Playing with Paradox: the Ethics of Erotic Dominance and Submission

by Liz Highleyman

This article appeared in the anthology "Bitch Goddess," Pat Califia and Drew Campbell, editors. Greenery Press, 1997.

I graduated from elementary school the year Samois, the first woman-to-woman SM group, was formed. While I had had a few run-ins as a leather clad punkette with certain feminists in college, by the late 1980s I had found a comfortable home within the leather/SM community. I had heard and read about the "SM wars" at the Barnard conference in 1982 and the altercations between SM lesbians and radical feminists in San Francisco, but these seemed like ancient history to me. The debate about the morality of sadomasochism seemed to have little relevance -- as far as I was concerned, the "sex wars" were over, and we had won.

Perhaps in no other area of human endeavor has so much ink and thought been expended on ethics and morality than in the realm of sexuality. If sexuality has a competitor, it is surely the realm of power. Thus it might be expected that the ground where these realms intersect would be a hotbed of thinking, discussion, writing, and theorizing about ethical issues. Yet among my pervert acquintances, the prevailing notion seem to be that SM has attained the status not long before achieved by homosexuality. It's "just the way we are," and there aren't any moral, ethical, or political arguments to be made about it. However, when I went read the writings of radical feminists from the 1980s, I find myself agreeing with their assertion that sexuality is not just a given to be accepted at face value. Sexuality is influenced by societal beliefs and norms -- in the lingo of postmodernism, it is "socially constructed" -- and that which is constructed can, if we choose, be reconstructed. I believe that sexuality should be given the same consideration we devote to other areas of our lives. "It gets me hot" or "if you don't do it, you can't understand" just don't seem to be sufficient explanations for why I do what I do.

As we approach the 21st century -- with the embers of the "sex wars" largely cooled -- perhaps now we can look at the ethics of dominance and submission in a new light.

The Libertarian Perspective

Having suffered the pain of condemnation and exclusion because of their sexual feelings or erotic practices, sexual minorities have often been loath to criticize the sexual behavior of others. Many have therefore adopted the morally relativistic point of view that all types of sexual expression are ethically equivalent. Within this liberal or libertarian framework, it is considered somehow improper to criticize or even question another's preferred mode of sexual or erotic expression. If we want to make the claim that it's wrong for right-wing fundamentalists to condemn homosexuality, for example, isn't it just as wrong to condemn someone for enjoying public sex, being attracted to boys, or inflicting or desiring pain? Within this framework, it's hard to say anything about the ethics of SM besides "to each his or her own."

Critics of libertarian thinking, in contrast, believe that there is a valid place for community norms -- and sometimes government intervention -- to protect those who are unable to defend themselves. The radical feminists rejected the argument that all forms of sexuality are morally equivalent, and believed that if our sexual desires are "politically incorrect," we should eradicate them and replace them with healthy ones. Within the libertarian ideology, freedom of choice and freedom to pursue pleasure are central values; equality and justice are given less weight. In writing this essay, I've had considerable qualms that even discussing the ethical aspects of dominance and submission will be seen as an intrusion upon people's free choice. Perhaps inevitably, I find myself more often asking questions than giving answers.

Safe, Sane, Consensual

If there can be said to be a community-wide ethic of SM, it is the concept of "safe, sane, consensual." In recent years, this concept has gone beyond an ethical ideal to become a political slogan, even a party line. Yet it is not without controversy.

Safety and sanity are not very well defined. It is not uncommon for someone to believe that another person is by definition unsafe if they engage in activities the first person does not approve of. The "false consciousness" argument implies that a person who engages in non-approved activities is not fully in control of her or his mental facilities -- or in other words, is not completely sane.

For many members of the SM community (or more accurately, communities), ethics coalesce around the concept of consent. If all participants freely and knowingly agree to take part in an interaction, then outside observers are thought to be in no position to pass judgement on it. While this ideal is widely accepted within the SM community, it has ambiguous standing among the mainstream.

