Feminist Perspective on XWP Fanfics that are Degrading to Women

This was my longest (personal and political) response to the ‘Conqueror Fics’ thread in Subtext Central on the Talking Xena forums. Because moderators saw it as ‘being unsuitable for a PG-13 forum’ it was removed shortly afterwards, and moved to a private forum.

My type of feminism (radical lesbian feminism) aims at truly challenging the patriarchal world we live in and further the liberation of women. For the record, I define pornography as ‘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 the only time I posted on my political beliefs regarding the X/G fanfics that are disrespectul and degrading to the character of Gabrielle, and the issue of BDSM in fanfic. If you want to see the beginning of the conversation, please find it by clicking here. I was responding to WarriorLove (a.k.a. Warrior Judge) and to Marcia like I had promised it here. Now posting it here.

Posted on 04/06/2012. maggielassie wrote:

Phew! It’s Friday night now. I’m back. 🙂

Thanks for saying that I was being brave. This is going to be my goal in this post here, to be brave and to be honest about myself, my personal and political beliefs and who I am. I will try to be as respectful as possible, hence I hope that my reply does not offend anyone (esp. not any woman) here.

WarriorLove:

As a woman, as a lesbian and as a feminist, I am avidly against violence towards women. Let there be no misunderstandings or doubt.

I also don’t like all Conq stories. As a matter of fact I didn’t care for most Conq stories I read, some because the violence against Gabrielle, it seemed to me, was for violence’s sakes alone and some I didn’t like, because they seemed unrealistic (Like, how is it that Gabrielle, who was portrayed by the author as willful and opinionated, can fall in love with a woman who rapes and brutalizes her).

[…]

I am a big romantic at heart…Just violent sex doesn’t “get my juices going”, to quote the warrior princess.

Thank you for highlighting the fact that most Conq stories are indeed disrespectful of the Gabrielle character. Let me be very clear. 🙂 I completely understand that you come from a pro-woman background and that your intentions are good.

However, I’d just like to point out that there is a considerable difference between radical lesbian feminists (like me) and liberal feminists (lesbian, het or otherwise).

Liberal feminists’ intentions are actually good. They (like any other feminists) oppose violence against women. Liberal feminists tend to believe that the patriarchal system can be reformed to accommodate the requests and needs of women. Liberal feminists advocate changes in laws and social attitudes from within the system to further the rights of women. Liberal feminists (like radical feminists) do not see patriarchal power as going away anytime soon. However, instead of engaging into deeper politics that would involve the analysis on how sexuality is constructed in a patriarchy (which they believe would anger the system too much), liberal feminists decide to keep the patriarchal construction of sexuality (and it plays out within both heterosexual and lesbian relationships) as it is. Typically, liberal feminists are willing to look at prevalent social attitudes on sexuality, point out the examples of misogyny that are most obvious (like e.g. “Please do not call a woman a sl*t or a wh*re just because she wants to have sex” or things like that), but they merely advocate minimal ‘safety net’ solutions to keep checks on patriarchal sexuality –like emphasising the importance of ‘agency’ and ‘choice’ for women in being involved, without threatening the general patriarchal construction of sexuality.

Radical lesbian feminists (and even some radical het feminists) say “Not a chance!” with regards to the efficiency of ‘minor reforms’ from within the system. We have seen how the way patriarchal sexuality plays out within this system is fundamentally political to its core –to further the benefits of men at the expense of women’s dignity and bodily integrity. We have seen how an overwhelmingly pornified culture (via its mainstream media, via its traditional customs, etc) trains heterosexual women to make themselves into ‘sexual objects’ for male pleasure. We have seen how rape is still very much prevalent in a patriarchal world: around the world, approximately between 1 in 3 and 1 in 4 woman gets forcibly raped by a man at some point over the course of her lifetime. We have seen how much lesbians are being constantly encouraged to replicate heterosexual norms and behaviours within their personal relationships –with a female necessarily expected to be ‘very dominant’ and the other one ‘very submissive’ in order to promote very rigid gender roles within lesbian relationships. Radical feminists decide to step outside the system and tear it down. Radical politics involve going straight to the root cause of all sorts of patriarchal oppression, which involves (amongst other things) being seriously willing to look at how sexuality is constructed under patriarchy. Our own behaviours are not exempt from patriarchal socialisation, and we constantly learn how to reconstruct ourselves in terms of our own female selves How much our selfhood has been denied to us within the limits of patriarchal sexuality, how are our ‘consent’ and our ‘choices’ shaped by much higher forces that attempt to control us, that tell us what to do (through the media, through culture and through our close friends and relatives who have learned how to reproduce the system), how much our own sexuality has been manipulated by the system and is to be re-shaped as to give use more real selfhood and real agency, and how much real female sexuality has actually been censored from us by the highly influential system of patriarchy.

These above (radical feminist) concerns are all very worthy questions, I believe. And (ever since the Second Wave of feminism) all these deeper understandings on sex have actually been accepted as very valid political points in some feminist (or pro-feminist) circles, especially since the 1970 release of Kate Millett’s book Sexual Politics –which was a best-seller at the time. When that book came out, many women agreed that “The world was asleep and suddenly Kate Millett ‘woke it up’.” I remember reading that book in recent years, and it’s actually the ‘Read it and weep” type of book, because it hasn’t aged one bit: many of the issues on male-dominant sexuality are still so much very relevant today and it actually hasn’t changed one bit. Radical feminists talk about sex a lot, this is one of the things I deeply admire about them. They don’t just talk about sex in superficial terms (like the rest of the culture does, e.g. “Just do what feels good to you” regardless of socialisation is a prevalent cultural attitude); they talk about sex in ways that are intended to further the genuine liberation of women from all forms of patriarchal oppression and indoctrination. They argue that most women typically don’t notice how much they are oppressed because we have internalised our own oppression to its core. In order for us to be able to break away from patriarchal socialisation, we have to recognise every aspects of the ways we are being oppressed (even though it may be difficult to some women). Radical feminism makes a connection between the personal and the political, because the personal is political to some degree.

