There are a lot of things to find disturbing about GQ’s Rihanna profile, featured in its December “Men of the Year Issue”—like how naked she is or how she appears to have used the interview to stage another meeting with Chris Brown, further evidence that the two are back together and juicing the controversy of their reunion three years after Brown assaulted her.
But I admit I’m irritated about something else, too. In the words of writer Jay Bulger:
I ask what turns her on, because I know she’ll answer. “I like to feel like a woman,” she says. “I have to be in control in every other aspect of my life, so I feel like in a relationship, like I wanted to be able to take a step back and have somebody else take the lead.” Do you ever switch things up? I ask. “I could absolutely be dominant,” she answers. “But, in general, I’d rather … How do I say this in like a … non-X-rated version?” Right. Lastly, any boundaries I should know about? “Love makes you go places you probably wouldn’t ever go, had it not been for love. But I think everybody still has their limits.”
In the piece, this is the end of a clearly delineated section. And the next describes the night out that ends with Rihanna and Brown’s rendezvous at a club. The connection is meant to be clear: Rihanna’s preference for submission is the reason she’s going back to Brown, going “places you probably wouldn’t ever go, had it not been for love.”
But submission doesn’t have to be about seeking out abuse, be it physical or emotional. Dominance and submission are tools partners can use to negotiate what they want out of a sexual experience or a relationship. That power dynamic still allows for all involved to be safe. Similarly, women who return to partners who abused them aren’t necessarily involved in dominant and submissive sexual relationships.
Rihanna herself acknowledged the difference in her 2011 single “S&M,” explaining “Sticks and stones may break my bones/ But chains and whips excite me.” Still, even the video for that song blurred any understanding of what BDSM actually is: She used sexual power dynamics as a metaphor for her relationship with the paparazzi, dressing up gossip blogger Perez Hilton in a dog leash and ball-gagging a press gaggle:
There’s nothing wrong with America’s newfound and Fifty Shades-stoked interest in BDSM, particularly if it gets people thinking and talking about what they actually want out of their relationships and sex lives. But if this is to be an extended exploration, it would be nice if we could get straight the difference between dominance and submission and abuse. And it would be great for Rihanna and all her fans if the press covering her could separate out what it means to enjoy submission and what it means that a famous young woman is using her relationship with a man who beat her to seem edgy.