In 1990, several men were arrested in England for engaging in consensual SM. The judges in the Spanner case ruled that consent was not an adequate defense against the infliction of bodily harm. However, they did allow, and most people would agree, that other activities with a potential for harm, such as elective surgery or boxing, may legitimately be engaged in. The resistance to injury or harm comes about only when the primary purpose of the activity is erotic gratification.

The words "top" and "bottom" do not transparently describe a consensual SM interaction. It is the bottom's consent that allows the scene to go forward (even in a scene in which the bottom temporarily agrees to forego consent). The bottom controls the foundation upon which the interaction is built, while the top often controls the specific details and direction of the scene. The top's pleasure depends on the bottom's willingness to engage in the interaction. The failure to grasp this paradox underlies many of the moral arguments against erotic dominance and submission.

Some members of the SM community believe that promoting the "safe, sane, consensual" maxim will make SM more acceptable to the mainstream. Yet as with most concepts that have become rigidified and reified, others have begun to openly rebel against "safe, sane, consensual" both as a party line for the community and in their own play. For these practitioners -- known as edge players -- there are depths of sensation and emotional release that can only be achieved if the bottom truly gives up control.

Drawing the Line

While the "live and let live" attitude is common within the SM community, most of us do draw the line somewhere. Most, for example, believe that killing one's partner, even if the partner consents, would be wrong. The majority would say the same about a serious, permanent bodily injury such as cutting off a partner's arm or leg. On the other hand, probably the majority accept consensually applied permanent marks such as brandings. An increasingly vocal segment of edge players have challenges "common wisdom" about the advisablility of such practices as breath control and blood play.

Given the diversity of views within the various SM communities, it is doubtful that we will ever be able to collectively draw a line separating safe and sane play from dangerous abuse. But we can make a careful examination of ethical princples as they relate to SM in order to inform our individual decisions.

SM and Human Rights

Certain principles of human rights have been more or less universally adopted by societies spanning a range of cultural, religious, and ethical perspectives. Most forms of torture and all forms of slavery are widely considered to be impermissible; some societies also condemn the death penalty. The human rights framework is generally held to apply to states (governments), not to individuals.

Many areas of ethics (for example medical ethics) give a central importance to the principle of respect for persons. Such respect is generally held to include regard for a person's autonomy and self-determination. Yet within the realm of erotic dominance and submission, how is it possible to honor the autonomy of a person who desires to be submissve, that is, to give up their autonomy? This is one of the central paradoxes of erotic dominance and submission -- another concerns how pain can be felt as pleasure -- that for many are the crux and the primary appeal of SM.

Perhaps the most contentious issue surrounding SM is that of permanent or semi-permanent slavery. Is it acceptable to regard another person as a slave or possession if he or she willingly and knowingly consents to be one? Does such consent by definition negate the concept of slavery? Is it even accurate within modern SM relationships to speak of "slavery" rather than imitative role-playing, given that the "slave" can resort to the law and societal censure to remove him or her from their slavery? Neither the slave nor the Master can completely rid themselves of the knowledge that the slave has an out. This is obviously a very different sense of "slavery" than that of, for example, African American slaves in the nineteenth century who had no choice about their situation.

Riane Eisler posits that human societies follow one of two relationship models, dominator relationships, based on fear and force, and partner relationships, based on pleasure and mutuality. At first glance, relationships of erotic dominance and submission appear to exemplify a dominator model. However -- and this is one more paradox of SM -- only persons who are in egalitarian and mutual relationships are able to give the kind of free, non-coerced consent that responsible SM implies.

Hurt and Harm

A crucial point in the ethics of SM hinges on the nature of harm. Common parlence tends to equate "hurt" and "harm," but they are in fact distinct. Having a tooth drilled and filled may indeed hurt, but it does not cause harm -- in fact, it is done to prevent harm. Likewise, whipping and genital torture certainly hurt, and submission and humilitaion may cause psychic pain. But are they harmful?

