Shainberg’s “Secretary” is not one of the best movies on female sexuality. There are many points that would be criticized. However, in this essay, I am going to concentrate more on how the movie searches the unspoken aspects of female sexuality and pleasure. Though there are many controversial feminist perspectives on women’s pleasure, I think at some point all of them are right. Considering the history of gynecology and psychology on women’s sexuality, female pleasure is still a topic that needs more scientific researches and discussions.

In the “Secretary”, although the construction of the protagonist’s character is based on her previous Freudian experiences with her parents, the movie’s concentration on her desires, demands, and determination have an empowering influence on the spectators. In addition, it raises some questions on female pleasure. Despite the movie’s problematic approach to the consent issues, the movie deserves to be reviewed considering the time it was produced.

In this essay, I am going to focus on controversial ideas on female submissiveness as well as female pleasure. Some feminist scholars claim that female submissiveness in BDSM is caused by patriarchy’s oppression on women whereas the others argue that submissiveness, in general, can be a way of escaping the daily life’s responsibilities ending with high sexual arousal. Although I do not object to any of these positions, I argue that there is no ethical problem with being submissive or dominant as long as the sexual relationship follows the strict rules of consent in BDSM. In addition, even if the female submissiveness is caused by patriarchy, repressing women’s sexuality with the argument that being submissive makes women less feminist would paradoxically cause another ‘repression’ problem. On the contrary, I think it would be more realistic if we keep in mind that we were born and are living in a patriarchal world in which women’s right to speech and act are constantly and systematically oppressed. That’s why if there is a ‘venom’ in women’s psyche caused by the patriarchy, it is better to take it out via sex, arts or whatever it takes.


Psychoanalyst and feminist Jessica Benjamin argues that women are looking for “ideal love” more than men and the relationships become more like master-slave roles. Basically, she focuses on power relations. Her attention on love is only insofar as its anomaly directs to domination or submission. The search for “ideal love” provides a form of masochism which spoils women’s erotic lives.  

Benjamin’s emphasis on aggression suggested unique attention on the psyche as an area of instincts (aggression and libido); the focus on power suggests a more complicated view that also accepts the effect on the psyche of real relationships.

Benjamin’s study acknowledges domination and submission as the result of a disruption in mutual and equal human relationships rather than of human nature with its unavoidable aggressive impulses. Benjamin claims that female submissiveness is not necessarily caused by early individual experiences like traumas but by the sexual division of labor in which the male is legitimized as a subjective agent and the female is seen as immanent. She suggests that the roots of domination are hidden in the mainstream perception of the ”psychic structure” in our society in which the male is the subject, the female is the object.

“I have … emphasized the intersubjective postulate that the child develops through recognizing the mother’s independent aims and subjectivity, stressing the importance of this for gender relations, for acknowledging women as subjects. I have tried to show how the notion of the father as a creator of symbolic space denies there cognition and space already present in the maternal dyad.”[1]


Jessica Benjamin points out that the pleasures in attunement and interaction that differ from the pleasures of instinctual release are independent of the person’s actual partner. To develop the attunement and recognition, the interplay between separate psyches is the major determinant. Benjamin underlines that love between two adults implies a dialect between self-assertion and recognition of the other’s sovereignty. This tension of dialectic creates a satisfactory love if it does not create a perversion into domination and submission.

Notwithstanding, this kind of reciprocity is inevitably subverted by the gendered division of labor especially immanent to child care. To construct his autonomy, the boy dis-identifies from the power of his mother, rejecting her subjectivity. This way he can create a mutuality. In his later life, to re-construct an emotional attunement means a threat to his autonomy. The denigration of mother becomes the cultural convention which affects the girl aswell. The cultural convention of motherhood identifies the girl’s own perception causing a lack of self-assertion, thereby she becomes ready to accept the recognition of the “other” without claiming her own recognition. Hence, the “ideal love” is perverted.


In order to illustrate my point that submissive pleasure is real and it is proven, I will use the results of two scientific pieces of research. The first one is Siyang Luo and Xiao Zhang’s neuroscientific research called “Embodiment andHumiliation Moderation of Neural Responses to Others’ Suffering in FemaleSubmissive BDSM Practitioners” and the second one is University of Michigan Health System’s study on pleasure and pain.

Applied on twenty-six female submissive individuals aged between 18 and 30, excluding candidates with self-reported medical or psychiatric illness, “all participants reported experiencing at least one BDSM practice and performed only submissive roles during BDSM practice.”

