What a Woman Wants

There is an ancient Arthurian myth which seeks to answer the question in the title of this post -- what does a woman want. (To read the full text of the story, click here.)

The summary of the myth is that in order to save his life, a knight must within a year's time give a wisewoman the answer to the question, what does a woman want? The knight searches far and wide and asks everyone he meets for the answer. Ultimately, the answer he comes up with for the wisewoman is that what a woman wants above all is Sovereignty. In the myth, this answer is correct, the knight's life is spared and the wisewoman turns into a beautiful young woman whom he marries.

It's worth noting that this legend dates back to at least the 13th century. Even during an era when women were essentially property with no rights at all, the popular culture of storytelling acknowledged that sovereignty was a primary need in a woman's life.

Since myth is generally seen as roadmap into our personal consciousness, the general consensus is that the sovereignty in the story refers not to institutional or governmental power, but to personal sovereignty. That what a woman wants most of all is the right to make her own decisions, feel her own feelings and create her own life out of her own heart's desire. This is Virginia Woolf's Room of Her Own, dated 500 years earlier.

But what if part of a woman's heart's desire is to submit to another? What if she wants the sovereignty of the story, but also wants the comfort, security and feminine experience of submission?

As I've struggled over the past few months with the problems my partner and I are having incorporating domestic discipline (DD) into our relationship, I have thought often about this particular myth and what it means in my own life. My primary need for sovereignty is a big stumbling block for me in making DD work, as it clearly is for many, if not most, modern women drawn to the DD lifestyle.

I've written at length in prior posts about how many in our culture are still children functioning as adults, and I wonder if the issue of sovereignty vs. submission goes right to the heart of this cultural problem.

We live in a culture which, too often, encourages us to think in terms of having it all -- of being entitled to it all (whatever "it" is) without pointing out that there's a price to pay for everything we get. Corporations and Madison Avenue tell us we "deserve" a new car, we've "earned" an iPhone, we're "entitled" to premium cable service. They don't tell us that the price for these things is environmental devastation, war, exploitation of third world countries and, closer to home, stress, overwork, estrangement from our families and credit card debt.

The corporate culture, with its profit-at-all-costs imperative, promotes this attitude of have-in-all entitlement, of course, to sell product -- and in the true spirit of corporate America, they do it without regard to the societal chaos it causes.

As a result, we don't seem willing to accept that we can't have it all. We expect that we can have the super-charged career, raise a family and still have time for personal development and recreation. We expect that we can be parents without having to take on the responsibilities and sacrifices required to do so responsibly ("why should I have to stop going to the movies just because I have a screaming four year old"). We want the career opportunity, but resent being asked to work overtime or give above and beyond to impress those above us on the ladder ("Can you believe my boss actually asked me to work late on this project? Geesh."). And on and on it goes.

So as I struggle with my desire to have both sovereignty and submission -- or perhaps better put, my stubborn and steadfast refusal to give up any of my personal sovereignty to get something that I say I want so much -- I wonder if my insistence on having both is an example of me being a member of our entitlement culture. I wonder if I'm being the willful, immature six-year-old who doesn't understand that she can't have everything she sees at the toy store and ice cream on the way home, too.

On the other hand, if the language of myth is to be believed, sovereignty isn't so much a desire as it is a requirement for human fulfillment. And if other myths, equally old and powerful, are to be believed, a woman's desire to submit is a requirement for female fulfillment (see "Feminism: The Power of Giving Way"). Is it possible that to be a fulfilled woman requires two apparently contradictory and incompatible things -- sovereignty and submission. And that our attempts to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable conditions is what's driving women in our culture slowly into depression, dysfunction and despair?

I know it's doing that to me in spades. In my struggle to have everything I feel I need, I am caught between the proverbial irresistible force and immovable object, between two imperatives equally strong, neither of which I feel I can be a complete person without. Is it really possible to genuinely submit to another while still maintaining my right to make decisions about my own life? Do I really have to choose between being feminine and being a complete human being, and is it even possible for a woman to be one without the other?

As is often the case, however, the answer may lie in the question. Perhaps my sovereignty lies in making the choice to submit, rather than having that choice forced upon me. And perhaps losing part of my sovereignty is a necessary consequence of the choice I've made to submit in the first place. A difficult and terrible choice, but a choice nonetheless. And a choice that's been hard-won over the past few decades by those who have fought courageously for women's rights.

After all, unlike during other eras, no one is forcing me into DD. For that matter, no one is forcing me into a relationship. If I really want pure sovereignty over my life, I could choose to live alone and be accountable to no one -- a choice that women in the past didn't have when they were forced to marry, forced to stay at home, and forced to submit to their husbands and fathers.

The reaction to this forced femininity/submission in the '70s was equally un-empowered. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, '70s and '80s feminism was no better at giving women choices. It denied women sovereignty as much as the old ways did.

Modern feminism forced women by virtue of popular pressure to act like men, to work in jobs as to do, to look like men and wear their clothes, to reject traditional roles of mother, wife and lover of men, to eshew the trappings of submission and domesticity.