I have a working definition of ethical dominance that includes the intention not to cause harm to any participant. Such a definition would include edge players, whose extreme physical and psychological practices are intended to bring the players to a deeper realm of sensation or emotion. While some might dispute their means, their ends are not morally suspect. The definition would not include the namesake of sadism, the Marquis de Sade, who either intended to harm his victims or took his pleasure without caring whether they were harmed or not.

I once had a submissive client who wanted me to kick him in the balls as hard as I could. The woman I was training and I began by giving him light kicks, and increased our intensity as he begged for more. It was clear that the harder we kicked, the more sexually excited he became. Being a professional encounter with a stranger, we stopped well before the point of damage, but I wonder what I would do in a similar situation in which a lover begged me to bring him or her to greater heights of sexual pleasure by doing something likely to cause lasting harm. In the film Bloodsisters, an SM lesbian tells of a situation in which she held a knife to her lover's throat and the other woman said "just go ahead and do it." This illustrates the most profound moment in an SM encounter, when all the paradoxes about consent, harm, submission, and love come together.

While people generally engage in SM for the sake of satisaction -- whether it be an endorphin high, the satisfaction of pushing one's limits, or the pleasure of serving one's top -- it is possible that inadvertent harm (both psychological and physical) may indeed occur. Is a practice ethical as long as no harm is intended by either party, or is the risk of unintended harm enough to call a practice into question? Certain activities (e.g., suffocation, replaying childhood sexual abuse) are risky enough that some SM players consider it unethical to do them at all. Yet it cannot be denied that some of the most thrilling aspects of life -- erotic and otherwise -- come from confronting challenges and flirting with danger.

Legitimate and Illegitimate Authority

I have an anarchist/anti-authoritarian perspective, and have sometimes struggled with how to reconcile my political beliefs with my erotic desires. I have been at a loss as to how to respond to questions about the apparent contradiction between my political opposition to hierarchical authority and my desire to engage in erotic dominance and submission. On a "head" level I must grudgingly give credence to such a critique, but on a "heart" level I know that SM can be respectful, egalitarian, pleasurable, and healing.

Perhaps the key to this particular paradox has to do with legitimate versus illegitimate authority. Consent is a big part of the difference between a hot scene and being arrested on the street by a homophobic cop, but it isn't the sole difference. The motivations of the players are also critical. No SM players of my acquaintance engage in erotic dominance and submission with a motive of true malice toward their partner, the way a soldier might regard an enemy civilian or a cop might regard a suspect criminal (or an innocent "faggot" or "whore").

The power of the cop, the soldier, or the prison warden is based not on their personal inner strength, but rather on their role of authority in a social hierarchy, a role granted by a government. To the anarchist, this kind of power is illegitimate. I'm personally less than fully comfortable with play that involves police or military roles, because it sometimes seems to glorify state authority. Yet it is just as possible to use such roles within SM play to challenge illegitimate authority. Most SM players believe that such play is a parody of real world authority rather than an imitation of it. Yet critics of SM, such as Sarah Hoagland, claim that "while those parodying authoritarianism may expose it for what it is, they are hardly able to thereby release themselves from it."

SM play involves interpersonal power exchange, which is diametrically opposed to real world authoritarian roles, which are typically unidirectional. One participant is always on top, and the other is always on the bottom. Except in rare circumstances, the victim of the cop, soldier, or warden does not have the opportunity to "exchange" any power whatsoever. Pat Califia has noted that perhaps the reason erotic dominance and submission is so theatening to the established order is because SM roles are so fluid. An SM role is not predetermined on the basis of one's occupation, gender, sexual orientation, race, or class, and each partner may take on the role(s) that meet their individual or collective desires. A top's authority comes from the consent of the bottom (and from the reputation they've developed for responsibility and skill), not from an external authority. Perhaps this helps explain the paradox, noted by Susan Farr, that our society tolerates non-consensual violence such as domestic violence and warfare, but issues strong taboos against the controlled exploration of power by consenting adults. She speculates that perhaps the powers-that-be "wish to withhold experience with and knowledge of power from most people so that abuses of power by elites can be protected."

