Saturday, 26 April 2008

Gender Roles and D/s

(xposted from my journal)

When Monkey and I go to restaurants, I usually order for us both. It generally gets stunned responses. This time, the waitress asked him, and blinked when I told her my order first and then his.

I find this a delightful game, but it's also a little disheartening in some ways, which Monkey himself commented on once she was out of earshot. I laughed and said "See how shocked?"

He looked at me seriously and said, with distaste, "Yeah. I never would have expected that. We're not in Saudi Arabia* or something." I think he was actually uncomfortable. I wasn't; I was amused.

But yeah, it is rather odd when you notice it. It's a pretty startling social reversal to a lot of people. Which I'm sure says something about gender and culture.

ETA: Which leads, in a roundabout way, to things like this:

Let’s not even get into S&M with her as my sub. Spanking her, I can live with, and I don’t know why it doesn’t ping my guilt. Tit-smacking is something we both enjoy, and again, I don’t know why a blow to her breasts is arousing and not guilt-worthy. But when the whole thing turns to punishment, all of a sudden all of the abuse cases from my days doing social work come flooding back. When I smacked her once, after both of us negotiated it, I felt horrible specifically because I live in a world where men can do that, where men do do that, and it’s not negotiated.

That moment when I smacked her — even though it was consensual, even though it happened after negotiation — I was never more acutely aware of her gender. I don’t think I was that aware of her gender when I watched her give birth, because giving birth is raw biology, and I’m conditioned to think it’s natural, and smacking her was…anathema to me. It violated everything I had been raised to believe in, and a lot of self-constructed images I had about myself.

I didn’t like it. Precisely because of who we are, male and female.

It works both ways, mind. I know there’s something my wife gets off on when it comes to penetrating me — when it comes to being inside of me, whether it be with her hands or a strap-on. That I’m a male submissive, that we’re throwing out Christian household values and the normal power structure and we’re embracing a system where — if most of the people we know in our daytime lives found out about it — we’d be viewed as aberrant. That we’re not aiming for equality at all, not even giving lip service to the idea of helpmeets or equal partners, but inequality, and inequality rooted in abuse and power and sexual subservience.

I don’t know if I’m explaining this properly, since my modus operandi with the blog is to rant and not really plan or redraft, but rereading Dev’s post and the other I linked to, what I thought about was that slap, and how I was acutely aware of my maleness and my wife’s femaleness. And how she slaps me all of the time and neither of us minds, but the one time I raised my hand to her, I fell apart. And more than a little. Because of our genders. Because she was a female submissive.

*NB: Yeah, I realize gender relations in the Middle East are more complicated than this and the remark was ignorant.


Gauge said...

The quoted post kind of makes me a bit uncomfortable. Maybe some of this is coming from the position of being oppressed by sexism and all the partners I've had having faced similar oppressions (such that there isn't the question outside the bedroom of not getting what it's like to deal with sexism from first hand experience), or partly because in sexual spaces, I, myself, and my partners tend to let the socially assigned genders fall away and we are what we actually are, not what we're boxed in - so maybe I don't know how to relate - but it seems like a cop out. And I don't know how this actually plays out in the quoted poster's life, but it looks like an excuse to not actually let himself or his partner have a fully freely expressed sexuality because that's just too hard under patriarchy, and that seems like at best giving up on doing the work, and at worst just accepting patriarchy is there and always going to be there.

If leatherdykes can let "woman" fall away in the bedroom or in a scene - whether we actually ID with woman or not - and just be the butches, femmes, daddies, boys, mommies, girls, etc. that we are (whether for that scene or how it plays in our day to day lives), why can't straight leatherfolk create a new definition of man and woman that recognizes that when you create an intentional space, it can be a different world. Maybe this points at a larger problem - maybe the people who are just cis men or cis women need to think about and construct their genders the way that those of us who don't have the luxury of not doing so do, in order for what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman to change.

Sexist oppression is a horrible thing at all, but feeling all guilty and upset over what gets you and your partner off does nothing to fight it and only strengthens its rules.

ellefromtheeast said...

gauge, I think that's a little unfair. You fight the anti-patriarchy battles you can fight, and if face-slapping is a trigger for you, then that's your trigger. I wouldn't presume to judge someone else's triggers as less enlightened anymore than I would presume to judge someone else's turn-ons.

Moreover, if some particular act makes you feel guilty and horrible, then it's not what gets you off. The OP tried something and didn't like it. The reasons why are complicated, yeah, but he doesn't have any greater social obligation to try again if he & his partner don't want to, anymore than someone who says "Needles are too stingy for my taste" has any obligation to try again.

Trinity said...

Gauge, I'm not sure I agree with you either, honestly. I do think there's stuff that can come to bed (or to scene, or to Little Plausibly Deniable D/s Ritual In Restaurant) with you, despite your best intentions.

