A conversation about kink with Natalie Zina Walschots

Female submission fantasies, revisted.

After I took on Katie Roiphe’s article on female fantasies of submission last month, Natalie Zina Walschots reached out to take issue with a couple of my points–and invite me to have a more in-depth discussion of submission, kinky orientations, and how BDSM can best be de-stigmatized. Natalie is a Toronto-based rock critic specializing in heavy metal and poet who writes about sadomasochism. Which means she’s way cooler than me, so how could I say no? (Read her full bio and check out her two collections of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains and Thumbscrews, after the jump.) The following is an edited version of our email conversation.

Natalie: I’d like to start with what you wrote in your response, and use that as a jumping-off point. First, you say: “I am in no way surprised that many women, who have been socialized in a culture in which male sexuality is linked to domination and in which women are taught their sexual power comes from being wanted, have fantasies of submission.” While I certainly understand the point you are trying to get at, I think that things have just become a little bit muddled.

You are talking about several different things here. If you are referring to vanilla sex that is generally undertaken by straight, hetero-normative people, then this may be largely correct. However, this same dynamic is a lot more complex for a kinky person. BDSM can be something that people enjoy in passing, certainly, but for others, it is their entire sexual orientation. For many people, being a dominant or a submissive is as important as being gay or straight, the absolute keystone of their sexuality and a crucial component of their health, happiness and self-actualization. In these cases, the statement that submission is an extension of socialization is inadequate, and is similar to saying that someone becomes gay or straight because of the way they are socialized. There is so much more to it than that for someone who profoundly identifies as submissive (or otherwise).

Maya: Yeah, I was making a straight, vanilla broad generalization there and I absolutely agree that things have become muddled. In part, I blame Roiphe. :) I thought one of the many irritating things about her piece was the way she lumped all these super different things under the banner of “submission fantasies.” For her, everything that supports her argument is forced together, so actual BDSM is just the most extreme end of this spectrum of “submission fantasies” that (she wants to claim) includes all heterosexual women’s desires to some extent. I think I fell into thinking about this as a spectrum a bit too–even though it’s so clearly bullshit.

Aside from the fact that “submission fantasy” means something very different for a straight gal who likes her boyfriend to get a little rough in bed (who doesn’t, really?) and a kinky person who identifies as submissive, by the end of reading that piece, I was like, “I honesty don’t know what ‘submission fantasy’ even means.” (I mean, just from reading a silly book like 50 Shades of Grey, you’re struck by the range of “submissive fantasies.”) But yeah, tell more more about people for whom submissiveness is an orientation. Would you say many people in the BDSM community think of their identity that way?

Natalie: This is a tricky thing. I believe that kink sexuality is on a continuum, just like gay/straight sexuality is on a continuum, and I don’t want to imply that someone’s experience in mild BDSM is somehow invalid because they don’t engage in a full-time D/s relationship, for example. Everyone’s sexual experience, orientation etc. is equally valid. Like anything else, it is easiest to talk about people who staunchly identify one way or the other, but of course it is nothing like that. A man who is happily married to a woman may have had relationships with men in the past, and it doesn’t invalidate his gay/straight sexuality. Same for a generally vanilla man who really likes to be tied up now and again. Often that grey area is the most complicated to discuss. While I think people who are comfortably identifying deeply as a dominant or a submissive, for example, would definitely consider that identity as sexual orientation, someone who does not fall as easily or completely into one of those categories may not either. Kink is just as complex as queer.

To get more specific, it might be useful to turn to another one of the quotes you made in your earlier article to clarify this point. You say: “Generally, like on the broad cultural level, I do think that the fact that more women than men tend to have submission fantasies (even those that don’t identify as submissives) is related to the way we’re socialized to understand sexuality.” I don’t think that this statement is correct. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that an equal number of men are sexually submissive as women. However, they are much less likely to discuss it/be open about it, even with those closest to them, but that does not mean that they do not identify that way. Approximately the same number of people in both genders identifies as dominant or submissive, though the way that they choose to express/pursue that and to what degree of openness does depend a lot on gender. Male and female submissives face very different issues, and are critiqued in completely different ways by the dominant culture, but are submissive in equal numbers.

