Fifty Shades of Pro-Orgasm

fifty-shades-of-grey-1Some worry that the deluge of male dominance/female submission imagery in our culture helps to make sexism seem sexy, encourages women to crave their own submission and abuse, and spurs some men to abuse women.

Others are less concerned. Specifically regarding the Fifty Shades series one of my students — a fan — says,

To those feminists who are bashing the book and those of us who read it: Give us more credit! Women are not that easily influenced by a piece of poorly written fiction. At least not the women I know.

Or this from Feministing:

I’m not perplexed by (the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey). And I am in no way appalled. I am fully in support of anyone doing whatever (safe, consensual) thing that they want to do to get themselves off. Feminists for Orgasms.

Feminists for Orgasms. Pro-choice feminists. Feminists who think women have more sense than to be so easily swayed by a pornified culture that sexualizes male dominance.

And anyway, since male domination is rather of off-limits for feminists, that makes it that much more forbidden and O-inducing, right? Katie Roiphe, whose Newsweek piece on “Shades” was widely panned, has a point when she says,

What is interesting is that this material still, in our jaded porn-saturated age, manages to be titillating or controversial or newsworthy. We still seem to want to debate or interrogate or voyeuristically absorb scenes of extreme sexual submission. Even though we are, at this point, familiar with sadomasochism, it still seems to strike the culture as new, as shocking, as overturning certain values, because something in it still feels, to a surprisingly large segment of our tolerant post-sexual-revolution world, wrong or shameful.

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand sure, women should choose what they want. On the other hand, how much choice do you have when you’ve unconsciously internalized society’s way of seeing? Or, as one of my readers put it,

I find this post (on women learning to like torture) extremely frustrating because it points out an issue that bothers me so much. I have always struggled with the fact that morally (and in general) I am completely disgusted by degrading and torturing women, but when it comes to sexual fantasies, I feel completely differently. I think that this is a serious problem and needs to be addressed by my and the coming generations. I think it is perfectly fine to enjoy D/s if that’s what you’re into, however I do not think it should be subconsciously shoved into the minds of every girl growing up in our society.

And while many believe that we aren’t affected by our culture and the messages around us, we do seem to be. Sales go up for products that are advertised. Why else would companies spend mega-millions on a 30-second Super Bowl ad?

Or, a post from Feministing reads:

I am in no way surprised that many women, who have been socialized in a culture in which male sexuality is linked to domination and in which women are taught their sexual power comes from being wanted, have fantasies of submission.

And actually, “dominating men” is one of the few ways that men in our culture are eroticized at all.

Meanwhile, nearly 80% of young women have poor body image and can get distracted from sex by worries over what their bodies look like. The whole dominance/submission thing could help young women to get away from that focus and get into the sexy happenings they are engaged in.

Still, I don’t care to see abuse eroticized, whether based on gender or ethnicity. Or whether the target is children or animals. And I will continue to work against it.

But eroticized abuse is what we’ve got. And many women, including many feminists, find it arousing.

So I’ve given this a lot of thought.

While people do unconsciously internalize the messages of their society, we can also become conscious of them, which makes choice more possible. We may then choose to overcome the messages or, alternatively, compartmentalize them.

So, a woman could live an egalitarian and empowered life while keeping submission fantasies confined to the bedroom in order to neutralize the potential harm that comes from feeling — and becoming  — “lesser than.”  She could also do the BDSM-thing in ways that are not physically harmful.

Many who engage in D/s only do so with partners who respect them as equals and who see these “cut off from reality” moments as play.

Others keep the fantasies in their heads and don’t act them out. As one dominatrix put it,

In many cases people’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs and they prefer the fantasy to reality.

If anyone chooses to act out their fantasies I suggest avoiding anything that is actually harmful. Pain exists to warn against whatever is causing it. Those who lack pain receptors die young.

Others protest that some people deal with emotional problems by harming themselves. Like cutting. Again, cutting is not healthy. If you need that sort of release, seeing a therapist to deal with the underlying issue is healthier.

Finally, so that women don’t consistently act in ways that bolster an ideology that encourages them to submit, how about turning it around sometimes? Maybe he’d like to be dominated now and again. Or, maybe you could spend an evening with him serving your every desire.

Now that would be nice.

