Some months back, while I was still using my sanitized outside voice, Alice Archer contacted me for an article she was doing about “The Changing Face of Female Domination,” slated to be published in Filament Magazine. Now that the article is out (a preview is available if you turn to page 34, and have Flash), I thought I’d share a (slightly edited) version of the brief email exchange we had in which she asked me some questions and I provided what sound to me like overly-polite answers. Although I’m quoted extensively in the Filament article, it’s a decidedly different article with a decidedly different narrative, so I would encourage you to pick up a copy (of Issue 7), if not “for the articles,” then for the pictures of pretty boys.

Questions for Filament Article on F/m

Alice Archer: [Can you provide s]ome biographical information – name, age, location, links to the relevant blogs you write[?]

Maymay: I’m maymay, a 26 year old guy currently living in San Francisco. I spent the majority of my life in New York City, however, and I spent a year living in Sydney, Australia. I wrote about the BDSM communities in all three of these cities, mostly at my personal blog at maybemaimed.com but also a little bit at my photo blog about male submissive imagery at MaleSubmissionArt.com.

AA: Do you think that F/m suffers from an image problem? If so, what, in your view, is causing this?

Well, yes, and the question raises a few distinct points that are important to understand. Although the F/m imagery we generally see presents only one kind of relationship between dominant women and submissive men, neither dominant women nor submissive men are monolithic groups. Moreover, although dominant women and submissive men are often lumped into the same group together, it’s also important to think about both groups individually.

The truth is that while stereotypical depictions of F/m relationships may be desirable for some people, they by no means reflect all the desires or the reality for all of us. So, to think of F/m imagery as a monolithic group is to actively reinforce the image problem itself. Let me explain.

Both the content and context of the imagery needs to be examined. Overwhelmingly, when people discuss female-dominant sexual imagery, they refer to the leather or latex clad dominatrix, wearing stilettos, snarling and wielding a whip. There are (broadly defined) four groupings here, since generally people who create F/m imagery also view some, if only the images they themselves create:

  1. People who create F/m imagery and for whom it resonates accurately.
  2. People who create F/m imagery and for whom it does not resonate.
  3. People who view F/m imagery and for whom it resonates accurately.
  4. People who view F/m imagery and for whom it does not resonate.

Far and away, the most well-represented groups are the ones who create the imagery, not the ones who only view it. Since the creation of sexually-related imagery is so thoroughly influenced by commercial interests, many of these people are either professional models, pro-dominants, or the like. Whether or not these people engage in F/m relationships as a function of their personal pursuit of happiness is, in the production context, irrelevant. People are often surprised to learn how many women appearing in dominant roles in imagery do not play a dominant role in their personal sexual relationships.

Herein lies the crux of the problem: in the over-arching culture as well as in the BDSM subculture (despite some BDSM’ers loud objections to this reality), representations of powerful women are extremely limited. Pictures of dominant women are so overbearingly policed, often focusing on wardrobe above all else, that for a long time the overwhelming majority of culturally acceptable representations of women in power were images of leather-clad dominatrices. And while I’m sure some narrow sliver of the populace thoroughly enjoys such stereotypes, it offers very little in the way of sexual gratification for most dominant women or submissive men.

As a result of this cultural influence, most BDSM communities became ghettos for the small group of people who enjoyed the single, narrow interpretation of F/m relationships that are available there, drawing more of the same into the community, and repeating the cycle of exclusion. Meanwhile, dominant women who, for instance, prefer to play tenderly and in hoodies and submissive men who, for instance, enjoy feeling cared for instead of being called names, are left out in the cold.

So the answer is yes, as most people understand it, F/m does have a gigantic image problem. And in fact, that problem is perpetuated, quite literally, by most F/m imagery itself. How crazy is that?

What lead you to start Male Submission Art?