SM can help people break through usually existing boundaries, such as when a lesbian and a gay man play together. A top in a scene may take on and play with types of power they are never likely to experience in real life. And roles may be reversed -- the faggot can handcuff and fuck the cop, the prisoners can lock up and torture the warden. Although partners do not always switch roles within a given scene, and some SM players maintain a more or less constant identity as top or bottom, the potential for power exchange is there.

Certainly not all real world power is granted by the authority of a state. A mother, father, nun, priest, or nurse may also represent illegitimate authority. In fact, they may be even more treacherous because they are expected to be caring and trustworthy. The absolute power that Mommy holds over Baby is perhaps the quintessential dominance/submission relationship; at the same time, though, Mommy is in a relationship of near complete servitude to Baby. As with state-sanctioned roles, those who play with parental, religious, or medical roles can subvert, pervert, and make overt the erotic subtext of power and authority. Erotic dominance and submission can help us learn about power -- how to recognize it, how it works, how to counter it, remake it, and hopefully use it wisely and ethically in the real world.

Dominance and Real World Oppression

There has been considerable controversy within SM communities about dominant and submissive role-playing that is modeled on racial, religious, sexual orientation, and gender hierarchies in the real world. How does playing out erotic dominance and submission scenarios based on real world oppression affect the ways we either reproduce or rebel against the power dynamics of the outside world?

An example is the use of Nazi imagery in sexual scenes. Some feel that under no circumstances is it ethical to play sexual games that seem to mimic or glorify ethnic genocide. Others feel that such play may be acceptable in private, but that Nazi paraphernalia and scenes should not be used in public where non-consenting people may be present. It may not matter whether a German or a Jew are actually participating in the scene -- the symbols and paraphernalia carry their own weight.

Ethical issues come into play when people from groups who have traditionally related to one another as oppressor and oppressed play with each other. What does it mean for a white person to erotically dominate a black person or a man to erotically dominate a woman? What if it's a black person dominanting a white person or a woman dominating a man? SM critic Robin Morgan has noted the paradox that "he who has power can do what he likes, including playing at powerlessness in a manner never available to the powerless." In keeping with the philosophy of libertarian individualism, many are tempted to say that these interactions are no different from a moral standpoint than any other type of dominant/submissive interaction -- after all, "we're all just people." Yet it is impossible to ignore historical and cultural reality. Radical feminist Hilde Hein has said that "to treat with playfulness and levity a self-chosen condition which is a hated oppression to multitudes of other peope is to reduce their suffering to a mockery." In our society, is it possible for people of different races, genders, and sexual orientations to step outside of their traditional places in the social hierarchy and interact as "just people"?

Feminist Perspectives on Dominance

Some of the most heated debates regarding erotic dominance and submission have occured within feminist communities. Perhaps the opening salvo in the "SM wars" was fired was Ti-Grace Atkison, when she gave a talk entitled "Why I'm Against SM Liberation" at a meeting of the New York SM group The Eulenspiegel Society in 1975. A return shot entitled "Cathexis" was soon delivered by Barbara Ruth-Lipschutz in 1976.

In this era, women were just beginning to speak out about the diversity of female sexuality. Gayle Rubin and others have spoken about how difficult it was to come out as an SM dyke in a time of radical feminist hegemony. By the time I became involved in the debates in the mid-1980s, things had changed considerably. Because of my interest in SM (and my bisexuality), I had never felt welcome within the feminist community, and had instead made my home within a community of perverts. I remember leaving in disgust a forum on pornography at the 1988 Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City and striking out with my girlfriend for Christopher Street, where we met some friendly leathermen and purchased sex toys for our later amusement.

The self-identified radical feminists (I find "cultural feminist" a more appropriate term) built an ideology in which female and male natures were diametrically opposed. Men were said to be aggressive, dominating, and death-loving (whether by nature or by nurture), while women were said to be nurturing, submissive and life-affirming. The cultural feminists opposed pornography, sadomasochism, butch/femme roles, and any other form of sexuality they deemed patriarchal. Lesbian-feminists drew the boundaries of what it meant to be a woman-loving women ever more narrowly in an attempt to build a safe community insulated from the dangerous, male-dominated world outside their doors. The SM issue was a flashpoint for deep, underlying political differences. The cultural feminists broke with the earlier radical feminist goal of empowering women and giving them more choices in all realms, including sexuality, and found it more urgent to secure safety than to puruse pleasure.

