What Explains Women's Fascination With BDSM Fiction?


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/05/09/what-explains-womens-fascination-with-bdsm-fiction/
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Vey interesting article. I have noted the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale as the basis for such stories. I am also struck by the Andromeda story. A virginal beauty submits to the dangerous creature and then eventually uncovers the hidden prince who has been waiting for her (and only her).

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Meh. Not all roads lead to evolutionary psychology. Popularity of a phenomenon might also be a combination of a nurture nature thing. IE certain personalities & how they react under certain environmental conditions. Were early humans getting off smashing the crap out of each other? I don’t think so.

When Fifty Shades was super popular it was the topic of discussion at a mothers school dinner I attended & interestingly the enthusiastic consensus was heavily in favour of the more ‘controlling’ aggressive career orientated types. Perhaps sexual play is where these folk ‘balance’ their psyches out after a hard days breaking balls & maybe the sadists in the sack are the chronic ‘pleasers’?

I suspect only a large scale psychological profile of women into BDSM is going to reveal any accurate conclusions on this issue.

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The point he makes is that the same theme is repeated over and over the years. If we are the stories we tell ourselves, and I think we are, then many find this fairytale appealing.

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OK, this article is fun, and interesting, and proffers an insight. It’s a pretty common insight but maybe some of us haven’t already thought of this on our own. As a conversation piece it’s good, as a literary review it’s good, it works as “story”, I appreciate the 25-year-cycle thought, I like the list of the various fictional works.

But when the author starts trying to get scientific, this article’s a failure. For example:

The article is paywalled, but from the abstract anyone can see that there’s no mention of anything having to do with matriarchy. I did go out and read the entire article - there’s not a single word in it about anything being matriarchal. Maybe the author’s contention is true, that BDSM communities are matriarchal, or female-dominated, or exclusive of unaccompanied/single males - I don’t know. But the cite doesn’t at all support the contention. It seems to be a basic error.

That’s bad enough in casual conversation - claiming that so-and-so supports such-and-such when it isn’t actually true; but in this context I see it as a fatal flaw. After such a goof I feel that “This is just another somebody opining (or shooting his mouth off) about a topic.” It reduces credence & credibility, and trust (that the author cares enough about his work to do a decent job of citation).

Similarly this cite or link:

Points to a fragmentary Psychology Today article that doesn’t really seem to support the author’s point.

Enjoy the Quillette article for its thought-provoking value but as something to rely on, it appears to be a mishmash and little more than contention.

Perhaps other references are better but after two false leads I tired of checking.

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Women can be left (literally) holding the baby, so how can they test, and even enforce, commitment from a partner? The BDSM scenario offers one set of solutions, that of mutually assured destruction in the case of desertion. And, as stated above, this happens elsewhere in nature.

I’m not sure I follow. How does the BDSM scenario have anything to do with mutually assured destruction? Is the idea that tying your partner up is the human equivalent of the hornbill being sealed inside a tree? Okay, maybe, but how does that explain the S/M aspect of it, where one party seems to enjoy inflicting pain and the other enjoys receiving it? Maybe I’m just not following.

I would also posit that there’s something missing here, and that it involves something like the following: part of the fantasy behind these stories is that a woman can capture the attention (and commitment!) of a high status man by, in a sense, outbidding other women in her willingness to be subservient to her partner, hence the S/M stuff and why there are frequently elements of humiliation/degradation involved with these fantasies.

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Personally i dont think that every human behavior can or should be explained, my personal opinion is that in some cases attempting to explain is a foolish endeavor.
Recently i watched the movie “A Dangerous Method” about Carl Jung’s love affair with such a woman and his rivalry with Sigmund Freud. It’s based on a non-fiction book, and it offers a different view, but no explanation.
There are people into all sort of weird stuff, for all sorts of weird reasons.
Not all phantasies and deviations can be explained scientifically.
Also a personal matter, but i find the attempts to explain all strange actions and psychological phenomena through evolution to be quite irritating, mostly because it ends up being pulled by the hair badly.
Ah stupid me, forgot the main gripe i had with this article: the title.
The title is a statement posing as a question, because the way the question is formulated, it implies that “women” (in general) have a fascination with BDSM fiction, and i don’t think this is the case, and i don’t think there is any evidence for it. Maybe if you told me that more women than men enjoy playing the “victim” role on the BDSM scene, i could be convinced, but otherwise, nah.
Anyway a very interesting subject, but it raises more questions than it gives answers, which is probably why i like it.

