6th Jun 2012
Let’s Talk About the Marquis de Sade and Domineering Sex
Happy belated birthday to the Marquis de Sade. The pioneer of sexual libertinism and champion of powerful female sexuality, right? Wrong.
I am not a radical feminist, I am without a doubt sex-positive, so therefore I am happy to trust my interpretation of de Sade’s works as those of a misogynistic pervert.
My answer to the topical question ‘Can one be a feminist and be topped/dominated in the bedroom?’ is yes. Yes, yes, yes … oh god yes! Unless, of course, you happen to be so unfortunate as to exist in a de Sade novel. If that’s the case, then you’re screwed (no pun intended).
Justine is the victim of a Sadist – forced into a sexual submissive role wherein she is routinely humiliated. She is the passive female sex object born of the same position from which men can justify fantasies of rape and domination in a non-consensual context.
Juliette, on the other hand, is the object of male degradation. She’s the dirty girl who needs to be taught a lesson. She is sexually deviant and as such she is a symbol of warped eroticism. She has a ferocious sexual appetite, which is presented in context with her fondness for murder and infanticide.
The characters are symbols of misogynistic male sex fantasies and neither of these women symbolise healthy, female sexual agency. And it’s something we still see in contemporary erotic fiction.
This influx of the ‘mummy porn’ genre which implies that all women subconsciously want, or more to the point need, to be given a good seeing to is decidedly not feminist. Contemporary heterosexual erotic fiction still fetishes this imbalance of power, which invariable leans towards the man.
I’m specifically thinking of Fifty Shades of Grey here, where the male/female balance of power is totally skew-whiff. Christian Grey is a male billionaire, with extensive sexual experience and strong desire to dominate, whereas Anastasia is a young, college graduate with no sexual experience, totally void of economic self-sufficiency. She is cast in the role of the submissive by circumstance. Not through desire.
In my opinion, the question of feminism and sexual agency depends upon a sense of awareness. In a sexual context, the balance of power first has to be equal and acknowledged; only then can the power be consensually tipped in which ever direction floats your boat.
Some radical feminists would most certainly disagree with me here, suggesting that the balance of power can never be equal; that heterosexual sex is embedded in a domination system which we are inherently a part of, and through which our roles have already been assigned.
But, I’m not sure I buy that theory. I’m much too attached to the concept of free will and being in charge of my own life.
The inclination to write the heterosexual female submissive as a product of an inherent inability to resist the manly masculine man with his ‘throbbing member’ is ridiculous. It removes any kind of individual desire and authoritative choice.
I propose this: instead of seeing hetero female sexual submission as an uncontrollable reaction to male awesomeness (*cough*) how about instead saying ‘I like to be dominated because of what it does for me. It’s nothing to do with your amazing masculine allure and my inability to resist your super-duper penis. It’s because I like it when you spank me, and it makes me come’?
The tendency of fiction to fetishise the gendered and unequal distribution of power is detrimental to understandings of sex roles and choices.
De Sade’s works, and the contemporary controversy surrounding them, give tremendous insight into eighteenth century gender norms, ideas of expected sexual behaviours, and male fantasy, which from a historical perspective is so useful.
Unfortunately it seems that modern erotic fiction has barely made any advances. The genre still perpetuates these ideas of meek, passive women who succumb to men rather than actively wanting to be in a submissive role. It’s 2012. This needs to be rectified. Any takers?