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Domism: Role Essentialism and Sexism Intersectionality in the BDSM Scene

May 2, 2011

Archimedes said that if he had a lever long enough, he could move the world.  But where would he stand?  It would be nice if some subculture sat outside every negative social dynamic, every kyriarchal oppressive dynamic, in pristine isolation, free of taint.  It would be nice, but none can.  And so the things that are wrong with the world are wrong with the BDSM community, and more specifically, with the formal community, the organizations and public parties: the Scene.  

This is study in intersection.  Among this relatively small group who are non-mainstream in one very specific respect, there are repetitions of and reactions to the oppressive patterns of the larger culture, but they’re not entirely straightforward.  Partiarchal  and heterosexist pattern manifest in some ways, power dynamics reorient themselves along BDSM role lines in other ways, and those things interact in ways that are completely unique to the BDSM community.  There are other interactions, of course.  I can’t encompass them all, partly for length and partly because, frankly, my grasp of some things is not good enough to try to write about them — so, for example, on the intersection of race and other dynamics with BDSM, or cisnormativity and cissexism,  I can only refer to the writing of others.*  I want to focus on a fairly tight set of issues here, which center on what I’ll call “domism” and how it interacts with patriarchy in the pansexual scene (I’ll explain the scope of the term below).

I’m focusing on the Scene for a number of reasons, but foremost because I have material about it that isn’t just my say-so.  There have been two major academic ethnographies of the formal BDSM communities, by two different researchers, in two different cities, in the last decade.  In a thinly-veiled New York she calls Caeden, Dr. Stacy Newmahr did participant fieldwork in the clubs from 2002 to 2006, work she published as Playing On The Edge, recently out from Indiana Universtiy Press.  The other is unpublished.  Dr. Margot D. Weiss did fieldwork with the Society of Janus and the attendant public scene in San Francisco in the years leading up to 2005, when she completed her dissertation, Techniques of Pleasure, Scenes of Play: SM In The San Francisco Bay Area.  Though unpublished, it is available here, but unfortunately not free.  

I’ll be blunt about what I mean by the “pansexual BDSM scene,” which I’ll call The Scene, and I don’t expect that either author would subscribe to this definition — though I’m not saying they wouldn’t.  The Scene is the community of BDSMers in major cities oriented around heterosexual men, and heterosexual, heteroflexible and bisexual women. Overlap, particularly in play environments, between gay men’s and lesbian scenes and The Scene is limited, and while queer men and lesbian women are not excluded, they’re marginal within these spaces.  Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

Domism

All the things I want to talk about intersect — this post is about how they’re not entirely separable — so it’s easiest to start at the conclusion.  In The Scene, it’s often the case that the social spaces — I’m not talking about the BDSM play itself, but the social interaction of the participants outside the bounds of play — privilege dominants and devalue submissives.  As I’ll discuss below, part but only part of this is that more of the dominants are men and more of the submissives are women; the way men who bottom are treated sheds a lot of light but also adds a lot of complexity to how we should understand these dynamics.

I’m borrowing the term “domism”, which as far as I know was coined by one of Weiss’s informants:

There is overlap here between sexism and what Gretchen calls “domism”: the sense that “dominants are somehow more valid people than submissives.” Teramis agreed, noting that it was sometimes unclear if someone was being sexist or “D/s presumptive”: do “you think you can order me to get you a drink” because I am submissive “or is it cause you’re a sexist pig anyway and you would do it to any women who was standing there?”

Weiss p. 246 at n.16.  

My definition is a bit broader.  When I say “domism” I mean social structures within a sexual community that privilege dominants and devalue submissives outside of explicitly negotiated power exchanges. This takes a lot of forms, among them the pathologizing of bottoms and subs; and non-play role-policing and presumption.  

Since I’ve started using the terms “submissive” and “dominant”, now is as good a time as any to talk about terminology.  In most posts and in life I use “top” and “bottom” as the umbrella terms, to encompass but extend beyond the respective included concepts of “dominant” and “submissive.”  If I’m defining the terms, I’ll use Lee Harrington’s definitions (from the glossary of this book):

Bottom: The giving or receiving partner in a dynamic, the person experiencing the sensations, actions, or activities; in gay male culture, the sexually penetrated partner

Dominant: The willful partner in a dynamic, the person whose ideas and desires are being followed. AKA: Dom, Dominant Partner

Submissive: The submitting or yielding partner in a dynamic, the person who follows the ideas and desires of another individual. AKA: Sub, Submissive Partner

Top: The giving partner in a dynamic, the person doing or applying the sensations, actions, or activities. In gay male culture, the sexually penetrating partner.

 

Some people use “dominant” and “submissive” to include “top” and “bottom” because they’re more intuitive for new readers, which is a choice I understand but bristle at.  Some people use “dominant” and “submissive” to include or replace “top” and “bottom” because they think that dominance and submission are better or more real, and what I really think is that these ideas should die in a fire and be buried under a headstone that reads “Total Power Exchange.”  These prejudices towards power exchange are part of the problematic dynamics I’m describing, but since I’m talking about belief systems that operate around dominance and submission and prefer to ignore or devalue “mere” topping and bottoming, I’ll frequently use dominant and submissive as my operative terms below.  I’ll add that for myself, I don’t use the term “submissive” as a noun, but sometimes as an adjective to describe my bottoming style.  In practice I switch something close to 50-50.

Weiss writes about the pathologizing:

Stephanie and Anthony, both bisexual dominants, discuss prejudice toward submissives; Stephanie argues that being submissive is “equated with weakness.” Unlike the assumptions made about dominants (or in contrast to the lack of pathologizing assumptions made about dominants), there must be “some reason” for being submissive, reasons Anthony elaborates as “you’re fat or you were abused as a child … or there’s something missing or there’s something that’s not quite right … or that you can’t say no.” While Stephanie and Anthony mean their comments to refer to both men and women, as Stephanie continues, her example is of a male submissive: “there are all sorts of — you’re right — this pathologizing thing, ‘well, why would he want to do that sort of thing?'” The implicit answer here, of course, is that the kind of man who might be submissive isn’t a real man, isn’t a masculine man. There is nothing “wrong” with a woman who enjoys submission. As Homi Bhabha argues, this masculinity is anxious, caught between dual imperatives (father/mother, fort/da) and mired in what he describes as “compulsion and doubt.”

 

Weiss at 249 (internal citation omitted, bold mine).  

It’s worth noting that claiming that there’s something broken in submissives — or in submissive men — amounts to an argument for etiology, yet there’s no consensus on why we have the kinks we do in the BDSM community, and no answer at all from the research, what little there is.  There’s a plain inconsistency between sometimes very smart and well-informed people knowing and saying that there’s no available answer to why we do what it is that we do, and then saying (usually among our own) that we know why subs are subs.

This gets personal for me.  I can’t tell you why I have the kinks I do, but I can tell you what I get out of bottoming.  The challenge, the difficulty, the trust, the violation of gender and social norms with a partner, all amount to one thing: a site of tremendous intimacy, a shared physical end emotional journey where I am vulnerable to and connected with my partner … like jumping off a cliff.  So that’s my answer.

What these prejudices amount to is a normalizing and centering of the experience of the dominant in The Scene.  One way this is apparent is by the overrepresentation of tops or dominants among presenters.  Presentations tend to be about skills, often bondage and painplay skills, and there’s a perception that it’s easier for the top to teach these skills.  I don’t entirely agree with that perception, but between the overrepresentation of men among tops in The Scene, and the tendency for tops to do the teaching, that means that male tops to most of the talking.  As one of Weiss’s informants put it: “[Janus is a] het male dom group.  Every single presentation I’ve ever been to, every class I’ve ever taken … across the board, het dom male.” (Weiss at p. 241 n. 14.)

Maymay tells a story about presenting with a partner somewhere: he’s a bottom, and his partner started out by singletailing his back.  And then the audience expected her to stop and start explaining what she had shown.  But instead, Maymay, the bottom, started explaining what she was doing, as a top, and what he was doing, as a bottom.  It’s a paired activity.  It makes perfect sense that the bottom can explain skills for a paired activity.  Topping a singletail scene means knowing something about both how to top it and what to expect from the bottom, and vice versa, but the ingrained expectation that tops teach skills was so great that the audience kept looking at the top, expecting her to take over.

Lots of Dominant Men, Lots of Submissive Women

One of the reasons that it’s hard to separate out what is plain old sexism from what is domism is that men are overrepresented among tops in The Scene and women among bottoms.  In Weiss’s sample:

Among my interviewees, for example, the majority of heterosexual women identified as bottom/submissive (71%), while the majority of heterosexual men identified as top/dominant (75%). Further, only 14% of the heterosexual women were top/dominant; 6% of the heterosexual men identified as bottom/submissive (see Table 1). Although most everyone will immediately point out that so-and-so is a female dominant, or so-and-so a male submissive, my observation in the pansexual SM scene supported this general trend: most heterosexual couples are male dominant, female submissive.

