words fail, or, trying to talk about power (part 2)

(Read Part 1 first!)

Now, the next question is, why do I feel the need to write about what these relationships are, and make a distinction between that and what they’re not? The answer is a multiple one. One of the big reasons is that within the vastly complex world of consensual power dynamics, I often notice that people have conversations, write blog posts and even author entire books using the set of terms as I’m deliberately avoiding here (master, slave, submissive, dominant, etc.), but meaning completely different things. (I detail some of the ways this can play out in another post, whose topic is mainly the ways in which contradictory expectations are placed on dominants but which nonetheless addresses this question in a few examples.) I think a lot of misunderstandings occur within our communities as a result—never mind the vast amount of misunderstanding that happens outside them.

Unfortunately these misunderstandings, and even the attempts to rectify them, often end up becoming acrimonious. It’s incredibly difficult, in the English language, to talk about difference without implying hierarchy. So if, for example, I talk about these relationships as being “full-time” as opposed to “part-time,” it’s very easy for that to come across as, or be understood as, “real” versus “fake,” or “serious” versus “just for fun,” or “meaningful” versus “silly,” or any other number of things. It’s difficult to talk about the specific concerns or experiences that come with engaging in a full-time power dynamic (which sometimes resemble those that come with part-time or occasional dynamics but are sometimes completely different), without being perceived as somehow elitist—or, on the flip side, being judged as sick, unhealthy or wrong, even (and sometimes especially) by fellow kinksters.

Why is this the case? Well, I believe that it’s because the concept of a full-time power dynamic is very charged. It is fraught. It is frightening, and in some way all the more so the more personally interested one might be in such dynamics—and with reason. Most people, avowedly kinky or otherwise, have feelings about this topic, or would quickly discover they have feelings about this topic if you were to ask them.

Before I go on, let me make a quick disclaimer. Many people engage in occasional or part-time power dynamics and are perfectly happy with that; their desire for power-based interactions or relationships is easily satisfied in the context of an occasional scene, a weekend contract with a mistress, a session with a pro-dom/me, or an ongoing relationship where power is enacted only when the partners are in direct contact.

However, I believe—and I recognize that in saying this I may upset some people—that many of the people who do part-time dynamics actually would like to do full-time ones, but cannot for one reason or another. They haven’t met the right person yet (and may never). They are too frightened of what it would mean—of who they would be if they gave up ownership of themselves to another human being, or of who they would be if they took up ownership of another human being. They don’t believe it’s possible to do this and still be healthy and whole. They’ve seen others do it, or at least something that looked like it, and they didn’t like what they saw (and if you’ve spent any time in the BDSM/leather community, this is probably true for you). They were hurt from a bad experience (and when it comes to power relationships, who hasn’t been?). They don’t know where to start. They don’t know who to ask, or even what to ask; they might simply not have the words. They can only bear to be that vulnerable in small bursts, even if they secretly—or not-so-secretly—wish they could sustain that vulnerability and take up that degree of responsibility 24/7. (Note that I’m NOT talking about vulnerability as being the exclusive province of the POA, or about responsibility as being the exclusive province of the PIC.) Often, they simply don’t have anyone in their worlds who would have the interest in holding up their end of the deal, or have the ability to do so in a healthy manner even if they were interested. And perhaps most often of all, they don’t even realize they’d like to be in a full-time dynamic because it doesn’t even register as a remote possibility—it’s quite simply beyond their wildest dreams.

Now, some people for whom this is true are perfectly nice about it. Others, however, deal with it in fully human ways we’ve seen a thousand times over. They scoff. They judge. They say it’s impossible, it’s unhealthy, it’s wrong, it’s inherently abusive, it’s the stuff of delusion and fantasy, of narcissists and doormats. As soon as I hear this kind of discourse, it makes me wonder: What are you so scared of? And how badly do you want it? How far do you have to distance yourself from it before you will feel safe again? How many times have you seen oozingly unhealthy power relationships that are ultimately destructive to one or both participants, and how has that perception dashed your own perhaps not-fully-formed hopes of happiness in power? This is much like the world’s general attitude toward SM as a whole, only in microcosmic form: desire and fear come together in the form of loud, vehement rejection.

