When my wife was in graduate school, it gave her enormous pleasure to go to class with her arse so sore from my spankings that I stayed on her mind all day. “Maybe I should journal about our play, so that if something happens to me,” she mused, “you won’t be blamed for it. Maybe I should chronicle it all in detail so it’s explicit: ‘yes, the bruises are from my husband, but it was consensual. Don’t suspect him; he’s not your guy.’” Then she would laugh.
Dark humour aside, her concern is not crazy. The practices of bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism, or BDSM, are more on the radar of popular culture than ever. Yet, they remain sufficiently taboo that the default presumption about bruises on a partner is that they are signs of domestic abuse rather than sexual fun. Some critics even go so far as to suggest that BDSM is always wrong, even with consent. That fact caused my wife to wonder aloud, “Does enjoying this make me a bad feminist?”
Sometimes I ask myself the same question. How do I reconcile my strongly held belief in gender equality with a fetish for dominating my wife in the bedroom? Does anything scream patriarchy more than a man tying a woman up and having his way with her? What does it say about me that I get off on that?
This query is further complicated by the fact that I also enjoy feminizing men in the bedroom (another taboo: my wife and I are both polyamorous and bisexual). As a bi guy, I have found that some gay men see me as more masculine because I sleep with women, and this is a turn on for them. I once had a date tell me, “I don’t want you to acknowledge that I even have a penis. Fuck me like a woman.” In other words, he wanted me to feminize him.
The rational part of me knows that all these gender and sexual stereotypes are rubbish. Truth be told, so do all of my partners. As a horny guy with a fetish for dominance, though, the prospect of making another man (or woman) “my bitch” is sexy. The fact that I know it is “wrong” makes it even more exciting. In my circles, sexism and homophobia are among the greatest of taboos, and what is a fetish if not the violating of taboos for sexual gratification?
My egalitarian values, along with those of my partners, stand in sharp contrast to the sexist and homophobic views of my father. For example, my father once told my wife that he didn’t think a woman could be president because “They are too sensitive.” His views on homosexuality and bisexuality are not much better. It would be very reassuring to him, I am certain, to know that I always top and am thus “the man” in my sexual relationships, but I refuse to give him that comfort. Instead, I let him worry. Sexism and homophobia need to be disrupted, and if letting him think that his son takes it in the arse forces him to confront his bigoted beliefs, then so be it.
Of course, much of this difference between my father and I is the result of our generational divide. But not all of it. Plenty of men from his generation have managed to catch up with the times. I cannot help but suspect that his attitudes toward women are at least part of the reason he is still single so many years after my mother divorced him.
Still—am I kidding myself by drawing such a distinction between myself and my misogynistic father? Is my fetish for dominating women and feminizing men really compatible with my feminist beliefs, or am I just a sexist, homophobic pig in lipstick?
It would be naïve of me to try to avoid these questions. In the end, though, I believe it is possible to be a feminist on the streets and still role play in the sheets. Reconciling feminism with my fetish is a nuanced undertaking that requires a careful separation of my beliefs about gender equality in society from the role I play in the bedroom.
Informed consent is key—because without both my and my partners’ feminist critiques of the gendered roles we are engaging in through our play, we cannot properly consent to embracing or rejecting them. If, as is the case in too many circumstances, my wife had been conditioned by society to believe that a woman’s job is to submit to her husband and she had never learned otherwise, then her consent to these practices could not be truly informed. Similarly, if my boyfriend were struggling with profound internalized homophobia, his consent to the humiliation play could not be informed. Every partner involved must have a healthy understanding of and appreciation for feminism and LGBT rights in order for this kind of role play to be ethical.
Most fetishes are based upon taboos. It is only because I recognise that sexism and homophobia are wrong that it is possible for me to fetishise the violation of these taboos. It is only a fetish because I do not in fact hold these sexist and homophobic attitudes. I get off on pretending that I do, and so do both my female and male partners. Ultimately, I believe it is this distinction that makes me a feminist man with a fetish for role play, and not just another sexist prick. Navigating this in-between space isn’t easy, nor should it be. If I thought I had all the answers and never questioned myself, then I truly would be a bad feminist.