BDSM and sexual role-play can pleasure feminists
In media, BDSM and role-play are often portrayed in unrealistic and sexist ways.
Meredith Clarke, a senior at Ithaca College, said she believes Fifty Shades of Grey — the movie, inspired by the book series, was released Feb. 13 — is based on an unhealthy dominant and submissive relationship. If the main female character, Anastasia Steele, were, “confident and communicative and all of the things you should be in order to have a healthy sexual relationship, it would be fine, but she’s not,” Clarke said. “She’s as submissive in life as she is in the bedroom, and the lines between real life and sex life are not drawn, and it’s completely unrealistic.”
The most common sexual role-plays involve BDSM — bondage, discipline/domination, submission/sadism and masochism — and are paired with boundaries, rules and safewords.
While all genders can play submissive roles, role-playing scenarios more frequently consist of women being dominated in violent and degrading ways. Particularly in the case of rape fantasies, there is much debate over whether they are sexist and perpetuating rape culture, or acceptable because those involved are acting out a rape under consensual terms.
In an interview with CityBeat, Tristan Taormino, a feminist author, sex educator and pornographic film director, said the only way to get familiar with our authentic sexuality is to let go of what we’re told is normal so that we can find out what really turns us on. She said she often finds herself assuring people seeking her advice that their fantasies are not something to be ashamed of and that many people share similar desires.
Simply putting on a costume can change a person’s view of his or her sexuality. Jared Fink, a freshman at Ithaca College, played Frank N Furter in the Macabre Theatre Ensemble’s 2014 production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” He said he related this to sexual role-play as he was crossdressing in such a sexual atmosphere.
“I had never before worn women’s clothing, so it was a surprisingly liberating feeling to put on these clothes in front of a non-judgemental group,” Fink said. “As a straight male wearing clothing unassociated with my gender, it made me question why certain practices such as this were viewed in such a negative light.”
Participating in role-play can cause emotional release and fulfill desires. Clarke said she believes sexual desire is an uncontrollable, innate need that needs to be addressed in some way.
“Being in a role-play is so engaging physically, mentally and emotionally,” Clarke said.
She said role-play has helped her build connections with partners.
“Maybe it’ll last for a summer, maybe it’ll go on for two years, maybe it’ll be just that one time, but that’s a real connection that you can’t deny,” she said. “It makes you feel alive.”
Clarke said she identifies as a feminist, which she defined as “a woman who knows what she wants, and isn’t afraid to voice her opinion on it, talk about it openly and then get what she wants.”
In terms of role-play, “submissive” is a sexuality, not a personality, Clarke said, and “if what you want looks like something that’s not feminist, you have to understand that it’s all about intentions.”
Anna*, a senior at Ithaca College, said she plans out role-playing sessions ahead of time, in detail, with her partner — a common practice for those who pursue this type of sexual activity.
“The big thing is consent,” she said. “We always talk about what we’re going to do, and we never cross any lines … We never do anything that we haven’t already established is okay.”
Like Clarke, she criticized claims that BDSM is anti-feminist.
“I think the big thing that feminism teaches is that women can choose what they want, and I think being into the submissive aspects of role-play, it’s not that you’re perpetuating the stereotype of the submissive woman, it’s more that you are choosing the role,” she said. “If someone else is forcing you to do submissive role-play, then that’s not role-play, and that’s not feminist.”
Caroline Fresh, a sophomore at Ithaca College, said “sometimes the line blurs for me, and I don’t know if I’m actually being degraded or if I’m just being degraded,” as part of the role-playing. Despite the occasional confusion, Fresh said ultimately, “it doesn’t matter what’s being said, there’s always the underlying layer of trust.”
Fresh used a three-step planning process for role-play: “You discuss what exactly are your dos and don’ts and what you feel comfortable with,” she said. The second step is the actual role-play, and the final step is a debriefing period, during which Fresh and her partner discuss how it went.
Fresh emphasized that during all stages, “there’s always the opportunity to stop it immediately” with safe words.
“This is what I want, and I don’t care if it’s not what society wants feminists to want,” she said. “I’m allowed to have my own sexual appetite. As a woman, you’re entitled to what you like in bed, and if that’s being spanked and being called a whore and other darker things, then that’s your right as a human being.”
Some pornography websites, such as kink.com, include interviews with the people in the videos before and after the session. These interviews allow participants to explain that the session was completely consensual, and to discuss what they particularly enjoyed. However, in most pornography, BDSM and role-play are made to look spontaneous, and there isn’t always a clear understanding that the situation is only okay because it’s in role-play.
In her interview with CityBeat, Taormino said, “Is there porn out there that’s degrading and offensive and humiliating and stupid? Absolutely.” However, she also emphasized that not all porn can be characterized as such: “I think the major problem with anti-porn feminists is that, within their arguments, porn is one monolithic thing. Porn is not a monolithic thing,” she said.
Though not all porn, including role-play porn, is degrading, porn that is or that blurs the lines can have negative consequences for sexual expectations.
Connor*, male sophomore at Cornell said, “I think that those who haven’t had a proper sexual education can be led astray by this porn — believing that women should be treated as sexual objects … but that certainly doesn’t apply to everyone.”
He echoed a common critique of pornoghraphy’s handling of BDSM — it can perpetuate rape culture, because women are often being objectified in the role-play and consent isn’t always perceivable to the viewer.
In an interview with Thought Catalog, Taormino said when the mainstream media depicts porn, they often stick to stereotypes and perpetuate the idea that all pornographers are “sleazy creepy guys with cameras who want to take advantage of these underage girls they pick up at a bus stop, who feel like they don’t have any options, and they’re going to be coerced into doing something they don’t want to do.” She said, “You never hear about people who came away from porn not scarred or traumatized or messed up.”
Many of those who engage in BDSM and role-play — whether in their personal lives or in porn — claim it encourages people to focus more on the actual sex and exploration, and rather than just as 20-minute porn videos with questionable consent on the part of women.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Sarah Chaneles is a sophomore journalism major whose sexy dreamboat is not a Christian Grey. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.