Yesterday, on an international BDSM discussion list I’m part of, someone brought up an article in the most recent issue of Bitch magazine and asked people for their thoughts. The article, written by Jessica Wakeman, is entitled “Slap Happy,” and it’s about the domestic discipline subculture. Needless to say I was intrigued, so I went right away and read through the article. The following is a somewhat expanded version of the post I wrote a post to the list.
For starters, let’s define. “Domestic discipline” is a term I’ve heard used in two contexts now, each of which seems to be reasonably distinct from the other though they share some traits. The Bitch article deals with domestic discipline in the context of heterosexual marriage or partnership in which the woman is the one being disciplined and the man doling out that discipline. It more or less focuses on the idea of keeping your wife on good behaviour via the regular administration of punishment for transgressions – the chief manifestation of this punishment seems to be spanking, but other things too.
The second context in which I’ve read about domestic discipline is in the book The Mistress Manual: The Good Girl’s Guide to Female Dominance, by Mistress Lorelei, which in a fun coincidence I just finished reading last week. It has a completely reverse idea of what domestic discipline is all about even though it explicitly and deliberately uses the same term. In the author’s view, it’s all about a male’s subordination to the feminine power of his wife.
From what I understand from online and in-person community discussions, there is a range among practitioners within each of these two permutations – male dominant / female submissive and female dominant / male submissive – of the domestic discipline subculture. If I had to give it a shorthand, I’d say that range falls along the lines of nature versus nurture. Some of these groups and practitioners seem to define themselves with the idea that domestic discipline is the natural, normal way of things and really they’re only doing what everyone else should be. In some cases (male dom / female sub specifically) that take on things is informed by a right-wing, father-knows-best sort of place, and a significant number of those folks come at it from a rather strict reading of the Bible. On the opposing end of the range, others understand that their practice is simply what works for them emotionally within a relationship, and have no particular assumptions about the wider population as a result.
In addition to that range, some of the practitioners seem to understand what they do as based in fantasy or kink or eroticism, whereas others quite vehemently do not. From what I hear, some of the “nature” DD folks get downright offended if anyone implies that what they’re doing is kinky (don’t you understand this is God’s will? We aren’t like those perverts!). But even the “nurture” ones don’t necessarily understand what they do as kinky or have any affinity with the leather / kink / BDSM subculture. In fact, in Mistress Lorelei’s book, she provides a table of comparisons between the domestic discipline and leather cultures. For example, in the domestic discipline column, she enters “fantasy of female supremacy and universal Dommeing” versus the leather column which reads “many orientations and combinations acceptable.” She also writes that domestic discipline types “rarely self-identifies as SM or even BDSM” whereas leatherfolk are “proudly BDSM.”
To tackle the male dom / female sub half of things for starters, let me focus on the Bitch article.
Unfortunately the article seems to conflate the feminist-to-right-wing range to a point, in that the writer has interviewed a number of self-defined feminists, but then goes on to quote websites and books that are clearly written from the right-wing end of the subculture. She does talk about that range, but much of her article seems to blur the distinctions, whereas in my mind those distinctions make all the difference.
The feminists she interviews explain how their relationship in some ways matches up with their feminism (i.e. they are following their desires, no matter how frowned-upon, because it feels right and works for them; they are often the instigators of this sort of relationship) and in some ways conflicts with it (i.e. hello, what sort of feminist am I if I want my husband to paddle my ass if I don’t have dinner ready on time?!). One of the women interviewed for the article in fact says, “It’s a little disconcerting to have something in common with the religious right, but they come at it with a much more fundamentalist and abusive and misogynistic point of view.” In addition, the men that Wakeman interviewed explained their own personal conflicts around the arrangements – not wishing to be or to be seen as abusive, finding it challenging to constantly hold the authority, and so forth. So it’s a little puzzling as to why the author seems to pose the same questions about these folks and the right-wing nutcases (whom she has not interviewed), when clearly the value systems, motivations and approaches are markedly different even just within the male dom / female sub bracket.
