Fifty Shades of a Blockbuster Fantasy: Troubling Reality of BDSM and Women
With the recent release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, heterosexual sadomasochism has once again entered the pop culture stratosphere. With its release comes the visual representation of ‘what women want’ that reifies the dominant discourse of male dominance over women.
Nearly four decades ago, Dworkin (1974) critiqued the mainstream appreciation for the erotic novel of dominance and submission, Histoire d’O (Story of O; Réage, 1954), as she viewed the book as situating men and women “at opposite poles of the universe – the survival of one dependent on the absolute destruction of the other” (p. 63). In the following passage, Dworkin (1976) argues that women need to confront their own masochism, so as not to preserve the systemic male dominance over women (p. 111):
I believe that freedom for women must begin in the repudiation of our own masochism. I believe that we must destroy in ourselves the drive to masochism at its sexual roots. I believe that we must establish our own authenticity, individually and among ourselves—to experience it, to create from it, and also to deprive men of occasions for reifying the lie of manhood over and against us. I believe that ridding ourselves of our own deeply entrenched masochism, which takes so many tortured forms, is the first priority; it is the first deadly blow that we can strike against systematized male dominance. In effect, when we succeed in excising masochism from our own personalities and constitutions, we will be cutting the male life line to power over and against us, to male worth in contradistinction to female degradation, to male identity posited on brutally enforced female negativity—we will be cutting the male life line to manhood itself.
Although Dworkin was attempting to rally women to abstain from sexual practices that maintain the power structures of male dominance, she was also discounting other ontologies of same-sex desires and behaviors, female domination over men, and the intersection of other oppressed identities in sexual encounters; all of which could very well disrupt the status quo of sexual dominance that assumes white heterosexual male domination over white heterosexual women. Nevertheless, the foundation of sexual oppression needs to be brought to the fore when examining the impact of Fifty Shades of Grey and kink culture on women.
One might ask, “What if it is the white heterosexual woman’s choice to enter into a BDSM relationship with a white heterosexual man?”
In an online post, BDSM: Breakdown by the Numbers (Lucas, 2013), 75% of the women in Dutch sample and 69% of the women in the California sample were exclusively or mainly submissive; as opposed to 61% of the men in the California sample and 48% of the men in the Dutch sample who identified as exclusively or mainly dominant. As the numbers suggest, more women than men are identifying themselves as submissives, which challenges assumptions of ‘choice;’ instead, suggesting the subtle dominant discourse of male domination over women. Winnubst (2006) writes,
“The unnerving influence of power surfaces, however, as we realize that this free choice become the exclusive power of the subject position valorized in cultures of phallicized whiteness, the white propertied Christian (straight) male who determines when, how, and which differences matter.” (p. 41).
Therefore, ‘choice’ is defined and dictated by those who are most privileged in society. It is, for that reason, that kink culture can be critiqued for its failure to recognize how the use of the words ‘slave’ and ‘master’ make light of colonized histories of persons of color and how sexual practices can perpetuate the oppression of individuals in the margins of dominant discourse. Through a neutral voice of kink, women and people of color are disavowed of their historical and cultural oppression and thereby sustain the power structures that determine how, when, and which differences actually matter.
“Neutrality thus functions as the conceptual glue of the modern political project of classical liberalism. It allows the model of ownership to take hold as the dominant conception of selfhood: one’s true self resides in a neutral space and from that space one owns one’s power, one’s freedom, and one’s attributes” (p. 42).
