Quandaries of the Female-Feminist Masochist: The Erotics of Authentic Submission

In her book Femininity and Domination, Sandra Bartky writes a hypothetical example of a female-feminist masochist called “The Story of P.” P is politically and personally devoted to feminist theory and action, but she finds that in erotic situations, she enjoys being in the submissive position. This poses a dilemma for P because she believes that as a feminist her preference ought to be for equality and reciprocity in all things. She further worries that her submissiveness could spill over into other aspects of her life. P must ask herself if her masochistic tendencies are really an instance of internalized misogyny. I bring resources together from phenomenology and psychology to lend insight to the dilemmas faced by the female-feminist masochist. I believe that her concerns are even more complex than Bartky has articulated. Nevertheless, there may be a manner in which the female-feminist masochist can integrate these apparently divergent aspects of herself.



The Perks of Slavery

            In Being and Nothingness, Sartre draws on the dynamic found in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to describe the manner in which he thinks every human encounter enacts a struggle for power.[1] Within this conception, this struggle amounts to the attempt to secure one’s own being as essential by dominating the other. At least in Sartre’s account, slavery is not literal or historical; it is the condition of being dependent upon the gaze of another free self-consciousness. This is what one of my students once called the “Does my ass look big in these jeans?” moment. It presumes that each individual desires full self-possession; and indicates that one is powerless over how one is perceived by others, which is, in fact, a large aspect of oneself.

Paradoxically, according to Hegel, the slave has greater opportunity for self-awareness which occurs by seeing oneself reflected in one’s work on the material of nature. In Sartre’s account, the master’s position is also the place that one struggles to acquire, but to remain in the role of the lord would make self-awareness impossible. An individual can only overcome solipsism through the external perspective provided by another. The subject realizes that she is not alone in the world through the very visceral and immediate experience of feeling the gaze of others upon herself. Adequate self-perception requires the integration of this external view, even though it brings along with it the accompanying disappointment that one’s self- perception is dependent on others. Sartre deems these attempts at enslavement mutual, “moving and reciprocal” (475). Thus, everyone gets a turn at being both subject and object.

Sartre and Hegel affirm that power conflicts are pervasive in human relationships, and that experiencing the position of slave is vital to self-awareness. However, we also find that there is no room in these accounts for authentic enjoyment of, or rational consenting to, vulnerability and powerlessness. I find this curious given its central importance to self-consciousness. However, it is the existentialists’ claim that it is in bad faith to surrender to one’s own object-status because this amounts to a denial of transcendence.

Sartre’s appraisal of the conflicted nature of human relations leads him to conclude that human relations are inherently sado-masochist. However, Sartre deems masochism an inevitable failure (493). The masochist ultimately fails to surrender because she is asking to be tied up or held down. In doing so, she asserts her own agency in spite of immediate appearances. Take the trope of the type-A male CEO who hires a dominatrix to humiliate him on the weekends. His submission, as he is paying for it, is really a further assertion of his power. He has the power to get someone to dominate him although they may find it boring or even humiliating. In playing the weekend submissive, he compartmentalizes the desire to let go and have someone else take control. Perhaps this very compartmentalization is what enables him to retain the strong sense of agency that he has in his daily life.

Could we not make a similar claim about P? Perhaps her sexual submission actually contributes to her sense of empowerment in the light of day. In attempting to make herself an object she reaffirms her subjectivity, because she makes an object of herself instead of being objectified by others. That is she takes the perspective of the perceiving subject. She enacts a mock-surrender, remaining, in Sartre’s terminology, a transcendent object. Her body reveals that which eludes the objectifying gaze—her self-consciousness—and consciousness “makes the meaning and the unity of the body” (502). We are attracted to the consciousness that inhabits and is implied by the arm, the leg, the breast, the tattoo, the hairstyle and so on. When the masochist feels the sting of the whip, her consciousness becomes focused on this location. The lover brings about this result through knowing her as a subject and that this is what she wants. Yet, even as the lover imagines the masochist’s pleasure, she remains out of grasp. Sartre says “…everything happens as if I wished to get hold of a man who runs away and leaves only his coat in my hands” (511). The female-feminist masochist could well have that same realization—in her attempt to surrender, she finds herself still escaping capture.

We might say that the female-feminist masochist’s mind remains her own even when she is in physical bondage. The key evidence for this would be in her desire to submit. However, the missing piece in this analysis is a critical look into the context within which some women desire to be submissive. Sartre does not consider the difference that one’s social location makes in the significance of these power-plays and the manner in which our desires are trained. The male CEO and female masochist will typically differ in this regard. It is not so simple to assert that a woman authentically desires to surrender in a society that continually encourages her to do so.



