Twisty of I Blame the Patriarchy offers the flipside of my recent discussion of BDSM in two posts about the patriarchy-affirming nature of even the safest, sanest, and consensualist BDSM sexplay.
While my argument wasn’t necessarily a defense of BDSM (I admit my difficulty in grasping the appeal of what is, to me, decidedly non-sexy; furthermore, I very much doubt those in the scene need much in the way of “defense” from the likes of me) I did highlight how BDSM power roles are intertwined and call into question notions of dominance and submission even as they enact them:
While to outsiders (like myself, I must admit), BDSM… seems centered around degradation and humiliation, for its practitioners there’s something rather more complex at work. BDSM participants, both “tops” (dominant partners, “doms”) and “bottoms” (submissive partners, “subs”), get off on playing with power roles, in a way that is often strikingly subversive. The power that a “dom” enjoys over their “sub” comes with great responsibility for the emotional and erotic satisfaction of the “sub”, as well as for their physical and psychological health….
Participants in this kind of play are binding themselves to their partner with promises and gifts of trust, making very explicit the “rights and obligations” that anthropologists see at the root of all social relationships. The question of “who is in control” can become muddied rather quickly.
In the post in which Twisty bottoms out, she picks up a reader comment from another thread in which the reader, LMYC, writes of her own experiences trying to find a space for her own brand of dominance in the scene:
Then I realized that it was just another way for ME to have the responsibility dumped on me — again — to become some goddamned spoiled brat male’s fantasy toy. Or perhaps someone ELSE in this oh-so-like-with-it scene can explain to me why PRECISELY it is that both female submissives AND female dominants are expected to wear EXACTLY THE SAME CLOTHING.
I don’t think LMYC’s example here makes the point she’s trying to make — as far as I can tell, both women and men are constrained by a highly limited “vocabulary” of clothing styles in BDSM, all of which is intended to sexualize and fantastisize (to make fantasize-able; alas, “fantasize” doesn’t mean what I’m saying…) both female and male bodies — but the issue of responsibility is, I think, an important one. Western gender roles are built around women’s suitability and necessity to take on responsibility — for the home’s maintenance, for the children’s upbringing, for the household economy, for the husband’s transgressions (drinking, cheating, carousing, fighting, etc.), and so on. And that responsibility is often paralleled by and exercised through her control of access to sex — men are “punished” by their wives’ “headaches”. On the flip side, men are given a license for irresponsibility — for flashy cars and other expensive toys, excessive drinking, boisterous behavior, gambling, “rubber-necking”, and so on — and counter women’s control of access to sex with the threat of rape.
BDSM often exaggerates these roles, at least where heterosexual couples are involved (I don’t know how or whether this applies to male-male or female-female BDSM). Female submissiveness often takes the form of rape fantasy, explicitly or implicitly, with the male dom “taking what he needs” regardless of the sub’s protests. Likewise, the female dom takes on not just the responsibility of “safe and sane” sexplay but also the disciplining, punishing, and in the end mothering role that is ascribed to women in every other context. What’s more, her power is exercised specifically through the withholding of sex (unless and until her partner is a “good boy”, maybe).
Where I part company from the critics of BDSM at I Blame the Patriarchy (and elsewhere) is in the assumption that the highly ritualized enactment of exaggerated gender roles in BDSM sexplay is necessarily linked to the perpetuation of such roles elsewhere. Many people who adopt submissive roles do so in direct contradiction to their roles in everyday life, as do many dominants. The context of “play” is important — we generally play at roles or identities that are not expressed in our daily lives. The degree of ritualization and even absurdity (of dress, of language, of extremism) suggests a knowing detachment from the everyday. So it’s not clear how well, or how often, the roles performed in sexplay translate into the rest of participant’s lives — or even if they might not be, as I suggested before, actively subversive.