WarriorLove:

BTW, Maggielassie, I remember receiving a few angry emails back in the day, regarding “A simple love story” which you said you liked, because some of my readers didn’t appreciate the fact that Gabrielle in that story made love with Xena while she was 15 years old. Some of my readers accused me back then for promoting sex with minors. Needless to say, I am against that too. However, in ancient Greece, 15 year olds weren’t considered minors, and by 15 they were usually married with kids. Times back then were different…It’s the same with slavery. It was a fact of life back then, no matter how wrong it is to own another human being.

I am not kidding but I honestly couldn’t remember that Gabrielle was 15 in the story. Perhaps it was the ‘Ancient Greek’ effect that had had this effect on me too. I remember Gabrielle getting her ‘moon cycle’ in that story, which may have made me readily perceive her as a fully grown-up woman. However, I do agree that, during our own times (the 21st Century), this sort of sexual relationship would be completely unacceptable. Anyway, what I had liked the most about that particular story of yours is that it did not portray prostitution in a positive light (lie a lot of the mainstream media does). I know a woman who lives in England and who has survived 20 years of prostitution (she had started being involved in the prostitution industry when she was 13) and she says that prostitution is actually far away from being ‘glamorous’ or ’empowering’, and she had to sustain unbelievable abuse. She told me how much she had to mentally fragment her mind from her body in order to be able to ‘carry on with the job’, and how much she had had to ‘act the part’ in order to construct a fragmented self that conformed to the demands of johns (sex buyers). She is now a political advocate for the Swedish model of prostitution law (the model that has been the most effective to tackle sexual trafficking in women, by decriminalising prostituted women while penalising johns). I also have a couple of lesbian friends who used to work on a ‘prostitute outreach’ project intended to help women being involved in prostitution (i.e. ensuring their safety from STDs, refering them to services that provide decent housing, methadone treatments and exit strategies, etc). My friends also told me that prostitution’s actual picture is actually pretty grim. Your own portrayal of prostitution in that A Simple Love Story story was not glamorous at all, and I’m thankful to you for that. 🙂 Gabrielle clearly pointed out that her ‘clients’ only thought about their own pleasure, not hers. Prostitution primarily exists because of the male demand for it, nothing else. Many women involved in prostitution are survivors of child sexual abuse, and most of them make choices that are not free –under a variety of patriarchal and economic constraints…

Anyway, the story I liked the most from you is Conversion, as it took place in a Benedictine convent, and seeing Xena and Gabrielle as being nuins having sex with each other was a real breath of fresh air from me. Considering that I come from a Catholic family, a little bit of lovely lesbian ‘sin’ was totally hilarious to me. 😀

WarriorLove:

Having said that, in this story I try to portray a relationship that is developed in extreme circumstance between a very powerful woman and a socially weak one with a huge gap in their stations.

One on hand, I have the Conq, who finds herself in love with a slave (It takes her awhile to figure out it is love, at first she thinks it’s some silly obsession) she bought with a kind heart and a gentle soul and submissive in her nature. The Conq fears that those feelings, this power that a slave has over her will bring about the end of her reign, the end of who she is. It is the love she feels that tortures her, because she doesn’t want to feel. Her feelings are what fuel her anger and harsh treatment. My Conq is not some sadistic evil $$*!#. She dreads her emotions because she thinks it takes power from her and gives power over her to someone else. In that aspect, she is weaker and less brave than Gabrielle.

On the other hand, there’s a slave, who first sees the Con a few years before the Conq bought her, and she is immediately attracted to her power, to who the Con is. She is a submissive (not because of anything that was done to her, but because it is simply my character’s nature), but as the story progresses (I don’t wish to spoil it so I won’t drop spoilers) you realize that though she is a submissive she is far from being powerless, and perhaps even holds more power than the Conq.

I think that there are only 2 pure BDSM scenes in it (Part 3 and Part 4)…but I think it is interesting to see their relationship being slowly developed and become more and more romantic and tender. They are very passionate about each other, even though it takes them a while to realize they are hopelessly in love with one another.

[…]

I hope you’ll give it a chance and not judge it without even reading it. I work hard on it and I choose my words carefully.

[…]…though the sex between them would appear at first as non- consensual (Because Gabrielle, who is a slave  has no say in the matter) it would soon be clear that she wants it, welcomes it, and even encourages and initiates it.

I might read it, just for you. 🙂 However, I cannot promise that I will enjoy it. There is no doubt that, for me, reading a story that attempts to portray the X/G relationship as being respectful only to have them engage in BDSM right in the middle of the story will deeply disappoint, no doubt for me. I just don’t believe any woman is ‘naturally submissive’; we have simply been socially trained to be submissive. I also think there can be a problem with sex looking ‘non-consensual’ but in fact being consensual. I hope you’ll forgive me to say this but a very common theme in prominent works of pornography is the woman being portrayed as initially reluctant to participate in sex (especially in a specifically degrading sexual acts) or sexually assaulted, but then she suddenly appears to ‘enjoy’ her own degradation and actively seek it. This is a very common pornographic lie: women are viewed as enjoying being raped, enjoying being degraded. The truth is that it is not true in real life. I have no idea if your own work is pornography (during those scenes) and I don’t want to form judgements until I read it, but if it appeared to be (unintentionally) the kind of theme I’m talking about here, I probably would not enjoy the scene, but I wouldn’t be blaming you. The wider social forces that condition us are more powerful than any of us.

