service beneath the surface

I was going to write a review of another Kleinplatz article, but I’m feeling compelled to respond to something else instead. Specifically, I just came across a blog post at Switch It Up that asks a question about service (in a kinky context). You can read the post if you want, but the basic idea is, isn’t domestic service “just a way to get your house cleaned by someone else without paying for it?”

Ooof. I realize there’s no intention to be offensive behind that post, so my response is not intended as a way of ranting at the author. I think some people are just not wired to enjoy or understand the myriad ways that kink and power relations can go very, very far outside the bedroom and sexual or sensual contexts. They don’t have to; the people who do it will keep right on doing it, and the people who don’t will keep right on enjoying whatever they do. But at the same time I feel a need to respond in some way because it feels like the question is rooted in some sort of misconception.

Of course the only way I can approach this topic is through my own experience, so as usual, your mileage may vary. I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers or speak for all people involved in some form of service dynamic; I’ve simply been on the receiving end of service off and on for several years now, and have engaged in many a wonderful and thought-provoking conversation with service-oriented people in many kinds of relationships to me, including more than one currently ongoing conversation. So biased and flawed, here is my take on it nonetheless.

So for starters, let’s separate the idea of service and submission (and then put ‘em back together again). The term “submissive” is so wide and used in so many different ways by different people that I would not presume to try and fully define it here. However, at its most basic, I would say that submission is the act of acceding to another’s wishes; in a kinky context that process is eroticized. The dominant wants to do something, the submissive allows it to be done. The dominant leads, the submissive follows. Oversimplified of course, but it’s a starting point.

Service is not the same thing as submission, although the two can certainly come together. Service at its basis is not a form of allowing. Rather it’s an active thing; it’s a very intense and focused form of attentiveness to another person’s needs. It’s when one person chooses to prioritize the desires and comfort and wishes of another, and acts in very deliberate ways to maintain that prioritization.

Service dynamics can go all over the map in terms of what they mean to the people involved and how they are played out. The specifics of what kind of service gets provided and how it’s received vary wildly. For example, the person on the receiving end may or may not have a great deal of say as to what the service looks like. Sometimes the receiver simply accepts what is freely offered with no particular input other than consent (and sometimes even then, only the implied sort); sometimes s/he has the right to correct or guide the service; sometimes s/he has the right to expect or demand service and punish the giver if it’s not provided to satisfaction. And service itself can range from the extremely intimate – sexual services, massage, personal care, SM play – to the extremely practical or mundane – laundry, gardening, errands, whatever. These are all points for negotiation.

Unless you observe really closely, you often cannot tell what is going on with a given dynamic just by looking. You might not even know it if one exists. Someone can be in service without actually physically doing a darned thing, for example – a person can be available to serve and actively attentive without actually carrying out any actions. Someone can be in service without even being in the same city or country as another – any act that is useful and helpful to the receiver can be a form of service. That might include such things as keeping an eye out for information that would be useful to the receiver, making purchases, making travel arrangements, even helping someone else on the receiver’s behalf. For example, a service-oriented individual of my acquaintance once played hostess to a friend of mine who was badly in need of a last-minute place to stay on the other side of the continent – I sent an e-mail and all of a sudden he had a bed, a warm meal and a guided tour of the city awaiting him upon his arrival.

In addition to all this, service can play out in ways that look like any other sort of BDSM play on the outside, but that may be entirely different on the inside. For example, in your typical top-bottom physical SM scene at a play party, you would expect the “do-er” to be the dominant and the “receiver” to be the submissive. But if I like to be flogged in a certain way, and I have a helpful person in service to me who is skilled in that form of topping, it’s entirely likely that I will ask that person to employ their skills to create a scene where I get my happy beating exactly as I like it. In other words, there are definitely such things as “service tops.”

There are also people who are willing to bottom as a form of service – meaning what they’re getting out of the exchange is not necessarily the enjoyment of the bottoming per se, but the enjoyment of providing service to the person doing the topping. For example, although I love topping people in ways that get us both all happy, sometimes I like to really hurt people in ways they don’t enjoy. I do have a sadistic streak of the more classic variety than what we often toss around in the BDSM world. I’ve been privileged to have a couple of people in my world who have been willing to bottom in that sort of scene, full well knowing they won’t like what I do to them, but knowing that it pleases me and wanting to provide that pleasure.

