Even in the kink community, gender stereotypes are, at best, socially constructed.
Sexually submissive men get kind of a raw deal, culturally. They’re regarded as weak, as unmanly, they’re made into punchlines when they’re referred to at all, and even within the BDSM community, they often get regarded as losers because so many of them have a hard time getting a girlfriend, which we all know is a basic component of performing masculinity. One of the reasons cheesy kink gags in mainstream movies and TV are always femdom scenarios is because we’re conditioned to see a man submitting to a woman as intrinsically laughable, which is a pretty shitty deal when that’s what you’re sincerely into.
There’s another shitty deal involved, if you ask folks in kink: the domme deficit. It’s a perennial complaint in kink circles, the same old sad song we’ve all heard: there are way more straight male subs than there are straight female tops. A dominant woman is a rare, nigh-mythical creature, one that might be glimpsed from afar like a unicorn or downloaded off the internet like… well, like everything. It’s the internet.
Thing is, I’m pretty sure that’s not actually true.
The default, easy assumption in kink circles is that men tend to be dominant and women tend to be submissive. You even get some jackasses saying that women are naturally or intrinsically submissive, and pointing to things like the success of the faux-edgy 50 Shades of Grey as “proof”. By the same logic, the popularity of the NBA with men proves that men are naturally about 6’8″.
Lord knows male-dominant female-submissive is an easy set of roles for both partners to step into. There’s a whole set of cultural assumptions and narratives about tough, dangerous, aggressive men and soft, vulnerable, pliant women that will validate the hell out of those roles for you. I think that may be why they’re the first roles folks tend to experiment with in kink; when you’re unsure what you want or how to get it, it’s very easy to go with the plug-and-play option. And a lot of folks find all the fulfillment they want in those roles, which is great for them. Others tend to switch more as they get older and more comfortable in different roles, and some just never dig on maledom in the first place.
People tend to assume that the majority of those not into maledom are men who would really, really like some woman to control them, abuse them, and have her way with them, but they just can’t find one. Heaven knows I don’t deny those guys are out there, but I don’t think they constitute the majority of kinky folks unfulfilled by maledom fantasies, though.
Take another look at the photo at the top of this post. It’s from a stock photo website, and the great thing about stock photos is they’re a great visual record of “normal”, of conventional wisdom, of what folks vaguely assume everyone knows. A stock photo of a white man in a blue shirt will be labeled “man in blue shirt” and a stock photo of a black man in the same shirt will be “black man in blue shirt” because our culture vaguely assumes that white is normal. So right up there, that thin, tanned, busty lady with no face and a black leather corset is what you get when you search for “dominatrix”. That’s not to criticize the hardworking folks at Shutterstock, mind you; their job is descriptive, not prescriptive. They just reflect extant cultural assumptions, and that photo honestly is what conventional wisdom vaguely associates with the word dominatrix.
That, of course, is the problem.
That image is an enormously reductive fantasy. It’s a purely male-gaze image that doesn’t even fit the majority of male submissive fantasies. It certainly doesn’t fit the majority of fantasies by women who might like to be dominant. But it’s the only image we have as a culture. When a woman is asking herself “I wonder if I might be a domme?” she will most likely think of that image and say “Oh, well, that’s not me.”
Think I’m making that up? Read this article. No, seriously, take a minute to read it. It’s good stuff. And it makes the point that our images of femdom are based entirely in an iconography taken from a subset of male fantasies, with little to no regard for the woman’s point of view. Don’t believe me? Go find some femdom videos that focus on the male submissive, presenting him as the attractive focus of the erotic gaze. Take your time; they’re out there, but you’ll have to dig. Most videos and photos are designed entirely for a male audience, where the dominant woman is the fantasy object and the guy she’s topping might as well be a prop.
I’m pretty dang sure there are an awful lot of women out there who, like the author of “One of the Nineteen”, have plenty of dominant desires toward men, but can’t connect their self-images or their fantasies to what they think a domme is “supposed” to look like. Why am I so sure? Because I’ve read their porn.
I’ve written before about the research I did into the female gaze, the erotic images of men that women construct for each other outside the commercial structures of “mainstream” porn. The key component of the female gaze, if I may be forgiven an oversimplification for brevity, is vulnerability. It can be subtle, a moment of naked emotional honesty from a man who never shows his inner self. It can also be painfully overt, with men stripped of all their power and reduced to helpless dependence, what Katharine Gates called “wounded man fetish”. When one looks at the pornographic culture that gave us whump, woobies, and hurt/comfort, one sees a kaleidoscope of erotic images of men writhing in torment, crying, begging, suffering beautifully right and left.
Call me crazy, but I feel like there’s juuuuust a little power dynamic there.
So what I’m seeing from where I’m standing is a huge demographic of women who are really turned on by male submission, but who, in Bitchy Jones’ phrase, “aren’t comfortable in femdom.” That’s a pretty serious disconnect. Now, there are plenty of reasons why someone might feel excluded from the BDSM “scene”, but I think we need to add this to the list. There are a ton of women who are sexually dominant but who don’t want to present that way in the kink community. And why should they? As long as we reductively imagine toppy ladies as having to fit a weird, male-fantasy-driven mold, we’re telling 95% of toppy ladies that they’re not welcome.
This is not to say that male fantasies aren’t worthy of respect and as much fulfillment as can be arranged, but when one singular fantasy is the sole image of female dominance that most people imagine, we are nowhere close to equal time. I would love to see an evolution of kink imagery in our culture, to where the vast majority of dominant women begin to feel that it’s something they can express, can enjoy. There is a huge diversity of dommes out there, and until that diversity is reflected, it won’t really be expressed.
More reflection of authentic female fantasies is also called for. As long as our ideas of femdom kink play only reflect what it’s doing for a standardized male sub (who is presumably also spherical and frictionless), those ideas won’t apply to an awful lot of women who have their own notions about what they’d like to do to some poor boy. Male subs will have to learn that it’s not just about fulfilling their own fantasies, that fulfilling hers is at least as important. Possibly if we phrase this as “You have to do what she wants” it’ll be an easier sell.
Photo—Close-up shot of busty woman in black leather corset from Shutterstock