the past.

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