So what’s in it for the person providing service? Well, as usual, it depends. For starters, I should say that while I’ve got a long-standing and complex relationship to service myself, I don’t identify as a service bottom in the kinky sense, so please take this piece with a grain of salt. That said, I’ve been privileged to have many in-depth conversations and relationships with service-oriented people, so I will draw upon that experience and their shared expertise in what follows.

If I could give a really short, concise answer to that question, I’d be leaving out a ton of incredibly varied and nuanced information. But I do think one thing is salient: service providers take great satisfaction in what they do. Service is not being a doormat. It’s not taking orders and fulfilling them the way a disgruntled employee does for a bitchy boss. Service is an art, and one that we’ve lost track of in a “you want fries with that” society.

In North America at least, we prefer to think of ourselves as egalitarian while nonetheless living in a highly hierarchical world where everyone bitches about everyone else. It’s perfectly common, for example, for a diner to treat a waiter like shit and complain about bad service; it’s also common for a waiter to provide shitty service and complain about nasty customers. Unless you get into very high-end businesses, we don’t see or value good service as an art – as the receivers of service, we just whine if our meal is cold or there’s no convenient place to hang our coats, and as service providers (and I do speak from many years of past customer service experience here) we just moan about workload, cut corners, keep up with quotas, skid by on the minimum effort and gripe about how underappreciated we are. And it’s all for good reason. In our high-speed capitalist economy, conditions are set up to make good service difficult – employers are more concerned about quick profit than customers’ real enjoyment, and service employees are underpaid, undertrained and undervalued.

But the desire to please is an incredibly strong piece of the human psyche, as is the desire to be valued and seen as competent. For most of us at least, we tend to thrive under a fair but demanding teacher much more than under a lax and lazy one, and the satisfaction of a high grade makes us glow. We perform better under a boss who knows what we’re capable of and gives us challenging work and promotes us when we do well than under a boss who lets our shoddy days slide and never notices a job well done either. In the more personal realm, when we give a gift, we want to see the delight on the receiver’s face – partly because it means they’re happy, partly because it means we chose well and timed the giving just right. When we rub someone’s shoulders, we want to feel them sigh and relax – partly because it means they’re feeling better, partly because it means our skill is appreciated. When we make love to someone, we want to see them enjoy themselves and (generally) come to orgasm – not just because it means they liked the experience, but because it tells us we did well.

The above is true for most people, I believe. But in kink, we tend to take what most people do and crank it up a few notches. So a kinky service-oriented person may behave the way most of us do at work, at school, in relationships… but sometimes they want more, whether as a general thing or because a particular person inspires that desire. Much like a person who likes vanilla sex might enjoy that just fine, but feel a hankering to take it further somehow.

For someone who is oriented towards providing service, there are precious few places in the world where that desire can be indulged to its fullest extent. We are conditioned to believe in egalitarianism in this society – so most people would feel weird to have a lover make the meals, do the cleaning up, mend the shirts, take out the garbage and so forth, and not share the load or take turns somehow. Or at least, we don’t have a framework within which that sort of behaviour is a good and fair and mutually pleasing thing. Instead it’s viewed as one partner taking the other for granted, or one being “pussy-whipped” (what an awful term) and the other “domineering,” or one being spoiled and the other being undervalued. We think the giver is making up for low self-esteem or trying too hard or making a fool of themselves. And we certainly don’t have any good things to say about the person on the receiving end – we might be jealous for a while, and then we start saying how badly s/he treats the other.

Service, in the context of kink, finds a place for those desires to go. For the person providing service, there are potentially enormous psychological rewards; they tend, from what I’ve seen, to take great pride in their skill, and rightly so. There are any number of models that can be followed for a person inclined to service – read Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace fiction series for a whole bunch of examples drawn from various cultures – and there are endless areas where service skills can be cultivated and improved, a sometimes lifelong process that can be imbued with enormous effort and dedication.

Sure, there are some basics; knowing how to help someone put their coat on and knowing how to serve a meal are great places to start. But from there, service varies as widely as the people engaging in it. I’ve received service in the form of bootblacking, massage, sexual favours, laundry, bus station pickup, travel planning, corset-lacing, academic research assistance, pedicures, bed-making, CD alphabetization, errand-running… and in forms much more nebulous than that. For example, one service-oriented person I love spent quite some time arguing with me and convincing me until I finally took a day off work… and boy, did I need it. Badgering as service? You bet. Another example: a certain lovely service-minded individual has shrewdly gone out of her way more than once to introduce me to people in her personal network that she felt I might benefit from knowing – and she’s been bang-on every time. Networking and matchmaking as service? Indeed!

