Feminism 101: Submissiveness & the Feminist

Is it okay for feminists to be submissive within their relationships?
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 09/23/2016 at 7:30 AM EST

Welcome to Feminism 101: Where our panel of fierce feminists answer *YOUR* questions! This week, a reader wrote in wondering what everyone’s take is on submission. Can feminists be submissive in relationships, or does the concept go against feminism?

We checked in with our favorite feminists to get their thoughts, and to see what they thought about reconciling submissive behavior with feminism:

Emily Bingham:The root aim of feminism is equality and the freedom to live without limitations or constraints based on gender. I interpret that as including the ability to define yourself on your own terms, and to feel supported in doing just that by your partners, family, friends and society at large. So is a woman being anti-feminist if, say, she wants to be dominated by a man in the bedroom, if she likes ‘being domestic’ in a heterosexual partnership, or if she enjoys other forms of perceived submissiveness? No way. If she’s being true to herself and these roles are of her own choosing — not constructs that she feels obligated to fill or that she ends up filling because of an imbalance in the partnership — then in fact she is wielding power, not lacking it. When a woman exercises the agency to define her place in a safe, satisfying relationship — even if that ‘place’ is a seemingly submissive one — that is feminism in action.”

Danielle Corcione:You should read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.

Hani Yousuf:I’ve always believed that a woman’s personal choices have nothing to do with their views about how the world should be. If a woman is submissive in a relationship and has the insight to know what she’s doing, there’s nothing stopping her from raging a feminist war on the world and nor should she be accused of hypocrisy. However, I’ve met some very judgmental feminists who are quick to declare other women anti-feminist. Two examples I can think of are women who were financially dependent on their (male) spouses but had several criticisms of other women’s life choices. I can’t respect that.”

K.M. O’Sullivan: “Can a feminist be submissive? Well, geez, the point of feminism is, among so many things, that a feminist can be whatever the hell they want to be, in and out of the bedroom…or on the kitchen counter…or in the back seat of the car. Being sexually submissive can be an exciting, erotic choice. Where it ceases to be ‘feminist’ is when the act of submission crosses the line into coercion. In a healthy relationship a feminist will cry foul the moment they are not being heard. Equality, especially in matters of sex, is not about everyone doing and getting the same thing. It’s about everyone have their needs heard and met. So, yes, a feminist can submit and fuck the patriarchy at the same time.”

Awanthi Vardaraj: I’m not into conforming and I’m not into stereotypes; I believe sexual relationships are unique to the people who are in them. I’m a feminist who likes sex; to me this translates into wanting my partner to feel safe, cared for, respected, listened to, and appreciated, because that’s exactly how I want to feel in a relationship, both inside and outside the bedroom. It’s not so much about gender roles and submission and dominance as it is about *equality*. By the way, I’m not saying gender roles are absolutely a no-no; I’m saying you don’t have to conform if you don’t want to. If you want to, that’s totally okay too. It’s about what *you* want in your life and your relationship.

Feminists. We’re just like you! (Probably.)”

Tara Bernier: “I always want to answer, ‘Is it feminist to. . .’ questions with more questions. Is the woman making a clear choice? Has she given consent to her partner? Is the thing she doing her business? Being a feminist means believing that all women, not just a class of feminist philosophers, get to decide what they want to do with their bodies. In addition, I think it’s incredibly important to consider the gender binary here. Why is submissiveness seen as problematic? Because, it’s a quality we have been socialized to believe belongs only to women. Breaking binary gender norms, and allowing all women to chose what role they want in their relationships, be it in the bedroom or otherwise, is incredibly feminist.”

Katherine Heller:I enjoy being submissive in the bedroom. There is nothing ‘un-feminist’ about it, and I cringe when people police healthy sexual fantasies (especially women’s). Plus, from a logistical perspective, I’m totally jazzed to come home and get tied to a bed while my partner dominates, because then I can reserve energy for smashing the patriarchy the next day —  that shit is EXHAUSTING.”

Mayim Bialik:As a dominant person who happens to be a feminist, I’m kind of a double threat in a relationship I guess – that’s what my exes tell me! I find that my feminist tendencies don’t always overlap perfectly with my role in a relationship though. I tend to be very traditional in terms of gender roles and I like domestic responsibility and feeling ‘taken care of’ in a way that not a lot of people would expect. It’s not always easy to stand up to the men I love and speak my mind even though I’m a super staunch feminist. It’s complicated. It’s going to obviously vary by personality and it also depends on what was modeled by your parents too. I like to feel I don’t have to be in charge of every single thing that goes on in a relationship since I feel like I have to take on so much outside of it! And in terms of intimacy, sometimes I like to feel in charge and sometimes I don’t. Feminists are funny that way!”


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