The neutral voice in kink culture, therefore, is one of the white male, with same- and/or other-sex desires. Women and others in the margins of the dominant discourse of kink culture are then ignored in this fundamental valuing of neutrality, where differences should not matter. From this neutral stance, one may argue, “Women have a choice to engage in BDSM and they are in complete control of their bodies.” However, in the same way as people of color within the contemporary rhetorics of color-blindness that control discourses about the “desired endpoint of a ‘just’ – and therefore raceless – society” (Winnubst, 2006, p. 43), dominant discourses within kink culture become a gender-blindness rhetoric that perpetuates aversive sexism
Therefore, cultural domination of women through the arts (e.g., books and movies, such as Fifty Shades of Grey), popular culture (e.g., advertisements, music videos, magazine articles), and institutions continue to degrade and distort the image that women have of themselves, as such an image is constantly being reflected in a patriarchal culture, where ‘men’ are still the neutral ‘culture.’ This lack of women’s cultural autonomy, is summarized by Bartky (2008) writing, “The subordination of women, then, because it is so pervasive, a future of my culture, will (if uncontested) appear to be natural – and because it is natural, unalterable” (p.54).
In such a culture, it is therefore, ‘natural’ for women and people of color to be perceived by others in a sexual light. As such, sexual objectification allows objects or parts of a person to represent the whole being. Bartky (2008) argues, “sexual objectification occurs independently of what women want; it is something done to us against our will” (p. 55). In the same vein, Winnubst (2006) purports:
“Female, black, brown, non-Christian, yellow, poor bodies are delimited on the basis of their bodily appearances. They are trapped in and by their bodies; they do not exercise proper authority of ownership over them… This entrapment by their bodily characteristics imposes brutal limitations upon their freedom and their individuality; they are not free to do as they please and, perhaps more damningly, are read as kinds of bodies, not as individuals.” (p. 46)
Men, on the other hand, are seen as unaffected by such delimitation, as explained in the following passage by Winnubst (2006):
“He is neither reduced to his bodily characteristics, nor limited in his freedom or individuality. He owns his body, properly controlling its power in the social world. The white male Christian propertied (straight) body speaks, acts, and desires not on behalf of his sex, race, class, or religion (or sexuality), but exclusively on behalf of himself – the autonomous individual” (pp. 46-47).
So, kink and popular culture need to better recognize that “the decisions about when, how, and which differences matter will remain in the power of the neutral individual, the subject in power – and the one who is free” (Winnubst, 2006, p. 43). Kink can easily perpetuate the dominant discourse of women’s bodies as something to own, possess, and dominate. As such, a call is being made to think critically about our sexual desires, fantasies, and practices, and to understand how they are all situated within a larger discourse of privilege and oppression.
This is not to suggest that women cannot willingly enter BDSM relationships nor is this an argument against BDSM practices. Rather, this contribution is merely urging the readers to think critically about the insidious ways dominant discourse and the neutral gender-blindness rhetoric influences the sexual practices we, as women, engage.
Though six decades have passed since the release of Histoire d’O (Réage, 1954), very little has changed in a society that continues to perpetuate the subtle and not-so-subtle domination of women cloaked in a pretense of love and desire. It is for that reason I encourage all who read this blog to have frequent and open conversations about our fantasies, desires, and sexual practices in relation to others and us as women.
Although I appreciate kink and enjoy the varying expressions of sexual desires that are open to me as a woman, I must also continue to reflect on the meaning that such sexual practices have within dominant discourse. It is for that reason that I encourage all who read this blog to think about the following questions: (a) what is pleasurable for you and what do you desire, (b) how can these desires be practiced, and (c) what meaning do such practices have to you and to those who are in different social locations?
- Written by Brittan L. Davis, M.Ed., PC-CR
Bartky, S. L. (2008). On psychological oppression. In A. Bailey & C. Cuomo (Eds) The feminist philosophy reader (pp. 51-61). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. (Reprinted from “On psychological oppression” from Feminity and domination: Studies in the phenomenology of oppression by S. L. Bartky, 1990, New York, NY: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, Inc.
Dworkin, A. (1974). Woman hating. New York, NY: Plume.
Dworkin, A. (1976). Our blood: Prophecies and discourses on sexual politics. New York, NY: Perigee Books.
Lucas, J. (2013, July 12). BDSM: Breakdown by the numbers. Retrieved from http://www.thedatereport.com/dating/pop-culture/bdsm-a-breakdown-by-the-numbers/
Réage, P. (1954). Histoire d’O. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Winnubst, S. (2006). Queering freedom. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.