Whips, Chains and Penises, OH MY! Fantasy and the Feminist Argument for Bondage

Friday, August 01, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

A teenager's mother finds an S&M bondage magazine in her room. The mother, very upset, shows the magazine to her husband. "What do you think we should do about this?" she asks him. 

He looks at her and says, "Well, I definitely don't think you should spank her!"

(Ba dum dum, ching)

Fantasy may evolve as a way to combat early childhood insecurities or as a way to explore sexuality. From wild woman fantasies, to playing the victim, women are highly sexual creatures equipped with the ability to use fantasy in a variety of ways. We may use it to explore our own femininity, rehearse future possibilities or enhance self esteem. We may also use fantasy as a way to reduce guilt and enhance pleasure or as a coping skill to deal with past trauma. All of these issues are discussed in more detail in the last post: Can Fantasy Be Useful? Fantasy Roots, Functions and Fifty Shades of Awesome. 

But in recent months, our fascination with Fifty Shades of Grey has become an antifeminist scapegoat among mounting concerns that perhaps such depictions of submission are a disservice to women. Through this series, I hope to show that while some elements of our fantasy lives may come from a society bent on patriarchy, the way we use them is not shameful or wrong. Some of them are even evolutionarily relevant.

So let’s pick up where we left off. What fantasies inherent to Fifty Shades of Grey are so arousing to us? 

Powerful Males

Rationally, we do not like to admit to the sexiness of powerful men. But it’s an evolutionary imperative as well as a sociological and economic one. 

Successful partners may have been more able to provide in ancestral environments, making us more likely to seek qualities that embody these traits, according to Dr. David Buss in The Evolution of Desire5. While we also seek other signs of emotional stability, intelligence and caring, few women (or men) are particularly excited to be with someone "without drive or motivation," which often  means they have a job or a skill set that could lead to one. This is true even in the most accomplished among us, although the sensitive caregiving male is becoming more attractive as society shifts towards dual earner households. And as Dr. Peter Kramer notes in Should You Leave?, family members may trade off competency in different areas as they seek equilibrium8. That competency may rear its head in a trade off between one high strung partner and one calm, or between financial and caregiving roles. Balance. Stability. Health. 

At any rate, just because we can do it all alone, doesn't mean we necessarily want to. We want a partnership, both in the emotional connections that it takes to raise kids and in the economic realm. Obviously, we are not referring to those who use others strictly for their pocketbook, but more making the point that financial stability may subconsciously (or overtly) lead to attraction, just as emotional stability or overall health might. This is not shameful in and of itself until some asshole comes out with a song and makes it sound dirty.

"I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger..." 

At present, this financial element remains a potentially unhealthy sociological phenomenon and not merely an evolutionarily relevant one. For these elements are exaggerated as they are pushed on us at every turn through the media and storybook fairy tales, leading us to be attracted to, not just success or stability, but power. After all, essentially every princess of our generation needed to seduce a very powerful male (her prince) before the story could conclude with, “happily ever after”.  We no longer just need a "normal motivated fellow" in our fantasies. Due to very real and striking power divides in our environment, we may be more driven to seek that top one percent, the Christian Greys of the world. Men are not immune to this; even Aladdin sought a rich woman. But women may be more susceptible to these power issues due to the context we currently find ourselves.

Dr. Michael Bader, author of Arousalagrees, noting that the fantasy of arousing a powerful other is more common in women because social power and authority are more commonly enjoyed by men, leading women to seek power vicariously6. Power, and not stability, also counteracts the feelings of helplessness we are often subject to in our daily lives and work situations. 

Verdict? Seeking powerful males--or fantasizing about them--is a normal response to evolutionary drives towards successful partners, though it is unfortunate that this drive is exaggerated through an abnormal societal situation where actual power tends to be skewed. (Fuck you, society and your glass ceiling.)

However, the main element that has people up in arms seems to be that of domination. We fear a loss of physical power in reality. Yet we may fantasize about it, often because of more of those societally-imposed pressures on our vaginas...I mean our psyches. 

Domination, Sadomasochism and “Rape Fantasy”

In popular media, bondage is often equated with rape fantasy, so much so that women tend to believe that they are having fantasies of actual rape. While some are, the vast majority are responding to submission fantasies. In submission fantasies, or in sadomasochistic practice, the helplessness is not true helplessness. Sadomasochism involves enjoyment of both partners.

