On Politics and Paddling: Reconciling Feminist and Submissive Identities

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

A few nights ago, I [Marianne] had some of the most soulful sex of my life. Hair was stroked, eyes were locked, heck, there were butterfly kisses involved. This was the stuff that production companies pay big bucks to film and then artfully set to the latest Sufjan Stevens song. And it was great. Sometimes, you just need some nurturing, connected, vanilla-est-of-the-vanilla sex. But sometimes, you don’t. A confession: we both love rough, kinky, slap-me-on-the-ass-and-call-me-a-bitch sex. Both of us identify as rough-sex enthusiasts, masochists, submissives, and, here’s the kicker: committed feminists.

Feminism has informed a large part of our sexual identities. Our comfort with our bodies, our commitment to partner communication, our drive to seek pleasure for our own pleasure’s sake, and our quest to more fully explore, understand, and own our sexualities can be in large part attributed to our feminist sensibilities (thanks, Betty Dodson!). Given that our respective constructs of feminism are grounded firmly in a belief in the right to our own bodily autonomy, these aspects of our sexual selves seem to effortlessly and logically dovetail with our decidedly feminist self-concepts. That said, the intersection of our feminist identities and our sexual identities is significantly more strained when it comes to this kinkier aspect of our sex lives. It’s a tough position to navigate when you spend your days analyzing and decrying the latent sexism and evidence of patriarchy in everything from wrinkle-cream advertisements to classroom dynamics and then spend your nights begging your partner to cuff you, fuck you, and spank you until you bruise. It seems, in a word, incongruous.

This incongruity is something that I [M] have been struggling with for quite some time. There have been a few times when, mid-whack, I’ve been struck by something other than the hand hurtling rapidly towards my derriere: a twinge of guilt. Is what I’m doing (and loving) “bad for women?” Does my love for rough sex make me a bad feminist? Early into my exploration with spanking, I had a dream that I went to confession only to find Gloria Steinem in the place of a priest. When I confessed my bad girl fantasies, she furrowed her brow, flicked a highlighted strand out of her face, and told me to make three pro-choice calls to my senator as penance. While I fully recognize the absurdity of this dream and regard my commitment to feminism as something far more personal and far less guilt-driven that “penance,” I think this really speaks to the conflict that heterosexual feminist spank-enthusiasts everywhere face. Here is a realm of my life where I am actively encouraging a man to dominate me in a way that could easily be read as degrading. On paper, this is the kind of action that would enrage me. In action, though, it feels good and right and fulfilling.

Sex, to me [M], is an inherently political act. We can (and do) theorize until the cows come home about just how it is that our sexuality and sex acts are firmly rooted in a cultural web of sexism, gender roles, oppression, and internalization. And there is a lot of validity and importance in said theory. In practice, however, it is more complicating. If we truly believe that the personal is political, is there a way to practice both feminism and submission in an empowering way? Does this vintage mantra dictate that there is a “right” way to act in life’s more “personal” situations as well as life’s political ones? If so, what political statement am I making when I beg my boyfriend to come all over my face?

At first, an attempt at mitigating these two commonly co-occurring aspects of identity can seem truly and (trust us) maddeningly unresolvable. Initially dealing with these feelings left me [still M] feeling dismayed at myself for being somehow “un-feminist” and distressed, because it seemed as though my beloved feminism might be destructively and overbearingly orthodox. Ultimately, I was uncomfortable both with my own sexuality and desires and with an all-too-narrow understanding of what (and who) constitutes a feminist. I should note that this particular experience of dilemma, while a common one, is by no means necessary for someone who identifies both as a bottom and as a feminist. Case in point: Ginger.

G: While Marianne was being plagued by Gloria Steinem dreams, I was simply enjoying both my feminism and my masochism. I find this topic to be infinitely interesting and worth discussing, but it never actually affected my life; simply put, I’ve always just liked both.

Flash back to M’s struggle: after years of all-too-often guilty indulgence in my kinkier side I have, thankfully, come to understand my kink and my feminism differently. I, too, have come to a place where I can be comfortable with “liking both.” Ultimately, we [both M and G] believe that safely and responsibly allowing ourselves to fully explore our sexual desires is an inherently feminist act. Ours is what we like to call a feminism of choice, and not simply reproductive choice. We believe that “choice feminism” is an endorsement of and an aim towards a world in which women and men can make well-informed choices on equal footing about all aspects of their lives, including gender performativity and sexual identity. And so, thank goodness, kink and feminism don’t have to be mutually exclusive after all! In fact, if you ascribe to our particular brand of feminism, choosing to be masochistic is an act of empowerment.

Context has a great deal to do with this new-found comfort. For us, rough sex isn’t casual. It’s a deliberate and consensual foray into power-play and one that requires significant thought, boundary establishment, and a foundation of trust. If a Paces hook-up slapped one of us out of the blue, we would leave and call Public Safety. For us, a partner’s knowledge of and pride in our feminist identity (and sensitivity to how that identity may complicate emotions around S&M exploits) is required before kinkier play could be comfortable and, by extension, enjoyable. By nature of how intimately acquainted one would have to be to gain both this knowledge and a significant level of trust in a partner, neither of us has ever explored sexual power-play outside of a committed monogamous relationship, a choice that has been integral to our comfortable exploration, but one that we realize might not work for everyone. Ultimately, this choice is one concerning respect, trust, and comfort, all of which we firmly believe one should have with a partner-in-kink. Because of this level of respect, we feel that we can actively choose to submit, choose to surrender, choose to live out a sexual fantasy. The reality is that, in these situations, we are very much in control. If we asked asked our partner to stop, either explicitly or through an established safe word, he would stop immediately. We have discussed boundaries before our power-play and make a point of debriefing after. Nothing is happening that we don’t want to have happen. If we don’t like something, we don’t do it again.

Rough sex has done a lot for us in our solo and partnered sex lives. On a purely sensuous note: It feels different. The contrast between a hard hair pull and that same old warm sexy feeling is exciting. The psychological level of engagement is also pretty hot. Most human beings, whether they admit it or not, are attracted on some level to what is deemed “wrong.” In a way, you’re getting off on the idea of what you’re doing, in addition to how it feels. Additionally, for me [M], the moment provided by surrendering to sensation alone is one of the few where I can actually shut off that nagging internal monologue of mine. I’m not thinking about next week’s research paper or wondering whether my thighs are jiggling oddly or fretting over how best to prep for tomorrow’s interview. Instead, I’m feeling and connecting and wanting and doing and being done to. It may seem paradoxical, but the level of freedom afforded me by my own submission is intoxicating. Additionally, roughing up your sex life can also provide an entirely new way to connect with your partner. Playing with power in bed can be part of a dialogue about power roles in the relationship more generally. Further, investigating your freakier side in partner play requires not only some explicit communication before and after, but can act as communication itself — ultimately, dominating and being dominated is about giving your partner what he or she wants and receiving what you want in return.

The Phoenix