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The Healthy Submissive

By Yaldahtovh <yaldahtvah@aol.com> - May 2000

The essay below was originally posted to the newsgroup alt.lifestyle.master-slave and is reproduced here, in the Essays section of Enslavement.

In this discussion, I will be talking primarily about the female heterosexual submissive, because I don't know enough about non-heterosexual female submissives and Dominants to know whether this analysis is completely applicable. This focus is not to suggest that lesbian female submissives and their challenges are less worthy of study, merely that I am not equipped at this time to do such a study.

So often, women who are newly aware of their submissive needs endure a period of self doubt around the troubling question: am I sick? I've seen women read the psychiatric diagnostic manual (DSM-IV) and then ask, "Do I have borderline personality disorder?"

I am writing here not only about the sexual aspects: "am I sick because I get turned on by images of being taken, used, forced, swept away by masculine energy more powerful than my own?"; I am also writing about the nonsexual aspects of being submissive: "am I sick because I yearn to depend on, and follow the lead of, a man stronger than myself?"

I will attempt to address both aspects in this essay.

What precisely fuels this kind of question, "am I sick?" Why would a woman discovering the language of her nature think she has a mental disorder? Or at the very least, have something very wrong with her?

A submissive discovers, or more properly, realizes and acknowledges that she functions at her best in relation to another. And the more intimate, holding, containing that relationship, the better she feels and the better she performs in cardinal areas of adult life: work, friendships, and parenting. Realizing she is at her best in such relation makes her wonder why she can't do it for herself? Why does she need such a relationship to accomplish what she should be able to do for herself?

In thinking about this, I have come to question the cultural determinants of what is considered the highest good. Here in Western society, we place highest value on independence, on "pull yourself up by the bootstraps", on the lone pioneer, the trailblazer, the less needy and more self sufficient. We value competition over cooperation, tangible achievement over achievement in relationship. We pay big bucks to men (and the few women) who run big corporations, and less to the nursery school teachers, the nurses, the secretaries, the social workers, the caregivers rather than the producers.

There is something wrong with believing that such independence is the only good. It is especially wrong for the most relatedness-oriented among us, the submissive female.

Part of the newly aware submissive's task is to separate out the internalized voices of her culture: those voices that tell her she is too needy, too dependent, too focused on the others in her life. Once she can articulate what those voices tell her, she can begin to question not herself, but the validity of those internalized values, using her own yardstick to measure her life, rather than our culture's standard.

We can see how perspective is critical in understanding a phenomenon. For example, Dr. Robert Coles, in a study of moral development in children, researched how children decide what is good and right. To do this, he presented several scenarios describing a moral or ethical dilemma, presented the scenario to school age children, and analyzed the results. The description of the study here is to illustrate the nature of cultural bias and it's impact on individuals.

One of Dr. Cole's scenarios was as follows:

A man has a very, very sick wife, so sick she could die if she doesn't get a particular, very expensive medicine. The man doesn't have the money for the medicine, so in desperation he steals it from a pharmacy.

The children are asked questions about this scenario. Coles found that boys tended to conclude that the man should be punished, because the law is the law, and nobody should break the law. Coles saw this as a higher order of moral reasoning, reflecting the statement, "a nation of laws, not of men." That is, that nobody is above the law, and the rule of law is not situationally defined. The boys applied an abstract universal principle to a singular instance. Coles understood this ability to transcend the personal as a "more evolved" form of moral development.

The girls were deeply troubled by the scenario, and most of them sought ways to solve the man's problem within the context of relatedness: they wondered if the man could ask the pharmacist for the medicine, and offer to work for him to pay for it, or pay him back later. They wondered if the man had friends who could help him pay for the medicine, and they believed he shouldn't be punished for his act of desperation. Their sense of right was situational, and defined within the context of relatedness. They did not come to articulate an abstract universal principle, but sought to solve the problem within the context presented. Coles saw this as a less logical, lower order of moral development because the girls could not emotionally distance themselves from the central human drama in the scenario.