Not only do forms of service vary, but style can vary greatly. Sometimes there is great satisfaction in extremely formalized service dynamics – the use of honorifics (Ma’am, Sir, whatever), specific sorts of postures or forms of etiquette or other generalized manners of making role distinctions clear. But sometimes it’s more practical or otherwise satisfying to keep things very casual. Certainly my partner A won’t present a glass of water to me by kneeling and offering it on upraised hands if we’re in a restaurant – that’s saved for home use, thank you – but at home we certainly do enjoy that kind of interaction. There’s an elegance and grace in formality that feels delicious to both of us. My partner E, on the other hand, would rather laugh in my face than use such formal manners, but on a hot day I can absolutely count on him to have a bottle of chilled water handy at all times and to toss it in my direction the instant he notices me break a sweat.

As to being on the receiving end of service… most people expect that’s a piece of cake. And from the outside, I can see why. But like anything in kink, it’s not that simple either. Of course it greatly depends on the dynamic that’s being engaged in and the people who are in it; I’m sure it’s different for everyone. Certainly my own experiences have varied quite a lot from one partner to the other and from one interaction to the next. But I can definitely outline my own process over the past few years of being blessed with the presence service-oriented individuals in my world – and I can tell you how it’s actually been one of the hardest of my personal kinks to figure out and accept.

All righty, a brief backgrounder. From a very young age, I’ve taken great pride in my independence. I’ve always taken care of myself and never relied on anyone to do things for me. I’ve been doing community leadership work since age 12; I left home at 18, put myself through university, started climbing my professional career ladder at 21, and started my own successful solo business at 27.

For me, dominance in BDSM is just a natural extension of my personality and approach to life. I don’t demand control from people and I don’t seek out people who are meek and submissive – in fact it’s kinda the reverse, I seek out people who are naturally strong themselves because those are the ones I can trust to deal with me as an equal and not just cave anytime I say what I think, which is often. And it means the world to me every time such a person gives up control to me, whether for a short time or an ongoing relationship. That, to me, feels like an incredible gift of trust and vulnerability, and it is very seductive. Not because it makes me better or bigger than them but because it means someone is willing to let go and trust me to do right by them. It’s intimate, and humbling, and beautiful, and it makes me want to strive to be the sort of person who deserves that degree of trust and stewards it well.

Now, that whole paradigm gets flipped on its head when someone wants to provide service to me. Precisely because all of a sudden they’re the one in control. Not in control of me, but in control of… I dunno… providing care? Meeting my needs or desires? Actually seeing that I have desires and places that benefit from care in the first place? Accepting service is a place where I’m really vulnerable. I’ve lived my entire life being in charge of my own well-being and not expecting anyone else to tend to it… and generally speaking nobody else has. (In no way am I saying I’ve been neglected or that nobody’s ever been nice to me – far from it. But being cared about is not the same as being cared for or being taken care of.)

As a result, it’s actually taken me several years of very hard emotional work to come to a place where I can accept service and feel good about it. When someone I love first started serving me I was terrified, and irrationally so… asking myself questions like, “If she does my laundry, won’t I forget how to do it myself?” or “If I start expecting her to do XYZ, then I’ll be screwed if she doesn’t when I’m counting on it!” or even thinking to myself that I didn’t deserve to be cared for that way, that it was decadent and shameful to let someone do that. Accepting service meant a loss of control for me, not the reverse.

I’ve gone through a lot of effort and numerous steps to get to a place in myself where service is OK, where I can accept it gracefully and feel good about it and not feel simply bewildered by it (“why would anyone want to learn exactly the way I like my socks folded?!”). Lots of conversations with service-oriented people; a few “aha!” moments in workshops and readings (a really good one with Midori about a year and a half ago, among others, which I blogged about here); and some soothing of that irrational place that has for so long felt like if I don’t take care of myself, nobody will. It would appear that some people actually will, and I’ve learned to let them and learned what sorts of responses constitute a fitting acceptance of that.

