26 March, 2008

Responding to Wakeman

Natty got several posts up about this before I managed to, but I'm not bitter or anything. ;) (her posts are here, here (same post as at the pb, but definitely worth scrolling down to the comments, and here.)

And since Natty got her posts up before me, I feel *totally* justified in focusing on the things that really bugged me about the article. There were some good sides to the piece, and for a moderately mainstream examination of DD, she did portray a couple of different viewpoints.

HOWEVER. Whether because she wound up writing for Bitch Magazine, or because of her own biases, the structure of the article, the framing of quotations from her sources, and her choice of sources she quoted at all really reinforces one end of the spectrum of domestic discipline.

By beginning and ending the article with an extended discussion of sources like "Loving Domestic Discipline" and the people who believe in the whole "surrendered wife" thing, readers unfamiliar with the range of approaches to DD are likely to come away with the idea that those attitudes define DD. Throughout the article, Wakeman failed to draw a distinction between the different ends of the spectrum. For example:
The crux of domestic discipline is that women's behavior is inherently rife with transgressions, and the discipline provided by their intimate partner will be a leveling force... In addition to disciplinary spankings, MrLovingDD also advocates "maintenance spankings," which, he explains, "help to build on the existing levels of the woman's obedience, respect, and honesty.

Mija... describes DD simply. "To be really trite, take the Volkswagen ad. 'On the road of life, there are passengers and there are drivers.'" In their figurative VW, Pablo... disciplines Mija....

"I decide that there's some sort of goal I want to achieve and he enforces it," explains Natty... who writes about her DD relationship on a blog called The Punishment Book....

(Yeah. Cause Natty is the *only* woman writing there. Hmpf. ;P )

By framing the quotations from Mija and Natty this way, Wakeman implies that they believe gender is the central dynamic in domestic discipline. I think, had I not already known Mija and Natty, I would believe that they also believe the point of domestic discipline is to rein in women, whose behavior is "inherently rife with transgressions." Now, I don't presume to read their minds, but I'm pretty sure that neither Mija nor Natty really agrees with MrLovingDD.

The repeated focus on the male/female dynamic set a tone for the article that rubbed me the wrong way. It reinforced the (imo) misogynist beliefs of the LovingDD types, and undermined the feminist possibilities of other ways of doing "this thing we do." It would be as though she were writing an article about Christianity, and framed it to imply that all Christians are of the Jerry Falwell type, even when she was quoting people with more liberal views.

In order to do that, Wakeman had to exclude a portion of the DD community. In her mind, it is a small section, perhaps not relevant to the larger discussion. Buried between parentheses in the middle of the article, she noted
Theoretically, a man can be the submissive in a heterosexual domestic discipline relationship, and a DD relationship can be same-sex, but based on both Internet presence and the couples that I interviewed, it's far more common to find heterosexual, female-submissive practicioners.

Let me speak up as one of the people interviewed for this article. I am in a same-sex relationship, and we practice domestic discipline. I have a blog, and I am one of the writers at the Punishment Book. And I have some opinions as to why it's far more common to find heterosexual, female-submissive practicioners of DD.

Groups like "Loving DD" specifically exclude couples who don't match their vision of why domestic discipline is necessary in relationships. They deny that anyone who practices outside of the male-dominant, female-submissive paradigm is truly engaging in domestic discipline, because they adhere to the misogynistic belief that women should be sumissive to their male partners. All women. All partnerships.

Last fall, when W and I were struggling to figure out how to navigate this thing we do, we tried joining a couple of other bulletin boards. We tried a few, and weren't having much luck. I finally snapped when the moderators of the least annoying board I found moved my introductory post to the BDSM forum, insisting that because W and I are both women, what we do is kink, and not discipline. So I started This Thing We Do, and discovered a lot of other people who have felt excluded from other DD forums for a lot of reasons.

Just because people are excluded doesn't mean they don't exist. Fifty years ago, there weren't many black people in Ivy League insitutions. Was this because black people weren't intelligent enough, or because they were specifically kept out of those institutions? Yet, there were those who made an argument that intelligence was inherently tied to whiteness. Right now today, same-sex couples are denied the right to marry, with the argument that marriage is about heterosexual partnership. Does this mean that same-sex couples don't exist, or that they don't make long-term partnerships, or that they don't do any of the things straight couples do? (Well, according to my mother, the big difference between my lesbian relationship and my sisters' straight ones is that W and I spend a lot of time working on communicating well. But I wouldn't argue that it's our homosexuality that makes that happen!)

So okay. Some of this is irritation at all of the ways my relationship is dismissed, and most of that is not Wakeman's fault.

But at the same time, I am annoyed by this exclusion as a feminist. People tend to fall back on gender as an explanation for behavior at points where gender is not, in fact, the cause. Whether it is domestic discipline or the discussion of who is responsible for doing the grocery shopping, gender cannot be the answer.

Very often, I will hear straight people talking about their relationships, ascribing the challenges to the differences between men and women. Some of our (perhaps less enlightened) straight friends say they wish they weren't straight, because they think their relationship problems would go away if there weren't those gendered differences.

I am here to say that relationships--straight, gay, polyamorous--are WORK. They take work. They take HARD work. And they take a lot of it. And domestic discipline takes work. It isn't going to save you the trouble of learning how to communicate with your partner. It doesn't excuse you from being able to express your needs and desires. All DD is is a tool couples can use.

Taking gender out of the equation forces me and W to look at ourselves. It forces me to take personal responsibility for this need. I do not need it because I am a woman. The reason W does *not* need it isn't because of her gender, either.

