My conflicted feelings about sub/dom relationships as a feminist

So, allow me to vent for a moment.

First of all, I’m “new” to feminism. I hate saying that, because I feel like being a feminist isn’t something you adopt, it’s something ingrained in who you are, what you believe, and how you think from the moment you start cultivating your own personal opinions. However, I think we can all remember that occasion, or situation where we realized “Holy shit, I’m a feminist.” What I mean by being “new” to feminism is that I’ve only  in the last year or so began to really own it proudly, and actively do my part AS  a feminist in fighting patriarchy. So there is my little introduction. Hello, hi, how are you. Also, please go a wittle easy on me, because I’m a baby. I’m still learning, and as someone who literally  has no active feminist friends, I’m looking for some guidance here.

A few months back I kinda stumbled upon my best friend’s “secret” blog about her sub/dom relationship. I kind of just assumed that sub/dom relationships were really just a fancy shmancy way of saying a committed couple was into some really serious BDSM, which I have absolutely no problems with.

A few months prior to me finding the blog on accident, my best friend had moved states away to be with a significantly older dude she met online. I knew that she had been talking to the dude for quite awhile before visiting him a few times, and then ultimately moving in with him. I had my reservations, because I think I’d be a shitty friend if I hadn’t. She was, after all, uprooting her entire life for a man. BUT WHATEVER, I wasn’t going to judge her or make her own relationship choices my business past what I sensed she was comfortable with.

When I found her blog, it was  mostly consisting of dirty pictures, sexual preferences, and really cheesy stories about their sexual interactions. It was apparent that she was really into the typical things that come with being a “sub,” like being ordered around in bed, “man handled,” spanking, cuffs, whatever. I doubt I need to go into detail with you ladies. 

My curiosity lead me to find HIS blog, where he was a little more descriptive about the kind of relationship they shared IN the bedroom and outside of it.

The whole “Pet” and “sir” relationship follows them out of their bedroom into their daily lives. She doesn’t eat without his permission, she doesn’t sleep without his permission. He has to approve what clothes she buys. He gets to dress her before they go out to dinner, and if he feels like she should masturbate under the table while waiting for their appetizer, she has to, even if she doesn’t really WANT to.

When I expressed concern to my friend about this, as a FEMINIST who wants to respect ANY sexual decisions a woman makes, no matter how NOT into it I personally am, I was horrified when she explained to me that it’s only about sex when their in the bedroom, like a “vanilla” couple. She said it was a special kind of relationship that I wouldn’t understand, where she trusts and loves this man so much, she’s SWORN to him and signed a contract promising to do everything he tells her to do, because she belongs to him, and entrusts this man to “look after her,” and make her decisions for her.

I was disgusted, confused, and angry after hearing all of this, but mostly really, really frustrated that I had such an instinctual issue with it, because as feminist, I’ve worked really hard on freeing myself from the social standard way of viewing anything “taboo,” especially when it comes to a woman’s sexuality being liberated.

A few days ago, I happened to catch a segment about the sub/dom lifestyle on an episode of “So I Married A…” on VH1, where pretty much everything my friend told me occured in their relationship was illustrated through the story of a “sir” and his three pets. These females didn’t seem like unintelligent women, so it just felt weird to me that they were able to look directly in a camera and repeat over and over “The relationship is about trusting my sir to take care of me. We have a deep, profound love, and everything he does, he does to protect me, and make my life as secure as possible. He makes my decisions for me, because he knows what’s best for me.”

I don’t want to drag this out, but basically, I’m writing this partially to vent about how ridiculously angry this makes me. I’m also reaching out, because as a young feminist whose still trying to find my footing, am I wrong to think this kind of relationship is totally fucked up? I think a lot of people, like I initially did, just assume it’s about sex. To me, being required to wait to eat until your  sir tells you it’s okay, or having to ask permission if you’re allowed to eat a certain food at all… isn’t that the worst case scenario of what feminism is trying to dispel?

If a woman was being beaten by her husband outside of the bedroom, and swore up and down, truly BELIEVED it was okay, he loved her, would we just say “Well, she’s a woman whose allowed to make her own decisions, it’s okay I guess.” ?

How is this any different? I can’t emphasize enough how little I care if a woman is into the nastiest, most degrading shit possible in bed, because I understand that sexuality, and the things that get us going is a very deep, difficult to pin point hole of weirdness. But if this kind of relationship follows couples out of the bedroom and into their every day lives, is that OKAY to not be okay with as a feminist?