I tend to avoid very serious imbalances in power within relationships. I can understand that it can sometimes be hard and tricky to identify where degradation starts within a particular story, especially when degradation is so sexualised. I try my best. Regarding the X/G fanfics that are degrading out there, it actually doesn’t surprise me one bit that pornography has infiltrated the Xenaverse fanfic too. We live in a pornographic culture after all and all kinds of media (mainstream and also some independent ones, like fanfic) have become pornified. The Xenaverse (just like the mainstream lesbian community) was not immune to this pornifying process, unfortunately. 😦

The (majority of) Conqueror fics are actually not the only X/G stories that are degrading and pornographic out there. A lot of the general stuff can also be degrading and pornographic too. Regarding navigating through stories- I can understand how difficult it can be. I knew where my limits were when I was navigating the Web in research for hot X/G stories, and I had been lucky enough to have had a radical lesbian feminist awakening that enabled me to see what pornography was when I saw it. I really cannot stand any BDSM of any sort (sorry), cruelty or degrading stuff, so therefore the stories I’ve linked on my website are all mostly respectful to some degree (for the most part). But I can tell you that when I was looking for all those stories, I had to go through a pile of horrible X/G stories as well (of which I instantly fled the pages). A couple of them that contained BDSM actually nearly made me feel physically sick. When BDSM is romanticised and purported as liberating, I can see so much of my past self in it, being conned by patriarchy into accepting degradation.

Also, I really cannot stand phallic toys, as I view them as a complete erasure of real lesbian sexuality, so you will never see any of those on my list of favourite (bookmarked) stories either. I used to be into phallic toys when I was younger, but when I got interested in lesbian feminism, I understood that phallic toys were just the results of influences from a heteronormative society. Moreover, in a patriarchal society, lesbian sexuality tends to be stereotypically viewed as “incomplete”, as “needing” a ‘male-like thing’ to complete it. This sort of heteronormative vision of lesbian sexuality is unfair ’cause it negates the true potential of lesbian sexuality as being its own separate thing about women loving women, and women exploring women’s bodies just the way they are.

I do not even view my own lesbian erotica stories as truly challenging the system. I just do this as a personal hobby, not as a long-term political goal. As I said before, my stories contain some elements of sub/dom because, to be honest, I myself have not even been able to fully overcome patriarchal conditioning, and because I view Xena and Gabrielle as being socialised within those forces too; Ancient Greece was another time and place for patriarchy. However, I do not necessarily see those characters as participating in BDSM. The leather outfits of ancient times just don’t prove anything to me (although I can understand that they can have connotations for BDSMers, who may co-opt Xena images in their own stories)… I believe that the most egregious forms of internalisations of sub/dom sexuality can easily be avoided through resisting BDSM. The truth is that people who are in power in society are actually not the BDSMers themselves. The real people who are in power in society are actually the ones who benefit from the BDSM of others, incl. the lesbians being into BDSM. In real life, I do enjoy when even the mild dom/sub elements (not like how it was with BDSM though) are not being strictly enforced all the time, and I would be very much open to an egalitarian form of sexuality, were it to come up in my life or in the future.

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. For me, it was like ‘oh, there’s a woman-hating culture out there but I refuse to take part in it any longer’ and then I felt free. It was hard for me, at the beginning, to personally re-condition myself to a healthy, more egalitarian kind of sexuality, but it worked. And I don’t even find tender and loving lesbian sexuality ‘boring’ at all, I learned to love it again. It’s the best, the most woman-centred, even when it still contains some mild elements of sub/dom (because of the society we live in)…

I totally hate the term ‘vanilla sex’ in patriarchy, even more than I hate the term BDSM. Deriding sexuality that strives to achieve more closeness to egalitarianism as ‘vanilla’ is insulting IMO. It’s almost as if ‘vanilla’ could easily be translated in patriarchal language as ‘don’t go there, it’s boring’. In fact, patriarchy deliberately wants us to get away from the most genuinely female-centred forms of sexualities. It constructs them as ‘uninteresting’ while they can in fact be the most interesting forms of sexuality for lesbians. BDSM is the ultimate killer of sensuality. There can be many other cuddles, kisses, slow massaging, etc that can be explored within lesbian sexuality. I view lesbians not only as ‘women who like having sex with other women’ but as women-loving women, also.

I understand that such talks on sexuality can be very difficult to hear for some women who still see BDSM as romantic. A great deal of the problem, I think, is how romantic love has been shaped by male dominant heterosexual culture and then internalised into lesbian realtionships. I want to make very clear that when I was involved in BDSM, I used to see it as inseparable from romantic love. The truth is BDSM is only based on a one-sided aspect of romantic love (not based on a form of love between women that would involve mutual respect, preservation of selfhood –without one partner having to necessarily ‘sacrifice’ her selfhood and dignity of bodily integrity for the other’s happiness). I think a major wake-up call for me when I was still involved in BDSM, and starting reading feminist writings on BDSM, was that particular quote from a text by Andrea Dworkin:

“The female life-force is characterized as a negative one: we are defined as inherently masochistic. [. . .] Sexual masochism actualizes female negativity, just as sexual sadism actualizes male positivity. A woman’s erotic femininity is measured by the degree to which she needs to be hurt, needs to be possessed, needs to be abused, needs to submit, needs to be beaten, needs to be humiliated, needs to be degraded.

[…]

“Romantic love, in pornography as in life, is the mythic celebration of female negation. For a woman, love is defined as her willingness to submit to her own annihilation. As the saying goes, women are made for love–that is, submission. Love, or submission, must be both the substance and purpose of a woman’s life. For the female, the capacity to love is exactly synonymous with the capacity to sustain abuse and the appetite for it. For the woman, the proof of love is that she is willing to be destroyed by the one whom she loves, for his sake. For the woman, love is always self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of identity, will, and bodily integrity, in order to fulfill and redeem the masculinity of her lover.” (from Andrea Dworkin, in Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics.)