The cultural feminists believed that SM was a male-identified practice. Some, in fact, viewed sex itself as a male realm that woman-identified women could just as well do without. Julia Penelope stated that fanstasy was "a phallocentric need from which we are not yet free." Female sexuality was idealized as diffuse and non-genitally focused (ironically, how many people describe their SM experiences), and blessed with a perfect egalitarianism and mutuality. There was certainly no acknowledgement that gender might be anything other than bipolar, or that there could be value in exploring various gender roles.

Most critiques of SM centered around the wrongness of a woman assuming a submissive role; this was decried whether a woman was playing bottom to a man or to a woman. Almost no attention was given to women who erotically dominate men. It was claimed that men rarely desire to be erotically dominated by women (despite the fact that they keep countless professional dominatrices in business). Phyllis Chesler asserted that "few women of any sexual persuasion enjoy sadistic sexual fantasies with men as the masochistic object...only men do -- usually homosexual men." Gay male SM was especially vilified as an example of the male eroticization of violence. Andrea Dworkin called it "testimony to the fixedness of the male compulsion to dominate and destroy that is the source of sexual pleasure for men." Robin Morgan saw in lesbian SM "a lesbian copy of a faggot imitation of patriarchal backlash against feminism."

SM lesbians asserted that erotic dominance and submission were not equivalent to rape and patriarchal domination of women because SM involved consent. The cultural feminists did not place much stock in the idea of consent, believing that gender-based power imbalances were so entrenched that it was not possible for a woman to freely give true, informed consent. This argument placed women in the position of children, and did not recognize their status as competent moral agents. Women's personal experiences with SM were often discounted. Women who had sadomasochistic desires were seen as victims of "false consciousness." If a woman desired to be a bottom, she was thought to have internalized society's demand that women be submissive. If she desired to be a top, she was said to be male-identified. Kathleen Barry went so far as to claim that "to find pleasure in SM is to betray one's female soul."

Bat-Ami Bar On, in what is perhaps the most sophisticated analysis of SM from a cultural feminist point of view, makes explicit that the feminist anti-SM position is based on the premise that "the eroticization of violence or domination and pain or powerlessness necessarily involves a violation of the right to determine what can be done with and to one's body." Yet those who practice SM consent to a rule of masochist control, so that bottoms are in fact in a position of self-determination. Bar On notes that feminist theory does not provide any basis for a response to this paradox. "If sadomasochism is morally evaluated by what it contributes to the lives of those who practice it," she concedes, "sadomasochism must be seen as morally acceptable."

The cultural feminists thought that it was possible to do away with power in the realm of sexuality, and that doing so was the only way women could achieve freedom. Women on the "pro-sex" side countered that power probably could not be eradicated from sexuality, and that we might not want to do it if we could. Alice Echols suggested that "We should acknowledge the possibility that power inheres in sexuality...Perhaps we might achieve more equality were we to negotiate rather than deny power." The idea that we can use SM to learn to use power in an ethical way remains, along with consent, the crux of the moral defense of erotic dominance and submission. By exploring the fluidity of power, we challenge patriarchal society's demand that power be "frozen," with one sex always on top and the other always on the bottom.

From the vantage point of the late 1990s, things look very different. The "sex wars" burnt themselves out, in large part because little dialogue was possible and the two sides went their separate ways. There are certainly still unabashedly SM-positive women, but they have largely abandoned theorizing about sexuality. There has been a trend towards an identity politics philosophy in which SM desires (like same-sex desires) are seen as an inherent individual characteristic, not an appropriate subject for public debate (as far back 1976, Barabara Ruth-Lipschutz postulated that SM desire is perhaps "written in the genetic code"). Although there are still pockets of active anti-porn/anti-SM cultural feminism, a more pluralistic philosophy that accepts a wider range of acceptable sexual choices for women has become the norm among feminists.

