The intersection of performative masculinity/femininity and dominance/submission
A few posts back I discussed performative masculinity, and how to move beyond it. Today I want to discuss the difficulties posed by the intersection of expectations for males and females combined with expectations for dominants and submissives. I’ve hinted at this in previous posts, but here I want to address it head on. It’s difficult as a female dom or a male sub to figure out your own identity and your place in ‘the scene’ because your prescribed roles are in conflict. To be performatively feminine is to be submissive, and to be performatively masculine is to be dominant. By choosing or feeling yourself led to a place of feminine dominance or masculine submission, you are entering a no-man’s land where expectations are unclear and by your mere existence you are subversive. This is both a blessing and a curse.
Bottom: A bottom may be male or female. Within BDSM, the bottom is the partner who is the recipient of such acts as bondage, discipline (e.g. flogging) or humiliation. A top performs acts such as these upon the bottom. In the context of human sexual behaviour, especially anal sex among gay men, the bottom is the receiving partner, or a person who prefers the receiving role. However, the activities between a top and bottom need not include the sex act.Top: A top may be male or female. Within BDSM, the top is the giver of such acts as bondage, discipline (e.g. flogging) or humiliation upon their partner, usually a bottom. In the context of human sexual behaviour, especially anal sex among gay men, the top is the giving partner, or a person who prefers the giving/active role. However, the activities between a top and bottom need not include the sex act.
Dominant: As an adjective, “being” dominant is about exercising influence or control. Governing matters; being in charge. Predisposed to taking over and wanting to maintain power.
Submissive: As an adjective, “being” submissive is wanting to or being willing to submit to orders or wishes of another.
Switch: In BDSM, a switch is someone who participates in BDSM activities as both a top and a bottom, or possibly both a Dom and a sub. A switch will be the top on some occasions and the bottom on other occasions. Switches are very common; partners may switch roles based on mood, desire, or being with a different partner.
Let’s look at the ‘act like man box’, the ‘act like a woman box’, the ‘act like a dominant box’ and the ‘act like a sub box’. The first is mostly taken from Charlie Glickman’s ‘act like a man box‘, which was created through workshops wherein people were asked to describe a ‘real man’. I created the subsequent boxes based on what I think people are often saying when they tell someone to act more feminine, dominant, or submissive, respectively.
The BDSM Hierarchy
As you can see, how to act like a man neatly maps onto how to act like a dom, and how to act like a woman neatly maps onto how to act like a sub. In this way, heterosexual M/f couples (male dominant, female submissive) wherein the man is a sadist (enjoys giving pain), and the female a masochist (enjoys receiving pain) can easily perform their two roles flawlessly at the same time. This is exemplified by the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey. This book is able to be so easily consumed because it doesn’t trample on anyone’s preconceived notions of what it means to be male or female, dominant or submissive. The M/f couple then, can be at the top of the BDSM hierarchy, with the male dominant on top of course because he’s dominant (and dominants are supposed to be superior).
Where do female dominants and male submissives land in this hierarchy? Female dominants get a higher place in the BDSM hierarchy than male submissives because even though they are stepping outside of the ‘act like a woman box’ 1) they too are dominants, which are intrinsically better than submissives according to our boxes, and 2) they are taking on masculine traits, which lifts their status rather than lowers it. Therefore, the hierarchy is topped by male dominants, then female dominants, then female submissives, and then male submissives. The latter group find themselves at the bottom of the heap because, like female dominants, they cannot reconcile their two roles, but unlike femdoms their new role takes them down a peg rather than boosting them up the ladder. The fact that their desires and behavior go outside of the ‘act like a man box’ threatens all men who are concerned with performing masculinity, but particularly dominant ones. It makes them more aware of the man box, and more dedicated to staying inside of it. In fact, most people who are not dominant women (or dominant gay men) are disconcerted by them because they are willingly forsaking their privileged role. In this way, submissive men are devalued. This is why male submissives end up as the ultimate joke, as we see in Pulp Fiction: they make everyone who is performing their gender uncomfortable.
It seems the F/m couple get the short end of the stick, but this doesn’t have to be the case. While an M/f couple might easily fall into their roles since the prescriptions for both their sex and their power dynamic are in line, an F/m couple is forced to more carefully pick and choose what they want. As an analogy, the M/f couple are able to pick out a suit from a rack at a store. It might not fit them perfectly, but it fits well enough that they don’t really notice the imperfections, or they make a few minor adjustments. The F/m couple on the other hand, is an entirely unconventional shape. They have to go to a bespoke tailor because nothing on the rack fits. Going bespoke costs more emotionally and psychologically. However, in the end, they come out with a suit that fits perfectly. An M/f couple is able to lead an unexamined life, for the F/m couple, that is nearly impossible.
Throwing out the bad
Trying to ‘act like a female’ and ‘act like a dominant’ at the same time can lead to some strange combinations that can be dissatisfying to those involved. I’ve mentioned before the frigid ice queen archetype who maintains her lack of sexual desire, but combines it with sadism and controlling her partner’s orgasm (often giving him none). This is fine if it’s what a woman actually wants, but all too often it is construed as how a dominant woman is supposed to behave. Even in non-kinky contexts women are told that in order to maintain control over their man, they need to withhold sex. I find this idea repugnant, and in my experience it is simply false. I have sex with my submissives early and often, and yet somehow they still do exactly what I tell them to. It’s almost as if their desire for sex isn’t the only thing that dictates their behavior! I have explained before that I would never put my submissive in permanent chastity because I enjoy riding his cock too much, and I know I’m not the only female dominant who has penetrative sex with her partner for fun. A woman only loses power when she has sex if her partner is a douchebag who thinks that sex is the only thing a woman has to offer and/or that a woman is spoiled goods once she’s been fucked. Why would a woman want to control a man who thinks either of those things? Many of the attributes in the ‘act like a woman box’ are ridiculous and should be (and fortunately are slowly being) discarded. This isn’t to say that a woman should want sex all the time, but rather, she shouldn’t feel like less of a woman if she does.