I do find some of what that post had to say a bit off-putting myself as well. I didn't quote it because I agree with every little bit of it, but because I thought it important to discuss both the people who can or who really want to get rid of gender roles and the people who can't -- or who find extra little thrills in subverting those norms.

Especially since, well, the few things that I keep as carry-overs from my "femdom" days tend to be that sort of thing. Part of what I do agree with this guy on is that, well... it's likely that part (though definitely not all) of the reason I feel certain sparks with femme men IS that whole "let's turn this social crap upside down, OOH HOT!" thing.

And I don't think that's illegitimate. And if I don't, then surely I shouldn't ignore the M/f side of what it means for gender norms to matter.

Because that's worth discussing. In part because it does inform some people's kinks, including mine. And in part because, well, we're not in utopia yet. And never will be, if I don't miss my guess.

Belisarius said...

As the guy who posted the quoted blog, I'll simply say that I'll never be comfortable smacking my wife. Ever. It doesn't get me off, it doesn't get her off, and there's just too much baggage associated with the act for me to ever relax enough with it to get the same kind of buzz that I do, say, breast-smacking.

I used to do social work and now I'm involved in criminal law, and I simply cannot excise the abuse that crosses my path from what we're doing. I came of age right when society began to address spousal abuse and child abuse, and have baggage of my own (as one entry on my blog will show) so it's not as if it's something I get off on that I deny myself -- it's something I don't get off on at all.

Finally, in regards to what role gender does play in our BDSM, I'll go on the record and admit that the taboo and transgressive nature of female-dominant/male submissive sex is part of the attraction. It violates playground ethics, it shatters traditional gender roles, and it makes both of us feel as if we're exploding our way out of the parts society has cast on us. Whereas, male dominant sex doesn't have that quality at all -- while I can ignore my natural submissive tendencies to get off on it when my wife wants us to play, I have a hard time getting past the idea that I'm doing anything other than mimicking an '80s hair metal video or a Spinal Tap album cover. It's not to say it's bad, but it's just not right for me.

Trinity said...


Your personal boundaries are your own, and it makes perfect sense you have them where you do. But there are a lot of men who do consensual SM with women, and I think you're skating perilously close to calling them abusers here. And that's not welcome here.

Trinity said...

er left off "a lot of dominant men..." brain on fritz. blar.

Belisarius said...

If that's how you're reading it, it's not my intent. Like I said at the end of my post, male dominance is fine -- it just doesn't work for me. For me, my reaction to a slap to my wife's face is too much like my reaction to abuse for me to enjoy it. Other people don't have that reaction, which is the product of who I am and all of my experiences up to now.

Which is fine. "Your kink is fine, my kink is fine." Etc. But I can't really get over my reaction, nor do I -- if I'm honest -- especially want to.


Trinity said...

belisarius: Yeah, that's fine. I just get really twitchy when I see "that looks like abuse." I've seen it used far too often against any kind of SM at all for me to be entirely comfortable with it. There are a lot of people who want to use their own personal stories as reasons why anything any of us do is wrong; I highly doubt, for example, that an anti=porn radical feminist would be at all convinced that breast torture is somehow better than a belt or paddle, given that men can "learn" to like "hurting women" through "violent porn", etc. So when I see that "THIS looks like abuse, I know because I'm a social worker" thing... well... kinda squicky.

Especially given that my therapist IS a social worker, and part of her work with me has involved reminding me more than once that she knows how abusive people think and feel, and none of what I do, whether in D/s or in sex is like that. I don't like the idea that the only reason why not has something to do with genitals I didn't ask to be born with or a gender role I didn't ask to be slotted into (and most people still get wrong.)

So I guess I'm saying be careful, since you're someone who *does* have a certain kind of social/medicalish authority.

Belisarius said...

I "know" gender shouldn't matter when it comes to our D/s play -- but it does. I "know" there should be no difference in my reactions to slapping my wife's face versus slapping her in her breasts -- but there is.

I also know that there's a difference between hitting someone in anger and hitting them in consensual S&M play, but when I raise up on my wife, that difference isn't so wide that I'm comfortable doing it. I know it's not abuse. I don't think it's abuse when others do it in their play. But I can't get over it to the extent that I'll feel comfortable in my own. Part of that is my personal history, part of it is baggage from my job(s), part of it is just cultural programming.

(And the flip side of this is, my wife's hit me in anger -- or at least extreme annoyance -- in our play, and we rolled with it fine, as I discuss here: .)

Trinity said...

Wait, um, so you're too upset to ever do it, but you grabbed a switch and tried to do it to goad her? Now you're just making no sense.

