A lovely guy emailed me a while ago asking for a link to his blog on coping with depression. I don’t know much about depression, but I do know that something he said in that initial exchange really got my hackles up.
“Your posts on choking, the consent rule, safe words and anal sex all indicate aspects of the darker side of sex which, believe it or not, is more commonly linked to depression than you might think because of its links to low self esteem.”
Assuming that people who are sexually submissive suffer from low self-esteem pisses me off. He has kindly elaborated, to kick off a discussion.
“Sometimes I wince inside when I read some of GOTN’s posts. The reason? I have had low self esteem and self confidence issues for most of my teen and adult life. In more recent times this has developed into severe depression.
Self esteem can be a big issue where sex is concerned. It may prevent you from doing things you might otherwise enjoy, it may compel you to do things you’re not comfortable with or it may even cause you to do things that are dangerous. Take G’s posts on choking, consent, and the Soho cinema. The consistent theme is that she’s submissive and gets turned on by being in a sexual situation beyond her control, even one that could be scary and painful for her. Now, G assures me that there is no psychological dimension to her sexual enjoyment, which is fine, I’m not suggesting otherwise.
I will, however, give you the example of a friend of mine. Career minded, independent, didn’t want to be stuck in a relationship or have children. She was submissive too, in fact she would do pretty much anything in or outside the bedroom, with anyone that might take her fancy. It all sounds like harmless fun, right? Well, not quite – she used to self harm, such was her level of self loathing. She did what she did sexually as a way of subconsciously punishing herself for being the horrible person she was (or so her mind told her), undeserving of any love or affection, men were free to play with her as they chose. She then used to cut her arms and legs to punish herself some more. She would drink herself into oblivion to hide from the mental pain, which would result in her slumping into an even deeper depression, from which she could escape only by trying to stimulate her brain into producing more serotonin. It was a vicious circle, which tragically came to a juddering halt when she ended her life. She never sought the help that could have saved her, simply because she never thought she was worth it.
I guess my message is that you never know when depression might creep up on you. Never be ashamed to get help, it may just save your life.”
Sexual submission does not equal low self-esteem
The above post is written very cautiously. Note that after I’ve ‘assured’ him that I like submission, he ‘is not suggesting’ that I have low self esteem. Nevertheless, he launches into what is certainly a powerful and sad story, and one which makes him wince at my stories about getting choked.
Submission is a valid sexual choice
How could I possibly like being choked? It’s so damaging and painful that there simply must be something wrong with my brain that draws me, against my will and better judgement, to such agony.
Point 1: I don’t like the implication that a subset of women have made the ‘wrong’ sexual choices.
For the record, I like getting choked because it’s hot. Not hot because ‘I’m a bad girl and need to be punished’ and not because ‘I want someone to be in total control of me.’ It’s hot because it makes my cunt wet. If it makes your dick hard then it makes my cunt all the wetter.
I shouldn’t have to ‘assure’ anyone of that, because no one should make any pop-psychological assumptions about my sexual inclinations in the first place. For the record, assuming that submissive men like to lick feet and be beaten because they ‘probably have very high-powered jobs’ and want to ‘let off a bit of steam’ is just as odious a cliche.
I, personally, like to assume that people take part in sexual acts because they have chosen to. That way, not only do we give people the credit for being able to make their own sexual choices, it is also much easier to spot situations where they haven’t – acts that they might be feeling pressured into, or things they’re doing because they’re too drunk or out of it. I’ll come onto this later.
Lots of people like pain
Kink-friendly film ‘The Secretary’ is worth a mention here, if only for the fact that it does little to dispel the myth that submissive women lack self-esteem. Despite being one of my favourite films (Maggie Gyllenhall getting whacked by her boss before being humiliatingly jizzed upon and voluntarily pissing herself at a desk in what I can only describe as an orgy of awesome) it’s still, at its core, a damsel in distress movie.
