The Hot Topic, vol. 8 – Whip Me Harder: Why Sexual Submission is All About PowerBy Lana Fox
June 11, 2011
There is a common misconception that submitting in the bedroom makes a person weak. Frankly, the myth isn’t surprising. In our society, kink is often so taboo that sex education rarely covers the topic. And if you’re not in the habit of crying, “Spank me now!” it can be hard to wrap your head around submissive empowerment. The truth is that most of us submit or dominate in one form or another – if not in the bedroom, then in the rest of our lives.
Even if you don’t buy into BDSM, you might well have been touched by submission and domination. Have you ever longed for a lover to throw you against the wall, or bite your neck, or order you around? These acts are absolutely domination and submission. You choose to either submit or master. In fact, the notion that submissives don’t choose their suffering is entirely erroneous. Ever heard of the phrase topping from the bottom? It’s used to describe a situation in which the submissive is ordering a dom around, insisting, “Tie my handcuffs more tightly!” or “You’re just not spanking me right!”
Perhaps BDSM can be tough to come to terms with when it involves violence and pain. That said, the power to withstand pain is a very favourable characteristic in everyday life. Think of ear piercing or training for a marathon – these are all chosen acts of suffering. In fact, I’ve heard Greta Christina argue that submission is rather like eating spicy food. Once you can withstand a certain heat-level, you crave a hotter dish. Apparently, the reason chili peppers are spicy is because they contain a chemical that directly triggers our pain receptors. Think about that a moment. We eat curry because we love the pain. And what about stiletto heels and Brazilian waxing? As for the latter, Rachel Kramer Bussel says it best: “Because I lean toward being a masochist, sometimes I can eroticize the pain [of Brazilian waxing]. I think of it like candle wax in a scene, and use my kinky training to get through the momentary pain for the reward of sleek skin.” You can read more at Rachel’s column at Sexis, which I heartily recommend.
Of course, the ultimate infliction of pain is the non-consensual kind – and that is chilling stuff*. Outside of the bedroom, social attitudes towards brutality are often clear. For instance, fans of the 2006 remake of Casino Royale (directed by Martin Campbell) will remember the scene in which James Bond (Daniel Craig) is bound to a chair and brutalised. In spite of agony and restriction, he goads his torturer – and that’s “topping from the bottom” on a grand scale. Considering our society views Bond as resilient in these moments, it is surprising that those of us who cry “Bring on the pain!” are so often dismissed as weak.
As a matter of fact, submission can be tremendously healing. The first time I subbed was a direct result of watching the movie Secretary (directed by Steven Shainberg). To give you the gist, a young woman starts taking charge of her life because her boss starts to spank her for minor transgressions. Talk about hot! I had never believed that pain could bring such pleasure, and once I’d had a go at masochism, I was surprised by how it affected my life. Subbing taught me a lot about sexual assertion because I learnt to be both upfront and tuned into what I do or don’t want. With a safe word, it’s not so difficult to learn to actively say no with words like “Enough,” or “Not so hard,” and this spilled over into the rest of my life. (These are issues of consent – read more here). A friend recently told me that she was amazed I subbed in the bedroom because I’m such a dom when I’m teach, so I told her that part of being a sub is learning to assert yourself. I’ve become a lot better at expressing my needs and defending others since I learnt to withstand erotic pain.
And if you think BDSM can’t be inspiring, think again. When a lover finally ties you up, just as you’ve always wanted, and takes you with rough passion, the bond can be quite powerful. You yield to your partner, who expresses his/her aggression directly – and that’s pretty intense. In truth, this faith runs in both directions: When, as a dom, you hit someone in the bedroom, you trust that they’ll say what they need. You also trust that they’ll know this is a scene, not a real-life conflict, and that this violence is an expression of intimacy and passion. In fact, I’ll leave it to Anais Nin to show us how subbing/domming can be breathlessly romantic. Check out this excerpt from Henry & June, her unexpurgated diary 1931-32:
“He asks to see me again. When I wait in the armchair in his room, and he kneels to kiss me, he is stranger than all my thoughts. With his experience he dominates me. He dominates with his mind, too, and I am silenced. He whispers to me what my body must do. I obey, and new instincts rise in me. He has seized me. A man so human; and I, suddenly brazenly natural. I am amazed to be lying there in his iron bed, with my black underwear vanquished and trampled. And the tight secrecy of me broken for a moment, by a man who calls himself the ‘last man on earth.'”
*I don’t think this can be reiterated enough: You must always be aware of your power and rights in a BDSM scene. Have a safe word and use it when you don’t consent. This is key. For more on consent, look up Charlie Glickman’s blog.
Photo on main page: Clarence Risher (via Wikimedia Commons)
Your posts are always so fascinating, Lana.
I think you should do a sex advice column for TNB (not to compete with The oh-so-great Dust!).
