The XX Factor

Is Submissive Sex Anti-Feminist?

Is masochism really incompatible with feminism?

Katie Roiphe, a cultural critic and regular Slate columnist, has the cover of Newsweek today with a provocative piece analyzing the appeal of the soft-core erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, and, more broadly, working women’s apparent interest in submissive sex. Roiphe suggests that the sudden popularity of the book might arise from an unexpected source; namely, the increasing equality that women are finally gaining in their economic and professional lives:

“It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace, when they make up almost 60 percent of college students, when they are close to surpassing men as breadwinners, with four in 10 working women now outearning their husbands, when the majority of women under 30 are having and supporting children on their own, a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before.”

With great power in one sphere comes the titillating urge to abdicate in another, according to Roiphe, and I have no particular beef with that hypothesis as long as we don’t take it as a truth-claim. What does strike me as troublesome, though, is the second central point of Roiphe’s piece, in which she proclaims that feminism, as a set of political and ethical principles, has proven incapable of colonizing the female erotic imagination. Roiphe appears to take a certain glee in this failure, in the preservation of a wilder sexual backwoods teeming with predators and prey, while many of the feminists she cites bemoan it.

But I wonder if this debate about the moral nature of sadomasochism actually misses the point.

Coming from a sexual culture in which “are you a top or bottom” (read: aggressive or passive) still constitutes a normal, if inelegant, question on a first date, I’ve long believed that all sex—even the most vanilla, unadorned flavors—involve some amount of power play. Even the “sweet, sensitive, respectful boyfriend” from the HBO show Girls that Roiphe dismisses is exercising a kind of manipulative control in seeking to cater to his girlfriend’s every micro-feeling.

Indeed, masochists (like the boyfriend) are in reality far more domineering in their sexual machinations than their sadistic partners—the “subs” are just more nuanced about it. In the 1870 novel Venus in Furs, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose surname would give rise to the term) describes a relationship in which a man, Severin, begs and cajoles and eventually convinces a woman, Wanda von Dunajew, to be his dominatrix. While she wields the crop, it is surely he who is the puppet-master.

Roiphe only hints at this dynamic when she writes that one can “experience [submissiveness] without claiming responsibility, without committing to actually wanting it,” but she sees this as a cop-out, a hypocritical balm for our puritanical souls. To the contrary, the power to orchestrate the giving up of power is the ultimate display of mastery. All the “rape fantasies” that Roiphe describes, the grand death-drive urge “toward the extinction of one’s consciousness,” as she quotes of Sontag—these do not articulate the desire to abandon control; rather, they betray the demand to wield it absolutely.

True, feminist politics may not enter into the mind explicitly during the throes of fantasy or love-making; but the fact that women may be increasingly interested in reading about, and perhaps partaking in, sex that deals openly with power relationships does not represent a retreat from equality. In fact, it may count as evidence that we’ve edged closer to it than we thought.