Now that’s the piece about how service is not submission – how it’s in fact a powerfully intimate and even toppish thing to do. The process of deliberately seeking out someone’s preferences and learning how to please them, whether they help out or not, is hardly a passive or accepting act; the act of surprising someone, of learning how they tick and figuring out what works and doing it, and doing it better each time… this is active and requires effort and dedication and drive.

But I have also learned that in some cases service is an expression of submission, and in those cases the appropriate response is more than just acceptance… it is expectation and standards and consequences and instruction and correction. I realize that this flips the paradigm once again, with the ball in a sense back in my court in terms of control; and yet it’s not quite that simple. First of all because I had to go through the emotional work to understand and accept service before the idea of shaping that service to my liking could even begin to enter my mind, rather than it feeling like some manifestation of plain old obnoxiousness, or taking it for granted that someone would cater to my whims. Second because there is overlap and bleed-through between the “service as control” and “service as submission” paradigms… they are not exactly opposites and it’s not always clear which paradigm is playing out when, or perhaps they simply hybridize sometimes with some people.

One thing’s for sure though: even and almost especially when a person is accepting service from a place of overt dominance, that’s not a passive process on the receiver’s end. It’s not just a question of sitting back and allowing someone to spoil you rotten. It requires a lot more work than that – thoroughly enjoyable work for those who are so inclined, but work nonetheless. Holding authority in a dynamic requires maintenance, mindfulness, respect, consciousness. You need to notice what’s going on if you’re going to appreciate it or tailor it. And someone who wants to be noticed and appreciated and who wants their work to be shaped and tailored will feel very dissatisfied if you only ever say, “Thanks, good job!” It’s like when I send a story to an editor and they don’t change a word – did they actually read it and like it, or do they not really care?

In a sense, shaping someone’s service is, in itself, a form of appreciation and acceptance (definitely a hybrid paradigm here!)… it’s a way for the dominant to say, “Yes, you are doing this well and you are pleasing me, so much so that I’m going to trust you with further information about how to do it more and better and deeper.” If accepting service makes me vulnerable, then shaping it allows that person deeper into my vulnerability; it’s an act of increased intimacy. And in turn, correction is a way for the dominant to say, “I know you can do better than that; you have shown me what you’re capable of and because I know you kick ass at this, I have high standards for you and I expect you to meet them, and I value you enough and care about you enough to point it out when you are falling short and tell you where and how I want to see you back at your best.”

So to get back to our original question: is service just a way for a person to get their house cleaned for free? Well, surely there are people out there who take advantage of a service-oriented person’s nature and use them for their time and effort and skill without holding up their end of the bargain… without being an appropriately graceful partner in the dance, regardless of whether you consider the receiver to be leading or following. It’s unfortunate but I don’t doubt it happens. But from there to assuming that’s what’s going on… not on your life. Service is a form of incredibly deep and complex interaction that taps deep into some of the most pervasive cravings in the human psyche, and if all you can see is a dust-free counter or a perfectly poured glass of wine, you’re missing the point entirely. A free housecleaning is only what’s happening on the surface. Underneath, there is so much more.

9 Responses

  1. As someone still trying very much to suss out my relationship to service-as-kink, this commentary came at an excellent time.

    I’m always shocked (though I know I shouldn’t be) when people within the community toss blanket assumptions onto others with different kinks. I’m always tempted to ask if they’ve really never felt confused or upset by assumptions being made about them and their kinks in such a way. But, I’m also one of those people who can’t help but make faces of confusion when I see one marginalized group buying into and contributing to the marginalization of another group more generally.

    In the case of service-as-kink, from my experience, many of the people I’ve known on the receiving end work really hard to have things NOT be just some free house cleaning or what have you, and they work nearly as hard as the person actually doing the service works at doing it to whatever standards have been agreed upon. Yes, I have seen (and, honestly, been a part of) some service-as-kink situations that may have been problematic in their fulfillment of the more-than-free-house-cleaning idea, but I would never take this to be the norm.

    I’m terribly intrigued by the interplay you mention here, between service-as-control and service-as-submission, I think especially since I approach life and kink in a somewhat service-oriented way. Even when I’m in a dominant role, so much of what is satisfying for me is providing services to partners who would not otherwise allow themselves to receive such services. The vulnerability you describe is precisely the kind I like to seek out and play with. In dominant situations, I press at said vulnerability attentively and love when partners surrender to being taken care of. I’m not sure if that’s part of some well-established kink model or not (daddying in some nearly age-playish sense or something?), but I feel like it fits well with why friends and partners have tended to term as me being a “gentleman” despite having grrrly parts.