Women are also subject to this weird “mother/whore” dichotomy. We are either seen as vulnerable caregivers, or as sexual dominatrixes but rarely anything in between. Even Wyldstyle in the Lego Movie was a strong dominant female turned smitten and helpless under the domineering Lego Batman. 

Legos aside, let’s get back to bondage. (I can’t believe I actually just typed that sentence.)

Anyway, bondage fantasies and practices are not about actual rape. But let’s talk about why we might want them to be. 

Submission Versus Rape Fantasies

Rape fantasies are far more common than anyone admits. In his book What Do Women Want, author Daniel Bergner reports the frequency ranges from 30% to 60%, though the reality may be higher based on the shame responses inherent in these thoughts1. Though again, I will argue that what are referred to as “rape fantasies” in the literature are about submission misconstrued as “rape”. Real rape (sometimes even in fantasy or dreams) and the helplessness inherent therein, leads to trauma and kills sexual desire regardless of how a fantasy began. Also important to note that these fantasies may be either arousing or aversive4, which will be discussed in future posts. For our purposes here, we will focus on the arousing as opposed to the aversive type.

Bergner cites several theories about why these fantasies are so common, all of which play into the submission/domination elements in Fifty Shades:

1. Removal of Guilt

If you subscribe to Bader’s theories on fantasy (discussed in the last post), the removal of subconscious guilt from being too needy as a child, worry about hurting others or even the fear of experiencing more pleasure than parents (which can subconsciously be seen as a betrayal) can all play into guilt which hinders sexual enjoyment and makes a fantasy world more necessary for pleasure. 

But there are more overt reasons for the widespread appeal of submission fantasies. And make no mistake, if these fantasies were not common, Fifty Shades of Grey would not be near as popular. 

So what are these overt causes of submission attractiveness? 

On top of the fact that women are raised to see submission as normal and feminine, the notion of the chaste, virginal female is a strong one within our society and our religious practices. Bader agrees, noting that women are also conditioned to be “givers not takers”. These ideas create a great deal of shame if we fail to live up to expectations.

Added to these societal representations of the pliant virginal ideal are large gaps in our knowledge of our own sexual functioning. Women did not evolve to be strictly monogamous, though we can choose to. Due to this, fantasies of other partners is a common occurrence as are fantasies of numerous other sexual acts deemed “wrong” or “bad” by early conditioning or societal ideals. 

We like variety in partners and in sexual practices. We’re supposed to. We lose sex drive when we don't get variety, leading us to make up these fantasies in our heads to compensate for being with just one dude...forever. But too many women don't know it's normal.  

That's kind of a problem. It's like telling someone that they can only eat vanilla, despite a genetic predisposition to love chocolate, rocky rhode, mint chip, superman and pistachio. Then, once you get them to choose vanilla, you can shame them for thinking about rocky rhode...or chocolate...or maybe all of them at once in a wild ice cream orgy. Maybe they even add whipped cream (gasp).

Here, rape fantasy may come in as a response to that shame. We have trouble accepting the fantasy of having sex with a man besides our chosen mate because it often means having to entertain the idea that something is wrong with us or that we wish to be unfaithful (which is rarely the case). So, instead, we envision a man forcing himself on us. That way, even in our fantasy world, we do not have to explain it to a religious or social authority and we don't have to justify it ourselves because we don't have to take the blame. Despite the fact that it's happening inside our heads, the rape fantasy or one of submission does tend to alleviate guilt at the thoughts of the encounter. In submission, we reduce guilt and worry and enjoy the experience. 

Then, it's just steps to, ”Come here, baby, I'm going to tie you to a cross in my Red Room.”

2. Sexual Narcissism

Researcher Dr. Marta Meana adds another perspective in What Do Women Want1. A large part of her work centers on sexual narcissism, the idea that women may respond more ferociously to their own abilities to incite a fire in their partners1. This sentiment is echoed by Maltz and Boss in Private Thoughts7 and Dr. Bader in Arousal6. As Meana describes it, rape fantasy is not about being raped. Instead, it's about a woman's submission, and the idea that someone would push through all social norms, legal reprisals and taboos in order to have her. She is so sexually attractive that she makes him lose control. In this way, the victim role may be about our own power over another as opposed to a desire to be dominated.