This was incredibly empowering and eye-opening for me the first time I’d read this quote. Although Dworkin is talking about the heterosexual framework here, it can easily be applied to lesbian relationships that have based themselves on this framework. This is why I am very sorry but I am unable to enjoy stories in which Gabrielle is portrayed as participating in BDSM for the sake of love. I remember too much of being in that position and no longer wanting to be in that position anymore. I want 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’.

I can totally understand, however, how very, very hard it can actually be to give up on BDSM. I initially did not really want to give it up myself. I genuinely believed it gave me some form of ’empowerment’. When I had been raped by a man not long after my eighteenth birthday, I felt completely disempowered. I actually mentally shut out my feelings about that experience of rape. I just wanted to get away from there.

What was so attractive about BDSM was actually two things. The first one was the endorphin rush. The endorphin rush keeps participants coming back for more, making BDSM a powerful drug-like experience. It is very, very hard to fight what turns you on, especially when you get kicks out of it (despite the negative ‘after-feelings’). The second attraction was the illusory state of being able to set out boundaries and ‘safety’. After I was raped, I think the traumatic experience played out into my subconscious mind somehow. I had been raped by a man after all, not by a woman. Also, when I was raped, I just had to lie there and ‘take it’, nothing else. In my (later) lesbian relationships involving BDSM (and especially bondage), I remember feeling as if I was ‘in control’, i.e. I was the one to decide when the bindings (or handcuffs) could be applied and when they had to come off. I viewed this as empowerment because I was having more control over this than when I had been raped (there had been no control).

I really did not want to listen to radical lesbian feminists when I’d stumbled upon them online and discovered their works (especially the work of Sheila Jeffreys in The Lesbian Heresy, a book that later saved my life). I’d actually decided to look at both pro-BDSM and anti-BDSM arguments from feminist stances. The pro-sadomachism lobby basically said ‘Anything goes’; it just could not move beyond ‘consent’ analyses, which was its major weakness. On the other hand, lesbian feminist concerns on BDSM (the other side of the debate, which is actually often hated for even daring mention it), although fully acknowledging consent too, were starting moving from the ‘consent’ analysis towards the “What exactly are you consenting to?” analysis.

However, still I did not want to listen at the start. I was thinking “Who the hell are those lesbian feminist moralists trying to tell me what to do?” What made me carry on listening to their arguments actually was a much more complex feeling I had that they might be right about something, though I did not know exactly what it was. I had built and chosen my own BDSM cage after all, and I believed that my cage could protect me. I started to listen to those lesbian feminist voices when I decided that I was willing to take a look outside the cage for a moment and see what BDSM was about, and what genuine freedom would actually look like.

I remember I revisited my rape experience in my mind and tried to see if I could have done something differently (like not being present in a specific place at a particular time; not trusting a man I had just met a couple of months prior to the rape, etc, things that had made me feel ‘guilty’ about being raped for all those years after the experience), and the truth is that there was nothing I could possibly have foreseen at that time. The rape happened, because it happened, and it wasn’t my fault. BDSM is not rape, but it is now clearly undeniable for me that BDSM is linked to a whole culture of sexual violence against and degradation of women (whether some women are willing to admit it or not).

Giving up on BDSM was the most revolutionary and radical thing I’d ever done in my life. 🙂 Breaking free from the chains of BDSM felt like genuinely regaining control, reaching a state of complete freedom again. No longer accepting the symbols of rape, torture, captivity and slavery as a turn-on felt like breathing again to me. Life cannot ever feel fuller, better, freer for me. It was hard at the time. It initially happened in steps. I first had to desexualise myself for a month. I may have been asexual for a month or two, because I gradually re-conditioned myself to truly women-centred sexuality (like a ‘going back to the beginning’ sort of thing). And even if I can’t completely kick the much milder, much more respectful forms of sub/dom dynamics in my own stories, I still am very happy that these (at least) do not stop me from being involved in political action in real life and online.

I was at a lesbian feminist gathering recently in England and I’d met a butch lesbian there who also had been formerly involved in BDSM culture and practice. We had a drink together, and we looked at each other, smiling. We understood, during our conversations, how BDSM had sounded so ‘hip’ and ‘fun’ at the time. We had both gotten out of our own (chosen) cages as soon as we were able to notice that there was a lot more freedom ‘outside the cage’, so to speak. I am also a political (non-fiction) writer. I was recently involved in the political writing of a two-part guest post (part 1 & part 2) rebelling against the postmodernist takeover of feminist studies in Academia. I also in the past wrote to MPs on women’s issues such as challenging the sex trade, and sex trade laws. I also marched with feminist friends and picketed places or media outlets that are linked to rape culture and the objectification of women. I personally do not believe I could have done all this had I still been involved in BDSM.