 

Weiss pp. 239-41 (table and footnote 14 on historical makeup of Janus and the BDSM community omitted).  She continues:

One critical way the real intrudes uncomfortably into the scene is though gender stereotypes.  While some of my interviewees argued that here there was less sexism in the scene than in real life, most interviewees described sexist and heterosexist assumptions around gender.  The most common for this took is the assumption that women were (naturally) submissive and men were (naturally) dominant.  Donald, simultaneously distancing himself from and endorsing this assumption, told me:

If you walk into Castlebar on the night of a party and you stripped everybody naked so nobody had collars on or wore their floggers … the vast majority of the people there would assume that men are tops and women are bottoms.  It’s just the way it usually plays out.  There are notable exceptions on both sides, lots of beautiful bottom boys, lots of really interesting top women.  But you know, stereotypes and generalizations exist for some purpose.  So the sexism itself might come where if a woman walked in clothed but not wearing a collar and a stereotypical heterosexual dominant male were to notice her, he would probably assume she was submissive because she was female.

Weiss, p. 246.

Weiss notes that this distribution might be particular to her informants and Janus as an organization.  In truth, I know of no good gender breakdown of roles in the the pansexual BDSM community broadly, or in The Scene in any city, and those proportions seem like they might be more skewed than would be true of New York — Newmahr doesn’t give figures.  One blog has summarized the research, but the demographics are guesswork.  I’ll say this though: the “best guess” at Kinkresearch has both men and women more evenly distributed across the role spectrum than what Weiss observed.  I suspect this has much to do with the culture of the organizations that dominate The Scene in various cities, and varies accordingly.

All The Sexism Of The Rest Of The World, Plus The Vulnerability …

The interaction of domism and sexism in an environment where most of the women are bottoms and most of the men tops makes it impossible to neatly separate the sexism and the domism.  As one might expect, Weiss’s male informants were less conscious of these dynamics, but the women reported them consistently.

Most of the women I interviewed agreed that many men, particularly heterosexual newcomers, made certain gendered assumptions: all women are submissive, there is one way to be a good submissive, and submissives have “issues” that dominants don’t have. Bonnie explained that, as an Asian-American, “I get a lot of men talking to me as if I’m supposed to be quiet and submissive, and I’m not necessarily quiet nor submissive; that can be really frustrating. Or people brushing me off because I happen to be female, even. Lenora and Gretchen, both submissives, complained that others have accused them of not being “real submissives,” or have expressed surprise over their SM orientations because they have strong opinions, are articulate, socially assertive or, as Lenora put it, “basically because I’m not a doormat.“**

Weiss pp. 245-46.  Footnote 16, quoted above, omitted here.  Weiss’s informants sometimes differentiate between roles in BDSM play iteself, and in Scene social spaces which are not themselves BDSM play:

In [one] exchange, Stephanie is arguing that within a play scene, sexism is mitigated through the enforcement of rules of consent, negotiation, safewording and other forms of regulation and control. However, she differentiates this scene/play from the scene as a social space; there, she argues, men are likely to assume that women are submissive, and further, to create a (one-way) relationship of dominance (through inappropriate touching, or through language) with these women. Although Anthony doesn’t see this form of sexism, most female interviewees (and some male interviewees) agreed that there was a persistent assumption that women in the scene were submissive.

Weiss p. 247 (bold mine).

Role Essentialism: It Persists Most Among Those Who Most Should Know Better

We’ve got a model of sexual orientation — it fits some people and not others, but it’s entrenched and politically useful — that says that it’s inborn and, more to the point for my purposes, static; unchanging over the course of one’s adult life.  It’s also politically useful for BDSMers to invoke the orientation model.  I’ll just say that discussion of whether our kinks are innate is beyond the scope of this discussion.  What seems to travel with that idea, though, is the idea that our BDSM role orientation is fixed and static.  That idea seems to persist in the way people often talk about BDSM role orientation — top or bottom, submissive or dominant — even though the more we know about it the more evidence we have that it isn’t true.  Newmahr takes this head-on:

[A]lthough it is common for people to top when they had previously only bottomed or vice versa, the typical response highlights essentialist views of identity: “I knew you were really a switch!”  References to fixed SM identities waiting to be discovered are also typical, such as “a submissive and doesn’t know it yet,” or a “top who can’t admit it.”

Despite these essentialist beliefs, SM identities are also understood as changing over time… Stories about identity in the scene very often include change, and identification shifts are both recognized and encouraged, even as members adhere to essentialist ideas about identities.  The essentialism shifts from particular SM identifications to more profound identities as SM and not-SM (kinky versus vanilla) and allows for flexibility in the particular SM roled.  The fluidity of identity is not an implicit contradiction in the analytical construct of identity, but an indicator of the importance of the possibilities for meaningful change in selfhood throughout the life course.”

Newmahr, p. 49 (internal citation omitted, bold mine).

Role Policing

What comes with role essentialism is role policing: folks in Scene social spaces acting as though one’s play role orientation is not only fixed but should manifest outside of play — acting as if being submissive should be constraining, and as though dominance is a status that can be lost (strongly echoing of performative femininity and masculinity, obviously).  Newmahr writes:

When I began my fieldwork, I intended to bottom rather than top. My options for play were thus limited to people who topped, and I therefore needed to identify as something in order to play. because the question int he community was most commonly phrased, “Are you a dominant or a submissive?” I identified myself as the latter (and as a researcher). While I was so identified, I observed several instances of policing submissive identity, a practice that I interpreted (and continue to interpret) as profoundly misogynistic, particularly since they have been most often initiated by dominant-identified men.

The most ubiquitous example posits assertiveness as inconsistent with submission. Once, when I articulated a point in a heated conceptual debate, a member of the group asked me whether I was sure I was a submissive. Another time I asked a companion (a top-identified man) to order my coffee while I went to the restroom, prompting another person at the table to exclaim, “Hey, I thought you were a sub!

On still another occasion, I went to retrieve my coat from a booth at the club. Catherine was sitting between it and me. When I asked her to let me by so that I could reach it, Hugh (a dominant-identified man) suggested that I crawl under the table for it.

Newmahr pp. 78-79 (bold mine).  She continues:

In some circles, there are different protocols for speaking to submissives than to dominants, and it is common for dominants to ask one another’s permission to speak to “their” submissives. Other lines are drawn less formally, but jokes intended to humiliate, objectify or silence submissives are normative.

Newmahr p. 79.  She’s talking about things that happen outside of play, which really amount to an attempt to impose the dynamics of play outside the negotiated boundaries.  I’m not going to sugar-coat this:  It’s unethical.

One True Way-ism

One True Way-ism is the play equivalent to role policing in the social interactions of The Scene.  It’s almost comical that in a community where any attempt to discuss the moral or social implications is immediately countered with “You’re saying your kink is not okay!” (it even has a common abbreviation, YKINOK), some of the same people will also tell others that they’re doing their kinks wrong. Some folks can seriously make statements that a “true dominant” this, a “true submissive” that …  Fortunately, my experience is that these statements are frequently challenged, in the Scene and in online spaces, and sometimes (rightly) ridiculed.  But there are still widely held prejudices that some kinds of kinks are more authentic or real or better than others.  Newmahr writes:

While discussing a scene I had done, both Russ (dominant-identified) and Elliot (switch-identified) were baffled by my approach to play. Russ asked me, “Don’t you want to please your top?” Elliot was surprised when he realised that my objective in playing with him was not to make him “happy.”

Realizing that “submissive” carried with it a slew of meanings and messages I had not intended, I abandoned “submissive” identification within three weeks. By then, I was angry about my interactions with many dominant-identified men and deeply troubled by the misogynistic overtones. Interestingly, I was also impatient to begin topping, for the sole purpose of claiming an identification as a switch, thereby ending these particular frustrations.

Newmahr pp. 78-79 (bold mine).

Newmahr isn’t alone in shopping for a BDSM role that will cause her less grief in the social spaces of The Scene.  One friend (I’ll call her Tigrerra because my kids watch a lot of Bakugan) who leans top but does switch, tells me that when she started playing in a major city public scene, she came out in “full domme armor” to ward off the sexist invasions and bullshit that switch- or bottom-identified women face.  This issue isn’t new; in the early 1990s I remember Usenet group posts by top-identified women in The Scene complaining about the assumptions that they were submissives and the nonconsensual and invasive behavior that sometimes came with it.

On Fetlife, the BDSM social networking behemoth, there are groups such as Not Only D&S to counteract this and create spaces for people whose bottoming isn’t necessarily submission or whose topping isn’t necessarily dominance.  But there are a lot of folks who still hold the stated or unstated opinion that submission ranks somehow above “mere” masochism and that there’s something unseemly or less authentic about “service topping.”  One would think there’s no room for “should” in the sex-positive agenda, but in The Scene, “should” hangs on like stubborn mold.

