Lesbian BDSM, part 1: Lesbian BDSM in Fan Fiction

Guest re-post by Maggie H.

This post is the first part of a series of posts based on some of the RadFem Reboot 2012 presentation talk that I gave in Oregon recently on the patriarchal takeover of women’s sexuality.

Warning: This post contains some descriptions of what happens in written pornography. Skip those parts if you feel queasy; read them if you really want to know what some lesbians are writing & reading for fun’ these days.

Disclaimers: By writing this post I would like to make very clear that I am not criticising individual women for having particular sorts of fantasy. I am a former BDSMer myself. I am actually being critical of the pornographic works being published online, and of the patriarchal context within which such stories get written and read in the first place. I believe it is important to challenge the everyday political poisoning of our lesbian communities by BDSM culture. If you read or write those kinds of stories, I am not ‘attacking’ you personally; I am just trying to make a point concerning what you read or write.

*****

I feel the need to talk about fan fiction, as it has become an important part of lesbian culture nowadays in some circles. This includes stories based on the characters of Willow & Tara (from Buffy: Vampire Slayer) and Xena & Gabrielle (from Xena: Warrior Princess) –and there are also lesbian fan fiction stories based on the characters of Stargate SG-1, Rizzoli & Isles or other shows lesbians happen to be fans of. Not all lesbian fan fiction stories are bad or misogynistic (some can actually be really good and female-centred), but BDSM sexuality is often glamorised in some popular lesbian fan fiction tales. Those stories are written and read by lesbian fans of those TV shows, everyday women: women like you or me. Any lesbian can become an anonymous fan fiction writer nowadays, and get easily published on the Internet for free via specific fan fiction websites.

Willow-&-Tara  xena-conq   gab-slave

Willow & Tara (left) from Buffy, Xena ‘the Conqueror’ and Gabrielle ‘the slave’ (centre and right). ‘Conqueror’ fan fiction is a sub-genre of Xena fan fiction.

Although produced within a patriarchal context, the shows themselves are not necessarily bad. I haven’t watched much of Buffy, but I heard that the Willow/Tara relationship was one of the first openly lesbian relationships to ever make it to the small screen. Despite some annoying occasional patriarchal undertones, Xena: Warrior Princess (XWP) was one of the very few shows that portrayed female bonding between two women on a deeply intimate level –presenting two strong and assertive women loving each other. I personally am a Xena/Gabrielle fan (I understand that not every radical feminist feels this way, but I just am).

These characters can mean so much for many lesbians and bisexual women. For some of us women, we have learned to identify with these characters as we were growing up and learned how to see ourselves through them. Some lesbians even decided to write some romantic and/or erotic lesbian fan fiction stories about them. However, while some of those anonymous authors desperately strive to write some lesbian material that attempts to remain as respectful as possible to the characters from the on-screen relationships, other writers have been thoroughly patriarchally influenced into writing some stuff that is very disrespectful to women.

For example, most of the Xenaverse pornography takes place within the ‘Conqueror’ fan fiction genre –a sub-genre of fanfic within which Xena is depicted as being ‘the Conqueror’ (a ruthless, cruel handmaiden of patriarchy) and Gabrielle as being ‘her slave.’ The ‘Conqueror’ genre should not even be considered a real part of Xena fan fiction in the first place, since the character of Xena the Conqueror was introduced only in the episode ‘Armaggedon Now’ from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, a male-dominated show.

In the ‘Conqueror’ stories, within a nonsensical, pornographic sort of fashion, Gabrielle is often portrayed as ‘enjoying’ the rough sexual treatment she sustains at the hands of her Conqueror captor, a female abuser. Conqueror stories can earn fanfic awards for the lesbian anonymous writers, as clearly shown on the Hall of Fame of the Royal Academy of Bards website –on which the anonymous lesbian author WarriorJudge recently won a ‘Top Vote’ prize for her story Lord Conqueror of the Realm.

