A trend spotter’s guide to female desire
"A taste for the erotics of power difference can just as easily translate to a desire to dominate as a desire to submit."
If there’s one thing we journalists love more than a good trend story, it’s a trend story pertaining to what people like to do with their genitals. The latest? Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story on the mainstreaming of BDSM in popular culture, and what it reveals about women’s secret desires to be dominated.
If you haven’t already seen it, it goes something like this. An erotic novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, shoots to the top of the international bestseller lists with a bang. It’s like Twilight, but with less Mormanism and more sex: the male lead is a sensitive sadist, the female lead a blushing virgin who loves him unreservedly. At around the same time, a bunch of US commentators have published books about women’s increased social and economic empowerment.
Ergo, female dominance in the boardroom has spawned a renewed desire for submission in the bedroom. Maybe, Roiphe wonders, women aren’t so comfortable with freedom after all: sexual equality means taking responsibility for one’s desires, and responsibility is scary. Finally - and you knew this one was coming - feminism is probably to blame. If not for causing female sexual submission, then for trying to quash it.
So far, so simplistic. But the numbers don’t lie - with Roiphe’s article at 2200 Facebook shares and counting, sexual trend spotting makes for big business. Want to give it a try yourself? First, you’ll need to make some sweeping generalisations: what a popular novel, for example, reveals about the fantasies of “working women” or, as an article in the UK Times declared, how “no one” (literally no one!) “under the age of 40 seems to have pubic hair”. Second, you should avoid doing too much actual research to prove your claims – forget the joke that “three examples makes a trend”, and instead try no interviews with flesh and blood human beings at all. Third, it must have broader implications. Your story isn’t about a single erotic novel, cult TV show, or video you saw on YouTube, but about the dark and hidden underbelly of human sexuality. Et voila! Instant internet traffic gold.
If you’re anything like me, your instinctive response to articles like the above is probably to roll your eyes or close your internet browser. But sexual trend spotting is difficult to dismiss out of hand, for the very reasons it is so seductive. We live in the midst of a near-constant pop culture dialogue around sexuality, but most people know very little about the facts of other people’s sex lives. And we especially don’t talk about those aspects of our desires that make us feel vulnerable, or that we fear might mark us out as “different” to the people around us... whether that’s our desire to be dominated (so anti-feminist!), or our complete lack of interest in sex that is infused with the power dynamics Roiphe’s Newsweek salivates over (so repressed!).
But if it’s difficult to prove articles like Roiphe’s wrong, it’s more difficult still to prove them right. Roiphe points to a 2008 study showing that “between 31 percent and 57 percent of women entertain fantasies where they are forced to have sex”, but there is no indication that those numbers have gone up as women have climbed the career ladder. Roiphe never bothers to speak to any of the two million plus women who have purchased Fifty Shades of Grey to find out why they like the book. Nor do we ever hear from women who prefer to play a submissive role between the sheets, to find out how that fantasy translates (or doesn’t) to reality. Her analysis is all conjecture; the only woman it tells us anything about is Roiphe herself.
Which isn’t to say that she’s alone in her preoccupations – far from it. Over the past two years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of men and women about their sex lives. Among them, there have been plenty of women who fit Roiphe’s descriptions in one way or another. Women for whom BDSM is an orientation as central to their sense of sexual self as hetero or homosexuality. Women for whom submission is an equal or greater thrill than orgasm. Women who, as Roiphe puts it, are “more comfortable being wanted than wanting”. I’ve also spoken to plenty of women who tick none of those boxes at all. It’s shocking, I know, but women’s sexuality isn’t a “one size fits all” game. (Nor is men’s, but that’s another story.)
More to the point, ticking one of those boxes doesn’t mean ticking them all… or ticking them in the ways that Roiphe imagines. A taste for the erotics of power difference can just as easily translate to a desire to dominate as a desire to submit. Wanting to be “overcome” does not always mean ceding control: within the kink community, it’s well known that the dominant partner may play at ruling the roost, but it is the submissive partner who has the ultimate say in which acts do and don’t go ahead.
Like most sexual trend spotters, Roiphe positions herself as the renegade teller of “truths” the rest of us are too afraid to deal with. But ultimately, her message is a conservative one: more concerned with reinforcing stereotypes than challenging them.