Newmahr writes about the attitude that there’s a hierarchy of play styles, and I agree with her assessment, though certainly there is significant counterforce to these views:

Much like service topping, badass bottoms occupy the lowest status among bottoms; terms like “do-me bottom” and “just a masochist” illustrate the perspective that without claims to powerlessness, SM play is less meaningful. As with service topping among tops, badass bottoms are also more likely than other bottoms to be switches. The lower relative status of switches in the scene, then, is not, as is commonly understood, simply about switching itself, but about the challenges that switches pose to the top/bottom-man/woman paradigm that underlies much of SM play.

There is truth in the argument that topping symbolizes (male) dominance and bottoming (female) submission. Most simply understood, topping and bottoming are ways of doing masculinity and femininity, respectively. Even as they symbolically recreate a gendered system, however, the complexity within SM play, and play across genders, problematizes the understanding of SM as a categorical reinforcement of gender inequality.

 

Newmahr 115.  My view, backed up by Weiss’s observations, is that this reaction to threats to the paradigm expresses itself perhaps most starkly as prejudice against and devaluation of men who bottom, particularly submissive men.

Gender Role Violation: Men Bottoming

“Tom explained that “there are party groups in which I’m marginally tolerated because I’m a sub.””  Weiss, p. 247. That’s not a reference to me, but my first contacts with The Scene (long before Newmahr’s New York fieldwork) ran into some of this.  Being a young guy more interested in bottoming than topping was … a suboptimal experience.  I sort of quickly became more interested in paying attention to the political projects of the BDSM community than looking for play partners in The Scene.  Maymay, another bottom-identified guy, has said much the same thing, about much the same scene, at the time of Newmahr’s fieldwork.

The comfortable assumption (for some) that scene role hierarchy replicates gender-role hierarchy is one that goes unstated, but one that a lot of folks — particularly some het male doms — don’t want to see challenged:

Carrie told me that her husband (and other men) enjoyed being in a group of all male dominants and female submissives because “they feel uncomfortable” and “would rather not be around” couples that play differently. By this, she means “he would not want to be next to a woman topping a guy or a gay male couple,” both “styles” of play that challenge the parallel construction of gender/sexuality. The homophobia of some of the heterosexual men in the pansexual scene reflects anxiety about maintaining appropriate masculinity; it is the community expression of what many have theorized about masculinity. If proper masculinity is fundamentally about heterosexuality and the disavowal of homosexuality, then it makes sense that for some men (in a scene and in everyday life), gay male sexuality or female dominant sexuality are two related scenes of horror.

 

Weiss, p. 248.  It is the men, and their anxious masculinity, that police this, not women’s discomfort with submissive men.  A man who bottoms is so discomfiting to some men that one of Weiss’s respondents said it cost him friendships:

Understanding other men as the enforcers and arbiters of masculinity/access to power, Phil, a heterosexual switch, told me:

I was a 24/7 bottom to [his wife]: we had a monogamous relationship for three years, I was her slave and she was my mistress, and we had very formal things going on, like contracts … I enjoyed it a lot — that intensity of 24/7 … After I became known as a submissive, a lot of my male friends that were switches or tops didn’t like me now.  There’s a lot of prejudice of male tops — even gay male tops – against submissives.  You don’t see it unless it’s right there in front of you … It was funny, I lost a lot of apparent respect as soon as they found out I was a male bottom.  I still find that … I still find it a lot with the newbies, especially the het male tops, they can’t even conceive of a women being dominant …

MW: I wondered about that.

Phil: Well, it’s true! Some of the closest people would suddenly walk right off from me.  I lost some very good male friends.  I tried to help them, “I’m not any different than I was a month ago” …
MW: Do you think it’s a gender thing”

Phil: … Yeah, in a way, it’s something that men seem to have trouble with it, but I think it’s because of the social station that society puts men at.

The prejudice Phil faced as a male bottom is related to the ways that, although the scene is a special, bracketed place, desire is formed through and around our social experiences of power and gender.  “Desire,” as Anne Allison notes, “is both of and beyond the everyday.”

Weiss pp. 249-50 (internal citation omitted; editorial marks and elisions within the transcribed quote Weiss’s, except bold, which is mine).

These are not dynamics unique to The Scene, or to BDSM communities.  They’re dynamics from outside our communities that manifest within them in ways that are unique.  Men who bottom are an (to use Butlerian terminology, see here) abject identity, a specter that terrifies many men outside the BDSM community.  When I’ve described things I do as a bottom, those descriptions have occasionally been picked up — with comic revulsion and summary dismissal — on “men’s rights activist” fora.  

Weiss concludes:

Further, the tendency for SM orientation to echo polarized gender is stronger for men than for women, and differences between sexual orientation make a difference as well. In my interviews, heterosexual male bottoms felt, and were seen as, a little off, funny or queer. In part, this assumption is based on the linking of the abject position – submissive – with women, although it also reflects the fear/disavowal of homosexuality at [sic] the basis of dominant masculinity.”

Weiss p. 249 (bold mine). Weiss, a lesbian, is not using the word “queer” accidentally here.  I read her to consciously parallel the reaction to het men who bottom with gay men.  The particularized sexist domism male bottoms face shares common dynamics with homophobic fixation on gay men’s sexual practices.  That fixation including especially the fascination with the receptive or enveloping partner in insertive sex acts.  It is not at all coincidental that the term “bottom” is used both in the BDSM community and by vanilla gay men.

(The limits of my analysis are glaring here. Because of both the limitations of my experience and of the source material I was working with, I have not attempted to extend any of this to the gay male leather community, though I’d say I have a better groundiing in that literature than most het readers do. I also don’t have a good handle on the ways that trans folks’ experiences intersect with the dynamics I’ve written about. I know anecdotes, but I can’t begin to analyze how transphobia plays into the reflexive discomfort people have with play dynamics that upset their settled assumptions. Suffice it to say that I know lots of kink spaces, online and real world, are deeply uncomfortable places for kinky trans folks, and if there’s an analysis of the interplay between scene role essentialism, sexism, and cissexism, transphobia, transmisogyny, etc., please somebody link it in comments.)

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way

There is no point outside kyriarchal structures, not that any of us can access.  But that’s a problem for every aspect of social justice work, and the answer to that is never, “well, maybe we should just give up.”  We all believe that it is possible, in our imperfect ways, to own our shit and make the world around us better and less shitty.  So I don’t say any of this to excoriate The Scene, but to exhort folks in BDSM communities to not replicate the injustices of the wider world unthinkingly, and instead to thing about them and push back.

I could end on a vague rhetorical note here, but I’d rather be practical.  Here’s what I think folks ought to do:

Recognize and facilitate our diversity.  It’s fine for men to want to top or women to want to bottom, but the assumption that that’s the case is self-replicating because it marginalizes and pushes out people who don’t fit that model.  Folks need to stop assuming that women are bottoms or subs.

Stop The Role Policing.  Jokes that take as their premise that bottoms should be subs, and should be submissive when they’re not playing and with people they’re not playing with are not funny.  They’re toxic.  

There Is No One True Way.  Bottom != submissive.  Pain play != power exchange.  If you find someone explaining how something is more real or deep or true or important than how someone else does it, you can safely dismiss what they have to say.

Bottoms Are Not Broken.  Where would tops be without them?  Not having much fun.  One  side of the kink is no weirder or more in need of explanation than the other.

*Weiss has an entire chapter on The Scene and race, focusing not only on the relatively small proportion of People of Color in the Bay Area Scene, but also on the racialized images of BDSM.  It’s Chapter 6 of her dissertation and it’s an engaging read.  Neither Weiss nor Newmahr deal with cisnormativity in any direct way, but there are some good writers around who are both trans and kinky.  I’ll recommend in particular Asher Bauer, who writes at Tranarchism.

**Though it’s beyond the scope of this already lengthy post, this is another intersection that can’t be neatly untangled.  Bonnie’s experiences of sexism and role policing are informed by a fetishizing, racist narrative about Asian (stereotypically East Asian) women.  The experiences of people of color in being caricatured into racialized narratives around a particular gender, race, role and sometimes sexual orientation stand at intersections of multiple kyriarchal equalities, and the choice to deal in thos post with role and gender primarily is, in that sense, an arbitrary one.  Another writer might just as well address the intersection of race and BDSM role (and some have; I am thinking here of Tina Portillo and Mollena Williams, though I don’t have specific pieces handy to cite) and footnote gender as an additional factor.

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116 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2011 3:41 pm

    Thomas, if you weren’t married, I would ask you to marry me for this post.

  2. May 2, 2011 3:46 pm

    I only skimmed this right now and still I need to say that this is so, so, so good. I look forward to reading it in depth when I have the time. Thank you so much for writing it!

  3. May 2, 2011 6:53 pm

    I haven’t had this experience in the scene, but I certainly see plenty of evidence for it, both online and in real life. Many people drag the world’s sexism into the community, while some of us use it as a platform precisely *for* breaking free of traditional gender norms and societal sexism.

