A Conversation on Being a Sub and Feminist Liberation
Recently, a friend and I had a conversation around the so called contradictions of holding onto feminist values while also engaging in kink as a submissive. This piece is an extended version of the thoughts we exchanged about how expanding the notion of feminism itself helps us avoid any reductive understanding of kink.
You were telling me that for you submission has meant giving up control? But as a feminist, we want to control our narratives, don't we? Isn’t it logically disempowering, then?
I would go out on a limb and state that being submissive never means you don’t get to make the rules and you are completely at mercy of someone else: that isn’t healthy by any measure. In fact, to be ethically kinky is to actually have hard boundaries and have a conversation around what goes and what doesn’t. Being a submissive is actually empowering to me precisely because I actually get to set the rules of engagement but I do not carry the burden of doing active decision-making and controlling the process in terms of constantly worrying about my needs being met. So even though I do “give up” on control by not leading the process of say, a sexual act or an intimate rule we set up, I maintain authority over my body and my likes and dislikes through a thorough discussion of my preferences beforehand. The dynamic then revolves around respecting them as much as respecting the needs and desires of the person who is the dominant in the situation.
So for you being submissive is to have someone make decisions for you, and that is pleasurable?
Yes! I am in a job where I am often in leadership positions and I am constantly vying for control in all aspects of my work life. I also have issues with people-pleasing that come from childhood traumas and just codependent family dynamics. In intimate situations, I have found that being a sub through an ethical kink relationship has helped me let loose, you know? Also, historically, oppressed people carry the burden and responsibility of maintaining the system that hurts them the most. Being respectable, being polite, being perfect, being compliant are also acts that ask a lot out of people: it makes women and other oppressed peoples hyper-vigilant of their bodies, their actions, their movement lest they go wrong and suffer the consequences of the same. In my sub kink dynamics, I have found the space to be bratty, childlike, petulant and the fact that it is accepted and desired makes it pleasurable.
But isn’t being a submissive actually being told what to do, and then being compliant to structures of domination outside of kink? Being compliant as a sub doesn’t seem all too different?
I think I won’t call being submissive as being compliant to authority but as surrendering, as letting go, and doing it safely. Compliance robs the relation of any mutual agreement, as if I am blindly accepting whatever comes my way with no part to play in it. When I safely surrender, I am fully aware of what I want and what feels good for me, while I place faith in someone else to make me feel good and taken care of. As well, being structurally dominated is not simply about gender and not simply about us as individuals: it is a collective system which is oppressive at its core and asks a lot out of us to maintain it and even dismantle it. We do not get what we want easily in an oppressive system and in intimacy, I seek that ease of getting what I want without having to put up a fight for it.
That’s an interesting way of framing submission: of not having to put up a unnecessary fight for what you need and deserve. But what you desire can itself be at odds with feminist beliefs, right? Like I know some people have degradation fantasies, and some sound violent even. How does one reconcile wanting to be degraded with feminism?
I will warn against conflating complex desires/fantasies which all of us have with having those fantasies as a profoundly questionable and uniquely unfeminist act. Because then there is an assumption that only the structurally oppressed have degradation fantasies/are submissives and then explaining that “gap” also becomes their albatross around the neck. Many women are doms, many of them like to degrade their sexual partners and men can be into wanting to be degraded and can be submissives as well. My question is: why is it that the burden explaining these fantasies falls squarely on feminists who are into being submissive? We all have complex and confusing desires that can perhaps never be reconciled with structures of domination we resist on a daily basis, or might as well stem from those structures which we all collectively inhabit. Individual sexual fantasies should not be our targets to question and gain equality in the world, but defining our collective responsibility to each other to liberate ourselves from exploitation and oppression should be. And honestly, kink is a lot about that reciprocal responsibility. Without transparent communication, without check ins, boundaries, conversation around consent, traumas and triggers, we can enter into potentially abusive situations. And that is repeating the exhausting structural domination in your intimate life. Kink actually puts them on the table and helps me find temporary relief from those structures in respectful, mutually agreed upon and enjoyable ways.
And I know you once said that the justification of kink via choice feminism, or “oh women should be allowed to do whatever they want”, is tone deaf? But that’s how a lot of people reconcile their kinky dynamic with their feminism: it is just a “choice” they’re making which just happens to be at odds with their feminist fight for gender equality.
I personally feel saying feminism is about making choices is a thoroughly capitalist and neo-liberal framing of decision-making itself. Making choices is not an individual mechanism, it happens in a collective system where a class of people has robbed us off controlling the means of making choices that should be available to all of us. I do not like to explain my kink as some personal choice being made in a vacuum different from my political ones. That’s a false binary. It is more productive to me to see feminism itself as expansive, as not only to do with our sexual and gendered lives but about race and capitalism as well. That allows me to explain my kink as something which exists in a thoroughly unequal system, but may not be simply explained away by its gendered and sexual dimensions and that its inexplicability is something I may not have to individually solve or resolve. I mean, who I enter into kink or any relationship for that matter with is also about racialised and economically designed encounters. What is kink to a racialised sex worker versus what is kink to me as a racialised academic might be very different and that’s not because we are equally making different choices, but precisely the opposite: we might be making similar choices in an unequal manner. Questioning that difference and making our connection in having a liberated world is more important than questioning the existence of kink, of harbouring certain desires itself. And again, “choice” in kink dynamics also follows a very structured, clearly defined system that demands respect, reciprocation and affirmation you know. Without that, it isn’t kink.
Yeah, feminist consciousness itself has a lot more to it than your sex life and sexual fantasies while sexual life can itself be affected by economic and racialised systems. To give that expansion to both kink and feminism helps us see that there is a lot more to our “choices” than just wanting gender equality. Interesting, makes me think about kink dynamics that can actually be about healing racialised folks or sexual trauma as it helps people revisit the choices they didn’t want to make?
Exactly, and that could be a whole other discussion! But for now, let’s just not put the burden to explain away feminism on submissives or explaining submission as a contradiction to feminist liberation. Expanding horizons on our fight for liberation while sustaining our complex desires is a good place to be in.