Accepting myself for who I am is a radical act. It challenges the idea that there is only one way of doing things, only one way of being a good (take your pick: feminist, woman, Christian, pagan, black person, abuse survivor, healthy adult...). And it does challenge me to think about why it is that I have these needs. If the answer is not "because I am a woman," then I'm left with a lot of work to do on understanding myself and who I am.

I suspect some of the reason that W and I were excluded from other forums is that some people don't want to have to do the work of understanding themselves and their relationships. It is easier sometimes to exclude dissenting viewpoints, in order to not have to examine your own experiences too closely.

And Wakeman's article gave those people an out. It left a broad path by which readers of the article can dismiss DD as misogynistic, and reinforced the tendency of feminism to exclude what isn't comfortable. It also allowed those who believe that DD works because "women's behavior is inherently rife with transgressions" not to challenge that belief for themselves.

I'm not completely certain why this thing we do works, but I know it's not because my behavior is any worse than W's. I don't know why I need external discipline, but it's not because I am submissive to W.

To me, the best of feminism comes when it challenges our assumptions about how people interact with each other in the world. Wakeman's article, for all of its positive sides, doesn't do that for me.


Natty said...

Now, I don't presume to read their minds, but I'm pretty sure that neither Mija nor Natty really agrees with MrLovingDD.

He he...er, no. Indeed, I rarely miss an opportunity to slag him off. ;-)

Cause Natty is the *only* woman writing there. Hmpf. ;P

That one annoyed me too. I write about my relationship on Natty's Spanking Blog. Nine women write on the Punishment Book. She doesn't even mention that Mija writes at the PB!

It's little things like that -- and big things like falling back to traditional frames -- that separate journalists from academics. When I've seen journalists write about my academic topic, they always miss the little details.

It would be as though she were writing an article about Christianity, and framed it to imply that all Christians are of the Jerry Falwell type, even when she was quoting people with more liberal views.

Exactly! Brilliant analogy. And, in fact, journalists do this all the time. As a liberal Evangelical, I spent years reading article after article in which journalists couldn't grasp that Jerry Falwell spoke for only a small group of Evangelical and not 70 million of them, even if they found what they thought was the odd liberal one.

What I've come to realize is that journalists think in terms of frames and have a hard time breaking them. A. may disagree with me (as a journalist, he was extremely defensive of Wakeman). But then again, part of the reason he didn't want me to be involved with the article is that "journalists are idiots" -- he's so very erratic!

Just because people are excluded doesn't mean they don't exist.

Yeah, I mean, I know that M/M DD happens. Spanking is HUGE in the gay community. But I have yet to find a blog about it. Somehow, I'm not putting in the right search phrase in Google, but it doesn't invalidate what I know is there.

and reinforced the tendency of feminism to exclude what isn't comfortable.

Sometimes I think feminism (or at least some parts of it) is so obsessed with female subservience it fails to see female agency. And, in doing so, fails to allow female choice. That, I think, is why so many women today don't self-identify as feminists -- a very unfortunate thing considering how much we need feminism.

Thanks so much for a very thoughtful, great post!

Indiana said...

I really like this post, too, JA, and I've been thinking about the issues you and Natty have raised on and off over the last week. I completely agree that Wakeman has focused on only one end of the DD spectrum. My first impulse was that this characterization is deliberate, but Natty's comment made me think that it might have more to do with a lack of scholarship. If her article had been written by an academic, I would be convinced that there was a deliberate attempt to minimize Natty's and Mija's differences with Mr. LDD. As it is, I still think she is operating from that bias, though it may be unconscious.

Like Natty, I love your Jerry Falwell analogy. I would even extend it a bit: outsiders may believe that the LDDers and the Falwell types are representative because they're the loudest factions. I'm pretty convinced that you and Natty are right-- there are lots of F/M, F/F, and M/M couples who practice DD, but both of you have tried pretty hard to find them without much luck. Probably because these couples keep a lower profile, for whatever reason.

Perhaps ironically, the time I feel most in the situation of being lumped in with one end of the spectrum is when people equate all feminists with the anti-porn so-called radical feminists. One of the key means the dominant forces in society use to marginalize significant opposing forces is to create the impression that they are extreme and unreasonable. Natty's comment about female agency is very perceptive, but I don't think we should underestimate the effect that this kind of backlash has on Jane Doe's view of feminism.

Finally, while I agree that people tend to use gender as a causal explanation much more frequently than is appropriate, I'm not entirely convinced that it's not important to this debate. After all, gender clearly plays a strong role in our acculturation. Perhaps it makes women more likely to submit (or less likely to dominate) and men more likely to dominate (or less likely to submit). Or perhaps our gender socialization just makes it less likely that men who submit or women who dominate will feel comfortable talking about it. Either way, there's still something going on.

In fact, I remember reading something on a spanking blog or newsgroup about a study of the mental health of BDSM practitioners in Australia. As I recall, they studied gay and heterosexual men. (Maybe they studied heterosexual women, too, but I'm positive that lesbian women were left out again). Of course, they found both groups to be as mentally healthy as the control sample, but I think they found gay men were more likely to engage in BDSM activity. I wonder if that's because once you've acknowledged one type of sexual desire outside the mainstream that it's easier to acknowledge another? Or, at the risk of sounding like your less than sensitive friends, is it a little easier to navigate domination and submission if you're not struggling with historical male dominance and female submission? I'm pretty sure that my distaste for male dominance in society was a key factor in the difficulty I had coming to terms with my interest in spanking. I'd be interested in knowing what you think-- perhaps there's a genderless explanation I haven't considered yet.

All the best,