Ethical Models of Dominance and Submission

Given that much criticism of SM assumes that being submissive is a negative experience, one might well wonder why there seem to be so many more bottoms than tops in SM communities of all sexual orientations. Clearly, many people find exploring polarities of power sexually gratifying. What else might people be getting out of the practice of erotic dominance and submission?

In contrast to the anti-authoritarian and feminist perspectives that eschew dominance and submission in all forms, other paradigms regard dominance and submission as highly moral and responsible. These models often view the dominant as a caretaker, protector, or provider. If one owns or controls another person, they are also responsible for their well-being, much as a parent is responsible for the care and well-being of her child, or a master for his pet. Many SM practitioners have adopted models of dominance and submission that focus on this aspect. Especially within queer SM communities, the role of Daddy and boy have become ever more common, edging out the Old Guard standard of Master and slave. Some women -- both heterosexual and lesbian -- have adopted the role of Mommy. Most dominants, especially those in long-term relationships, love and value their submissives. While they may indeed hurt them, they would not intentionally harm them.

The submissive, in turn, is seen as sacrificing their own volition in service to another. By subordinating one's will to the will of another, some bottoms are able to achieve intense emotional states not accessible by other means. Submission of one's personal will to the service of a "higher authority" or "greater good" has seen as a moral imperative in many religions, in certain service professions, and within some conceptions of patriotism and political activism (the nun and the soldier are both models of submission).

People who practice SM speak of many benefits. Many people value erotic dominance and submission for its emphasis on trust. A good SM relationship entails deep trust and extensive communication between the partners. The bottom, of course, must trust that the top will respect her limits and keep her well-being in mind. The top, in turn, must trust that the submissive has a sense of personal integrity and will honestly communicate his needs. Negotiation is an important part of SM play. By explicitly thinking about, discussing, and agreeing to the terms of an interaction, SM players may avoid some of the painful misunderstandings that are common in a society in which sex, romance, and love are supposed to "just happen." Some have found that the explicit practice of ritualized SM allows them to recognize and eradicate the non-consensual "emotional SM" that is a part of so many "vanilla" relationships.

For many, erotic dominance and submission is a way to explore and challenge personal boundaries and limits; the expansion of old limits and the discovery of new ones in turn contributes to personal growth and the growth of relationships. Some have found that SM allows them to revisit and reprocess past abuse and trauma. By replaying these events in an emotionally and physically safe environment, they are able to assert control over them (unlike with real world abuse) and regain a sense of empowerment. Erotic dominance and submission may be healing in other ways as well. For those who were brought up with a great deal of shame around sexuality, being "forced" to engage in sexual play can provide the permission they need to overcome their guilt. But this is not to minimize the potential danger of playing with painful psychic issues. As Pat Califia has said, "it is not always wise to regard SM as a substitute for therapy."

In an era of individualism, in which families and communities no longer have the strength or provide the support they once did, SM play can provide a way to create extremely deep connections with other human beings. Jessica Benjamin has noted that the strong passions of SM can "dissolve individualism and the boundaries between self and other." Many SM players seek and find a sense of transcendence through pain, humilitation, and deep submission.

SM and Spirituality

Many SM practitioners, as with sexual minorities of all types, have left traditional religions because they seemed to hold little that's applicable to alternative sexuality, or because members of religious hierarchies have actively condemned or persecuted sexual minorities. In my case, as a teenager I left the Catholic Church because its appealing ritual aspects -- and its enticing images of pain, dominance and submission -- were no match for its negative aspects of authoritarianism, erotophobia, and misogyny.

Within some SM communities, ritual spirituality and erotic dominance and submission are closely integrated. The "modern primitive" tendency, which has grown in popularity throughout the 1980s and is closely linked to SM in some areas, aims to achieve a sense of personal enlightenment and a reclaiming of lost tribal solidarity through extreme sensation and body modification practices. Most cultural traditions throughout history have included an array of rituals to mark the important events and passages in life, rituals which secular Western society notoriously lacks. Body modification master Fakir Musafar has said that "SM in this culture is one of the few places people can get started on the road back to their god."

