Afab and submissive
i know quite a few submissive afab people, only a few of whom identify as men (not necessarily solely as men). Many of them are switchy to varying extents, but not all: a long-term partner of mine, a cis woman with whom i'm in an owner/possession dynamic, is solely a submissive, finding even service topping sufficiently draining that she only does it very occasionally, in very specific circumstances.
All of these people are highly intelligent (regardless of their level of formal education), talented in various ways, and very anti-patriarchy: my sense is that they'd all be comfortable with their politics being described as ‘intersectional feminist’. None are of a disposition to put up with sexist and/or misogynist bullshit from men.
And yet, there are strands of feminist thought that claim that their submission in kink play is un-feminist, or anti-feminist, or actively contributing to women's oppression. As i've mentioned in other posts, the claim - which i'll call ‘claim 1’ for later ease of reference - is that, assuming they're not consciously working as fifth columnists for patriarchy, they have naïvely failed to recognise that they only ‘want’ to submit because they've “eroticised their own oppression”. It's argued that in the absence of patriarchy, they would simply not have such a desire; thus having such a desire is proof that they've eroticised their own oppression. The bottom line is that their submission necessarily involves internalised patriarchal oppression, and failure to challenge that is a failure to challenge patriarchy and to be a good role model in the struggle for women's liberation.
In 1961, Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist[a], published the book “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China”[b]. In it, Lifton lists “Eight Criteria for Thought Reform”; here are four of them as described on the Wikipedia page:
Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.
Sacred Science. The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group.
Doctrine over person. Members' personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious, and must be converted to the group's ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members.
To me, the logic of claim 1 meets these four criteria. And my experience has been that the strands of feminist thought which assert claim 1 - most prominently, radfem[c] analyses and politics - usually meet these four criteria more generally.
When it comes to abortion, the standard feminist position - though certainly not the universal feminist position - is that a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body. More specifically, it's understood that, in the general case, a given woman is sufficiently competent to be able to make such choices. The fact that many women face external pressures to make a certain choice - pressures ranging from simple “you should ...” assertions through to threats and actual physical violence - is not considered a reason to have someone other than the woman decide what is best for her. Whatever her decision, it should be respected and supported.
But if that same woman says that she actively, with informed consent, wants to take on a submissive role in a kink context? Or says that she feels doing sex work is the best option for her at the current time? Suddenly, she's no longer competent, and the idea that her agency should be respected is considered ridiculous[d].
As someone who's been around far-left politics for over two decades, i'm keenly aware of the various claims that leftists have made (and make) regarding the ‘natural’ psychology of humans. Contemporary Anglosphere leftists with insufficient knowledge of left history might assume that the left has always been pro-queer-liberation, yet in years past, many leftists argued that homosexuality is unnatural and/or bourgeois, would disappear in a classless society, and was a psychological problem to be ‘solved’. Similarly, contemporary Anglosphere leftists might assume that the left position on gender is to critique traditional notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, not support and promote them, yet that's what the Chinese government is currently doing[e]. And then, current mainstream Anglosphere leftist thinking is that queerness is a natural part of human biological variation, but that gender is simply a social construct, with one's sense of one's gender being basically unmoored from any potential biological base[f].
To me, it's incredibly arrogant for anyone, regardless of where they are on the political compass, to claim that:
- they not only know what ‘natural’ human psychology is ‘really’ like, but
- know with a level of confidence that they are entitled to make pronouncements regarding what a ‘healthy’/‘unhealthy’ psychology is for a given person regardless of context, and that
- they are then entitled to criticise or shame that person for not having, or not making efforts towards having, their notion of a ‘healthy’ psychology.
i can't help but keep coming back to The Bard:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
— “Hamlet”, Act 1, Scene 5☙
🏷 feminism,gender,kink,politics,psychology,sex work,sexuality
[a] To say that i'm not a fan of psychiatry, both historical and contemporary, would be an understatement. i think there are many problems with the practice of psychiatry and the extent to which it's integrated with, and deployed by, kyriarchies. i've read several good feminist critiques of the field. Nonetheless, i feel that Lifton being a psychiatrist doesn't significantly negate the analysis of his that i reference here.
[c] In a recent post, i explained why i use the term ‘radfem’ rather than ‘radical feminist’:
i use the term ‘radfem’ rather than the full phrase ‘radical feminist’ because there can be, and often is, a (possibly significant) difference between a feminist whose politics are radical in some sense(s), and the ‘radical feminist’ strand of feminist thought. That is, one can be a ‘radical’ feminist without necessarily having radfem politics.
[d] A number of years ago i had a conversation with a friend who had attended a meeting of people involved in supporting sex workers. One of the other women attending actively mocked the idea that women could ever possibly have any ‘agency’ in the context of sex work, and furthermore asserted that former sex workers should not be involved in support of current sex workers because the former are ‘broken’ and have Stockholm Syndrome. In other words: women's voices can't be trusted and shouldn't be listened to. And all this was somehow ‘feminist’.
[e] Personally, i don't think the following two things are entirely unrelated:
[f] Please please please don't sloganeer with the phrase “gender is a social construct”. It's actually full of ambiguity and elides critical distinctions that need to be made when discussing issues related to gender: