Penny Red: "Right now, we are in the middle of a sexual counter-revolution"
Like a great many wealthy, important men throughout history, Rousseau was a humiliation slut. He loved to have women boss him around in bed. He was also a flasher, and liked to moon unsuspecting ladies in the street and then prostrate himself for punishment. Nobody has ever suggested that this meant that the great enlightement philosopher secretly wished men didn’t run the world. In fact, Rousseau had some very specific things to say about women’s place in the social order. “Woman was specifically made to please man," he wrote in "Emile." "If man ought to please her in turn, the necessity is less direct. His merit lies in his power...If woman is made to please and to be subjugated to man, she ought to make herself pleasing to him rather than to provoke him."
Kink has been part of the sexual menu for so long that it’s hard to pretend anyone is shocked anymore when it turns up on the table. The practice of male masochism, for example, has become almost idiomatic when one is discussing Wall Street workers, or the British aristocracy - despite Rousseau and De Sade, the French still refer to sadomasochism as ‘La Vice Anglais.’
At no point, however, has anyone implied that men who want to be sexually dominated by women also want to be dominated by them socially and economically. Quite the opposite, if the long history of powerful men paying poor women to beat them up in backrooms is anything to go by. Apparently, though, a few smutty books about naughty professors wielding handcuffs are meant to prove that modern 'working women' (sic.) aren’t really as into all this liberation schtick as we make out.
In real life, men and women enjoy being bossed around in bed for lots of reasons - sometimes it might be about being punished, sometimes it might be about working out personal baggage, sometimes it might be about taking the break from all the responsibilities you have outside the bedroom, and sometimes it might just be about wanting someone else to do the work. And sometimes, yes, it might be about wanting to experience sex without having to take responsibility for your own desires - it’s not as if we live in a culture where women who want to have sex are encouraged to have it in a shame-free way. Both Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, the teen series the adult erotic novel was based on, are fantasies of pursuit, of the responsibility for sexual agency being entirely in the hands of a man, who desires the point-of-view-protagonist completely.
In a culture where women who express sexual agency are punished, humiliated and threatened with real rather than ritualised violence, that sort of fantasy is entirely comprehensible. What is more significant is that submission - alongside, from time to time, sex work - is the only kind of female sexual ‘unorthodoxy’ that is currently deemed worthy of discussion - unorthodoxy trussed up tight by the bondage tape of patriarchal expectations. Unorthodoxy that happens to involve fantasies of being dominated by men. Unorthodoxy practiced exclusively, if we go by the ‘examples’ Roiphe’s investigation turns up, by women who are young, and white, and straight, and middle-class, and, most importantly, fucking fictional.
Female sexual submission has never really been shocking. Right now, we are in the middle of a sexual counter-revolution. The backlash is on against even the limited amount of erotic freedom women have won over fifty years of hard campaigning: abortion and birth control are under attack, sexual health clinics are kitted out with bomb detectors and staffed by doctors who come to work wearing bullet-proof vests, and a fully-grown woman is denounced as a slut and a whore by male commentators across America by suggesting as part of a congressional hearing that yes, she may once or twice have had intercourse for pleasure rather than procreation. And until very recently, Rick Santorum, a man who considers contraceptives morally wrong, was a semi-serious contender for leader of the free world.
The sexual heresies that truly upset the pearl-clutchers of middle America have nothing to do with whips and chains. That’s just faux-outrage, a bit of editorial baiting designed to upset feminists and titillate everyone else who likes to get cross and horny over the idea of dirty little girls tied up with tape.
No, what really gets social conservatives angry still happens not in swanky fetish clubs, but behind the closed doors of abortion clinics. It’s women who want to be able to choose to terminate a pregnancy. Women who want to control their own fertility. Women who want sexual autonomy, which is what any attack on abortion rights is fundamentally about. Women who want to live independently or raise children without the help of men. Women who want sex on its own merit, whether it comes wrapped in black bondage rope or scattered with rose petals.
Female sexual autonomy itself is what’s really unorthodox today. Agency and self-determination, the right to own our own desire - those are the kind of forbidden fantasies women across the world still pant over in private, unable to pronounce for fear of being slut-shamed. As Rousseau might put it : “Whether the woman shares the man's desires or not, whether or not she is willing to satisfy them...the appearance of correct behavior must be among women's duties.”