Ironic, I know.

We are of course taught that our sexuality is powerful, over and over again, from the time we are old enough to understand what cat calls are. Our sexuality is so powerful that we can actually make men rape us by wearing shorts that are too short, a tank top that is too low. They are helpless to the powers of our flesh. Our sexuality is dangerous, to men and to us. Isn't it?

In fantasy submission we may embrace this inherent power by ignoring how dangerous we are taught that power really is, particularly since we may be too frightened to do so in life. Fucking society.

On a moderately related note, what do you call a handcuffed man? Trustworthy. (My husband just told me that joke. That's what I get for telling him I am writing about bondage.)

Submission may play other roles as well. Playing the victim in fantasy may also be a way to cope with an actual assault, say by rewriting the ending of the fantasy and regaining power. In those with a history of trauma, submission may help them work through their histories in a safe place, just as fantasies (or acts) of domination may allow them to flip the script and work through those issues in a space where either choice can be coupled with pleasure instead of with pain as it was in the past.

And in some cases pain and pleasure are linked together even more closely.

3. Fantasy and Excitation Transfer

In addition to avoiding guilt, that whole taboo thing can work two ways. Turns out that the pathways that control fear and those that control sexual stimulation are highly intertwined. While we need to be relaxed and under parasympathetic control to become aroused, climax requires sympathetic arousal. Sex is a sticky business (pun intended) mostly because of the nature of our on/off switches. 

But that's nothing to be ashamed of either.

Bergner cites the research of Cindy Meston, whose studies revolve around the nature of excitation transfer1. In one study, Meston asked subjects to rate sexual desirability before and after an amusement park ride. She found that the fear increased her subjects' ratings of desire2

Maybe that's why some of us dig dangerous or unpredictable guys, like Legends of the Fall Brad Pitt over....seriously who the hell was the other dude in that movie? But that’s a post for another time.

Meston's research builds on that of Aron and Dutton who coined the phrase "Misattribution of Arousal" in 1974. In their most famous study, male subjects were asked to walk across two bridges, one safer, one higher and more rickety. On each bridge, the men met a beautiful women who gave them her phone number. The men were compelled to call the woman at much higher rates when they met her under duress, leading Aron and Dutton to conclude that the fear made her that much more attractive due to misunderstandings of arousal at the level of the brain3. In other words, the rapid heart rate was misinterpreted as attraction instead of anxiety.

Bergner notes that the excitation transfer effect in Meston's studies is present in other taboo areas. According to Bergner, through an interview with researcher Paul Federoff, fetishists, exhibitionists, even pedophiles may have a "sticky switch" between their sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, making higher levels of fear or shame (from pushing taboos) necessary for climax1.

It is hypothesized that this sticky system may be present in some women, a catalyst to flip things on and unlock orgasm. This means that some might need more socially unacceptable fantasies to get off. 

However, Bergner notes that this is still theory and will require additional research to establish concrete connections. At any rate, excitation transfer, or the notion of fear leading to pleasure, may help to explain why we are so drawn to these elements of bondage, in practice as well as in fantasy.

Obviously, submission, bondage, or any type of fantasy is safe. With fantasy, you can always open your eyes and make it stop. You can't do that with real rape. That's a big difference, because it's one that gives us the locus of control. 

That matters.  And as much as I hate that I have to include this next section, it’s important because it tends to be a huge issue in counseling rape victims. No matter how often one fantasizes about rape or submission, there is no element of that fantasy that means you actually wanted to be attacked.

It Doesn't Mean You Wanted It: Additional Reasons for Actual Rape Guilt

Even without the locus of control, some women feel exceptionally guilty in cases of actual assault. But let’s make this clear again: fantasies don’t always reflect what we actually want. Any suggestions that “she wanted it because she thinks about it” are total bullshit.

Aside from fantasy guilt, women tend to lubricate during or before assault, a biological imperative based on self-preservation. Rape has been such a huge part of our evolutionary history that in the face of any sexual activity, we automatically lubricate to avoid injury, whether we desire the encounter or not. And, in our evolutionary past as well as today, we didn't always have a choice. 

