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Submit: (verb, active)

There’s been a flurry of posts lately spurred by Ferns’ post here, in which she notes a trend in behavior:

“Well, if the submissive doesn’t want to do it, then a good dominant will understand and not make them.”

And what I have seen is that the ‘it’ in that statement extends to *everything*.

And her response to this attitude is:

“That’s great kids, but *how is that submission?!*“

The answer is simple and unambiguous. That behavior is not submission. The OED says that to submit is “to surrender oneself to judgment, criticism, correction, a condition, treatment, etc; to consent to undergo or abide by a condition, etc.” The behavior Ferns describes does not fit the bill. I’m not questioning that person’s right to identify as submissive, because identity is an aggregate of actions and paradigms and ideas that are not always exemplified in every act and that’s fine. If a person identifies as submissive but never submits, it might be worth asking if s/he might mean another word (fetishist, bottom, masochist) much the way you’d question someone who identifies as a vegetarian but eats meat regularly, but that’s a separate issue. My point here is that Ferns is absolutely right to look at this behavior and assert that it is not an act of submission.

Kink in Exile followed this up with her own response, centered around the (also completely correct) statement that “anything short of respecting your partner’s boundaries is coercion at best.”

Here I’m going to start making assumptions. I think Ferns was referring to something like the dictionary definition of submitting quoted above, and that her annoyance stems from the idea that if a person agrees to do something, either in a specific instance or as part of a relationship dynamic, deciding not to do that thing is not, and should not be called submission. She has pointed out before that this is how one breaks a D/s dynamic. Does a submitting partner have the right to say “no” to any and everything under the sun? You bet. But a dominant person is going to be justifiably upset if her submissive is going to continually ignore the conditions of the relationship he’s agreed to. Spouse and I don’t have a power dynamic, but if I say I’ll drive him to pick up his car from the shop and then wake up in the morning and decide I’d rather sleep an extra half hour, he’s going to be pissed the hell off. I agreed to do a thing. He made plans based on the fact that he trusts me to keep my word. Taking these agreements lightly will be damaging to any relationship . Are there extenuating circumstances? Sure. The response in those cases, in or out of a D/s context, is “This thing came up, and I feel it is legitimately more important than our agreement/it is now impossible for me to do what I said. I’m sorry.”

Kink in Exile seems to be responding to the idea of a dominant partner making or forcing a submissive to do something, which would of course be unethical. Expecting your partner to do what he says he will is healthy, even requisite for a trusting relationship. forcing or coercing him if he doesn’t follow through is violating consent and destructive to a relationship.

So my final assumption here is that the two of them aren’t quite talking about the same thing, that there may still be some disagreement but to me their ideas look quite compatible.

Then MayMay declared that “dominants are rapists.” It is flat-out appalling. I’ve read every post on their blog, I’ve agreed with much of what they say, and this post has me stepping back and questioning all of it because it so fundamentally fails to respect human agency that I see it as incommensurate with everything they purport to stand for.

I am not saying this as a sometimes-dominant person. If someone wants to say I’m a rapist for acts of dominance, you know what? Fine. It’s wrong, and it feeds the terror I have every single time I take the initiating role in a social context, sexual or not, but ultimately I don’t care. The accuser is not one of my partners, and my partners are the only people whose evaluation of my behavior with them matters. It’s wrong, but identities carry social stigma, and we learn to live with them: Bisexuals are sluts. Polyamorous folks are sluts. Kinky people are mentally ill. Dominants are rapists. After a while you start to tune it out, realize that people just don’t know what words mean and most of the time it just isn’t worth the effort of correcting them.

This one is worth correcting. Saying “dominants are rapists” denies those of us who have chosen to submit to a dominant partner the right to call it a choice. Defining dominants as rapists, without exception, means calling their partners victims, without exception. Calling someone a victim or a survivor without asking whether they consider themselves victims removes a level of self-efficacy, denies them autonomy. I really believe–or did–that Maymay’s goal was to prevent assault. I don’t see that here. I see a writing that minimizes the trauma of those of us who have been sexually assaulted, tells us that we don’t get to decide which events in our lives were rape. You may note that I refer to events, behaviors: I am not a survivor or victim of sexual assault. I am a person who has been sexually assaulted. A victim is an object (in the grammatical sense). A person is a subject. For someone who so consistently purports to support people who identify as submissive, he seems to be missing the mark in a bad way.

MayMay’s language doesn’t give people in relationships with dominants that agency. They are victims. Specifically rape victims, whether they consented or not, whether their submission is expressed sexually or not. The idea that someone who chooses to be in a relationship with a dominant loses the ability to determine whether his or her own submission is consensual or not is insulting and dehumanizing to those people. It’s telling me what I can and can’t consent to, as if I were a small child.

I see, sort of, where this is coming from. It’s still appalling. The problem is, consent (as I’ve written about before) is agreement given freely. Desire does not have any bearing on consent. It is often an associated factor but is neither necessary nor sufficient for consent. Harm does not have any bearing on consent. It is an often inversely associated outcome, and lack of consent is sufficient but not necessary for an action to cause harm. Conflating any of these things is dangerous, especially given that desire is rarely simple. It’s common to want and not want something at the same time, for a variety of reasons. Wanting an outcome of an act (making a partner happy, having clean floors, or both) is a valid reason to do an act one in no way enjoys (scrubbing floors).

The thing about submission that I find so appealing is that it’s an active process. Every time someone chooses to submit, it’s an affirmation that s/he values the relationship. Building a relationship involving acts of submission with a dominant person does not diminish that value. It certainly doesn’t make the dominant partner a rapist.