    One of the things that strikes me most about this conversation, and kink in general (life in general, perhaps, too), is how much is going on beneath the surface and how different it can be and is, from situation to situation and from person to person. Something as supposedly simple as cooking a meal for someone can have so many different underlying meanings and imply so many different structures and modes of interaction and emotion. While I don’t believe differing opinions should be stifled, I think making generalizations/assumptions about most things, perhaps especially the meaning of kink between diverse individuals, can be more damaging than helpful at times.

    ~D

  2. I feel like the topic of this post is a bit of a koan for me. (I forget if we talked about koans or if you know what a koan is.) Anyhoo, a koan is a Buddhist thing that’s designed to stir the mind and catch it just slightly. A couple of examples: A. What is the sound of one hand clapping? B. If there is no gainful idea, what sort of effort does one make?

    While I was competing this weekend, a judge asked “In a word, Bootblacking – Art, Service, or Fetish?” The other contestants said “service” while I chose “art”. A community member followed up about it and asked why I said art and what is my relationship to service. My reply: “To me, it’s an art, because I am constantly looking to improve the art and science of what I do. I try out polishes, I experiment with new techniques and new products. I am a switch by nature, and my life tends to lend itself to a series of ratios. I consider myself to be 70/30 Dominant/sub and while that certainly changes from time to time, I am led to intimate service by only compelling people. They are far more the exception than the rule.”

    I should have also elaborated and said that there are often times when I bootblack from a place of “intent looking after” – something of a service top – but there also some rarer times when I will happily and deeply *surrender*. There are other more frequent times when I like to be compelled to *submit*. There’s definitely more to think about…

  3. This is a wonderful essay. Regardless of the protestations, this captures most of the complexities of service, at least from my perspective.

    The aspect that had me jumping up and down and pointing at the screen was your elaboration on the nature of the dance. It isn’t just one person doing something for another in an eroticized context. The person for whom the thing is done must accept the service, either implicitly or explicitly. The acceptence completes the circle of the power exchange and creates that wonderful mutual vulnerability and mutual holding. That is the thing that gets me all hot and bothered about it, creates meaning within it and motivates me to find new and exciting ways to give.

    Like the others that have posted, it hit me at an interesting juncture in my life. A partner of mine is about to come home after a four month absence. I am running around like a mad woman making the space for him to return to. I have ritual acts planned in my head to offer, I have been deliberate about what I will wear. I will have food and writing and all manner of other things that will ease him home from a very trying adventure. It’s all service. . .and love. . .and sometimes those are identical things.

  4. Thank you so much, all three of you, for your responses. I’m always happy if something I write provokes thought in others, and all the more so if they share those thoughts, but your responses are even better because they’re provoking further thought for me in turn… what a great loop! You rock!

  5. Wow, I agree with the other commentators that there is much food for thought here. I really appreciate the extention of the concept of “service” to all kinds of things, not just to cleaning, etc. because I’ve been thinking alot lately about sexual service, which is my own orientation. And the whole circle of power exchange that someone above commented on really hit me as well. I’m experiencing much of these powerful emotions with a current lover (for lack of a better term) so this is indeed good timing.

  6. Oddly enough my inspiration today comes from my university’s centennial hymn:

    Grateful are we for our chance to serve
    Faithfully, we pledge to give our best.

    To me, when I am led to service in whatever that might look like, I am truly grateful for the chance to serve, for the trust that has been provided to me, and for the opportunity to freely give so that I might fulfill the trust. Hearing one mention the honor it is to answer your door is enough to compel me to double envy, both that I should be trusted to be an extension of One and that I would have someone who would gladly and freely serve as an extension of me.

  7. [...] paradoxically give up control in order to gain the care, assistance, and power that service brings. It’s not easy. Allowing someone else to help and care for me means leaving them the space to both learn my tastes, [...]

  8. [...] space means trusting a lot. I don’t just mean in the sense of trusting that, for example, the person serving you won’t leave you in the lurch after you’ve come to rely on them. Trust applies to a much wider situation than just being [...]

  9. Thank you for this post. It’s like a ton of bricks for me. It’s so full of things I’ve never found a way to articulate clearly about myself, and others that I have. There are some gems of wisdom here, especially when it comes to service as submission. Thank you. I know I will read this article several times.

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