This forced "liberation" is no more sovereign than the original enslavement of women. We're still enslaved, we've just switched masters. I have no more sovereignity following the angry, dogmatic prescripts of contemporary "feminism" than I would have back in the '60s vaccuming in my heels and pearls in a TV sitcom. To put it another way, being a house slave or being a field slave makes little difference -- you're still a slave.

It's true, I think, that what women really want is sovereignty, and we still don't have it, we're still by and large miserable and confused about what it means to be a woman, and still struggling to make our relationships with men -- DD or not -- be what we feel intuitively they should and could be.

Is it possible that all of our struggle is because we don't realize that our power is in having gained the right to choose to surrender and the right to choose to pay the price that such surrender requires?

It's a reality that any relationship -- DD or no -- requires a certain amount of surrender and loss of sovereignty. We can't be in a relationship with someone and not give up the right to make every decision and do everything our way. That DD is a bit farther along on the spectrum than most modern relationships means that the issue of sovereignty -- the amount of surrender required -- is more extreme, and thus issue becomes more prevalent, the cost more apparent. The choice more clear.

As usual, I don't have the answers. And don't claim to. But it's something to consider -- that the right to choose to give away one's sovereignty may in and of itself be a sovereign act.

NOTE: I recently received an email asking for help with regard to the subject of rules. I've tried to answer, but the email bounced back. Please email me back with a valid email address and I'll do my best to help! -Viv


  1. Vivian,

    In this, and in your "giving way" post, you touch on the essence of the feminine.

    One of the things that makes submission such an issue for us is the nature of physical autonomy and integrity.

    For men, to be "masculine" is (among other things) to have physical control of one's self and have a line of demarcation between self and not-self. When men speak of being "feminized", they are usually referring to some violation of the integrity of that self/non-self boundary.

    To be feminized is to be penetrated - to allow someone else to put him/herself inside him and violate his integrity and autonomy.

    This is one reason why men often have difficulty with doctors. Doctors routinely probe, penetrate, sample, and put things inside their patients. For men, that is a violation or a feminization.

    As you say in your "giving way" post, to be a woman - to be feminine - is to be penetrated. To love and have a relationship with a man *requires* that we allow him to enter us.

    The entry isn't a simple crossing of boundaries, it is an emphasized act. He enters and then moves in and out, making us intensely conscious of how far in he is and making us think about how deep inside us he is going to go and how long he is going to stay.

    If we try to "tune out" the physical entry, we miss the whole point of sex. If we "protect" ourselves (by using condoms or a diaphragm) we miss out on the nature of the bonding.

    To truly bond with a man, we must completely surrender ourselves to him and let him inside - both physically and emotionally. He stays as long as he wants to stay and goes as deep as he wants to go. We need/want him to go as deep and stay as long as he can.

    And he leaves part of himself behind.

    We may try to protect ourselves from that part of him that is left behind, but to truly be bonded to him, we cannot. We must accept it and allow ourselves to take the risk of becoming pregnant - carrying his/our child and making a new life.

    We, in the act of sex, in the act of bonding, take the risk - even the likelihood - that we will forever change our lives by creating a new life. Included in that is the risk of death in childbirth and the risk of permanent loss of autonomy and power because of the need to care for a child.

    If you are wrestling with the nature of a man controlling you and with the nature of your own physical and emotional integrity, you are wrestling with the nature of femininity and femaleness itself.

    May I suggest that you consider your own sources of power: in the act of submission, do you loose all power in the relationship?

    Do you have economic power, or other kinds of power that you bring to the relationship that gave your man pause?

    In my case, I have the economic power in our relationship. I make several times as much money as my husband. If he were to abuse his power over me, he would risk losing a huge amount of our joint economic power.

    He can't tell me to give up my job and be a housewife unless he wants to give up our lifestyle, sell our house and lose all of the benefits that my income generates.

    In particular, he can't do anything to me that prevents me from going out into the world and being a professional woman. He can't leave visible marks on my face, arms and hands. There are limits to how much he can hurt me.

    If he spanks me too hard - if I can't hide my physical pain as I sit down - people will notice. They will be aware that I look like I've been spanked and my power in my job will be at risk.

    I can't run my company - I can't tell other people how to run their companies - if I look like I just got a spanking from my husband. I certainly can't do my job if I have tell-tale bruises on my face or arms.

    I can't exercise my economic power - and bring the fruits of that power back to my husband and me - if I can't go out into the world and do my job.

    For us, that creates a delicious tension. I am willing to hide the effects of discipline from the world and do so to the absolute best of my ability. I *want* to feel last night's discipline and/or hard sex. I *want* to be aware of the fact that my husband has set limits on me. I tingle all over when he tells me to be home by a certain time.

    But if the limits he puts on me prevent me from doing my job, our economic power is at risk.

    I love that tension. I love those moments when people look at me strangely, wondering why I seem to be moving a little stiffly some days. I tell them that I had a hard workout. Sometimes I joke that I'm recovering from rough sex with my husband the night before (and sometimes that "joke" is the absolute truth).

