I’ve been trying and failing to write something on this for weeks, now. I guess I’m just tired of pointing my finger and yelling “sexism!” every time I see it. There’s just so much of it around me, every day, that I can’t bring myself to get pissed off any more. I keep thinking of that self-righteous bumper sticker, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention!” But I’ve been “paying attention” to this shit since I was, oh, ten years old, and I find it harder and harder to become outraged by it — not because I’ve come to accept things as they are but because once you realize how institutionalized sexism is and how deeply fucked up our entire civilization is, nothing really shocks you anymore.
To get to the point, the issue at hand is an episode of “This Week in Kink”, a podcast put on by the folks that run FetLife. On this episode, which aired over two months ago, one of the guests invited on the show said the following:
I firmly and strongly believe that it is a woman’s role to be submissive to a man. . . . I think that women in the past couple of hundred years have gotten entirely too high on their own power and eventually need to be slapped in the fucking head and put in their place.
A couple of years ago, I would have crusaded against this man and against the people who run the podcast. (How dare they allow such a thing to be broadcast.) I’d have demanded an apology and a retraction. Today, my reaction is a sigh and a shake of the head. What an asshole. I browse the comments on their page and leave one of my own. And I’m done. Next.
I did a bit of link-hopping and read Maymay’s take on the issue, in a post called “Don’t You Fret, Sexism Is Alive and Well in BDSM.” His post addressed a lot of stuff I’ve also written about — basically, making the point that while anti-BDSM feminists are wrong in their assessment of “BDSM = patriarchy,” we should acknowledge that there is a lot of sexism in BDSM as a culture and in how a lot of people practice it.
He linked to a blogger named Delilah, who writes that what troubles her the most about this is not that it was said — there will always be bigoted, ignorant jerks in the world — but that “in the BDSM world, where we’re meant to be playing with power, subverting some traditional norms and amplifying others to erotic effect, there are people who still truly believe this kind of outright nonsense. Even worse, that someone with such opinions is such a strong voice in the community.”
To me, what this says is not that there is a troubling streak of misogyny or at least sexism in the BDSM scene, but that (as I’ve written before) the values of the BDSM scene are fairly mainstream. Rob may be more outspoken and brash about his sexism, and it comes coated with d/s-specific language, but I strongly sense that the root of what he’s saying here is actually what the majority of men and women think — that there are biological differences between men and women, that these differences create “natural” inequalities between the sexes in some ways, and that the feminist demand for equality goes against woman’s natural role in the world.
Of course, none of this means that I’m throwing up my hands and saying, “Well, if the rest of the world thinks I should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, I guess I’ll start taking off my shoes.” I’m still angry. I still argue. But I’m not outraged; I don’t feel like I should expect the world to not be sexist, and that this individual person has just violated that unspoken agreement. I go out into the world expecting that most people I meet will have, on some level, an understanding of gender and gender roles that I do not share and that I feel is harmful to me in some way. I expect exactly the same thing when I encounter people in the BDSM scene. (The unfortunate difference, of course, is that within the world of BDSM, “this is my kink” can be used to justify stereotypes and prejudice, and thus people like Rob can speak a little louder than they would, perhaps, on the street.)
Perhaps I’m just having a very cynical day. But perhaps not.
What a roller coaster the past few weeks have been: a constant swinging between giddy optimism and completely crushing feelings of defeat. When the thought of my partner with “the other woman” isn’t invading my consciousness, I’ve been completely happy, both in our relationship and in the rest of my life: in my projects, in my relationships with others. When I’m suddenly, for whatever reason, reminded of her existence, I completely shut down, lose all interest in everything I’d been working on, and feel like withdrawing from all of my social circles. These changes can happen within a matter of minutes, from one mood to the other and then back again. It’s really wearing me down.
I’ve realized that the reason I have felt so profoundly hurt by my partner’s having sex with someone else is that my sexuality is an incredibly sensitive and deeply intimate part of my identity — which isn’t the case for him. It’s taken many years for me to be okay with not only my sexual identity as a submissive but just with the idea of myself as a sexual being at all; for most of my life, sex was something big and terrifying that I engaged in somewhat reluctantly and while holding a lot of myself back. In my family, sex was probably mentioned all of two or three times throughout my adolescence, and then only in combination with the words “don’t” and “be careful.” My memories of these brief conversations with my mother are marked by feelings of extreme discomfort, embarrassment, and fear — both on her part and my own. In fact, this could be said about any of my conversations with my parents around personal issues or problems. And as I got older, I mirrored this in my relationships with friends and others — avoiding discussions of serious issues; minimizing and dismissing emotional problems; lying about my scars during phases of self-injury; hiding the fact that I was at times unable to function because of depression, anxiety, and overwhelm; and never, ever talking about sex. In large part, this is still true today. Even with my trusted partner of four years, I often lapse into a headspace in which I can’t bring myself to actually voice the thoughts in my head, or sometimes even speak at all, when having conversations about difficult or highly personal issues.
All of which brings me to a paper on non-monogamy and identity that I recently read; it’s very academic, and I strongly disagree with parts of it, but it brings up some interesting points. Most significantly, the author writes that many (if not most) women in our society are taught to define ourselves in terms of our relationships with others, and specifically in terms of our (monogamous) sexual relationships. Because of this fusing of a monogamous person’s identity with that of her sexual partner, when the partner chooses to have a sexual relationship with someone else, the person feels that her identity is being changed in a way that she didn’t choose for herself. The author writes, “When the monogamous person says, of her lover, ‘I’m selfish; I don’t want to share,’ she may not necessarily be thinking of her lover as a child thinks of a toy or a bag of candy. She may rather be saying that she does not choose to share herself, to extend herself to include this new person, who is not a chosen part of her self-assumed identity.” It is a sort of “forced relating.” And as long as a person defines herself in part or exclusively in terms of her sexual partner, this sort of pain and vulnerability will continue. The real problem, the author argues, is neither monogamy nor non-monogamy but the idea that real emotional intimacy and identity can only be tied to the person or people you’re fucking; both monogamous and polyamorous people may feel that “sexual coupling defines and is the hallmark of closeness between human beings; that being sexual is being intimate; and that sex is almost the only route to warm physical contact between adults.”
And this leads to the big revelatory conclusion: The real solution to my issues with non-monogamy is not to just start dating other people myself (which I’ve considered), nor is it to cut myself off completely and regress to the hyper-independent ideal that I used to aspire to (which I’ve noticed myself already doing). The solution, or at least a large part of it, is to actually form intimate relationships with people I’m not having sex with. To let myself cry in front of my friends. To talk to people in person about the things I currently write about anonymously online. To learn how to touch other people without feeling awkward and uncomfortable. To not allow my sexual relationship to be the only outlet I have to get the love and affection and reassurance I need. I can’t stress how difficult these things are for me. But I’ve already begun testing the waters — and it’s not quite as hard as I thought it would be.