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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Feminist in the Streets, Sadomasochist in the Sheets: Are You Morally Aligning Yourself With Women’s Subordination if You Engage in Consensually Inegalitarian Sexual Relationships?

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This article was the runner up in the undergraduate category of the 10th National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Written by Ayesha Chakravarti.

I. Introduction

Most feminists argue that “The personal is the political.” Is this true of people’s sex lives? In this essay, I will discuss the implications of having consensually inegalitarian sexual relationships (CISRs) on one’s moral alliance with women’s subordination. I define consensually inegalitarian sexual relationships as those which involve the consensual eroticisation of dominance and submission, or any form of powerplay. My argument is as follows: While in the context of currently prevailing patriarchal systems, CISRs have the tendency to perpetuate ideas of women’s subordination, engaging in such relationships does not itself entail a moral alliance with women’s subordination.

II. The case against consensual inegalitarian sexual relationships

II. i. What is involved in a CISR?

The most common and central element of CISRs is an engagement in BDSM, which is a sexual practice that involves the eroticisation of relations of domination and submission. Previously known as sadomasochism, BDSM is a term that better describes what is involved in the practice – Bondage and Discipline (B/D), Dominance and Submission (D/S), and Sadism and Masochism (S/M). A key aspect of BDSM on which the community pride themselves is the centrality of consent within the practice – it is key in these sexual scenarios of sadomasochism that the “players” express explicit consent to the specific acts that are to occur within any given encounter and can retract this consent at any given time. I will not be considering the moral implications of BDSM in terms of consent as my primary focus is the eroticisation of this dominance and submission in CISRs, and what implications this has on one’s moral alliance to women’s subordination.

II. ii. What is morally wrong about a CISR?

Feminists often criticise CISRs, as the most common iteration of these dynamics involves a woman in submission and her male counterpart in the dominant position. This is not simply the norm, feminists argue, but also the expectation. The societal view is that male sexuality largely consists of dominance and power – this is clearly visible not only in testimonies from the real-life experience of men and women, but also the way in which male sexuality is depicted in the media, as well as most importantly, pornography. As a result, female sexuality is largely expected to consist of being the object of this dominance and power. This view evidently prevails: the most common, and lusted-after, depiction of sexuality is that of the big, strong man aggressively whisking away the small, demure woman to be used sexually as he pleases, and this is portrayed as exactly what she desires. Dominance and submission, sadism and masochism – these are defining characteristics of male and female sexuality respectively, not only in the more adventurous sexualities implicated by these terms, but in basic, mainstream sexuality as well. As MacKinnon (1989) states, “The male sexual role centres on aggressive intrusion on those with less power and such acts of dominance are experienced as sexually arousing, as sex itself.” Thus, she argues, it is impossible to consider female sexuality in isolation, and must be situated within the larger system of subordination that exists within a patriarchal society. Women’s sexual feelings have been distorted not only by men’s ideas and desires but by women’s own desperate strategies for living in a sexist, sexually repressive culture. According to the feminist view, therefore, it is impossible for one to engage in a CISR without perpetuating the sexualised gender hierarchy and consequently, morally aligning oneself with the patriarchy. This is in large part based on a central tenet of feminism, namely the slogan: “The personal is political.” According this tenant, it is not possible to personally engage in behaviours without them having knock-on political and societal effects. By engaging in practices such as BDSM, and personally eroticising gendered dominance and submission, one is morally complicit in the perpetuation of the subordination of women. Thus, one morally aligns themselves with women’s subordination if they engage in CISRs.

III. The case for consensual inegalitarian sexual relationships

I argue that while feminists are correct in arguing that the eroticisation of the dominance of men and submission of women in CISRs can lead to the increased subordination of women in a non-sexual context, it does not follow that partaking in such sexual practices morally aligns oneself with this subordination; if I participate in a consensual inegalitarian sexual relationship, I am not morally endorsing that behaviour in the ‘real world’ and, not only am I not morally endorsing that behaviour, I am also not contributing to the perpetuation of that behaviour.

The issue here is a logical leap between:

  1. Knowing that the outcomes of an action can be morally negative, and
  2. Deciding that the outcomes of the action is, thus, always morally negative.

[Insofar as the action itself is morally neutral.]

This requires some argument.

III. i. The logical leap

It is evident that the eroticisation of dominance can be extremely morally problematic. This is because our sexual tastes reinforce certain behaviours that then, subconsciously, are replicated in non-sexual contexts. For example, if a boy is taught, through pornography or peers, throughout his sexual development, that male dominance and female submission is sexy, then he may then decide to replicate that in his own sexual relationships and enter into a CISR. If this sexual behaviour becomes the norm for him, he could then implement such behaviours in the workplace or other non-sexual contexts, as he subconsciously believes that women are normally (and should be) in subordinate positions. This would then perpetuate the gender hierarchy of women as inferior and men as superior, thus morally aligning himself with women’s subordination – he now believes, due to the eroticisation of dominance that occurs due to his engagement in CISRs, that it is not morally wrong to subordinate women. The possibility of this phenomenon occurring, and the fact that this does occur often, is inarguable.