  4. May 2, 2011 8:25 pm

    This is going to be a reference piece for a long, long time. Thank you for writing this. I just recently posted about my own experiences about this very issue in a very different light, but with so much overlap I think I’m going to add an addendum to my post about My unreal experience on the Kink, Inc. Armory Tour.

  5. blondeintokyo permalink
    May 2, 2011 11:02 pm

    I’m a female dominant, and I’ve absolutely come up against this. I can’t count how many times I’ve had men assume I’m submissive, and expect me to play out that role even after I’ve told them I’m not. They’re always surprised when I let them know in no uncertain terms that I have no intention of playing out ANY kind of submissive role.

    I’m also very glad to see you speaking up for submissive men. I have been lucky enough to date some very lovely sub guys, and I never felt any of them were less “manly”. In fact, I am primarily attracted to guys who don’t have the overbearing “macho” attitude that a lot of guys have. I can’t stand anyone, male or female, who has an arrogant, overbearing or sexist attitude.

  6. May 3, 2011 12:15 am

    There is so much win in this post. I’d been aware of role policing in the scene for some time, but had never had a word for it – and it ties right in with domism, another phrase I think I’ll be making rather a lot of use of. Thanks much for expanding my vocabulary.

  7. Suz permalink
    May 3, 2011 2:37 am

    Hmmm.
    Do you think this is at all a generational thing? While I definitely agree with you that there is an overwhelming number of male doms/female subs even in the TNG community, I don’t recall there being any prejudice against switches in that group.

    I also wonder about center v. periphery. As in, I’ve gotten a lot more “twu dom” from people I meet online than I do from people who actively go to events. The one time I got asked if I wanted to be spanked, it was at a very large party by a man I had not seen either at other events or on Fetlife.

    Then again, to me it seems like there is a disconnect between what male submissives and female dominants ultimately want.

    • May 3, 2011 6:55 am

      My second-hand understanding of the TNG community (“The Next Generation”, 35 and under, for people who don’t know the jargon) is that switching is more accepted and less hidden. So some of this may be generational, and if it is then we should see some of these problems improve as the generations roll through.

      • Suzanne JC permalink
        May 3, 2011 8:37 pm

        A lot of the TNG groups I’ve encountered (as a young kinkster myself) are more pansexual, more queer, more genderqueer, and generally more sexually diverse. We’re queering the Scene, so to speak.

    • May 3, 2011 6:55 am

      to me it seems like there is a disconnect between what male submissives and female dominants ultimately want.

      And what, pray tell, is that?

    • May 3, 2011 12:42 pm

      It’s also my experience that switching is more common and accepted among younger kinksters. I barely meet anyone within a few years of my age (26) who’s not a switch.

      • May 3, 2011 1:19 pm

        Which is not a panacea, but does help. Role essentialism still hangs on, as Newmahr makes clear, even in the face of people who switch and whose roles evolve freely. But in environments where switching is the norm, role policing is weaker. The view that one’s scene role should be reflected in social space is less problematic when that role is switch.

        Overall, I think there are a lot of these issues where the generational trend is in the right direction: less of an exclusive, het-men and heteroflexible women focused pan community, for example, more switching, perhaps less sexism and less assumption of an M/f norm. I’m not sure the trend on seeing D/s as only a possible component of BDSM is in the right direction, though — I think we’re still seeing fallout from Jon Jacobs and his impact on online communities.

  8. May 3, 2011 8:32 am

    Very good post.

    I wonder if the aspect of domism you mention where some people assume teaching to be a thing dominant or top people do, and submissive or bottom people don’t, has to do with eroticised conflations of teacher = authority figure = dominant. Thus, people being unwilling to separate between teaching about BDSM for non-eroticised educational purposes, and doing BDSM (personal play, public shows as erotic entertainment).

    Purely anecdotal observation:

    It’s my impression that the dirty work of personally gender-role-policing men is also often done by submissive (non-switch) women. This is the spectacle of some dom men (who don’t want to be in the company of men expressing and living out submissive and/or bottom inclinations) expressing their policing in general terms ‘Oh, this is not aimed at anyone personally, but really, male subs, harrumph dontchaknow!’ and then siting back and letting women do the grunt work of policing.

    An example of how it works: A man who has hitherto shown his interest in topping and/or dominating someone (either out of his genuine interest or because he wanted to conform to group expectations to ‘fit in’) begins to express his interest in bottoming and/or submitting to someone as well. Up pops the police in form of a submissive woman saying: ‘Oooooh but you’re always so domly. I can’t believe you would also do that. Come on, do the domly thing nao plz?’ If someone points out that this isn’t exactly polite, a possible reply is: ‘I’m just not into male subs. I’m merely expressing what I like and don’t like. Is that not allowed?’ Underneath cutesy pouting and batting of eyelashes, this is repression at work.

    (In English, these people tend to use the expressions ‘male sub’ and ‘sub’, rather than ‘submissive man’ and ‘submissive woman’ and ‘submissive person’. It distinguishes the marked exception ‘male sub’ from ‘sub’ in general, which, in their world view, is of course by default a woman.)

    I wonder who makes all these decisions to use tied-up women as default visual representations for ‘BDSM in general’. Dominant men? Submissive women? Both?

    After I became known as a submissive, a lot of my male friends that were switches or tops didn’t like me now.

    I find this heartbreaking.

    Aside: By repelling submissive men, people who act like this are repelling het dominant women from their spaces as well. Who would want to see a loved one subjected to this nasty behaviour?

    Carrie told me that her husband (and other men) enjoyed being in a group of all male dominants and female submissives because “they feel uncomfortable” and “would rather not be around” couples that play differently. By this, she means “he would not want to be next to a woman topping a guy or a gay male couple

    Policing has a purpose. It’s done by people who don’t want to be in the presence of people whose BDSM interests don’t overlap their own, while still nominally calling their group/gathering/discussion forum/event ‘BDSM in general’.
    A factor: Being unwilling to distinguish between occasions for education & socialising vs. eroticised occasions: ‘Anything that comes under the heading ‘BDSM’ must have stuff that turns me on, and be free from any stuff that turns me off!’
    Another factor: Education & socialising occasions as gateways to eroticised occasions. The more people who are not het sub women and het dom men they can repel at the gates (munch, event poster, visual representation on group website etc.), the fewer are likely to show up doing their own thing at the play parties later.

    Here’s one suggestion. It would involve acknowledging one’s own special interests as special interests, rather than an imagined default.

    There’s apparently a subset of hetero sub women and hetero dom men who want eroticised gatherings where exclusively men top/dom, and exclusively women bottom/sub. (I can sympathise. For educational purposes, I can and want to learn from all sorts of people, regardless whether any of their interests happen to overlap with mine or not. I couldn’t get in an erotic mood in a physical space where, for example, there are men dominating women. It would turn me off too much: cold water on my libido.) Why don’t these people, rather than proclaiming their own preferences as an imagined default, take the honest approach and create specialised eroticised occasions for their own specialised interests now and then, as an occasional sub-event inside a wider ‘BDSM in general’ group, such as special play parties on certain nights, advertised openly to be exclusively for hetero dom and/or top men and hetero sub and/or bottom women (similar to ‘women only’ play parties for lesbians) – rather than going through all this subterfuge of policing wider educational and socialising spaces and doing their best to preemptively repel anyone whose interests don’t overlap with theirs.

    • Zira permalink
      October 28, 2011 2:02 pm

      Very Well Put.
      Probably the Best Comment.

  9. Suzanne JC permalink
    May 3, 2011 8:43 pm

    A lot of my peers don’t understand why I am beyond reluctant to take my wife to any sort of play party. As a f/f couple with a clear top and a clear bottom (neither of us switch), I don’t often have the energy to parry every assumption that will come from the other players. I’m sure some of them are really lovely, but the data indicates that there are a lot of untoward things still common in the Scene.

    This post sums up my reluctance very well.

  10. May 4, 2011 12:41 am

    Thank you so much for this. I have directly observed a lot of this sort of behavior. My husband is a Dom (although, he has some service top tendencies, and I am working to help him understand that there is nothing wrong with that – probably another directly related topic!), my boyfriend is a switch and I am a switch. So I have seen people interact with us as a Male Dom Fem Sub couple, a Fem Dom Male Sub couple, and we have really thrown people off when we all show up to an event with nothing but a healthy hedonism and no set roles at all.

    At one particularly problematic party in Chicago, I had to pull my boyfriend aside while he was subbing and catching flak from some Gorean guys to explain to him this: “In my fantasy, you are my sub. If I send you to get a drink, you are my emissary, driven by my authority to act on my behalf. I am number one in this fantasy, and you are number two. You will treat anyone that hinders you as though they are hindering me, for that is exactly what they are doing. Be appropriate, but you are not a doormat. You have an arrangement with me, and me only – you are not sub to those folks. Their opinion of us matters not to me, nor should it to you.”* The amazing level of social discourtesy he had received dropped dramatically once he asserted himself. Part of that is that he is tall, brawny, bald and not a little intimating looking even in collar and cuffs.