I think BDSM is politically problematic from a radical lesbian feminist point of view, because it keeps women ‘asleep’ with regards to potential political action and how patriarchal sexuality is constructed and linked to rape culture. So long as the oppressed get turned on by elements of their own oppression, there will be no real political change. I was so glad to see feminists protesting against the new BDSM porn novel Fifty Shades of Grey recently on the Radical Hub (yes, there can be some pornography that masquerades as erotica, but I can easily tell both apart, personally). I pray for the fourth wave of feminism (if it ever comes) to be ten times more revolutionary than the third one (which was mostly based on liberalism and postmodernism), and I hope it will look more like the 2nd wave. No patriarchal system wants females who rebel against their own degradation. Being able to overcome BDSM desires and seeing there is actually a life after this is in fact the biggest blow into the patriarchal system that wants to control us day after day…

That said, I can understand, WarriorLove, if you decide to view what I’ve said here as ‘rubbish’. I can imagine that It would be very much, much harder for me to give up on BDSM if I had written and published fanfic stories that contained BDSM. I was lucky to have broken away from it before I’d even gotten involved in the Xenaverse, and I can’t imagine what that would be for me if things had been otherwise. I’d probably feel very much unable to turn back had I ever written BDSM stories and taken pride in enjoying them… I am not trying to change anyone. I am trying to inform women on other forms of opportunities that might be available to them. I had also to tell you why there is a great chance why I might not be able to fully enjoy the kind of story you’re releasing here, because of the background I’m coming from. 🙂 I’m trying to be fully honest with you and I certainly hope my post won’t make you angry towards me (I understand that re-directing anger upwards, towards the system, can be difficult, though that’s what I do)…

I can understand that this is a very hard, hard world out there for females. I still am very proud of being one. 🙂

Marcia:

Regarding Xena and Gabrielle as butch/femme – I certainly understand your point here as well Maggie. Not all butches and femmes are into top/bottom role play. And yes, butch and femme are often just used as descriptors to categorize women in the lesbian community based on appearance (hair style, make up, etc) or fashion choices. I am always labeled as ‘femme’ because of my appearance and fashion choices as well. However, Xena and Gabrielle are both similar in appearance, imo. Maybe they have been labeled butch/femme because of their differences in personalities, as Xena was presented as more assertive and she ‘took care’ of Gabrielle and Gabrielle was typically portrayed as less assertive and relied heavily on Xena to take care of and rescue her, especially in the early seasons. By the end of the series, Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship had definitely evolved into a more egalitarian one, imo…

Yeah, I see the point re butch/femme though I’d actually want to completely discard those roles altogether, just like I’d like to get rid of any sort of gender roles. I think that I actually feel like having an ‘inner butch’ when I’m assertive about my politics. However, I can sound femme too, sometimes… I think the main reason Xena and Gabrielle got labeled butch/femme is because of negative gendered stereotypes placed upon women and lesbians in society and culture. As soon as a woman shows herself as strong and assertive, there you go: many poeple start viewing her as “wanting to be a man.”

I hate it when people (who have been raised in a stereotypically gendered society) try to box Xena into “masculine” roles, yikes! Xena is just a strong woman, she is NOT “masculine” or wanting to be “a man.” She is clearly Woman, purely female (that’s the main reason I fell in love with her), strong but so much loving and caring for her Gabrielle. They are so nice and cuddly together. I love them. I don’t necessarily see Gabrielle as stereotypically “feminine” either. She’s just herself, an intelligent young female, eager to learn more about life, adventures and love.

I think all those stereotypes aim at preventing us from fully enjoying the fact that there are two women there. Censoring genuine lesbian, femle-centred sexuality and love is one of the biggest patriarchal tricks/cons. I actually end up wondering how readers read my own stories. since we have traditionally been conditioned to stick the labels ‘man’ and ‘woman’ onto every lesbian relationship. When you actually take off the patriarchal glasses for a minute, you can easily notice that Xena is Gabrielle’s protector (not because she is “wanting to be a man” or other nonsense) but because she is an older and stronger woman protecting a young and vulnerable one. Also, I often portray Xena as spooning Gabrielle in bed in my own fic not because of a “man/woman” image (or anything like that) but because of Xena’s size. Xena, as a woman, is bigger in size, which can be comfortable and cuddly for Gabrielle.

In terms of sex though, I have found myself not wanting fanfics involving Gabrielle as being ‘sub’ all the time. I’ve actually enjoyed reading and also written scenes in which things aren’t so rigid and linear, in which Gabrielle is the one being ‘on top’ (incl. when she is still long-haired Gabrielle). I tend to want a more egalitarian relationship between them, even though there is still some very mild sub/dom dynamics involved here.

Once, I actually heard a XWP fan accusing me of ‘missing something’ if I am not able to enjoy the BDSM fanfic stories, or stories involving phallic toys. The argument is that I’m apparently “censoring myself” with all my “vanilla” politics. Yuck, I am not or will ever be a “vanilla” as I’ve explained earlier. I would actually argue that all the lesbian BDSM, the lesbian porn and the phallic toys that are constantly present in patriarchy all actually contribute to the actual censoring of genuinely female-centred lesbian sexuality. Patriarchy wants us to reproduce its male-dominated norms. It does not want us to enjoy full lesbian sexuality that also preserves bodily integrity. I had to take those things away from my life to actually be able to enjoy the simplest of things that come from the love between women: the most tender caresses, the slow touches and cuddling. I believe most lesbian couples are able to enjoy this to some degree, but it cannot ever feel purer, more loving, more genuine until you are willing to remove all the male-centred elements that constantly have attached themselves onto lesbian sexuality. You get a fuller version of our own lesbian love and sexuality that way.

Very sorry about the length of this post. I know it was long-winded. 🙂 But I just really had to fully ’empty my bag’ on BDSM and feminism. In a way, the main pro-BDSM ‘consent’ argument actually makes sense at its inception: you really have to know that you are consenting to degradation before you can ever decide to do the next thing: withdraw consent…

13 thoughts on “Feminist Perspective on XWP Fanfics that are Degrading to Women

  1. My Reply to WarriorLove’s reply (and to her arguments):

    I have nothing against Butch/Femme relationships, even if some claim it oppresses women. I know some very avid femmes who are closer to your opinions than even I. They claim that by being aware of the patriarchal influences on their lives and personal tastes, their choices in life are valid. As a matter of fact, having other women criticize them for embracing the butch/femme culture – is un-feminist. Same goes for lesbians who choose BDSM. (mind you, there are many who believe, and I am one of them, that the one who really holds the power in such relationships is the sub and not the Dom. Also, some subs have told me that being in a BDSM relationships helped them overcome rape trauma because a BDSM relationship provided them, not only with a supporting partner but made them regain control of their own sexuality/body. As for me, I only had 2 relationships with subs, none of them experienced any sexual trauma in their lives. It was their conscience and free choice and preference, and I don’t think they should be judged for having a different taste than others.

