Katie Roiphe has written a link bait-y Newsweek cover story making an interesting claim: that the pop culture appearance of submissive female sexual fantasies, in shows like Lena Dunham’s “Girls” and pulp fiction like Fifty Shades of Grey, is somehow a backlash against women’s increasing economic power.
I think this is generally wrong. It’s true the advances of feminism mean women today are freer than ever to explore their sexuality in art and in their personal lives, without worrying too much about negating their power at work, in relationships or in the political sphere. In fact, it is a basic contention of sex-positive feminism that asking for what you want in bed is a feminist political act—whether you want to tie your partner up, be spanked by him/her or be tenderly made love to with lots of kissing.
Taboo-breaking sex is culturally prevalent right now not because of macroeconomic trends like the decimation of the male manufacturing sector but because we live in an age in which all sorts of sexual practices are incredibly visible and talked about. In particular, easy access to online pornography allows people, at a younger age than ever before and with more privacy, to explore non-vanilla sex, whether low-key spanking and restraints or much kinkier stuff. Female-authored erotica and sexualized fan-fiction are burgeoning genres online, as well, and e-readers have made it possible for consumers to purchase and read this material with perfect privacy. This is the world from which Fifty Shades of Grey emerged.
But these desires are as old as the human race; in every century and decade, sadomasochistic erotica has broken into the mainstream, from de Sade to Swinburne to Anais Nin to Anne Desclos to Anne Rice. Why assume, as Roiphe seems to, that some authoritative brand of feminism was ever supposed to lead to human beings losing their curiosity about power play during sex, which is, after all, a physical act? And while more women than men may tend toward submission—in part because Western culture fetishizes male strength and female fragility—one certainly can’t generalize. People of all genders harbor the fantasy of, as one sex researcher put it, “the wish to be beyond will, beyond thought”—thus surrendering power to a trusted partner. And there is anecdotal evidence that publicly powerful people of both sexes are especially prone to these fantasies, as a release from the stresses of their day-to-day work lives. Here’s how one professional dominatrix describes it:
I like to find out what a man does for a living. I see a lot of Wall Street types who go for bondage and humiliation. Lawyers, actors and entertainment executives never shut up. I have to gag them right away if I’m to have any peace. True masochists are rare—they’re usually police and ex-military. These men are such show-offs about how much pain they can take. I end up acting the role of a sadistic drill instructor, breaking canes and riding crops on their backs, which gives me a certain confidence in our armed forces.
I will admit that feminism’s forward march contributes to some people’s interest in S&M. Gender roles are more fluid than ever, and there are no longer strict rules about how men and women should act in the realms of dating and romance. There is certainly an appeal to retreating to a sexual space in which roles are much clearer.
Sadomasochism is problematic if one partner is doing it just to please the other and feels hurt by it. But I don’t think truly consensual S&M complicates women’s demands for full equality, or provides evidence of some anti-feminist backlash among the urban educated class that is consuming work like “Girls,” “Secretary” and Fifty Shades of Grey. Because many women now assume a certain level of egalitarianism at work and at home, they feel more comfortable experimenting sexually. Lena Dunham’s poignant feature-length film, “Tiny Furniture,” is articulate on this point. After a particularly degrading sexual encounter, Dunham’s character returns to her mother’s apartment and announces her ambition not to be a restaurant hostess or a masseuse or a makeup artist, but a successful filmmaker. Indeed.