Fifty Shades Of Grey is probably shit, Kate Roiphe is wrong, and we need to discuss submission

There has been a lot of guff surrounding ascended Twilight fanfic Fifty Shades of Grey. For those of you living under rocks, this work of “literature” tells the story of Bella Swan Ana Steele, an ordinary high school girl college graduate, who meets the mysterious, brooding vampire businessman Edward Cullen Christian Grey and her world changes forever her world changes forever. The only thing that sets it apart from Twilight is the sex scenes, which are, apparently, terribly-written. Oh, and there’s BDSM. Lots and lots of BDSM. The sex in question, apparently, consists entirely of a dominant Christian and a submissive Ana, as apparently Ana isn’t actually all that into the kinky bits, and just goes along with it because she loves Christian.

I use the word “apparently” a lot here because I absolutely flat-out refuse to read the fucking thing.

Anyway, the entire premise sounds problematic as fuck, and not at all in keeping with the spirit of BDSM.

Enter Kate Roiphe, an alleged academic who once wrote a book about how feminism is spreading a fear of female sexuality, based on an experience she had in 1986. Roiphe has decided to lay out an argument suggesting that women are turned on by submitting to a man because we have too much free will these days and that’s “a burden”. Oh, and that feminists (presumably this same bunch of sex-catastrophisers from 1986, who definitely existed and are definitely the same as all feminists) are against the idea of submission and kink.

For an academic, Roiphe seems strangely coy about referencing any of the “facts” and “studies” which back up her own argument. Here’s a particularly egregious example:

Over the years researchers and psychologists have theorized that women harbor elaborate fantasies about sexual submission because they feel guilty or skittish about claiming responsibility for their own desires [citation needed]: they are more comfortable being wanted than wanting, in other words. But more recent studies [citation needed] show that the women who fantasize about being forced to have sex are actually less prone to guilt than those who don’t. In any event, that theory seems too simple or at least too 19th-century an answer for the modern woman: it is not as much guilt over sex but rather something more basically liberating about being overcome or overpowered.[citation needed]

Perhaps this plethora of unreferenced evidence really does back up her argument, but somehow I doubt it, as Roiphe’s theory seems distinctly unparsimonious.

See, there’s a much easier explanation for the rise in mainstream depictions of female submission in BDSM, and the number of women who admit to entertaining submissive fantasies and/or practice; an explanation that can be summed up in a single word: socialisation.

Let us remember that we inhabit a world wherein the fight for women’s sexual agency is only just beginning. While women are starting to view themselves–and be viewed–as active participants in sex rather than passive to the whims of a man. Heterosexism and patriarchy intersect to provide this set of conditions, and while it is subsiding, we’ve some way to go in overturning this culture. Everyone is socialised in this climate and internalises such beliefs to some extent or another. It is hardly surprising, then, that the first kink to “go mainstream” is one which fits most comfortably with existing attitudes: submissive woman, dominant man (it is worth noting that this set of attitudes equally permeates the kink scene: because I am a woman, I am often automatically assumed to be a sub by men).

So women, when asked about their fantasies–a deeply personal question which is charged with all sorts of social expectations–are far more likely to give the more “socially acceptable” answer. And the mainstream media is bound to crawl all over the things that are a little bit steamy, but close enough to “normal” to comprehend easily.

This is not to say, of course, that these women aren’t really into submission: most probably are, unlike the poor main character in Fifty Shades Of Arse-dripping Fuck-bollocks. What is missing, though, is the acknowledgement of the rainbow of sexuality, of kinks and quirks which are less congruent with heterosexist patriarchy. We have a hell of a long way to go before we get to this point: right now, female submission to men can be a choice, freely chosen, but the rest of the boundless possibilities are less easy to access, experience and even know of their existence. I have experienced precisely this shift myself. I started out subbing to men as it was the only option available. Gradually, with experience and meeting the right people, I evolved and discovered all sorts of delightfully sinful pleasures. This doesn’t dampen my enjoyment of occasionally subbing to men.

Ultimately, the discussion around female submission should not be whether it’s right or wrong: it’s sex, and the only time sex can be wrong is with a lack of enthusiastic consent. Instead, we ought to acknowledge the context and work to build an environment wherein sexual liberation and sexual choice–glorious, abundant choice–is genuinely, completely available.