This is the reality of lesbian culture today: some women write those stories, some women read those stories and even some women vote for those stories to make it to the top of certain lesbian fan fiction sites’ Hall of Fame.

Within BDSM fan fiction stories, ‘open-mindedness’ typically gets defined as a lesbian’s willingness to try ‘new things’ and these new things are often BDSM-related. Kinky sexuality is generally portrayed as the ‘most intense’ thing two women can ever try together. For instance, Experimentation is a Possibility is a typical example of BDSM lesbian fanfiction based on the Buffy characters. One part of the dialogue in the story –in which Willow and Tara start talking about ‘trying new, kinky things’– reminds me of how women get caught up into BDSM culture and practice in the first place.

Stories like these are part of a society that basically influences some lesbians to get caught up into that BDSM world. This culture basically tells you that BDSM is the ‘sexiest thing’ to try or the “most intense” thing that can happen between women. That’s why it is very important to remain non-judgemental towards the women who have participated as ‘bottom’ in BDSM practices in the past (and those who are still trapped into it). I used to be involved in the goth music scene, which is very much linked to both straight and lesbian BDSM. I am an ex-BDSMer myself.

I would certainly never shame or blame the women who end up being ‘sub’ in BDSM practices, as I myself understand how much I had been indoctrinated by that kink culture. It can be very hard for some of the women to know there is a life after BDSM, that sexuality can exist without the need to degrade ourselves. We survivors of BDSM tend to already have a very low self-esteem and a dreadful past of internalised self-hatred. Many of us were victims of either rape or of girlhood abuse before we’d gotten involved in BDSM, and we thought that re-enacting our past trauma over and over again would give us a great ‘way of coping,’ but we were wrong.

Nor am I blaming or shaming the women who end up reading or writing those types of lesbian fan fiction. I am more interested in questioning the social influences coming from the patriarchal system we’re living in, what exactly leads women to reading and writing those woman-hating stories in the first place.

The fact that misogyny is the norm within our culture and that so many woman-hating ideologies get taken for granted, including by lesbians, is very alarming. A stark example of this is the fact that so many aggressive and degrading woman-hating Conqueror stories get defended and lauded by so many lesbian XWP fans, including by so many good-intentioned women among them –women who, if they were not so heavily conditioned by patriarchal ideologies, would certainly not normally like those fanfics.

Woman-hating scenes, stereotypes and ideologies that are present in some of the lesbian fan fiction (or fanfic) hardly ever get questioned because nowadays lesbians hardly ever dare question or challenge what has been recognised by radical feminists as deeply ingrained, deeply embedded and socially internalised misogyny. I would argue that the lesbian fan fiction universe should not carry on supporting woman-hating messages because it hurts women as an entire class of human beings. I understand that it’s not likely to happen though, since we live in a misogynistic world in which even some lesbians internalise misogynistic norms to the point of not even noticing them.

A lesbian fan fiction author that I just mentioned earlier, a woman who calls herself ‘Warrior Judge’, typically writes BDSM Conqueror fanfic online. I spoke to her online as she was writing her Conqueror series and tried to explain to her that BDSM was very unhealthy from a feminist perspective. Here is what I said to her:

“I would like to make it very clear that I am certainly not criticising the ‘consent’ aspect of BDSM, which is what people wrongfully assume when I criticise it. The consent was never an issue for me. I agree that there is a difference between BDSM and actual rape. The issue was mostly what exactly I was consenting to. I really had to break free from sadomasochistic chains, for our own personal, psychological, physical, social and political well-being as women. When I chose to withdraw consent and refuse to continue to re-enact or accept symbols of slavery, captivity, rape or torture as a turn-on, I felt a lot better, a lot more autonomous as a human being.” ~ Myself, online, speaking to a BDSM lesbian writer.

Here is what she nonetheless replied to me:

“It is my belief that women should freely choose for themselves what best suits them without fearing criticism. I think that women who truly make their own conscience choices – are true feminists.” ~ Warrior Judge’s answer to me.

