Rachel, a 25-year-old marketer from Chicago, recalls how a man she dated in college had an unusual attitude about blow jobs. “He wouldn’t let me give him head because he thought it was degrading to women,” she tells me. “He felt very strongly that as a self-professed male feminist, he couldn’t receive oral sex, even though I told him I wanted to do it and found it empowering.” He refused to budge even after they began dating seriously and having other kinds of sex, all in an effort to protect Rachel’s dignity.
Rachel’s example might sound almost comically quaint, but it’s not unusual for women with submissive kinks or fantasies — whether they’re as quotidian as performing oral sex or involve more straightforwardly dominating acts like choking, hitting, bondage, verbal degradation or rape play — to be treated in such a manner by the men they’re sleeping with. Over the past few days, I’ve spoken with about 20 such women, including Jenna, a 22-year-old sex educator and sales associate from Oakland. “I’m openly feminist and I date ‘feminist’ men (whatever that means), and I’ve had a few male sex partners act very superior about refusing to engage in hitting and choking me, even becoming offended by the request,” she says. “One partner told me he doesn’t ‘get off on hitting women’ in a pretty disgusted tone. It made me feel particularly vulnerable and ashamed.”
Feelings of shame and vulnerability came up fairly often, and most of the women say they’ve experienced judgment, condescension and armchair psychoanalysis from men who felt their submissive desires weren’t healthy or emancipatory. “I’m a bit of a bottom or masochist, and I’m also a sexual violence survivor,” explains Charlotte, a 37-year-old attorney from Chicago. “I’ve had guys say they don’t want to do whatever I’m asking for (spanking, choking, etc.) because ‘they don’t think it’s healthy for someone with my past to want those things’ and that I need more therapy.” Others report being accused of having “unresolved daddy issues” or “internalized misogyny.”
“I know sex doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but I enjoy intense sensation, and I’d rather partners not pathologize my submissive desires,” Jenna says. “If someone doesn’t want to participate in an act, there’s room for shame-free communication.”
Shame-free communication is obviously optimal, but in the realm of sexual desire, it’s often easier said than done. As well as speaking with submissive women, I also heard from about a dozen men whose female partners have submissive kinks or fantasies that make them feel uncomfortable, many of whom report difficulties with being honest about their misgivings.
Greg, a 30-year-old hospital software worker from Alabama, tells me that he felt uneasy with some of the kinks his submissive first girlfriend asked for, namely hitting and verbal degradation, but didn’t say anything out of pride and embarrassment. “I was so inexperienced, but I didn’t want to come across as almost complaining over something most of my friends would kill for, so I never talked about it,” he says. “I felt this internal pressure to keep up with her, but I didn’t want her to see I felt that.” Greg also felt an instinctive reluctance to hurt his partner, something many of the men echoed, while others knew their partners had histories of abuse and felt that was a difficult dynamic to navigate.
On these points, I enlist Melody Thomas, creator and host of the BANG! podcast, which covers sex, sexuality and relationships. “If you’re a vanilla guy who’s hesitant about jumping into a dominant role in bed with a submissive woman, that comes from a good place,” she says, adding that she hears from men who are aware that straight male sexuality is often explored at the expense of women’s pleasure and that these guys don’t want to contribute to a culture that demeans or objectifies women. “This is so great, but despite how it looks or sounds, a good dom isn’t getting off at the expense of their partner,” she clarifies. “They’re responding directly to the needs and desires of that partner — they’re centering that person’s pleasure.”
“Nobody should feel pressure to do things they don’t want to in the bedroom, and men shouldn’t take on a dominant role because of pressure to be more of a ‘man,’” she continues. “We have a real problem, especially in straight relationships, with sex being highly pressurized and sometimes coercive.” She does promise, though, that if you’re exploring kinks with someone you trust and are careful, communicative and establish consent “every step of the way, there can be a whole lot of pleasure on the other side of that discomfort.”
Meanwhile, Kate Sloan, a sex educator and journalist, offers some specific tactics to move beyond these impasses in the bedroom. “If you tell a partner you’re not comfortable doing the things they want you to, it might be useful to ask them what feeling or headspace they like to get out of that, and try to access it in different ways,” she suggests. “Like, maybe you’re not comfortable choking her, but you can put your hand on her chest and hold her down during sex.” She adds that online “yes, no, maybe” lists can be helpful for couples figuring out areas of overlap in their interests and comfort levels, and that you could try talking dirty, watching porn or reading erotica to access the feelings involved in the kink without actually acting it out.
As Jenna mentions, though, sex doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The dictates of sex positivity, especially the now popular heuristic against kink shaming, sometimes foreclose critical discussion of the normalization of violent sex, the potential for kink to become abusive and the fetishization of oppression, among other topics. To that end, a 30-year-old Māori Aucklander called Henare, tells me about a one-night stand with a white woman who asked him to engage in a “Tarzan/Jane” colonial rape fantasy of hers. When he refused and suggested her fantasy warranted some introspection, she responded that he “shouldn’t shame people for their kinks.” Fetishizing your own oppression is one thing, but fetishizing the oppression of others is quite another — and this example reveals how the “kink-shaming” concept is sometimes weaponized in bad faith.
It’s clear that treating sexual desire as innate, immutable and sacrosanct can lead to harmful practices. In her essay, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?,” Amia Srinivasan argues that “the sex-positive gaze risks covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference.’” She argues that we should recognize that “the very idea of fixed sexual preference is political, not metaphysical” and that “our sexual preferences can and do alter, sometimes under the operation of our own wills.” In other words, when our sexual desires replicate and bolster unjust power structures, we can and should change what we want.
It’s a complicated and fascinating proposition, the contours of which are traversed at length in a conversation between Anastasia Berg and Andrea Long Chu; the latter of whom notes that “it’s really fucking hard to figure out a way to tell people to change their desires that isn’t moralistic” and that “moralism about the desires of the oppressor can be a shell corporation for moralism about the desires of the oppressed.”
Whether desire is as malleable as Srinivasan suggests is a moot point — Chu thinks desire is “childlike and chary of government” — but it’s clear that requiring this kind of management of our sexual wants poses its own set of problems. For one, it might mean more goateed Male Feminists lecturing their beleaguered, decreasingly horny partners about the politics of calling men “Daddy” during sex, which is reason enough to pause.
“I juggle a lot in my life,” Melody tells me. “I have a full-on job, a long-term relationship and a couple of kids, and I feel like I’m constantly reading, watching and unlearning what it is to be a woman and a human in this messed-up time, as well as thinking about climate change and the end of the world.”
“It just feels nice every now and then not to have to make any fucking decisions,” she continues. “To be made to come by someone who knows exactly what I want and what my body needs.”