September 17, 2012

50 Shades of Obsessing with Spanking

The current Fifty Shades of Grey mania has apparently gotten more women into spanking lately. Sex-toy shops gleefully report an increase in sale of bondage toys; even hardware stores are reporting an influx of new customers — mostly women — shopping for rope.

People are drawn to bondage for all sorts of reasons. In our stressed out culture, surrendering control can appear highly appealing. Others might be drawn to it because a blindfold and intenser sensations can help them focus. Some may be drawn to it as a path of psychological transformation. And to some it may be a fetish that stems from childhood experiences of abuse

What we conceive of as erotic often stems from childhood experiences or simply living in the culture we live in. I recently returned from Oslo, Norway where I attended the annual Cupido Festival for health professionals working with sex related issues. Two leading professors of sexology, one a medical doctor and therapist, the other a psychologist, presented a talk on how erotic fantasies and fetishes are formed, essentially reiterating this point. "'Patterns of desire' can be developed through everyday life and experience; through pleasure; or through trauma and pain ('forced learning'). Based on cultural values and practices, some patterns of desire are more common, others less so."

There is no wonder women and men today are turned on by power and submission. It's how sex and the relationship between the sexes have been conceived for thousands of years.

But today, we strive for a gender equal society. And so my concern is that if we do not pause to consider what feeds these fantasies of power and submission, we may end up blindly perpetuating the gender stereotypes that these fantasies thrive on.

So how do we move forward?

What intrigues me is how some of the female porn makers I look at in my book After Pornified: How Women Are Transforming Pornography & Why It Really Matters appropriate and play with power and submission fantasies. In consensual play with erotic fantasies, no matter how stereotypical and cliché, we do not bind ourselves to the fantasy but free ourselves from its hold, creating room for something different.

Where perhaps domination and submission is replaced by power as a creative energy. Where erotic fantasies feed on new understandings of gender that do not rest on old-fashioned gender stereotypes that cast women as submissive and passive and men as dominant and active.

What concerns me about Fifty Shades of Grey is that it lacks a more reflective, playful approach to power and submission, instead blindly reinforcing old-school stereotypes about gender and romantic clichés, as I've noted in my New porn by women blog and as Kaitie Roiphe pointed out in her much-noted Newsweek cover story that I quote here. (There are also other problematic messages about domination and submission in the book that I address in this post. As others have said, the book isn't intended to teach people about BDSM. That said, if this book is readers' first exposure to it, well, then there is in a sense a lot of responsibility on it now.)

At the Cupido Festival, I also presented Cupido's first Film Award which I curated, nominating six of the films I talk about in my book. The short film "Handcuffs" directed by Erika Lust won. Interestingly, it features domination and submission — but not without a notable amount of clever playfulness.

(This article was originally posted at The Buzz: Good Vibrations Online Magazine.)

Check out Pandora Blake's lucid response to my article at her site Dreams of Spanking:
The distinction Quizzical Mama makes between "active/passive" and "dominant/submissive" is an important one. One of the stories I've been trying to tell in a lot of my recent films is that of active submission, self-determined submission, submission that's sought out by an empowered, self-aware individual because it brings them happiness. Submission doesn't have to be imposed from outside; consensual submission is the free choice of an independent agent, who benefits enough from it to continually re-make that choice.

Likewise, I'm passionate about re-modelling dominant and submissive as roles that are detached from physical sex and gender identity. Dominance can be feminine, and it doesn't have to look like the latex-clad stereotype, either. Submission can be masculine, and honourable, and brave, whatever your gender. And both roles can be complex, layered, interleaved. The same person can be both, and do both at different times, or at the same time in different ways.

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