“The participants were asked to hold a ball gag in their mouths in four of the blocks of trials, whereas there was nothing in their mouths during the other four blocks of trials. There was a 10-min break between the ball gag Blocking and Relaxed blocks of trials”. (Luo S and Zhang X, P. 3)

The subjective feelings of facial muscle stiffness under the blocking condition were significantly higher than those under the relaxed condition [blocking: 7.27 ± 1.54; relaxed: 1.27 ± 0.53,t(25) = 21.63, p < 0.001], indicating that the participants experienced increased muscle tension when they held a ball gag in their mouths compared to when they were able to move their facial muscles freely. The subjective ratings of pain intensity, unpleasantness, enjoyableness, and arousal in response to the neutral, general painful and sadistic painful stimuli were shown in Table 1. The subjective rating results of shame and sexual arousal during blocking and relaxed condition were showed in Table2.[2]

In Table 1, when pain intensity is 1.61 enjoyableness is 4.01 and arousal is 2.07. As pain intensity arises to sadistic painful statute which is5.44, enjoyableness reaches to 6.22 and arousal to 5.39.

In Table 2, muscle stiffness of a 7.27 degree creates 3.72 sexual arousal whereas the degree of sexual arousal is 2.50 when muscle stiffness is1.35 –which means a relaxed position without a ball gag-.

Another research on the correlation of pleasure and pain proved that when someone experiences a muscle pain, the brain chemical dopamine -known as the “pleasure chemical”- was activated in areas of the brain known as the basal ganglia, “the same region where it has been observed to respond to positive stimuli, such as food or sex”. While generating a controlled pain in the participants’ jaw muscle, researchers asked them to rate diverse forms of their feelings. The rating of the pain was in direct proportion to the dopamine levels produced in the region of the brain “known as the nucleus accumbens, the same region implicated in drug addiction”.[3] 

As a former mountaineer, I used to feel muscle pain while climbing the summits. When a friend of mine asked me to explain the pleasure I experienced during climbing she detected that the way I defined it was very similar to the definition of the state of being “high” that drugs generate. What people experience during physical activity like jogging, yoga or meditation is mostly defined as high body awareness. I can also define it as coming back to reality, being in the moment and so on. In feminist training for shock-traumas, to concentrate on a thing -like a red curtain or a glass on the table- in the place that your body is present at the time of an attack is a method of calling yourself back from the frozen state. Frozen state is generally the first reaction of living beings to shock-trauma which prevents you to fight back against the physical attack. Most women tend to stay in a frozen state when they experience domestic violence. In general, self-defense is an instinct that every living creature were born with. It is claimed that women are so strictly taught tobehave conveniently that to remember their self-defense instinct and to reversethe patriarchal codes of socializing in their psyche, they need bothpsychological and physical trainings. My personal experience with this trainingdrive me to think about the psyche and my physical presence. Physical stimulican urge the instincts if you can overcome the social blockage in yourconsciousness which means our social and physical presence can be divided intotwo. The physical pain I experienced during climbing made me forget about thesociety, the rules, my obligations and responsibilities, whereas I was moreaware of the physical environment around me, enjoying the chemical or physical feelingsthat my body experience at that time.

If we convert this kind of awareness to a sex experience it would be possible to empathize with submissive in BDSM. Pain as a stimuli of body awareness can service the state of staying at the moment and being aware of the body. In addition, as explained by above-mentioned experiments, probably the controlled and consented pain applied on the submissive increases the dopamine levels in the brain.


Roy Baumeister, a Ph.D., professor of psychology in Case Western Reserve University who focused on studying self and identity, defines sado-masochism as a way of forgetting the social existence or the self, like alcohol abuse, binge eating, and meditation serve for. He assumes that human nature is trying to maximize esteem and control whereas masochism works contrary to both.

Baumeister analyzed several letters related to S & M sent to the sex magazine Variations and detected masochism as a “set of techniques” that drive people to a state of mind which they forget who they are for a certain amount of time. He coins the “escape theory” as a way of getting rid of the Western ego, the elaborate structure that places incredibly high demands on the individual self. Such high expectations of individuals causes such a high stress that people decide to turn into painful experiences like masochism to escape. [4]

[1] Intersubjectivity, Thirdness, and Mutual Recognition, Jessica Benjamin, Ph.D. A talk, given at the Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles, CA. 2007 (p. 4)

[2] Luo S and Zhang X (2018). Embodiment and Humiliation Moderation of Neural Responses to Others’ Suffering in Female Submissive BDSM Practitioners.

[3] For further reading:

[4] For further reading:

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