Roiphe casts feminists as moralising killjoys policing women's fantasies of sexual submission. I'll submit – that she's way wrong
Katie Roiphe has been exploring her fantasies again, and I wish she'd stop. I don't mean the one about being tied up and spanked – not a thing wrong with that one. I mean the one in which scary, scowling feminists tell her what a bad girl she is for wanting it.
A quick primer for those who missed it: in this week's Newsweek cover story (complete with faux-scandalous cover image of a bored and blindfolded gamine), Roiphe argues that the success of the Twilight-fanfic-turned-romance-novel 50 Shades of Grey, as well as the sexual escapades depicted in the pilot of the much-ballyhoo'ed HBO project Girls, indicate a re-emergence of women's perrenial compulsion to get bossed around in bed. She then goes on to claim that this "trend" exposes the supposed facts that feminists (who, in her delusion, only want you do to it gently side-by-side with the lights on and Enya playing) are against female submission, and that women are uncomfortable with having power.
Allow me to exercise my feminist power to say this: there's a reason she provides precious little evidence to back up either claim. They're both bunk.
I'll agree with Roiphe on two fronts. First, it's notable that the current craze centers around a story (the one in 50 Shades) that requires our heroine to submit primarily out of love, not out of any kinky desires of her own. Most actual feminists who concern themselves with the sexual realm are focused on creating a world in which all women have genuine agency. We want to create a world where women are free to explore our desires and bodies for our own pleasure, not just use them to bribe men into loving us....
Katie Roiphe's Newsweek cover story "The Fantasy Life of Working Women" hit the web yesterday, prompting a collective facepalm from sex-positive feminists everywhere.
If you're not familiar with Roiphe's other work, which includes gems such as "My Newborn Is Like a Narcotic,” then lucky you! Just like many of her previous writings, this spurious screed on BDSM's link to women's economic success is nothing more than anti-woman puritanism parading as feminism – with a healthy dose of privilege.
But there are a lot more problems with Roiphe's essay. Her treatment of women's sexual choices is condescending to the point of being borderline chauvinist.
Let's start, though, with Roiphe's "thesis." She uses BDSM scenes in E.L. James’ novel "50 Shades of Grey" and the new Lena Dunham series "Girls" to advance the argument that a "watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism" is "in."
She makes the claim that the popular portrayals of the kinks so thoroughly described by James and Dunham – along with Psychology Today findings that women indulge "rape fantasies" –are a result of women's economic achievement. We want to be dominated sexually, Roiphe claims, because we dominate in other aspects of life.
This sounds like a load of BS about BDSM – and I'm certainly not the only person who has taken notice. ...
Katie Roiphe has written a link bait-y Newsweek cover story making an interesting claim: that the pop culture appearance of submissive female sexual fantasies, in shows like Lena Dunham’s “Girls” and pulp fiction like Fifty Shades of Grey, is somehow a backlash against women’s increasing economic power.
I think this is generally wrong. It’s true the advances of feminism mean women today are freer than ever to explore their sexuality in art and in their personal lives, without worrying too much about negating their power at work, in relationships or in the political sphere. In fact, it is a basic contention of sex-positive feminism that asking for what you want in bed is a feminist political act—whether you want to tie your partner up, be spanked by him/her or be tenderly made love to with lots of kissing.
Taboo-breaking sex is culturally prevalent right now not because of macroeconomic trends like the decimation of the male manufacturing sector but because we live in an age in which all sorts of sexual practices are incredibly visible and talked about. In particular, easy access to online pornography allows people, at a younger age than ever before and with more privacy, to explore non-vanilla sex, whether low-key spanking and restraints or much kinkier stuff. Female-authored erotica and sexualized fan-fiction are burgeoning genres online, as well, and e-readers have made it possible for consumers to purchase and read this material with perfect privacy. This is the world from which Fifty Shades of Grey emerged.
But these desires are as old as the human race; in every century and decade, sadomasochistic erotica has broken into the mainstream, from de Sade to Swinburne to Anais Nin to Anne Desclos to Anne Rice. Why assume, as Roiphe seems to, that some authoritative brand of feminism was ever supposed to lead to human beings losing their curiosity about power play during sex, which is, after all, a physical act? And while more women than men may tend toward submission—in part because Western culture fetishizes male strength and female fragility—one certainly can’t generalize. People of all genders harbor the fantasy of, as one sex researcher put it, “the wish to be beyond will, beyond thought”—thus surrendering power to a trusted partner. And there is anecdotal evidence that publicly powerful people of both sexes are especially prone to these fantasies, as a release from the stresses of their day-to-day work lives. Here’s how one professional dominatrix describes it: ...
