The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Guest Post: Your sexism was my Saturday Night

A guest post from the brilliant Constance. (Link NSFW)

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but have kept putting off because I haven’t been sure exactly what I want to say (or how to say it). I’m still not sure, but I’m realising that this might be one of those topics I will never be sure about, and my feelings and thoughts will always be a fluid jumble, absorbing and evolving the more I learn and talk about it.

I am a feminist who is committed to sex positivity. I am constantly thinking about, analysing and ultimately hoping to help dismantle the saturation of misogyny that hurts women, men and folk who don’t identify with either of those genders. I think the media is a huge perpetrator of misogyny by (both overtly and subtly) reinforcing gender norms, gender roles, aesthetic desirability etc. I am also really interested in sex (academically and, uh, in practice) to the point that I like to try my hand at things people may consider left of centre. Namely BDSM.

Every now and again the media churns out something so overtly sexist that people are forced to (briefly, for most) acknowledge that we haven’t really come as far as we think we have in terms of “women’s liberation”. Today the White Ribbon Campaign’s Facebook page showcased some shockers from the past and present. Like this one.

Obviously talking about oppressive images of women is central and relevant to a campaign which works to stop violence against women across the world. However, a few of the pictures that they showcased have multiple layers, especially for those aware of, or engaging in, BDSM.

Now, this is possibly going to get me in big trouble, but I can’t say I’m offended by these photos. I can even see how people would find them sexy. I’m obviously conscious that people who have no idea about BDSM (and the heavy emphasis the community places on consent and negotiation) will see these photos as oppressive and violent, and not as a portrayal of alternative sexual preferences. But the thing is – how do we know that they aren’t?

There’s no context around either of these images to suggest that this isn’t a portrayal of consensual sexual play. There’s also no context to suggest that it’s not problematic sexual violence either. But when we default to yelling “sexism!” at images of women in submissive sexual positions, I would argue that we are actually being oppressive ourselves.

I’m not saying that we should assume all images of sexual male dominance are harmless. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t be discussing what exposure to these images without any dialogue about consent may mean. What I am saying is that we need to have that discussion, and we need to drop our assumptions.

At times (and depending on your internal head noise) it can be pretty shitty to be a female feminist who’s also a submissive to male dominant/s. I know dozens of women who are committed to ending violence against women and subverting oppressive gender roles, but who enjoy being a submissive, begging plaything to their male partners in the bedroom. And although all of these women are conscious that the second consent is negotiated these acts are not in any way violent, it can still be really confusing to want to dismantle the power men have over women everywhere…except the bedroom.

When our discourse around the portrayal of potentially consensual kink screams “oppression!”, it furthers the messages that female submissives get constantly. These messages range from “woah that’s a bit twisted” to “your sexual preferences are contributing to the rapes of millions of women and children across the world” (an actual sentence I’ve had thrown at me).

I am conscious that queer submissives are not in any way immune to sex shaming and internal conflict, but given that queer dominant/submissive relationships would be seen by many as subverting traditional gender roles and norms, and images of queer sexualities are sadly omitted from mainstream advertising, I am going to talk solely about women engaging in dominance and submission with men. I am deliberately not specifying cis women, as trans women are women and are not immune to feeling conflicted about acting out the very things they may be working to end in other spheres of their lives.

I would also like to state that by lamenting an issue some women have, I am not implying in any way that we don’t have privilege in many other interlinked and pervasive ways.

Sex positive feminists are of course aware that any sex involving consenting, informed and considerate parties is fine. And if the goal is to dismantle oppression and gender norms then these acts of submission to men are ultimately not reinforcing anything problematic because they are not manifestations of some deeper desire for the patriarchy to rule us all. The fantasies exist as play. And a lot of other BDSM is super subversive of gender roles.

But the thing is, when your kind of BDSM is actually a play on things that you see as problematic in other contexts, the sex positive mantra is not super effective or reassuring at times. Even if you know it’s right. And people taking images of things some people enjoy and labeling them as “sexist” is going to elicit a very exhausted sigh from pretty much every sex positive feminist sub everywhere.

I am not in any way arguing that images of male dominance should have a blanket classification as “fine” because they might be part of someone’s sexual preference. What I am arguing is that we can’t just assume that they’re not. Perhaps in a perfect world there would be a disclaimer in the fine print of the ad that says ‘this image is meant to represent consensual adult fantasy’. I think that would be great.