This may be one reason we are so receptive to stories and visual depictions of sex. Regardless of how turned on we are by the story or the photos, we may lubricate anyway and find it easier to respond to partners in the aftermath when things are already…slippery.

More disturbing to some victims is the experience of orgasm during sexual assault. This leads to extreme guilt, often based on the mistaken notion that they somehow wanted it to happen, or enjoyed it. However, in light of excitation transfer, this may be purely a biological response based on the fear of the encounter, or a natural mechanism for lubrication. 

Women do not want to be raped. Women who are raped are not into it, regardless of how many rape or domination fantasies they have had. And none of these internal mechanisms indicate anything more than biological responses to abnormal and terrifying situations. Instead of guilt, hopefully this information will allow women to accept these phenomena as very real, very normal, parts of their biology and psychological functioning in order to erase the guilt that may be associated with it. 

Fifty Shades of Grey and IS IT VALENTINE'S DAY YET!?

So why does Fifty Shades of Grey work? That answer will be slightly different for everyone. Perhaps we, vicariously through Anna, have the ability to assert our own power over our sexuality, controlling the powerful Christian Grey with our repressed femininity. Maybe we like that we don’t have to feel guilty because we get to be done to, and also because we are the voyeurs as opposed to the actors in the fantasy. 

Perhaps it is an offshoot of a need for variety, a way to increase libido with our chosen partner or a drive to explore other avenues for pleasure that we aren’t ready to try in life. Perhaps there are other issues, subconscious drives to assert power in an attempt to override childhood guilt or worry. Perhaps we are using fantasy (with a new happier ending in Anna’s pleasure) as a way to rewrite trauma or as a reenactment strategy to achieve the same end. And perhaps not. 

Maybe that dude in the movie just happens to be your particular brand of sexy. I like them bigger, stronger, badder, but that’s just me, ladies. He can’t work for all of us. Feminism is about choice. Understanding where your fantasies might come from and embracing the elements you enjoy is your prerogative. 

Women's sexual functioning is far from the myths we currently entertain in our society. There are many factors in place that encourage responses that may be taboo or unacceptable. But we are not broken. We don’t have to feel guilty. We don’t have to feel ashamed. We don’t need permission to be aroused. No matter how unacceptable it may seem to embrace bondage fantasies as a society, they can mean any number of things, not only anti-female propaganda. 

That said, is it wrong that I can’t stop watching the trailer? That new version of Crazy in Love may be the sexiest fucking thing I’ve ever heard (Those types of unscripted fantasy elements will be covered in future posts, so stay tuned).

Now if you’ll pardon me, I have that soundtrack on repeat and some….ahem…things to take care of. 

Still no shame, people. Enjoy your kink.

Why do you think women don't discuss this issue? Is it shame or something else?

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Related Posts:

Citations
  1. http://www.amazon.com/What-Do-Women-Want-Adventures/dp/0061906085/
  2. http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/HomePage/Group/MestonLAB/Publications/rollercoaster.pdf
  3. http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=search.displayRecord&uid=1975-03016-001
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19085605
  5. http://www.amazon.com/Evolution-Desire-Revised-4/dp/046500802X/
  6. http://www.amazon.com/Arousal-Secret-Logic-Sexual-Fantasies/dp/0312302428/
  7. http://www.amazon.com/Private-Thoughts-Exploring-Womens-Fantasies/dp/1419690701/
  8. http://www.amazon.com/Should-You-Leave-Psychiatrist-Autonomy/dp/0140272798



Topic-Relevant Resources

What Do Women Want?
An exploration of female sexuality through interviews with prominent researchers in the field, including not yet published research (at this time)

Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century
An interesting look at improving the capacity for sexual pleasure using "outside the box" techniques. Not for the faint of heart.

Private Thoughts: Exploring the Power of Women's Sexual Fantasies
Detailed descriptions of the rich fantasy lives of women, the underlying meanings behind them and how to decide if they are working for you or hurting your sexual desire.

Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies
Everything you ever wanted to know about the psychological causes of fantasies. How to use them, when to lose them and what they mean.

Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm (Paperback) - Common
Sex and increasing the capacity for orgasm. You know you want to read it.



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