Not that humans don't contradict themselves at least three times a minute anyway, I know I do.

Belisarius said...

Well, I didn't smack her on her face. If memory serves, I tapped her side or something with the switch to goad her.

And yes, there's inconsistency there. If my wife and were playing with myself as the dominant, I would not be comfortable playing while I'm angry at all. I would definitely not be comfortable working out real world frustrations on her ass, let alone via face-smacking. When she does it? I'm in paradise.

What's okay for her is simply not okay for me. What she feels comfortable doing with me -- like face-slapping, which she does often to me -- I don't feel at all comfortable doing to her.

Is this a double-standard? Sure. But a D/s relationship, but its very nature, is made up of -- heck, focused in on -- the inequalities, so I can deal with it.

Trinity said...

The inconsistency bothering me isn't "she can hit me and I can't hit her," it's "oh I can't hit her oh no no no oh but the whole way I get her to hit me is pretending like I'm gonna." That's just wildly lacking in sense.

ellefromtheeast said...

belisarius, for what it's worth, I don't hear you accusing anyone of abuse for using any particular practice in a negotiated, consensual scene. All I hear here is a reminder that tops have limits, too - a point that's not made often enough.

Trinity said...

Elle, it's not so much that I think he shouldn't have limits as that, well, this whole thing is breaking down along a line that can also be examined in terms of social norms and such. I'm not entirely convinced bellisarius is right to associate topping women in particular ways with abuse and not associate the same things happening to him with it. That doesn't mean that there's something wrong with him having limits. That just means that, well... what *does* it mean to have those associations in the first place? It's particularly squicky to me because I was physically abused by a woman, so I don't really get the idea that an abuser is male, and that munges with some of my own comfort. I get the idea that we pretend people abused by women don't exist much more readily, so... yeah. Not so comfy for me, here, this, because there's the being a real social worker in the real world and the implied claims about real violent dynamics there.

Trinity said...

So it's less the "I'm not comfortable doing the exact same things she does" because, well, true of everybody everywhere. It's just the social worker bit. Because it's like "well, hmm... no, not really. Yeah, man on woman violence is more common but still I'm uncomfortable there."

So yeah. He's uncomfortable doing something, I'm not so comfortable with his reasons why. Doesn't make either of us wrong about anything.

Belisarius said...

In regards to what you're portraying as "oh I can't hit her oh no no no oh but the whole way I get her to hit me is pretending like I'm gonna," she didn't retaliate because I acted like I was going to strike her, she retaliated because she told me not to touch her with the switch and I tapped her. The context is completely different. It wasn't about the nature of the touch at all -- she certainly wasn't afraid I was going to hit her to hurt her. It was about me, a submissive, being disobedient, no matter how playfully.

At this point I suspect anything I say is just going to fuel whatever misunderstanding is going on here. I have to be honest: I don't feel comfortable hitting a woman in the face during sex. I know what my reasons are for this, and I'm comfortable with them. Frankly, there's not enough potential utility in hitting my wife's face for me to bother overcoming my squeamishness.

I don't have the same discomfort with being hit in the face by a woman during sex, and on the contrary, it actually makes me hot to be slapped or battered during intercourse. I'm pretty open about being a submissive masochist though, so that makes total sense. Nor do I have a problem with other men hitting their wives in the face, so long as its consensual.

But for me, me doing it...? It's creepy. I don't like it. My psyche associates me doing it with negative things, where other things -- spanking her, hitting her breasts when she orders me to -- don't trigger those associations. It may be illogical, but I've got to he honest about it.

Trinity said...

Okay, Let me try this one more time:

It's not the illogic that's bothering me. It's the way you've described why the illogic is there, which is making me vaguely uncomfortable. It didn't in the original post -- it read like "I don't like the sexist world we're in," and that didn't make me uneasy.

The subsequent comments did, because they brought in your job as someone who helps survivors. I'm uncomfortable about who you're saying survivors are and of what, ESPECIALLY given that this is apparently your job. It BOTHERS me how often I and people like me have fallen through professionals' cracks because they're not trained to see us. THAT is what's niggling at me.

I didn't realize it at first, but what it really is that's bothering me isn't what you do in bed or don't -- it never was. It's the idea that THAT's your picture of abuse. A picture that implies that people like me aren't out there. THAT is what bothers me. Not the kink.

NOT "I'm a heavier bottom than I am top" or "This thing gets me off when I get it but makes me uneasy when I give it."

ellefromtheeast said...

Trinity, I don't think it's fair to jump from belisarius telling us which cases have lodged in his psyche directly to his daily working practices. I can easily see how at work, belisarius could use his reasoning mind to work with all kinds of situations, but when he's in scene, only certain abuse scenarios come to mind.

