The Psychological Underpinnings of Submission & Domination
Has spanking gone mainstream? asks Katie Roiphe in a Newsweek cover story in response to all the hype around the Twilight fanfiction slash "mommy porn" bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey. Roiphe notes the coincidence of this trend of women eagerly consuming fantasies of submission at a time when women are "in hard economic terms" less subjugated or dependent by men than before. May it be "that power is not always that comfortable, even for those of us who grew up in it ... that equality is something we want only sometimes and in some places and in some arenas .... that power and all of its imperatives can be boring"?
The theory of modern powerful women seeking submission for some reprieve is alluring, but is there much holding it up? Dr. Laura Berman supports the theory, arguing that "There are type A, alpha women who need to be in control of absolutely everything in their homes, in their children's lives, in their families' lives. They're deciding where they go on vacation, what kind of clothes their husband wears. A lot of these women grew up with lots of inhibitions and they're overwhelmed and exhausted by the need to control everything. For them, this is an exciting and erotic fantasy."
Memoirist Delaine Moore echoes this sentiment on a more essentialist, biological level, presenting a neuropsychological model where the woman's lower brain holds our "instinctive, primitive thinking," like "the biological urge to have sex and reproduce" and in particular by "submit[ting] to an alpha, knowing that he improves her chances of survival." The upper brain, however, which stores our values and beliefs and morals, teaches the exact opposite thinking to our primitive brain, namely that women are men's equals and that submission in any form is a "bad" thing. Writes Moore:
What sometimes happens is that the two parts of a woman's brain are at war. She knows she is an independent, self-sufficient person, capable of forging and managing her own life. Yet secretly or subconsciously, she may dream or fantasize about submitting to a man sexually or otherwise, all the while berating herself for doing so because she judges her thoughts as weak, clingy, or abnormal.
Adult sex educator Charlie Glickman, on the other hand, disagrees with pseudo-psychological claims pinning women as the submissive. In response to such claims, Glickman points out that they ignore "switches, or folks who like to both top and bottom" and "many professional dominatrixes [who] have clients who are high-powered CEOs, airline pilots, or lawyers who need to take a little vacation from being in charge every so often." In response to Roiphe's cover story, Salon staff writer Tracy Clark-Flory interviewed a series of dominatrixes making the point that a desire for submission is not unique to women.
Maya at Feministing.com agrees that submission is not tied to gender:
“Why is it so interesting to surrender?” Seriously, is this even a question? We’re talking about sex. One of the researchers [that Roiphe quotes] described the fantasies as the “wish to be beyond will, beyond thought”? Who doesn’t have that wish? Or Susan Sontag’s description: “the voluptuous yearning toward the extinction of one’s consciousness”? I mean, this makes sexual submission sound like the BEST THING EVER. Do we even ask men if they have fantasies like that? Because I’m pretty sure they do. I mean, basically I think that women and men are interested in sexual submission because it’s hot. And women and men are into sexual dominance because it’s hot in another way. And obviously some people like one more than the other, and some people are into more specific kinds of kinks, and maybe generally more women are comfortable with submission and men with dominance, because that’s how we’ve been socialized — but really, wanting and wanting to be wanted seem like pretty universal desires.
This "extinction of one's consciousness" to achieve pleasure fascinates me. As part of the "vogue" Roiphe claims to note of more books, television shows, and movies featuring submission and domination is A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg, featuring Keira Knightly as Sabina Spielrein, originally Carl Jung's client and later his graduate student. Sabina would eventually become known for her psychoanalytical theory of the sexual drive as containing both an instinct of destruction and an instinct of transformation (in fact anticipating both Freud's "death drive" and Jung's views on "transformation") — something must be destroyed for something to be created. Or "Destruction as the cause of coming into being," as she puts it. Not only does the sexual instinct include the drive to destroy the self — the ego — that "ominous despot." But more generally, "Preservation of the species is a 'dynamic' drive that strives for change, the 'resurrection' of the self in a new form. No change can take place without destruction of the former condition."
In psychoanalysis, the idea is to expose the wound by facing the original trauma and thus in a sense reentering it in order to let go of it. And to shed the false identity one has come to believe in and create a truer sense of self.
Those who engage in BDSM are sometimes accused of acting out some sort of abuse cycle, but what if engaging in BDSM can be a therapeutic, healing method too, not unlike the one proposed by talk therapists, albeit through different means?
The "dangerous method" featured in the film of the same name is the spanking Sabina requests from Jung with whom she develops a sexual affair. Thereby she in a sense re-enacts the abuse her father afflicted on her with his hands as she recalls it, but the experience also allows her to transform. In the film's concluding scene, it is Sabina — at this point a practicing psychoanalyst of her own (among one of the first female psychoanalysts, she was in fact the first woman to write a psychoanalytic dissertation) — who is asked to psychoanalyze Jung who at this point is at the verge of a breakdown.
These therapeutic, healing aspects of submission, journeying through an original trauma in a manner that becomes positively transforming are worth exploring further.