To me the distinction is a huge one because the framework is so different. It’s like comparing the act of punching someone in the boxing ring to the act of punching a stranger in the street. Context is everything! This is not to say that the presence of feminist sensibility makes all male dom / female sub relationships necessarily healthy and good – I’ve definitely seen many that are not – but it places it in a very different and more empowered framework where the people can at least engage with and discuss the problems that may arise from an egalitarian standpoint, rather than thinking that this is just the way things are supposed to be and if you don’t like it, tough luck.
As soon as I hear anything that smacks of “the one true way” it’s sure to raise my hackles, but if people are entering a dynamic with conscious choice, I’m way less worried both about their sanity and about the potential for genuine abuse. For example, one of the couples in the article manages their DD relationship by having the woman choose a goal she wishes to reach, and having the male half of the couple enforce it. For all that the authority distribution here is deliberately unequal, that relationship sounds a heck of a lot more fair than an arrangement in which a wife is expected to perform her wifely duties as defined by her husband and based on staunchly conservative values.
In addition to the writer’s conflation of the range of motivations, she conflates domestic discipline with BDSM. In fact, the domestic discipline subculture often has nothing whatsoever to do with the BDSM world, though of course there is some potential terrain of conceptual overlap in the realm of 24/7 D/s relationships. But generally, from what I understand, ideas about scenes, safewords, tops and bottoms, and so forth simply do not apply in domestic discipline. This is an arrangement of power distribution within a household that may not even have much to do with sex, let alone with the joys of BDSM play.
And unfortunately, the writer’s understanding of the BDSM world also doesn’t seem super accurate, at least not from what I can tell in her references. For example, she defines the idea of “topping from the bottom” as situations in which “it’s the submissive partner who’s actually in control; the ‘top’ is required to have permission from the ‘bottom’ before inflicting any BDSM action.” Actually, that’s not at all how kinksters generally use the phrase. Negotiation is par for the course; it’s a given that tops are supposed to have permission from bottoms before doing anything to them. Otherwise the BDSM action would be non-consensual and therefore completely counter to the ethics of the BDSM community (and of any reasonable individual, in my not-so-humble opinion.) That’s not topping from the bottom at all, it’s just the standard process for figuring out what you’re going to get up to during a scene. That scene may very well include a bottom giving instruction to a top – for example, between players who are new to one another, or using a new play technique, or between a more experienced bottom guiding a novice top – but that’s also generally pre-negotiated and might, if anything, be called backleading, if people bother to call it anything special at all.
“Topping from the bottom” in BDSM community lingo has nothing to do with all that. It is generally considered a bad thing, and it’s generally defined in one of two ways: a process by which a bottom attempts to manipulate the top into doing what the bottom wants by some means other than straightforward negotiation, or a situation in which the bottom becomes whiny and pushy and annoying about their desires, flipping the agreed-upon power dynamic (if there is one) so that the top feels put-upon instead of desired. Topping from the bottom is not about power distribution, it’s about a specific kind of breach of agreed-upon etiquette.
Despite all my criticisms, I think the article does a good job of being thoughtful rather than reactionary to the concept of male-dom domestic discipline, especially given the context in which it’s published – a magazine with the subtitle “a feminist response to pop culture.” That alone makes it a worthy read. I especially appreciate the concluding paragraph:
“Domestic discipline will never sit right in everyone’s stomach, and it shouldn’t. The long history of socially sanctioned submission, legislated inequality, and intimate partner violence against women makes it dizzying to determine if DD is empowering or dangerous. How to ‘do’ a relationship, as Coontz put it, is each couple’s struggle – and it is thought-provoking that some couples have found their answer in DD. Indeed, we’re all finding ways to ‘do’ our relationships, and for some couples, the way to do it may not be so egalitarian.”
Now, I must state my position within all these layers. I’m an avowed BDSMer and I am into 24/7 dominant/submissive dynamics (we’ll get to my take on those in a bit), and I know many others who identify along similar lines. I am not a member of the domestic discipline subculture, never have been, and don’t personally know anyone who identifies within that culture. So my feelings on the matter of male dom / female submissive dynamics are informed exclusively by what I see in the kink world.