It would make sense that abuse scenarios that are reinforced by media images and stereotypes would be embedded in the subconscious enough to interfere with play, but other types of abuse wouldn't emerge in that context - even if belisarius has intervened in them repeatedly before.

Your abuse history is just... awful, and wrong... I wish I had better words here. And yes, yes, a thousand times yes that those who are supposed to help the abused need to recognize and intervene in more cases than they currently recognize. I wish someone had been there for you.

All I'm saying is that what you call "The Box" is what makes some acts triggers for belisarius, and other acts not. It's "The Box" that makes part of his brain unable to distinguish between a fun scene and abuse, because play that doesn't have anything to do with what's in "The Box" doesn't trigger. The Box's effects on you were much, much worse, but I think it's the same set of labels at work.

Belisarius said...

Well, let's separate how I worked in a professional setting three years ago from what pings my creeped-out reaction now, to begin with. A visceral reaction now, in the middle of an S&M scene context, does not mean that I had a poor grasp of abuse in an old job.

Woman-on-woman abuse doesn't ping my reaction in an S&M scene because I'm not a woman. I hate to be pat about it, but I don't identify with either of the parties in that scenario, outside of as a fellow human being. When I think about it, I do not associate the act with me, with centuries of gender-based oppression stemming from society thinking having a penis gives one the right to control one's wife like chattel. Doing an intake at work back when I did social work? Linking someone with services? Talking to a client? That's separate from in the bedroom with my wife three years later.

Whereas, with man-on-woman abuse, the man is the abuser. He raises up his hand to his wife. And that's what I'm reminded of when we play that act out in a scene. It makes me distinctly uncomfortable. It's impossible for me to separate healthy, negotiated S&M from my own gut reaction to a man hitting a woman in the face. (It's one reason why I never subscribed to "Sex and Submission" at -- I simply feel awful watching face-slapping.) If other people want to do it, I'm happy for them, and the reaction is not so immediate that I can't recognize they're doing it consensually, but I can't do it. I have a hard time even watching it, no matter how consensual or negotiated.

Ellefromtheeast has it right -- there's no telling what lodges in your head out of the morass of experience that we all live, the media we watch, the cultural mores we absorb. There's more to my aversion to face-slapping than simply my days as a social worker way back when, there are also things from my personal life. It all feeds into an involuted shape, a complex knot where you can't tell why some things stick with you in one way but not another.

Trinity said...

"All I'm saying is that what you call "The Box" is what makes some acts triggers for belisarius, and other acts not."

I never said that's not the case. I said that's *worrisome* to me because I *worry* when some survivors' pain affect people in ways some others' don't. I *worry* when it all slims down to blaming the patriarchy.

Not because I think Belisarius should or can rearrange his head -- I think he can't -- but because "not pinging" CAN HAVE CONSEQUENCES. It can involve people who you've confided in asking you if "you're sure." It can involve not getting the help you need. "Not pinging" is no individual's fault, no, but in some cases it can matter, and matter in a way that means a hell of a lot more than what some random blogger likes to do in bed.

As soon as real life helping survivors comes into the discussion I'm going to comment on it, on behalf of myself and other people who didn't quite get brought along when the second wavers forced the world to see that abuse is real.

Belisarius said...

Hmm...Let me see if I can respond to this as politely as possible.

I was a fantastic caseworker when I did social work. I was aware of what was going on with my clients, I made sure they got referrals when they needed help that I couldn't provide, and even with my folks who were part of same-sex couples or were transgendered in some other kind of pairing, I made sure that they weren't being abused insofar as I could determine. Because I didn't have preconceptions about who could be an abuser and who could be a victim.

I'm sorry for whatever happened in your past and that somebody who was supposed to help you failed to spot what was going on. But just because certain things from my past butt further into my subconscious headspace when I play at S&M -- and other things don't -- does not reflect at all on the quality of service I provided back in the day, and it is more than a little upsetting to hear you suggest otherwise. I share what goes on in my head during BDSM in my blog, I don't talk about the specifics of my dayjobs to any degree capable of giving you insight into whether I did a good job or a bad job. Even if I wanted to share war-stories to earn some kind of approval that I was doing my job right, I wouldn't, because it would be inappropriate.

Now, I thank you for quoting my post, and I thank you for the discussion, but I'm going to step away from this, because I think I'm clearly not communicating properly if this discussion has taken the turn it has. I apologize for my comments and any kind of emotion they've dredged up.

Trinity said...


I'm done here too. I am not saying anything about your competence, any more than someone who says some men don't realize there is a patriarchy is impugning their intelligence. I am saying absolutely nothing about your professional life.

I am making a broader point about people's understanding of violence and abuse and how they work, and how I think this understanding leads to great difficulties for survivors who don't match the standard story. None of that says anything about you or your competence.

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