Lili Loofbourow has been writing good stuff over at The Week. She takes on the issue of female subs undermining everything feminism stands for and tries to explain their perspective.
One possibility is that Fifty Shades captures aspects of the secret compromises many women make that softer romances don’t. The fact is, people lie about sex all the time: not always on purpose, and not always for themselves. Many say, for example, that they wanted to give what was taken from them. Why? Because it produces an acceptable story of the self and the relationship. To have had something done to you (like sex, or abuse) without your wanting it? This, in our culture, makes you a victim. It makes your partner a monster. Easier to say you wanted it and convince yourself it’s true.
Now imagine doing this and liking it. That’s Fifty Shades of Grey.
Yes, it’s an act of bad faith.
The reasoning in that paragraph is only compelling if “being acceptable” is more important than the truth. Those are the values in our society. If your partner is a monster, pretending to like it will only encourage them. Being a victim is The Worst Thing. Nothing is more stigmatized than having a legitimate grievance. You have to internalize fucked up values for this kind of inner compromise to make sense.
But it’s hot silliness, with oodles of plot compared to most porn. And its appeal actually is much more complicated than the summary suggests.
Take Christian: He isn’t just gorgeous and rich, he’s also well-groomed and well-dressed. In a culture that’s decided a) that women aren’t worth turning on visually and b) that men prove their heterosexuality by not caring about how they look, that’s pretty novel.
Then there’s the fact that he plans. He plans erotic scenes and fancy dates and takes care of all the details and logistics. The viral success of this GQ article advising men that the best Valentine’s Day gift is to “make a plan” suggests this might be appealing to women who are simply exhausted of doing all the planning.
Someone can wear frumpy clothes and still be hot. All the symbolism surrounding clothes and outfits and dress-up is lost on me. I guess I understand it intellectually, but I never did Halloween or anything. If it was up to me, everyone could dress to the same low standards as me.
About planning: passivity in all forms is a nice relief from the existential burden of making decisions. The pleasure of submission is partly the hatred of freedom. It’s great when someone figures out the plans, but I don’t think women’s expectations of men Taking the Lead are always coming from a healthy place.
The pain side is more complex: One of the more curious features of sexual pain is how lonely it is. There’s a very particular sadness to watching a partner (especially one you love, like a husband, who ostensibly cares about you) take pleasure in your body while you’re in agony. Particularly when he knows you’re in pain and continues anyway. Even if you’ve consented.
Fifty Shades offers an appealing alternative: If pain is going to be an aspect of your sexual experience anyway, here’s someone who a) perfectly reads your body’s pain and pleasure signals b) understands exactly how physical sensations connect to emotion and c) knows how to translate pain into pleasure. A lot of people might give away a lot of control to feel that understood — to have their pain witnessed, made meaningful, and incorporated into the pleasure they’ve been told they should be feeling.
And this is women having a slave mentality and giving up.
The events described in the first paragraph ARE NOT OKAY. It’s also sort of fucked up not to speak up, so the guy can pick up on the fact that something’s wrong and then you lie about it. It’s a choice to lay a kind of guilt trip instead of just finding another way of getting off.
If women believed that someone taking sexual pleasure in their pain was UNACCEPTABLE instead of fantasizing that it’s fun, we’d be getting somewhere.
LOL @ “pleasure they’ve been told they should be feeling.” Zizek and the perverse super-ego.
The way to incorporate pain into pleasure is for one person to take the risk of opening up about it while the other person gives the gift of accepting it. This strengthens the bond between the two of you, which intensifies orgasm. I thought this was obvious and what everybody wanted?
If it is indeed true that married women are Fifty Shades’ primary consumers, this might partly explain why: Consent is a thorny problem in marriage, and the trilogy — the first book especially — is erotically obsessed with contract theory around that very thing. Newcomers to this story might be surprised to learn that the first book is structured around the strikingly legalistic question of whether or not Ana will sign Christian’s BDSM contract. The joke is that she never does; she holds out for the “hearts and flowers” of marriage. The subtext is that the BDSM contract and the marriage contract share a lot more than anyone quite likes to admit.
Alright but can’t they just read Andrea Dworkin instead?
The problem with American culture is that we retreat into some bullshit Hollywood fantasy instead of dealing with something head-on. It’s the honest-to-Jesus apocalypse, so we watch TV shows about zombies. Why can’t we just address the role of economic coercion in marriage head on, and analyze pay disparities as a means of ensuring a supply of prostitutes?
But the terms are actually neither as transgressive nor as alien as they sound, particularly if you live in a culture steeped in Christian marriage traditions.
“The Dominant accepts the Submissive as his, to own, control, dominate, and discipline during the Term,” Christian’s BDSM contract states. “A woman must learn in quietness and full submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; she is to remain quiet,” the Bible reads.
“The Dominant may use the Submissive’s body at any time during the Allotted Times or any agreed additional times in any manner he deems fit, sexually or otherwise,” says Christian’s contract. “Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands,” wrote Paul, adding that the church’s submission to Christ models how “wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
“The Submissive shall serve the Dominant in any way the Dominant sees fit and shall endeavor to please the Dominant at all times to the best of her ability,” says Christian’s contract. “She who is married cares about the things of the world — how she may please her husband,” says the Bible.