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Also the 2002 BDSM movie “Secretary” whose male protagonist is named E. Edward Grey.

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Good essay. It’s worth noting that amongst those with BDSM fantasies, submissive fantasies are four times more common amongst both men and women. The author had a lot to offer, but in this area there seems to be good deal of social construction going on in the West, in terms of the sexual fantasies we construct in our head. Perhaps a lot of it the nature of our guilt and forgiveness culture, paired with a degree of the ‘forbidden fruit’ expressed as a form of rebellion against conventional sexual mores and norms.

But one thing seems clear- there is a sense in which we feel more comfortable and at home with our sexuality when we abdicate responsibility for our own pleasure and sexual urges, even if the abdication is only metaphorical and symbolic. Plus, in this genre of fantasy, we simultaneously get to indulge our pleasure at the same time we are punished for it. The process also displaces the conventional guilt we feel for transactional sex, or objectification, and replaces it with the more pleasurable guilt of the forbidden ‘deviance’, within a fully consensual framework.

If you doubt the propensity for male submissiveness, consider this- there is plenty of high paid work for Doms in the sex work industry, but far less of a market for Subs…

The other problem to be wary of is the male tendency to compartmentalise women into types, in worst cases partitioning off parts of sexuality from our partners. It is most clearly seen within the Manga or Anime genre, where female characters are divided into sisters, good girls who deserved to be treated like princesses put up on pedestals, with only the villainess capable of expressing her inner harlot.

I believe this tendency to dichotomise relationships into the sanitised and vanilla ‘loving’ relationship, and the more carnal and licentious, is what causes so many couples to stray from their committed relationships and have affairs. If they have compartmentalised their sexual behaviour to the extent that they cannot express the seedier side of their desires with their chosen partner, it creates the urge to stray.

It’s tragic, because despite the fact that men seem to want to put the women they choose as long-term partners up on pedestals, like some vestigial maternal figure, all the evidence seems to point to the fact that women are just as likely to stray because of the confinement or partition of our baser sexual natures as men are.

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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Normally I don’t agree with @Ella-B, but I have to second her comment on evolutionary psychology overdone. Surely, the general idea of evolutionary anything to understand humanity is sound, but it needs some grounding in evidence.

The problem is that often, evolutionary ideas are applied in a speculative way, asserted as if they were proven fact. Many of them are actually “Just So” stories.

Let’s use some empirical clues instead and make some comparisons. The erotic thrill, the frisson, of being bound or constrained in potential danger bears similarity to the attraction of horror films for both sexes. Perhaps it’s a more distant cousin to the pleasure (?) derived from watching tragedy on the stage or screen. On the latter, there’s a distinguished literature from heavyweights like Aristotle, Hume, and Hegel.

Clearly BDSM has a strong element of vicarious thrills, like an extreme roller coaster ride, that acts out deep fears that women sometimes have of being kidnapped, bound, etc., and must lead to something like Aristotle’s catharsis (purification from negative feelings). The positive effect of this thrill varies, being strongest among a distinct minority. The play/make-believe element undoubtedly reflects an evolutionary heritage, as it’s a common trait of animals, at least young mammals.

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Evolutionary psychology is in my view a field of study that teeters over the same ideologically scientistic precipice as ‘gender’ or ‘Aryan’ studies, because its propositions are so lavishly generalized, and its evidence base one suspects, cherry picked within a mélange of enthusiastic and plausible sounding speculation, whose eye is as much on sales as ‘insight’.

But maybe I am being a bit hard…and uncharitable to compare it with those other gems of pseudo-science, social Darwinism and racial biology.

But I digress. Stuff like BDSM is never ‘just’ about consensual play between knowing adults who understand and respect boundaries. We live in a very fantasy driven world where the boundaries of reality and delusion have taken a real beating (as it were). And the upshot of that is a sexual political landscape that looks pretty fun from a distance, but is nonetheless strewn with mines, hidden quick bogs, thin ice and slippery slopes etc, for the unwary.

The sexual revolution only ever advertised the upside. I have been around long enough to know how toxic it can be underneath all the razzamatazz.

Sex became the main propaganda device for Indulgence Capitalism which commodified sex and women in ways which turned a lot of women into mystified dorkasaurs, who couldn’t figure out why they were getting sexual politically screwed all the time, when they were supposed to be so ‘liberated’, but in fact were bunnies in a hunt where they were the game.

The borders of sex and fantasy can be dangerous and made more so when substantial power assymetries are deliberately introduced.

The following short story illustrates the theme…