THERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN a lot of hand-wringing around erotica, especially erotica that centers on female submission. Feminists worry that it perpetuates harmful gender dynamics, while conservatives shudder at the frank depictions of female sexuality. Intellectuals usually dismiss it as smut. In the meantime, millions of people — mostly women — gobble it up. The box office success of Fifty Shades Freed, the third installment in the Hollywood trilogy based on E. L. James’s best-selling BDSM romance series, is only the latest example. How is it, wondered pundits, that this particular movie is a hit at the height of the #MeToo movement? Why are women flocking to see a film about a rich, white man dominating a much younger, much less powerful woman?
There’s no obvious reason that a movement against misogyny, sexual assault, and non-consensual advances should be incompatible with fantasies of consensual, sexual submission. For one thing, fantasies of submission are not strictly a female feminine phenomenon. A study conducted by University of Kansas psychologist Patricia Hawley in 2009 found that both men and women preferred to imagine being dominated by, rather than dominating, another person. In fact, men preferred this even more than women. In conflating #MeToo and the light BDSM of Fifty Shades, common sexual fantasy and desire immediately became pathology and neuroticism — how could women want both at once? How do we square sexual fulfillment and freedom from unwanted sexual advances?
The film’s success, however, should not have been a surprise — and not because Jamie Dornan’s six-pack has its own fan page (it doesn’t actually, but it should). Historically, erotica that focused on female submission emerged at precisely the moment when women were beginning to challenge the status quo. The Story of O, the seminal novel by Anne Desclos (published under the pen name Pauline Réage) and largely considered the literary height of BDSM erotica, was published in France in 1954, on the cusp of the women’s liberation movement, five years after Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Emmanuelle, an erotic odyssey of sexual liberation and submission penned by Emmanuelle Arsan, became a best seller in 1967 France, one year before the May 1968 protests, which eventually gave rise to the Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF, Women’s Liberation Movement). Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus, a short story collection that features, among other tales, fantasies of sexual submission and dominance, was published in 1977 in the United States, at the height of female sexual liberation, the same year that the first National Women’s Conference was held. Meanwhile, Fifty Shades of Grey hit bookstores in 2011, just as so-called fourth-wave feminism was beginning to take off.
That these seminal works — all authored by women — emerged during or immediately preceding a wave of feminism isn’t a coincidence. In fact, the pattern seems to point to the ways in which these feminist movements might work alongside these erotic texts. In examining the bonds of patriarchal oppression, including those internalized by women, and playing out fantasies of male domination, these forms of erotica offer a fuller, more nuanced understanding of female identity and sexuality. This is an important step toward empowerment, as well as a way to mediate the anxiety inherent in dismantling traditional gender roles. If we think about erotica in this way, it’s really no wonder that millions of women want to read about, or watch, a woman consensually subjugated by a man for pleasure. All too often, in the real world, male domination just has to be endured.
In fact, it is likely that male domination, as it rightfully becomes less acceptable in the social and political spheres, should become more appealing as a fetish. As Georges Bataille argued in Erotism: Death and Sensuality, eroticism is an essential way for man and woman to confront their own limitations, including their own mortality. Because humans, unlike animals, came to grasp with their own mortality through reason, it is only when we flout reason — when we lose touch with it entirely — that we can come close “to touching the infinite”; that we can ever achieve transcendence. In climax, many of us don’t know our own names — let alone the truth of our own mortality. Any sexual satisfaction has the possibility of offering such euphoria — but, for Bataille, fetishes, or acts that defy sexual taboos, are particularly potent conduits for transcendance since, by definition, they make even less sense than so-called mainstream predilections. In Bataille’s world, we should all give up meditation and pick up a fetish instead. Indeed he asserts, “Eroticism, unlike simple sexual activity, is a psychological quest […] eroticism is assenting to life even in death.”
As women become more dominant within the spheres of reason — the economic, social, and political spheres — the desire to transgress their own taboos takes on a new urgency. In other words, the acquisition of power might lead to a desire for obliteration. This idea is actually supported by scientific research: a study published in 2009 by the Journal of Sex Research, found that socially dominant women are more likely to enjoy fantasies of submission, perceiving these fantasies as an expression of their own irresistible desirability, rather than as an exercise in force.
This may explain why more than half of the 25 books on Amazon’s best-selling erotica list feature male domination, from the relatively banal (like a forbidden love between student and professor) to the dark (like fantasies of kidnapping). The broader cultural context can also explain certain subgenres that have recently emerged as major trends within contemporary erotica. One of these erotic subgenres is “breeding,” wherein a man sexually dominates a woman with the primary intent of impregnating her and forcing her to bring his children into the world. When it comes to reproductive rights, despite the many troubling restrictions that persist today — with perhaps more on the horizon — women do have more choices than ever before (at least, in the long span of repressive reproductive history), and choice can breed anxiety. Of course, a text that might work through this anxiety does not indicate that women would like to be stripped of these rights — any more than the thrill of a horror movie suggests a latent desire to die. On the contrary, both the slasher film and the breeder fantasy are vehicles through which we can explore our deepest fears and concerns — whether we will have children, whether we can ever really be safe — thereby transgressing and hopefully, overcoming them, if only briefly. Dressed up in clichés, corny writing, and studmuffin-laden covers, these popular books can be considered tools for social empowerment and sexual liberation.