If advertising is adhering to normal censorship and age-appropriate regulations then why can’t alternative sexual preferences be portrayed? The only arguments against using kink in the same way we use vanilla sex to sell stuff are incredibly sex negative ones: “because it’s violent” (not if you establish consent either in the image or with a disclaimer as mentioned above. And while we’re fucking at it, why don’t we establish consent in vanilla images?), “because it’s vulgar” (define vulgar, and don’t tell me non kinky sex in advertisements doesn’t fit that bill at least half the time), “because it’s not everyone’s taste” (yeah well bikini clad ‘scientists’ selling me Tui beer isn’t my taste but I’m saturated with it), “because people might think that sort of stuff is okay to do without asking” (if you follow that line, then no sex should ever be portrayed anywhere in case someone tries it without asking).

Many things that fit on the BDSM continuum are fairly common. I was going to say “nowadays” but actually, none of it is new or more prevalent than it was 2000 years ago. And I bet you that even then, women who wanted their male partners to have power over them in the bedroom but not in any other way were just as fraught about it then as they are now.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that we get it. Any issue you have with female sexual submission to men has been thought about over and over by the submissive themselves. Why do I want this? What if there’s something wrong with me? Why does he want that? Does he respect me? What if this goes too far?

Chances are, if you’re into this sort of stuff and even vaguely aware of feminism, it’s been thought to death. And hopefully, fears and anxieties have been quashed by the knowledge that we can’t always explain why people are into things, and ultimately we wouldn’t be into them if it didn’t make them feel fucking amazing and strong and sexy and liberated. And that, as both sex positive feminists and members of the BDSM community, we think about consent and negotiation probably about a zillion more times a day than you do.

But no matter how staunch people are in owning and advocating their preferences, having messages that tell you something you may very well have done the other night is misogynistic, sexist and oppressive, just kind of makes people feel like shit. And really, people who are into BDSM get enough of that.

If a sexual image of two or more adults is ambiguous in its message and makes you feel uncomfortable, remember that anything conveying sexuality is going to have a multitude of layers.

Don’t assume that there’s no consent. Don’t assume that there’s not a bunch of people who do that for fun in your life that you may never ever know about. Don’t decide that you’re an expert on whether someone’s fantasy is harmful or not – they can decide for themselves.

Instead, have a discussion about it. I even have a mind blowing suggestion for you – you could do some research about something that you’re not personally into. That way, you can extricate yourself from the masses of uneducated sex-shaming voices that can get the fuck out of my bedroom.


Here, I’ve even got some further reading suggestions:

11 responses to “Guest Post: Your sexism was my Saturday Night

  1. Tamsin May 28, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Hmm… I feel a bit conflicted about this post. While I agree that portraying BDSM as sexist and degrading is extremely unhelpful, I find myself disagreeing with some of the other points.
    There’s no context around either of these images to suggest that this isn’t a portrayal of consensual sexual play
    I would argue that there is a context around the 1950s coffee ad. I’m sure the models in the ad consented to posing like that, but it’s framed as “woe betide you if you don’t buy our coffee” – sure, it’s supposed to be humourous, but in the social context of the 1950s, when domestic violence was often not taken seriously, I think the ad is problematic.
    If a sexual image of two or more adults is ambiguous in its message and makes you feel uncomfortable, remember that anything conveying sexuality is going to have a multitude of layers.
    I’m more concerned that some of the images could be triggering. This Vogue ad (tw: violence, police brutality) could be portraying a consensual fantasy, but in the context of police brutality and assaults (including sexual assaults) on Occupy protesters… well, I don’t know, but it makes me feel a bit shaky and panicky.
    I don’t know the answers. These are just my concerns.

    • Constance Cravings (@AskConstance) May 28, 2012 at 11:36 am

      Hi Tamsin, I can really empathise with your points, which is why I followed up the first line you quoted with “There’s also no context to suggest that it’s not problematic sexual violence either.”

      Many portrayals of sexuality and/or violence are triggering for some, whether they’re BDSM related or otherwise. My issue is when we default to finding them problematic (not just on a personal level, because taste is often intrinsic) without having a discussion about what they could mean for many different people.

      I would LOVE to see trigger warnings on things which are more common triggers, and I include some BDSM acts in this. I don’t, however, see an image of a husband spanking his wife (with a super ambiguous – nervous, excited, aroused? – expression) as inherently problematic just because it was made in a time when domestic violence was taken less seriously than it is today.

      And the fact that both of us have just expressed vastly different reactions to the image, means that we can’t label something that easily.

