Apr 202012
 

As several authors have already pointed out, Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story, “The Fantasy Life of Working Women,” misses the mark in a number of ways. Her article addresses the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and it’s depiction of female submission. Roiphe posits, “It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad and disparate fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace,” at “a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before.”

The author suggests females may be particularly drawn to the idea of (sexual) submission because we’re “at a moment in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been.” While there’s no doubt women are making economic and social gains, male dominance isn’t exactly “shaky.” Patriarchal structures of power still govern the realms of economics, politics, society, and family.

Roiphe posits women’s submissive fantasies are a response to our inability to deal with what little gains we’re making in those arenas. She suggests that because women are unable to handle “power,” they fantasize about giving up “free will” to the dominance of men.

Roiphe asks:

But why, for women especially, would free will be a burden? Why is it appealing to think of what happens in the passive tense? Why is it so interesting to surrender, or to play at surrendering?” [emphasis added]

Here, Roiphe puts free will and submission into a faulty opposition that’s proven false by the exigence of her article: why do women want submission? Wanting something and getting something is free will, even if that something is submission. I imagine many people in the BDSM community would take issue with the suggestion that submission means having no free will. Logically, A submissive can’t be submissive unless she or he submits, willingly.

In response to her own questions above, Roiphe answers:

“It may be that power is not always that comfortable, even for those of us who grew up in it; it may be that equality is something we want only sometimes and in some places and in some arenas; it may be that power and all of its imperatives can be boring.” [emphasis added]

In another round of faulty connections, Roiphe incorrectly links power with equality in such a way that both feminists and practitioners of BDSM would take issue. First, having power (Roiphe suggests economic power here) doesn’t necessarily mean being equal–not equal in general, equal in a particular relationship, or even equal within the context of a sexual encounter. Second, being “without power,” or being submissive, doesn’t necessarily mean inequality. Successful, healthy D/s relationships are equal in the sense that both partners’ emotional and physical needs are met.

The terms Roiphe uses—free will, passivity, power, and equality—aren’t fixed, aren’t constant, and aren’t universally-agreed upon. For this reason, the connections she attempts to make ultimately don’t work. At best, the connections are reductive, and at worst, they are dangerous.

Perhaps the most dangerous element of the article is the notion of “feminism” Roiphe forwards. While she doesn’t explicitly define what she means by “feminism,” she does suggest what “feminism” might and might not endorse:

“It is perhaps inconvenient for feminism that the erotic imagination does not submit to politics, or even changing demographic realities [. . .] The incandescent fantasy of being dominated or overcome by a man shows no sign of vanishing with equal pay for equal work, and may in fact gain in intensity and take new, inventive—or in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, not so inventive—forms.”

This is Roiphe’s greatest failure—she is mistaken about the aims of feminism. Feminism’s goal is not to alter “erotic imagination,” fantasies, or women’s choices about how they practice their sexuality. One of the chief goals of feminism is agency—agency to choose from a range of identities, preferences, and practices, regardless of whether those identities, preferences, and practices are dominant, submissive, or otherwise.

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Additional Criticism:

Abad-Santos, Alexander. “Spanking New Newsweek Seeks Outrage, Gets Laughs.” The Atlantic Wire.
Friedman, Jaclyn. “Katie Roiphe’s perversion of feminism.” The Guardian.
Marcotte, Amanda. “We Can’t Really Extrapolate Much From Sexual Fantasy.” Slate.
Reiher, Andrea. “Katie Roiphe’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ diatribe misses several points.” Zap2It. 
Tarrant, Shira. “Women, Sex and S&M;: Mainstream Media Totally Wrong About Female Desire – Again.” Alternet.
Tennery, Amy. “What Katie Roiphe Gets Wrong About Women, Work And Sex.” The Jane Dough. 

  9 Responses to “Katie Roiphe, Feminism, and BDSM”

  1. But why, for women especially, would free will be a burden?

    Augh! What you want in bed has nothing to do with how you want to live your life outside of the bedroom! Also, how do we know that there are fewer submissive men than there are submissive women? It's not as if society's gendered expectations of behavior would massively skew the numbers of people of all genders who are willing to admit to being submissive at least some of the time… oh wait.

