For a while now, I’ve been tempted to write off my closet S & M fetish to some kind of academic interest in power relations. After all, my brief foray into the comparative literature major provided me with all of the intellectual resources required for the defense of such a position. Following contemporary academia’s lead, I could foist everything onto the Foucauldian legacy and an attendant series of obscure but ultimately meaningless terms of art—I’m just problematizing hegemony (?), queering binaries (?), and rejecting complicity with negative biopolitics via the specific intellectual exploration of handcuffs and gagballs (??). Such a move would eliminate, if not resolve, most of the ideological conflicts that plague me as I lie awake each night, thirsting for unspeakable humiliations that I, a professed feminist, cannot in good and unembarrassed conscience bring myself to explicitly enumerate.
But, like any good philosophy major, I have a tendency-bordering-on-compulsion to overanalyze the fuck out of my own inclinations until I find a satisfactory answer to the question of the hour—namely, how and if I can reconcile my strong feminist convictions with my dreams of sexual degradation. Empty theoretical posturing and generic appeals to ‘power relations’ aside, I’m in desperate search of a real solution to my own hypocrisy.
As one of a few women in a male-dominated field, I spend the vast majority of my sexless hours trying to prove myself as a philosopher. Time and time again, I’ve announced my intention to pursue a PhD in the field, only to encounter furrowed brows. In hushed, confidential, and urgent tones, my mentors have regaled me with cautionary tales of sexual assault, unfairly assessed dissertations, and other chauvinistic slights.
So I’ve tried my best to present myself as an intellectual force to be reckoned with—to overcome the inherent handicap of my femininity and to earn the respect I believe I deserve. In classes where other girls were silent, I spoke assertively and often; at costume parties, I dressed as (an admittedly scantily clad) Hannah Arendt; in general, I do my utmost to demonstrate to both the philosophical community and the world at large that I’m no damsel in existential distress. No, I’m a fairly competent metaphysician with goals, ambitions, and a serious interest in solving the hard problem of consciousness. I have the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy bookmarked, and I regularly browse the academic philosophy and neurophilosophy subreddits. Take me seriously, world.
What’s more, I’m a self-identified feminist, and I’m about as liberal as they come:
I’m anti-slut-shaming, and I’m pro-consent; I’m convinced that gender is a construct and that sexuality is fluid; I take issue with gendered language, I drunkenly rant about the patriarchy on a semi-regular basis, I own not one but two copies ofGender Trouble, and I’m Kristeva’s biggest fan grrl.
And yet. My sexual fantasies extend beyond the sphere of the relatively tame and understandable, beyond handcuffs and blindfolds, and into the realm of the offensive, objectifying, and, frankly, disgusting: I want to be slapped, gagged, and bruised; I want to be called a slut and a stupid whore; if ever I protest, I want to be cursorily dismissed; I want to be cum on, abused, and disrespected; worst of all, I want my sexual partners to ignore my refusals, to forcibly pry my legs apart, and to stuff my head into a pillow while they fuck the shit out of me.
It’s not so much physical as it is ideological. I want to tear down the elaborately constructed façades that I’ve erected, to indulge my most supine and vulnerable self; I want to abandon the self-sufficiency I’ve worked so hard to achieve and cede my being to another person, if only for a moment; I want the release to which I can never, ever succumb in my daily life, where every moment is a small scholastic trial; I want to forget that my sexual partners are outside of myself, that they too are a judgmental audience whom I must impress and for whom I must perform; I want to incorporate their desires into myself so thoroughly that I am entirely relieved of the burden of self-consciousness; I want to forget that I am I and that they are they and instead direct my entire being towards a shared goal of collective pleasure; I want to enter into the experience of another person and, in so doing, leave myself and my fears behind me.
How can I justify this? How could I explain the seductive power of complete surrender to some sweet, vanilla lover intent on whispering sweet nothings into my impatient ear?
For one thing, I think, fetishism is uniquely humanizing: it removes the sex act from the realm of the purely carnal and places it squarely in a theoretical and therefore human domain, a domain that concerns not mere bodies but rather minds. Sadomasochism in particular functions not to deny but rather to recognize and even celebrate human subjectivity: it’s erotic precisely because it places value on the agency of that which it dominates. It is concerned with, perhaps even obsessed with, bending the will of that which it controls.
There’s nothing thrilling about exerting power over inanimate objects, over that which doesn’t and couldn’t resist. There is, however, something unprecedentedly arousing about coming to want what someone else wants, about adopting someone else’s desires. Therein lies a kind of inter-subjective communication that is far beyond the limits of actual language. I seek to submit to the terrifying—“for beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,” writes poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Contrary to common belief, sadomasochistic sex isn’t an act of self-sacrifice or self-denial. To me, at least, it’s almost an act of tenderness. I want someone to see me in the exposed, quivering, and fragile state that I am never otherwise comfortable revealing. I want toneed someone more than I’d normally dare to need anyone, and to confess the urgency and totality of my need in a basic and desperate way. I want to renounce the pride that pushes me towards overachievement and emotional detachment. I want to get down on my hands and knees and unabashedly beg.
Ultimately, what I want is to escape myself, to transcend my own anxieties and neuroses and compulsions. I want to be madeto do what I could never do on my own: literally and figuratively open the fuck up.