Ripples of mirth greet David Henry Hwang’s canny, hilarious Broadway hit Chinglish. It’s rather more chilling to read news accounts of a strangely parallel narrative of intrigue and corruption running now in China, a murder case in which an important Chinese politician’s wife is being investigated in the poisoning of a shadowy British businessman. Hwang’s play features a naive American businessman who arrives in a province of the new, ruthlessly acquisitive China, looking for a lucrative contract for his family’s sign-making firm. He gets embroiled with a party official’s clinically seductive wife and finds himself arrested on corruption charges that are a pretext for a power struggle.
One of Hwang’s themes is the Chinese “fixer’s” slyly garbled translation of the hapless salesman’s attempts to make a deal. “We’re a small, family firm,” for instance, gets relayed as “His company is small and insignificant.” Hwang has said he first got the idea of mistranslation as a jumping-off point about doing business in China after a visit to a brand-new cultural center in Shanghai, where the handicapped restroom was labeled “Deformed Man’s Toilet.” It seems he’s become fascinated by the changes he’s witnessed in China since writing M. Butterfly 24 years ago. That play, he writes in Newsweek, was conceived at a time when a European man involved with a Chinese woman could still indulge himself with the stereotypical fantasy of the dominant Western male and the fluttering Asian dolly. In Chinglish, two decades later, he shows us that power relationships have shifted, as they have in real-life China. There, British businessman Neil Heywood seems to have been used by the ambitious Madame Gu Kailai, then apparently disposed of without an autopsy—an unsettling whiff of the new world order, as well, perhaps, of sexual ruthlessness.
How ironic, therefore (or perhaps how appropriate), that dominant American women are now secretly fantasizing about reverting to the sexually submissive role of Butterfly-era courtesans. This is one message, at least, of the startling success of the book Fifty Shades of Grey. Katie Roiphe terms E L James’s novel this “watered-down, skinny-vanilla latte version of sadomasochism.” It was a New York Times bestseller even before print copies were in stores. It’s piquant that just as a global women’s movement is taking wing in emerging countries, the former female role models in America are under siege from regressive political and cultural influences, and starting to see free will as a burden. The awkwardly un-PC fact, it seems, is that when the lights are out, ascendant career women are getting bored with respectful partners who share the household chores—these women are dreaming of something a bit more retrograde.
It’s not something most folks often come upon everyday. Still in March, the Sandy Springs Special Investigations Unit, and Code Enforcement were at the Harbor Pointe apartment of a transgender dominatrix.
Following up on a complaint, investigators learned about the website www.twistedredheadtv.com run by “Mistress” Regina Twist, who offered a special bondage and sadomasochism session for $250 per hour at her Sandy Springs apartment.Detectives phoned the number provided on the site for a phony session. Twist provided directions to the Harbor Pointe apartment unit on Morgan Falls Road.
According to the police report, upon arrival detectives informed Twist that they were police investigating a complaint of possible prostitution. Twist was identified as Joseph Anson and consented to the search, the report said.
Police did not find anything relating to drugs or prostitution inside the apartment. However, Code Enforcement cited Twist [Anson] on several violations including, rules of operation violation for an adult establishment.
If every era gets the sadist it deserves, it may not be surprising that we have ended up with Christian Grey, the hero of the runaway bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey. He is not twisted or frightening or in possession of a heart of darkness; he was abused as a child, a sadist Oprah could have dreamed up, or as E L James puts it, “Christian Grey has a sad side.” He is also extremely solicitous and apologetic for a sadist, always asking the book’s young heroine, Anastasia Steele, about every minute gradation of her feelings, and bringing her all kinds of creams and lotions to soothe her after spanking her. He is, in other words, the easiest difficult man of all time.
Why does this particular, watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism have such cachet right now? Why have masses of women brought the book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list before it even hit the stores? Most likely it’s the happy convergence of the superficial transgression with comfortable archetypes, the blushing virgin and the whips. To a certain, I guess, rather large, population, it has a semipornographic glamour, a dangerous frisson of boundary crossing, but at the same time is delivering reassuringly safe, old-fashioned romantic roles. Reading Fifty Shades of Grey is no more risqué or rebellious or disturbing than, say, shopping for a pair of black boots or an arty asymmetrical dress at Barneys.