    I can completely understand you, though I disagree, and we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Re butch/femme, I would actually argue the opposite. We do not blame women who are still finding butch/femme dynamics alluring. We understand that the whole culture makes those roles to be perceived as ‘attractive’. Just like any other root cause of oppression, gender roles and norms need to be challenged. That’s always been at the heart of radical feminism: questioning the nature of gender roles and norms. Same goes for BDSM. The sexualisation of torture, violence, degradation, captivity, humiliation, and slavery is simply indefensible to radical lesbian feminists (according to women on the Radical Hub, and radical lesbians I know in real life). That said, I can understand it’s very hard to give it up for some. I’ll just say that, from my point of view, so long as members of the oppressed class get off on their own oppression, they are being kept politically ‘asleep’ and resistant to genuine social change. I believe that real, actual freedom for women starts with a rejection of masochism IMO. I personally know that the ‘after-feelings’ I used to feel (gosh I’m so glad I don’t have to feel these anymore) were proof to me that women do not truly enjoy their own degradation, contrary to what patriarchy says.

    The main (major) reason why I simply cannot participate in (real or fiction-based) BDSM activities anymore (past the ‘integrity of well-being’ sort of reason) is actually a purely political reason. I just simply know that I would be unable to publicly criticise the patriarchal system that oppresses women in so many, many forms (to truly challenge it to its very roots) were I still to be involved in BDSM, I just know its effects. Women get high on it, and it just turns into a lack of political rebellion, in terms of radical politics IMO. It is in my political belief that it keeps us too much locked, too trapped into existing oppressive structures to ever seek real, fundamental change:

    “…sadomasochism can sublimate desires for real political power. Consequently, those with real political power in an oppressive society would benefit most from the sadomasochism of others, as antifeminists may profit most from feminists battling one another over sadomasochism. Without the catharsis of sadomasochism, participants’ hostilities might have been directed against social oppression. But if we become addicted or compulsively fixated in sadomasochism, eroticizing roles of dominance and subordinance, whatever hostility spills over the bounds of the contracts seems more likely to be directed against those who would resist oppression. Thus, sadomasochism may purge us of revolutionary impulses, not only by getting rid of our hostilities, but also by redirecting them, channeling them ultimately against ourselves and those who should be our allies. If so, what sadomasochism eliminates are hostile impulses that might otherwise be used in politically productive ways to bring about real social change. This would make the sadomasochism of others safe for oppressors.”

    ~ Claudia Card, in Consensual Sadomasochism: charting the issues.

    I’m sorry but I also disagree that rape survivors can truly overcome their trauma through BDSM, even though I can completely understand your argument as this basically was what I used to believe when I was involved in those activities. When I found radical lesbian feminism, it was actually these radical politics (not the bdsm that was before that) that made me truly get over my own rape fully. I hardly ever even think about my rape these days, as I was able to connect it to the global system of violence against women and channel my pain into anger (going upwards).

    I actually felt more and more able to regain complete control once I had clearly noticed that masochism was really not encoded in my DNA: I was not “inherently masochistic.” That was the most radical discovery ever, for me, IMO. Involvement in finding different ways of overthrowing the system keeps me so motivated that I also just typically freely and comfortably simply shrug off my past involvement in BDSM now. I don’t even miss that BDSM world, not one bit. 🙂

    That said, I would like to quote the author (‘Smash’) who was criticising 50 Shades of Grey (on the Radical Hub), to express my feelings in the fact that I do understand you in your decision to view BDSM as simply ‘women’s choices’:

    Note that I am not blaming these women for attempting to carve out space for female agency in an exceptionally coercive, abusive, and traumatic patriarchal society. Nor am I blaming the women who buy and read 50 Shades of Grey, or as it has come to be known, ‘mommy porn.’ Rather, I am analyzing the context under which this glorification and erotization of male domination has become an outlet for female sexuality.

    We all make the choices we perceive we can make. I will end this with a quote by Julian Beck; a quote I very much relate to:

    Among my brethren are many who dream with wet pleasure of the eight hundred pains and humiliations, but I am the other kind: I am a slave who dreams of escape after escape, I dream only of escaping, ascent, of a thousand possible ways to make a hole in the wall, of melting the bars, escape escape, of burning the whole prison down if necessary.

    – Julian Beck, in The Life of the theatre; 1972.

    Ever since I broke free from BDSM dynamics, I have never ceased to identify with what’s being said in this (above) quote…

  2. This was Marcia’s Reply to this:

    You are indeed very brave and courageous, which is to be admired. *Hugs* Words really can’t express how truly sad and angry I am that you were raped. But I can express joy and happiness that you have been able to overcome the trauma of your past and have become a proud supporter and advocate for women’s liberation.