Let’s take the Story of O as an example. In the book, O — whose very name evokes a hole and its implied vacuity, a crude representation of the female sex — begins a quest to understand and prove her consuming devotion to her lover, René, through complete submission to his every whim and, later, to those of Sir Stephen, to whom René has “given” her “so that he may use her in any manner he desires.” Ultimately, O’s impulse for submission leads her down a path of total annihilation that culminates, almost inevitably, in her suicide. The last line of the novel reads: “O, seeing that Sir Stephen was about to leave her, said she would prefer to die. Sir Stephen gave his consent.”
The impulse to conflate a protagonist’s actions with the moral perspective of the author can be extremely strong, particularly when discussing works by women. It is not entirely surprising then, that even feminist critics have argued that O’s suicide promotes gender inequality and glorifies male dominance. And yet there are a number of other ways to interpret this story, as well as its ending. It is hard to believe that Desclos meant O’s demise to be viewed positively — or even literally. In fact, it seems more likely that the tragic conclusion might serve as a warning about the dangers of all-consuming subservience. If willful submission is ultimately a quest for transcendence and self-effacement — as it is in a divine or religious context — then wouldn’t death naturally be its ultimate, and most liberating, expression? Despite its sexually explicit content, O’s search is, in many ways, a philosophical journey not unlike those undertaken by religious mystics. Indeed, the conditions of O’s “training,” which takes place in a secluded castle, can be considered analogous to that of a monk’s initiation: she is induced to give up her worldly possessions, stripped of her identity, isolated, and submitted to various physical trials designed to test the will’s triumph over the body. Throughout her debasement, O finds “the chains and the silence, which should have bound her deep within herself, which should have smothered her, strangled her, on the contrary freed her from herself.”
Science might actually provide further proof for this reading. A 2009 study conducted by psychologist Pamela H. Connolly revealed that BDSM practitioners had lower levels of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychological sadism, psychological masochism, borderline pathology, and paranoia compared to normative samples. What’s more, a later study, published in Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice in 2016, found that both dominants and submissives entered altered states of consciousness that, while distinct experiences, were both pleasurable. Dominants entered a state of “flow,” associated with focused attention, a loss of self-consciousness and optimal performance of a task. Submissives, on the other hand, entered what is known as transient hypofrontality, a term coined by Dr. Arne Dietrich to describe the buzz that comes with intense physical exertion, or “runner’s high.” Transient hypofrontality reduces pain, and can produce feelings of floating, feelings of peacefulness and feelings of living in the here and now. The Story of O could be read as a kind of precedent to these findings, a form of finding liberation from the mental ties that might otherwise bind us.
The mainstream and literary culture’s dismissal of works like the Story of O and Fifty Shades of Grey is, of course, predictable. In 1978, Audre Lorde wrote an essay titled “Uses of the Erotic: Erotic as Power,” in which she described the paradoxical way that female sexuality is often pathologized: “On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.” According to Lorde, the “suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information” in women’s lives is one of the primary results, and functions, of gender inequality. When we ignore or demean consensual BDSM erotica, or stories about female sexual submission, we inadvertently contribute to a cultural legacy that routinely pathologizes, demeans, or erases women’s sexual desires.
Moreover, in ignoring these works, we effectively silence women authors. In Hélène Cixous’s 1975 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” the act of writing is closely linked to women’s sexual pleasure and personal power — to write as a woman is always an act of transgression. Nin, in the foreword to Delta of Venus, characterizes the process of working on the project as opening a “Pandora’s Box [which] contained the mysteries of woman’s sensuality, so different from man’s and for which man’s language is inadequate.” She recognized that in opening Pandora’s Box, she would release demons as well as angels. Female sexuality, like male sexuality, has nothing to do with morality or politics. Indeed, it is, in its many varied and unfiltered forms, a source of pleasure that often defies such ethical distinctions. Until we are brave enough to investigate it unflinchingly — without turning it into a pathology, without pitting it against feminist movements — women will not be able to achieve sexual liberation. As Lorde writes:
The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our oppression as women.
Erotica is not at odds with today’s feminism. If erotica is written by women, if it explores the depths of unmentionable fantasies, if it helps us think through the pleasures, fears, and anxieties inherent in sex and power, it is doing feminist work. Raunchy female-penned books don’t just offer thrills — they are important vehicles through which women can explore an otherwise prohibited eroticism. If we can find a way to appreciate this kind of work, instead of undermining it, we might also find another interesting — and rather fun — route to sexual and social empowerment.
Hayley Phelan writes about culture, style, travel, food, and the internet for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Elle, Conde Nast Traveler, Business of Fashion, and The Cut. She also has a column in the New York Times Thursday Styles Section.