Photo by Caroline McNally

Dear Roe, I consider myself a feminist who wants the patriarchy to burn like the fiery flames of Hades. I recently started my first sexual relationship with a guy I’m seeing, and I realize I like being choked. Should I be burning alongside the patriarchy? I feel I’m not a good feminist – am I perpetuating the image of submissiveness that is rampant throughout rape culture, or even worse . . . am I like your one E.L James now?

No, you’re not E.L. James. For one thing, even this brief letter is better-written than her shite.

The short answer to your question is no, of course you’re not a bad feminist for liking being choked or any other submissive/BDSM stuff. Because, simply, politics have no place in the bedroom. Actually, let me rephrase that. Politics have no place in the sexual interactions you have with a respectful partner, whose politics are very important. There, that’s better. I didn’t want you to think that I was either condemning any sexual activity that takes place in your kitchen or hallway or in the alley round back – or that I was giving you permission to sleep with a Trump supporter.

But more on that later. Firstly, let’s address this idea that you’re perpetuating images of submissiveness and therefore rape culture through your own sex life. You’re not. You’re expressing one of your own personal preferences in the context of a safe, consensual relationship. This kind of play isn’t anything to do with actually being submissive or being really endangered or feeling degraded. It’s about creating the perception of submission in a space that’s actually completely equal, respectful, enjoyable and so – dare I even say – empowering.

Now, this isn’t to diminish your very real and understandable worries about porn culture and how the constant portrayals in adult films of women being submissive and being treated violently or disrespectfully is potentially harmful and worthy of discussion. It absolutely is, and I love you for recognising that. But the issue, as ever, is context.

Porn in general – and porn that involves submission/rough sex/degradation/humiliation/BDSM in particular – can create a skewed and misogynistic view of women, particularly for the huge numbers of young men who access it before ever experiencing sex or relationships. Because porn shows these acts out of context of real interactions or conversations.

Porn doesn’t show people discussing safe words or agreeing boundaries. Porn doesn’t show women expressing that they are comfortable being spanked but not having their hair pulled. And porn doesn’t show men listening to and respecting these wishes. By its nature, this type of porn shows only the actions and the perceived dynamic: one of rough, objectifying sex without connection or context. And of course, if that were real life, it would be hugely dangerous.

But our lives are not porn films. (Thank Jeebus, because I love my carbs and no one in porn ever gets to eat that pizza they ordered.) Our lives, relationships and sex have context. And that context is what separates actual submission and violence and degradation from the perceived submission and choking you enjoy in bed.

You need to know and trust that your partner respects you, cares for your physical and mental well-being and is engaging in these acts purely to satisfy your mutual desires. And the smaller context of the acts themselves involves discussion of limits: what you are and aren’t comfortable with.

It’s within this context of safety, respect and consent that submission becomes “submission” and choking becomes “choking”. It’s play-acting. In the same way that role-playing a slave girl doesn’t make you slave, participating in a ravishment fantasy doesn’t make you a rape victim and violent or rough sex play doesn’t make you a victim of domestic abuse – the consent and respect behind your play makes all the difference.

And yes, this type of play confronts your political and personal fears as a feminist. But so does a lot of submission play – for many, that’s part of the enjoyment. This is why high-powered business people can enjoy being infantilised, strong women can enjoy ravishment fantasies and hetero alpha-males can enjoy sucking and being penetrated by a woman’s strap-on cock. It’s taking this real fear and transferring it into a safe and respectful zone where you can not only control it, but enjoy it – and this can be a really healthy thing.

But this is also why my crack at Trump supporters matters: you should only ever engage in any form of BDSM, submissive or rough play with sex-positive people who respect you and respect sex. If there’s ever a niggling doubt in the back of your mind that maybe this person will judge you, won’t respect your boundaries, or will use your kink as an excuse to judge other women – stay the fuck away.

Feminism is about a lot of things, but a lot of it is to do with choice, and control over our lives, our sexuality, and our bodies. And so if you begin to deny yourself that sexual exploration and pleasure because you’re worrying about a patriarchy dictating to you and other women about your sexuality – guess what? You’re letting the patriarchy dictate to you about your sexuality.

Respect yourself by making your own choices, by doing what feels good to you – even if it looks degrading to others. They don’t know your context, so they don’t get to judge your sex life, and they certainly don’t get to limit it. They’re making the presumption that you aren’t capable of making intelligent, self-aware choices about your own sex life. Now that’s an attempt at real degradation.

