In case there’s anyone in America who hasn’t noticed, kink has been infiltrating mainstream culture for some time now. Sitcoms are making free use of the expression “safeword” and chances are even if you never have occasion to use it in your own life, you have a pretty good idea of what it means. With the “50 Shades of Gray” phenomenon, BDSM has exploded and is now a household word.
For many people, the first question that comes to mind is: Did we learn nothing from feminism? Surely women don’t need to submit to abusive or degrading treatment anymore. We have choices now. So why do women find stories about dominance and submission (D/s) so erotic?
I certainly can’t explain the psychology of erotic submission, but I can assure you that it is a huge turn-on for many, many people. This is totally different than coercion, violence or abuse. Submitting to someone as a conscious choice is empowering. It can be a huge relief to put aside the responsibilities of a busy, stressful life and sink into a space where you have no control. Finding someone you can trust to that level gives you a strong sense of connection, a feeling of being appreciated, cherished, and protected. The structure of a D/s relationship takes away, at least temporarily, daily worries and insecurities. The submissive can hand over to the dominant all thoughts about how she looks and what she “should” be doing and simply relax into the role she has negotiated. Nothing reflects on her: all choices come from the dominant and she is only a tool for his pleasure. As women, we are programmed to please people, and a D/s relationship can be immensely satisfying. It may not appear so from the outside, but nothing done in the D/s space is taken for granted. Everything is (or should be) done with a focus that ensures that both parties are intensely aware of the actions and reactions of the other. Everyone has a responsibility (yes, even the submissive) to make sure their needs are known. If negotiated thoroughly, each party gets what they want out of the arrangement.
This might seem at odds with the concept of domination and submission. After all, doesn’t the name suggest that one person comes out on top and the other on the bottom?
Yes and no. We all know of relationships where one person is dominant and the other submissive. Not all of them are practicing power exchange. As the name suggests, in order to exchange power, both parties must possess it. Each person commits their power to the pleasure, satisfaction or growth of the other. It may appear that all of the benefit goes to the dominant, but what may not be as obvious is the dominant’s obligation to consider the needs and preferences of the submissive. They must provide their partner with opportunities for satisfying and enriching experiences. Otherwise, why would anyone put themselves through the efforts that this kind of relationship requires?
It’s not an easy concept to wrap your head around. We are used to thinking of relationships as a kind of contest, where both parties fight to get their own way, and if you succeed at least 50% of the time, you’re doing well. We are terrified of giving away too much of our power, and in the normal world that is a perfectly justifiable fear. No one is condoning randomly submitting to strangers picked up in the produce aisle. That can be a hot fantasy, but it belongs in the realm of fiction. The erotic situations in “50 Shades” can be very intriguing, even though they might cause women to worry about the “political correctness” of wanting to be dominated.
The emergence of “50 Shades of Gray” and similar stories is actually a victory for women. What is feminism about, if not teaching us about our own responsibilities? We have the choice now to decide if we want to get married and have children. We can decide for ourselves what kind of relationships we want, and go out and find them. We have the responsibility to accept our sexuality and explore it, in whatever way is most satisfying to us. If the intensity of a power exchange relationship appeals to me, I want to be able to read about it and even practice it without fear of censure or labeling. Not all BDSM stories are realistic, practical, or believable. But that’s okay. As adults, we need to be able to tell the difference between fantasy and what is possible or desirable in real life. Not every woman is going to be swept off her feet by gorgeous vampires or even gorgeous billionaires. Not everyone wants a power exchange relationship. But knowing that alternative relationships are possible, and how other people manage them, is a valuable tool in determining for ourselves what we want and need out of our own, even if in the end we stick with “vanilla.”
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