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"Feminism and the corporatization of kink"

on Saturday, 25 February 2017. Posted in Front Page Headline, Media Updates

The Globe and Mail


The second Fifty Shades movie – Fifty Shades Darker – is set to be released for Valentine’s Day and it won’t be the only S&M-themed entertainment heavily marketed to you this year. The acceptability, indeed corporatization of all things bondagey and female-submissivey show no signs of weakening. The first weeks of February were once an opportunity to market romance; now they are a time for handcuffs.

It wasn’t just the Fifty Shades books, of course, that pushed spankings into the mall. The culture grows more sexually permissive generally. And as feminism has evolved, it has become more sex-positive and embraced unorthodox ways of being powerful. The fact that S&M is part of cool gay subcultures makes it more politically acceptable to the left as well.

The view of the feminist empowered submissive is so of-the-moment that it is almost doctrine in popular media. Glance at this month’s Glamour magazine, for example, and you will see an advice section called “Your feminist dilemmas, solved,” in which questions are answered by a panel. One question: “I’m super into being dominated … Am I perpetuating ideas of female submission when I have sex like this?” The answers, from five different women, are all a resounding no. “Being submissive is not unfeminist” declares one. It is no longer fashionable to question this.

Cue a brewing literary controversy.

A British online magazine called Erotic Review has just compiled and published an anthology of explicit writing called Desire: 100 of Literature’s Sexiest Stories. Its co-editor is Mariella Frostrup, a journalist and television personality and an impeccable progressive; one of her projects is called the Gender Rights and Equality Action Trust. The book consists of excerpts from some of the most famous naughty bits from canonical literature – The Story of O, Delta of Venus, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, etc. – and more recent works contributed by contemporary authors, male and female. It has in general been warmly reviewed.

Not by the Times Literary Supplement, however. That august publication ran a review by the novelist Eimear McBride so blisteringly critical, so genuinely angry it might be called a broadside. It is an eloquent and lucid feminist call to arms against this sort of thing – specifically against the theme of the stories that fill the last section of the anthology (a section called “Darkest Desire”).

This section, she says, consists of stories “that seem to have little purpose beyond eliciting sexual arousal from reading about acts of violence committed against women.” She quotes a few violent descriptions from a number of scenes, and although this selection may be unfair – they are all out of context – the effect is to portray a fictive world obsessed with causing pain to women. The writers she takes to task are both men and women.

McBride is not afraid to quote some frankly old-fashioned theorists about the harmful effects of pornography: Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, whose 1988 list of defining attributes of dangerous pornography is reproduced here. McBride says that many of the stories included here meet these definitions “point for point.”

It’s important that McBride is herself a sex writer. She rose to instant fame with her first novel, A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, a work praised for its intense, stream-of-consciousness style. There is quite a bit of sex in her own writing, and it, too, is more stressful than joyful sex. It is not written as erotica, however.

What she objects to, she says, is not the idea of woman enjoying any fantasy they want, but the lopsidedness of these representations. The book, she points out, “features no tales about the beating to blood, sexual torture and rape of men.”

It is true that this weighting is not representative of actual sexual practice. The sex-trade ads of every classified section are overloaded with professional dominatrixes, catering to male submissives. Any experience with a real s/m social scene shows that male submissives are in large supply. Where are the movies about these guys’ ecstatic pain? Where is their sexy literature? McBride points out that the most famous novel of erotic male degradation, Venus In Furs (by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name came to represent an entire practice), is not excerpted in this collection. She says this text is more erotic than the frankly crude violence of the Marquis de Sade, whose writing is included.

McBride insists that she has “no argument with women who claim to enjoy consensual acts of sexualized violence” but the overwhelming revulsion at and condemnation of these scenes make the statement sound a little disingenuous. And she does not address the possible role of the personal taste of the editors – if the editors are women who themselves enjoy sadomasochistic fantasies, should they have varied them for the sake of diversity? We all know that the readership of erotica is overwhelmingly female, as it is for most fiction of all genres, and if this is a recurring fantasy for those readers, then should it be repressed for the sake of our collective improvement? Are the editors to blame if their target audience simply don’t find stories of men being chastised and humiliated very sexy? ...

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