What kind of a world is this in which only a woman who simply “makes choices” within a coercively patriarchal context is considered to be a “true feminist”? I was not ‘criticising’ her as an individual. I was just trying to help her, trying to tell her that things do not have to be this way. I do not believe any woman is ‘naturally submissive,’ as she portrays one of the characters from her fanfiction story. We, women, have in fact been socially trained by patriarchy to be submissive. We are even sometimes socially conditioned to become ‘masochistic.’

What typically gets edited out in those BDSM pornographic stories (of course) are the negative and uncomfortable ‘after-feelings’ that many women actually feel in real life after sadomasochistic activities (right after the initial orgasmic ‘kick’ has worn off), feelings which prove that women do not in fact truly enjoy their sexual degradation.

WarriorJudge of course did not seriously consider what I had to say. She even went so far as saying that rape survivors ‘can’ overcome their trauma through participating in BDSM, a lie that I once used to believe myself while I was into it. Rape survivors merely get trapped into the endless re-enactment of their own violation via BDSM scenarios and activities.

WarriorJudge of course carried on writing her BDSM fiction series after this conversation I had with her on a XWP forum. Not long after this, she had a story chapter up online within which she warned at the start that it: “… contains a rough sex scene, which contains light bondage and a few whiplashes – nothing more than that – it is consensual.”

In this story chapter (called ‘Lord Conqueror of the Realm, Part 9’), she wrote a pornographic scene that depicted the ‘conqueror’ woman doing various kinds of degrading and violent things to the female ‘slave.’ The ‘conqueror’ was described as gagging her ‘slave’ with a phallic object, pushing her, forcing her to obey her sadistic orders, tying up her arms and legs to a tree in a spread-eagle position, biting her, plunging her fist into her vagina, whipping her until she gets ‘red welts’ and inflicting serious injury upon her –resulting in the ‘slave’ having a ‘ravaged tissue between her spread legs.’ The female ‘slave’ was sometimes portrayed as “admirably enduring” the humiliation and torture –thus reinforcing a typical bullshit pornographic ideology that constantly tries to justify violence against women.

Just like many other Conqueror stories, that pornography was loaded with glorification of the phallus. Why include so much phallic imagery within lesbian fan fiction? We are not attracted to men so why, as lesbians, would we ever be attracted to phallic symbols in the first place? We are a PIV-colonised people, that’s what it is –just like any other kind of women (that’s why dildos have become so popular within nowadays’ lesbian community). What kind of a world is this within which lesbians (supposedly women-loving women) end up writing this sort of fiction, reading it, getting off on it, voting for it to become ‘top lesbian fan fiction story of the year,’ and even sometimes calling it ‘feminist’? Not a healthy world, that is for sure.

As Susan Hawthorne made it clear, there is a clear link between BDSM degradation and actual torture:

“… the promotion of sadomasochism by Califia (1988), Weiss (2005), and others contributes to the escalation of violence and social acceptance of violence under the guise of “free choice.” … if Weiss (2005) can argue (and her audience can feel comfortable applauding her arguments) that acts identical to torture–humiliation, violent penetration with objects, cutting off of clothes, bondage–are acceptable in a BDSM scene, and are deemed philosophically acceptable, where does the slide down the slippery slope begin and end?” ~ Susan Hawthorne, in her paper on BDSM and the torture of lesbians.

Focusing on ‘consent’ is a slippery slope into desensitisation, into accepting pretty much everything degrading and painful to women until it eventually slips into non-consensuality. BDSM re-enacts the actual torture and hatred of women and lesbians that goes on every day in society. Lesbian BSDM is connected to internalised misogyny, lesbophobia and violence against lesbians around the world. So many females are being raped on a daily basis (or have been raped at least once within their lifetime) and all we have been told to do is to just “lie there and enjoy it.”