It has become increasingly common within some circles to speak of SM as "sex magic," and indeed intense sexual experiences can be a direct route to individual or interpersonal transcendence. People have found ways to use intense pain, deep submission, and/or permanent bodily alteration as ritual milestones or rites of passage. Interestingly, people much less often speak of dominance as a way to achieve such transcendence. Roles have been developed within some SM communities to replace the classic SM roles of Master/Mistress and slave, for example the novice or seeker and the ka-see-ka (spiritual guide). These new roles do not always correlate with traditional notions of top and bottom; for example, a spiritual master might be assisted in achieving a transcendent state through pain given by a submissive piercer.

Others wonder, though, what underlies the search for spiritual transcendence in the realm of SM and sex. Might it be masking an unconscious sense of shame and guilt that makes people feel that SM or sex for its own sake, or for the simple sake of pleasure, is not good enough, and that it should instead be done in the service of some "higher" or "purer" goal? Among queer SM communities, is it in part a response to the overwhelming grief and loss brought about by the AIDS epidemic? Is it, perhaps, an attempt to create a renewed sense of mystique and a new elite as SM has become popularized and its once secret traditions have become available for the asking or the purchasing? Or is it a reaction to the era of the "sex wars" when SM and sexuality were analyzed to death and erotic desire was expected to be molded and sublimated to serve political ends? If so, it seems worthwhile to keep in mind Pat Califia's reminder that "too much feeling is as bad as too much thinking."

The Dominant Woman

The dominant woman holds a special place in the world of SM. In most of the anti-authoritarian and feminist critiques, she has been completely ignored; if she is mentioned at all, it is as a deluded, male-identified collaborator with the patriarchy. The world views of the critics simply cannot allow for the idea of a responsible, self-determined, erotically dominant woman.

Many of the critiques fall apart when a member of a historically oppressed group takes on a dominant role, especially if they dominate a member of a historically powerful group. For many women, exercising sexual power has allowed them to overcome, at least temporarily, the subordinate social and sexual position of women in society. This exercise of power in the erotic realm can spill over into other areas, thus challenging societal power hierarchies. It is perhaps more questionable whether a man playing a submissive role to a woman in a sexual context will increase his respect for women and his ackowledgement of their equality as people. Robin Morgan has claimed that "men who cower before a dominatrix are superficially reversing and thereby trivializing women's real oppression."

While there is no simple correlation between erotic female dominance and women's position in society -- we cannot end male supremacy by giving every woman a whip -- female dominance does provide a point of departure to explore female roles that don't conform to traditional notions of feminine passivity and submissiveness. Every woman who practices erotic dominance, no matter how temporarily, provides proof that women are not inevitably submissive. While the erotically dominant woman need not be constantly dominant in all facets of her life -- and indeed most are not -- erotic dominance may provide the taste of power and agency that enables a woman to empower herself in other areas. The woman who practices erotic dominance takes the quest for sexual gratification into her own hands. She doesn't have to cajole or wish that someone else will please her -- she can demand to be pleased, or can please herself. As she hones her skills and increases her experience, the dominatrix may become a teacher, assisting other women to develop their skills, self-confidence, and agency as an erotically dominant woman.

There are few cultural images of powerful women, although some do exist in the realms of popular media, politics, and even religion. In many cases, these women do not have a uniquely female role, but have rather taken on a role usually associated with men. The roles usually thought of as dominant within an erotic context or elsewhere -- cop, daddy, military leader, businessman, judge -- are traditionally male or masculine roles. Common female dominant roles -- nurse, mommy, teacher, nun -- are not stereotypically dominant, but are rather examples of a stereotypical feminine role run amok, contrasting with the usual expectation of service and nurturing. Women often take on traditionally male roles and accoutrements when they are being erotically dominant. Men usually only take on traditionally female roles and appearance when they are being submissive.

