The latest round of my Yelling on Twitter revolved around a recent rabble.ca article by Megan Murphy. In it, Murphy makes some pretty wild assumptions about BDSM while discussing the case of an RCMP officer who was found to have posted pictures on Fetlife.com. It’s unnerving that in this analysis, Murphy completely ignores the sexual agency of women.
The recent push of a ‘sex-positive’ ideology which has permeated our discussions of sex and sexuality in North America says that anything goes so long as it happens in the privacy of our bedrooms and is ‘consensual’.
Murphy, as we will learn, disapproves, with some seriously second-wave ideas about men and sex. I get where Murphy is coming from. I’m a bit more 70s radical than a lot of my feminist friends. For example, I’m generally pro-sex-worker, but not pro-sex-work (due to its gendered nature, and the very real dangers women in the industry face). But feminists have worked a long time to have the world recognize that women have sexual desire. In the name of feminism, Murphy would rather erase all that to make a point.
We’re only permitted to say ‘he should have kept it hidden from public view’ because to say anything else defies the modern ethos, post-sexual revolution, that says: Sex is always good. Erections are always good. If it turns you on, so be it.
For Murphy, for the purposes of this article, it’s the erection that dictates sex. Again, this is something feminists have been fighting for a long time, trying to erase the idea that PIV sex is the only sex that counts.
Do we really believe that any man who gets off on degrading women in his ‘private life’ somehow doesn’t bring those views into any other arena? Is his fantasy of abuse and domination erased the minute he shuts off his laptop or leaves the brothel?
A couple issues here. The first is that, yes, some men do have fantasies that aren’t related to anything outside a sexual context. But so do many woman. Nancy Friday’s first book, My Secret Garden (1973), gave voice to — among many other topics — women’s rape fantasies. If we are to believe them, that their fantasy does not equal the desire to actually be raped, how can we think that men are so different, unable to make the distinction?
Based on the upset and the level of disgust coming from the public with regard to Brown’s behaviour, the answer is ‘no.’ If we truly believed that what happens behind closed doors has no real social impact, I doubt that people would be so upset.
I agree with Murphy here, though for different reasons. Yes, the popular conception of BDSM is upsetting for most people (Murphy’s “we”). They don’t engage in it, and they possibly don’t understand it. It can be scary to have to confront something so totally alien to your current existence. Conflating sex with violence (to be simplistic about it) isn’t for everyone. Beliefs, however, can sometimes have very little to do with fact. Sure, there are probably some awful people into BDSM, but there are awful people into all sorts of things. I’m sure there are awful celibates. In my opinion, BDSM is no more a misogynist practice than any heterosexual sexual encounter.** (There’s also a total erasure of gay and lesbian BDSM practice here.) Murphy not only ignores the desire of any woman that would enter into a submissive relationship, but the proportion of women who are dominants and men who are submissives. The only mention of female dominants is of Terri-Jean Bedford, who is not at any time called a dominatrix (ie her chosen professional identity is never mentioned). Murphy devotes almost a whole paragraph to pathologizing her interest in bondage, recounting Bedford’s abuse as a child. How very 50 Shades, Ms. Murphy.
On her Twitter page, Murphy has a real laugh about the reaction of those involved in BDSM, and says she doesn’t “care about your SECRETNAUGHTYOHSOBADANDWRONGANDREBELLIOUSKINKY sex life.” Again, Murphy discounts women’s sexual experience and preference as important or real (the mockery factor is off the charts here). The loudest negative reactions to the rabble article were by those that have — at the least — some interest in BDSM. Recounting experience, and speaking up as normal functioning members of society, is a necessary part of erasing stereotypes and misconceptions. That Murphy doesn’t want to hear from individual women is disheartening. Dehumanizing experience into overarching theory and sociology is, I think, inherently anti-feminist. Do we not want to get away from the idea that women are one thing, and one thing only?
Murphy is correct when she tweets that BDSM isn’t free from misogyny. Our world is not free from misogyny. The inference that it’s all about misogyny is the problem. There are a lot of things to think about, around sex and misogyny, and I think it’s even possible that BDSM practices would lose something in an egalitarian world (and if I could only have one or the other, I will definitely take equality). However, “Private fantasy, public reality” refuses the possible avenues of conversation with its Murphy Knows Best attitude.