This is the only escape we can find when we’re listening to nothing but patriarchal messages all the time: to just fucking put up with it. This is where BDSM starts, when some of us who have internalised misogyny the most decide that there is no escape –apart from re-creating, re-enacting scenarios based on all the hatred we have had to put up with on a daily basis (in sexual violence, in the school, in the university, in the workplace, in the family home, or from lesbian-hating heterosexual godbags, etc). Then we learn how to get off on all these scenarios of hierarchy and see them as a potential ‘release’ (albeit illusory), at the expense of our true liberation. And we become overall desensitised to the atrocious misogyny and violence against women that goes on all the time when we accept the re-enactment of our own torture as a turn-on.

“The construction of SM sexuality is a mighty clever ploy for the Oppressor. Our resistance is undermined in our very guts if our response to the torture of others… is erotic rather than politically indignant. It is very hard to fight what turns you on.” ~ Sheila Jeffreys, in The Lesbian Heresy, p. 73.

Men know well that people who get off on re-enactments of their own violation, pain or fears will not start a revolution. It is also important to remember where woman-bashing and woman-hating among women also starts, in an identical way to lesbian BDSM. From childhood on, we females have been told that we’re nothing (compared to what men are), that we’re only good as sex objects, and that we shouldn’t protest the degradation done to us but just either ‘lie there and enjoy it’ or enjoy it when it is done to other women.

As for the lesbians who attempt to defend lesbian BDSM fan fiction as being linked to romantic love by saying things like “…but the characters do love each other in the end” or something similar just because there is somehow a ‘happy ending’ in the story after all those woman-hating pornographic scenes have been depicted, well… I want to add that BDSM is only based on a one-sided, patriarchal aspect of love –a form of love generated by men and male-supremacist gendered cultures, not a form of love between women that would involve mutual Sapphic respect and preservation of women’s humanity and selfhood.

There is no reason for one lesbian partner to ‘have to’ sacrifice her dignity or bodily integrity for the other partner’s happiness. This is all pure patriarchal bullshit and lies. I want lesbian romantic love to be reshaped in different terms, that are more female-centred and that do not negate a woman’s full humanity so that another can be made ‘more dominant’ (as in butch/femme roles, for instance).

Eroticising acts of sexual torture is pornography ; its purpose is to diffuse these practices to millions of women / lesbians and to pressure them into doing things they would not normally do. What proof do I have that the Conqueror stories, for instance, have not been used to harm a woman in real life at one point? Pornography is political. It has political impacts onto women’s situation within society as a whole. We are not free so long as there is a form of media out there that portrays us as slaves, as bitches, as ‘sluts,’ as fuckholes…

Refusing to surrender to scenarios, fantasies and re-enactments of rape, captivity, misogyny, torture and slavery is our true pathway towards freedom –as lesbians and as women:

“Now that the sexual revolution has come to lesbians we have all the problems associated with the practice of eroticised inequality, heterosexual desire in our community… The results of women’s oppression, the damage done by sexual abuse, by the use of women in the sex industry, by the hatred of lesbians has provided the raw material, the lesbians who will invent and model in the pornography, get beaten at S/M parties, perform live sex acts. Those who want ‘equal opportunities’ in sexuality hope that a code of ethics will prettify this scene. I suggest that the strong and healthy survival of our community requires the construction of a quite different sexuality, one based upon love of women and lesbians, a sexuality that will support our lesbian pride.” ~ Sheila Jeffreys, in The Lesbian Heresy, pp. 43-44.

Despite viewing themselves as ‘rebels’ and dismissing lesbian feminists as “vanilla women,” lesbian BDSMers (and BDSM fiction authors) in fact reproduce patriarchal power dynamics already present in a hierarchical society. There is nothing revolutionary or rebellious about participating in BDSM. You are simply submitting to a mainstream, overall system of worldwide degradation of women. Consent does not deny internalisation of misogyny or male supremacist norms; it actually confirms it. BDSM consent for the supposedly ‘bottom’ woman means consenting to degradation. It does not nullify internalisation of our own oppression; it confirms it.