I understand that there is a certain degree to trusting your instincts, and there are all types of feminists out there, some of which might have different opinions on matters then other feminists, and I also get that it doesn’t make either woman (or man) less of a feminist. However, I think if someone put this in perspective, I might be able to see it differently. As of right now, I can’t imagine being okay with that. It’s got actual emotional abuse written all over it, even if the female involved doesn’t think so.

I want to know what other people think. I’ve brought it up to other feminists I follow on various websites, and have been shocked that most of them have taken the “well, if she says it’s okay, I guess it’s okay,” stand point.

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  1. Posted May 23, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s perfectly fine for you to not be okay with this, and to view it as inappropriate and unhealthy. However, that doesn’t change your friend’s right to her own personal autonomy. The fact that she has entered into this relationship willingly and consensually is the relevant element.

    Is this relationship problematic, potentially damaging and, as you put it, “fucked up?” Quite possibly. Maybe even probably. But, being a feminist doesn’t give you the responsibility (or the right) to police other people’s choices.

    I also think you are making a substantially false analogy in comparing this to domestic violence. We generally accept the fact that when someone makes excuses for their partner’s behavior (“he only hits me because he loves me or because I deserve it”) they are excusing behavior that they do not consent to. Victims of spousal abuse may accept the abusive behavior and rationalize it away, but they are not entering into the partnership with a desire to have violence inflicted on them.

    A consensual BDSM relationship where the woman specifically states that she desires to be dominated in these ways is substantially different from a relationship where a woman is being abused.

    I still think it’s perfectly fair for you to critique these behaviors, to try to suss out why this is appealing to your friend and to question whether this is a healthy relationship for her, but I don’t think this requires any form of intervention in the way that an abusive relationship might.

    All of that is just my take. At the heart of it, your friend’s decision to engage in this relationship is similar to a given woman’s decision to forgo a career in favor of being a traditional stay-at-home mother and housekeeper. These decisions may be rooted in (and reinforcing) patriarchal norms and problematic social constructs, but they remain valid personal choices.

    Again, we can critique those choices through a feminist lens, and we can certainly feel uncomfortable about people making them, but we can’t privilege our own ideology over someone else’s life decisions (not saying that’s what you wanted to do of course).

  2. Posted May 23, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    This may help you a bit more regarding BDSM; it’s written mainly in a fandomish context and in terms of it being a kink, but it’s still good, IMO…

    I think your concerns are valid, but at the same time, her choices are valid.

  3. Posted May 24, 2013 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    If she’s a consenting adult and this is mutually agreed upon lifestyle kink, I do think you need to respect her autonomy (again: subs have more control than they appear to). I really don’t have enough information here to know where cause for alarm may lie – does he refuse her a safeword? In other words, if there was something she didn’t feel like, could they break their roles? If her consent is taken away, then you’re not talking BDSM, you are talking an abusive relationship. But I can’t tell from your post if that’s the case or if all the submission is by her own volition, for her pleasure.

  4. Posted July 8, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    There is a lot of confusion surrounding BDSM especially when it comes to Doms/Subs. Of course every situation is different but in general these are very loving relationships. The Dom is fulfilling a need for the Sub because they love that person and they know that this is what that person needs. Subs are not always women either, very often they are men with female Doms, or same sex relationships. It is a lifestyle for some and just kinky sex for others. I think to assume that it is “fucked up” is close minded. Of course as a feminist to see a woman voluntarily submit to a man is frustrating but that is because we are thinking about it though a misogynistic lense. In reality it is a complex emotional issue. Many subs are very dominate in other aspects of their life or at some point took on a dominate role and they are exhausted, they need someone to take over, they want someone to take over. The key difference is that in a Dom/Sub relationship everything is agreed on. Usually the Dom has long conversations with the sub about their wishes, fantasies, and needs before they write the contract. Also it is not as if the contract can’t be broken by the Sub, it is more for the Dom to map out the boundaries set by the Sub. I guess what I am trying to say is that Subs have a lot more control than they appear to have or what they will admit to have. Nothing happens outside of their consent and they can leave at any time. To deny someone there needs can be dangerous. If your friend is happy like this then you should also be happy for her. I think a lot of women end up in abusive relationships seeking out an environment where they are submissive which is bad. Now we could have a debate on why so many women “enjoy” being dominated and that is a whole other issue, a very good feminist issue to discuss.

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