Poor Maggie Gyllenhall cuts herself because she’s sad. She self-harms and covers it up, and only becomes truly happy when she’s found a nice big strong man to fulfil her desperate need for pain.
Point 2: the desire for pain is not particularly uncommon.
As the popularity of the film implies, an interest in dominance/submission is not even that bloody weird. Depending on the survey results you look at, and how the question’s framed, between 5-25% of people have a penchant for dominance and/or submission. A study quoted by the Beeb estimates that between 11-14% of the US population has tried some form of BDSM.
Dominance and submission also splatters our cultural discourse like humiliating bukakke – we make jokes about spanking, watch TV shows with two-dimensional Dominatrix villains, even fucking Cosmopolitan magazine has even given tips on it, for crying out loud.
So why do we still insist on holding the desire for pain up as an example of ‘unusual’ sexual behaviour?
Perhaps poor Maggie Gyllenhaal would have been happier if we hadn’t.
Do I deserve to be punished?
Here’s something explicitly referenced in the example. The lady you discuss was ‘punishing herself.’ So do most submissive women submit because they think they deserve to be pubished?
Do I think I deserve to be punished? God no. I’m undeserving of most of the good things that happen to me, and I’m always surprised and delighted when a dude gets it into his head to beat me to the verge of tears and then fuck me like a ragdoll.
Do you see what I did there? I assumed that this particular sexual act, like most, was something that I wanted.
Point 3: submissive women do not necessarily think they ‘deserve’ misery.
In order to draw the link between low self-esteem and submission you have to assume that the girl doesn’t really want pain – at least not in the same way as she might want a cuddle and a chocolate brownie. She takes the pain because she feels like she deserves punishment – she’s bad/wrong/fucked up etc.
Do we try to rationalise other sexual preferences like this? Do we feel the need to explain away your desire for blowjobs because you think your cock is dirty and needs to be cleaned? No. We say you fucking like blowjobs.
We work on the rule of thumb that people are having sex because they want to. If, when a girl tells you that she wants to be spanked, you assume some complex psychological trauma to explain away her ‘unusual’ desires, you make the wild and significant assumption that she doesn’t like it.
By assuming she doesn’t like it you make the girl’s decision – a choice she has made about the way she gets off – insignificant. Your revulsion at the idea that someone could actively seek out pain leads you to patronise her and assume that she’s compelled to do it for reasons other than that it’s her choice.
What better way to take away her sexual agency? To lower her self-esteem.
Some submissive women do have low self-esteem
I’m not saying that no one ever allowed someone to do horrible, painful things to them because they had self-esteem issues. But what I am saying is that assuming a link between these two things is unfair on the countless thousands of people who choose submission because it turns them on.
Moreover, it’s unfair on the people for whom this is a genuine problem. If the lady in the example my friend proffers had genuine self-esteem issues, then assuming that there’s a natural link between submission and low self-esteem isn’t going to do her any favours.
Point 4: linking submission and low self-esteem provides a smokescreen for the real issues someone might be facing.
Assuming that people do sexual things because they enjoy it means that alarm bells will ring all the louder when you see someone who clearly doesn’t. And that’s really, really important.
If you don’t assume that submission and self-esteem are inextricably linked, what you describe in the example is even more shocking. It’s not a submissive woman carrying out her sexual desires, it’s a damaged woman being taken advantage of when she actually needs to be helped.
Where’s the evidence?
A final thought, because I am nothing if not rigorous and overly verbose: I’ve had a google around this area, and have yet to find any comprehensive studies on the possible link between sexual submission and low self-esteem. If the original statement that submission is “more commonly linked to depression than you might think” is true, then this material must exist. I would certainly like to see any data anyone could provide on this. Links in the comments will be rewarded with my genuine delight.
Despite having failed to locate much info on the topic, I’m more than willing to believe that there might be a link between sexual submission and low self-esteem in some cases. But I’m still going to stick to my guns and say you should never assume there is one. It’s incredibly patronising, and sometimes damaging, and it certainly depresses the fuck out of me.