“Sometimes I feel dirty when I embrace my sexual power in the way men do.”
Sitting in her room underneath a large ceiling hook used to hang willing participants during bondage scenes, Jane* and I speak about the shame associated with taking on roles that are historically thought of as being only for men and the internalised slut phobia that is so heavily ingrained into the female psyche. We are members of an underground world of BDSM where gender norms are not only turned on their head but are frequently ignored and reinvented, yet we are not immune to patriarchal ideals of female sexuality and the conflict associated with being a strong, submissive feminist. Sometimes, we feel dirty in the wrong kind of way.
Jane identifies as a sensationalist or hedonist rather than a full-blown dominant or submissive. Technically, that makes her a switch; a person who can embody a sexually dominant or submissive persona, depending on the situation or desires of her partner(s). She does admit that she leans more towards the dominant side of the spectrum, however.
“I don’t really understand where it comes from. My most powerful is when I have tied someone and they completely surrender and have to trust me,” she says, with a cheeky grin.
Yet, like many womxn, Jane finds it difficult to accept this part of her personality at times. After participating in kink parties she often feels a sense of shame the next day, describing the feeling as being “dirty”. This, she believes, comes from being inundated her entire life with messages that tell womxn being dominant or powerful is a man’s job, and that womxn should not strive to take on historically masculine characteristics. These stereotypically male roles extend into the bedroom, where men are expected to act as the dominant partner less they be considered weak or feminine. Although times are changing and more womxn are entering into male-dominated roles, there is often a sense of awkwardness that accompanies being a womxn in a man’s shoes. Society would have us believe it is unnatural. Even the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey, which brought BDSM into the international spotlight, adopts a very patriarchal view of kink. Anastasia, the womxn, is automatically assumed to be submissive because she has very little knowledge of the kink world, whereas her male counterpart is the more experienced and thus dominant partner.
It is at this moment in our conversation that Jane points out there is nothing wrong with being a female submissive. “Most people who identify as womxn in Cape Town are submissive, but I think that’s because we live in such a patriarchal society,” she says. “Although there are a lot of submissive men and dominant womxn out there. Some people enjoy stereotypical roles, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.”
At the time of my first party, being someone who is strong and assertive in everyday life and sexually submissive in the bedroom seemed to go against everything a believed in as a feminist and a womxn who seeks to empower other womxn. I didn’t want to be the next Anastasia, and for a long time I thought that I was only identifying as submissive because society told me that was the role I had to take on. Jane mentions that, in reality, it’s the bottoms who have the most power in a BDSM scene or relationship. Giving up power willingly is not synonymous with having your power and agency forcefully taken from you, as is often the case in everyday life.
There are three types of shame I have felt at different times during my exploration of kink, which are not unique to my experiences. As Jane immediately points out, it is not uncommon for womxn entering the BDSM scene to feel dirty for embracing their sexuality, nor is it uncommon for womxn who have been part of the scene for many years to feel ashamed of their continual enjoyment of sex or BDSM activities. Female sexuality is often portrayed as something for the male gaze, not something for womxn themselves to enjoy. Look at Pornhub, one of the most popular online porn sites – the entire site is dedicated to men, except for a few thousand videos that fall under the “for women” category. Even the lesbian videos are made for men, so it is not surprising that womxn who enter into the BDSM community, a group of people who not only embrace sex and sexuality but foster sexually progressive outlooks, sometimes feel embarrassed of doing so. This internalised slut shaming is something I would say the majority of womxn, at least in the western world, experience throughout their lives.
Jane nods her head, frowning down at her tea. “Society tells womxn you aren’t allowed to be sexually powerful or proud, like men, so when you embrace your sexuality you feel simultaneously empowered and disempowered.”
Like most womxn in the world, Jane still struggles to embrace her sensuality and sexual desires. She is not immune to the slut shaming and victim blaming that run rampant in our current society, but she is working hard to undermine patriarchal views surrounding sex and female sexuality. I have learnt that accepting yourself as a sexual being, and then accepting yourself as a womxn who can adopt any persona regardless of its historic gender expression, takes time and effort. Becoming sexually liberated is a difficult process.
As we end our interview, Jane smiles at me mischievously and says, with an exaggerated wink, “You’ll never forget the first time you’re flogged and you like it. It’s freeing.”
*Name has been changed.