BDSM may set off red flags for feminists, says Kit Roskelly. But so does sitting in judgment on women’s sexual preferences
“When we get freedom for all, you’ll do as you’re told!”
It’s an old joke, and its origins have got lost somewhere along the line. It may have been a trade unionist who said it first, or an anarchist. Or maybe even a feminist, because we are not immune to that unfortunate disease of oppressed groups – occasionally, we turn our oppression in and allow ourselves to repeat the patriarchy’s mistakes on smaller minority groups within our own ranks.
That is not how feminism should work. More specifically, feminism should not have a prescriptive stance on female sexuality, that subject of so much debate both outside and within the feminist movement. Feminists discuss and question; we frequently disagree and agree to differ; we debate assumptions and challenge stereotypes, but prescriptivism should not be on our agenda.
There was a heated debate among lesbian feminists in the 1970s and ’80s about the use of strap-ons during sex between women. One group argued furiously that women did not need phallic toys for pleasure, and that using strap-ons was a sign that we had not yet thrown off the shackles – and the symbols – of the patriarchy. Another side of the debate held that sometimes a sex toy is just a sex toy, and if they feel good, why should they not use them?
In more recent years, a middle ground has been reached. Women now are able to consider whether or not they are turned on by phallic sex-toys, and what that says – if anything – about their dependence on men. That choice is now seen as an individual one and few women will argue strenuously on the point. In more recent years, we have become more able to take a live-and-let-live attitude to these issues, and feel less inclined to police the grey areas of feminist discourse and female sexuality.