Is authentic female submission possible?

            In The Second Sex, Beauvoir writes that love equals total devotion for the woman in love, that “love for the woman is a total abdication for the benefit of a master” (683). This is the result of women’s particular situation; placed continually in a position of dependence, “she chooses to want her enslavement so ardently that it will seem to her to be the expression of her freedom” (684, emphasis added). Woman seeks to elevate her lowly position through worshipping and serving a god; she hopes to find salvation under his approving gaze. Thus her self-abnegation is an attempt to salvage a sense of self-worth in a situation that provides limited opportunities for self-affirmation. Referring to Being and Nothingness, Beauvoir defines masochism as “to cause myself to be fascinated by my objectivity-for-others” (690, emphasis added). Thus on her account, a woman can come to value herself by seeing herself through the gaze of a worthy superior.

Beauvoir asserts that masochism is the route taken by the “unsatisfied woman” (693) and it will fail to bring true relief. The masochist takes revenge on herself for failing her lover: “she does not choose to revolt against him as long as she loves him; she revolts against her self. If he loves her less than she desires, if she fails to interest him, to make him happy, to be sufficient to him, all her narcissicm turns to disgust, humiliation, and self-hatred that push her to self-punishment” (692). All of this is predicated on the belief, and in some cases the fact, that man holds woman’s destiny in his hands; only he can determine if she has value. Thus Beauvoir finds the submission of the masochistic-woman-in-love to be, at best, a meager expression of freedom within highly constraining circumstances.

Certainly women’s situations have changed since the first publication of The Second Sex. Nevertheless, a great deal has remained the same, and perhaps taken on additional pernicious forms. Sandra Bartky argues that “women undergo a special sort of fragmentation and loss of being as women” (34), that women are estranged from their sexuality because they are culturally construed as inferior objects rather than as subjects. She is aware that many women actively enjoy their object-status, internalize the gaze of others, and joyfully self-objectify. However, she writes that “repressive narcissistic satisfactions [the fulfillment of needs that are produced through manipulation and indoctrination, that benefit a social order that seeks to dominate the subject] stand in the way of the emergence of an authentic delight in the body” (42). Bartky suggests that “women would be better off if we learned when to refrain from the exercise of [the right to desire what and whom we please]” particularly with regard to masochistic fantasies, and that “we struggle to decolonize our sexuality by removing from our minds the internalized forms of oppression that make us easier to control” (51).

It is beyond doubt that all of our desires are heavily constrained and arise within a culture that is obsessed with power, that is male dominated and is, moreover, a rape culture—a culture in which rape is not only common, but one in which our media and gender expectations normalize and even encourage sexual violence. This is a real problem as we can see the impact of the domineering male gaze everywhere. Gail Dines, for example, convincingly argues that mainstream misogynistic pornography effectively transforms its viewer’s desires for the worse. Mainstream pornography narrows our popular notions of the erotic and the beautiful. As Dines explains in Pornland: Porn portrays itself as being harmless fun that remains in the realm of fantasy, but its damages are cumulative: creating feelings of sexual inadequacy, setting up impossible standards for both men and women, limiting “our imagination and ability to be sexually creative,” leaving little room gender variation, and sometimes becoming an addiction (87).

Mainstream pornography is especially nefarious not only because it perpetuates the values of sexist culture, but because it cements sexist ideology in a way that gives intense sexual pleasure. It conflates sexism with sexiness, giving one an erotic reward for embracing misogynistic ideals—the humiliation of and contempt for women. Dines writes: “By wrapping the violence in a sexual cloak, porn renders it invisible…” (ibid). Women are not exempt from experiencing sexual gratification via internalized sexism; this is one payoff for identifying with misogynist culture. If the female-feminist masochist enjoys rape fantasies or similar displays of male dominance we must admit that this is strongly motivated by her culture.

According to Marxist-feminist analysis, the female feminist submissive experiences an alienation of her “labor.” In this case her labor is her erotic “work,” and work is understood as where she might find the exteriorization of herself, her powers, and her uniquely human capabilities. In such a case, the product of a woman’s labor—her erotic life and desires—may not be a reflection of who she is. Bartky suggests that the female-feminist masochist alter or resist her desires. This analysis seems to imply that there is a more authentic self that one might encounter outside of the structural powers that bear upon us all and thus harbors the utopian dream of escaping our social and political context. Furthermore, I think her suggestion risks a further sense of self-fragmentation, because it asks her to change something in herself that is the result of forces beyond her control. I argue that any authentic sense of self must be found within the current context, with the acknowledgement that it cannot be overcome by the efforts of an individual in a struggle for self-formation.[2] Nevertheless, as I will argue in the next section, it may still be possible that this subject can undergo some amount of voluntary change and self-integration.