    The surprise expressed when he squared his shoulders, spoke up and altered the level of discourse was, honestly, a tasty treat for me after how awful they had been to both of us.

    I am sad to see that it is not just a local or regional problem, but also comforted that this is not just us or our area. Does that make sense?

    *I speak a little formally when in Dom mode.

  11. Legs permalink
    May 4, 2011 12:17 pm

    This was a great post thank you!

    I have definitely experienced this, I am in a f/f relationship myself being dominant and my wonderful partner being submissive. Often people assume that I am a switch or that they can manipulate me into submitting for them so they can therefore dominate my partner/ sub. Sometimes I think it is hard to get people to take you seriously if that makes sense, I also have to agree with some people above, I think I encounter this issue more often with people who are older and less with the under 35 crowd. Sometimes I think a lot of the lack of respect comes from me being young.
    I also think that living where I do (sf) makes it a little easier for male subs to be accepted, I have encountered many awesome guys who sub and while i can’t speak for their experiences I can say that I appreciate them :)

  12. May 5, 2011 3:23 am

    Lovely Post! Bravo!

  13. lalouve permalink
    May 5, 2011 7:22 am

    I certainly experiences sexism, despite ‘publicly’ identifying as a domme. In one scene, I was clearly expected to conform entirely to traditional female gender roles when not playing; also expected to desire to please, cater to, and be respectful (beyond the normal mutual respect) towards all men.
    I personally identify as a switch, but avoid doing so in the scene simply because I don’t want to deal with all the nuisance.

  14. Lysana McMillan permalink
    May 5, 2011 9:14 am

    Bloody brilliant. As a bi fem switch, I cannot tell you how much I recognize that pattern. I developed a rapid allergy to it early on and gravitate to bottoms and tops who refuse to play like that. None of my kinky friends or lovers want a sub who’ll roll over to just anybody, even if their primary kink relationship is 24/7. But if I want to expose myself to it, I can find it far too easily.

    I do wonder where the female dom fetish falls into this, though. So much femdom space I see is more about the male gaze. A different topic for a different time, to be sure, but perhaps something to mull over for the future?

    • May 15, 2011 5:58 pm

      Great point about the femdon fetish. As a bi switch woman I have gotten tired of playing with women who dress for and play for their men partners. It’s sometimes even got to the point where men partners try to “suggest” (give instructions) regarding how to top me, which really gets me mad.

      And about gender policing (towards women) I’ve often been told I should dress more appropriately, that is, wear make up, heels, etc. mostly by women. And when I haven’t, men have policed me by ignoring me completely.

  15. Erl permalink
    May 5, 2011 1:06 pm

    @ Lysana McMillan

    I’m sure this is a recommendation you’ve seen bandied around already, but if you’re looking for a good deconstruction of popular femdom as created by the male gaze instead of, you know, the dominant females in question, then Bitchy Jones is the way to go. She wrote a bunch of searing, incisive stuff before she shut down her blog, and it’s still up and great.

    (Bitchy Jooooones)

  16. May 6, 2011 12:13 am

    Yet another fantastic post, Thomas! Thank you so much for writing this!

  17. Strata R Chalup permalink
    May 6, 2011 1:30 am

    Fabulous, thoughtful post with lots of pointers to interesting sources. Thanks a zillion!

  18. May 6, 2011 7:37 am

    Recognize and facilitate our diversity.

    Race Bannon has held a very beautiful and useful speech on the subject: embracing diversity and honouring uniqueness. ‘Allow yourself to be truly yourself, and allow others to truly be themselves.’

  19. Mar permalink
    May 6, 2011 10:14 am

    Wow. That all sounds rather terrible. Maybe it’s because I live in a relatively small college town, so the local scene is very informal, or maybe it’s because I only really hang with the TNG crowd, but I have never run into this and I hope I never do.

  20. Schala permalink
    May 6, 2011 11:20 am

    Very nice and comprehensive post.

    My experience with online communities is a ratio of more men than women, and somewhat more submissive men than dominant men, about as many submissive women as submissive men, and a small proportion of dominant women.

    That submissive men don’t reach the real-life meeting status is probably caused in part by “single people can come…if female” to events, when new. So you need to already be in a couple, or you’re viewed as a nuisance, but if you’re female, that’s okay though. A sort of permanent ladies night.

    I’ve personally never been to a munch, a play party or any other sort of in-person BDSM meeting. My statistics above come from FetLife and CollarMe.

    My boyfriend is a dominant and I’m a submissive. I’m also trans, but I don’t mention that in profiles (people somehow assume transsexual woman = male cross-dresser = fetish = not really female-identified – so I avoid the whole headache by just saying ‘female’).

    “acting as if being submissive should be constraining, and as though dominance is a status that can be lost ”

    I guess this is a problem. And is probably a bit part of how homophobia exists. As a threat to status, something that needs to be proven again and again (being straight, dominant, masculine ‘enough’). While being submissive needs only be seen once.

    I’m not certain how attractive trans women are treated in the scene, given the special fetish status some give to them, while many (this is the mainstream view) also view them as extremely submissive/unmasculine/gay/perverted men.

    It’s as if seeing them as women period undermined something in their brain. And I’ve been theorizing as to what/why for a couple years now.

  21. May 6, 2011 11:33 am

    So I finally got a chance to read this, and I first and foremost need to say thank you, thank you, thank you. I also want to address this: “It’s worth noting that claiming that there’s something broken in submissives — or in submissive men — amounts to an argument for etiology, yet there’s no consensus on why we have the kinks we do in the BDSM community, and no answer at all from the research, what little there is. ” There is a consensus: that there is no consensus. This tells me that everyone’s reasons are different, and that’s really the only conclusion that makes sense given the complexity of human sexuality. Here’s the the thing, though: some of us ARE doing this from a place of trauma. By which I mean, I am. And I hate this unspoken assumption that this is necessarily a bad thing. My attitude is that it isn’t about how I got to be who I am, it’s about how I choose to express my sexuality now.

    Anyway, I get that that’s tangential to your article, so I’ll get back on topic. Thank you, again, for culling this research and synthesizing the findings. Thank you for parsing the bullshit. Thank you for doing this work. Someone really had to write this, because this attitude is so prevalent: “Lenora and Gretchen, both submissives, complained that others have accused them of not being “real submissives,” or have expressed surprise over their SM orientations because they have strong opinions, are articulate, socially assertive or, as Lenora put it, “basically because I’m not a doormat.“**” HATE HATE HATE. I get this all the time. I made a decision similar to Newmahr’s, to abandon the identity of a ‘submissive’ after a brief period of time. Unlike her choice, however, mine was influenced equally by others’ perceptions of submissives and by my own perception of language politics. I decided that ‘submissive’ should be an adjective, because *it really isn’t a core aspect of my identity.*

    • May 6, 2011 12:48 pm

      BTW, you’ve helped me refine how I talk about submission — it’s your self-description that crystallized that what I want to tell people is that “submissive” is meaningful for me only as an adjective and not as a noun. Thanks for that.

      “Submissive” is a word that describes a bottoming style that I sometimes adopt, a feeling I get, a way I act, but not an identity.

    • May 6, 2011 1:01 pm

      Also, excellent point on trauma. I could have been more explicit that I didn’t mean to imply there’s something wrong with using BDSM, and specifically bottoming, to process trauma. It would be horribly ablist to tell people who are trauma survivors which are the acceptable and unacceptable ways to work with their issues. (As a personal aside, as I think about it, I could more easily make the case that I was processing trauma by topping than by bottoming, and not in the way of being mean to people or showing aggression; but rather in the sense that feeling like I’ve stage-managed someone’s highly sensitive personal experience without fucking it up, a sense of accomplishment in being top-as-guide, deals directly with my lingering issues — but that’s a long tangent into my head.)

  22. May 6, 2011 11:40 am

    I just have to make one more comment. Submissive heterosexual men still have heterosexual privilege and male privilege, even in the scene. I find that a lot of complaints about the ‘domism’ men experience fail to take this into consideration. So as much as it sucks getting shit for being a submissive het male bottom, I guarantee you that submissive queer men and submissive women are not having an easier time of it.

    @Suz
    I just turned 22, and I encounter this kind of shit all the time. If anything, it’s a regional or group variation you’re experiencing, not a generational one.

    @Ranai
    “It’s my impression that the dirty work of personally gender-role-policing men is also often done by submissive (non-switch) women.”
    And? Are you saying that sexism and domism are women’s fault? I’m utterly confused by this.

    • May 6, 2011 12:56 pm

      I’m in agreement about privilege. Being a bottom-identified man, even dealing with bareknuckled policing that is brought to bear, is still a position of relative privilege compared with being a woman; and there’s definitely cis- and het-priv all over the place (and race- and class- and ability- …). And it’s not at all inconsistent to say that the heaviest and most visible policing happens to people who are also relatively privileged; in fact, where the kyriarchal divisions are deepest and most unassailably established, one would expect the least policing because the enforcement mechanisms are the most structural and the least visible, while where they are the most fluid and contested, those in the privileged position feel that their privilege is most challenged and react accordingly.

