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Category: Feminism, Media Monitoring

Katie Roiphe’s BDSM Fantasy: Wrong on Female Empowerment and Wrong on Kink

| April 18, 2012

It has to be asked: is it possible Katie Roiphe has never had a conversation with a real live kinky person? For those of us who have, the question unavoidably presents itself in the first paragraph of Roiphe’s most recent attempt to single-handedly disprove feminism, when she professes amazement at the idea of a man who is both considerate and sexually dominant, and then again more urgently halfway through, when she claims that “one of the central aspects of sexual submission” is that “you can experience it without claiming responsibility, without committing to actually wanting it.” There are as many ways to do kink as a crowded planet full of imaginative sexual beings can conjure—but Roiphe’s idea of submission sounds like nothing so much as doing it wrong.

In this week’s “Newsweek,” Roiphe assembles evidence consisting of one book trilogy, one television show, and one movie to make the case that over the last year, “huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission,” and that this overwhelming cultural juggernaut is happening because of how very tiresome it is for the modern working woman to be empowered. “Women are less dependent or subjugated than before,” she writes, and so it must be that they all miss professional and economic marginalization so much that they are urgently compelled to recapture the carefree good old bad old days in the bedroom.

But, while sexual submission remains controversial in many feminist circles, Roiphe’s idea that the practice is necessarily synonymous with an abandonment of responsibility is, itself, a fantasy. Practitioners of BDSM (the rather unsexy umbrella term for bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism) will often use the catchphrase “safe, sane, and consensual” as a kind of best-practices shorthand, an honor code of kink. The “consensual” part of the credo requires an active engagement in negotiation and mutual agreement that is the precise opposite of the defeated surrender of agency that Roiphe insists is the end result of female empowerment.

Andrea Plaid, Associate Editor for award-winning blog Racialicious and a Progressive Women’s Voices alum, disagrees with Roiphe. Via email, Plaid writes, “Frankly, she's wrong about submission: what the sub entrusts to a dom/me is control, not responsibility. Both partners negotiate that, which means both take responsibility for the session and/or relationship. That's why there are things like ‘safe words’”—code phrases mutually agreed upon in advance as the emergency brake in a BDSM exchange. An email from Nancy Schwartzman, another PWV alum and Executive Director of The Line Campaign, a non-profit using media and action to fight sexual violence, echoes Plaid’s disagreement: “The central tenet of a D/s relationship is to negotiate terms of play, which are conversations based on the sober, empowered consent of both parties. A sub takes responsibility for his/her desires by clearly articulating those desires and the terms that they set in advance.”

Women who participate in extensive negotiations with partners in order to establish their sexual boundaries and lay out the terms of an encounter are nowhere to be seen in Roiphe’s thinly-sourced thesis of sexual submission as a laying down of the wearying burden of female agency. (For that matter, neither are male submissives, although surely there is some way that Roiphe could have blamed them on feminism too with just a little bit more effort.) In fact, Roiphe’s prime examples of the alleged current vogue for submission are so divorced from their own needs and wants that their acquiescence to their partners’ sexual dominance bear less resemblance to sexual submission and more to what Jaclyn Friedman, PWV alum and the author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, calls “’it just happened’ sex”—sex without the active and participatory consent that should be at the heart of all sexual relationships, kinky or “vanilla.”

Says Friedman via Skype, “It is absolutely true that some women engage in sexual activity without wanting to take ownership over our own desires. But the reason for that isn’t that agency is a bummer. The reason for that is that we live in a culture that punishes women who own their sexual agency.” (Friedman also wrote a column for the Guardian this week, elaborating upon that theme in response to the Roiphe piece.) Friedman contrasts that slut-shamed abnegation of desire with the negotiated and boundaried BDSM ideal: “I don't want to romanticize BDSM. There are plenty of people practicing it who aren't in touch with their own sexual agency, and there are plenty of people engaging it who violate their partners in terrible ways. But that's because that's true of ALL sex. But, practiced responsibly? BDSM provides all of us some really useful frameworks and language to explore our own agency and negotiate healthy consent with partners. Regardless of what power positions we like to take.”

Roiphe writes, “the incandescent fantasy of being dominated or overcome by a man shows no sign of vanishing with equal pay for equal work.” How would she, or anyone, know? (But what a way to troll the feminist internet the week of Equal Pay Day!) And even if that eventually proves true, why would anyone expect otherwise? The subjects of BDSM and fair pay are tied together only by the thinnest threads of Roiphe’s perpetual anti-feminist crusade. No matter how many fundamental misunderstandings of non-premium-cable, non-fanfic kink that Roiphe deploys in order to suggest that feminism is obsolete, she proves herself wrong even in the attempt. It’s plain that plenty of work still remains for the movement when the most compelling thing Newsweek can come up with to print about working women is their purported desire to hand over their reins of their sexuality to men, so that they needn’t be bothered owning it or operating it themselves.

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