With all that context in mind, I gotta say that male dom / female sub dynamics run a much higher risk of making me hiss in disapproval than just about any other dominant / submissive combination. Unfortunately, while I have met several hetero male dominants whom I think have really, truly figured out their shit and come to their dominance in a really conscious way, informed by feminism and some really deep self-analysis, those fine fellows are very, very few and far between. Have I mentioned very few? Like so few that the poor guys who actually do this well end up spending a lot of their time and energy trying to make it clear to folks like me that they’re not like the Neanderthals out there who do it badly, and feeling justifiably frustrated when people assume they are. It is their burden of prejudice to bear, and most white het male dominants don’t have too many of those burdens so I can’t say my heart is bleeding for them. But at the same time I do totally understand how deeply annoying and hurtful it can be for people to consistently make pejorative assumptions about you.
An acquaintance of mine, who blogs as Pantry Slut, wrote a fantastic post that really expresses my own feelings on the matter of male dominance and female submission very well. I think she has a mild distaste for D/s, which I do not, but beyond that the rest resonates in the extreme. Most specifically the following (minus the part about doing M/f D/s myself):
“Individually, M/f D/s is fine. Whatever floats your boat. I might even do it once in a while, what the heck.
As a prevailing community dynamic — as the default, in terms of what you’re most likely to see if not assume — it gets every single one of my raging radical feminist neurons screaming.
It pisses me off to see it so prevalent, because I don’t think that M/f D/s is something one should engage in heavily unless one has *also* interrogated one’s gender politics and assumptions. I want you to *know* that you are *consciously* reproducing a prevailing societal power dynamic that is *not* natural and that *is* oppressive when normalized and expected. I want you to be aware that you are making it explicit and obvious, and I want you to have thought about what the implications of that might be.
Then you can do whatever you like.
But if you haven’t done that work, I will snarl at you. And I don’t think these folks have done that work. (She said understatedly.)”
Funny enough, she wrote that after having felt that gender-dynamic skew at a fetish fleamarket event in San Francisco. I assumed it was the same one I attended yesterday afternoon, because the prevalent dynamics were exactly as she describes them, but as it turns out, she was actually talking about one that happened last summer. Clearly the prevalence hasn’t changed much.
This goes a long way to explaining why I get so bored at pansexual play parties like the Society of Janus shindig I attended on Saturday night at the Citadel. At the party there were two gay guys who didn’t play, two dykes and two trans guys who did (and whose energy I gratefully soaked in), and a grand total of one female dominant / male submissive pairing in the room. One. In a gathering of at least 200 people, maybe more. I enjoyed a happy half hour squeezed in at the tail end of the night when a very nice and totally un-creepy male submissive paid me a compliment on my boots, which led to a lovely though sadly brief foot rub and toe-tonguing session pleasantly seasoned with some light D/s. But apart from that, I sat around for four hours watching guys beat on their wives. Which really, really did not turn me on. And if I’m going to go to a party to have fun, I want to see shit that turns me on.
I’m happy to do community work with people of all stripes, but my social life and my kink are not a community service, and I’m not interested in going to sexual and kinky spaces where my prevailing experience is one of boredom and possibly irritation. In this particular case, in addition to my general boredom, my irritation was at the two different women who came up and started conversations with the guy who had my toes in his mouth. They clearly had no idea what sort of headspace he was in and how jarring it was to both of us for him to be yapped at about such inanities as whether or not he wanted to share a cab back to the hotel. I can’t help but wonder if their rudeness happened because they’re so used to male dom / female sub dynamics that they genuinely didn’t grasp that a guy could be in a submissive headspace despite all physical evidence to the contrary. Then again, maybe they were just clueless in a broader way. Either way – blecch.
