As you might imagine, What It Is We Do can be a bewildering concept for both kinky and vanilla feminists alike. Hell, it’s a bewildering concept for us feminists who engage in it, as the epic thread that followed my post from a little over a year ago at the Punishment Book can attest. In her article, “Slap Happy,” in this month’s issue of Bitch Magazine (Spring, No. 39) author Jessica Wakeman doesn’t necessarily provide any answers to make it less bewildering, but she does give the reader plenty to think about.
I think it’s important to remember that she walks several fine lines among word limit and the need to contextualize, describing who we are and what we do — and what we think about what we do, and how the whole thing relates to the issues of female choice and empowerment to an audience of women who may or may not be sex-positive and know absolutely nothing about domestic discipline. In dealing with all this, she makes points and asks questions that were very thoughtful, if somewhat provocative at times. And, yes, despite walking all these fine lines, there are elements she gets wrong too.
Wakeman’s thesis is that domestic discipline is a method that some couples use to make their relationships work. A lifestyle that can provide a certain yin and yang that is missing in the contemporary male-female relationship. She quotes at length family historian Stephanie Coontz, who talks about how marriage has changed more in the last 35 years than in the last several thousand and how couples are finding new ways of “doing” a relationship. And couples have more choice about how to do that relationship than ever before, including consciously utilizing domestic discipline.
In the process of explaining this novel-but-not-novel way to do a relationship, Wakeman tries to contextualize DD within the recent history of feminism and the much longer history of male dominance and female submission.
“If an imbalance of power, based on centuries of socialization, is bubbling just below the surface of a relationship, some couples deal with the conflict by establishing some boundaries and choosing to accept then.”
This was sort of an inversion of how the writer of the blog Whatever she says describes their relationship: “Most women are the ‘boss’ of their marriage. The only difference is that I’ve admitted it and she has acknowledged it.” It seems fair to say that DD is a way of acknowledging that we’re not all the same. Some have different strengths and weaknesses and we’ve simply negotiated those differences in power in ways that work for us rather than let them fester below the surface and cause problems with the relationship — a marked departure from the past where gender roles were fixed and there was no negotiation.
In looking at the rhetoric of blogs like Loving Domestic Discipline, Wakeman rightly acknowledges that “taken at face value, domestic discipline reeks of feminist backlash.” Female dominance — even equality — is a scary prospect for a lot of men (and women) and there are indeed those who utilize DD in an effort to get women back into a traditional, feminine submissive role. Let’s face it, to newcomers looking at the endless blogs and Yahoo groups on domestic discipline, most seem to revolve around women who are bitchy, get into fights with their husbands, get super-bitchy, get spanked by their husbands, then everything is better without ever looking at why she’s bitchy or that she may well have some damn good reasons to be bitchy. Not to mention all those spanking stories where the woman is strong-willed, irrational, stubborn, and irresponsible. They reinforce the notion that the emotions of women require the management of stable, reasonable men.
On the other hand, while second wave feminism made great strides in demonizing domestic abuse, “the resulting taboo,” says Wakeman, “pushes couples in DD relationships into the closet.” Along with a brilliant quote from Mija about how “there’s nothing feminist about sublimating your desires because society says you shouldn’t have them,” Wakeman subtly reproves her audience for creating an environment that is hostile to the choices some women make about what to do with their bodies.
While trying to address the question that many non-kinksters have regarding the relationship between childhood abuse and spanking, Wakeman makes it clear that “for DD women, there’s no readily apparent thread connecting actual childhood discipline with their current lifestyle.” And she does a good job of placing DD squarely within the spanking fetish by noting that, while not all spankos practice DD, all those who practice domestic discipline are confirmed spankos.. “…[T]he line between spanking intended for a boudoir thrill and spanking as an outside-the-bedroom consequence can be blurry…” Indeed, as I have argued in the past, punishment and DD are really just sub-fetishes within the larger fetish of erotic spanking.
Wakeman’s most interesting and challenging question in this article was asking how much of our yearning for discipline is about a strong societal norm for female perfection.
