by Lady Green

From Issue 4.2 - Summer 1998

Women, Sex and Kink

For most of the history of S/M as a visible, community-based sexual orientation, its values and iconography have been defined by men. The S/M aisle in the porn store was for many years -- and still is, to a significant extent -- lined with pictures of improbably muscular leather-clad men for gay male consumption, or with whip-cracking dominatrixes and quivering slavegirls for heterosexual male consumption. It's worth keeping in mind that the word "sadomasochism" itself is an amalgam of two men's names.

As a result, women into S/M tend to get stuck with a choice of two options: either adopting the values and turn-ons of the men who have preceded us, or inventing our own from scratch. The first can be frustrating, and the second confusing. So if you're a woman reading this article, I hope I can give you some support in learning a bit more about what you get out of S/M.

And if you're a man who plays with women (or hopes to), maybe I can help you understand a bit more about why we do what we do, and how to get us to do it some more.

Welcome to the Marketplace

One of the first, and most important, things to understand about the baggage women bring to S/M is that even the most liberated of us have been raised in a culture that trains us to market ourselves. If you doubt this, try setting aside the next 24 hours to look around you, considering the world as a sexual marketplace in which women are the sellers and men the buyers (I recommend including a visit to the romance novel section of the bookstore, a couple of hours of TV watching, a look at the advice column of a couple of daily newspapers, and the perusal of a copy each of Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Playboy).

Pay attention to the ways in which women are told that if they are sufficiently pretty, sexual and/or nurturing, they will be able to trade those qualities for the devotion of a man who earns a lot of money and pays a lot of attention to them. This issue manifests itself in dozens of ways -- everything from the deeply felt belief that women are designed to be the objects of pursuit and men the pursuers (since when does the milk follow the customer home from the supermarket?), to the default assumption that women bear the burden of responsibility for home, hearth, and relationship.

Now, I'd like to think that most of us reading this have escaped that trap at most levels, at least intellectually. But the deep emotional programming -- the expectations -- are extremely difficult to overcome, and may sneak up and attack us in ways for which we're not at all prepared.

Turn-On? What Turn-On?

Another way in which women differ from men, I think, is that it's so much easier for us to deny our own arousal. Little Jimmy, at the tender age of eight or so, notices something interesting happening to his anatomy when something arouses him. He can look down and see that, suddenly, his Underoos don't fit right anymore.

Little Sally, on the other hand, has no such visual evidence to corroborate her feelings. And her mom may be telling her, in words or in body language, that nice girls don't even think about such places, much less touch them or talk about them. As a result, grown-up Jim usually has a pretty good sense of what turns him on and what doesn't. However, it's very easy for grown-up Sarah to overlook, ignore or deny her own arousal.

Put 'Em Together and What Do You Get?

Combine commodification with denial of arousal, and you often come up with a circumstance in which a woman feels at some level that her partner owes her something for her participation -- whether that something is gifts, service, sexual gratification, or money. The partner of a woman who is making such demands may, understandably, feel confused and hurt. Didn't she enjoy the play, too? Why does she need to be "paid" for something that she enjoyed?

This confusion may become a particular problem if the woman involved is the top. Here's why. Start with the idea -- formed from the two cultural values above -- that in this culture, sex is something that women give and men get. Then look at the energy flow in an S/M transaction, in which the top is contributing energy, thought, authority and, perhaps, even physical exertion, so that the bottom can release ordinary responsibility and feel controlled, directed and cared for. Meanwhile, the scene has the outward appearance of a cruel, selfish, bossy woman manipulating her partner in order to get her own needs met.

Cut to the next morning. The previous night's bitch dominatrix is staring into her coffee cup, feeling depleted and used up, and not sure why -- didn't she demand exactly what she wanted? Unless she's unusually self-aware, she probably can't hear the protesting squeals of her subconscious, which is complaining bitterly: "You gave him sex, you took care of him, and what did you get in return?!"

Let the Revolustion Begin

This isn't really as depressing a situation as it sounds like. (Well, not quite.) There are things that women and men can both do to help overcome some of these cultural bear-traps and create S/M play that leaves everybody feeling fulfilled and satisfied.

Women, here's your job: pay attention to yourself. Especially your cunt. Notice when something turns you on, even when it's not something you'd expect to turn you on. If you need to perform an occasional "finger check" if you're not sure, well, that's why we have ladies' rooms. Also, notice when something you do leaves you feeling angry, hurt, deprived or used, and instead of letting those feelings run unchecked, do some serious thinking about why you feel that way. Is it you that's having the feeling, or is it twenty or thirty or fifty years of western culture telling you to have the feeling? And, if you figure out it's that old cultural baggage and the feeling still doesn't go away -- not too improbable, unfortunately -- begin to think through exactly what would help you feel better.

If you can't figure it out, it's a safe bet that your partner won't be able to, either. Oh yes, and one more assignment: be the one to do the asking once in a while. Face the experience of rejection. If he can take it, so can you.

Men, here's your job: find out what she needs to help her get some resolution of these conflicts and make sure she gets it. I think some of the things women want are: