SM and the double standard

03 Jul

Gagnon and Simon coined the term sexual script to describe the norms of sexual interaction and maintenance of relationships specific to each gender. While men are encouraged to enhance their skills via multi-partner experience, women are compelled to avoid this lest they are labelled promiscuous (Linsey 2011,  Peplan and Hammen 1977; Radlove 1983). As a result of these gender-differentiated scripts in which the male is honoured and permitted to express his sexuality while the female’s sexuality is degraded, denied and ultimately forbidden to her, “Women may perceive themselves as sex objects, not sex actors” (Phelps 1979). Perhaps the adventurousness of s/m is a route to becoming a ‘sexual actor’.

The double standard necessitated a virgin/whore dichotomy which still exists in some form today whereby women’s choices are constrained because men wanted to marry sexually repressed women but sleep with less repressed women (Frith 1976:66; Lees 1983:51; Whyte 1943) which forced girls to accept the repression and monogamous submission.(Willis 1978:45; Wilson 1978:72). Boys demonized ‘sluts’ Lees 1983:51; Wilson 1978:71; Whitehead 1976:179).

The double standard stems from a sexist and biological-determinist Freudian view of human sexuality. Dinnerstein concludes that “What the double standard genuinely hurts in women is…self respect…” which ultimately leads to the crippling of  “human pride” (Dinnerstein in Williams and Stein 2002). Dinnerstein’s article is of particular relevance to the issue of s/m as the typical sm-er is white and middle-class.

However sometimes women themselves may demonise and police their sisters. Wilson (1978) claimed that women policed the sex codes themselves, but only within the framework policed by men. A recent example of this occurring in the political sphere is Nadine Dorries MP’s Private Members Bill (due for a second reading in January 2012) to teach compulsory abstinence education in all schools to female pupils but not male pupils. By placing the blame for rape, intercourse and pregnancy on women and denying their sexual agency as well as their right to have sex, Dorries is perpetuating the double standard. Recent examples of this occurring in the social sphere are widespread and a part of our daily lives; gossip, bullying, the use of words such as ‘slut’or ‘tart’ occurs in high schools and offices on a daily basis. Since these women are enforcing the double standard, I will refer to them as enforcers to distinguish them from ‘patriarchal’ sexual repression.

The double standard is harmful to women (Dinnerstein 2002; Heidensohn 1996).The creation of the double standard in its contemporary form is partly due to a nineteenth-century confusion of sex and morality. At first glance this appears nonsensical, as morality and sexual behaviour are two radically different entities, and are also different fields of academic study. However this idea of confusing the two is not as controversial as it seems – after all, no reasonable individual would assert that rape or paedophilia are moral or ethical – ample evidence that, as a society, we do apply moral standards to sexual behaviour. The male-dominated Victorian society enlarged this moral distinction between sex and rape by making sexual repression synonymous with morality. The relevant issue here is that women were – and, to a lesser extent, are – indoctrinated into confusing morality/ethics with sex; and ultimately conditioned into believing sexual repression is ethical and sexual exploration unethical. Thus they are made complicit in their own sexual oppression; this is especially so in the case of enforcers.

This begs the question of whether female sm-ers are acting as if ethics and/or human rights have prevailed over sexual repression, or whether they have successfully escaped internalising the double standard and therefore are not sexually repressed; having thoughts which are pure, free from the taint of repression, are they free to explore s/m? My research has proved inconclusive on this point. Whichever it is, women who do s/m are more likely to be challenging gender than doing gender, as s/m is sexual exploration – precisely what patriarchal society has forbidden them. As middle-class women are less constrained with gender roles and, arguably, the double standard attached to gender roles than working-class women, they may feel free to do s/m which may be one of the reasons why s/m is a predominantly middle-class crime. This is reminiscent of Adler’s theory that emancipation causes crime, and suggests that class is a factor in s/m.

Mocking sexism through s/m

Millet (1970) rejected the biological reductionist theorists and argued that women are forced to accept unequal gender roles, with the family fostering patriarchy in society. One woman’s re-enactment of sexism as an s/m scene vented her anger at her personal experiences of sexism (Easton 2007:224). Therefore it appears that s/m is not only a vehicle to challenge oppression, but also a means of psychologically dealing with the injustice by experiencing the sexism through a narrative or drama. S/m may also resolve inner conflicts caused by the conflict between indoctrination of the code of sexual repression and the individual’s natural biological sex drive and/or sexually adventurous personality. Although femsubs could be construed as expressing passivity and obedience to patriarchal gender relations, as discussed above middle-class women are unlikely to subscribe to such notions and therefore it is probable that femsubs are mocking traditional gender roles, an opinion expressed in Califia (2002) and Thompson (1994); this is also similar to Weait’s (2006) assertion that s/m mocks the State and the legal system, which historically used torture to enforce laws.


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2 responses to “SM and the double standard

  1. George Vincent

    July 5, 2012 at 3:52 am

    It’s nice to hear the double standard theory expressed so clearly and with intellectual rigour. I’ve always felt at odds with the double standard when i’ve heard it expressed before. Since I am male but, when aware (hopefully), try not to perpetuate patriarchal culture and attitudes, whilst my own anecdotal experiences see women as the main ones enforcing the double standard. The description of this being done by ‘enforcers’ seems to make the idea much clearer though. Obviously, in order to bring a solution to the double standard it would be important to identify the causes, so hopefully such a distinction will prove useful.

    I wasn’t entirely sure; when you write s/m does this stand for sadomasochism?

    • fieara

      July 17, 2012 at 3:05 am

      Thank you 🙂 And yes, it does seem to be women more than men who enforce it through gossip and general slander and bitchiness. Men seem to like sluts or at least tolerate them without looking down on them (the opposite to movie portrayals of men deriding women for being ‘easy’. And yeah, it’s just short for sadomasochism.


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