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The following excerpt is from the book Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) January 2009.
Because I'm a feminist who enjoys domination, bondage and pain in the bedroom, it should be pretty obvious why I often remain mute and, well, pretty closeted about my sexuality. While it's easy for me to write an impassioned diatribe on the vital importance of "conventional" women's pleasure, or to talk publicly and explicitly about sexual desire in general, I often shy away from conversations about my personal sexual choices. Despite the fact that I've been on a long, intentional path to finally feel empowered by, and open about, my decision to be a sexual submissive, the reception I receive regarding this decision is not always all that warm.
BDSM (for my purposes, bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and the concept of female submission makes feminists really uncomfortable. I can certainly understand why, but I also believe that safe, sane and consensual BDSM exists as a polar opposite of a reality in which women constantly face the threat of sexual violence.
As someone who works in the feminist media and who advocates against violence against women and for rape survivors' rights, I never really felt I was allowed to participate in the fantasy of my own violation. There is a guilt and shame in having the luxury to decide to act on this desire -- to consent to this kind of "nonconsent." It seems to suggest you haven't known true sexual violence, cannot truly understand how traumatic it can be, if you're willing to incorporate a fictional version of it into your "play." But this simply isn't true: A 2007 study conducted in Australia revealed that rates of sexual abuse and coercion were similar between BDSM practitioners and other Australians. The study concluded that BDSM is simply a sexual interest or subculture attractive to a minority, not defined by a pathological symptom of past abuse.
But when you throw a little rape, bondage or humiliation fantasy into the mix, a whole set of ideological problems arises. The idea of a woman consenting to be violated via play not only is difficult terrain to negotiate politically, but also is rarely discussed beyond BDSM practitioners themselves. Sexually submissive feminists already have a hard enough time finding a voice in the discourse, and their desire to be demeaned is often left out of the conversation. Because of this, the opportunity to articulate the political ramifications of rape fantasy happens rarely, if at all.
You can blame this silence on the fact that BDSM is generally poorly -- often cartoonishly -- represented. Cinematic depictions are generally hastily drawn caricatures, pushing participants onto the fringes and increasing the stigma that surrounds their personal and professional choices. While mainstream film and television occasionally offer up an empowered, vaguely fleshed-out and somewhat sympathetic professional female dom (think Lady Heather from "CSI"), those women who are sexually submissive by choice seem to be invisible. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that they are left out of the picture because, quite simply, they scare us. Feminist pornographic depictions of women being dominated for pleasure are often those involving other women -- that's a safe explicit image, because the idea of a male inflicting pain on a consenting woman is just too hard for many people to stomach. For many viewers it hits too close to home -- the idea of a female submissive's consensual exchange of her authority to make decisions (temporarily or long-term) for a dominant's agreement to make decisions for her just doesn't sit well with the feminist community.
It's important to point out that, however you attempt to excuse it, this inability to accept BDSM into the feminist dialogue is really just a form of kinkophobia, a widely accepted prejudice against the practice of power-exchange sex. Patrick Califia, writer and advocate of BDSM pornography and practice, wisely states that "internalized kinkophobia is the unique sense of shame that many, if not most, sadomasochists feel about their participation in a deviant society." This hatred of self can be particularly strong among feminist submissives, when an entire community that they identify with either dismisses their desires or pegs them as unwitting victims.