by Anna Pulley
Amanda is a tall, slender musician, whose sweet countenance and nerdy glasses belie the filthy things that come out of her mouth at times. “I’ve never felt as strong and alive and human as I’ve felt when somebody was fucking me with my face pressed up against my bathroom mirror,” she tells me.
As someone who writes about sex for a living, I’ve found this disconnect to be generally strong among women talking about sex. The common adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” applies doubly when it comes to desire, specifically the desire for rough sex, which has always had its detractors, but is back in the news again after Duke porn star Belle Knox called it empowering, and critics claim that engaging in it is terrible, wrong, anti-feminist, and in extreme cases, that it’s “destroying the country”–because consensual sex between adults is definitely the same thing as Armageddon.
“I’ve been called a hypocrite and mocked for daring to talk about empowerment if I have also not kept adequately hidden away my enjoyment of rough and dirty, nasty and filthy, saliva-dripping and name-calling-filled sex,” writes Belle Knox, the Duke student who’s been cast in the spotlight for her rough sex porn clips, in her recent xojane essay. Knox’s “greatest crime” as she relays it, is simply that she admitted to liking rough sex. I think her greatest crime is that she’s a Libertarian (just kidding). Knox’s essay raises some important points, and one would think that, considering that more and more people of age have grown up with insta-access to a variety of kinky porn, an admission of rough sex wouldn’t be a big to-do. Yet apparently it is. One of Knox’s disparagers commented, “So being choked, spit on, and degraded is now empowering?”
Amanda thinks it is: “I do find it empowering, both as a top and a bottom–I think that power is not something that people, especially women, are super accustomed to either feeling purposefully or are encouraged to savor as such.”
Kate, a theater director, agrees. “I think any act of the body that is chosen, not coerced, is inherently empowering. I’m exercising my own agency, my power over my own body. And there the power is in choosing to lose myself in the moment, to yield.There’s something very fulfilling in trusting [my dominant partner] to push me farther than I can go myself.”
Meagan, who works in the tech industry, also echoes that empowerment is about choice. “I’m successful and in control the rest of my life, so making the deliberate choice to hand over the reins to my male partner for a small amount of time is so hot.”
Of course, rough sex isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it should be taken off the table entirely or derided. Nothing is for everyone, after all, not even sex itself (just ask an asexual person). “I’m not always in the mood for it,” Kate attests. “And I would never be comfortable getting thrown around if it wasn’t my idea. I would certainly never advise someone to have rough sex if it didn’t genuinely turn them on. But I’m all for respecting an adult’s agency.” Agency and choice are two key words often championed by feminism, yet sometimes they don’t translate when it comes to the other F-word, and some feminists find rough sex to be, well, sexist.
Audre Lorde, a brilliant writer and feminist, wrote about the perils of sadomasochism in her book of essays, “A Burst of Light:” “Even in play, to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically. Sadomasochism feeds the belief that domination is inevitable and legitimately enjoyable.”
Barring the fact that it is “legitimately enjoyable” for some people–“Sometimes I burst into tears from how hard I come. It’s wonderful, such a catharsis,” Kate says–Lorde is playing into a common criticism leveraged against rough sex. Namely, that it somehow implicates one’s activities outside of the bedroom, i.e., giving up power in the sack means you’re also giving it up in the world. Or worse, that you’re somehow contributing to existing oppressions that rely on power or dominance. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The sex you like doesn’t dictate who you are. ...