Feminism, Bad Feminism, Choice, and Submission

I am a feminist. I am a submissive. This is my choice. There is no conflict between the two for me. However, my submission is not an act of a feminist because I simply choose submission. Not all choices by women are feminist choices. Simply fulfilling my needs and desires through submission do not make me a feminist. My submission and choice to submit gains its power and definition as a feminist act because it is made after I understood the larger social structures, mores, and political influences that created this choice.

There is a lot of writing out there about feminism, bad feminism, and feminism as simply the decision of a woman. I want to address this debate. If you are not familiar with debate about choice and feminism, check out Salon, Feminist Current, The Guardian, and Bad Feminists by Roxanne Gay. Once you get the basics of the discourse, check out The Onion’s piece Women Empowered by Everything a Woman Does. You will get the idea that choice is a key concept in third wave feminism and that is has been totally co-opted to justify the oppressive and abusive issues foisted on women every day.

Feminism, at its core, is the basic idea that all people are equal, should have equal rights, access and opportunity regardless of gender. It recognizes that there are personal, cultural and systemic values and practices in most places that work to disempower women, strip them of political voice and power, control their bodies, subject them to the male gaze, and dehumanize them to the point where they are not really safe (all the while arguing that this disempowerment is designed to protect them). Feminists work to challenge and dismantle these cultural practices and the political and financial forces that keep women from being truly equal.

In the United States, core issues like pay inequality, wage gaps, discrimination based on motherhood status, failure to provide paid family leave, cultural values that support men advancing in the workplace but not women, that allow sexual harassment to persist, and make a women’s biggest value her sexuality continue to force women into compromised positions and keep women from full equality.

Thousands of statistics support the existence of these bonds. Women make less than men across the board. Recent studies show that amongst Millennials who have not had children rates of pay between men and women are relatively equal. However, most Millennials have not entered parenthood. The primary predictors of poverty and wage gap both come when women begin to have children. Sixty-two percent of minimum wage workers are women. Women make up less than ten percent of boards for Fortune 500 companies. Most state legislatures have less than 20 percent women electeds. Women make up less than 20 percent of all crowd scenes in children’s films and the most popular “job” for a female character in G-rated films for women is “royalty.” I could go on, but hopefully you are getting the point.

Women still lack the same control over their bodies as men do. While abortion remains technically legal in America, many states lack more than a few facilities that will perform the procedure. Several states, including North Carolina, are seeking to end the rape exemption to abortion bans. We have people talk about “legitimate” rape. Facebook bans “hate speech” and pictures of gay men kissing, but allows rape memes (e.g., posts saying “Next time don’t bag it and tag it, tape her and rape here” are perfectly acceptable on Facebook). Girls are still suspended for wearing “inappropriate” clothing with the reasoning that “boys can’t control themselves” if a female classmate is in a tank top and shorts. We teach women to practice all sorts of protective maneuvers to avoid rape rather than teaching men to not rape.

Much of the work I have done professionally has been dedicated to changing these oppressive structures. I have worked in politics, academic research and written about body image to try and combat the oppression that women face every day. This is why I am so appalled by the co-opting of the idea of choice when it comes to feminism.

Feminism does involve choice, but the choice has to be a real choice. If, say, a fifteen year old girl is living with an abusive stepfather and the other parent won’t get out of the house and she opts to run away and engage in sex work, that is not a real choice. It is a method of survival. And yes, technically staying might be a theoretical option. But the reality is, there needed to be an escape and at fifteen, there are not a lot of job options. Classifying this teen sex-worker as making a “feminist choice” is absurd. It fails to look at the context of the choice and the fact that there are few systematic supports to allow this teen to make any other choice to survive.

Likewise, many women enter the workforce with a desire to have a life-long career. When they have a child, they take what leave is available. Some women, at the end of leave, decide to not return to the workforce. For a few women, this is a real choice. However, for many women, the lack of affordable child care and company policies that actively hurt working mothers prevents successful re-entry to a career. These women stay home with their children not because they no longer desire to have a career, but the fact that they cannot afford to work and pay for adequate child care. That is not a feminist “choice.”

When it comes to sexuality and relationships, many women engage in structures that resemble a D/s relationship not out of desire, but out of seeing no real choice. The relationships modeled in most media, supported by most religions, and promoted by the culture are there to disempower women.  As a women, we are taught that our value comes with our looks. If we are attractive, we are supposed to be pursued by a man until we fall into his arms and live happily ever after. Decisions about career, where to live, when to have kids, and what to eat for dinner are often left to the man out of habit and cultural expectation and not out of negotiation and desire. While the relationship is technically authoritarian and similar to some D/s models, and people enter this freely, there was no negotiation and no understanding of larger cultural constructs of this model. This type of relationship is not a feminist choice.

I come to my submission fully aware of the political and cultural limitations placed on women. I classify my submission as feminist for several reasons. First, I have a pretty good grasp on the cultural and political institutions in American the the expected role of women. Second, I am financially independent and come from a position of equality with my partners. Third, I have lived on my own, I am okay with that, and I am not seeking a relationship to provide any necessary element for my survival. My partners enter the relationship with the same understandings.

I only submit to men who understand and respect the fact that I am their equal. They know full well that I have the power to walk away from the relationship and that I will have equal say until I opt to give away that power. Men who support patriarchal structures and the status quo of American culture are never options as play partners, let alone someone to have a relationship with for me.

When I have engaged in a D/s relationship, we enter on equal footing and negotiate a relationship that will work for both of us. I have as much say in setting the parameters and internal boundaries of the relationship as my partner does. I fully expect my partner to know my preferences and desires and respect them. I only partner with someone who understands the structural inequalities of gender in the larger system and understands that because of his gender he has a different role than I do.

All of this comes to the table before I submit. This is why my submission is a feminist choice. When I don an apron and make coffee in the morning it is with the full understanding of the cultural significance of these acts, with a nod toward the romanticism that surrounds the upper middle class whiteness of the 1950s, and with the understanding that each time I do this it is fully my choice. When I engage in impact play, it is with the full understanding of both partners of the choice, of the desire, and of the importance of the intentions of the scene. I have several D-types I play with. None ever engage in impact play if they are angry, desire to punish or harm someone, or know that they could be triggered to come from a place of anger, fear, resentment, or harm. This means that some scenes get cancelled because of outside forces imposing themselves on us. It is that respect for dominance and submission with my partners and I that make my submission a feminist choice. Without this larger context and understanding, submission would be for desire or something other than a manifestation of my power as a woman and submissive.

Not all submission is a choice. Not all submission is informed by larger context. That type of submission is not a form of feminism. It is not necessarily wrong or undesirable, but it is not feminism.

The concept of feminism and submission is nuanced. It requires people to be fairly aware of political structures, inequality between genders, American history, and concepts of power. This is why, for as much as I understand my submission as a feminist act and as much as I think America is pretty dumb about sex in general, I recognized the risks I took when I played publicly during my employment in the political realm. I took precautions and played out of state in places I was unlikely to meet other people who would know me. I limited photos and public postings about my kink and submission. While it was always clear to me that my submission was in line with my feminism, there is no way to have this discussion in a large public forum on through media outlets. If I have been “discovered” submitting when I was the head of a state agency, it would have been impossible not to resign immediately. The nuance would never have been picked up by media outlets.

We need to push back against the idea that all choices by women are feminist choices. Some simply enforce cultural norms and biases that work to keep women oppressed. It is only through a significant understanding of American culture and politics that we can orient a discussion about feminism or submission. You can’t simplify this stuff and keep it real.

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