As it happens, the prevailing stereotype of the Fifty Shades of Grey reader, distilled in the condescending term “mommy porn,” as an older, suburban, possibly Midwestern woman isn’t entirely accurate: according to the publisher’s data, gleaned from Facebook, Google searches, and fan sites, more than half the women reading the book are in their 20s and 30s, and far more urban and blue state than the rampant caricature of them suggests. The current vogue for domination is not confined to surreptitious iPad reading: in Lena Dunham’s acclaimed new series, Girls, about 20-somethings adrift in New York City, a similar desire for sexual submission has already emerged as a theme. The heroine’s pale hipsterish ersatz boyfriend jokes, “You modern career women, I know what you like ...” and his idea, however awkwardly enacted, is that they like to be dominated. He says things like “You should never be anyone’s ... slave, except mine,” and calls down from a window: “If you come up I’m going to tie you up and keep you here for three days. I’m just in that kind of mood.” She comes back from seeing him with bruises and sheepishly tells her gay college boyfriend at a bar, “I am seeing this guy and sometimes I let him hit me on the side of my body.” ...
Newsday The professional dominatrix who recruited straw buyers to take part in the largest mortgage fraud ring in Suffolk County history was sentenced Friday to community service and probation.
Carrie Coakley, 40, of Manhattan, pleaded guilty last year to her role in the scam, which was orchestrated by her husband, Donald MacPherson, 68, publisher of The Soho Journal. He is serving 4 to 12 years in prison and is on the hook for restitution of $44 million.
Suffolk County Court Judge James F.X. Doyle gave Coakley 840 hours of community service and 5 years' probation.
"Your involvement was not at the level his was," Doyle told her.
Assistant District Attorney Thalia Stavrides described Coakley as a relatively small player in the scam. Coakley said nothing in court and declined to comment afterward.
Prosecutors say the scheme stole $82 million from lenders by inflating purchase prices, fabricating documents and using straw buyers to make phony purchases and obtain fraudulent mortgages.
Coakley recruited some of the straw buyers at The Dungeon, the Manhattan club where she was in charge.
Others in the scheme included former county Legis. George Guldi, who is serving 4 to 12 years in prison, and Ethan Ellner, who is awaiting sentencing.
In a recent interview with the Harvard Independent, an anonymous representative of the newly-formed group, Munch, which stylizes itself as a resource and community for Harvard undergraduates interested in the BDSM subculture (an initialism that stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism), insisted that “the BDSM community in general and here at Harvard has a huge emphasis on consent and negotiation.” I had to cock an eyebrow.
To be clear, I do not like policing anyone’s consensual, harmless, sexual proclivities. Nor do I wish to condemn Munch, however sensationalized the Crimson’s coverage might have been. But any utopian claim that the BDSM community-at-large “hugely” upholds consent is a naiveté that is too dangerous not to address.
The BDSM community has a problem with non-consent. A big problem. In late January, salon.com published an article in which kink educator turned advocate Kitty Stryker claimed that abuse in the community is a “systematic issue” and that she had “yet to meet a female submissive [masochist] who hasn’t had some sort of sexual assault happen to her.” Stryker’s confession has sent shock waves throughout BDSM blogs and the BDSM social networking site, Fetlife.com, where a disturbing deluge of horror stories of abuse and systematic cover-ups have begun to appear.
Stryker has not been the first to claim that the problem is systematic. In 2011, prominent kink educator Mollena Williams, who spoke at Harvard as part of Sex Week, published an account of her rape within the community and her subsequent distress that her “story was common. Standard. Typical.” In 2008 in “Are We Men a Bunch of Lying Pricks?”, Jay Wiseman, author of the canonical book SM101, wrote of his similar epiphany when a woman revealed her shock that Wiseman didn’t rape her during kinky play.
At the center of this maelstrom of abuse is the nebulously defined nature of consent in the context of BDSM. According to the idealized narrative that the BDSM community feeds the outside world, the masochist and sadist agree beforehand, in a contract, what activity will or will not take place in a “scene,” the sharply limited fantasy space in which kinky activity occurs. The sadist cannot exceed the bounds of this contract, and the masochist can terminate the scene at any time by the invocation of an agreed-upon safe-word. The use of the contract prompted post-Freudian theorist Gilles Deleuze to term masochism an “ironic subjugation” of the “sadistic” partner, and ethnographers like Andrea Beckmann and Stacy Newmahr have continued to maintain that BDSM is subversive because, among other things, the supposedly subjugated partner is actually in control. ...