    But even if women actually are disproportionately interested in sexual submission (or just bottoming), I think there's a fairly simple explanation. Namely, there's no way for us to get it 'right'. If we have careers, we't not good enough mothers, but if we're stay at home mothers, we're traitors to the feminist cause. If we dress too provocatively, we're sluts, but if we dress too modestly, we're frigid bitches, and on, and on, and on. Even though I'm a dom, I can understand how gloriously relaxing it would be to have someone actually spell out exactly what it takes to be 'good enough'.

    And if that doesn't suck enough, there's also the tremendous pressure women are under due to the equality movement not having gotten all the way yet. We still assume that the daughter, not the son, will take care of an aged, ailing parent. We still assume that women will do most of the cooking and cleaning and general labour of keeping a household going. We still assume that the mother, not the father, will take the day off work when the kids are sick. On top of all that, we're supposed to be happy and cheerful and well-groomed at all times. That's bloody stressful! Again, I can understand why letting someone else take charge of everything would be an awesome little vacation from the crushing stress of everyday life.

    Logically, A submissive can’t be submissive unless she or he submits, willingly.

    Exactly! There's a huge difference between giving someone the authority to make decisions for you because that's what does it for you, and going along with their decisions because fighting them on yet another thing is exhausting.

    It is perhaps inconvenient for feminism that the erotic imagination does not submit to politic

    Only for stupid people! If you have two brain cells to rub together, it's easy to see that women feeling comfortable expressing their sexual needs is a clear win for feminism.

    I guess I was pretty riled, I've practically written another post in your comments.

  2. @Stabbity: You should put this up as a post on your blog. Your criticism of the article comes from a different perspective and touches on different issues. I like to see stuff critiqued from different angles–helps me to understand it better.

    I wonder if you could also say something about the whole "Mommy porn" label. It's so strange to me, but I'm not sure why I have such a dissonance with it. Roiphe's piece doesn't really address that, but the term is everywhere now, and I think maybe it's use is dismissive(?). Again, not sure what I think about it, but I'm sure I don't like it.

  3. (Stabbity did write an excellent post on this: "Fifty Shades of Stupid," over on Not Just Bitchy.)

  4. I agree with Stabbity… this isn't about free will or equality or politics, etc. It's simply about learning how to balance it all. There's a limit to just how much we can take on responsibly. Feminism is about having the freedom to choose, but somewhere along the line we forgot that we actually have to CHOOSE. As much as we would like to have it all, there just isn't enough time or energy.

    It's just sad that someone has to hold up these choices as some kind of proof that we never really wanted the choices in the first place. Maybe only 1 out of a 100 woman choose to be dominant in the bedroom, but that's still a million women in the US alone.

  5. @Maggie: "There's a limit to just how much we can take on responsibly."

    I disagree with this statement. There is no ultimate limit because different people can take on different things. I think suggesting that there is a limit sets unnecessary boundaries on the "possible," those boundaries that feminism (in part) aims to break down.

    And I do think it's about equality, free will, and politics. Unfortunately, the decisions we make and the way we handle them will be held up as evidence of our success or failure and our capabilities and limitations–whether or not we like it and whether or not we give permission for such reductive conclusions drawn from our lived experience.

    But I do agree that feminism is about agency–about the range of options available to people and the power to choose from among them.

  6. Found this a bit late but:
    “But why, for women especially, would free will be a burden?"
    I don't understand. If it is strange that free will should be a burden, why is it even stranger that it would be so for women than men? Are women somehow better at the "free will" stuff? Women enjoy "free will" but men suffer through it?

    It's a strange sentence. I don't get it at all.

  7. I am sick and tired of people evaluating Fifty Shades of Grey and twisting it, using it to imply that women don’t deserve equality. Or, even worse, that we “don’t want” equality or are “afraid” of it.

    You’ve already said many things on my mind, and I know to go off on a rant here would be unnecessary. So I’ll just leave it at that. Now, to try and control my breathing and to not glare so much at the screen…

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