      • Tamsin May 28, 2012 at 11:49 am

        I don’t, however, see an image of a husband spanking his wife (with a super ambiguous – nervous, excited, aroused? – expression) as inherently problematic just because it was made in a time when domestic violence was taken less seriously than it is today.
        I actually don’t have a problem with the image itself – without the “woe be unto you” framing I would probably just see it as silly, stagey and fake, as Emma said below. Even considering the time period. What bugs me about it is the combination of “woe be unto you” and the 1950s context, which to me makes it seem like they’re talking about a real, hurtful punishment (although not very seriously), rather than the fun kind. That and the whole implication that it’s the wife’s job to keep her husband happy with consumer goods like coffee, because heaven forbid he should actually have to buy his own coffee!
        I don’t know. I don’t feel like I’m explaining myself very clearly. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the image is not inherently problematic, but that it actually does have a context that (to me) makes it so.

      • tallulahspankhead May 28, 2012 at 11:53 am

        See, I’m completely OK with the spanking picture, but find the Duncan Quinn one problematic – on a personal level, not a political one.

        And as Constance says, herein lies the problem. If we are going to continue to believe that “sex sells”, then we need to have a conversation about what is or isn’t OK to use within that paradigm. And if BDSM (or any other kink) is something people are doing, why is that automatically unacceptable? And for that matter, what is?

    • Hugh May 28, 2012 at 2:41 pm

      “I’m more concerned that some of the images could be triggering.”

      They could be – but so can images of completely vanilla sex. If the test for what is and isn’t acceptable is “could it potentially trigger somebody” then you’ll never see any sex in advertising.

      • Tamsin May 28, 2012 at 3:18 pm

        I don’t support banning things. I’d be more in favour of what Constance suggested above – trigger warnings for things which are more common triggers.

        • Hugh May 28, 2012 at 4:28 pm

          Well OK, but the mediums kind of preclude them. You can put a trigger warning in a TV ad, but not on a magazine segment or a billboard.

    • Moz May 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm

      (finally moved to comment after Emma’s post)

      My objection is actually more basic than that. I reject the argument because I strongly suspect that if you congratulated the people who made and showed those ads on their positive portrayals of BSDM they would be horrified and strongly reject any attempt to link their product to “those” sexual practices. They’d almost certainly be more comfortable with the sexism accusation, because what they think they’re selling *is* the 1950’s domestic violence.

      I admit that I’m not particularly comfortable with “sex in the media” on the whole, and possibly even a majority of it makes me unhappy. So I avoid it. Which means I am speaking from a position of ignorance to some degree. I’m one of those people that turns the soft porn mags in the lunch room face down (or stacks them so we can’t see the ads or content in many cases). I don’t want to eat lunch looking at a picture of some barely-clad photoshop victim, thanks, whether it’s New Idea or FHM. They’re at best an attractive nuisance.

  2. Emma May 28, 2012 at 11:13 am

    Yeah… you know, I may have to write a response-column to this, based on my actual Saturday night. Because many, many things.

    I can’t find the coffee ad offensive in either direction because it’s just so stagey and fake. But the Duncan Quinn ad? Is hot. And well within the realms of “something I would do”. Now, anti-domestic violence campaigns and organisations are something I support. My childhood means they’re never going to not be personally significant to me. And White Ribbon just erased me.

  3. Max Rose May 28, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    When I first read Constance’s post, the image of the Duncan Quinn ad was a lot smaller, and I really couldn’t work out what the problem was: if anything, it looked somewhere between playful and fairly hot. Then I looked it up on the White Ribbon pages, which had a larger image and (potential trigger warning) described it as showing “the dead body of a woman who is bleeding from the head”.

    It had not even occurred to me to think that she was dead. From the angles of her limbs and what one can just make out of her expression I assumed that she was spent, or perhaps in subspace. And while there were some ambiguous blobs near her head, after looking more closely I decided it was probably a reflection of the man’s body and tie. I just never thought to read it as an image of the aftermath of violence, and the only thing that stops me from really not finding it particularly arousing is the expression on the man’s face, which is neither that of a stereotypical stern Master nor that of a loving Dominant. He just looks like a smug git.

    I did some Googling to see what others had made of it before White Ribbon, and came across this 2008 post on Feministe. What surprised me the most was how long it took for anyone to mention even the possibility that it was a stylised kinky fantasy image rather than immediately reading it as violence, and how quickly and firmly the possibility of a consensual interpretation was dismissed. Is that a sign of my privilege?

    On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that some of the responses are just ridiculous. For instance, this comment claims that “there is nothing else about the image that has any indicator to BDSM. Not only that, but the woman is wearing white lace underthings… pretty much the opposite of any BDSM fashions”. Because, you know, we’re all about the black leather, studs and latex. And the International Commission for BDSM Standards has declared it illegal to be kinky if you’re wearing pink shoes [link possibly NSFW and mind-meltingly hot], white underwear, purple underwear or none at all.

  4. Pingback: My Saturday Night « The Lady Garden

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