Is it even possible for there to be a uniquely female role of power or dominance? Cultural feminists believe it is not, claiming that dominance is inherently male and that dominant women are merely imitating men. It seems that these feminists are reifying women's status as victim by asserting that a woman can't be powerful, and that someone who is powerful can't really be a woman. Yet cultural feminists are not alone in this belief. Even among feminist lesbians who practice SM, it remains largely true that a top is expected to possess butch or masculine characteristics and appearance, while a bottom is expected to have femme or feminine characteristics.

Within organized gay and lesbian SM circles and the contest circuit, proper dress for lesbians is the same as for gay leathermen (motorcycle or combat boots, chaps, leather vest, motorcycle jacket). The classic dominatrix look (high heeled thigh-high boots, fishnet stockings, leather skirt or bodysuit, cleavage-revealing top) is considered less indicative of power and authority. Must a woman adopt traditionally male signifiers in order to be respected as a dominant? Many aspects of the classic dominatrix look are traditionally feminine -- and traditionally, looking feminine has meant looking submissive. Certainly revealing clothing, tight corsets, and high heels were not designed to enhance a woman's power, but rather to arouse heterosexual male desire -- although many dominant women have succeeded in reclaiming these items as symbols of female sexual power.

The dominatrix role is perhaps unique in that it is not modelled after a real world female role; she is purely an erotic creature who exists solely within the realm of SM. Other roles of female power exist, and are perhaps becoming more common. Examples include the Goddess and the Amazon. Goddess mythology has a long and proud tradition in many cultures, but in modern U.S. society, the divine is almost universally assumed to be male. Taking on the role of Goddess is another way the dominant woman challenges gender-based assumptions. A small proportion of dominant women participate in organizations that celebrate female supremacy. While it is true that female supremacy challenges the traditional gender hierarchy, it still reifies gender essentialism and the idea that one gender is superior to the other. I prefer to attain and experience my power as an individual woman, not by virtue of the mere fact of being female.

By subverting prescribed gender roles, women who take on a dominant role are striking a blow against sexism. By profoundly challenging accepted societal and cultural boundaries, the dominant woman is providing a positive role model for other women, and contributing to changing women's place in the social order.


The most important feature in a community's ethics is not the philosophical framework upon which it is built or the political justification it allows, but rather how its members treat one another. Are we honest, trustworthy, and accountable? Do we interact with consent and without coercion? Do we take responsibility for our actions? Do we recognize and respect the fact that others may have desires and needs that are different from our own? To the Christian maxim of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," perhaps we could add "as you would have them do unto you if you were in that role." To the Wiccan ethic of "and it harm none, do as you will," we could add the distinction between hurt and harm.

Many traditions, from Christianity to cultural feminism, have positioned ethics and pleasure -- specifically sexual pleasure -- as mutually exclusive. Yet this need not be the case. We need not give up our quest for pleasure in an effort to be ethical, nor ignore questions of ethics in our quest for sexual pleasure. Ethics is about one's responsbility to and treatment of others, while pleasure is about gratifying one's own desires. Both are necessary. We can use a consideration of ethics to frame our thinking, explore our limits, and extend our self knowledge -- thus pushing perhaps the most challenging boundary of all.


Califia, Pat. Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. Cleis Press, Pittsburgh, 1994.

Eisler, Riane. Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth and the Politics of the Body -- New Paths to Power and Love. Harper, San Francisco, 1995.

Lederer, Laura (editor). Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. William Morrow and Co., New York, 1980.

Linden, Robin et al (editors). Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis. Frog in the Well Press, San Francisco, 1982.

Samois (editors). Coming to Power. Alyson Publications, Boston. 1981 (1987).

Thompson, Mark (editor). Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics and Practice. Alyson, Boston 1991.

Vance, Carol (editor). Pleasure and Danger. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1984.

Liz Highleyman is a writer and health educator. Her work has appeared in Bi Any Other Name, Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries and Vision, The Second Coming, and Whores and Other Feminists. She is editor of Cuir Underground magazine.

© 1996, Liz Highleyman

Liz A. Highleyman --