      • May 6, 2011 1:27 pm

        This!!!

      • Schala permalink
        May 6, 2011 4:30 pm

        It’s ironic that the policing happens most around men, and that we can rationalize that it’s ‘because they have the most power’.

        “and most visible policing happens to people who are also relatively privileged; in fact, where the kyriarchal divisions are deepest and most unassailably established, one would expect the least policing because the enforcement mechanisms are the most structural and the least visible, while where they are the most fluid and contested, those in the privileged position feel that their privilege is most challenged and react accordingly.”

        I think the notion that men are policed more, has more to do on the notion that they are worthy ONLY on the “doing” axis, while women are worthy inherently, for simply existing. There possibly exists resentment against this, also.

        Men, have to earn their value/worth. Women have it at the base.Now, the counter notion is that men are more important than women (the resentment part). That women are weak, bad, what have you…except that men desire women (on average), so both notions co-exist.

        The backlash against people who “act like women”, but who are not women, is not about a loss of power. It’s about a loss of value in the eyes of others.

        The powerless man will be bombarded until he has power, or opts out of mainstream – as if he could be shunned, ‘taunted’, goaded, beaten into gaining power – because otherwise he has no value to others.

        My father wanted to goad me into excellence. I had As, he’d criticize me for not having A+ instead of congratulating me. He’d notice everything I would do wrong, not what I did right. It didn’t work. It didn’t give me self-esteem, or a desire to improve. It antagonized him to me, and made me think I was worthless…but I guess it might work for some. People for whom Drill-Sergeant-talk is empowering, inspiring or whatever floats your boat.

        People who want a relationship based on truthfulness, sincerity, honesty, will go beyond this crap about value – they’ll find someone compatible and just leave it there with the mind games and the trade of value. They won’t care for The Rules, or PUA stuff, it just won’t work on them. But they’re also not the majority. People seem just more hypocritical about it later in life.

        I always found the value system silly. But even an aspie like me finds it hard to resist to the desire to be desired/liked by others. So how are others faring, resisting against the kyriarchal system? I’ve largely opted out of mainstream, due to poor social skills and little interest in playing social mindgames. And I’m alone. Not effective in combatting the system this way.

        The catch-22 is that people will listen to people who have some value. Those also have something at stake if they speak against the system, they stand to lose their power. People who speak against the system from a position of having opted out, could be considered of little value, and thus, losers who just resent their position – not revolutionaries.

        Concrete example:
        An elected political party leader who wants to speak against the rich, stands to lose his support to get reelected. The non-rich citizen who’s not elected, sounds like a sore loser, whining against the rich. Which tells you how much elections are about funding, as opposed to voting.

    • May 6, 2011 3:53 pm

      Hi Lori Adorable,

      I prefer using submissive and dominant as adjectives rather than nouns as well. I’m not much into constructing identities out of preferences.

      You asked ‘Are you saying that sexism and domism are women’s fault?’

      No. I mean exactly what I wrote: ‘It’s my impression that the dirty work of personally gender-role-policing men is also often done by submissive (non-switch) women.’
      and
      ‘There’s apparently a subset of hetero sub women and hetero dom men who want eroticised gatherings where exclusively men top/dom, and exclusively women bottom/sub.’

      This is not about the issue of made-up rules about how submissive people should and shouldn’t act in ordinary social situations. Maybe that’s what confused you.

      It’s about the issue of people who want de facto homogenous groups without openly saying so.

      If you asked the open question: ‘Whose fault do you believe sexism and domism are?’ I’d say: The fault of everyone who actively participates in them, and to a smaller extent of everyone who witnesses them without speaking up.

      The latter, for example my own. In this specific example of gender-role-enforcement I mentioned, men being policed for showing an interest in submitting, I have not spoken out every single time I’ve witnessed men being policed for showing an interest in submitting in addition to dominating, because I was wary of the possible accusation ‘Yeah, you only want to encourage him because it’s what you find hot yourself.’ (The reverse exists too: I have in the past spoken out when a submissive man wanted to police a woman for expressing her interest in submitting as well as dominating.)

      I have also, I’m happy to say, witnessed het submissive women actively and honestly supporting men in their interest in submission. As we all know, it’s entirely possible to encourage people in being true to themselves, regardless what happens to yank one’s own crank, and what one’s own compatibilities are.

      Sadly, people exist who elevate their personal libido to the measure of all things, and act as though other random humans owe them turn-ons (and absence of turn-offs). These people exist across genders and orientations.

      If someone wants to have a relatively homogenous group, in order to ensure absence of personal turn-offs, without openly calling it, in this example, ‘Group For Het Dom Men and Het Sub Women Only’, surreptitious efforts to ensure homogeneity are needed, i.e. getting people to conform, and repelling people who don’t conform. As soon as someone else’s interests show in a different direction, corrective measures are in order, be it ridicule, coaxing, giving someone the cold shoulder etc.
      As Thomas just put it in more abstract terms:
      while where they are the most fluid and contested, those in the privileged position feel that their privilege is most challenged and react accordingly.
      This goes for the participating submissive het women just like the participating dominant het men. It’s done for a shared purpose: the de facto homogenous group.

      I don’t know if one could call having homogenous social non-play gatherings with absence of remotest hints of personal turn-offs in the conversations a privilege. Could one?

      I think it’s possible to call it a privilege to be able to say ‘In our group, our own preferred gender-role combination is the default. And our group is open to anyone, really! (Not really. Fingers crossed)’.

  23. Madame Hardy permalink
    May 6, 2011 11:41 am

    This post used up all the awesome on the Internet; the rest of us might as well pack up and go home.

    To be less fangirl: This is closely reasoned, substantiated by both research and personal experience, and compelling. Thank you for this articulate, devastating paper.

  24. Schala permalink
    May 6, 2011 12:07 pm

    “So as much as it sucks getting shit for being a submissive het male bottom, I guarantee you that submissive queer men and submissive women are not having an easier time of it.”

    The post highlights really fucked up attitudes that reek of sexism and are crap for all around, except dominant men who have proven ‘credentials’ (recognized by others as dominant), and socially submissive women who don’t mind intrusions from others (which is, not that many people).

    I’m not sure how submissive men benefit.

    It’s much easier to lose male privilege on a whim, much like it’s much easier to lose the consideration that one is dominant, a leader, masculine, straight (if male).

    Social status that isn’t immediately visible (unlike appearance), can be lost fast, because it needs to be proven all the time. Appearance is there, or it isn’t (though one can purposely tone it down, too). That’s probably why the rich show off materially with big (but especially, costly) luxurious cars and the likes – it shows off their ‘richness’ immediately, they don’t need to demonstrate it more after that.

    • May 6, 2011 12:58 pm

      To be clear, I didn’t mean that this article somehow posited that straight submissive men have it hardest; it’s just an attitude that I’ve noticed pops up a good deal but which wasn’t addressed here, so I wanted to point it out.

      Submissive men benefit by virtue of being men, and submissive het men benefit by virtue of being het and male. Privileges don’t go away in different environments or when intersected by different oppressions (such as domism)- they simply manifest differently.

      • May 6, 2011 1:04 pm

        Totally, totally agree. At least among the readership here, I would hope this statement is non-controversial.

  25. Lady permalink
    May 7, 2011 11:47 pm

    Oh my god. This so applies to butch/femme queers too–I remember before dating my girl, she told me police women are hot. I could not square this arrest-me fantasy with her butch blazer.

    We’ve never experienced a sexual “community” but reading this blog I realized there are so many words for us. We are switches. We are sex-positive. We are all about enthusiastic consent. We service-top often, and we know how sweet pain is.

    Since I’m super femme bi, only ever wear skirts, and she’s a baseball-watching short-haired dyke, people tend to assume she’s more into the sex than I am. That she’s bullying/cajoling me the same tender awful way straight guys do. Once early on a male friend asked her “how far have you gotten with her?” An ex-boyfriend suspected her of seducing my best friend in the bathroom–“pulling a Lady on me again.”

  26. Dybbuk permalink
    May 11, 2011 4:48 pm

    This is interesting. I’ve heard many of these issues. Oddly, however, as a dominant female, I’ve never encountered them. If people assume anything about me, they tend to correctly assume that I’m dominant, or, at worst occasionally, among some of my young friends be surprised that I don’t switch, since most of the women we know do.

    I don’t know whether this is who I hang out with, how I present, age or geography.

  27. May 13, 2011 12:11 pm

    Interesting essay. I must say, if something like this, or these experiences, had been my introduction to scening, I’d’ve found it pretty repellent. Yikes. O.o

  28. May 15, 2011 6:12 pm

    Great post. Sums up pretty much how I feel about the scene and why I have almost made up my mind to leave it (at least the straight one). Another thing that really gets me is the assumptions that women (who are obviously subs) will want to play with men. As a bi woman who chooses to only play with women I find this highly offensive. I usually ask men “Do you want to play with men? Why not? Well, neither do I.”.