    Maggie you’re right. It is often very difficult for us to remove our ‘patriarchal glasses’ and actually see the hugely negative impact that our patriarchal society has on women. I have recently developed an interest in radical lesbian feminism and have removed my ‘patriarchal glasses’ and am really making an effort to view the world from a different perspective, a perspective that does not accept the internalized oppression and indoctrination. Women are still socialized to act, move, speak, look, and dress a certain way and we are encouraged to be submissive in our actions and mannerisms. And when some fanfic includes images of degradation, humiliation, BDSM, submission/domination, torture, sexual slavery, etc, it sends a terrible message (unintentional or otherwise) that women should dutifully submit and love their ‘abuser’ or ‘captor’ no matter what. Again, I understand that these stories are fiction and I also totally understand the concept of consent in BDSM (as I was previously a BDSMer), but that doesn’t make the messages any less powerful. BDSM in fan fic, other fiction and in real life supports and reinforces the present culture in which women develop close knit attachments to this ‘lifestyle’ making it nearly impossible to recognize that they are being manipulated by a ‘rape culture construct,’ which isn’t viewed in a positive light from a radical lesbian feminist perspective.

    Maggie, I admire and respect your willingness to provide us with a thorough and comprehensive overview of the correlation between BDSM and it’s reinforcement of the ‘rape culture,’ sharing the work of prominent and influential feminists like Andrea Dworkin, and outlining the differences between radical lesbian feminism and liberal feminism. And as you stated, the intentions of liberal feminists are good, yet they still hold onto the hope that the current system can be reformed. However, radical lesbian feminists understand that a complete overhaul of the system is necessary for any true change to occur. Examining Conqueror stories and other fanfic from a radical lesbian feminist perspective helps to foster understanding of why some of us have made decisions to refrain from reading or writing fanfic that romanticizes and glamorizes cruelty, exploitation, and degradation of women.

    maggielassie wrote:

    Yeah, Marcia, I see the point re butch/femme though I’d actually want to completely discard those roles altogether, just like I’d like to get rid of any sort of gender roles. I think that I actually feel like having an ‘inner butch’ when I’m assertive about my politics. However, I can sound femme too, sometimes. These roles don’t even really make sense… I think the main reason Xena and Gabrielle got labeled butch/femme is because of negative gendered stereotypes placed upon women and lesbians in society and culture. As soon as a woman shows herself as strong and assertive, there you go: many people start viewing her as “wanting to be a man,” because only men can be seen as fully human in patriarchy.

    Fluidity is key. Rigid stereotypical gender roles in lesbian relationships can be problematic. Good point, X/G were likely labeled ‘butch/femme’ because of the negative gendered stereotypes placed onto women and lesbians in our society. And yes, it would be nice to have gender roles disappear altogether in lesbian relationships, because it’s not at all necessary to attempt to create a ‘heterosexual model’ in our lesbian sexuality and relationships.

    Maggie Wrote:

    I can understand that this is a very hard, hard world out there for females. I still am very proud of being one.

    Spot on! I am very proud to be one as well. 😀

    ~ From Marcia.

  3. Further Readings:

    Lesbian BDSM, part 1: Lesbian BDSM in Fan Fiction by Maggie H.

    Lesbian BDSM, part 2: Contemporary Lesbian Culture by Maggie H.

    Lesbian BDSM, part 3: BDSM and the Prevention of Revolution by Maggie H.

    Sadomasochism: Not About Condemnation ~ An Interview with Audre Lorde by Susan Leigh Star, from A Burst of Light: Essays by Audre Lorde (1988, Firebrand Books).

    Sadomasochism and the Social Construction of Desire by Karen Rian.

    Look on the Bright Side by Anna Livia.

    How Orgasm Politics Has Hijacked the Women’s Movement by Sheila Jeffreys.

    Pornography, stripping and violence in contemporary ‘lesbian’ culture by Allecto.

    Ten Lies About Sadomasochism by Melissa Farley.

    “You cannot simultaneously oppose and worship violence….The symbols of slavery, imprisonment, torture and death have no place in the hearts of women who plan to fight for less glamorous things like dignity, life and justice.” ~ D.A. Clarke in Unleashing Feminism.

  4. I really hope that the discussions both in the ‘Adult’ forum and the original ‘Conqueror; Fiction thread sparked some thoughts and reflections from our fellow Xenites regarding how the terrible images of rape, pornography, BDSM etc., infiltrate fan fic and really tarnish our characters and how these images (unintentionally) support and reinforce violence against real women in society.

  5. Well, i’m not on tx these days because of my family but i read this post on your website.
    I do agree with you, Maggie on this,i hate BSDM too. Told you about that,hate violence anyway but that is something from my past.You know i’ll support you on this. Thank the gods i read your website, right?Otherwise i would never know about this.

  6. Thank you, Brigitte (donar). *hugs* It is so awful all that BDSM and all that pornography present in many Xena/Gabrielle fan fiction stories out there. It is disrespectful to the characters, and to women in general.

    I understand that not all BDSMers are rape survivors and that not all rape survivors become BDSMers. However, this does not change the fact that there is nothing “transgressive” about BDSM.

    BDSM is in fact pure comformity, obedience and capitulation to the global pornographic system of patriarchy and to the woman-hating norms internalised in a rape culture.

  7. Pornography promotes sexual violence against women and is linked to a rape culture (See Diana Russell’s research, for example).

    Pornography is the degradation of women and, as a lesbian feminist, I simply cannot support it –especially not when it uses real women (like in the making of this XWP porn movie, for instance). I really think that this new movie is an attempt by the pornography industry at degrading and debasing the strong female characters we love so much. I believe that Xena’s fate (first with FIN, and now with a porn) is the cruel reality of what happens to any fictional woman that happens to be strong under patriarchy: she is debased, degraded (through misogynistic, graphic death or through pornography) so that she can be made ‘less threatening’ to many male media consumers’ psyche.

    Xena is one of the very few shows that actually had a non-stereotypical portrayal of females (i.e. females fighting and not necessarily bound by traditional feminine roles), and I think that such a movie being made is tarnishing the reputation of our beloved characters.