However, this does not necessarily entail that CISRs themselves involve a moral alliance with women’s subordination, or that as a result we should not participate in them as doing so would be morally wrong. This would be like saying that “Reckless driving can lead to the death of pedestrians. Therefore, driving kills people and we should not drive or allow people to drive as that would be morally wrong due to its endorsement of killing pedestrians.” Of course, this argument by analogy does not exactly track, however the point remains that by choosing to use the most extreme negative outcomes of CISRs – that being the endorsement of women’s subordination – to encompass the moral nature of all CISRs, we are effectively straw-manning a whole community of people whose moral alliances may be with the exact opposite of what is assumed of them. It does not logically follow from the fact that CISRs can lead to a moral alliance with women’s subordination, that CISRs do inherently lead to a moral alliance with women’s subordination. Therefore, a participant in a CISR who likes to tie his partner up and slap her repeatedly could resultantly believe that women deserve to be treated violently in non-sexual situations, but that does not meant that the CISR inherently leads dominant men to believe that women deserve to be treated violently in non-sexual situations.

III. ii. Sexual preferences = moral beliefs?

I state above that the acts involved in CISRs are morally neutral – the moral weight lies in the outcomes of CISRs. The acts of dominance and submission themselves are morally neutral, as all parties involved are always consenting (at least in the definition of CISRs that I have adopted – a discussion of the morality of inegalitarian sexual relationships that fail on the ‘consensual’ criteria sometimes is interesting but outside the scope of this essay.) If all parties involved are consenting, then while there may be physical or psychological pain involved, there is no actual harm being inflicted as this ‘pain’ is wanted, and even pleasurable. If anything, I would argue that the net moral value of the acts in a CISR themselves is positive, as they are all enacted in the name of consensual sexual pleasure. However, for the purpose of this argument, let us assume that the ‘inegalitarian sexual acts’ hold neutral moral value.

What is then key in the evaluation of whether CISRs result in a negative moral alliance are the moral beliefs that may or may not be produced in the participants due to their actions in the CISR. I argue that holding a certain sexual preference does not necessarily entail that one holds presumptively corresponding moral beliefs. Bartky (1990) explores this idea by proposing the situation of a woman named Miss P. Miss P holds strong feminist beliefs, advocating for equality between men and women in all aspects and actively engages in the feminist movement. However, at the same time, she has regular masochistic sexual fantasies about being dominated, degraded, humiliated and restrained by Gestapo-like figures. Bartky argues that P experiences her own sexuality as doubly humiliating; not only does the content of her fantasies concern humiliation but the very having of such fantasies, given her politics, is humiliating as well, and this is not an uncommon occurrence since of all women who have sexual fantasies, 25% have fantasies of rape. It would be difficult to argue that 25% of women believe that all women should be degraded and subordinated in their non-sexual life, and that men deserve to be the dominant gender in society, even if that is the content of their sexual fantasies. Many women would adamantly testify that they are strong feminists, despite their masochistic tendencies. As an interesting juxtaposition, according to literature written by sex workers, there is a prominent phenomenon of powerful and misogynistic men who pay sex workers to engage in sadomasochism with them, however their sexual fantasy is to be degraded and made submissive by these dominatrices, which is counterintuitive to their moral alliance with female subordination.

In explanation of these sexual phenomena, Samois – a lesbian, feminist organisation for and by sadomasochistic women – argue that sadomasochism, and ‘morally wrong’ sexual preferences in general, is ritual or theatre in which the acts are entirely under the control of the actors; representations of violent acts should not be regarded with the same loathing as the acts themselves (Willis, 2012). While one may disagree with Samois’ statement that sadomasochism is ‘theatre’, these examples are clear indicators that one’s sexual preferences cannot be compared to a moral alliance, as they often in no way align with one’s moral beliefs. Instead, as long as all parties in a CISR are consenting and sexually aware, then it is almost infantilising to presume that their actions in this consensual relationship will necessarily have resulting effects in their non-sexual, moral lives. Mature adults with healthy relationships to their sex lives, as BDSM proponents claim is central to their community, have the ability to separate their sexual preferences and their moral alliances.

IV. Conclusion

I have argued that participating in a consensual inegalitarian sexual relationship does not mean that you are morally aligned with women’s subordination. This is contrary to the traditional feminist view, which states that by eroticising dominance and submission – specifically male dominance and female submission – CISRs eroticise the gender hierarchy and thus, perpetuate women’s subordination, and the participants in the CISR are complicit in this perpetuation and as a result, morally align themselves with women’s subordination. I argue, however, that there is a logical leap in this argument: simply because CISRs can, and often do, cause a moral alliance with women’s subordination, this does not mean they inherently cause that moral alliance. It is equally possible that a participant in a CISR does morally align themselves with women’s subordination as it is that they morally align themselves with women’s emancipation, as the sexual acts in which they engage do not necessarily have implications on their moral beliefs. We should not allow moralism to broach the subject of sexual freedom, especially between consenting adults, as this simply hinders the projection of women’s sexual liberation, and liberation in general.