I started Male Submission Art out of anger, bitterness, and sadness. For years, I had been viewing pornography, erotic images, and other iconography of the BDSM persuasion that did not resonate with me, that indeed pained me. You might ask why I continued to view imagery that I found so unfulfilling and you would be quite right to do so. The simple answer, however, is that it is my sexuality: I am a submissive man, and my personal pursuit of happiness involves expressing love and devotion to a dominant partner from a place of sexual submission.

While it may be reasonable to expect someone for whom most erotic imagery does not offer fulfillment to stop viewing it, it is downright cruel to expect that person to simply live unfulfilled. With few options for satisfying sexual expression, erotic art is a literal lifeline for many people, offering sexual fulfillment at least in fantasy for the things they can not, or feel they should not, actually have in reality. That describes me, except for the fact that I found most of the easily available imagery so distasteful for so many reasons that masturbatory sessions with the stuff sometimes ended in tears.

I felt ignored by so much of the imagery out there, but I optimistically believed I couldn’t be the only one who felt that way. I began to examine why, exactly, I felt so marginalized by most existing imagery and was eventually able to identify an aesthetic that I felt did a better job representing my desires. Male Submission Art was created as the place to curate images I liked, partly for my own sake, but also for the sake of the other men like me who I had to believe felt as I did.

What sort of reaction have you had to Male Submission Art?

The reaction to Male Submission Art has been amazing. Interestingly, it has attracted an incredibly vocal audience of women. I’ve received numerous correspondence from women who have said my work on the site changed their lives for the better. Many of these women tell me personal stories that corroborate my theories about the F/m “image problem.” For instance, Jenny wrote:

For me, years of porn and women’s magazines have left me expecting to be submissive, just because I’m female. And whilst yes, I could let someone take control of me, I enjoy taking that control myself because of the pleasure I can make others feel. […] Thank you for showing me who I am. Thank you for showing me it’s okay to be a strong, sexy woman who takes control (and not just as a one-off to turn a guy on).

While most of the people who wrote to me personally about the site were women, there were gay men and even straight men who also wrote to me. For example, Michael wrote:

As a hetero male sub, I’ve grown up looking at traditional Femdom images. Yes, I “get off” on it often, but there was always something missing: the tender, loving feelings I have and share with my Mistress. Best of all, I’ve found things [at Male Submission Art] that reflect our relationship (and other things) which I can send to her because I know she will enjoy them.

Possibly the most surprising response I’ve gotten from the site, however, is from submissive women. One woman named “Spark” wrote that she wasn’t like any of the other submissive women she knew:

I couldn’t call myself submissive because I couldn’t see how the way I felt and the way [other submissive women I knew] felt was at all the same. […] Then I came across your website, and started to see all these different images of submission. Something beautiful and valuable, a way to be strong and proud and yet not in control. Not something to be ashamed of, something you could really be proud of with good grounds. I guess I couldn’t admit what I wanted to myself until I saw submission with dignity and pride. And I couldn’t relate to it in images of female bodies.

These three are just samples of what must be hundreds. When I still had the energy to post on the site more often, Male Submission Art reached an estimated 17,000 visitors a month. To me, that’s 17,000 people a month who were either actively looking for or didn’t realize they were looking for imagery of male submission that resonated authentically with them.

In the end, we can’t be what we can’t see. And far too much of the mainstream culture doesn’t allow women to see men as opportunities for their own sexual gratification, and it doesn’t allow men to see themselves that way, either. And, while trite, the truth is that’s just not fair.

There have been other commentators questioning some of the prevalent images and assumptions about F/m. Do you think this is changing how people are expressing male submission/Female dominance ‘out there’?

Yes, I do. I’ve begun to see images featured on Male Submission Art crop up as people’s avatars and user profile pictures. It is especially encouraging when I see a beautiful image of a submissive man replacing a cliché image of a scowling dominant woman. Even some pro-dommes who previously featured images of themselves in their avatars have started using pictures of men they saw on the site. This is incredibly important, because it begins to inch towards more equitable representation in the media, both social media and, hopefully one day, mainstream media.