Lesbian BDSM fanfic stories, however, are merely the tip of the iceberg. There are many more aspects of contemporary lesbian culture that have been poisoned by patriarchal sexuality. More information coming later in future posts…

Some additional notes:

1/ I’d just like to make it clear in what I mean by ‘pornography’ for women who may read here and might come from fan fiction: Pornography is the ‘material that combines sex and/or complete or partial nakedness with misogyny, degradation or abuse in a way that appears to condone, endorse or encourage such behaviour.’ This was inspired by the Diana E.H. Russell definition and this is how I define pornography. I do not criticise “all” the lesbian material lesbian fans may have written or read about their favourite characters (including Willow/Tara, or Xena/Gabrielle, etc) and that may contain nudity or a love scene in the story. The lesbian fan fiction stories that contain some sexual/erotic scenes that are non-degrading, woman-loving, respectful enough to the female characters involved and respectful to women in general are okay. But BDSM contains degradation as an inherent aspect of this sort of sexuality…

2/ As a good friend explained to me later in some comments: “I clicked on the link and read most of the “Conqueror” story (although I gave up when they got married and Gabrielle became pregnant in their pseudo het relationship), and what struck me most about it apart from the brutal sadism was that the story doesn’t even seem to be about lesbianism: the “Conqueror” is called my lord, and uses a giant phallus in Gabrielle’s sexual abuse. Their sexual activities, apart from the sadism and beatings are overwhelmingly vaginal penetration, anal penetration and oral sex with a phallus. Xena appears to have been transed. If a woman is committing brutal phallic acts on another woman, she’s not a woman-loving woman, she’s become an agent for the patriarchy. This is a description a token torturer in an intimate relationship. It’s shocking that lesbian imagination has been colonised to this extent.” I completely agree with this analysis of Conqueror fan fiction. It does not look like lesbianism at all; it indeed looks more like a pseudo-het sadistic relationship. The fact that readers fall for this lie is absolutely alarming. 😦 The story is completely cruel, and looks nothing like the beloved woman-loving relationship that Xena and Gabrielle were sharing onscreen within the main Xena: Warrior Princess show. I hate the (other) Hercules show for introducing Xena the Conqueror (and Gabrielle as her ‘slave’), though actually in the original Conqueror story Gabrielle was initially portrayed as being afraid of the Conqueror (and not attracted to her at all). I agree with Bev Jo: it is a travesty to turn the few beloved Lesbian TV characters we have into BDSMers. I’m glad there are at least quite a few other types of fan fiction stories out there which are much more respectful of Xena and Gabrielle’s lesbian relationship and Sapphic love. I just thought it was very important to talk about Conqueror fan fiction because most of it is not respectful at all (and rather misogynistic and violent) and what’s even scarier is that many lesbian XWP fans buy into this Conq fiction (love it, and praise it, even) unfortunately, at the expense of their own true lesbian freedom and liberation. I also agree that a woman who has internalised misogyny to the point of perpetrating very aggressive acts onto another woman is an agent of patriarchy, and not a woman-loving woman. It is indeed very, very worrying that there are many lesbians getting off on this, including (in many cases) good-intentioned women. Their minds have been so colonised by heteropatriarchy, it’s very scary. De-programme yourselves, women! Stop buying into those kinds of sadistic stories. Those pornographic stories are not telling the truth neither about your favourite characters nor about you. When lesbians buy into this stuff, it is not only “personal” but it is political too, because women who buy into those sorts of stories do not start a revolution or improve the social conditions of lesbians for that matter…