    I would like to make it very clear that I am not blaming the women who participate in the making of pornographic movies. I understand that they may have made choices to participate under a variety of patriarchal constraints –such as either possible earlier experience of girlhood abuse (which actually happens very frequently in Western societies, and around the world), economic disadvantages, drug use, or having been culturally trained to make themselves appear as ‘sex objects’ (because that’s often the main value some men place upon women in patriarchy), etc.

    According to Gail Dines (a heterosexual radical feminist friend of mine, the author of the book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, and a professor of sociology in Boston, US), “…as the [porn] industry has changed, the women participating in that industry have gone from… being photographed naked to now being literally brutalized — physically brutalized” (source: gaildines.com , from Gail Dines’ blog post here). On her website, Dines mentions repeated bodily injuries being done to those women (who participate in pornography). Dines had heard that from a man from the industry who had contacted her –a man who used to work with AIM, the health care organisation that takes care of the health of porn performers– and he had told her just what happens to the bodies of these women. The actual picture is actually completely different from the glamorized and glossed-over image of the porn industry that is being shown in the mainstream media (which supports the pornography industry, by the way). Women are actually being harmed in the production of image-based pornography.

    Gail Dines also mentioned the ‘gonzo’ genre as being currently the most popular form of pornography being watched/used/consumed by many men today (according to what she read from Adult Video News, the industry’s trade magazine). This ‘gonzo’ genre (making the most of the money for the pornography industry today) involves multiple degrading violations being done to a woman’s body while calling her vile, hateful names and sometimes slapping her or pulling her hair.

    Pornography is misogyny and it is misogyny being thrown at our beloved, dear characters of Xena and Gabrielle. I completely understand that, within a world in which women often internalise their own oppression, even some women will defend pornography; but I don’t believe this will ever change the nature of what pornography is, i.e. the sexualised hatred of women.

    I understand that our Western culture is being pornified everywhere we go, but I simply cannot approve of the ever-increasing normalisation of pornography or of great female TV characters being pornified. It is very important to point out, I believe, that not all Xenites support this.

  8. Exactly, not all Xenites support this. I certainly do not support the increasing attempts to normalize pornography in our society in general nor do I support the dissemination of this pornographic film based on the phenomenal, ground breaking characters of Xena and Gabrielle. These characters still remain two of the very few female characters that are not portrayed in typical manner in which we see women depicted on film and television. Xena and Gabrielle were assertive and strong women that traveled together, fought the bad guys together, advocated for and enforced the greater good together, all while totally and deeply loving and caring for each other. I was outraged when I found out that these beautiful, confident, and courageous female characters were being devalued, tainted, and totally disrespected through the production of a pornographic film based on our beloved Warrior Princess and Battling Bard.

  9. As for the sub supposedly “holding the power” in a BDSM relationship, please consider this quote:

    As Cherry Blossom Life says, “Perhaps when women talk about the empowerment of submissiveness, they are actually talking about the power of the double bluff: “You want to hurt me? Screw you; you’ll never hurt me more than I want to be hurt myself.”” […}

    Radical feminists see that since all our desires occur within a patriarchal context wherein women are submissive and men are dominant, the explicit enactment of this dynamic in the bedroom is in direct conformity to male-centric sexual norms. We recognize the framing of BDSM as “transgressive” as a patriarchal reversal (where the opposite of what is being claimed is actually what is true). In fact, BDSM practices actively oppress women.

  10. The genius of any slave system is found in the dynamics which isolate slaves from each other, obscure the reality of a common condition, and make united rebellion against the oppressor inconceivable. The power of the master is absolute and incontrovertible. His authority is protected by civil law, armed force, custom, and divine and/or biological sanction. Slaves characteristically internalize the oppressor’s view of them, and this internalized view congeals into a pathological self-hatred. Slaves typically learn to hate the qualities and behaviors which characterize their own group and to identify their own self-interest with the self-interest of their oppressor. The master’s position at the top is invulnerable; one aspires to become the master, or to become close to the master, or to be recognized by virtue of one’s good service to the master. Resentment, rage, and bitterness at one’s own powerlessness cannot be directed upward against him, so it is all directed against other slaves who are the living embodiment of one’s own degradation. Among women, this dynamic works itself out in what Phyllis Chesler has called “harem politics”. The first wife is tyrant over the second wife who is tyrant over the third wife, etc. The authority of the first wife, or any other woman in the harem who has prerogatives over other women, is a function of her powerlessness in relation to the master. The labor that she does as a fuck and as a breeder can be done by any other woman of her gender class. She, in common with all other women of her abused class, is instantly replaceable. This means that whatever acts of cruelty she commits against other women are done as the agent of the master. Her behavior inside the harem over and against other women is in the interest of the master, whose dominance is fixed by the hatred of women for each other. Inside the harem, removed from all access to real power, robbed of any possibility of self-determination, all women typically act out on other women their repressed rage against the master; and they also act out their internalized hatred of their own kind. Again, this effectively secures the master’s dominance, since women divided against each other will not unite against him.

    ~Andrea Dworkin, in Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics, pp. 85-86.

  11. When people are oppressed, some of them cannot find any better solution than stifling their potential political rebellion and re-enacting the symbols of their own oppression instead. It’s tragic, really… BDSM would never make any sense if we actually lived in a non-oppressive, non-hierarchical world. It would not even exist.

  12. That was a long time ago that i’ve been here.BDSM is so much on the news these days, 50 Shades of Grey seems to be very popular, i don’t get why because i don’t like violence. Every time that i tell people that i hate it, BDSM, they look at me if i’m nuts. They had the nerve to tell me that because i am a victim/ survivor of Child Abuse that i have to like it. They told me once because i was abused i would abuse people too. But that is not the case, so i agree with Maggie on this: Not all victims of abuse are BDSM ers and vice versa.
    To be honest, i started to read a conquer story once and i couldn’t even finish it

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