Fifty Shades of Stupid

Dumbdomme’s post about Katie Roiphe, Feminism, and BDSM inspired me to write a nearly post-length comment of my own, which I’ve expanded into this post.

There seems to be no shortage of stupid people getting all worked up about the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. In particular, I’m looking at Katie Roiphe’s wild speculation, although Russel Smith also misses the point by quite an impressive margin.

But why, for women especially, would free will be a burden? – Katie Roiphe

How on earth does enjoying an erotic story about consensual submission have anything to do with seeing free will as a ‘burden’?

So much of this freaking out over what the popularity of books like Fifty Shades of Grey means seems to imply that being submissive is somehow bad. Molly, an actual submissive woman, wrote a fantastic rant about just that:

Firstly the notion that this is some filthy secret that woman are holding onto, that even though we are educated and ‘free’ we still all long to be chained to the kitchen sink. Secondly there is the hidden undertone that being submissive means you cannot be ‘independent’ or ‘have a career’, which implies that submissiveness goes hand in hand with what? Lack of intelligence? Lack of ambition?  Lack of imagination? Or the best and most common one of all seems to be weakness. Poor weak women who all secretly want to be dominated by a man…

What people want in bed has nothing to do with how they want to live their lives outside of the bedroom! Having an interest in submitting sexually does not mean that a person wants to give up control when she’s not having sex. Even if she does want to give up some control outside of the bedroom, that still doesn’t necessarily mean that she wants to relinquish all control over all parts of her life. Even if she does want to give up some or most of her control over her own life, that still doesn’t mean she’s weak.

To quote DumbDomme, “Logically, A submissive can’t be submissive unless she or he submits, willingly.” While I’m not submissive, I believe submission is an act of will, not an escape from it. Enduring something you don’t enjoy to please your partner takes will power. Accepting someone else’s authority is sometimes very hard work. Negotiating power exchange in a way that works for both parties isn’t easy either. Just knowing your own needs and wants well enough to start negotiating takes a degree of self awareness that’s just too scary for some people to handle.

The fantasy of sexual domination may be in vogue, but that’s a far cry from actual sexual domination being in vogue. It’s sad that it needs to be said, but fantasizing about something does not necessarily mean you want to go out and do that thing to the furthest extreme you can possibly take it. Has Katie Roiphe never fantasized about anything she didn’t actually want to go out and do? I’m not even talking solely about sexual fantasies, but about the kind of idle daydreams we all have about, say, moving to Fiji and opening a little bar on the beach. In reality, I’d hate living in Fiji and I’d hate running a bar, but daydreaming about it made working long hours at a thankless job a little easier to take.

All this hysteria over women being interested in sexual submission depends on the assumption that women and only women ever fantasize about submitting. If both men and women sometimes enjoy submitting, then it’s just a preference no more worthy of concern than preferring a spicy bowl of chilli to a comforting bowl of chicken soup. Both submissive men and dominant women are conspicuously absent from all of the articles I’ve seen published about Fifty Shades of Grey.  Leaving them out of the discussion takes the book completely out of context, and makes freaking out about it no more meaningful than freaking out about two people getting into a fight and quietly failing to mention that they happened to be participating in a martial arts tournament.

Sure, you can say that there are fewer submissive men than there are submissive women, but how can we know that’s true? It’s not as if society’s gendered expectations of behaviour would massively skew the numbers of people of all genders who are willing to admit to  having even the mildest submissive fantasies… oh wait. Eventually, there will be a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ for submissive men, and when it comes out people will freak out what they think that implies the same way they’re freaking out right now about their own ignorant ideas about female submission.

But even if women actually are disproportionately interested in sexual submission, I think there’s a fairly simple explanation. Stress. To quote Greta Christina’s excellent two part blog post about what we can learn from our sexual fantasies:

But while I think it’s a huge mistake to think that our sex fantasies accurately reflect our “real” desires, I do think they can offer us a clue about them.

I think fantasies can be a clue to what’s missing in our lives. A portrait drawn in negative space. A signpost to the road not taken.

At times when my life is intensely over-scheduled and I’m micromanaging it in fifteen minute increments, I tend to have more kinky fantasies about being submissive, putting myself entirely into somebody else’s hands and riding an emotional and sensory rollercoaster of their creation.

What I see as missing in so many women’s lives is a place to relax. There’s no way for women to get it ‘right’. If we have careers, we’re not good enough mothers, but if we’re stay at home mothers, we’re traitors to the feminist cause. If we dress too provocatively, we’re sluts, but if we dress too modestly, we’re frigid bitches, and on, and on, and on. Even though I’m a dom, I can understand how gloriously relaxing it would be to have someone actually spell out exactly what it takes to be ‘good enough’.