To change the subject, I’d like to turn briefly to Mistress Lorelei’s book. While it makes token reference to the existence of women who switch and to non-het dynamics, the overwhelming focus is on how to best experience your divine feminine power and how best to exert that power over your willing, but very naughty, submissive male. The book makes allowance for how this brand of domestic discipline can be experienced on a scene-by-scene basis or as an ongoing lifestyle, but it’s clear that the book itself is aimed at the “scene” end of the spectrum as a general rule. It’s also very clear that the book considers domestic discipline to be a form of play or fantasy, i.e. inspired by “nurture,” and not a form of the right way to do things as nature intended it. As such, the readers of this book will probably not have much in common with the ladies’ domestic discipline group in Utah that lambasted a fellow BDSM discussion list member for suggesting they might be kinky – the counterpart to the “father knows best” types in the male dom / female sub world.
Right then. Kinky is good, according to Mistress Lorelei. Now, despite the author’s clear and elegant writing style, and her well-structured explanations of how domestic discipline works within a femdom / male sub context, I found a few things about this book to be very baffling.
One is that she insists on femdom domestic discipline as being all about constructing and playing out a fantasy. She even includes repeated references to this in her DD vs BDSM comparison table: DD “thinks of itself as a fantasy” while BDSM “thinks of itself as an aspect of reality.” DD is about “psychodrama and role-playing” whereas BDSM is about “intensification of self.” Her fantasy and theatre references don’t hold up nearly as well, though, in various parts of the book in which she talks about doing occasional DD scenes in then immediately thereafter talks about the ways in which DD can be a useful dynamic for all sorts of much wider purposes. For example, she lists one of the benefits of DD as being that it’s a great way keep your house clean. This doesn’t add up; a two-hour scene every couple of weeks won’t keep your house clean or your dishes done. That’s the stuff of a full-on relationship paradigm. And does anyone in a full-on 24/7 dominant / submissive relationship paradigm truly continue to think of what they’re doing as being about fantasy? Seems awfully real to me if it’s the baseline of a marriage, and I would question the health of someone who’s living in a 24/7 power dynamic while still thinking it’s all about let’s-pretend. That just seems like denial.
The next bit that confuses me is her ideas about shame, humiliation and feminization. For all that she constructs femininity as being superior, even divine, in no uncertain (and very second-wave feminist essentialist) terms, she also insists in virtually every scenario on the ways in which feminization and quasi-castration (i.e. chastity devices) are excellent tools for humiliating men and thus bringing out their submissive sides.
I just don’t get it. How can femininity simultaneously be exalted and shameful? How can a self-respecting dominant woman who values and appreciates her own femininity proceed to use techniques and tools to make a man appear or behave more like her, and then make fun of him for becoming somehow more inferior? The author explains this a few times, and the gist of it seems to be that the man finds it humiliating to be caught attempting to rise above his lowly station by becoming more feminine. But it still doesn’t add up for me. I’m not convinced that the whole equation of femininity as shameful can truly be explained away through the idea of femininity as superior. Seems to me that shame usually comes from places where you’re caught doing something inferior to what you’re expected to, something dirty and bad, not the reverse.
Now, this is not to say I disapprove of men wearing women’s clothing. That can be hot. I also don’t necessarily disapprove of the whole forced-feminization kink either, even if in most cases I find the concept politically questionable and it doesn’t get me excited. If people want to play that way, as long as they don’t then go out and live an unquestioned misogynist reality outside playtime, more power to ‘em. I just would rather hear this particular kink explained in honest terms that recognize the cultural process by which femininity is seen as weak and shameful. There’s no shame (ha) in eroticizing things that in real life are quite awful and not fun or sexy at all. Kinky people play with concepts of torture, rape, incest, abuse of power, racial prejudice, kidnapping and all sorts of other truly horrid ideas, and they make ‘em sexy and fun. So why does Mistress Lorelei ignore the powerful cultural force that is the gender binary and the second-class social status of feminine people? Where’s the harm in calling a spade a spade?
Last but not least, I’m not sure I understand how all the things Lorelei describes in her book are supposed to be empowering to women when her entire concept of female dominance, and the entire book as a result, is structured around the five archetypal fantasies of the male submissive and how women can best embody them. Sure, she takes the time to say how if this stuff doesn’t turn you on, don’t do it; you are the dominant after all. In fact I really like how she phrases it:
“It is scarcely my intention to oppress Women with yet another duty owed to males. If, after listening to my suggestions and giving the fantasy a reasonable trial, you find that you do not enjoy Female Domination, don’t do it! If your male still insists, dump him. No one has the right to force you into sexual acts that make you feel uncomfortable.”
