Back in the days before the Feminist Sex Wars (ask your mother), radical feminists used to fret about sexual practices which revolved around domination and submission – their contention was that compulsory heterosexuality already revolved around domination and submission, and that S&M just did the same thing harder and more openly (which made it a convenient target of critique, e.g. Andrea Dworkin reading heterosexuality through porn, and porn through Sade and Bataille, telescoping together a long chain of determinations into a single static image of bad sex). At the root, the radix, was the fact of male domination: political, economic, physical; from this came the inscription of domination into sexual practice, which set the stamp of male power on gendered bodies.
In spite of decades of people arguing that this was ludicrous, and that domination in a sexual context had no necessary connection with social forms of domination (everything that now goes by the name of “kyriarchy”), I still think the radical feminists had a point. Social facts shape embodied practices, and what we do with our bodies is part of how we reproduce social forms. The claim commonly made for S&M is that it’s a way of interrupting that process of reproduction, making explicit and available for transformation the power dynamics that are implicit in less consciously mediated practices. That seems plausible enough, but it’s also a little like believing that racism isn’t properly racism if you’re doing it ironically. At some level you’re still really doing what you’re consciously, mediatedly, subversively and transgressively doing. It wouldn’t be any fun if you weren’t.
However, I also don’t think it’s worth arguing about any more. The radical feminists had this notion that you could derail patriarchy by attacking its reproduction via embodied sexuality; but nobody really wanted to go along with that all the way to the end. We have to live in the world as it is, embodied as we are, and that means compromising (with) ourselves. The last two decades of feminist talk about sex have largely been a mixture of thrashing out the terms of that compromise, and establishing the consent standard as a kind of minimal, universally agreed-upon index of OK-ness. What do they want, who want neither Virtue nor Terror? Mostly, just to be left alone.
(There is a kind of melancholia attached to this compromise, which I do think deserves attention. As Janet Halley brilliantly argued, the radical feminist vision of sexuality gave rise to an extraordinarily total sexual politics. There is something rather degraded and shabby, in comparison, about the argument that we should just go on doing whatever we feel like – within the parameters of consent, naturally – but should also take time to “question where our desires come from”. What possible outcome is being imagined for such questioning? A mild frisson of guilt and regret at being so unreconstructed?)
One thing I found intriguing about The Duke of Burgundy was the way it set its laborious fetish-games in a male-free, child-free, female-only world – the world of artsy lesbian softcore reimagined as a temporary autonomous zone – in which sexuality had no patriarchal referent or context: no reproductive hazard, no men to please or pacify, no discernible “metaphysics of force” of the kind outlined in Dworkin’s Intercourse. What social facts are being reproduced through embodied sexuality here? Ultimately, and rather tellingly, the axis of domination resignified in the lovers’ games is class. The key question at each moment is, who is working for whom? It’s clear that the relationship is rather tyrannical, that the submissive party is actually obnoxiously demanding, and that what she demands above all is emotional labour: say the lines with conviction, be spontaneous, surprise me. She’s like a terrible neoliberal employer: not only do you have to go through with this whole scripted routine, you have to do it with a smile (or, in this case, a convincing “coldness”), adorned all the while with the requisite number of “pieces of flair”. The feeling of relief when the lovers agreed to give it all a break for a bit was palpable – this was the true utopian moment in the film.
I imagine it was the tyrannised-by-the-client aspect of their relationship that most resonated with viewers who weren’t themselves particularly into lesbian BDSM roleplay, that seemed most “universal”. In this way, The Duke of Burgundy has a kind of remorseless deductive logic about it: by bracketting off the entire context in which feminism had previously debated the ethics of sexualised domination, it’s able to isolate and present the true form of contemporary social power – that of the Pret-a-manger store manager, directing the behaviour of frontline staff like a client instructing a dominatrix in precisely which admonishments to use.