    About the gender policing, I have gotten a lot of that too. Not wearing make up, heels, skirts, etc. has put me in odd situations and often meant that nobody wanted to play with me. It has oddly not led people to think I was a top even though I looked less feminine.

    About the masculine gaze, it also police’s women’s sexuality in the scene. It seems to be part of any play among women. I have often seen that if it is not present the women are not interested, not allowed or uncomfortable because their man was not comfortable. And interestingly this was so REGARDLESS OF THE ROLE OF THE MAN (and the woman).

  29. May 16, 2011 5:46 am

    Your blog post has some really excellent points and discussion, and I’m really really glad to see someone addressing this from a feminist perspective, but I have to say, as a kinky feminist woman, your post has some really glaring issues that I think really need to be addressed, and which I haven’t seen addressed in the comments.

    the BDSM community, and more specifically, with the formal community, the organizations and public parties: the Scene.  

    Wow. Dude. Go read some history. The pansexual kink community is not the “formal” community. The formal community is Old Guard Leather, which is mostly queer, and mostly male, and that’s where the pan community stole most of their ideas of formality, scene, and terminology from.

    Partiarchal  and heterosexist pattern manifest in some ways, power dynamics reorient themselves along BDSM role lines in other ways, and those things interact in ways that are completely unique to the BDSM community.

    True, a valid issue for feminist discussion, and a good point. But far from the whole story.

    Your sources are slanted, btw.

    In a thinly-veiled New York she calls Caeden, Dr. Stacy Newmahr did participant fieldwork in the clubs from 2002 to 2006, work she published as Playing On The Edge, recently out from Indiana Universtiy Press.

    NYC is a much more sexist town in its subcultures than many other places, and the public clubs are particularly so. The private play party scene is distinctly different.

    Dr. Margot D. Weiss did fieldwork with the Society of Janus and the attendant public scene in San Francisco in the years leading up to 2005, when she completed her dissertation, Techniques of Pleasure, Scenes of Play: SM In The San Francisco Bay Area.

    Society of Janus is also particularly male-centric. How about finding some studies that don’t prop up the point you set out to make, and broadening your scope a bit?

    I’ll be blunt about what I mean by the “pansexual BDSM scene,” which I’ll call The Scene, and I don’t expect that either author would subscribe to this definition — though I’m not saying they wouldn’t.  The Scene is the community of BDSMers in major cities oriented around heterosexual men, and heterosexual, heteroflexible and bisexual women.

    So you’re going to define the Scene you have a problem with as only the part of the Scene that conforms to your ideas. Tautology, much?

    Overlap, particularly in play environments, between gay men’s and lesbian scenes and The Scene is limited, and while queer men and lesbian women are not excluded, they’re marginal within these spaces.

    This is not at all my experience as a queer- and dyke-identified bisexual switch cis woman. My most frequent play partners are a queer-identified bisexual switch cis woman, a lesbian-identified switch trans woman, and a straight-identified bisexual switch cis man. All four of us are very much a part of our local pansexual kink scene, and are active at the largest and most populous club in our city — a club which has specific, and popular, parties for women, women tops and the bottoms who play with them, queers, trans men and the people who play with them, high-protocol couples (who are often M/m, F/m, or F/f), and other groups you claim are marginalized. Yes, the groups you’re describing are probably the most prominent, and certainly they think of themselves as the heart of the scene, and there are attempts to marginalize us, but dammit, we’re holding our own. And you’re reifying their perceptions of us as marginalized. Nice work there, bucko.

    Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

    Nice job of dismissing any objections to your assertions and characterizations before they can be made. Rather man-splainy of you.

    As I’ll discuss below, part but only part of this is that more of the dominants are men and more of the submissives are women; the way men who bottom are treated sheds a lot of light but also adds a lot of complexity to how we should understand these dynamics.

    Also true, a good point, and an excellent topic for feminist discourse. Domism, your definition particularly, is a huge problem in many-to-most of the kinky communities I’ve encountered — including the queer ones.

    I suspect this has much to do with the culture of the organizations that dominate The Scene in various cities, and varies accordingly.

    Nice to see you give a nod to acknowledging that, but it would’ve been nice to see you actually treat it as true.

    What seems to travel with that idea, though, is the idea that our BDSM role orientation is fixed and static.

    Oh, and don’t I hate it.

    Oddly, the problem I’ve having with this attitude most personally at the moment is with one of my regular play partners, a woman, a switch, and a feminist, whom I have only ever topped and not bottomed to. She consistently behaves as if I am always dominant, and it’s really getting on my nerves. Sorry, digression. But yes, role essentialism is widespread and a big problem.

    She’s talking about things that happen outside of play, which really amount to an attempt to impose the dynamics of play outside the negotiated boundaries.  I’m not going to sugar-coat this:  It’s unethical.

    YES. This. So much this. And I am so hugely fed up with it, and fed up with being treated as if I am a sub just because I am a woman (a phenomenon you address more directly further down).

    It is the men, and their anxious masculinity, that police this, not women’s discomfort with submissive men.

    It’s a huge, huge problem.

    But you just spent seven paragraphs (of your own, plus three lengthy quotes) discussing this problem, and I only count one that’s explicitly and specifically about the problem of women being pigeonholed as bottoms. I get that this is a problem that’s very personal to you, but you’ve strongly centered men in a post that purports to be about a problem that applies to everyone.

    Your suggestions for ways to counter this are good, solid ones, and I thank you for making them. Indeed, I thank you for writing the whole post, but frankly, in addition to some rhetorical problems where you only talk about groups that specifically have these problems and claim that those are the only ones that make up the Scene, ignore communities where things are different, and dismiss any opposition before addressing them, your post gives me a low-grade All About Teh Menz vibe. As an example, I note that the only two trans people’s names I see quoted are trans men.

    I’m only an occasional reader here, and quite frankly, a huge part of the reason I’m not a regular one is that a blog that used to be a feminist group blog about issues of consent, rape, and female sexual power is now authored overwhelmingly by a man. Your voice as a feminist man is important and needs to be heard in discourse around this, but it makes me intensely uncomfortable that a man has essentially taken over this space.

    I don’t know if you moderate comments, but if you do, I certainly hope that you choose to let this one through, although frankly that “trying to sell you something” crack, as much as I appreciate the Princess Bride reference, doesn’t give me a whole lot of hope. You’ve got some incredibly on-point and on-the-nose stuff in here, and I thank you for saying it, but I really think you need to address the problems as well.

    • May 16, 2011 7:47 am

      I moderate comments on my posts. The only reason I’ve taken over this space is because, of all the contributors other than me, only Jaclyn and Mariko still post. I never set out to take over; it happened by default. On your substantive critiques of the post, you make some good points.

      I’m aware of the Old Guard, but to the extent it was formalized, it was a gay men’s scene, and even when Cynthia Slater and Gayle Rubin were hanging out at the catacombs, they were highly exceptional and not always welcome. Janus, I know, was a gay men’s group primarily until the 1980s, and obviously changed dramatically. Weiss discusses this at some length if you’re interested.

      About centering men’s POV, fair criticism. I get better at looking for it when I get called on it. About identifying trans men bloggers but not trans women (or non-binary trans folks), fair. I’ll widen my reading circle. I definitely should have mentioned YMY contributor Julia Serano, who is both a trans woman and a kinkster.

      About finding a study of the pansexual scene that doesn’t support my arguments, well, I’m aware of two major ethnographies of pansexual BDSM communities, and I read them both. If there are others, I missed them and I would love to read them. There’s not a lot of research on us, and most of it is survey that wouldn’t really capture the dynamics I’ve talked about. But I’d love to see an ethnography of a community that does better with these issues (and there seem to be some; some folks on Fet have said that their local scene is better).

      • May 16, 2011 9:53 pm

        I never thought you took the space over intentionally, and that was pretty much what I figured happened, but if it’s not a group blog anymore, then maybe it’s time for this place to stop being active and become an archive, and/or for you to get your own space.

        “To the extent it was formalized”? The Old Guard was highly formalized. You had to earn each piece of your leather. Yes, it was mostly gay men, which I said. As I said that Janus was mostly male.

        Your centering of men’s POV is part of what makes it uncomfortable to me that you’re the primary author here. If you’re going to write a feminist blog, you really should pay more attention to it without being called on it. Women shouldn’t have to hang around just to tell you “All About Teh Menz again.” And it looks like the regulars you still have aren’t interested in calling you on it so much.

      • May 16, 2011 9:55 pm

        Also, your comment about the Old Guard sounds very dismissive of it on the grounds that it’s a gay men’s scene. Have you considered examining Old Guard culture (which is still around, and which is not so gay male centric today) to see how it differs in regards to roles?