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6 responses to “Fifty Shades Of Grey is probably shit, Kate Roiphe is wrong, and we need to discuss submission

  • Brie

    I completely agree with your conclusion, and I am angry that it seems like another double standard is being applied to women. Men who enjoy being dominated doesn’t generate much controversy, they are just perverts to the masses, but a woman entertains the thought and now it is a societal and feminist issue? Can’t women be seen as perverts too? I am a fairly sexual woman, and in the past it seems I have to defend myself against somehow being too “male” in my enjoyment of sex, and now if I enjoy being dominated from time to time I have to defend against that too? I like it a little dirty. I love dominating in bed, I equally love being dominated. This has nothing to do with society, in fact society has never approved of a woman like me, but the moment fantasy has all of the sudden been put in the realm of what is PC, my libido tanks.

  • Joseph Garvin

    From what I’ve read of FSG, its not just Twilight. It seems almost to be the style of Twilight applied to the stories of Ayn Rand. And that is terrible… There’s the perfect unquestioned business man who seeks what he wants, views all things as contract and property rights, and whose dependence on society is totally ignored. There’s the badly viewed issues with consent (though FSG doesn’t seem as disgusting as what I’ve read about Ayn Rand. So, yeah, I’m commenting on TWO writers I’ve never read, whatever). Rand was known for glorifying rapists, while FSG looks at BDSM consent in a way I’m a bit uncomfortable with. To me, you should be into it to do it, enthusiastic consent. Not quite the same level of bad (FSG is “uhhh… you sure about that?”, Rand is “never come near me or my friends you horrible person”). There might be more, but I’ve not read FSG, or Rand in detail, but it seems to be there.

  • Ben

    I think your conclusion is absolutely right in principle, but I’m not sure that in practice things are necessarily that simple. I had a short relationship in my mid-twenties which, to be frank, I found very unnerving in retrospect and rather killed my happy-go-lucky, give-anything-a-try views of sex.

    I went from being friends to a sexual relationship with a woman I’d known for a while. As things progressed, she intimated that she was quite keen on subbing and would like our sex life to move into a more sub/dom dynamic – I’d never really done anything along these lines, so was happy to give it a go. So far, so happy and consensual. I’ll disappoint the pervs out there by skipping the details, but in short – within a few months moderate BDSM (a few bruises, no blood) had become the standard thing, with her keen to push things further. I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about this – but that was down to personal preference rather than particular principle. What threw me, though, was when we eventually talked about it. We danced around the issue a bit but essentially – she said that she was keen on the whole domination/degradation thing because she felt that it was what she deserved. I went from feeling like a slightly-uncomfortable sexual adventurer to some sort of abuse-enabling piece of shit scumbag and that was the end of the whole thing. No drama, recrimination or judgment, but I just couldn’t get my head around it. We stayed friends for a while, but lost touch in a cloud of mutual discomfort and low level embarassment.

    Online confessional bollocks aside, my point is this: while I’ve known (but not been involved with) men and women since then who have enjoyed BDSM as good, not-too-clean, consensual fun I’m not sure that just because there is enthusiastic consent there isn’t necessarily something which is genuinely a bit wrong lurking underneath it sometimes (not always, not necessarily even that often, but sometimes). Some of this is totally subjective on my part – my parents had quite a physically abusive relationship and so the BDSM concept flicked a few switches with me which didn’t sit right (not least being that being a dom felt far, far too comfortable on occasion), but even so. I think some sex stuff can be a bit like junk food sometimes – just because you like it and want it doesn’t mean its always good for you.

  • Truth

    “Pulp romance and sex novels like Fifty Shades of Grey are the female equivalent of male visual pornography; let there be no doubt, these books are female porn, as salacious and titillating for women as close-up jackhammering is for men. If you decry the one, you must decry the other if you have any interest in being perceived as fair-minded and consistent. But will you ever hear a media darling feminist call out these books for what they really are? Of course not. For what they really are is a technicolor ringside seat spectating into the soul of woman. Fantasy is a reflection of real world desire, and as much as it is true men would hardly hesitate to fulfill in real life a fantasy about intimately plowing a Victoria’s Secret model, it is equally true women wouldn’t hesitate to be the defiled bedroom slave of a charmingly sociopathic, powerful alpha male.

    “Feminists rush to claim that these sordid female fantasies are just that: fantasy. But then why is it these books of female porn never showcase a woman having a torrid affair with an attentive, polite beta male who does the dishes and shows up for dates on time? If these desires were outcroppings of the realm of fantasy alone, severed from real desirous thoughts that can be acted upon, then reason dictates women in all their glorious individuality – NAWALT, don’t you know! — would fantasize in the fantasy-dedicated lobes of their brains about a random assortment of scenarios and male archetypes. Yet the thematic universality persists.

