Ask A Feminist #4: Does my sex life let the side down?

A reader who felt alienated by some of the comments left under Nat’s recent post asks whether practising BDSM is incompatible with feminism.

Dear Jayne,

I’ve been into BDSM for all my adult life and am mostly submissive. I’m also bisexual, and have “played” with and submitted to women in the past, not just men. I’m fairly new to feminism and although some feminists don’t see an issue with BDSM, some certainly do, and it leaves me feeling intimidated and scared of being accused of not being a real feminist.

It seems for every person who says it’s absolutely fine to be “kinky” there are plenty out there telling me my desires are just a by-product of the patriarchy, pretty much implying I don’t know my own mind and body. Even if I was influenced in some way by patriarchal culture around me (I’m well aware I may well be) should I stop having the sex I enjoy because it offends some feminists? I don’t think that’s going to happen.

I managed to get through my teenage years without actually seeing a porn film so the vast majority of fantasies I have in my head are pretty much what I’ve had to cobble together myself. How the hell I got into BDSM I don’t know but it’s a very potent part of my sexuality and it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

So, is it really OK for someone like me to join in feminist discussions and be taken seriously? Can a woman with my desires ever really be considered a feminist? Or, despite all that I believe in and how I behave outside my bedroom, does what I do inside it let the whole side down?

– Kinky Feminist

When you’re new to feminism, it can be exciting and uplifting to find a community of people who finally “get it”. Adopting the feminist label makes you feel like a part of this community and so it can be upsetting when you read things implying that you don’t deserve it. However, feminism is a broad movement and there are as many different feminist viewpoints as there are feminists. There will always be someone for whom you’re not “feminist enough”. While this means both online and offline feminist communities may not be the 100% welcoming, supportive space you initially thought you’d found, it does mean that worrying about what other feminists think of you is a futile undertaking, and if you do feel uncomfortable around some feminists, there will always be others you’ll get on with like the proverbial burning house.

For me, what matters is not whether you meet the feminist club entry criteria set out by a given feminist, but whether you do what you can in your own life to support women and tackle the various forms of discrimination we face. It may be that alongside any efforts you make in this regard, you also engage in things that some feminists and even you yourself view us unhelpful or rooted in patriarchy. Given that we’ve all been socialised into and have to live within patriarchal society, it’d be pretty amazing if you didn’t.

A lot of feminists shave their legs, let male partners get away with not doing enough housework or buy clothing produced by women working in terrible conditions overseas, to name but a few activities that could be termed “letting the side down”. They may prefer they didn’t do these things, but for various reasons feel that it is too difficult to change, or they may not see them as problematic at all, again for a wide variety of reasons. But these activities don’t negate their work to support services for single mums, verbally challenge everyday sexism or contribute to the local rape crisis centre.

No feminist is perfect, and as long as on balance you do more to help women than to hinder them (unlike women such as Nadine Dorries, whose anti-choice agenda and activities more than overshadow her speaking up about the lack of women on the BBC), you have just as much right as the next person to consider yourself a feminist and join in feminist discussions. Even if some people think the kind of sex you like is anti-feminist.

Personally, I don’t think engaging in BDSM or submissive sex holds back women’s liberation. As I’ve discussed previously, there are many different reasons why people enjoy BDSM, and I think it’s simplistic and unhelpful to suggest that it always comes down to an assertion of male power over women and that BDSM therefore furthers gender inequality (although this may well be the case in some instances). Both non-BDSM and BDSM sex can be used to abuse, hurt and oppress women, and both can be enjoyed in a positive way that doesn’t hurt anyone: it all depends on the individuals involved.

If you’re happy with your sex life and don’t feel the feminist arguments against BDSM hold up to your experiences, then that particular feminist theory needn’t form part of your feminism. Focus on what matters to you, and remember: your opinion is no less valid then anyone else’s.

Photo by VirtualEyeSee, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

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