Men’s submission to women is the romantic norm, says kink activist Maymay. But it doesn’t have to be ordinary or unfulfilling.
This was previously published at Maybe Maimed but Never Harmed, and originally written in 2007. To read maymay’s more recent writings on masculinity, and especially sexually submissive men, browse the archives at Maybe Maimed.
As his posts usually do these days, this post of Figleaf’s got me thinking about personal needs, how we provide for those needs, and how those needs become needs in the first place. In it, he says:
Just as we indoctrinate men to strive so mightily to provide that they/we never come home, so we also indoctrinate women so thoroughly to believe men won’t even see them unless they’re starved, then scraped bare, then repainted that some of them/you are afraid to be seen by your partners after a night of roaringly good sex. The real thresholds for being sexy, being a good provider, being a man or a woman, are surprisingly easy to meet. However to embody sexiness, or worthiness, or manliness, or femininity is a fools errand[…]
(His thought-provoking post was inspired by none other than this eloquent post of Calico’s, which is also worth a read. So are the rest of both their blogs, by the way, which each have posts that are almost always equally eloquent.)
Acquiring an accurate understanding of my personal needs has always been the central focus of my life and, sadly, I fear that I still have a long way to go. Having needs that are (or, equally bad, feel as though they are) unfulfilled is the obvious source of a lot of sadness, anger, resentment and jealousy in my life.
When it comes to social and sexual relationships, in fact, jealousy is the word most often associated by most people to indicate a lack of fulfillment of some need in some way. This explains why the polyamorous community and their resources, writings, and issues seem to deal squarely with discovering personal needs and understanding the needs of one’s partners in order to overcome that jealousy.
When reading Figleaf’s observation that men are indoctrinated “to strive so mightily to provide” I saw myself in his words. In most typical instances, what men are indoctrinated to provide is “a living” for their family, which in more concrete terms is often defined by mainstream gender roles as “a dependable source of financial income for the nuclear family unit.” Everyone knows that it’s the man’s job to bring home the bacon, and he’s expected to sacrifice everything—his time, his happiness, his independence, his freedoms, and ultimately himself—in the pursuit of this noble, self-sacrificing, almost holy endeavor.
This is masochism perverted into martyrdom—”no pain, no gain.”
Indeed, there can easily be satisfaction and emotional fulfillment to be found from this goal. I have always absolutely loved to buy Eileen dinner, or treats at Starbucks, or spontaneous gifts—big gifts like several-hundred-dollar jewelry—or to treat the two of us to a night at the movies. All of this all on my dime. I enjoy that because my dime signifies my hard work and spending money on the things that make me happy is something I’ve earned.
Something that makes me happy is providing good experiences to Eileen, which is also the cornerstone of many components of submission. Feeling as though I am capable to provide good experiences for my partner is one thing that is necessary for me to feel submissive. This relationship between being submissive and being a provider and each of their connection to masculinity is most obvious in service-related kinks (sissy-maids and men-turned-”homemakers” are two prime examples that come to mind), and equally obvious in stamina-related kinks (in which men are tortured but, because they are MEN! GRR! they do not whimper or scream and only display a stoic pride), both of which is the (frustratingly) universal representation of male submission everywhere.
Could this be the root of men’s “chivalrous nature”? We are certainly taught that chivalry is a good thing. These activities and the feelings that come from them is both the hegemonic masculine view of how a man should behave towards a woman and an accurate description, at least in parts, of how I want to feel about the way I treat my partners, men and women alike (though the expression of this is, interestingly, different in my relations with men than they are with women).
And that, now that I think about it, may be the first time on this blog in which I have actually described myself as fitting nicely into the masculine gender role stereotype.
Moreover, there’s nothing wrong with this that I can see. Providing for another person makes me happy, and it simultaneously makes me feel strong. Is this not, in fact, the epitome of the knight submissive concept? The knight submissive is a representation of a man who is at once powerful, who uses this power in a way that is courageous, honorable, and makes the lives of those he chooses to effect better, and yet—contrary to the accepted display of hegemonic masculinity—is also submissive to his partner. One might even say he is dominated by his partner, or perhaps in other words that may provide for more insight, is guided, steered, or advised by his partner.
In other words, “behind every good man, there is a good woman.” To me, this sounds as though the knight submissive is the hegemonic masculine man that women read about in romance novels.
Only, because gender stereotypes are idealized versions of atomic characteristics of gender and the masculine gender role has been elected as “the one who provides” whereas the feminine gender role has been elected as “the one who needs,” men are disallowed from needing and women are disallowed from providing—period. End of story.
The classic examples provide evidence of this dichotomy in abundance. What happens if the wife of a heterosexual married couple makes more money than the husband? Suddenly, the husband feels bad because his perceived “manliness” is threatened since she provides more financial income to their family unit than he does. What happens if the wife has a love affair? Again, negative feelings and a perceived threat to his manliness because he is not the one providing her with sexual satisfaction and some other (presumably) man is. This is even true in the way many conservative men respond to vibrators, or, god forbid, pornography intended to be consumed by women.
Any remotely emotionally functional individual will recognize that this system in which women only need and men only provide is harmful to both men and women. Women are expected to need only what men can provide and men are expected not to need anything except, of course, the needs of women. Thanks to the prevailing viewpoint that monogamy is the One True Way to Love® this set of needs is further restricted to include only, for women, the things your one man can provide and, for men, the needs of your onewoman.
I see it as self-evident that both men and women have component needs that are irrelevant to their specific partner(s). In other words, a need is intrinsically born of oneself, not of one’s partner. Otherwise, whose need is it, really? Academically, this concept seems as though it can, broadly speaking, be contained within the greater need for self-actualization.
It seems nothing if not utterly ridiculous to function day by day under the rigid and false pretense that only a traditional understanding of the gender model allows. There’s simply no way that I can see being able to squeeze fulfillment and happiness out of being a man whose sole need is to fulfill all his other partner’s needs because, obviously, need-fulfillment is by my earlier definition not actually possible to obtain from a single source. It may, perhaps, be possible and even healthy to seek to fulfill the specific needs of a partner that can be fulfilled by other people, but ultimately there is going to be something, no matter how small that your partner is going to have to do on their own to feel fully fulfilled. (And, if you’ll take a word from the wise, it’s never something that small.)
That piece, no matter how much you or I strive to provide it, being the good, otherwise capable, and self-sacrificing men that we are, is not ever something we can succeed in. Not recognizing that fact leads invariably to codependency of one form or another and then, inevitably, to unhappiness in at least something, be it our work, our social partnerships (of which sexuality and pair-bonding is a form), or—worst of all in my opinion—one’s ability to think effectively and to make good personal choices in one’s private life.
In other words, by focusing so strongly on the experience of our partners, men end up being unable—forbidden, even!—to live our own lives. We need, as a friend said wisely to me the other day, to find a way to disconnect from the experience of our partners, but not disconnect from our partners themselves.
Finding submission with Eileen, for me, has been a major component in being able to connect with another person on a sexual (and thus at least one piece of a social) level that, finally, feels good, and right, and fulfilling. Being submissive meets one of my needs—specifically the need to have fulfilling social interactions. However, in becoming submissive, I must also allow myself the freedom to disconnect from her experience, to allow her the capability to provide for her own needs.
Submission, or masculinity or being a “man,” is not in reality the rigid, narrow thing society tells us being a man is. Being a man is not about providing everything for our partners. It can be about providing for them, but it’s also about providing for ourselves. And guess what? That’s what being a woman is about, too.