Maya: Yes, tell me more! What is the research out there? As I was writing the piece, when I was thinking about those rape fantasies she cites (which are ALWAYS brought up), at one point I literally googled, “Do men have rape fantasies?” to see if that’s even something people have asked. ‘Cause I’m sure they do.

Natalie: In terms of research, there is no one, broad study that has been done that definitively proves whether women or men are more likely to have submissive fantasies. The first place to look, however, is the amount of writing that exists, online and off, that deals with submission. Plus, while men absolutely do have rape fantasies, and rape fantasies and BDSM are intertwined, certainly, they are not the same thing. Many lifelong bottoms/submissives don’t have anything approaching a rape fantasy, whereas many people only casually interested in the scene (or who do not identify as kinky at all) have rape fantasies.

I don’t think that equating rape fantasies with BDSM is helpful or accurate, because there is so much going on there beyond the idea of forced sex. Power exchange does not equal rape, or even the performance or seeming of rape. The crux of every BDSM interaction is consent. This may mean that it appears one partner has given up consent, and may behave/vocalize as if they have, but in the end it is always the submissive who is in control of the situation, and this makes it profoundly different from assault of any kind.

Maya: Totally. And that’s another thing I felt like Roiphe completely ignored in her sweeping generalizations about “submission fantasies.” The actual practice of BDSM is such a deliberate, intentional thing with these well-thought-out rules about consent–that we could all stand to learn from. So when you say men and women are equally sexually submissive, are we talking about people who “profoundly identify” as submissive/dominant as you say above, or just the general population in (largely) straight, vanilla relationships? I mean, I’d definitely believe that even within the latter, more men have submission fantasies than we’re led to believe–or maybe than they’re willing to admit given the rigid expectations of traditional masculinity?

Natalie: Based on my own experience in the kink community (man, I wish there were more surveys I could point to with, you know, numbers in them), men and women express their dominant/submissive sexuality in equal rates. I’m honestly not sure how this works out in the general population. But, for example, this study suggests that men and women both tend to really like submission fantasies and this fascinating bit of research indicates that in the UK BDSM scene more that half (60%) of hetero males in the scene identified as submissive.

It may be harder for a man who generally accepts a straight/vanilla sexual identity to reconcile with submissive impulses than it is for a woman. I am not a submissive man, so I don’t feel entirely comfortable speaking for a demographic I don’t identify with, but I will tentatively venture that. It may also be more difficult for a woman who has some dominant impulses to accept the generally submissive role expected of her. There are inherent challenges in either position because of gender expectation. For example, this is a great piece about male submissives and female dominants and how societal expectations affect the BDSM community too.

Maya: Yeah, I guess that’s more what I was trying to say, but didn’t successfully, in that line: That because of the way we’re socialized to understand (hetero) sexuality, it makes sense that women might be more comfortable exploring their submission fantasies–that’s what they’re “supposed to” like after all. (Again, speaking about a non-kinky context here.)

Natalie: I do think that you have a point here, at least as it applies to the general population. But, again, I think this falls away a bit when it comes to people who have embraced their kinky identity as their sexual orientation.

I think the thing that needs to be communicated the most clearly is: BDSM is a sexual orientation, not a sexual pathology. For some people, just as being gay can be the cornerstone of their sexuality, so BDSM can be the cornerstone of sexuality for many others. Acknowledging kink as a full-fledged sexual orientation is the key to de-stigmatizing it, and writing from that perspective is the most useful, inclusive and healthy. Kink must be regarded as a sexual orientation, just as valid as someone being straight, gay or anything else. It needs to be de-pathologized.