Popular Posts on BroadBlogs
Why Women Want Shades of Grey
Learning to Like Torture in Shades of Grey
Shades of Making Sexism Sexy

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on July 29, 2013, in feminism, pornography, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, violence against women, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. It seems to me that women – people – are too complex, mentally and emotionally, to be summarily defined by a single act, or even by a general proclivity.

    What it all boils down to is choice, because choosing – and being able to choose – is the most basic form of self-expression and our single greatest freedom. If you don’t have that, you have nothing.

    • And my focus here is on being able to choose rather than merely expressing something that has been internalized unconsciously. Plus, not choosing to do things that are harmful to you.

      • Yes, avoiding harm – either getting it or giving it – is always a good choice. One should strive to understand that potential in anything they pursue.

  2. Is there any research suggesting that women reading “raunchy” novels and literature about domination are more prone to implement these patterns in their real sex lives?

    I don’t think exposure to literature containing domination necessarily implies that women feel forced to live out these fantasies – yes, they may open the door, but I think most women are capable of choosing whether to enter the realm of these fantasies. Also, remember that these fantasies have not always been as widespread in popular literature as today – go back just 10 – 15 years or so and they were associated with a social stigma to a larger extent, and they were not as frequently described or depicted. Still there were plenty of women playing it out. So what came first, the hen or the egg? Can we be sure that writers of modern novels just don’t build on top of thoughts already held by some individuals? Would these books be so successful if people wouldn’t want to at least explore these fantasies?

    As for the last paragraph about turning the tables there are many men who fantasize and/or play out domination as well – at least if there’s some truth to the plethora of forum/blog posts describing these desires around.

    • Practically the only way you can get social research on this is cross-culturally: we are so bombarded by these images in popular culture that you can’t separate out women who have, and who have not, been exposed to it. As I discussed in some posts that led up to this one (see the posts below) there was plenty of this imagery 10 years ago. Some of my first exposure came when I was a little kid. And my fantasies about this sort of thing came soon after that exposure. Actually, some research has found that women who are exposed to violent pornography come to increasingly develop a taste for it too. Here’s the book that discusses that: Pornified

      You don’t find this sort of thing in cultures that don’t contain male dominance and violence against women, like the Cherokee and Iroquois before European contact. And anthropologists who visit the Arapesh have found that they cannot even conceive of this sort of thing.

      Why Women Want Shades of Grey
      Learning to Like Torture in Shades of Grey
      Shades of Making Sexism Sexy

      And relatedly:

      Enslaving Sex Objects

      • Interesting, I’ll be reading them. Still don’t think this kind of material was _as_ frequent as today, though. That doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of writers and artists making such material, however content is now much more “ubiquitous” due to technological innovations related to internet technology. Where a lot fewer people had access to internet that was more or less restricted to the computer, teens today have access from their laps and hands, which increases the “hit field” (don’t know a better word in english just now) for any commercial.

      • I agree that it is more ubiquitous today. It’s just that it’s hard to separate out the effects really clearly because even when I was kid and there was less of it, it had an effect on me.

  3. Rohan 7 Things

    I definitely agree that choice is the key word, that and safety, sanity and consensuality. My only worry is the concept that “this person cannot make a consensual choice because of subconscious cultural conditioning”. As you pointed out yourself, the same could be said for any advertised product. Like if I buy a Coke, did I actually choose to buy it or was it merely a conditioned response?

    Of course in the case of the Coke it doesn’t really matter, it’s a fairly harmless decision. If someone is conditioned to consistently seek out physical or psychological harm then clearly that is not good, particularity if the harm is of a long term, or even permanent nature.

    The reason I worry is because I know that laws have been passed in Europe criminalizing sex workers on the basis that all sex workers are victims and that the families of sex workers have been charged with pimping by living off their partner’s/mother’s earnings. The fact is that there are vocal, intelligent and legally educated sex positive feminist sex workers with a regular clientele who certainly do not see themselves as victims.

    These laws have made sex work much more dangerous in Europe for the women, and forced the work out into the streets and hotels instead of regulated houses and buildings with proper security and vetted clients.

    I guess all I’m saying is that I’m always careful of the concept that “you can’t possibly or willfully make that choice because you are a victim, and it is nothing more than your conditioned response or Stockholm syndrome”

    Of course where bullying, abuse or physical or psychological harm is being perpetrated all efforts should be made to end it, even if Stockholm syndrome has set in and the abused party is habitually seeking or returning to the abuse. But I think a distinction should be made between clear instances of cruelty and abuse, and consenting adults engaging in some kinky fun. Which you definitely do Georgia 🙂

    You are right when you say that a great many of our thought processes and behaviors are culturally conditioned! And it’s good to talk about this stuff, and nothing can justify abuse. All I’ll say is that from my experience and research the average BDSM session is safer, more conscious, and more negotiated that the average night out at a club, or a drunken one night stand which is much more socially accepted lol!