But there is no chapter on “figuring out what pleases you as a dominant,” or “choosing the fantasy role that best suits your personality independent of what others’ expectations might be,” or “serious questions to ask yourself about what attracts you to a dominant role and what you want to get out of it.” She does do an excellent breakdown, in chapter 2, of the reasons why a woman might be freaked out about the idea of taking command – in fact, had I read it a few years back, it might have helped me through a few of my own dilemmas at the time. But when she goes on to the nitty-gritty, the how-to of female domination, she focuses entirely on a framework defined by the desires of the male partner. As a female dominant myself, while there are certainly elements here and there in her descriptions that fit with how I do things, I don’t find any draw to the archetypes as models for dominance, let alone a draw to embodying some guy’s fantasy right down to his preferred scripts and costumes. I’ve tried it and it has just felt completely contrary to the experience of taking up actual dominance. And it irks me that there’s theoretically room in her paradigm for women like me to depart from the guidelines and make our own path, but zero information about or validation of what those departures might look like, why they’d happen, and how the idea of dressing up and acting nasty to please your man exactly as he desires might not resonate with a genuinely powerful woman. Of course, if you’re a powerful gal and something in these five fantasies works for you, well, you go, girl. But what about the rest of us?
It’s quite the study in contrasts to have both of these pieces of literature in my mind at once – the Bitch article and The Mistress Manual. It’s been eye-opening. Ultimately though, the thing that falls flat for me is the same in both cases: the rhetoric is so relentlessly focused on gender differences that it’s impossible to fully engage with the concepts without buying into essentialized ideas about gender. In one case those ideas are used to justify male dominance and in the other case to justify female dominance (which should tell us something about how useless these ideas are if they serve completely opposing purposes so smoothly) but in both cases the power dynamic is utterly dependent on the polarization of female and male. This also sets both versions of DD up as being rigidly heterosexual, with no room for those whose gender may be variant or fluid, who are trans, or who play with trans people or people of the same sex.
In my happy, queer little world, dominance and submission, top and bottom, authority and subordination, and any other polarized power dynamics are about the characters and inclinations of the people involved, and what comes most naturally to them and feels good to all concerned. There are many like me – people who come to an understanding of their dominant or submissive personalities and erotic attractions via a process of self-investigation that’s entirely independent of our genitals and gender expressions. People who eroticize power dynamics but don’t require the traction of essentialized gender in order to stay there.
I am a female dominant, and fairly feminine most of the time, but I don’t think that has anything to do with my Divine Vagina or inherent Feminine Superiority. My full-time owned boi is a trans guy and my other boi is a butch woman, but I don’t think their submission has anything inherently to do with their masculinity, or for that matter, their female-bodied inferiority (gah). “Leaning-toward-femme top with butch or FTM bottom” just happens to be a gender and power package that works for us in life and in bed, but other pairings can work too – for example, when the bois play with each other there’s some definite butch-on-transguy top/bottom action happening (with plenty of switching), and I’m also attracted to femme guys who like to bottom, and every once in a while I’m very much in guy headspace and not feminine (or truly female) at all so that flips all the gender pairings on their heads.
Ultimately, while I find both gender contrasts and power contrasts to be extremely sexy, the specifics of those two things aren’t inherently related in my mind. Gender and physical sex aren’t related to one another, and neither of those things are related to a person’s suitability for either wielding or submitting to power. As such, I’m no more interested in female supremacy than I am in male supremacy, whether in playtime or in life, because to me the baseline gender categories are false – or at least extremely loose and permeable – in the first place. Funny enough, for all that queers seem to play with and talk about gender expression incessantly, these readings have really shown me that it’s the hets (most though certainly not all) who truly fetishize and eroticize gender – in a way that, from my perspective on the outside, feels way more like a mechanism for erotic constraint than a ticket to erotic freedom.