The pernicious narrative is standard by now. Women comprise more than 50 percent of the population. We’re moving up in the workplace, attending college in higher numbers than our male counterparts, and were instrumental in the recent election. But what empowered women really want is to relinquish control. Perhaps the idea is merely a new facet of anti-feminist rhetoric; if you can no longer rely on the legal system or societal norms to keep women submissive, make them think they crave it. More likely, the desire depends on the individual. Some women find release from the stress of a high-powered career by submitting to a dominant sexual partner. Others don’t.
Here’s another story we all know. In 2009, a verbal argument between Chris Brown and Rihanna escalated into a physical altercation. Though apparently not the first flare of violence in their relationship, it was the most severe. Brown initially tried to force Rihanna from his car, then repeatedly punched her in the face as he drove. Though they severed ties and Brown was subjected to a restraining order, fast forward three years, and it seems the two are back together, or at least gleefully hooking up.
To some, the decision to return to an abuser is fiercely complex, to most, simply wrong. But what about the choice to come out as a submissive within the context of an abusive relationship’s bungee cord-bond?
Plenty of celebrities discuss their sex lives. Plenty pose semi-nude. But I can’t think of anyone more relentless in her drive to project her submissiveness than Rihanna.Whether through lyrics (“Pain is my pleasure/ Whips and chains excite me.”) or interviews (“Being submissive in the bedroom is really fun. You get to be a little lady, to have somebody be macho and in charge of your shit. I like to be spanked. Being tied up is fun.”), Rihanna seems unabashed in her enthusiasm for sexual submission.
Normally, I’d say any celebrity advocating for a consensual sexual practice is a boon. Sure, 50 Shades of Grey (with all of its poorly researched, half-truths about BDSM) has swept the nation, yet despite this as well as the prevalence of S&M influenced fashion and explicit music, the general public’s concept of sex remains limited. Pop stars may seem like unlikely sexual gurus, but historically, they’ve opened our eyes to sex outside the norm. I’m thinking of Madonna with her (albeit tokenizing) nods to subcultural sexual practices, Bette Midler bringing New York’s elite into the gay bathhouses, (put down your fake mustache and Google it, young’ens), before all that, Mae West and Sophie Tucker — outspoken sex advocates, all. So an ostensibly powerful entertainer like Rihanna discussing her interest in being dominated could represent a positive contribution to an ongoing sexual dialogue. But if Rihanna exists as the embodiment of an overlap between submission and domestic violence, it’s worth asking, what sort of message her return to Chris Brown conveys.
Rihanna with Chris Brown in 2005
I don’t claim that playing a submissive sexual role predisposes a woman to accept abuse from her partner. Certainly, many couples — straight and lesbian — live out fulfilling BDSM-tinged sex lives without experiencing any sort of spill-over. But just as certainly, some couples who engage in aggressive sex are unable to seal off that aggression from the rest of their relationship. Obviously, couples should be free to have their sexual needs met in whatever consensual way they find fulfilling. But once a submissive relinquishes control, once she positively reinforces violence within a sexual context, does she enable that violence to find purchase in other aspects of a couple’s shared life? As for the dominant partner — and let’s go with a same sex example here, (because if you think domestic violence doesn’t exist in lesbian relationships, quit planking and Google that shit.) — once she’s experienced the perhaps thrilling power dynamic of compelling her partner to submit to her will, once she associates that pop of pleasure with violence, won’t it be that much easier, no matter what the context, for those synapses to fire again?
Not in a balanced relationship, right? That’s the party line. Not in a relationship with safe words and good communication and emotionally intelligent participants. But with the mainstreaming of BDSM, some drawn to submission or a violent sexual dynamic don’t know to follow the dry, academic rules designed to keep them safe. Some don’t want to. Given Rihanna’s eschewal of BDSM trappings, (“I like to keep it spontaneous. Sometimes whips and chains can be overly planned — you gotta stop, get the whip from the drawer downstairs. I’d rather have him use his hands.”), I wonder if she’s among that number. Is Rihanna a strong woman who finds release through submitting (one of many if you believe trend-watchers), or does Chris Brown’s nonsexual violence shift her into another category; someone making decisions under duress? If so, what does that mean for Rihanna? And what does it mean for those of us watching?