“Their fallibility frustrates and overwhelms them…Many American women strongly feel the drive to be perfect: to be educated, to be a breadwinner, to be a good mother, to be a good wife, and to be beautiful to boot. Is it possible some women — whether kinkily inclined, formerly abused, neither, or both — turn to domestic discipline the same way others find solace in punishing behaviors like eating disorders, cutting, or obsessively working out?”
Ouch. I can’t answer “no” right away. I found the timing eerie, reading this a week after writing my own post on my obsession with perfection (though I failed to include a gender element in my discussion). And it’s certainly been a topic of mine at the Punishment Book. Indeed, when I first started acknowledging I had this preoccupation with spanking and punishment, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps it was a variation on cutting. While most of me says it’s not — as I say in the article, my sexuality expresses itself as a child who gets off on shame and punishment — if I’m being brutally honest, there’s a part of me that can’t say definitively no, it’s not at all about my inability to deal with my own fallibility. I have a hard time accepting the fact that I’m finite, and I have most certainly been guilty of using spanking as a means of trying to attain that ever impossible perfection.
Now, like many of you, my first reaction to this article was heavily influenced by my disagreements with it, as well as being rather chagrined that I was introduced in the article as the one who self-spanks over the phone with her boyfriend. It’s embarrassing enough having to admit that to fellow spankos, but to be introduced to the feminist world like that was a bit…er, uncomfortable.
The first issue involves a little linguistic nitpicking.
“Mija and Natty control the nature of their DD relationships with a power referred to in the BDSM community as ‘topping from the bottom’. In such situations it’s the submissive partner who’s actually in control; the ‘top’ is required to have permission from the bottom before inflicting any BDSM action.”
I would not consider what I do as topping from the bottom as that is really a form of manipulating the top to do what you want her/him to do — not that I haven’t had my moments. Oh, I hope you don’t spank me with the belt! That, my friends, is topping from the bottom, though it’s brazen enough that A. generally knows I’m trying to get him to do something very specific. However, because he’s the top, he controls whether or not he’s going to go on to spank me with the belt. Thus, I maintain my status as bottom and he as top.
Negotiating the framework of our disciplinary relationship, with me having a say in how it will proceed doesn’t strike me as topping from the bottom; it’s simply negotiation. Once we have negotiated what we want to do, A. then decides how to execute the framework we’ve both decided upon and I submit to those decisions, save for a safeword or phrase that might stop everything until we can decide what’s wrong and where to proceed from there. Basically, the same as in any sort of BDSM scene.
But, of course, the main point of disagreement was on the issue of gender and DD. About half way into the article, in parentheses, Wakeman states:
“Theoretically, a man can be the submissive in a heterosexual domestic discipline relationship, and a DD relationship can be same-sex, but based on both Internet presence and the couples that I interviewed, it’s far more common to find heterosexual, female-submissive practitioners.”
In the year since I was interviewed for this article, A. and I have started switching more regularly. And while we don’t switch in terms of discipline, that is only because it’s not as effective for A. as it is for me (my musings as to why are here). However, as I’ve started topping more, I’ve started reading more F/M blogs and am realizing there are a lot more than I realized when I was primarily a bottom.
As A. and I talked about this article, we both agreed this was the one point where we thought Wakeman got it wrong. He suggested that there are a lot more men in DD relationships than are reflected online because men are less inclined to blog about their activities (as, apparently are female tops). It’s true too that F/M couples don’t use Yahoo groups to quite the extent that M/F do, though to be sure, there are quite a number of disciplinary F/M Yahoo groups. It does have me wondering what is different about F/M domestic discipline that it doesn’t express itself online in the same way that M/F does (pictures — it’s more visually oriented is my first thought). Men do not seem to be articulating submissiveness, nor are women articulating dominance in the same ways and in the same amounts as submissive women. Is there still a strong societal standard against men expressing submissiveness and women domestic dominance?