It also changes the way that people think of F/m relationships because so many women, like Jenny, are only offered two options for their sexuality by the overwhelming majority of media: submissive girl or scowling dominatrix. But this dichotomy is as old and as false as the virgin-whore dichotomy, and what’s clear is that perpetuating that false dichotomy does nothing to further the fulfillment of women like Jenny or men like me.

To quote from one of my favorite essays of all time, Kinky Sex for Social Justice:

While I greatly admire and at times practice female sexual dominance, in terms of sexual politics I think it is far less useful for female empowerment than it would appear to be, sort of in the way that the SAT answer choice that seems totally obvious and easy is usually wrong.

This is because intractably submissive men are actually often the biggest misogynists around: their worship of dominant women is the only way they can indulge deviant sexual desires while keeping their virgin/whore complexes intact. The dominant woman and the puritan virgin are in fact quite similar. They are both impenetrable fortresses of untouchable femininity; the woman-as-what-you-can’t-ever-have. The danger of actuality, of real possession, of the sex act and what follows in all its sticky complexities—which we never resolve because it’s no part of the stories of pursuit and courtship on which men and women alike are raised; stories that end with a fade-to-black on the way to the bedroom—is conveniently never reached, and the man can remain in a safe, comfortable state of unfulfilled torment.

Our culture has no idea what to do with happiness or with the getting of what one wants.

When I look at the way most other self-described submissive men behave, I am often infuriated knowing that I will—and do—pay a price for their disgustingly willful ignorance.

Some people say that F/m reinforces sexism by casting women being in control as something ‘absurd’. What would you say to that?

I’d say that thinking about control as intrinsically linked to gender is absurd. Most of the people who say such things hold contradictory views about sex and gender themselves without realizing it. For example, the idea of dominant women, women in control of a sexual situation, as an absurdity is undermined by the often regurgitated lunacy that women are gatekeepers of men’s sexuality, that women say either “yes” or “no” and thereby are either charged with or derided for controlling men’s sexual urges.

Anything else you’d like to say?

Curating imagery at Male Submission Art has taught me a lot, mostly because many of the images people suggest offer fascinating insights into their relationship with power, and especially how that relationship interrelates with their understanding of gender. I believe submissive men are one of the most under- and mis-represented groups of people, yet are simultaneously a group who could be extremely influential in advocating for gender equality, for the right to be who we want to be and do what we want to do regardless of one’s biological sex or gender. And yet many feminists, especially the anti-BDSM radical ones like Robin Morgan, are quick to discount our experiences out of hand. Morgan says:

Men who see themselves as relatedly masochistic, “femme,” feminine, etc., obviously are insulting the female (in person and in prinicple). If they grovel to a male master they are mimicking (for fun) an experience all women in patriarchy are in some way or other forced to endure in reality. If they cower before a female “dominatrix,” they are superficially reversing, and thereafter trivializing, real women’s real oppression.

I think views like Morgan’s are extremely unfortunate, because anti-BDSM feminists are supposedly fighting for the rights of women to express themselves as they want, and that includes dominant women. But by disavowing the experiences of submissive men, they simultaneously disavow the experience of people who like submissive men, which, if Male Submission Art is any indication, includes a hell of a lot of women. Such dismissive attitudes about the reality, value, and importance of equitable representations of diverse sexual desire reify the narrow, hegemonic gender roles they claim to want freedom from.

Finally, I want to say that like all aspects of sexuality, submission, submissiveness, and its counterparts are descriptive terms, not proscriptive standards. In breaking the mold of F/m imagery, Male Submission Art clearly shows that other people’s dogmatic interpretations of what is or is not submissive, what is or is not dominant, and especially what is or is not manly, have no power over one’s own sexual desires unless one lets them. And frankly, even and perhaps especially as a submissive man, I see no reason to let anyone else dictate my sexuality to me.

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