Content warning: domestic violence
I was raised in an extremely confused feminist environment. My family is matriarchal on both sides, the women rule the roost. In almost all cases they are more educated and bigger earners than their male partners. Very few have stayed home to raise children, whereas we have several stay at home dads in the group. Words like “babe” and “bitch” were completely off the table, and don’t you dare compliment the way a woman in my family looks, or say that their daughter is cute or pretty if you haven’t yet commented on how smart or accomplished they are. No one changes their last name. Yet, amidst all of this, there was violence perpetrated by several men in our family clan. Husbands and fathers who by and large were committed, caring participants in their immediate families; men who appeared to love and cherish their wives and kids, but who had an undercurrent of rage and hostility, men who were out of control. Those men have removed themselves, or been removed, from the family, but it took a long, long time.
What were these women waiting for? I remember being much younger and much less fluent in the ways of the world and relationships, knowing that certain men in our family were dangerous or problematic when challenged or frustrated. I recall seeing photos of my mother from before I was born and hardly recognizing her because her nose was so different. I learned later it had been broken twice by my father. How, then, could this powerful, iconic woman, this brilliantly well-read feminist scholar and activist simply stand there in silence as a man screamed in her face and beat her black and blue? She never cried, she never begged, she never even flinched. As a child, I was paralyzed with fear. As I got older, I vibrated with rage. To my surprise, my rage was with her. I was angry at him that he’d hurt her, and that her first husband and her father had done the same, but I was unspeakably angry that she would tolerate it. When pressed, she paused, tapped her cigarette onto the edge of the ashtray and said to me, in a very level tone, “He doesn’t always hit me. Mostly he sits at my feet and cries. He’s a man who never learned how to express himself. I don’t excuse him, but I understand him. He may beat me, but he never, ever wins.” My mind still reels at this explanation. Winning and losing? Crying at her feet? I was not ready for that side of the story, so it sat in the air between us, swirling slowly with the blue-grey smoke that curled around her face. I waited. She drew on the cigarette again, and exhaled another soft plume. “No one can take your power,” she said, stubbing out the cigarette, “unless you give it to them. That’s the trick of being a woman. Men want control. Women have cuntrol.”
I don’t for a moment think that my parents had a BDSM relationship, I don’t believe this was a consensual arrangement in that sense, but it was a sort of understanding. She allowed him, nay, made space, for his unbridled rage, something she believed was an act of power, even supremacy, a gift. He was a broken, confused young man who would do anything for control and she believed she had the strength to withstand him. In hindsight I can see how her approach to his anger castrated him, how it fueled his anger. I also don’t believe she was responsible for the violence set upon her and nothing, no matter her point of view excuses the abuse. More than anything, I understand deeply that abuse is never love. Why did she stay? Why did she tolerate the broken nose, the purple ribs, the split lips? How did her version of feminism accept that level of violence? She’s passed on now. I’ll never know.
Fast forward to my early thirties: peak personal sexual revolution. I’m playing with a new lover and he’s unlike any other man I have been with. He wants to be led, teased, pushed. He doesn’t want to say what he wants. He’s shy and silly and trying to get me to pull his desire from him. It becomes an awkward cat and mouse game that I don’t understand. I’m suddenly frustrated and I push him down, his wrists by his ears, my body weight over his chest. He grins and moans, I push him to respond to me with words and he says simply, “Do whatever you want. You deserve it.” I deserve what? I’m confused. I pull back and sit up. I ask for a time out, for clarification. Another riddle slips from his lips: “You’re a woman. You should have whatever you want.” I argue that that isn’t right, isn’t fair, isn’t equal. As I’m saying that I am regretting it. Not so very deep down, not so very well hidden are feelings that are sparking and responding to his sentiments. My body is responding to those sentiments. I want the control that he wants me to have. I want it more than I am able to express. I realize I have that power, I just have to access it. I feel myself slip into a state of calm, the same set to my jaw, the same cool eyes I saw on my mother’s face. Her voice echoes:
“No one can take your power, unless you give it to them. That’s the trick of being a woman.”
The collision of that confusing feminist history with my own evolving sexuality was the big bang that led me to Female Domination. It was my first dose of sexual control and I was an instant addict. I don’t believe that women are superior to men, I don’t believe I have greater inherent strengths or rights because of my biology, (not to mention the exclusionary nature of the binary gender model, which is a whole other discussion). But I do feel my cuntrol, I do feel an innate desire/need/longing for control that stems directly from the seat of my sexuality. I like men. I enjoy them, despite being given every reason to loathe and fear them. However, I have learned that I like some of them because I can control them and I fell head over heels with the power exchange and mutual acknowledgment of that control in a BDSM context.
I don’t agree with all of my mother’s strategies. I don’t have enough intimate information to decode why she gambled and managed her physical and emotional safety against her beliefs. Perhaps she was coping, perhaps she really was completely in control. Perhaps it was the only way that she could reconcile the abuse. Control is a tricky thing. We want it, we need it, but sometimes only when we let go of it do we find the answers that we seek. I suppose I will have to try that some time …