On the flip side, some practitioners of these relationships hold them up as being the be-all and end-all of kink. The apex of perversion. The coolest, sexiest, edgiest, most Real True kind of intimacy you could ever possibly experience. As soon as I hear this kind of discourse, it makes me wonder: If you’re really doing this Totally Awesome Thing, why are you so insecure about it that you need to boast? When you make this much noise about how great something is and how great you are for doing it while implying (or outright saying) that anyone who’s not doing it is therefore not as great, it usually means you’re trying to convince yourself of the truth of your own statements. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to say that talking about these relationships is a bad thing. For all that we live in a power-soaked culture and power gets talked about all the time—in the form of management strategy, personal empowerment motivational lectures, leadership theory, social justice, feminism, government policy, self-help books, and any number of other areas—there is a dearth of intelligent discourse about intense, chosen and pleasurable power-based relationships. But self-aggrandizement does not solve this problem. It only serves to make the speaker look like a bit of an ass.

I certainly don’t think everyone in the world wants to or should do this kind of relationship, nor that everyone who’s doing it has a corner on The Real Bestest Kink/Relationship/Sexual Proclivity/Spiritual Practice Ever. But it’s clear to me that the things people say about these relationships usually tells me a lot more about what their fears are than about what they are actually doing.

Perhaps that’s part of why I’m putting this post out there. But mostly I think I’m laying out a basic set of parameters because I think that if the people who do this kind of relationship want to be able to talk to each other or share resources, it helps to have some common ground to start from.

In addition, while the BDSM/leather communities are sometimes good places to find like-minded individuals and resources, lots of people who do this kind of relationship don’t gravitate toward membership there because the activities that bind BDSM (and at times leather) community members together—SM play, enjoyment of fetishism, cruising for new play partners, and learning new play techniques, among others—aren’t necessarily of primary interest. By definition, people oriented toward this kind of relationship don’t end up looking for a new partner every weekend, or at least not for these purposes; and when we are looking for new partners, the way the BDSM and leather communities employ terminology and engage in power connections can be confusing and difficult, as we lack the language to easily make clear what we’re after and how it differs from play-based connections.

Beyond that, the people who start out with a BDSM play-based connection and discover that they have fallen into a power dynamic that’s more ongoing and binding than they had expected often lack the language to frame that dynamic in their own minds, let alone discuss it with their partners, because the ways that power is most commonly discussed in BDSM assume a temporary or play-based connection.

Put it all together, and this makes it very difficult for us to find each other. Written resources are scarce to help us learn how to build, sustain and, if necessary, gracefully end these relationships.

I don’t presume that a single blog post will do much to change that situation broadly speaking, but I do think that it’s worth laying out my own ideas in case they resonate with you. Anything that can help us begin to better frame and discuss what it is that we do is a step closer to getting what we want—and figuring out when we’re not getting it.

So… let the discussion begin.

4 Responses

  1. Great post.

    You know me, you know how much I like words. And because I like them, I like to push them to their limits. Because I am a writer, I consider that words are no different than clay or paint: we can mould them to our own needs. Because I am a theoretician, however, I believe in a certain common code.

    So back to your topic—and sorry about the long, personal preamble. I believe that what you describe is not a failure of words as much as it is a meaning overload. Each existing word has its own entry in the dictionary, with sometimes (most of the time) more than one definition—and said definition does not even include individual experiences of that word. Words come to us already charged with meanings they have accumulated throughout history and culture, and we contribute with our own experience of what they refer to, what they are connected to.

    I too do not like the word “slave”, so please let me use it as an example (mind you: in no way do I want to “attack” those who are comfortable using it!). Those who use it to describe one or more members involved in their relationship probably do so because it is the word closest to what they are experiencing based on what they know/feel the word means. Our knowledge of “slave” may come from the dictionary, but also from what we know about history (e.g. historical slavery cultures such as the Romans or pre-Secession War Southern America), from movies or literature (_Spartacus_, _Gone with the Wind_…), (sadly) not so ancient family narratives, etc. But the word also works as a fetish. The OED’s definition may be limitative and biased, but it can be useful: “An object, a non-sexual part of the body, or a particular action which abnormally serves as the stimulus to, or the end in itself of, sexual desire. and that we associate them with early experiences”. Words are non-sexual object that we invest with a special meaning because, somehow, that turns us on.

    One more interesting thing is the fact that words we use, such as “slave”, usually do not come to us as first hand information, but through discourse. History is a discourse and, obviously, so are movies and literature. So as postmoderns like Baudrillard would say, those notions are already signs of signs. But there may be one more interesting layer according to Christina Sharpe, author of _Monstrous intimacies : making post-slavery subjects, images of slavery as relayed in movies_ might also be charged with the fetishism of their creators. Apparently, there’s no way out!

    Alright, I will stop this longish comment here for now, but you get the idea…

  2. Ah, zbeline. What a fantastic comment. So intelligent and such a treat to read. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  3. And it’s always a pleasure to read your blog. I’m glad you’re back!

  4. Thank you. That’s all.

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