In her memoir, The Chronology of Water, Oregon-based writer and teacher Lidia Yuknavitch describes powerfully how she went through a healing cycle of sexual submission to release the pain inflicted upon her throughout her childhood. Having already sought to numb the pain through excessive uses of drugs and alcohol, it is through being whipped that she eventually finds a cleansing resurrection. In an extremely moving section of her book, she recounts being dominated and whipped by a woman her mother's age; a woman she in fact eventually names "Mother." "Because my real mother? She'd been a numb drunk folded into her own pain when I needed her. This one took action. This one could have killed my father. I wanted her to ravage me." Writes Lidia recounting her relationship with this woman:
What I really wanted was to be taken to whatever the edge of self was. To a death cusp. Maybe not literally. But maybe literally.
I suppose it's good I was in the hands of a professional. A calm sadist. An intellectual. Because she took my request and made it deeper.
"Can you take the pain and go somewhere? Can you make it a journey?" ...
At first I didn't know what she meant by "journey." I just wanted to be with her. I just wanted her to hurtpleasure me. So when she asked me that, it was annoying. It involved thinking. Can't we just do it?
This woman though, she was 25 years older than me. For her, having sex — that anchor of heterosexual scripture — she'd left that behind more years ago than my age. So it seems true enough to say that in her hands I became again. ...
This: territories that had caused me psychic pain were now available to recross physically through a pain that ... cleansed me like water. ...
She whipped my breasts. She whipped my stomach. My hipbones. Late into the day. I did not make a sound, though I wept a cleansing. Oh how I cried. The crying of something leaving a body. And then she whipped me red where my shame had been born and where my child had died, and I spread my legs as far as i could to take it. Even my spine ached.
Afterwards she would cradle me in her arms and sing to me. And bathe me in a bubble bath. And dress me in soft cotton. And bring me dinner in bed with wine. Only then would we make love. Then sleep. Ten years to bring a self back. ...
My safe word was "Belle."
But I never used it.
Aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter Alan Nogueira who describes himself as "deeply passionate about BDSM as a lifestyle," explains that he loves "the idea of bottoming as a kind of personal journey on the search for independence and real power. It is not a coincidence that the bottom women I love are independent and powerful women: Madison Young, Angela Carter (according to a biography I read, she was a bottom in some very strong relationship), and Maria Beatty. There is a transformation process inside the psychological structure of BDSM. It is a very complex matter, and also a very dangerous method (paraphrasing the title of Cronenberg's film). In a panel I gave some years ago to a group of female friends, I talked about the necessities of finding a good and trustful dominator. I love to compare BDSM with some pagan rites of passage in which the physical and psychological pain becomes a tool to destruct a weak and false inner self and then rebuild the self as the true strong inner person."
In its truest form, a D/s relationship is all about the submissive: her wants, her needs, her fantasies. The dom's job is to build a bond so strong with her that she feels safe enough, connected enough with him, to unleash her creativity and explore her innermost self. Through submission, she actually becomes empowered because she connects with her body, heart and mind in much deeper ways.
Feminist BDSM pornographer Madison Young echoes some of these sentiments in an interview she gave to The Huffington Post recently about being a submissive. Unlike Sabina and Lidia, Madison does not recount severe childhood abuse. But she does recount growing up in a conservative small town in Ohio where she was not encouraged to discuss or explore her body or her sexual self. "I grew up with a lot of shame around my body, my desire, and the knowledge that I was different," explains Madison. Such shaming is of itself abusive. Sadly, it is inflicted on far too many children in our culture with the result that a lot of what young women and men may hold about themselves could benefit from being shed and transformed, be it through talk therapy or whatever other healing method we discover for ourselves. Explains Madison on her desire to be dominated:
Personally I'm a control freak in my non-kink life, so being in a safe, negotiated space where I can be completely present in the moment and completely connected to my partner, rather than my mind running circles around my action list, gives my psyche room to breathe and is similar to a meditation. It's a meditation that leaves me overflowing with a rush of endorphins and a deep open connection with my partner. ...
When engaging in BDSM, an individual is opening themselves up, making themselves vulnerable and ready to receive and give energy. Imagine a time in which you were vulnerable with your partner and revealed something intimate about yourself. In BDSM you are creating that level of trust, intimacy, and vulnerability with your partner and then creating space for the receipt of energy and the flow of energy back to your partner.
To illustrate, if you are interested in receiving a spanking from your partner, you have negotiated and communicated about your limits and are ready to receive a spanking. You lean over the bed, and when your partner's hand or paddle comes in contact with your flesh, there is a huge rush of energy that enters your body at the point of contact. The bottom receives this energy, visualizes its swelling energy, and breathes the radiating ball of erotic energy out in a deep exhale or note of gratitude to his or her partner. It is similar to how you breathe and allow for the movement of energy during a massage, which can either be very light and soft and surface or can move some major energy during a deep-tissue massage. Some individuals crave a greater level of sensation and energy than others.
For some, massages and talk therapy may be what it takes to heal and transform; to feel trust again on a fundamental level, and a deeper and more open connection with ourselves and our partners. But for others, and possibly for more of us if we can only overcome our fears and prejudices, being on the submissive end of BDSM might be the healing route to go.
photo credit: "masochism and feminism: is submissive sex anti-feminist?" @Slate
Quizzical mama, aka Anne G. Sabo, Ph.D., is a former academic turned public educator, author, speaker, freelance writer, and mama- and sex blogger. LOVE, SEX, AND FAMILY is a resource site she founded devoted to progressive human sexuality information. This piece was originally posted there.