And if that doesn’t suck enough, there’s also the tremendous pressure women are under due to the equality movement not having gotten all the way yet. We still assume that the daughter, not the son, will take care of an aged, ailing parent. We still assume that women will do most of the cooking and cleaning and general labour of keeping a household going. We still assume that the mother, not the father, will take the day off work when the kids are sick. On top of all that, we’re supposed to be happy and cheerful and well-groomed at all times. That’s bloody stressful! Again, I can understand why letting someone else take responsibility for everything for a little while would be an awesome vacation from the crushing stress of everyday life.

Women aren’t fantasizing about giving up responsibility because we’re becoming more equal to men, but because we aren’t equal enough yet.

Already a dozen columnists have claimed that the fantasy of powerlessness is a symptom of the employed and busy female, the very apex of feminist success – a dream of losing responsibility, an easing of pressure (which, incidentally, is said to be the primary reason for high-status businessmen visiting dominatrixes). You have to be a real acrobat to stretch this argument into plausibility though: There is nothing at all contemporary or current about the dream of self-annihilating true love as promised by these romances. – Russell Smith

Russel Smith disagrees, but his argument is a bit of a non-sequitur. It’s true that all-consuming love is an extremely old fantasy, but the reason we’re all talking about it is because a particular flavour of it has become extremely popular right now, today. I’m fairly sure that makes it both contemporary and current. You know else is both contemporary and current? The extreme pressure women are under to ‘do it all’. While I am absolutely not, under any circumstances, saying that women had it better when they had fewer choices (mother, nun, maybe teacher or secretary if they were particularly ambitious), they were pulled in fewer different directions.

Another thing Russel Smith gets wrong is this:

The success of these books, in which a woman is forced to suffer indignities very similar to those portrayed in porn for men, is going to prove very difficult to explain for those who would continue to believe that men and women will always have different tastes in porn. This is entirely conventional romance plus entirely conventional porn.

It’s the romance part that makes Fifty Shades of Grey different from conventional porn. You would think writing the sentence “This is entirely conventional romance plus entirely conventional porn.” (emphasis mine) would tip you off to that fact. Another thing that makes written porn different is that the story is very often told from the point of view of the submissive. In particular it goes into detail about how turned on the submissive party is in a way that is very difficult, if not impossible, to convey on film. This reassurance that the woman is having a good time, that she’s submitting because she enjoys it, allows not-necessarily-kinky women to enjoy written submissive porn when they would likely be at best puzzled and at worst disgusted by kinky video.

It is perhaps inconvenient for feminism that the erotic imagination does not submit to politic. –Katie Roiphe

What’s inconvenient for feminism is stupid people conflating a sexual taste with a desire to recreate the rigid gender roles of the ‘50s. If you have two brain cells to rub together, it’s obvious that women feeling comfortable exploring their sexuality is a clear win for feminism.

I’d even argue that the phrase ”mommy porn” as demeaning as it is, is also a sign of the progress feminism has made. To quote Ester Bloom:

Captain Obvious would point out that there is no such thing as “daddy porn,” presumably because dads remain men, even after procreating. Once they give birth, women apparently morph into “mommies,” neutered creatures who may be venerated but don’t need to be taken seriously. Hence their easily-dismissed “mommy blogs” and now their “mommy porn.”

People may insist on deriding porn that’s popular with women as “mommy porn” but at least they acknowledge that it exists. Ridiculing it is merely an excuse not to think about women’s sexual needs.

5 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Stupid

  1. I haven’t been too worried about Grey’s popularity, because I figured that anything that brought bdsm towards the mainstream, anything that made it less frightening and taboo was a win for me.

    But in light of how it’s being interpreted, and how you thing the media would react to a popular novel detailing a male submissive’s romance, would you rather see BDSM romance done poorly or not at all?

    • Oh I definitely prefer stupid commentary about BDSM romance to not talking about it at all, I’m just frustrated that people are so worried about what it means that a book with some light female submission has become so popular. Why can’t women have desires without people running around saying the sky is falling? I think it’s worth asking if there’s any connection between women feeling especially stressed out and enjoying fantasizing about submission, but even if there is that doesn’t mean the sorta kinda equality we have now is somehow too much for our poor little ladybrains to handle.

      I completely agree that getting bdsm into the mainstream is a good thing for all of us kinky people. I’m even happy that Christian Grey is presented as a sympathetic character, although I am annoyed by the way kinky people keep getting presented as damaged.

      From a purely selfish standpoint, I think it’s useful for people to get the stupid our of their systems (although that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop giving them shit for it). The sooner female submission becomes old hat, the sooner female domination will be the next big thing and people will start producing porn I like 🙂

  2. Really glad you posted this, Stabbity.

    “I think it’s worth asking if there’s any connection between women feeling especially stressed out and enjoying fantasizing about submission”

    It’s certainly worth asking, but I worry about people putting the question out there without the qualifiers and additional explanations that your post provides. You mentioned women feeling expectations of both “gender roles,” pressure to do it all, pressure to look effortless and happy doing it, and the judgments that follow making choices to “be” one thing or another (frigid/slutty, mother/career woman, etc.). I think it’s important to mention the pressures of being judged for our choices (no matter what they are) and the pressures of never being able to be a woman “the right way” when we talk about women’s stress.

    Otherwise, we risk linking women’s stress to work in such a reductive way that mistakenly gives credence to the thinking that women can’t handle “equality” (of course, notions of “equality” floating around are reductive too).

    The same thing goes for linking feeling stressed to submissive fantasies. While I’m sure it’s true in some cases, linking the two without a bunch of additional explanation risks both stereotyping submissives and “explaining away” submissive fantasies in a way that might ultimately be dismissive.

    For those reasons, I wonder about whether maintstreaming BDSM is ultimately positive in the current cultural milieu. It’s so easy to reduce preferences and causation in such reductive ways that all the important surrounding issues–women’s/men’s/people’s fantasies, agency, sex positivity, etc–all risk being dismissed, protested, and/or parodied in ways that might ultimately be negative.

    • I think it’s important to mention the pressures of being judged for our choices (no matter what they are) and the pressures of never being able to be a woman “the right way” when we talk about women’s stress.

      That’s an excellent point. I was originally thinking of submission as a break from being responsible for ALL THE THINGS (that’s what I got out of the way I’ve heard it described by actual submissive people), but taking a break from the unending chorus of “You’re doing it WRONG” is just as important.

      The same thing goes for linking feeling stressed to submissive fantasies. While I’m sure it’s true in some cases, linking the two without a bunch of additional explanation risks both stereotyping submissives and “explaining away” submissive fantasies in a way that might ultimately be dismissive.

      Also a good point. Now that I think about it more, my core argument doesn’t actually have much to do with either actual submission or fantasies about it. I may have actually just co-opted a discussion about an erotic novel involving submission to talk about something else entirely. The idea I’m really arguing against is the assumption that women are stressed out because our poor ladybrains can’t handle having as much responsibility as men do. I’d say that we don’t. We have more responsibility, less power to handle those responsibilities with, and so much judgement heaped on us that no matter what we do we feel guilty about something. I probably should have left out the bits about submission and filed this under feminist rants instead.

      It’s so easy to reduce preferences and causation in such reductive ways that all the important surrounding issues–women’s/men’s/people’s fantasies, agency, sex positivity, etc–all risk being dismissed, protested, and/or parodied in ways that might ultimately be negative.

      That’s true, but I think getting the conversation started, even if it starts out stupid, is better (and faster) than waiting for everyone to grow up and learn to talk about sexuality like reasonable adults. Of course, I’m incredibly biased (my mother’s idea of problem solving was to refuse to talk about the problem), so I could be wrong.

  3. Living as the submissive partner in a female led marriage I am amused at the and wringing Shades of Grey’s popularity has produced.

    I have a high stress job with many employees, demanding clients, books to balance and payrolls to meet. There is nothing which gives me a greater sense of relief and relaxation than to serve the lady of the house when my day is done. To be deferential and perfectly mannered. To serve her a glass of wine and ask her about the topics which interest her. To know that my mistakes will be corrected.

    I also enjoy the priviledge of having my wife make decisions as to every aspect of our sexual lives. While I am certainly free to indicate when I am “in the mood” it is entirely up to her what, if anything she will make of my interest. While I am allowed to be flirty any pushiness means a trip to my corner and then a good whipping.

    I make no decisions about the house. I do as I am told and, from time to time, my wife might ask my opinion. Normally she doesn’t.

    We have lived this way for years and it has balanced both our lives. We joke about the fact that we are two alphas with an arrangment.

    Interestingly, I have asked my wife if she would ever want to switch. Take some time off the dominant end of things. She does, after all, have the day to day stress of running a home, taking care of the children, doing business entertaining…”Not a chance. This is how I want us to live.”

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