After Coles' work was published a woman named Carol Gilligan reviewed the studies that Cole had done and reanalyzed them, in a book called, "In a Different Voice." Rather than seeing the boys' responses as evidence of "higher" development and the girls' as "lower" she redefined them as different. And she pointed out that the girls responses, so firmly rooted in human context and relatedness were devalued by a society in which the typically masculine is of more cultural worth than the typically feminine. She asked, "Why is it considered a 'higher' order of moral development to value universal principle over human context?" and in so doing highlighted the sexism inherent in the analysis.

As we can see, this type of analysis is extremely useful in understanding typical submissive conflicts. We tend to ask the wrong questions: "am I bad, sick, weak?", when we should be asking, "is there something missing from the yardstick I use to measure myself?"

If one looks at capacity for relatedness as a strength, as a good, then it becomes clear that the submissive has a talent for this, for relatedness. And that seeking a partner who can meet her need for this relatedness is a good thing, a healthy thing.

If we begin our analysis without the cultural assumptions about what is of "higher" value, we can begin to understand that it is possible for a woman to be submissive, and to be healthy. And we can try to imagine what a healthy submissive functions like, and how she developed her adult personality. Let's start backwards, and ask ourselves, what might a healthy adult submissive woman "look" like, psychologically speaking:

1. The healthy submissive is capable of, and thrives on, intense, intimate, emotionally open relationships. This is often evident in the number of nourishing, sustaining, and life affirming friendships she makes over the years.

2. The healthy submissive is a giver. She often needs help to ration herself because her impulses nearly always lead her to want to do good for others.

3. The healthy submissive is capable of intense joy, especially in the context of a sustaining relationship.

4. The healthy submissive finds significant relaxation when properly related. She is at ease in that place.

5. The healthy submissive has finely tuned interpersonal sensitivity. She is reactive to subtle shifts in the emotional tone of others.

6. The healthy submissive has a fluidity of self, a flexibility that enables her to adapt to changing circumstances.

7. The healthy submissive is playful.

8. The healthy submissive has no more than the usual cultural conflicts about her body, and its goodness and beauty.

9. The healthy submissive takes pride in her accomplishments.

10. The healthy submissive accepts herself as she is, knowing that while her culture values independence and self sufficiency, she has strong dependency needs and that there is no inherent "wrongness" about those needs.

11. The healthy submissive seeks nourishing relationships.

12. The healthy submissive, in accepting herself "as is" is tolerant of others. But neither will she allow anyone to tell her what her truth should be.

13. The healthy submissive has a reasonable self concept, aware of her difficulties as well as her strengths.

14. The healthy submissive hungers to be the object of an intense and penetrating understanding. When her nature is understood and she is held in a loving and firm frame, her devotion is almost limitless. The healthy submissive has an enormous capacity for devotion, from which springs her service.

What makes a woman a submissive?

As with all conjectures about human development, the answer is likely twofold: a combination of nature and nurture, biology and environment.

There is a whole body of literature that makes observations about temperament. This literature talks about the variations in behavior in infancy as a manifestation of temperament: the expression of regularity, responsiveness, and reactivity. In the area of regularity, some infants are regular and predictable from the get-go: they sleep regularly, wake at predictable intervals to nurse, and have predictable periods of alertness in which they begin the earliest socialization. Some infants are irregular: they will one day sleep for an 8 hour stretch, then be awake all night, the next day they will sleep for one hour intervals through a 24 hour period. In the area of responsiveness, some infants will find novelty and intense stimulation aversive, and will withdraw or become irritable when presented with those; some infants are stimulated to engage and explore novelty and intense stimulation. Some infants have high thresholds for sensation, requiring a relatively intense stimulus to become aversive, some have low thresholds, and respond to mild stimulation. Some infants will for example, be intensely distressed by a wet diaper; some will not register discomfort until diaper rash sets in.

The sum total of these innate, biologically founded responses make up temperament. It is easy to see what people mean by an "easy" baby: one who sleeps, eats, and eliminates regularly and predictably; one who has a moderate response to stimulation, neither withdrawing nor reacting intensely; one who is drawn easily into social exchanges, and provides pleasurable reinforcement of socialization with their caregivers, one who is easily "read" and easily comforted, one who accepts change without undue distress.