“The Dominant may discipline the Submissive as necessary to ensure the Submissive fully appreciates her role of subservience to the Dominant and to discourage unacceptable conduct,” Christian’s contract states. “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth,” says God to Eve. “In pain you shall bring forth children; yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
Fifty Shades makes this parallel explicit: At one point, staring at the word “obey” in the contract, Ana realizes it also shows up in the bride’s traditional vow to “love, honor, and obey,” and expunges that word from their vows when she and Christian marry.
An extremely important point likely under-appreciated by a lot of left-ish people.
In The Sexual Contract, political theorist Carole Pateman defines a contract as “an agreement between two equal parties who negotiate until they arrive at terms that are to their mutual advantage. If marriage were a proper contract, women would have to be brought into civil life on exactly the same footing as their husbands.” Historically, of course, they weren’t. Pateman points out this didn’t stop marriage “contracts” from happening anyway, or being called contracts, even when they were merely ceremonies: Brides were provisionally given just enough legal standing to consent to an arrangement that would once again subordinate them.
If you got married in the progressive era, you’re perfectly conversant in the strange contortions we resort to when trying to reconcile contemporary expectations of equality in marriage with the hierarchical premise of the ancient institution. Take the question of the name change. Marriage is when two people become one, but maybe a little more him than her, and of course we all understand this is just a pretty fiction, but yes, you probably should actually change your name. It’s just symbolic. Well, and literal. But you keep your job and your identity! (Except for your name.) Etc.
When I was married, my ex didn’t change her name. People are too fixated on external customs and aren’t worried about good foundations for long-term partnerships. She’s worried about what uptight busybodies are going to say about it if she doesn’t change her name. Who cares? Why is this such a big deal?
I’m not interested in pronouncing on the naming question; what I’m trying to describe is a tortured space in which some women end up lying about their own desires in order to sanitize a story that would otherwise look oppressive or even abusive. You must say you want it in order not to be judged for accepting it.
This is not peculiar to women, by the way. It’s a form of social desirability bias, a tendency by which people, rather than answer questions honestly, give the response they think looks best. There are two components to this tendency: One is impression management (you want people to think well of you). But the other, more pernicious one is self-deception: This is the story that you need to be true in order to hang onto your sense of yourself. Only an idiot would consent to be oppressed, therefore I must not be. Ana reasons that she wants to make Christian happy, and Christian wants her to change her name at work. Therefore, by a kind of transitive property that finesses her own desires on the matter, she must be fine with changing her name at work.
These mental contortions will be familiar to many women who have had to convince themselves they want what’s already happening in order to obscure a coercive dynamic. In her article The Difference in Women’s Hedonic Lives: A Phenomenological Critique of Feminist Legal Theory, legal scholar Robin West calls this a transformation from the kind of “liberal self” we imagine when we talk about contract theory — the kind we expect to selfishly advocate for her own best interest — to what West calls the “giving self,” a person who remains psychically and physically intact by giving to others what they want and might otherwise take.
Yes, and it’s painful to watch women resolve their cognitive dissonance in this self-defeating way instead of by changing the situation.
West traces the root cause of this change partly to a woman’s ambient fear of being abused or raped, and partly to her fear of the self-annihilation that would result if she directly confronted more intimate forms of coercion, especially in contexts that are supposed to be loving. What if your husband has sex with you when you don’t want to? Call it “obligation sex” and make it something you’ve chosen to give. This is slippery terrain, especially in the context of marriage, an arrangement you entered into willingly. To protect the narrative of the marriage you chose, you pre-emptively change your entire sense of yourself.
If this is true (it certainly rings true to me), it might have serious consequences for our discussions about consent. Consent is contract theory; it presupposes that both negotiating parties are driven to maximally satisfy their own selfish desires. But if one party’s experience of the world has led them to redefine themselves as a “giving self” in order to pre-emptively sanitize dynamics that would otherwise seem abusive, that contract gets wobbly. One party will not act in the service of her own desires because, realizing that her desires will not be respected, she stops having them.
THANK YOU FOR SAYING THIS. The neoliberal self is not your friend.
It does not necessarily follow from all this that women deep down hate being able to vote and long to be beaten. What it means, I think, is that one fantasy many women share is the reconciliation of their actual orgasms with the impossible rules of the society they grew up in. Women have always tried hard to erotically assent to the lies they’re told about how you get good sex, whether through marriage, or submission, or even our current theories about consent. None of it quite works: Bad sex was and remains a problem in America; behind every man’s joke about a “frigid wife” is a woman who’s done pretending otherwise. That the woman’s side of what bad sex means is only now being discussed is both a sign of progress and an index of how exhausted women are from trying to sustain social fictions old and new about how women are supposed to get off. They’re tired because social change is onerous. Because women have necessarily shouldered the bulk of that social adjustment. And because it still isn’t done.
Rejecting the very system that programmed you is hard and constant work. It’s exhausting to perform the confidence and competence you’ve been raised not to feel in the name of a change you hope is coming but aren’t quite sure you deserve.
LOL that’s such a white lady thing to say. It’s the default existence of black people, and she doesn’t know about freedom if she has to go through THAT to come out the other end. This attitude is called “not wanting it badly enough.”
I didn’t need to read this article to know that this is what life as a woman would be like. What’s exhausting is women keeping up the act like it’s not obviously an act. The popularity of 50 Shades says something awful about normal women’s mental state.
Basically, submissiveness is exactly what it looks like: some weak bullshit.