    I relish the occasional times when I have to cut a meeting short, telling people that I have a personal commitment at 6pm. Sometimes I tell them the truth - that I have theater tickets or some other social engagement. Other times, I can't tell the truth: that my husband told me to be home at 7pm, kneeling in front of the sofa, ready to serve his desires.

    But in all these matters, I feel a degree of safety. My husband knows that there are limits to what I can do without risking our lifestyle. He knows that I will do my absolute best to push those limits, but that sometimes I will choose to disobey him and take my punishment - because my business requires it.

    Sometimes I tell him that I can't take the day off without putting a client project at risk. Then it becomes his decision, and I see him wrestle with the tension between my submission to him and the requirements of my career.

    It is because of my economic power that I can submit myself to my husband and obey him. There are consequences to his commands and consequences to my obedience.

    Do you have a source of power that would put limits on your husband/partner/lover? As a politico, do you have to maintain an aura of authority? Do you have to appear to be a full-power feminist?

    If you have power of your own, that power may help you to submit. It may set natural limits on your obedience or at least create consequences that give you a degree of safety.

    But, in the end, inside the relationship, the nature of femininity and femaleness still creates a need to submit. Submitting will still require you to give up some of your physical and emotional autonomy and integrity.

    That's part of being a woman.

  2. Very interesting and thoughtful post, as usual. Glad you're back to blogging.

    I don't know the answer either. In the past week, I broke up with the man I was dating in a DD relationship. (The story of why is on my blog.)

    At any rate, early last week I was mulling over ideas similar to those on your post. When I was divorced several years ago, I felt as if I spent the first few years getting back to the person I used to be-- that independent, healthy-living, dancing, free-spirited social butterfly that I was in the 1970s-- and I liked that person. I didn't like the married me-- the victim of my ex-husband's anger and alcoholism.

    Last week (pre-break-up), I was thinking about how I had changed in the weeks since I had met my Dom and got involved with DD. Was I was doing my chameleon act again? Was I becoming someone else-- someone that He wanted me to be? Or are submission and a longing for discipline part of me that I hadn't recognized before?

    In the Mastery of Love, Don Miguel Ruiz says that our lives are our dreams. We each have our own dream, and in a relationship one person shouldn't expect the other person to give up his/her dream and adopt the the other person's dream. (That's a recipe for resentment, anger, and a short-lived relstionship, according to the author.) Your DD relstionship is your shared dream with your partner, but within that shared dream, the dream that is you (and the dream that is him) should still exist.

  3. Vivian you have the most curious and at times inverted takes on things.

    First of all, as someone who considers himself to have been a 70's feminist activist, despite being among the "penilely challenged" of the species, I beleive the outcome of the feminist movement was self-determination for women, not some dogma of beliefs or lifestyle precepts they must adhere to.

    As for the achetypal myth, sovereignty,etc. You have the myth, particularly within its original context of the 1200's, exactly backwards. Wisewoman did receive her answer and it was sovereignty. She needed to be ruled by an ultimate authority, rule maker, god-like figure incarnate who would reconcile (fulfill) the balance and tension between her self-determination, and her need to be dominated, ergo to submit. When she received her "magic answer" she became a beautiful young lover to her Prince. (How many young maiden finds her Prince archetypal myths are there for god's sake?)It is the reconciliation of tension between her need for sovereignty and her need for self-dtermination that creates the glorious excitment that leads to the merging of eros, logos, and ethos that fulfills her life.

    You are point on in sensing your tension, but your analysis of the influences competing withn you (and Wisewoman)is backwards.

    I hope you will be having a wonderful celebration Tuesday night, as will many of the rest of us Americans, and the world. Thank you for whatever role you've played in the Democratic success.

    All the best,


    Go confidenlty in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you've imagined.

  4. Anonymous19:41

    Changing gears. Congrats on whatever roll you played on Tuesday. Folks all over the world thank you. Sideriteguy

  5. Anonymous15:07

    I read the story and both you and raheretic have it wrong. A lot of the legends about King Arthur have come to us from the French who modified them to match their culture and this looks like one of them.

    The place of women in the Celtic culture is completely different than the French. If a Celtic woman brought in more property to the marriage she could make the financial decisions. Unlike England, there never was a ruling Queen of France.

    A lot of stories about sovereignty are about restoring energy to the land. Men give up energy during sex and women take it in. That is why Priests and Monks are Chaste and the Priestess in the old religions were by todays standards sluts.

    In the book " King of the Celts" Jean Markale tells the story of a young prince who dared kiss a toothless old hag. She turned into a beautiful girl and said, " I am the sovereignty of Ireland because, you dared to kiss me , you will be King of Ireland".


  6. Anonymous16:39

    What happened to you? Have you (and your absence, and difficulty with submission) proven that it's impossible to be both a feminist and a woman who submits to male authority?

  7. Thanks for the inquiry, Anonymous.

    I generally only post a new article when I have something new to say -- usually every few months!
    As to whether it's possible to have DD relationship and be a feminist, I suppose that depends on one's definition of feminist -- by the contemporary, commonly accepted (and I believe, damaging and inaccurate) definition). By the real, healthy definition that involves valuing the feminine as much as the masculine, absolutely.

    That said, it's always a work in progress... :-)


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