“Bow Down”: Rethinking the Implications of Male Submission Through BDSM
Lindsay Goldwert's new book has us reconsidering what it means to be submissive in bed
“What people don’t get about submission, whether it’s male or female, is that the submissive is the object of desire,” writes Lindsay Goldwert in Bow Down: Lessons From Domintraxes on How to Get Everything You Want. “They’re the ones who are objectified, made to be the center of attention.”
In other words, the submissive holds the power, or at least as much power as their dominant partner.
And yet, many straight men (and women) still balk at the idea of male submission. Long-held patriarchal stereotypes — bolstered in recent years by the 50 Shades of Grey franchise — hold that men typically assume a dominant role in bed, as in life, while women naturally trend submissive. When, if ever, we think of sexually submissive men, we tend to picture them falling into one of two stereotypes: either the high-powered businessman — à la Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort or Paul Giamatti’s character in Billions — blowing off steam in secret with a high-paid dominatrix, or a cowardly “beta male” at whom alt-right types might hurl slurs like “cuck” and, more recently, “simp.”
But, like most patriarchal stereotypes, those ones aren’t necessarily reflective of the broad spectrum of heterosexual power dynamics at play, both within kink communities as well as more vanilla forms of sexual expression.
In fact, while Goldwert’s book was initially penned with a female audience in mind, it was actually inspired, in part, by the Reddit ruminations of a group of men wondering if they were the only straight guys who weren’t particularly drawn to being aggressive in bed.
“It wasn’t a kinky thread, just a regular dude thread,” Goldwert tells InsideHook. “This guy said, ‘Is it just me who doesn’t really get off on degrading women in bed, or being super dominant and aggressive in bed?’ And all these guys commented, going on about how much fun it would be to have a woman take over.”
Whatever male sub stereotype we revert to, whether it’s Leonardo DiCaprio getting hot wax poured on his back by a pro domme or the shy guy who just wants to be walked all over, we tend to think of sexual submission — and, by extension, dominance — as an absolute state of being inherently tied to someone’s personality. But while many individuals may consider their dominant or submissive roles an integral part of their identity, dominance and submission, like sexuality itself, exist on a broad and fluid spectrum, one people of all genders should feel free to explore in the bedroom without having to worry about what any single act might say about them.
The men in the Reddit thread Goldwert stumbled upon, for example, may not have all necessarily wanted to become full-time subs. Many of them were simply interested in shuffling around the power dynamics in their bedrooms from time to time.
“This one guy wrote, ‘One time, my girlfriend was really drunk, and she just threw me on the bed, and she just had her way with me, and it was the hottest night of my life,’ and all these people commenting were like, ‘Oh, my god. You’re so lucky. You’re so lucky,’” says Goldwert. “Maybe they didn’t want that all the time, but there’s a part of them that just doesn’t want to be aggressive in bed. They want to be sensitive and tender, or they want the woman to just get in there and take control.”
It’s no surprise, then, that a book about powerful women resonated with the men who idolize them — and it turns out there are more of those men than many of us may tend to think.
“I’ve had a lot of men reach out to me to tell me they bought the book, a lot of straight men,” says Goldwert. “I’ve met so many men that you would not think have these desires, and they’re out there, and they have turn ons. They have cuckold fantasies, and they want to be spanked or they want to be forced to have sex in public. They want to be publicly humiliated, or they want to be overwhelmed by a woman or tied up. I’ve talked to a lot of guys who are like, ‘Well, who wouldn’t want to be tied up by a beautiful woman? Who wouldn’t?’”
But while it’s one thing for a man to toss out a rhetorical question in praise of dominant women, it’s unfortunately quite another for many men to actually pursue those experiences in bed.
As Goldwert writes in Bow Down: “Society, or pornography, accepts that a woman can enjoy submission, that she may enjoy calling her partner daddy and feeling turned on by being treated like a sex object. But if a straight man says that he wants to be ordered around, told what to do and objectified, then he’s something less than a man. That’s ridiculous.”
The first step in combating this harmful double standard, as many of the pro dommes Goldwert interviewed told her, is to stop obsessing over labels.
“They all said, ‘Don’t worry about labels, like top and bottom and sub and dom. That’s not helpful for people, and it’ll limit you,’” Goldwert tells InsideHook. “You don’t need labels. Just explore things and play with power dynamics. It’s super fun, and you could open up a whole world of joy and fun and newness in a relationship.”
Moreover, adds Goldwert, being submissive doesn’t always have to be about whips and chains. While submission is a key aspect of BDSM, which Goldwert emphasizes she has no intention of “watering down,” submissive principles can be applied in more vanilla contexts as well.
Maybe instead of thinking of him as ‘submissive,’ he may just be a lover who’s more interested in your pleasure than in his own.
For many men, being submissive in the bedroom might simply mean allowing themselves to be turned on by putting their partners’ pleasure first.
“Maybe instead of thinking of him as ‘submissive,’ he may just be a lover who’s more interested in your pleasure than in his own,” Goldwert writes in Bow Down.
“You don’t have to use the word ‘submissive’ if that makes you uncomfortable,” she tells InsideHook. “Just think of it as, ‘I’m just really into doing what she wants because I love giving her what she wants, because that’s my biggest turn on. She comes first, and she tells me what she’s into, and I really want to please her because I want to be a great lover. I want to be the one that rocks her world.’”
There is power in that kind of submission — power in fearlessly pursuing your own desires and subverting gendered societal stereotypes, but also the inherent power that comes from being the source of someone else’s pleasure. If you’ve ever had an orgasm, you know sexual pleasure is a powerful thing. Being the one who gives it is no small feat.
“When I finally had a male submissive in my life, I was so impressed,” dominatrix and sex educator Hudsy Hawn told Goldwert. “These guys are so much stronger and braver than your average, middle-of-the-road, straight, hetero, dominant guy. Because they’re actually letting loose and letting go. To me, that was so much more masculine and stronger.”
None of this is to say, however, that men who genuinely get off on dominating their partners need to suddenly pull a sexual 180 in order to be good, truly “masculine” lovers. Again, as Goldwert stressed, “Don’t worry about labels. Just go with your feelings and go with your desire.”
Life is too short — and, apparently, too vulnerable to the dire consequences of pandemics — not to have exactly the kind of (consensual) sex you want to have.
“Our fantasies go across the spectrum, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a good imagination,” says Goldwert. “We all have freaky fantasies. I think that’s great. If you can find someone who’s willing to explore some of that with you, it’s such a gift.”
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