Submission and Feminism

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September 1992

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1992 by William A. Henkin

<Q> How can I reconcile being submissive with being a feminist?

<A> Honey, how come you're asking a man this question?

Okay. First, what do you mean by "submissive?" Do you mean you do what your top says, or do you mean you like to get done? Are you a submissive bottom ("I'll serve you as you wish me to") or a submissive top ("Which crop should I should hit you with? That one? Okay")? If a bottom, do you submit willingly, or are you a rebel? In any case, are you submissive 24 hours a day, or do you occupy a subordinate role for the duration of a scene? Do you submit to a special someone, to any or many people who negotiate with you, or to the universe at large?

It is inherently difficult to define actions by labels, so what do you mean by "feminist"? Andrea Dworkin claims that title, and she has lobbied actively to ban SM, pornography, and most male-female erotic activity you have ever imagined, let alone enjoyed. I've heard Pat Califia referred to as a feminist, but both Macho Sluts and Doc and Fluff include female tops, female bottoms, male tops, and male bottoms, variously dominant and submissive, all playing with one another and many switching roles and partners in remarkable and often unexpected combinations. Cynthia Slater, founder of the Society of Janus, seemed like a feminist to me, and she certainly switched: it was the energy she was interested in, not the label. In one perhaps apocryphal story I have heard attributed to both Pat and Cynthia, the woman in question was dressed in a high-necked white lace Victorian gown while in top mode for a party. A horrified guest objected, "Tops don't wear white lace!" To which Pat or Cynthia is supposed to have replied, "Tops wear anything they want."

I think the same position is useful for SM feminists. Feminists do anything they want to do in their sex lives. The key is that they want to. For me, at least, feminism is not defined by what you do in bed: feminism is defined by what you do in your head – and in the voting booth, the planning committee meeting, the workplace, and sometimes in the streets.

In a culture where men are always supposed to be tops, many of us poor dears have a similar question: "How can I be submissive and still be a real man?" Again, the answer seems simple enough to me: leave your top-image at work, and get down on your knees, boy.

I think both the feminist and masculinist versions of this question proceed from the notion that being submissive means you have no power. I suggest quite the contrary: the more power you have, the more erotic your submission can be, both for you and for your top, because you can't really give up power you don't already have. When I top I certainly want to get something back from my bottom for my effort. And when I bottom I greatly prize the power I give up: it's me I'm offering, and that ain't nothin'!

Moreover, submission can actually engender power: realizing that you have something to give, and that you are capable of mastering your own will to give it up the way your top wants it instead of the way you think s/he should want it, can inspire pride: not the false pride of an inflated ego, but the true pride that, like humility, comes from knowing the depths of your self.

We're not taught in our society to be gracious about serving: we're taught that it's menial and even demeaning. But submissive service is the ideal that underlies chivalry: being and doing your very best for the pleasure and honor of someone you esteem. Neither are we taught to be gracious and humble when served, so to cover our awkward embarrassment we become haughty and distant when offered respect; we are mean to our servants, thereby robbing ourselves as well as them of the intimacy devotion entails.

When politics is anti-sexual, as is the case throughout the power blocs of the modern world, very few sexual activities – let alone sexual fantasies – are politically correct. So I don't mean by all this answer that someone's fantasy to be a useless worm trod upon by some contemptuous bitch or brute should not be valued as highly as any other, nor that such a scene cannot be hot. I do mean that sex is not politics (however politicized sexuality may become), that fantasy and reality are different realities (yes, I said that), and that it behooves us all to know the differences.

I expect some disagreement with my answer to this loaded query, so I leave off with a longish quote from an undisputably feminist lesbian SM manifesto, "If I Ask You to Tie Me Up, Will You Still Want to Love Me?" by Juicy Lucy, from the Samois anthology Coming to Power (Alyson Publications, 3d edition revised & updated, 1987):

Sadist & masochist are terms I have a schizophrenic reaction to. When & how I use these terms changes depending on the context & on who I'm with. In a sexual context sadist & masochist are roles that define erotic poles of power & have meanings of passion trust & intensity that flow from a fully consensual situation.... I also use the terms top & bottom to describe the two basic power positions in S/M.... The exchange is: sadist/ top/ dominant/ sender flowing into masochist/ bottom/ passive/ receiver. However, it is an oversimplification to talk about the erotic exchange as though it only flowed one way. Each side has many levels of apparent & actual power. In sexual S/M the exchange is mutual, with both sides giving & receiving erotic intensity. For example, the trust/openness of the bottom is a constant turn-on to the top, even though it's the bottom who's being had. The power & erotic exchange always flows full circle. If it doesn't then it's not satisfying & the satisfaction of all concerned is a prime goal in S/M.... Heal & be healed. Spirit surround you.

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