Working Women Get S&M All Day

A controversial article makes a questionable case about the fantasy life of career women

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Maggie Gyllenhall in Secretary, 2002

I had to laugh. There it was, on the cover of Newsweek: “The Fantasy Life of Working Women: Why Surrender is a Feminist Dream.” Gasp. Who told? “We may be especially drawn to this particular romanticized, erotically charged, semi-pornographic idea of female submission at a moment in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been,” writes Katie Roiphe in the article.

Sure. Surrender is a potent sexual fantasy. It is a fantasy that knows no boundaries, that, I dare say, is an equal opportunity driver of mischief and jollies among feminists, fashionistas, creationists, evangelists, CEOs and tractor drivers. Except when it isn’t.

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Back to career women and S&M. Isn’t that what career women have been experiencing during the day, for years and years? Isn’t that why most of us, from time to time, have found ourselves, during our climb through the ranks, hiding in a bathroom stall in tears, wondering why we went to college to end up getting treated this way, or why the idiot who happens to have a voice in the lower registers just stomped across your back, or why it was really necessary for the boss to take such cruel, drawn-out pleasure in ripping you apart — publicly.

I’m getting bad flashbacks here, so I’ll stop.

It isn’t easy, being a career woman. Hey, it isn’t easy being a career guy, either. But it’s a different kind of tough. Women still bear the brunt of humiliations — you think it makes us proud to know that we are being paid less than the guys, for the same work? You think it isn’t sadistic to take a man who has accomplished less, in more time, and make him your boss? And women still bear the brunt of masochism — in the form of endless guilt. We may not be mommy-warring (at least not out loud) but we don’t have to. The minute something goes wrong with a career mom’s child, I can tell you who the career woman blames first: herself.

(Are these sweeping generalizations? Of course. There is always a guilt-free exception who sang, danced and laughed the whole time she worked her way to the top. I just haven’t met her.)

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We are still women playing in a man’s world. It won’t be that way forever; it is changing, not only because of the hard work of a generation of working women — but, let’s give them credit here, because of a generation of parents who have spent the last 20 or 30 years raising their children with better values. Values of tolerance, fairness and equal opportunity.

Jill, you can grow up and run the company. Jack, you can stay home and raise your kids. I love it that I now work with men who will tell me straight out, I can’t do a meeting at 2:30, that’s when I pick up my son. Career women used to lie about what they had to do at 2:30 — or let someone else pick up the kids. Most working women didn’t even have a choice — and still don’t.

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Sex drives and fantasies rise up out of a complicated place in our ancient old brains. That part of our brains triggers things like fight or flight. Tie me up, tie me down. And while we’re in G-strings, may I point out something missed by the likes of Ms. Roiphe? Quite apart from the sense of safe escape any sexual fantasy among consenting people gives, S&M turns the tables. Just think about it. The submissive person is actually driving the action — the sadist needs the victim. And then it is over. Whether this turns you on or not is, thankfully, up to you. And no one’s business, unless you want it to be. Free country and all.

It’s the new parts of our brains, evolutionarily speaking, that power our abstract reasoning, our goal-directed behavior. That’s what keeps us career women in the office — doing things like editing magazines, generating buzz or buzzkill.

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