    Thanks for sharing, great post!


    • I’m trying to make people aware of their socialization so that it can be a choice. If you don’t bring these things to the surface they seem to run unconsciously.

      And, I believe we should decriminalize prostitution so that prostitutes can gain greater protection from pimps. But it is still a difficult question because of sex trafficking/slavery, and it’s something I want to give more thought to.

      The thing that works best in terms of ending sex slavery is decriminalizing prostitution but criminalizing the pimps and the “johns” who purchase sex.

      That might bother you as a limitation on sexuality. But I worry more about girls who are constantly enslaved.

      As I say, it’s something I feel needs to be given more thought.

      • Rohan 7 Things

        Ah yeah, slavery of any kind is never okay, whether it is sexual in nature or not! And to be honest I don’t have a full enough understanding of the entire subject of the sex trade to come to a final conclusion. With that said, my general opinion from what I know of things is that less harm tends to come from legalizing and regulating an industry than it does from criminalizing and forcing it underground.

        Whether it was the prohibition of drugs, alcohol or sex, banning it outright has never been the solution, and tends to do more harm than good. People don’t suddenly stop wanting the product, they are simple forced to commit crime and endanger themselves and others in order to attain it.

        The prostitution issue is not so much one of sexuality, it’s more one of safety and legal protection. I believe that a legal and regulated sex industry actually has the ability to decrease instances of sex trafficking and slavery, which of course would remain very much highly illegal!

        A vast issue to be sure, and definitely one that I’d enjoy reading your take on! And yeah, I agree, the more reasoned discussion we can have to the subject of BDSM the better 🙂


  4. There is no wonder why even some women learn to like dominant the male/submissive female.
    It’s the same pattern with “breast fetish”.

    If women can learn the “breast fetish” then they can certainetaly learn to like dominant males – they just need “enough time” to do that.

    Repeating something over and over again that someone doesn’t like it, if first will make him/her tolerate and be indifferent about it. After a while he/she will learn to like it and eventually will learn to love it.

    It’s only a matter of time – it’s just that some persons need more time than the others

  5. Excellent commentary – with several perspectives put on the table for consideration…

  6. A good post and discussion. I would simply like to add a note about the spiritual aspect. First I’ll not that I strongly believe in the freedom of choice, and that government has no business dictating what is moral and what is not nor which religious values to impose upon its citizens.

    Regarding spirituality, I don’t have anything incendiary to express, 🙂 I’d just like to note that some people may agree with the opinions expressed here, but choose to express sexuality in what some would consider “conventional” ways because of their religious beliefs, or feel that by acting on otherwise “harmless” fantasies would in fact harm their soul.

  7. I read all the books of Fifty Shades of Grey but in no way do I like to be tortured…If you read the book Christian Grey was tortured that is the reason why he does and why it turns him on. I thought it was a good book. It makes your imagination crave for more scenes and you can’t stop reading it.The book may teach you some life lesson. Christian use to be the submissive one and now he makes the woman he loves kinda of submissive not really though because she can say code if it is really hurting her. The one thing that impressed me was that how the heck was I getting stuck to this book it let out my inner Goddess kind of liking some of the stuff he did to her but not painfully just like a soft thing. Kind of surprised me and confused I would be like is this really me was I afraid to show submission for a bit. I guess male or female could be both submissive and dominant. not only men can be dominant there are times I like to be dominant and times I prefer the guy to be dominant. its up to the couple.

  8. Maybe the solution is to introduce more kink into mainstream media that includes people of all genders in different power relationships, thus disrupting the norm that men exercising power over women is particularly sexy. For instance, despite 50% of men admitting they have fantasies of submission to women, this kind of relationship remains severely underrepresented in media.

    Furthermore, mass exposure to many different kinks would remove the stigma of nonconventional sex and allow people to explore their unique sexualities, be more open with their partners, and have more fulfilling sexual experiences (in the context of consent and mutual respect). Otherwise, sexual impulses will only be channeled into pornography that, bereft of consequences and unbound by reality, pushes desires to grow in ways that can’t be fulfilled in the real world.

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