So do your thing. Be a feminist with a thoughtful and active political life – AND a fantastic, fulfilling sex life. Flirt and fuck with being “submissive” – and emerge empowered.

Dear Roe, my boyfriend and I have recently broken up. We had a really good four-year relationship. It was loving and supportive and we made each other laugh all the time. For the most part it made me feel really happy, safe and cared for. But increasingly, I didn’t feel fulfilled or satisfied or excited, for reasons that are hard to articulate. I felt like my needs were not being met. I recognise that one relationship can’t possibly fulfill every emotional need, and that that’s okay. But I knew deep down that I didn’t want to stay in a relationship forever that wasn’t making me feel truly excited. I’ve felt this way on and off for the past two years, but it became particularly apparent when I recently developed strong feelings for someone else. So I ended it.

He was very hurt, but was understanding and respectful of my decision. We had a good conversation about it, and after deciding to give each other some space for a while, hope to eventually remain good friends. But now that it’s done, I’m not sure if I made the right decision. I feel so sad and lost. I feel disgusted that I’ve hurt someone who supported and cared for me so much. I’m worried about him and I miss him. I felt so loved and cared for in this relationship, but prior to it, I had had a series of bad and abusive relationships that affected my health quite negatively. I am scared that I will never feel loved in a relationship in this way again.

Maybe the fact that it made me feel safe and special should have been enough. Maybe I should have found ways to make it work. I had previously thought of asking if we could have an open relationship, but worried that this wouldn’t solve the problem in the long term. I feel terrible all the time. Did I make the wrong decision?

Darling girl. I feel for you. Break-ups are hard as hell, especially if it was generally a good relationship, and the great unspoken about break-ups is that being the person who ended it can be just as hard, though it garners much less sympathy and attention. There’s going to be some pain you need to ride out. But here’s what you need to know:

1) Feeling sad and lost after ending a major relationship is completely normal. It’s a loss. Your life has changed. Someone you loved and depended on is no longer a major part of your life, and your support network has taken a hit. Cry it out. Feel the loss. Let yourself be a bit needy and lean on your friends while you adjust.

2) You did the right thing. Not only because you deserve to be in a relationship where you feel excited and enthralled and inspired and like your needs are being met – maybe not every single time, but a lot of the time, and you feel able to talk about the times when they’re not. Because you do. But also because your ex deserves to be in a relationship where his partner is truly exalted to be with him, and doesn’t feel, deep down, like they should cut and run.

3) Sometimes we want to leave good people who generally make us really happy and we can’t fully articulate why, and that’s okay. Wanting to leave is reason enough to leave. Wanting to leave is enough.

4) You might not find someone who loves you the same way. But you will find someone who loves you in a different way. It might be better.

5) You ending a relationship that was good but not great, you wanting more than feeling safe, you being brave enough to go looking for it? This is the most wonderful step towards yourself that any survivor of an abusive relationship can take. You’ve extracted yourself from an awful situation that made you feel bad about yourself, one that I’m guessing made you feel unlovable. And then you met someone new, someone good, someone who made you feel safe and worthy of love and made you realise or remember that it should always be this way, that you should never accept anything less. And now you’ve gotten to a space where the baselines of feeling safe and accepted aren’t enough either – you’ve now allowed yourself to want and feel like you deserve more.

You’ve allowed yourself to want and feel like you deserve that exciting, surprising, challenging, you-drive-me-crazy-in-the-best-possible-way kind of love – and you’re right. You do. And yes it’s scary to go look for it, but it’s also going to lead you somewhere amazing. Maybe not right away – you may have to endure some crap dates and really blah guys and every time that happens you’re going to doubt your decision a bit and think maybe you should have stayed with your ex – but every time you end one of those crap dates and dump another blah guy you’ll be reasserting that you are not a woman who settles. You are a woman who wants and deserves more, and will keep looking for it. You will not settle, because fucking amazing women don’t need to.

6) There will be a day when you’re out with the person who makes you feel like you can stop looking, and you’ll see your ex, with his new partner, the one who never had any doubts about him, the one who fits him perfectly and never wanted to leave. And you’ll both smile, because you’ll both be happy with your new partners, and deeply appreciative of the love you shared that let you get there, and grateful that you loved and respected each other enough to know that you both deserved more than your relationship. Even though it was good, even though you made each other happy, even though when you broke up you both felt awful and cried it out and regretted it and missed each other and wondered whether you’d ever find anything that good again. Because you have. You will. Because you were brave enough to try.

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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1 Comment

  1. And some people are just very self-destructive and develop an addiction to be treated like crap (see former relationships above).

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