Do My Violent Kinks Make Me Less of a Feminist?

Submission is not capitulation.

by Sophie K Rosa

8 May 2024

two people's arms are entangled on a bed
Photo: New Africa/Adobe Stock

This is the ninth edition of Red Flags, Novara Media’s advice column for anti-capitalists. Inspired by our columnist Sophie K Rosa’s book, Radical Intimacy, Red Flags explores how capitalism fucks up our intimate lives – not just our romantic relationships, but also our friendships, home lives, family ties, and experiences of death and dying – and what we can do about it. To submit a question to Sophie, email [email protected] or, if you’d like more anonymity, fill out this form.

Dear Sophie,

I’m not sure if this question is TMI but it’s been looming in my mind for a while now. I’m a socialist feminist with a strong stance against the sex industry. However, I find myself enjoying certain “violent” kinks whilst craving to serve my boyfriend, creating a conflict. How can I cope with the guilt of indulging in something that capitalism has influenced me to enjoy?

– Guilty Feminist

Dear Guilty Feminist,

I try not to give hard and fast advice in this column or ever, really. I don’t believe in right answers when it comes to other people’s interiority, or my own. I do, however, have political convictions.

You write that you are “a socialist feminist with a strong stance against the sex industry”. This makes me wonder whether your feminism excludes sex workers; whether you respect the sex worker-led global movement for full decriminalisation. Before I address your internal conflict, I’d like to make my own stance clear: sex work is work, and a feminism that excludes sex workers is no feminism at all.

You began your question about ambivalence towards your own “‘violent’ kinks” by expressing your disagreement with the sex industry. Do you believe sex work is a form of violence against women? If so, I would encourage you to consult sex workers’ accounts of their experiences. Calling all sex work violence is not a benign philosophical position, but an ideology that is routinely mobilised to enable real violence against sex workers.

It seems that you are struggling to distinguish between fantasies of violence and real violence. I understand why; we live in a world where gendered violence is the norm. We also live in a world that celebrates the personal brand, the myth of a coherent self – when in fact we contradict ourselves, nowhere more than in desire.

You need not comprehend your desire to submit to your boyfriend sexually as a capitulation to patriarchy. When sex is characterised by consent and enjoyment, as yours seems to be, it can be a space to explore our desires and even revisit experiences, including traumatic ones – to get a hold of them, renegotiate them, play with them. Sex can make things malleable. Your kinky sex does it for you, clearly – but what is it doing? Does it help you get a handle on something? Does it help you loosen your grip?

You ask: “How can I cope with the guilt of indulging in something that capitalism has influenced me to enjoy?” I’d respond by asking: how can you release yourself from the guilt of indulging in something that capitalism has influenced you to enjoy? Living in a patriarchal, capitalist world may well have shaped your desires. We cannot exist outside this system; our being is always already inside it. As the psychoanalyst Avgi Saketopoulou puts it in her book Sexuality Beyond Consent: Risk, Race, Traumatophilia: “Our very sense of the self and of our functional stability is, to varying degrees, also reliant on problematic social values.”

It can be a useful exercise to interrogate the ways in which violent systems have shaped us, but I do not think it is always helpful to interrogate ourselves – as in, to subject our desires and enjoyment to violent, relentless questioning about genesis. We might want to inquire into and challenge them, sure – but gently, kindly.

We are made up of many things; we also get to make ourselves up. I’ve been thinking about trauma as a lens to understand ourselves a lot lately – especially since reading Saketopoulou’s recent book. Many of us are traumatised by patriarchy and its regime of binary gender. Indeed, it seems likely that many women with “a strong stance against the sex industry” in fact have strong negative feelings about the sex industry because of what its existence brings up for them, emotionally. In my opinion, there is nothing necessarily wrong with these feelings – so long as they are recognised as feelings, and are concomitant with respecting sex workers as workers, and offering them solidarity in their struggle for better working conditions. On this, I’d recommend Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith.

What do you think might be contributing to your deep discomfort with both the sex industry and your sexual desires? Whether trauma as a lens speaks to you or not, Saketopoulou’s theory of trauma could be of use. She argues that in order for trauma to be worked through, it “needs to circulate; it needs to be revisited”. This orientation towards trauma, termed traumatophilic, “does not overlook or diminish the impact of trauma but offers, instead, a way of working with the recognition that we cannot turn away from our traumata, that we are strangely drawn to them.”

I hope you can excise the guilt you experience about your sexuality. I hope you can embrace enjoyment amid your ambivalence and discover new pleasures along the way. Finally, I hope that your socialist feminism can grow to include sex workers, if it doesn’t already. At the knife edge of capitalism and patriarchy, they have a lot to teach us.

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist and the author of Radical Intimacy.

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