50 Shades of Grey

Taking the sting out of fantasies for women

Posted Jun 02, 2012

The whole internet flips out.

This just in: Ben Wah balls are flying off the shelves in an internet storm. Katie Roiphe scores the cover of Newsweek. Bloggy articles abound on the web deconstructing the bondage of Ana.

What’s wrong with women that they want to read this stuff?

Indeed, this very question has been posed for over a century. Namely, women’s forceful submission fantasies (being sexually over powered by a dominant other) have been pathologized in one way or another. Freud famously opined that they reflect women’s natural masochism. Decades later, masochism morphed into sex guilt and anxiety. Second wave feminists worried that women were ‘slaves to the patriarchy’; men eroticize domination of women and women eroticize submission to men.  

And in light of the media flurry, this is exactly the point one would come to if the focus was on the spanking and the riding crop, which is what Roiphe did in her infamous Newsweek cover story.

Social commentary, however, is not behavioral science. A thorough perusal of the literature would show that the same explanation Ms. Roiphe dredges up to account for women’s predilections for being dominated (modern women are so tired from all of our responsibilities) is exactly the vaguely psychodynamic explanation applied in the mid-80’s to account for men’s fantasies  of the same kind.

In fueling the hand wringing overwomen’s submission fantasies, most have committed a very common error: They have forgotten that men dig them too. Really dig them.

"Dear Penthouse Letters, I was in the parking garage elevator when a set twins got on. They wouldn’t take no for an answer!...”  But the fact that both genders entertain such thoughts is so much less interesting than worrying about the modern woman. How do you, in Roiphe’s words, “enrage, irritate, and appall” feminists in the blogosphere over an issue that may be essentially non-gendered? How can you “cause the whole internet to flip out”?

Sex researchers too have emphasized women’s submission fantasy predilections over men’s. The prevailing narrative is this: Women fantasize about submission and men fantasize about dominance. On closer inspection, what one can correctly conclude from scrutinizing the actual data drawn from the normative population (non-criminals) is this: Women fantasize about submission more than they fantasize about dominance, and men fantasize about dominance more so than women.

What can we say about women’s submission fantasies relative to men’s? Nothing, unless they are directly compared.

In fact, our studies on forceful submission fantasy have shown that men responded more positively to our written material than women did, even though the material was drawn directly from women’s erotica (replete with ‘eyes sensual and disarming’ verbiage). That is, men’s preference ratings for material nibbling around the edges of sexual coercion and BDSM were higher than women’s. See for yourself: Google ‘man with riding crop’. The first image is a very unsexy 19th century print of an equestrian. Google ‘woman with riding crop’ and you will get something different completely. (Don’t do this at work!) Our simple and somewhat obvious finding is either edited out of the conversation or brushed aside by sex researchers as ‘something different’. Talking about why contemporary women are so naughty is really much more entertaining.

What do fantasies of forceful submission mean? This is the question lurking behind all the anxiety.  But alas, dear reader, you -- like Anastasia -- must wait in anguished anticipation for Part 2.

Read Part 2 here!


[Based on: Hawley, P.H., & Hensley, W.A. (2009). Social dominance and forceful submission fantasies: Feminine pathology or power? Journal of Sex Research, 46, 568-585.]