This is a brilliant article by a counsellor, not a kinky person, who also thinks that this is an important idea. The whole article is great, but I think this part is very, very important:

If we think of BDSM as a sexual orientation then what are the implications of this? The following is a rough list.
• BDSM is not proof of some kind of emotional damage (e.g. trauma or abusive parenting)
• People cannot be counselled or otherwise ‘treated’ out of being into BDSM
• People should not be discriminated against for being into BDSM
• People are not in some way ‘ill’ if they are into BDSM
• People are not in some way ‘bad’ if they are into BDSM

As soon as we can make that shift, and start thinking about BDSM as a sexual orientation, we’ll be able to discuss topics around kink with a lot more respect and dignity.

Once we can become comfortable with the idea that BDSM, and all the various permutations and possibilities for identity within that, is a sexual orientation, then we can also begin to appreciate this orientation for the positivity inherent within it. Once we stop regarding BDSM as something dark, something unhealthy practiced only by damaged people, it will be possible to see the joy and pleasure possible within this orientation. In my own life, and in the lives of those close to me who have (some after a long and difficult struggle) embraced their kinky orientation, exploring and finally embracing an identity withing BDSM has been a source of incredible peace and happiness. As an “out” kinky person, I feel I am being true to my identity, that I am taking care of my needs and my mental health, and that I am being honest with my partners about who I am. I am a happier, whole, complete person within this identity. Once we can get past the sensationalist ideas that pervade popular culture about what it must mean to be a kinky person, we can see how wholesome and healthy and good it is as well. It is my hope that, as more and more discussions like this happen, and more honest material (silly books included :) ) get published and discussed on the topic, BDSM will be demystified and ultimately seen for the life-affirming and celebratory identity that it can be.

Natalie Zina Walschots lives, writes and wreaks havoc in Toronto, Ontario. Once a scholarly, bookish young woman, she now spends most of her time permanently damaging her liver and her hearing, working as a freelance rock critic specializing in heavy metal. Natalie writes for Hellbound.ca, Alternative Matter, Angry Metal Guy, This Is Not A Scene, About Heavy Metal and Exclaim!. She is the Managing Editor of Canada Arts Connect Magazine, where she also writes the column “Girls Don’t Like Metal.” She has recently joined THIS Magazine as the new Reviews Editor. Natalie recently founded Golden Spruce Entertainment, a promotions company specializing in heavy music.

Natalie earned her MA in English/Creative Writing at the University of Calgary. Her first book of poetry, Thumbscrews, won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and was published by Snare Books in 2007. Thumbscrews is a poetic exploration of the poetics of sadomasochism. Her newest book, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains was published by Insomniac Press in Spring 2012. Her poetry has recently appeared in Matrix, dead gender, Carousel, broken pencil, The Peter F. Yacht Club, dANDelion, ditch, Last Supper, Misunderstandings Magazine, and Open Letter. She writes poetry about S&M, comic books, video games, gastroporn, and difficult music.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted May 9, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for having a great conversation about this and exploring the topic honestly with no one trying to prove their point over the other person. I wish this could happen more often. *imagining the election with actual discussions occurring*

    Love it and just wanted to give you applause for it.

  2. Posted May 9, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    I just wrote a post in response to this interview and my thoughts on the whole kinky-as-an-orientation issue (which are a bit too messy to include in a comment box)

    http://marginaldialogue.blogspot.com/2012/05/this-is-why-being-kinky-is-different.html

    • Posted May 9, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Wendy!

      • Posted May 10, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        You’re very welcome! Thanks for giving me a space to do so! I really appreciate feministing’s continuing coverage of this issue as it has unfolded.

  3. Posted May 9, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I liked the interview a lot, since it erased a lot of misconceptions on BDSM (especially the whole “wow those people are messed up/abusive childhoods etc”, which I’ve never met anyone in the scene that recalled me to personally that’s why they’re a kinkster).
    As for the submissive male image in BDSM, it’s certainly rare. I recall the dungeon I was at once having all female submissive art on the walls, and not a tied up dude to be found. Much sadness. (My personal preference is now obvious, haha).

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