I think one of the traits in this biologically grounded array that makes up temperament is common to all submissives. And that is social responsiveness. I would suggest that the baby who is temperamentally "set" to register and respond selectively and sensitively to social cues has the seeds of submissiveness in her nature. This is the baby that will search the environment for a human face; who will be attuned to, and very responsive to the human voice; who will preferentially and selectively attend to, and process, human interaction.

This baby, as she grows into childhood, will be easy to control, to shape, especially if she is temperamentally on the "easy" side. This little girl will be exquisitely sensitive to criticism and correction, to disapproval, to praise. Rather than requiring a raised voice to correct, a raised eyebrow will often do.

Even further, this little girl will be exquisitely sensitive to nuance: she will know when others are angry, hurt, sad, bewildered even when they are not spoken about. She has a "sixth sense" about people.

As children do, she requires the adults in her life to validate her perceptions when appropriate. Let's say her parents are troubled by a financial stress, and like good, responsible parents seek to shield her from their stress. The child will pick up on the unspoken tension, sensitive as she is to subtleties of body language, voice pitch, facial expression. She might inquire of her parents what is wrong, and be told "nothing is wrong, honey... go and play." This leaves the child confused: she knows in that way that she knows, that something is wrong. But her perceptions are not validated. She is told nothing is wrong. But her parents, who are not at their best, may be a little short with her, and picking THAT up too, she goes off to play concluding that she must have done something wrong, to be sent away. Part of this is the megalomania of childhood, part of this is a reasonable and logical synthesis of resolving the child's felt sense of things with what she is told.

This kind of interaction, repeated over the years, in the best and most loving of families, leads to an adult personality in which there is some anxiety associated with relatedness. The submissive female learns to scan the social environment for signs of trouble, seeks to "fix" the trouble, and all too often, believes herself to be the cause of the trouble. If someone important is tired, the submissive has exhausted them. If someone important is angry, the submissive must have angered them. If someone important is disappointed, the submissive must have failed them.

This trait, this interpersonal sensitivity in its highest expression is when the submissive accurately registers interpersonal nuance, and responds to it with a minimum of self-referral, recognizing that other's emotional states may have nothing to do with the submissive herself. This is how it works for the healthy submissive, who as an adult, often finds great fulfillment working in fields such as social work, nursing, medicine, counseling, teaching.

There are certain vulnerabilities a child constituted with a submissive nature faces.

Because of her intense awareness of interpersonal nuance, she is highly sensitive to both criticism and praise. When criticized, she is likely to feel intense shame; when praised, intense pleasure. Since the shame feels so bad, and the praise so pleasurable, she becomes a people-pleaser. This tends to lead to the development of what psychologists call "an external locus of control." Meaning that child bases her self assessment (am I good or bad?) on factors outside herself. The female submissive defines herself based on what others tell her she is.

Parents have enormous responsibility with such an influenceable child. Nascent talents can either be nurtured or aborted with just a word. This child will likely live up, or down to, whatever is expected of her. Expect more than she can constitutionally do (like academic, athletic, or social success) and she will develop an intense sense of inferiority. Praise her out of proportion to her talents (this is the best drawing any child ever did) and she will develop an inflated sense of self. Accurately and sensitively validate her real abilities and talents, and she will seek goals appropriate to her ability, and take pleasure in achieving them.

When the environment is reality based, sensitive, and balanced, the child grows up embracing her special ability to be "related" to others, to be sensitive, and has a sense of self in reasonable tune with her true abilities and vulnerabilities, neither excessively self effacing or self aggrandizing.

But if development should go awry, as it too often does for this child, the personality traits she has develop in a distorted manner, and cause her difficulties.

In dysfunctional families, this child suffers more than others with tougher hides, less reactive temperaments. She is often the one singled out for physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Her very nature makes her available for use: for the parent's angers, frustrations, sexual impulses, or narcissistic gratification. When a submissive child is misused in this fashion, she is unable to utilize her interpersonal talents in a constructive way. Around the core of her submissive nature, psychological pathology develops, and distorts her submissive development.

Women who emerge from childhood with these traits will be more or less consciously submissive in that they are moldable, controllable by others whether or not they call themselves "submissive." Those who don't consciously seek a Dominant partner will naturally gravitate to a man who influences and controls her in a benevolent manner, who accepts her, loves her, nurtures her, and values her sensitivity.

Those who consciously seek a Dominant partner are those who are perhaps, so sensitive that they require not only benevolence, but someone who understands precisely how moldable and influenceable they are, and is capable of using the power to mold her and influence her deliberately and consciously, for her good and the good of the relationship. Or she may have been fortunate enough to be exposed to a conscious Dominant, who fulfills her and reveals her nature to her. Or, increasingly evident, are those who recognize themselves in the explosion of information available via the Internet, and proliferation of BDSM-theme publications.

In relationship with an appropriate partner, the submissive is freed to be all of herself. She is safe enough to feel her exquisitely sensitive reactions to others, to play like a child, to give care and to take care, to be angry, to lose shame.

Part of what she is relates to her sexuality, what she finds erotic. To understand what makes a healthy submissive, we need to examine the nature of a healthy submissive's sexuality. We start by looking at the relation of her overall temperament and development to the particulars of her sexual core. It is in childhood, that we learn how to love, how to be loved, and how love feels in some existential way. A blueprint is laid down in childhood that influences adult love relationships in ways often not evident to the adult.

Let's remember what we've proposed about the core of a submissive child's nature: an intense, preferential attention and sensitivity to social cues that develops into a special sensitivity to the influence of others, and an eventual "external locus of control." This child, in a reasonably suitable environment free of excessive trauma will develop as follows: when she senses her parents having even a small degree of distress from the normal tensions of life, she will try very hard to "be good" for them. She will try not to irritate them, make demands on them, she will try to be helpful, while at the same time putting her needs to the side. Because she is still a child, she will while wholeheartedly trying to "be real good" feel some resentment and anxiety for having (in response to her own internal demands) to be good. Now even good and loving parents will encourage this, praise this response: "Honey, thank you for being such a good girl while Mommy has to take care of your baby sister. You are so good to your little sister, and to me." So the submissive child experiences first, the impulse to take care of others, to soothe them, to not be difficult, leading her to put aside her needs, and also the resentment for not having her needs recognized and met. She suffers on some level, to some degree, from the putting aside of her needs, and from stuffing the angers and resentments. She suffers.

Yet at the same time that she suffers, she is being praised, and that feels exceptionally good, exceptionally meaningful to the submissive child. She learns that to suffer in service to another brings pleasure.

If we look at the core of submissive sexuality, we see that the essence is a mirror, a concrete embodiment of her entire personality as formed by early interpersonal relations. To express love, one serves. To feel loved, one serves. When she is an adult this imperative is expressed in her sexuality. Her fantasies are nearly universal amongst submissives: sexual pleasure in suffering as the captured slave, the harem girl, the maiden stolen by the pirates, the whore for use by a roomful of men under the watchful eye of her pimp.

Her adult sexuality is elaborated upon this psychic core: she is receptive, she is open, she is giving, and what touches her most powerfully in sexual intimacy is to be commanded, taken, used, even forced to suffer because even in suffering she is loved. She learns the equation of suffering = pleasure in those very early interchanges in which she experienced the flush of pleasure in being of service to her family. The more she had to suffer, the more she had to put aside her own needs in order to "be good", the greater perhaps is this connection, and the more overtly masochistic the submissive may be. This construct may account for the spectrum of masochism amongst submissives: the more challenging or difficult or overtly painful her early experiences are, the more likely she may be to learn that loving for her, involves some degree of suffering. Pure service without physical masochism defines one end of this spectrum, and intense masochistic needs in a submissive woman defines the other.

Please note that we are still talking about the healthy submissive here. Such a woman will have minimal conflicts about being constituted the way she is, whether or not she is intensely masochistic. It just is the way she loves, different loving, so to speak. It never stops feeling loving to her, as long as she is in service to, and "suffering" for, a loving Dominant. Once she has unraveled the knots of her culture's values, she will not be seriously conflicted about her sexual nature or desires. She will have an intense, expressive, emotionally intimate and meaningful sex life within the safety of the hold of her keeper.

Let us not then mistake the submissive need to follow for weakness. Let us not mistake the submissive's capacity for relatedness to inability to be alone. Let us not mistake the submissive's vital, joyous sexuality for self-destructive masochistic equivalents: self-mutilation undertaken out of rage or despair.

Last updated 5 February 2001.

 
 
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