What would authentic erotic choice look like?

            In his essay “Is it a Choice?” (in The Journal of Social Philosophy) William Wilkerson is concerned with the question of whether or not sexual orientation is a choice. He challenges the popular assumption that we are simply “born this way,” and contradicts the false dichotomy between the idea that our desires are either freely chosen, or determined. He argues that knowing one’s own desires requires an act of interpretation and interpretation entails choice. As Wilkerson writes:


…interpreting [our] desires requires that we take an inchoate group of ambiguous desires, place them together into a complex, and consider them as a unified whole, and further that we compare this whole to available social and sexual roles in society, link those desires with other experiences like fantasies, pleasures, and so on, and finally come to believe that it means something enduring and lasting about myself (100-101).


For example, if I identify as heterosexual, but I enjoy going dancing with my girlfriends, I can interpret this as simply an expression of friendship. However, if in the future I later identify myself as lesbian, then I may look at my past with a revisionist lens; that which had seemed to be the significant will now appear to be less central and vice versa. This example is an oversimplification. Wilkerson states that our feelings are “an ambiguous mess of uncertain and frightening feelings, mixed in with the other desires, social messages, homophobic worries, and so forth” (104). Nevertheless, it illustrates Wilkerson’s point that our sexual orientations are formed through a pattern of interpretations that are subject to change. Moreover, it is in determining which erotic experiences we take as noteworthy, and which we take as inconsequential, and above all that we have some amount of choice in determining the meaning of our desires. Obviously, these choices are heavily constrained and motivated by culture and other factors. Nevertheless, there still remains a sliver of freedom within the realm of desire that is not to be discounted.

Wilkerson’s argument can be extended to consider what agency the female-feminist masochist retains. According to this line of thinking, she might harness the power of interpretation in order to co-determine the significance of her desires. She might ask herself “what does it mean if I enjoy the submissive posture?” This is not to say that she can thrust whatever interpretation she prefers upon the phenomena. An authentic interpretation would require consideration of the milieu that encourages and names such desires. However, this consideration already loosens the grip of cultural determinism. Although our desires may be trained and cultivated by cultural forces, the full meaning of these desires need not be foreclosed. Moreover, to interpret is also a manner of change. For example, if P comes to understand her desires in the context of a misogynistic milieu, then they lose the force of a desire that is understood as natural. It is not that P can now wield control over all of her desires; it is that now her changed understanding of those desires means that they no longer manipulate her so easily. While she may experience pleasure at the same experiences, their power to dictate her actions can perhaps be lessened.

Hegel can provide some support for the importance of interpretation to self-creation. According to Hegel, the slave (not the master) realizes her independence and creativity through meaningful work. We might argue that the work of interpretation provides a similar outlet for agency. A large part of what makes patriarchal culture so sinister is the hegemonic nature of its ideology. In addition to influencing our thoughts, feelings, and actions, patriarchy also tells us what to think of them; patriarchy strives to dictate our meta-thoughts and feelings (the thoughts and feelings we have about our thoughts and feelings). In recognizing and claiming some amount of choice in how to interpret her desires, perhaps the feminist reclaims some aspects of her erotic agency.

The work of interpretation might be viewed as the recovery of the perspective of the subject in the face of one’s object-status. In an existentialist framework, this is the work that centrally determines who we are. Feminist-female masochism could be viewed as a project of self-recovery in a misogynistic world. I don’t mean to imply that this self-recovery is a complete self-possession; this is an impossible dream. The female-feminist masochist who interprets her own desires is no longer in the position of one-only-being-looked-at (always being the object). Rather, she is taking a speculative view of her role in the subject-object dichotomy. She is observing the dynamics of the gaze, including her own place within it. She inhabits a subjectivity that is always already objectified, but is not limited to that non-perspective. Feminine masochism, on this view, could sometimes be an attempt at self-empowerment, albeit an attempt that strongly risks (and perhaps also actively affirms) misogyny. It is a strategy that perhaps recognizes her position in the patriarchy, while opening a space for resistance.



