selling the conflicted dominator on sex positivity

Slate came out with a sex advice column, and the very first question is about feminism and BDSM:

I’m a single man in my early 30s in an industry that’s received strong scrutiny from the #MeToo movement. I avoid dating anyone who I may have potential influence over professionally in the near future, but recently, I started seeing a woman who works in roughly the same field but with whom I’d never cross paths directly. She’s very vocal about how our industry fails women, especially at work. As we’ve become intimate, she’s surprised me by asking me to be rough and degrade her in bed. I won’t get specific, but she likes some intense things. I figured this was just a fetish, but we talked about it, and she told me the bedroom is one place where she can totally abandon the hard lines she has to make at work and not worry about “gender dynamics.” I’m not sure what to think about this. Isn’t it strange to imply #MeToo is forcing women to stifle their desires? Is this a healthy way to look at sex? I feel uneasy, and I’m unsure how to talk this through with her further.

Assuming this is a real letter and everything, the first thing I notice is the scrupulous, legalistic attention to org charts, like authority’s inherent potential for abuse is new and scary to him. The qualifier about the near future. He’d never cross paths directly with his current partner. He seems intent on dating within his industry, no matter how small the world is. Surely the fact of his authority has played a role in his sex life.

What does it mean for something to be “just a fetish?”

He’s uncomfortable with her obvious hypocrisy and denial. It seems ethically fraught, indulging someone’s problems like that. He had the right idea. It’s obviously stupid to say that a man beating and degrading a woman as part of sex is an escape from gender dynamics. In the true spirit of consent, he’s sensing that her judgment in this area is impaired.

This is how Stoya’s response begins:

I’m way more comfortable with your first question, so let’s start there. I’m curious why you think this scenario implies “#MeToo is forcing women to stifle their desires.” I suspect it’s part of a long history of concern about what BDSM “means,” here mixed with what you see as a contradiction between your partner’s beliefs and her desires. Questioning whether we’re doing social harm, or specifically being anti-feminist, by having sexualities that relate to BDSM is a common enough experience that it showed up in multiple first-person essays throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s, as public awareness began to rise. And it goes back much further than that. It’s very common. That means some women, and at least a few men, have considered stifling—or actually stifled—their own desires out of social or political concern for a lot longer than #MeToo has been around. In other words, your first question is a delicious red herring, thank you. But I’m still afraid the second one is going to stick in my throat. Because it is incredibly sticky: What is a healthy way to look at sex?

Stoya is here to sell the reader on sex positivity nonsense. It’s already an ideological statement to put the word “means” in quotes like that. People obviously have sex because it means something to them. This is a culture war, and everyone is fighting about what it’s supposed to symbolize. The idea that it’s as meaningless as ice cream flavors itself implies the acceptability of behavior that wouldn’t otherwise be acceptable. Stoya is invested in the idea that “sex work” is not a perversion of what sex, at its best, is about.

Stoya is correct that this is an old debate. She’s intellectually dishonest to whitewash the 1980s. It was debated by the second wave back then. For example, Audre Lorde said:

I’m not questioning anyone’s right to live. I’m saying we must observe the implications of our lives. If what we are talking about is feminism, then the personal is political and we can subject everything in our lives to scrutiny. We have been nurtured in a sick, abnormal society, and we should be about the process of reclaiming ourselves as well as the terms of that society. This is complex. I speak not about condemnation but about recognizing what is happening and questioning what it means. I’m not willing to regiment anyone’s life, but if we are to scrutinize our human relationships, we must be willing to scrutinize all aspects of those relationships. The subject of revolution is ourselves, is our lives. Sadomasochism is an institutionalized celebration of dominant/subordinate relationships. And, it prepares us either to accept subordination or to enforce dominance. Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically. Sadomasochism feeds the belief that domination is inevitable and legitimately enjoyable. It can be compared to the phenomenon of worshipping a godhead with two faces, and worshipping only the white part on the full moon and the black part on the dark of the moon, as if totally separate. But you cannot corral any aspect within your life, divorce its implications, whether it’s what you eat for breakfast or how you say good-bye. This is what integrity means…

Stoya doesn’t wish to draw the reader’s attention to such ideas, clearly articulated. She wants the reader to believe the whole topic is old and boring, and we shouldn’t dig too deeply.

I think a lot of us are trying to answer that question in a zoomed-out way right now, and I’ve wondered if it’s even possible to arrive at a single answer that works for everyone. I’m pretty sure of one thing: You have to discover what’s healthy for you sexually just like you have to discover what’s healthy for you in other areas of your life. You’re probably going to make mistakes. You might have experiences you regret, but you also might learn something from them. You’ll almost certainly feel like you have no real guidebook at some point, because—although they are filling in quickly—there are major gaps in our cultural sex-ed department, even for adults, and plenty of subjects around sexuality that we’re still striving to understand. To make it simpler in this case: She’s consenting. Your consent is important, too. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, it’s absolutely OK to slow things down or decline certain activities. You aren’t obligated to do anything you don’t want to or even just feel a little weird about. Keep that in mind while you’re figuring out what the boundaries of healthy-for-you sex are—and trust your partner to do the same.

Who can dispute the advice that it’s good to be in touch with yourself while having sex? But this kind of response sidesteps the issue by reducing everything to overt consent. Sex positivity can recognize the concept that drunken consent is questionable, but it can’t confront the idea that people might have bad judgment in this area because they’re fucked up and confused. We have to “trust our partner.” The BDSM world has a legalistic understanding of consent, because they’re essentially shady lawyers trying to get away with things.

Stoya, this guy, and his partner can all agree on a shared bullshit story to keep the status quo alive. They’re all invested in it.

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