In a funny coincidence, I was reading Venus in Furs the day this all happened. In it, the submissive is male. (The masochist “M” in S&M comes from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the author.) I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to this book. A friend mentioned the closing paragraph to me a couple weeks ago, and while she quoted it pretty much verbatim, it’s still a wonderful surprise to find the following at the end of a 19th century, male-authored work:
The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.
And this tied in so perfectly with the Firestone I had just finished:
A man must idealise one woman over the rest in order to justify his descent to a lower caste. Women have no such reason to idealise men—in fact, when one’s life depends on one’s ability to “psych” men out, such idealization may actually be dangerous—though a fear of male power in general may carry over into relationships with individual men, appearing to be the same phenomenon. But though women know to be inauthentic this male “falling in love,” all women, in one way or another, require proof of it from men before they can allow themselves to love (genuinely, in their case) in return. For this idealization process acts to artificially equalize the two parties.Love requires a mutual vulnerability that is impossible to achieve in an unequal power situation. Thus “falling in love” is nor more than the process of alteration of male vision—through idealization, mystification, glorification–that renders void the woman’s class inferiority.
–The Dialectic of Sex
Severin, the male submissive, understands (as Masoch did) how falling in love is not free from the machinations of power. He goes beyond lowering himself in caste to love his woman as an equal, but finishes the job by giving her total power over him, signing his rights away to her, and begging for physical punishment. Wanda, for her part, knows about the “psych out” and the closer she and Severin get, the worse she treats him. This is foreshadowed early on:
Don’t you know me by now? Yes I am cruel — since you take so much pleasure in that word — and am I not entitled to be cruel? Man desires, woman is desired. That is women’s entire but decisive advantage. Nature has put man at woman’s mercy through his passion and woman is misguided if she fails to make him her subject, her slave, no, her toy, and ultimately fails to laugh and betray him.
So how is Wanda able to be on top at all, given the constraints of the unequal power dynamic in the world? Firestone notes that “[i]n addition, the continued economic dependence of women makes a situation of healthy love between equals impossible.” Masoch has a way around this, and gives Wanda has all the power a woman could possibly have at the time: she is young, beautiful, and a very wealthy widow. The conditions under which she would need to chase Severin or need to keep him around are null. Masoch is aware that Wanda could never be an agent of her own destiny without these gifts.
Does BDSM only exist in a society in which the sexes are unequal? Since we’ve never lived outside of that society, there’s no real way to tell. As I’ve said, it’s very possible that power games lose something when there’s no real power dynamic to re-enact or fight against. I think it’s very possible that male dominants are acting on urges that a patriarchal society says they should have, but their more progressive (and I’d venture to say true) nature says aren’t acceptable. It’s not at all original to think that the taboo is what makes it exciting for both parties. Further, I contend that most of them men who hit a woman consensually would never do it outside a sexual context; the taboo nature would be lost otherwise. (Just as rape is not about sex, neither is domestic violence.) If a woman would like to act out those desires with him, or if either of them would like to flip the script,† in a consensual way, then yes, let them. So if, in fact, you really don’t care about their SECRETNAUGHTY-OHSOBADANDWRONGANDREBELLIOUSKINKY sex lives, maybe stay the hell out of it?
Update: Megan Murphy responds. You know, I think part of my problem is that she talks to other feminists, those of us ostensibly on the same side, like we were little children or MRAs. “I don’t give a shit about your leather fetish.” “I don’t care how much super awesome empowering fun stripping on stage for an audience is for you.” That’s her schtick, though. It’s fine. And there’s a lot to like in her response, things I’m definitely on board with, like which of our “choices” (her examples include wearing makeup) are really capitulation to a patriarchal standard. I’m even down with the idea that porn, pole-dancing, and yes, BDSM are not particularly feminist (and most people I know would disagree with me here). As I’ve said before, I don’t watch porn for the feminism. So if Murphy didn’t talk to me like I was a particularly exasperating 12-year-old we might meet up ideologically somewhere. Though she probably wouldn’t give a shit.
*Bitch Magazine is doing a series with both sides of the issue here
**There are feminists that would argue this very thing!
†And this isn’t even going into the many men and women who “switch” and can take on either role, for whichever reason is appropriate for them.