The Search for Reciprocity and Self-Integration

Beauvoir writes that

Authentic love must be founded on reciprocal recognition of two freedoms; each lover would then experience himself as himself and as the other; neither would abdicate his transcendence, they would not mutilate themselves; together they would both reveal values and ends in the world. For each of them, love would be the revelation of self through the gift of self and the enrichment of the universe. (706)

According to Beauvoir, authentic love involves a shift in perspectives that allows one to recognize both self and other as independent. The masochistic dependence of Beauvoir’s woman in love excludes this type of reciprocity. However, I will suggest that the female feminist may find such a reciprocal recognition even via encounters that appear to be masochistic.

In “The Alchemy of Male Desire” (in Fire in the Stone), Scott Churchill writes that in male desire “an identification with the female (or the one in the female role) can occur in which this Other is fully invested with subjectivity—indeed, where the female body and receptive role are taken up vicariously… that beneath the veneer of male arrogance is (sometimes? often?) ” the fantasy of submission, an unconscious desire to be passive, feminine (180). In a study conducted by Churchill (a psychologist) one case included a man describing an experience of bondage in which his female partner asked to be blindfolded and have her hands tied above her head. He was skeptical of this suggestion as he had never been interested in doing this before. However, he found that as his partner expressed her pleasure he began to feel it as well. Although his role was explicitly domineering, his greatest attention was focused on imagining what the experience felt like for her from her perspective. Churchill reasons that in this case, it is not the thrill of power over another that is exhilarating because “the very fact that the [submissive] partner is provoked into obvious excitement within the circumstances of the domination/submission scenario is proof of his or her complicity” (190). More importantly, however, Churchill proposes that identification with the submissive role allows the apparently sadistic male to temporarily inhabit his culturally forbidden and disparaged feminine side. In this view, reciprocity in heterosexual sex has little to do with who is on top and who is on bottom. Churchill writes “Mutuality occurs when one experiences the “for-me” of the other’s desires, as well as the “for-the-other” of one’s own desire” (197). Churchill agrees with Sartre that flesh meeting flesh is a touching touched that incarnates both bodies, “a double reciprocal incarnation” (508).

In Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel, a psychologist and couples therapist, has a similar analysis. She rejects what she considers an unsexy American tendency to extend the principles of democracy to all realms. She argues that individuals often use their erotic life to play out aspects of themselves that go unexplored in the rest of life. In one case, a man who is passive in his daily life enjoys being dominant in erotic life. In another, a woman who holds a lot of power and responsibility in work and family life enjoys letting go and having her partner take charge in the bedroom. In each case, the erotic provides a safe outlet for exploring and integrating an unfulfilled aspect of themselves.

Perel writes: “A lot of women find their desire for sexual submission hard to accept. But stepping outside of ourselves is exactly what eroticism allows us to do. In eros, we trample on cultural restrictions; the prohibitions we so vigorously uphold in the light are often the ones we enjoy transgressing in the dark…In the broad expansiveness of our imagination we uncover the freedom that allows us to tolerate the confines of reality” (59). She argues that there is liberty in experimenting with transgressive sexuality. In playing with the erotic roles (particularly when they are quite different from those we take on in everyday life) we find the possibility of integrating fragmented aspects of ourselves. Perel’s claim might be taken even further to state that the female-feminist might be even more inclined toward sexual masochism than a gender-conforming female. A feminist might find herself exhausted by the daily struggles against patriarchy and the attempts to be treated as an equal. Being sexually submissive might be a way for her to let go of control in a manner that is refreshing and relaxing. According to this logic and given the taboo against heteronormativity in their circles, it could be that feminists, both male and female, will find it especially erotically transgressive to submit to normative gender roles in their sexual lives. It does seem to be the case that erotic play can be a safe context in which to toy with norms and expectations. When there is safety and explicit consent [“You submit only as much as you’re willing; you dominate only as far as you are allowed” (Perel 68)] erotic power plays can perhaps provide an ideal opportunity to experiment with the structures that weigh so heavily on us in our daily lives.



[1] Sartre is also, as has been strongly demonstrated by Margaret Simons in various works, drawing on Beauvoir’s novel, She Came to Stay. However, in this paper I will focus on the more explicitly thematized accounts of Hegel and Sartre.

[2] That is, structural problems can only be overcome through collective efforts aimed at institutional change.




Sarah LaChance Adams is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Superior. Her previous book publications include Coming to Life: Philosophies of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Mothering (co-edited with Caroline Lundquist, Fordham UP 2013) and Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, and What a “Good” Mother Would Do: The Ethics of Ambivalence (Columbia UP 2014). She has published articles on Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir, Bataille, Sartre, Hegel, and care ethics. LaChance Adams works primarily in feminist philosophy, ethics, existential phenomenology, and 19th Century German philosophy.