      • Jaclyn permalink*
        May 18, 2011 11:56 am

        Ginny, I’m grateful every day to Thomas for keeping the lights on and the readers reading at our blog. He continues to do incredible work, and we’re honored he writes here. You’re obviously free to call him out on his blind spots as you see them, as we all have them. But whether or not he should be blogging here or this blog should be archived isn’t a matter up for public discussion.

      • the randalizer permalink
        November 26, 2012 10:12 pm

        Ginny W

        I applaud your criticisms. I felt that way about many, if not, of the points you touch on. Well done.

        the randalizer (my FetLife handle)

  30. May 17, 2011 2:34 am

    I have an overwhelming urge to print this whole essay out and pass it around at the next munch. You have just (with research backing it and everything!) managed to put into very well-written words what I’ve been trying to articulate to the local kink community for the past year.

    As it is, I’m getting very tired of, “Nono, I know they’re not homophobic; see, they had no problem with the gay male couple that used to show up all the time.” “When’s the last the group saw/heard this couple?” “Oh, about a year before you guys moved up here.” Leaving myself and Morgan to wonder about the reasons the couple decided to remove themselves from the local scene.

    In any case, if you don’t mind, I think I’m going to try and use this article as a starting point/discussion starter at the next meeting in an attempt to start things rolling locally.

  31. May 17, 2011 6:41 pm

    As someone who is highly submissive during play, and not at all outside of it, I have had to put up with so much of this crap. I’ve had “Domly Dom” men assume that I’ll sub to them, because I sub to my partner. I’ve had them refuse to talk to me when he is present, and instead address their comments/questions about me to him. It has gone so far as to wind up with me punching one guy who would not take no for an answer and who thought he’d “show me who was boss.” Guess that was me, huh?

    Most of these things happened at a Fetish night in a bar where I was a bouncer, so even if I were subby to all all the time, I wouldn’t be doing that while working. The last one happened at a friend’s retirement party (not his) that was specifically NOT a play party. I wound up excusing myself for ruining the night (and the friendship with the asshole’s sub), and going home early.

    Jerks like that are why I hesitate to become more involved with the local scene instead of just playing with my two or three very trusted playmates.

  32. May 19, 2011 11:02 am

    Interesting, I just blogged about this a few days before this post was written, as the concept of ‘service top’ was under discussion on fetlife. I have my own way of breaking down the roles present in the kink scene where I spend my time, and was trying to express it as a set of several different axes, not just D/s or S/M.

    http://emanix.livejournal.com/24585.html

    On a happy note, the particular bubble I live in is a community mostly made up of mostly bisexual switches of various genders (yes, an entire herd of unicorns!), so we have a refreshing freedom from this sort of rubbish. By inviting folks in to our play parties etc. we aim to break down this sort of stereotyping in the most fun possible way. Long live the House of Joy! :)

  33. SPS permalink
    July 9, 2011 5:16 pm

    This is news to me, but I really haven’t been in an orthodox BDSM Scene as you have described. I’m a gay transguy who tops, and, believe me, NOTHING gets me going like one of the scorned male “badass bottoms” you speak of- probably because a.) they’re extremely secure in their masculinity and b.) they know exactly what they want (b.) would also work for female submissives who don’t take crap).

    I guess I’m also weird for thinking that the sub/bottom really controls the scene. Huh.

    • July 11, 2011 4:17 pm

      >I guess I’m also weird for thinking that the sub/bottom really controls the scene. Huh.

      You’re not weird. I’ve always thought that.

  34. Ben permalink
    August 24, 2011 10:51 pm

    Wonderful, brilliant post. Forgive me, though, for being pedantic, but I must point out that the actual quote by Archimedes was: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth” (Greek: δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω). So, actually, his remark is precisely to your point.

  35. elun91 permalink
    December 7, 2011 6:01 pm

    Thank you for posting this blog. It was very educational for me. I personally am not into BDSM, so the only information I had about it was from the wikipedia article and cursory glances at BDSM sites who always try to sugar-coat their description of themselves.

    I’m surprised that the BDSM generally favors male-doms and female-subs. BDSM sources always try to present themselves as being progressive and tolerant. I would have expected that pairing to be the most politically incorrect one that people would be ashamed to profess a liking for.

    I would have expected a lot of feminist practitioners to be disturbed by the presence of many submissive females, due to them thinking that their preferences must be caused by brainwashing by misogynistic society. Likewise, I personally would have assumed that males who are exclusively dominant are probably more sexist and insecure about their masculinity than a male switch or sub. I’m surprised that it’s often the male subs instead who have less acceptance, even considering the specific scenes that this research was conducted in. You’d think that male doms, instead of feeling threatened by the existence of male subs, would be glad for their existence because it makes BDSM more socially acceptable by also making it more gender-equal. That way straight male doms can continue to dominate their female partners without feeling guilty of perpetuating a sexist stereotype because they know that somewhere, a male sub is doing the opposite with a domme, so it sort of feels like they are both canceling each other out to some extent.

  36. Rebecca permalink
    May 12, 2012 11:53 pm

    Thank you. I foresee myself linking the shit out of this article. Thank you thank you thank you.

  37. doobedoo permalink
    May 28, 2012 6:51 am

    hi, i dont know if comments on this are still going. i find it really interesting, currently me and my partner are exploring BDSM sex, and to be honest reading some of the internet sites about it scares the shit out of me. I dont take crap from anyone including him and when we were first talking about it, because of my experiences of seeing my friends and family trapped in abusive relationships, i was very dubious :D To be honest all this lifestyle shit scares the hell out of me, i wouldn’t want to make no decisions or be told what to wear etc constantly. it seems that everyone on the internet who likes BDSM is a lunatic, who wants to incorporate it into their life outside the bedroom and there seems to be nothing to cater to people who like BDSM just in the bedroom and don’t take it seriously as a “lifestyle”. to be honest all this shit about masters and slaves and how to talk to each other makes me very freaked out, fair play some people like it, but we both think that we would like to be our own people and not some weird obedience shit.

    my question is this. is this normal? and do most people who like this stuff, agree or are if you meet people who are into BDSM etc are you expected to conform to this bollocks which to me seems absolutely insane? because i can foresee that i could find it very difficult to talk to anyone else about bdsm or other sexual things, i find it difficult enough to talk about sex at the best of times!

    • SweetJess permalink
      December 14, 2012 11:51 am

      *disclaimer – I’m no expert! I could be totally wrong, and if so, I hope someone corrects me!*

      I would say no, that’s not the majority. Like any other interest, there’s a huge range. I think part of what you’re seeing might be that the more into something people are, of course the more likely they are to be very active in that community. I mean, I guess I do some art sometimes, but I’m not super into art, so I’m not active in the art community. Same kind of deal.

      Responsible kink ALWAYS starts out with a discussion of what you’re comfortable with and what your boundaries are. I tend to bottom and sub, but I’m extremely assertive and a raging feminist outside the kinky time :) and my partner understand that. Outside kinky time, we’re on equal footing. And really, inside kinky time, we’re equals, we just like playing different roles. Our boundaries carry equal weight.

      Even if you’re doing relatively minor BDSM, I STRONGLY encourage you to talk openly with your partner so you’re on the same page and both safely enjoy yourself :)

      And in case you haven’t noticed, this is a great place to learn more, but there are also others out there.

  38. the randalizer permalink
    November 26, 2012 10:25 pm

    My thanks for everyones contributions. I vastly enjoyed Thomas’s excellent writing. While there may be a few questionable points (see Ginny W’s excellent critique above) overall it was an exhilarating read and one that struck home on many levels.

    Hopefully this is allowed? I want to give a shout out to the SFCitadel in San Francisco. They make extraordinary efforts to not only encompass the entire BDSM SF Bay Area community, but they are, imho, making great efforts to ensure that everyone gets along and those mired in old patriarchal and kyriarchal social frameworks, have a chance to get up to speed and drop away those patterns of potential abuse. As well as supporting those that wish to remain in that style of living. For those that choose it, it is as valid as any other choice.

    I’ve had someone try to paint me as not a twu submissive, to explain why they didn’t want to play with me anymore. It really hurt as I give my all when I do submit. I hope that some day they (a somewhat new but fast learning Domme) can come to this blog and learn.

    Thanks again for helping me to learn more.

    the randomizer

  39. March 3, 2013 5:17 am

    I will admit, I skimmed through the responses to this post, as although your post is brilliant, it is very late and I should have been to bed several hours ago.

    But as to your last footnote: although it is not an academic text, but more a compilation of anecdotal evidence, Raven Kaldera put out a book about the intersection of Transgender and BDSM identities, including chapters on gender and role essentialism (although I don’t think he calls it such). Full disclosure: many sections of this book quote me and my experiences.

    Anyway, it’s called “Double Edge”, and it’s available here: http://www.lulu.com/us/en/shop/raven-kaldera/double-edge-the-intersections-of-transgender-and-bdsm/paperback/product-12924388.html

  40. September 27, 2013 8:53 pm

    A thousand thumbs up. Thank you for naming the toxic feeling I get around het male doms whenever I attend a munch or open play party.

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