Replies on Twitter make it clear that maymay would prefer that I not engage them directly any further. I intend to respect that. Kink in Exile decided to leave the conversation in favor of privacy and tea, which sounds like the best idea ever right now. So what I’m going to do is this: if anyone chooses to comment on or ask about this issue on this blog or directly to my e-mail, I will respond. Outside of that–on Twitter, or anyone else’s blog, or what have you–I’m leaving it alone.

  1. October 28, 2013 at 2:05 am

    Firstly, I use “they,” not “he,” as my gender pronoun.

    Secondly, see my response here.

    • gingernic
      October 28, 2013 at 7:38 am

      Edited with use of appropriate pronoun. I apologize, that was highly inconsiderate.

  2. Sam
    October 29, 2013 at 12:44 am

    Rape isn’t a weapon you use to emotionally abuse everyone into agreeing with you. Neither is accusing others of gaslighting license to commit it yourself.

    Maymay’s answers reveal a lack of engagement – it’s all attack. They want your submission, but aren’t honest enough to seek it openly. No matter what you say, there must be victims and monsters. If there’s even a fear of rape, it will be encouraged to grow. The exact opposite of the healing process.

    How many victims will there be?

    When you humor the kind of abuse MayMay offers, when you engage it, as if it deserved a place at the marketplace of ideas, it’s allowing the kind of sexual abuse to occur, that many of us came to the BDSM community to escape in the first place. The kind where we’re told what turns us on is evil, and we are all sick. The kind where we are controlled by the desires of those who erase our thoughts, and substitute their own. The kind where we are silenced by shame.

    I didn’t fight to escape the horrors of my childhood, just to be dragged back in now…

    Neither did anyone else.

    • gingernic
      October 29, 2013 at 11:12 am

      *nod* I can’t get over the cognitive dissonance here. If someone truly believes that any exertion of control in a relationship is unethical and can’t be done with meaningful consent, surely that same person can’t attempt to exert control over others’ relationships?

      I’m certainly not trying to say that consent violations aren’t all too common, both in the kink community and outside of it, but the rapist/victim dichotomy is nowhere close to universal nor does it depend intrinsically on one’s identity as dominant or submissive. In my experience dominants are actually more careful to avoid coercive behavior, which probably reflects a fear of either being or being perceived as a sociopath or rapist. More than one male submissive, on the other hand, has failed to take “no” for an answer, once to the point that I had to ask a community leader to intervene. [note: anecdote =/= data. I’m not saying “male subs are coercive” or “dominants never rape”. The point here is that individuals either acquire consent or fail to do so, both in isolated situations and as habitual behavior]

  3. Isla Sinclair
    October 29, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    I’m kind of blown away by the reasoning that what all dominants truly deeply want, no really–to the point where they must never be allowed to try to fulfil sexual needs other than “give the sub cool experiences”–is to harm, nonconsensually control, manipulate, and destroy vulnerable people. Yes, clearly this is true! Just like how submissives all really honestly truly crave to have their civil rights stripped away and to live as someone else’s cowed chattel. Like maymay has been telling us that subs want for years–oh, no, wait. That’s the opposite of what they’ve said. That’s not what submissives want, or what being a sub means. So why on earth would it make sense to make the equally inaccurate statement dominants as a category are conscienceless rapists?

  4. October 29, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    I’m with you, Nic. If a sub only ever serves when they feel like it, then what exactly makes a D/s relationship different from a vanilla one?

    Being tied up isn’t submission in and of itself; it’s just bondage.

    Being hurt isn’t submission in and of itself; it’s just sadomasochism.

    Doing “degrading” things like kissing someone’s feet isn’t submission in and of itself; I’ve had guys insist on doing that even when I was specifically saying “No, I’m not into this, I don’t want it, get up.”

    The crux of submission is to give up control to someone else; to put another’s needs before one’s own. If a sub only does what’s fun for them, and only when they feel like it, there is no power being exchanged and therefore D/s relationship.

    I will add some codicils to this, though:

    a) I am not saying that a dominant automatically gains total dominion over a sub the moment they meet or decide to play or whatever. I’m saying the two parties need to talk and agree on which areas of the relationship, or of the sub’s life, the dominant will control. Maybe it’ll only be a matter of the dominant calling the shots in the bedroom or having final say on which restaurant they dine at. Maybe it’ll be total, constant micromanagement of everything a sub does, eats, wears, etc. But whatever the pair agrees to, they should, y’know…consistently do.

    b) If the agreed-upon dynamic turns out not to work as well as the people involved had anticipated, it’s okay for either of them to sit down and renegotiate. “Hey, I thought it would be cool to manage your finances but then I remembered I hate dealing with that shit. I’m gonna take that off my roster.” “Hey, I thought you micromanaging where I go every day would be great, but I’m going through a crunch time at work and sometimes they’ll need me to stay late; I have no say in this. I can’t afford to jeopardize my job, so I need to make work stuff an exception to this rule.” etc.

    c) I believe that a good submissive does their very best to stick to their agreements, but also that a good dominant knows when not to push. I love the idea of having a sub who cooks for me, for instance, but if he has the stomach flu I’m obviously not going to ask him to get out of bed and hobble over to the kitchen. And if I ask a sub to do something and there are extenuating circumstances I don’t know about, I’m okay with him saying “I’m really sorry but I can’t do that because ___.”

    d) If a sub isn’t getting what they want out of the relationship then they are of course welcome to either renegotiate the terms or leave.

    So I guess my stance isn’t so much “A sub has to do what they’re told no matter what!” but rather, “A sub should do their very, very best to hold to their agreements, and if they simply can’t, they need to say so.”

    And “Meh, I’m not in the mood right now” is not a valid excuse for slacking.

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