Similarly, trying to ‘act like a man’ and ‘act like a submissive’ can lead to some strange results too. For example, some men overcompensate by being an asshole (violent, competitive, and angry) to everyone but their dominant. This doesn’t solve any problems. Other men forsake the ‘act like a man box’ altogether and portray themselves as useless worms ripe for humiliation. As I’ve said before, and I’m sure I’ll say again, what fun is it bringing a man to his knees if he was never standing tall to begin with? Confidence and a comfort in one’s own skin are attractive traits in anyone, male or female, dom or sub. While we shouldn’t try to stay inside of our boxes, we also shouldn’t try to stay entirely outside of them because that can be equally limiting.
Keeping what works
Just like with the ‘act like a man box’, the best way to conquer all of these boxes is not by rejecting them flat-out, becoming the reciprocal of what the box indicates, but rather by picking and choosing what works for you. Rejecting the box can make one feel just as trapped as trying to conform to it. As Glickman describes,
They had to do everything that was inside the [Act Like a Man] Box. I couldn’t do anything that was inside the Box. They couldn’t show sadness or fear. I couldn’t show anger. They had to be aggressive. I became really passive. They had to make their needs come before other peoples’. I wouldn’t state my needs or desires, and I never let myself come first.
A woman doesn’t have to reject everything in the ‘act like a woman box’ in order to be dominant, and a man doesn’t have to reject everything in the ‘act like a man box’ in order to be submissive. Neither do they have to conform to everything in the ‘act like a dominant’ or ‘act like a submissive’ boxes. This applies to M/f, F/f, and M/m couples too, but I will be focusing on what this looks like in the context of an F/m relationship.
Many women enjoy conforming to the ‘act like a woman box’ to some extent, and want to maintain that femininity while being dominant. Similarly, many submissive men like being masculine in some respects. For example, a female dominant might enjoy being nurturing, romantic and wearing make-up most days. None of these things are actually in conflict with being dominant, so have at it! Some submissive men might like being muscular, assertive, and decisive. This doesn’t actually prevent them from obeying their dominant, so there’s no conflict. The same goes for deciding how to be dominant and submissive. You say you like tying men up and jumping their bones, but don’t want to fuck them in the ass? Not a problem. You like both biting and being bitten? You’re both going to have some bruises to hide. The only thing that should dictate what happens within any D/s relationship is the interests and consent of the two (or three, or four, or more) people involved. Don’t let yourself get boxed in or boxed out.
Guidelines for making your own bespoke D/s relationship
Here are some guidelines for creating a D/s relationship that uniquely suits your own and your partner’s needs and desires. They are not necessarily meant to be followed in order. Many people, for example, only figure out what kind of D/s they are interested in after finding that someone else is interested in it. This list is not exhaustive, but can be applied to any relationship regardless of sex or orientation.
1) Identify what interests you about D/s. Is it the service aspect? Do you love suffering for someone else’s enjoyment? Does it make you hot when you tell someone what to do and they comply? Is your greatest fantasy having someone dictate what you wear and how you behave in order to please them (slave training)? Whatever the crucial part of your desires are, make sure these are being met by your partner, regardless of your role.
2) Find someone with interests that are similar or reciprocal to your own. Whether it’s online (Fetlife, CollarMe, Informed Consent, OK Cupid), at a munch, through a friend, or through your local polyamoury group, kinky people tend to be more comfortable with their whole selves when they can be with someone who accepts and appreciates all of them.
3) Don’t be afraid to experiment. Fascinated by bondage, but don’t know whether you want to tie or be tied? Try both! Your girlfriend says she’ll let you fuck her in the ass if you let her fuck you in the ass? Go for it!
4) Don’t let fear dictate your actions. As an example, if a man doesn’t want a plug in his ass because he’s afraid it will hurt or tear, that’s one thing. However, if he’s afraid that it will make him less of a man, that’s another. Being afraid of being less manly is equivalent to saying that being female is inferior to being male. Being afraid that it will make you gay is similar.There’s nothing wrong with being gay, so why should you be afraid that something would make you appear gay? Furthermore, liking things in your ass doesn’t make you gay. Avoiding things because you fear they will make you seem feminine, gay, or submissive reinforces sexism, homophobia, and domism.
5) Communicate, communicate, communicate. Have an ongoing conversation about your kinky likes and dislikes. They may evolve and change – in fact, they probably will.
6) Explore novel ways to have sex. No sex act is inherently dominant or submissive. Experiment with ways to keep the power dynamic even when doing something that ‘doms don’t do’. For example, giving a blow job might not seem very dominant at first, but when you add in a man begging you to lick them and begging you to come, you’d be amazed at how it’s magically transformed into a dominant act.
As Cat Stevens would say,
You can do what you want
The opportunity’s on
And if you find a new way
You can do it today
You can make it all true
And you can make it undo
Whether you’re male, female, trans, genderqueer, intersex, gay, straight, or pansexual, the way that you do D/s is up to you and those you play with. Don’t let boxes get in the way of your bedroom fun. Try to find your authentic desires, and don’t let your fears get in the way of realizing them. To do so is letting down not just yourself, but also others who would benefit from playing in a world without performative boxes.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to PWN, Edward, and my roomate for helping me edit this.
Posted on September 15, 2012, in Advice, D/s Relationships, discussion, Sex and Gender, Uncategorized and tagged act like a man box, domism, gender roles, masculinity, role essentialism. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.