There was a documentary on recently in the UK called Obedient Wives, a glimpse into the lives of women who have chosen to submit to their husbands and experienced greater happiness from this change in their behaviour. I was pretty cynical when I read the brief, and the review that warned against watching it if one happened to suffer from blood pressure problems. Days before the program even aired, we were arguing about the concept of gendered supremacies on a UK BDSM forum, and it became clear that a belief that one gender is inherently more dominant than the other, or should be, made a few of us quite uncomfortable - unsurprisingly, all the 'discomforted' women identify as feminist. Interestingly, I've seen far more male sub profiles seeking a 'female supremacy' model for relationships, an unshatterable belief that women are inherently superior to men, than I’ve seen it the other way around.
Outside the BDSM community, but often closely connected are the Goreans, whose relationships tend towards Master/slave. The Gor subculture is alive and well and is a popular fantasy even for liberal women in the BDSM community, even though we may still ridicule the texts themselves and to a smaller degree, the idea that people would choose to live their lives by the dodgy philosophies of a series of obviously misogynist fantasy novels. I have rarely come across real misogyny on the fetish scene. Sexism, yes. Bigtime. From both sides. But misogyny? No. But I
do wonder whether a belief in gender supremacy, whether it is a genuine belief or a fantasy scenario, encourages thisbehaviour in Goreans, and therefore affects the way male Goreans address and treat women outside Gor who haven't chosen to live a Gorean lifestyle. T (my boyfriend and, yes, dominant) has been flogging his BDSM wares on Second Life, and stumbled across a flourishing Gorean community. As his alterego is female on the site, he experienced some amazing woman-hating comments and was quite shocked by the way he was treated because of his SL gender.
How do we, as feminists, respond to these lifestyles? If a woman's made an informed choice about the way she wants to live her life, how can we disagree with that choice? Indeed, Laura Doyle, author of The Surrendered Wife, is apparently a self-confessed feminist, and speaks of wanting to offer women as many choices as possible. And it was this revelation that perhaps helped me understand why feminist anti-BDSMers tend to misunderstand hetero D/s, or forbid feminist subs, particularly, usage of their hallowed word. To them, there is no differentiation between the Surrendered Wife and the BDSM sub. As long as there is a hierarchical relationship structure, it’s all much the same thing. Yet at the same time, I feel the problem with a lot of these belief systems is that they are so strong and rigid to live by that it is easy to impose them upon people who do not choose to abide by, for example, Gorean rules. I keep a profile on a crap BDSM personals site purely for the comedy messages sent out. I'm quite fascinated by the way men trawl women online, and find it has a tendency to make some ‘dominant’ men act with all this big bravado, approaching women in ways I’m pretty damn certain they wouldn’t down their local pub. Oh, and there’s usually a big veiny cock shot attached. Seductive. Sometimes a daily dose of sexism is reassuring. I just like to check that it's alive and well from time to time, you see, and that feminism is still worth my time. Yesterday I got a message from some uber-dom who wanted someone he could "humiliate, degrade and objectify to fulfill herself as a woman". Because that's what women, to his mind, are for. To be humiliated, degraded and objectified. The thing is, no matter how angry this makes me, no matter how violated I feel by this idea, I can imagine people defending this in the BDSM community; that many women DO want this, many women DO fantasise about this. And of course they're right. And perhaps for that man, even for Goreans, the whole idea of women as a gender as subordinate, and involving punishment and force to subordinate them is more of a fantasy than I imagine. Though many Goreans claim to live their entire lives by the 'philosophies' of John Norman, is the whole thing just a merry bit of escapism? For both genders? As long as a female slave has at some point consented to the relationship, there are no more questions to be asked as to her treatment and the way she must modify her behaviour so as to be consistent with Gor.
On Gorean Whispers, I found the following passage written by what is known as a free woman. I
understand that a slave conducts herself differently to a free woman, but don't see many fundamental differences:
One of the greatest things I have struggled with, is showing certain men respect. It has taken me a long time to even begin to master that. I see some men as weak, and struggle to show them the respect entitled to them by virtue of their sex. Yet, I try hard to give them the general courtesies expected from a Gorean Free Woman.
This includes my daughters school principal. He is an arrogant man, who is often cruel in his dealings with the children. As a mother, and a woman, it is hard for me to show this man respect. I have learnt however that respect is different for each given individual. I can respect that he has accomplished a lot in his career, achieving his placing in the school as Principal.
Okay, so here is my problem with gendered supremacy. To put men, in general, above women here seems to come at the expense of the daughter who I assume is not yet a fully fledged Gorean, although the writer takes pleasure in her daughter’s budding femininity and desire to serve. I do not understand why she would bother to seek out good points in men who are cruel to children in order to 'respect' the fact that they happen to have the same genitalia as her partner/father/John Norman. In the Obedient Wives documentary, I think the moment that really did creep me out was the scene where the mother was teaching her toddler daughter to be a surrendered wife.
The other things that scares me about a number of these concepts – the Surrendered Wife, Gor, even the bizarre Christian Domesic Discipline - regarding sex, there is one quite simple message: no means yes. Or rather, even if a woman does not want sex, she will say yes. Is this the final compromise? Is this a backlash against the 1991 law in the UK (rejected by the Lords more than once) to make rape within marriage illegal and prosecutable? Is it rape? I've still heard similar things from within the BDSM community on the issue of 'consensual non-consent': consenting to a scene in which there is no safe word. You trust your partner to the extent that you don't need one. But can a female dominant carry out a similar scenario with a male sub if she's planning to penetrate him? Can no mean yes in the same way? Do women actually get away with not seeking consent more? T’s best friend, who’s quite submissive around women and is certainly slightly terrified of me was pretty much coerced and harassed into sex when very drunk and stoned. And it happened in our living room. I was absolutely horrified.
There is also the issue of beating one’s wife as part of a marriage. Obviously, many subs are masochists. I’m a masochist. I really love the sensation of pain. I get bored in vanilla relationships if I’m not going to get pain alongside sexual pleasure. It’s just a more intensely erotic sexual experience for me that way, being pushed and pulled one way, then the other, veering towards pleasure, into pain, through pain to a strange alchemic pleasure, and then back down to earth. Yet, in marriages where male supremacy counts, religious marriages, particularly, do women gain pleasure from this experience? More importantly, do their husbands? Where does religious law come into this? In the Qu’ran there is much discussion over what is meant by the permission given to hit one’s wife after admonishment, and banishment to a separate bedroom, if she still does not obey or entirely comply with her husband. Christian Domestic Discipline, on the other hand, offers a safe and consensual model of DD on the front page, but I can’t find the word ‘consent’ anywhere else on the site. But what happens if these wives enjoy being spanked as punishment? Does the relationship then slide into the dirty, immoral world of BDSM? It’s confusing.
The truth is, there are so many different models of D/s, it is impossible to stereotype and say ‘well, D/s ISN’T like that philosophy' and remove ourselves from it. Because female subs sometimes have certain things in common with Surrendered Wives and Gorean slaves and free women. The difference is, at least for me, I enjoy every aspect of a BDSM sexual relationship, and we have taken tiny bits of D/s lifestyle philosophy and made it our own. We are queering D/s our way, in a way that feels right and is productive for both of us. But nowhere in this, nowhere in our dominance and submission, does gender really matter. Apart from the fact that pairings, triads, whatever, will often have different genitalia, I’m quite confused by the idea of polarising gender in BDSM. I’m not sure quite what it might add to a relationship. What does it bring to either party? What does it achieve?
So many questions.