MacKinnon, C.A. (1989) ‘Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: “Pleasure under Patriarchy”’, Ethics, 99(2), pp. 314–346. doi:10.1086/293068.

Willis, E. (2012) ‘Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?’, in No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Bartky, S. (1990) ‘Feminine Masochism and the Politics of Personal Transformation’, in Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression, pp. 45-62. New York, NY: Routledge.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Well …. what if man wants to be subordinate?
    Do feminists say to him that he is morally wrong? Is state power (or “political” as feminists say) allowed to break into our bedrooms? Is such breaking to privacy really legal? Is not it typical for rather authoritarian and totalitarian regimes?
    Feminists seem to enforce “good”. But it is just superficial idea.
    In reality the telling us what is “right” and what is “wrong” in our beds is the road to perdition.
    The traditions typical for the “west” political systems always respected individual. After all it is the individual’s choice what he or she makes with his/her own life. The political power in western tradition is something suspect.
    But these “restrained” ideas crumble today gradually. We want to transfer more and more power to politicians. We want them to decide what we will do in our homes. Orwell says that this is the clue for political mobilisation. The individual who lives peacefully with his/her family is not controllable so easily. Therefore we need the individual who is “political”, i. e. who wants to FIGHT for his political ideology. Not to live happily in private zone but to fight furiously in public sphere for my own political ideology that is the only right thing… . Just this is the right way of life according to the recent mental status.
    But there are two problems with political ideologies (like feminism, socialism, liberalism etc.):
    – first they need the enemy that should be eliminated. The extreme consequences of this are always very close. According to The Bradford Lesbian Feminist Society (magazine Medusa from 70’s) the males are only the lower form of animals that should be wiped out.
    – secondly if we apply whatever political ideology thoroughly we achieve exactly the
    inverse results than we initially wanted. Therefore the feminism did not free women. It liberated men because feminism removed the duties that the males carried. And the feminism carried these duties on women.

  2. Because the power issues become dominated by preferences embedded within the described decision making processes, which is from where the politicisation as described arises, the boundaries of freedom do appear as much what is being discussed.
    As to Pavel’s comment regarding the privacy of the bedroom, that disappeared decades ago as technologies were developed and allowed to intrude into private spaces from a distance without any physical presence, (which does broadly feed into one of the points used widely within the article that of eroticisation). Additionally here I would argue that privacy is more a moral issue that regulative regimes appropriate and adapt to reflect their own perceived social group preferences/requirements, so raising legal questions deflects somewhat, as those regimes which allow of greater freedoms also allow their members (groups and individuals) to determine the boundaries of their own actions within sets of broader contextual legal rules.
    As to the purely political, because the politicisation of sexual differences has, in common with many other areas, become more visible in its use as a manipulative tool, a political need developed to divert the sense experiences and personal learning processes if the effectiveness were to be retained. (Considering historical uses by shaman, religious and political interests and groups assists in revealing the moral use – perhaps ethics avoids that but I doubt it – turning into political formula.)
    As indicated by the article perhaps removing all considerations of the exertion of power and looking to the general decision making preferences of individuals in those contexts for relevant correlations would be informative for this area of social interaction, and may provide a different illustration and possible focus for some of the perceived value relationships relating to larger social groups.
    As to the use of eroticisation to more generally enable dominance(1), a useful generic comparison would be era’s where the focus of being was perceived as seated within the heart (or brain), resulting in each becoming prized in its turn as having symbolic culinary value. Yet today in most western societies culinary products containing brain or heart most frequently utilise that meat in much less obviously visible ways.
    Looking singularly at eroticisation over the ages does reveal movements in perception of that which often revolve around and are directly affected by what is considered private for individuals. Where a greater degree of privacy is gently allied with what may be/have been termed good taste, the boundary between the erotic and pornography moves. Today, given that, and the frequent demands for more personal direction rather than facilitating of initiative from many individuals which is exhibited across many areas, maybe a growth in what is termed CSIR should be expected. Any consideration of the affects of clothing/fashions on the erotic has been ignored here, as has architectural lived environment changes. Have morality/ethics let down their social group populations during times of change, or are they merely allowing those populations the space to learn for themselves suitably appropriate rules fitting to the environment before making any movement towards what are considered appropriate (corrective or refined) implementations, leaving those individuals at variance to themselves deal with differences.

    For myself it seems that hegemony will continue to exist within many human social endeavours/interactions/structures because of the sheer variety of possible views and ways of living. Hence the importance (conclusion reached via another route – because contextuality necessarily exists, but today becomes less relativised across social situations) of freedom and safe spaces (sometimes private) for learning to take place.

    (1). Interpreting dominance here as also including its softer more consensual meanings.

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