I remember so very clearly the first time I asked someone to hit me in bed – I was sixteen, I was dreadfully in love, and it opened up strange realms of possibility that, in fact, took me years to unravel. Desire is a complex creature, and for self-identified young feminists, it can be difficult to reconcile bodily imperatives with strongly-held beliefs.
I recently read Alex Hoyt’s story ‘I Hit Her – And She Liked It’, from Melissa Gira Grant and Megan O’Connell’s self-published wonder Coming & Crying, and was surprised at the amount of controversy it raised. Personally, I found it extremely touching, and opened up an important dialogue about sexual violence, the eroticisation of male dominance and female submission, and consensual kink/BDSM. I’ll be the first to say that non-consensual sexual violence is terrifying – domestic abuse and sexual assault is a serious issue. However, it has to be set apart from sexual preference. I also know from personal experience that given the stigmatisation of BDSM, fetish and kink, it is the lack of education about consent in relation to alternative sexualities that leads to negative representations and views of these practices in the media, or perhaps, more importantly, in our own minds and hearts.
Reconciling my feminism with my sexual preferences has been a constant struggle. I remember the multiple times I read and re-read Catharine MacKinnon’s essays on the patriarchal forces that constructed our notions of sexuality, the guilt I felt when I was tied down for the first time, and loved it. I remember hiding scars from bloodplay under my sleeves as I attended Feminist Philosophy classes and argued with my professor about how intercourse couldn’t be essentially violating. And all through this, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt that I indulged in sexual activity that seemed entirely contingent on my own subjugation, that I was somehow a ‘bad feminist’ for being so weak as to give in to societal constructions in my most vulnerable place – in bed. But what I eventually realised was that every part of our lives is implicated in existing ideologies – it’s how our choices in negotiating them that are most important. Sure, perhaps the way we desire exemplifies sexism, but it’s our awareness of these constructs, and our employment of agency that’s important. Not what we desire, but how we perform these desires, and the egalitarian contexts within which we perform them – it’s about, as always, choice. ‘She was in charge of that captioning, and made the choice according to a story I couldn’t hear.’ After all, if structures and societies are rigid, it’s us who are flexible, and doesn’t everybody want to turn the rules over and fuck them in the ass?
Alex Hoyt’s story, to me, celebrates the unyielding power of consent – the joy of mutual sexual exploration and the existence of multifaceted sexualities. It’s a beautiful story that tracks the incremental desires that creep into a partnership, notes the affection that comes with simultaneous discovery, and the interchange that allows for a unique intimacy between two people. And what’s wonderful about it is the communication between the two – it’s making choices together, and working towards a common goal – pleasure. What’s sexy here is not domination, or submission (although that certainly is a part of it), what’s sexy is making the other person feel, discovering what makes their breath catch and their eyes glaze. The reality here isn’t rooted any kind of oppression; the reality is the bite of a raised pulse in your wrist, the feeling of vastness expanding through your cells. The reality here, is caring about another person, their wants and needs. It’s about two people extending each other beyond a normative plane of being. It’s about turning established symbols of the patriarchy into fire, and destroying them in the process.
Of course, I’m not underplaying the importance of safety – and neither does Hoyt – his partner tells him when he goes too far, and they discuss how far they’re going to go before they do. ‘Only she can show you where and what to hit. In this setting, your sexual vocabulary expands because of your partner’s needs, not your own.’ It’s the ultimate sexual agency, and it’s the combination of agency and consent that lead to a safe sexual experience, whether vanilla or kinky. It’s just that in a situation like Hoyt’s, the physical stakes are much higher. And of course, accidents can always happen, but if you check, at ever level, that like he did, that things are still consensual, the risks become much smaller. I know I certainly got lazy at one point – my partner shattered my eardrum with a slap to the face, totally accidentally, but from then on we played a lot safer, and a lot more enjoyably. After all, there’s no evading the rule, and the only rule is – go slow, and communicate. I can’t stress enough how education about how to play safely is crucial, and rarely addressed when you’re a teen – Amy Marsh recently wrote an article on how parents can teach kids about how to engage in kinky sex safely and consensually. I certainly wish that I had been told about getting regularly tested before I started engaging in bloodplay, that some of my partners had been told that if they were going to make me so physically open like that, they also had to close me up emotionally.
Being a submissive is vulnerable position that one chooses to put themselves in, and it can be intensely rewarding. But it is also a mutual one where you have to ensure you establish trust with your partner, keep hold of your agency, and communicate. And I can tell you, after that, it’s only fire.