There has been a lot of guff surrounding ascended Twilight fanfic Fifty Shades of Grey. For those of you living under rocks, this work of “literature” tells the story of
Bella Swan Ana Steele, an ordinary high school girl college graduate, who meets the mysterious, brooding vampire businessman Edward Cullen Christian Grey and her world changes forever her world changes forever. The only thing that sets it apart from Twilight is the sex scenes, which are, apparently, terribly-written. Oh, and there’s BDSM. Lots and lots of BDSM. The sex in question, apparently, consists entirely of a dominant Christian and a submissive Ana, as apparently Ana isn’t actually all that into the kinky bits, and just goes along with it because she loves Christian.
I use the word “apparently” a lot here because I absolutely flat-out refuse to read the fucking thing.
Anyway, the entire premise sounds problematic as fuck, and not at all in keeping with the spirit of BDSM.
Enter Kate Roiphe, an alleged academic who once wrote a book about how feminism is spreading a fear of female sexuality, based on an experience she had in 1986. Roiphe has decided to lay out an argument suggesting that women are turned on by submitting to a man because we have too much free will these days and that’s “a burden”. Oh, and that feminists (presumably this same bunch of sex-catastrophisers from 1986, who definitely existed and are definitely the same as all feminists) are against the idea of submission and kink.
For an academic, Roiphe seems strangely coy about referencing any of the “facts” and “studies” which back up her own argument. Here’s a particularly egregious example:
Over the years researchers and psychologists have theorized that women harbor elaborate fantasies about sexual submission because they feel guilty or skittish about claiming responsibility for their own desires : they are more comfortable being wanted than wanting, in other words. But more recent studies  show that the women who fantasize about being forced to have sex are actually less prone to guilt than those who don’t. In any event, that theory seems too simple or at least too 19th-century an answer for the modern woman: it is not as much guilt over sex but rather something more basically liberating about being overcome or overpowered.
Perhaps this plethora of unreferenced evidence really does back up her argument, but somehow I doubt it, as Roiphe’s theory seems distinctly unparsimonious.
See, there’s a much easier explanation for the rise in mainstream depictions of female submission in BDSM, and the number of women who admit to entertaining submissive fantasies and/or practice; an explanation that can be summed up in a single word: socialisation.
Let us remember that we inhabit a world wherein the fight for women’s sexual agency is only just beginning. While women are starting to view themselves–and be viewed–as active participants in sex rather than passive to the whims of a man. Heterosexism and patriarchy intersect to provide this set of conditions, and while it is subsiding, we’ve some way to go in overturning this culture. Everyone is socialised in this climate and internalises such beliefs to some extent or another. It is hardly surprising, then, that the first kink to “go mainstream” is one which fits most comfortably with existing attitudes: submissive woman, dominant man (it is worth noting that this set of attitudes equally permeates the kink scene: because I am a woman, I am often automatically assumed to be a sub by men).
So women, when asked about their fantasies–a deeply personal question which is charged with all sorts of social expectations–are far more likely to give the more “socially acceptable” answer. And the mainstream media is bound to crawl all over the things that are a little bit steamy, but close enough to “normal” to comprehend easily.
This is not to say, of course, that these women aren’t really into submission: most probably are, unlike the poor main character in Fifty Shades Of Arse-dripping Fuck-bollocks. What is missing, though, is the acknowledgement of the rainbow of sexuality, of kinks and quirks which are less congruent with heterosexist patriarchy. We have a hell of a long way to go before we get to this point: right now, female submission to men can be a choice, freely chosen, but the rest of the boundless possibilities are less easy to access, experience and even know of their existence. I have experienced precisely this shift myself. I started out subbing to men as it was the only option available. Gradually, with experience and meeting the right people, I evolved and discovered all sorts of delightfully sinful pleasures. This doesn’t dampen my enjoyment of occasionally subbing to men.
Ultimately, the discussion around female submission should not be whether it’s right or wrong: it’s sex, and the only time sex can be wrong is with a lack of enthusiastic consent. Instead, we ought to acknowledge the context and work to build an environment wherein sexual liberation and sexual choice–glorious, abundant choice–is genuinely, completely available.