I agree with the basic concept here that being submissive can be powerful, or a way of exerting or experiencing power, and yeah, no question that a lot of bottoms are bossy and controlling (I mean that in a good way)–after all, the bottom is sort of the center of the drama; the top does most of the “work” and to be dominated is a form of being fawned over or adored, if in a twisted-from-the-norm way.
I think the only thing I disagree with here is how “taboo” this stuff is. I mean, yes, if you’re talking Fox News or the elementary school system, BDSM is pretty loaded stuff, sure. But it seems to me that kink is all the trendy rage in all but the most conservative adult cultures, and has been for a good 20 years now. At this point, at least in “literary” circles, it seems to me like you can’t even read a book anymore that WASN’T written by a former sex-worker or stripper (always listed in the bio)–even fashion magazines were talking about “perversion chic” way back in the 1990s. I know couples who have never done anything more extreme than a couple of playful slaps on the ass who have a “safe word” these days, which strikes me as a little absurd (the safe word as the new trendy sex toy, ala the way single girls once felt liberated when buying their first vibrator?) So I feel a bit as though this has become the “unspoken secret” of kink–that everyone kind of covertly realizes that this is already a mainstream topic (or one that has been very co-opted by the mainstream), but that in order to keep things interesting (or marketable?) everyone has to ACT as though we all still believe it’s so underground and taboo . . . it’s starting to seem depressing to me, for some reason.
That act is kept up by those in power, and by media culture, wherein it WOULD absolutely be taboo for a public figure to admit to kink without it being a “scandal,” of course. So I’m not saying that there isn’t still some kind of strange moral judgment connected to any other-than-vanilla sexuality . . . and yet you can hardly swing a cat without reading about this stuff or having it come up at parties or seeing it reflected in films and magazines or memoirs, and I have started to wonder what the next stage is for the discussion of kink once we all admit that, you know–that the stuff we used to think was Oh So Subversive (part of why some enjoyed it) is now pretty commonplace, sort of like girls at upmarket colleges going through a “bi” phase . . . despite the paradox of our dominant culture refusing to admit this truth.
Probably that’s a whole other discussion, though =)
Jessica, you are so very kind! Thank you. Gina, thank you also, you make excellent points.
Well, BDSM is often taboo in most of the settings I inhabit. In Boston, where I live, I hear a real mix of responses but I don’t find BDSM anywhere near as open a topic as other aspects of sex/sexuality. Telling people I’m bisexual is usually very easy compared to telling them I’m kinky – oh my, the response to the latter is interesting, *especially* if I say I sub. That said, I totally hear what you’re saying here:
“now pretty commonplace, sort of like girls at upmarket colleges going through a “bi” phase . . . despite the paradox of our dominant culture refusing to admit this truth.”
Yes! Though a shared acceptance of BDSM often exists these days, as you say, it seems that many of us still lack a real understanding of what it can offer in terms of a sexual identity or a valuable part of a repertoire. I think a great way of moving us on in this respect is to start owning our roles, identities and/or activities ourselves and taking them seriously. A familiar chorus seems to be, “Well, we do a little of that stuff, but we’re not…you know…really crazy or anything.” As if BDSM could make you bananas if you seriously wielded the whip!
I wrote this post because I’ve so often met people who think submitting is like letting someone bully us. (Is that’s something you come across yourself?). It’s not that they don’t accept that subbing exists and is an option…it’s more that they see the act as weak, a kind of “giving in.” In truth, I see my submissive side as the root of much of my strength, and I’d love it if society more readily respected the power of sexual submission. So I’ll keep on talking about my kink. (Sometimes I talk about it so much that people begin to look sleepy ;).
Yeah, you know, I do think it’s interesting how lately the “woman on top” thing seems to have become very trendy lately and seems to make people much, much less uncomfortable than female subs do. I suspect it’s true that women being sexually submissive sounds to many people like something they can’t quite distinguish from “abuse” in a way that seems confusing. I wonder if the perimeters seem clearer and make more sense to those who aren’t into this kind of thing themselves when they think of the woman being the one in control and the man being dominated, simply because, paradoxically, they DON’T confuse this with what they see in “real life.” I notice that chicks can blog or write memoirs about their lives as dominatrixes and everybody seems to think it’s a joy ride and really exciting and sexy, but that, yeah, if women talk about being submissive they’re more likely to get a lecture, and if men talk about being sexually dominant they’re likely to be called abusive misogynists (. . . of course, the complicated part being that there can be elements of truth to any too-broad criticism or misconception, too, but I do think that’s more the exception than the rule.)
That’s all very true. And perhaps it comes down to the fact that sex is often so wrapped up with suppressed unconscious longings, which makes it hard to judge in our usual rational way. The basic idea of “avoiding pain” or “not letting someone boss you around” generally seems to work very well for us in our day-to-day existence. But when it comes down to sexual yearning and satisfaction, we need a whole new rulebook. I guess that’s why consent is so important…and empowering.
Fascinating. Gina, maybe we should write a book on this. Hmm… 😉
Another fascinating piece from you..
Zara, that’s so lovely to hear! As always, it’s my pleasure.