A. also believes that a lot of men are simply going to dominatrices when they can’t get what they want from their partners. A frequent commenter here, Indiana, asked in an email, “Is it true that societal forces make it more likely that a woman will consent to spanking than a man?” I would argue that I think the societal force is more along the lines of making woman feel less comfortable dominating (or rather, our form of domination has traditionally been in manipulation rather than in blunt force) so that it is very difficult for submissive men to find a partner willing to provide the strong female hand they need and desire. I mean, it’s a lot easier to slip back into traditional roles than chip away at new, less comfortable ones.
While, yes, it’s true there isn’t as much of a same-sex presence online (though it is there), that reflects the fact that heterosexuality is the norm. Out of any given population group, same-sex couples are always going to be in the minority (well, you know, except maybe the Castro district in San Francisco) but it was unfortunate that same-sex couples were excluded, as Jigsaw Analogy noted in the comments for the previous post, as it would have demonstrated the problem genderizing this lifestyle entails.
So, yes, I cringed when Ms. Wakeman stated that “The crux of domestic discipline is that women’s behavior is inherently rife with transgressions, and the discipline provided by their intimate partner will be a leveling force.” The context of this comment is unclear to me. I’m not sure if this was meant to represent the views of Mr. Loving DD and his ilk rather than my or Mija’s view. And if it was, I wished that there was more contrast between what Mija and I do, and what MrLovingDD does (that is, if he does it at all or just writes very good “wank material” as one friend has called it). He genders behavior, we do not and I don’t think that point is very clear.
If it was meant to truly describe the essence of domestic discipline as practiced by the majority, then I think she (or her editor) missed a very important point. F/M domestic discipline is not a fringe group within DD and making it so within this article marginalizes their sexuality (though there is the point that it is “feminizing” men, which is still a form of female submission in its own way). By insisting on maintaining a gendered perspective on dominance and submission, it keeps women boxed into rigid definitions that ultimately dis-empower women.
However, again I think it’s important to keep in mind the audience for whom this article was written: feminist women who may know a little something about erotic spanking but know absolutely nothing about domestic discipline. And it’s damn hard to explain it to an outsider. It is impossible for the target audience to look at this completely outside the construct of gender, as much as I think they should. I mean, the relationship that A. and I have — that all nine of us at the Punishment Book have with our partners — is not necessarily the norm when you take into consideration DD blogs and groups in their entirety. Would I have liked an article that looked at how some women are practicing DD without the stereotypes? Sure, but first people have to actually know what the hell it is.
I should also note that Ms. Wakeman was under a great deal of pressure to sensationalize this story, (i.e. make this a story that poked fun at us freaks) or simply couldn’t sell the story because it was too edgy (and the magazines she pitched it to were hardly the Ladies Home Journal). While we’re used to What It Is We Do, most people are not, and I think the compromise she found at Bitch in describing this as a way that women are seeking to “do” a relationship is a reasonable one even if I disagree with the gendered approach.
On Monday when my county-appointed housekeeper arrived to do my laundry, she told me the harrowing tale of how her daughter was beaten by her husband the weekend before. He started to choke her when she refused to give him the car keys because he was drunk, all the while shoving his knee into her three month pregnant belly. For hours after the cops came and dragged him off to jail, they could not get a heartbeat on the fetus. Eventually a heartbeat was heard, though they will not know the extent of any damage until birth. It was a poignant reminder to me that while we have come to a point where I can exercise my right to play with dominance and submission, we have not reached a point where the raw, non-consensual execution of it has ceased. And for a lot of people, it is impossible to divorce one from the other, even if I can.
But it’s hard when you’re a woman who has done all the things you’re supposed to do to be a good feminist to hear someone suggest that you’re doing something that puts the whole thing back to the days when the police wouldn’t be showing up to take a wife-beater to jail. That you’re embracing a construct with thousands of years of misogyny backing it up. I think that’s why places like the Punishment Book, This Thing We Do, as well as the increasing number of feminist voices — female and male — among the domestic discipline community are so valuable. And why consciously grasping the choice we have to practice What It Is We Do in a non-gendered, mindful way is a
profoundly feminist act.
[Cross-posted at Natty’s Spanking Blog]