    “The conclusion is obvious: women fantasize about the types of men they do (like the slavemaster from Fifty Shades) because, like men watching porn, it gets them off. And what one dreams about — or reads or watches — to get oneself off is thrillingly close to the same thing that gets one off in earthbound life where flesh meets actual flesh.”

    http://heartiste.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/word-is-getting-out/

  • IntoTheStrength

    Damn, I’m still on the weird side of the Internet. e.o

  • Trista Hendren

    I read this book, against my better judgement. read this book, against my better judgement.

    While I agree that sexuality is a broad spectrum and that we should all be able to do as we please, this book was really disturbing to me – especially considering how well it’s doing.

    Here are some quotes…

    “Stalker, my subconscious whispers at me through the cloud of tequilla that’s still floating in my brain, but somehow, because it’s him, I don’t mind.” (62)

    “Desire. This is desire. This is what it feels like.” (68)

    “I think I’m in shock. My subconscious has emigrated or been struck dumb or simply keeled over and expired. I am numb. I can oberve and absorb but not articulate my feelings about all this, because I’m in shock….Fear…yes…that seems to be the overriding feeling. I recognize it now. But weirdly not of him–I don’t think he’d hurt me, well, not without my consent.” (99)

    “…so you’ll let me exert my will over you. I will gain a great deal of pleasure, joy, even, in your submission. The more you submit, the greater my joy—it’s a very simple equation.” (101)

    “This is not a man I want to cross…ever.” (139)

    “This is what it will be like if I sign, him ordering me around. I frown. Do I want this? Reaching for my kinfe and fork, I tentatively cut into the venison. It’s very tasty.” (155)

    “The Dominant reserves the right to dismiss the Submissive from his service at any time and for any reason. The Submissive may request hr release at any time, such request to be granted at the discretion of the Dominant…” (167)

    “The Dominant may use the Submissive’s body at any time during the Alloted Times or any agreed additional times in any manner he deems fit, sexually or otherwise.”

    “Following my more thorough examination of your issues, may I bring to your attention the definition of submissive.

    Submissive [suhb-mis-iv]—adjective

    Origin: 1580-90; submiss+ -ive

    Synonyms: 1 tractable, compliant, amenable. 2 passive, resigned, patient, docile, tame, subdued. “ (208)

    “Oh, how demeaning is this? Demeaning and scary and hot. He’s making such a meal of this. My heart is in my mouth. I can barely breathe. Shit, is this going to hurt?” (274)

    “I will spank you each time you do it, do you understand?”…he hits me—hard. Ow! My eyes spring open in response to the pain, and I try to rise, but his hand moves between my shoulder blades, keeping me down. He caresses me again where he’s hit me, and his breathing’s changed—it’s louder, harsher. He hits me again and again, quickly in succession. Holy fuck it hurts. I try to make no sound, my face screwed up against the pain. I try to wriggle away from the blows—spurred on by adrenaline spiking and coursing through my body.” (274)

    “Is he worthy of me? That’s an interesting concept. I always wonder whether I am worthy of him.” (279)

    “…if you were mine, you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week after the stunt you pulled yesterday. He said it then, and all I could concentrate on at the time was being his. All the warning signs were there. I was just too clueless and too enamored to notice.” (280)

    “I want him to stay because he wants to stay with me, not because I’m a blubbering mess, and I don’t want him to beat me, is that so unreasonable?” (286)

    “I like the control it give me, Anastasia. I want you to behave in a particular way, and if you don’t, I shall punish you, and you will learn to behave the way I desire. I enjoy punishing you…I need to control you.” (287)

    “I oblige immediately, feeling like I’m exiting my body.” (322)

    “I don’t want to lose him. In spite of all his demands, his need to control, his scary vices, I have never felt as alive as I do now. It’s a thrill to be sitting here beside him. He’s so unpredictable, sexy, smart, and funny. But his moods…oh—and he wants to hurt me.” (355)

    “…I allow myself to fantasize that he loves me…I’m careful not to touch his chest but just snuggle in his arms…” (356)

    “This is so…I want to think wrong, but somehow it’s not. It’s right for Christian. It’s what he wants—and after the last few days…after all he’s done, I have to man up and take whatever he decides he wants, whatever he thinks he needs.” (484)

    “Don’t start with your smart mouth in here, Miss Steele. Or I will fuck it with you on your knees. Do you understand?” (486)

    “I close myself, bracing myself for the blow. It comes hard, snapping across my backside, and the bite of the belt is everything I fear…His breathing is ragged and harsh, whereas mine is almost nonexistent as I desperately scrabble around my psyche looking for some internal strength. The belt cuts into my flesh again…ow the tears are streaming down my face. I don’t wan to cry. It angers me that I am crying. He hits me again….as the blistering pain cuts across me again, and I hear him drop the belt behind me, and he’s pulling me into his arms, all breathless and compassionate….” (506)

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