When I first began exploring BDsM I hit a stumbling block when I tried to reconcile my desire to submit with my feminist values. I felt a sense of dissonance and worry that perhaps these two things were contradictory, and maybe I needed to choose one or the other.
I’m a bisexual woman who has had mostly cisgender male partners. My current and longest-running BDsM relationship is with a male top. So for me, submission has almost always meant submitting to a male partner. While I’ve played with female dominants, most of my experiences as a submissive have been with male tops. I recognise that there are a wide spectrum of genders, and that BDsM relationships are varied and often to not adhere to the “Male Dominant/ Female submissive” archetype. I am writing about this particular relationship configuration because it is the one that I have experienced most.
I’ve spent a long time grappling with my desire for submission and allowing someone else to have that kind of power over me. I’m a fiercely independent person and I enjoy being able to take care of myself and do things in my own way. While this might seem very much at odds with the attitude you might expect from a typical submissive, the truth is a lot of s-types are very capable, independent and successful. For many, as for myself, one of the attractive features of submission is the ability to hand the reins to someone else for a while and let them drive. It can be strangely freeing when all you have to do is follow the orders your Top has given.
And this is where I felt a bit stuck. Because I knew that I was happy to take orders and follow instructions and kneel and serve, but was it un-feminist of me to do this if my partner was a man? Was I crumpling up my feminist beliefs that all people are equal, regardless of their gender, if I submitted to a man?
I have spent years of my journey considering these questions and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.
Firstly, for me, the cornerstone of feminism is about choice. I firmly believe that a person’s choices shouldn’t be limited based on their gender. I don’t think that any person should be forced into a particular role by reason of gender. It’s important to me that all people have the right to make choices that are right for them. Any person should be able to choose to pursue their career of choice, or to have a family if they want one, to engage in consensual sexual activities and to enjoy their preferred leisure activities. Certain activities shouldn’t be off the table for certain people because of their gender. People shouldn’t be expected to present themselves in particular ways because of their gender. And people shouldn’t be forced into the role of parent or caregiver or homemaker because of their gender. I feel passionately that feminism is about giving people the same choices and taking away the pressures to fill particular roles and expectations based on gender.
So when I submit to a male partner, it’s not because I have to. I’m not in a position where I’m forced to be subservient to him because I’m a woman. It’s not expected that I will strive to please him because he’s in an elevated position by virtue of his gender. It’s not my job to wait on him, to care for him and keep his house. I have made the choice to submit in very particular ways that give me pleasure. This submission has been carefully negotiated on equal footing. I do it because I want to, not because I have to. And I am well aware that at any time, I could decide that I no longer want to continue being submissive and it would end.
Choice is a huge component of submission and dominance. Power is another. BDsM is largely about an exchange of power. It’s about giving someone permission to do particular things to you, to make decisions for you and to make demands of you. It might be temporary or more permanent. But before any play begins, before terms are negotiated, both players are on equal footing. Both partners have the same amount of power at the beginning. When I play with my partner, I allow him to have some of my power for a little while, with the understanding that he will not harm me, and that he will honour my word if I wish to stop. I’m not coming to the table with less power than my partner simply because I’m a woman and he’s a man, and my power isn’t being taken from me because he’s entitled to it. I give up that power temporarily because he has proven over and over that he can be trusted with it. I give up that power because it allows me to partake in something that makes me feel wonderful
Those are the two main reasons that I feel like my submissive desires don’t contradict my feminist values. I can make the choice to participate, to give that power up for a period of time because I want to. I don’t have to do it, I’m not expected to do it, I get to make that choice for myself because it feels right. Throughout the process of negotiation, play and debriefing, I have a voice that’s equal to my partners and I get to speak up and advocate for my own needs and desires. And to me that feels empowered and very feminist.