3/ I don’t agree at all with the lesbians who say “Oh, but these are ‘just stories.’” Those pornographic stories obviously do not exist in a “vacuum.” Those pornographic stories are a part of a male-identified sexual ‘revolution’ that has infiltrated lesbian culture. Moreover, those stories are part of a whole pornographic culture that promotes violence against women. It is not just “personal” when lesbians read or write pornography –as lesbian porn clearly has negative effects on them when they use it. It is political when there are stories out there to teach lesbians that the degradation of ourselves or other women is “okay” so long as it’s sexualised. It is political when there are stories out there that teach lesbians (and other women) that violence against women is “okay” so long as it is done within the realm of “love” or “consensuality.” That’s right, Marcia. Lesbians internalising the oppression of women within heteronormative ‘lesbian’ pornographic stories or BDSM activities is exactly what men want lesbians to do. Men totally want lesbians (and other women for that matter) to eroticise symbols of their own oppression. When lesbians accept BDSM fan fiction (or any other type of pornography for that matter) as a turn-on, they become heavily influenced into ceasing being woman-loving women –and they capitulate to men’s rules, to male-identified women’s rules and to male-centric norms and rules instead…

4/ In Part 1 here, I explained that there are lesbians who read and write BDSM fan fiction. The reason why I wrote the first part on lesbian BDSM fan fiction is because this sort of sub-cultural phenomenon seems to be heavily influencing many later generations of lesbians nowadays. And this is no kidding. Women write that sort of pornographic stuff for other women to read. They cheer on it, and they even go to (Xena or Buffy) conventions and brag about reading/writing that sort of stuff (We even get to see pictures of the anonymous female Conqueror writers and readers, for instance). I thought this was really scary and needed addressing. Part 1 was mostly about symptoms: I was asking “why?” Why do so many good-intentioned lesbians get drawn into supporting this sort of fiction? (I understand that there are also men who read those stories. However, it does not change the fact that many lesbians still read them and brag about it online and elsewhere) The answer was because they are being influenced by a patriarchal society. Nowhere do I blame those women for writing/reading that stuff; I simply question them, and question what is going on. Their writings and readings are obviously the symptoms of a currently queer/postmodern-dominated lesbian community as a result of patriarchy. Then later on in Part 2, I expose some popular elements of contemporary mainstream lesbian culture, and I explain clearly the kinds of media that are influencing those women (and others like them) –a form of patriarchal ‘lesbian’ media generated both by male owners of popular TV channels (e.g. for the films and the TV shows I mention) and handmaidens of patriarchy (e.g. for some of the mainstream lesbian magazines and websites).

5/ Mainstream ‘lesbian’ media will be included in my analysis in the next part as a powerful influence of patriarchal ideology on lesbians –because of its promotion of BDSM and other hetero-centric norms. I agree that any critical analysis of mainstream ‘lesbian’ media is not enough encouraged among lesbians. As I heard a lesbian feminist say once, “lesbians may talk about and criticize political writing, but rarely analyze cartoons, film, television, or fiction in the same way. Once it’s considered “entertainment,” sado-masochism is accepted. If you criticize reactionary political writing, you are tolerated, but if you dare to criticize “entertainment” or “creative expression,” then you really are one of those trouble-making, humorless Feminists.” This is very true. I once was on a XWP (Xena) discussion forum trying to get the lesbians to seriously analyse the types of woman-hating Conqueror fan-fiction stories some of those women were reading. I was quickly told to ‘shut up’ by the mods/admins there as if I was a “humourless trouble-maker” because some of the women/lesbians on that board had complained about me. Some women enjoy getting off on horrifying pornographic, gendered and patriarchal stuff so much that they do not want to hear the truth about feminist critical analysis of what they’re using, I guess. *shrug* I’ll still carry on speaking out.

———————

Maggie H. is a radical lesbian feminist. She is a sociology student in the School of Social and Political Sciences at University in the UK.

1 comment
  1. Maggie said:

    This post was originally kindly published at the Radical Feminist Hub by the admins there. When the Hub went down, I’d told them(via email) that I would find another publisher for my work but never heard any reply from them. It’s a shame the Hub went down. I loved that site.

    Thank you for kindly re-publishing, Liberation Collective. I love this site too. 🙂

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