striking the balance: the motivations to serve

“May you find balance between judgement and appetite.”

– Raven Kaldera, quoting from a ritual he wrote, in his workshop “The Invisible Toybox” presented with Josh Tenpenny at the Fetish Fair Flea in Providence, RI at the Westin Hotel, Narragansett Ballroom A


Wowee. I’m thrilled to see the responses to that last post about D/s and boundaries. Yay for good conversation! Thanks for all the excellent and well-thought-through comments, everyone.

That, plus my notes from the rest of the weekend, forms the basis for this post. I spent the vast majority of the weekend thinking about and doing D/s. You might argue that given how I’m in a full-time D/s relationship, I’m never not doing it, and rarely not thinking about it at least on a subliminal level… but this weekend was a particularly intensified example of all that. It’s fairly rare that I can put my boi in a collar and go out in public with him for an entire weekend among 3,000 (yep, I’m told that was the total attendance at the Flea) fellow perverts while spending the majority of my waking hours engaged in some form of active and direct discussion about D/s.

Originally, this post was going to be a rather random collection of musings, thoughts, conclusions and questions about D/s as it stands in my mind right now, some of it in the form of quotes and reactions, some of it in the form of anecdotes, and some of it in the form of workshop reviews. But I’m beginning to realize that I’m better off grouping my thoughts into themes and writing individual posts for each of them, or this will end up being a novel.

So here goes with the first one. More to follow.


One of the most interesting workshops I took all weekend – one of the top two, I’d say – was Raven and Josh’s session entitled “Real Service.” The two of them are in a full-time D/s relationship, and have been for the past six years; they’re both highly articulate trans guys, and Raven is a published writer and anthologist (among other things, he co-edited Circlet Press’s Best Transgender Erotica, currently out of print but an absolute treasure if you can get your paws on it). They are definitely the shamanistic woo-woo types but for all that, they’re incredibly grounded and accessible. And because they’re in a full-time service relationship, they have a lot of perspective about what service is, how it plays out in everyday reality, why people want to engage in that sort of behaviour, and so forth. Deeeelicious.

In the workshop, they each gave their perspectives and theories about their respective ends of the D/s dynamic in a wonderfully collaborative fashion; attending the workshop itself is probably the only way you’d get the full glory of their ideas, but I’ll convey what I took out of the workshop here as best I can, along with my own reactions.

For the moment, I’m particularly interested in Josh’s take on people’s motivations to serve. (There was a lot of meat in this workshop, and it inspired a few trains of thought, the others of which I’ll explore later.)

Josh laid out three general categories of motivation for service-oriented people: transactional, devotional and positional.

Transactional would be along the lines of Person A providing service, Person B providing reward, and cessation on either part leading directly and quickly to cessation on the other. The pros: it’s simple enough, it gets each party’s needs or interests met, and it’s fair. The cons: it works all right for part-time arrangements, but when you get into full-time relationships, as Josh put it, “the tally sheets get complicated.”

Devotional – in Josh’s words, “I’m doing this because I luuurve you, you’re great and I want to do great things for you.” The pros? It’s compelling, powerful, beautiful, emotionally satisfying. The cons? Well, as Raven put it, “On the days you hate me, will you still do it? And if so, why? What motivates you? Duty, honour, enlightened self-interest…?” I can imagine how devotional service alone could in fact become quite inconsistent depending on the ebb and flow of intensity in the feelings of devotion or love – not necessarily a bad thing if that’s what you’re expecting, but definitely a bad thing if you’re expecting your suit to be pressed and your lunch made for work the next day, but your submissive is feeling grouchy at you and doesn’t perform their service, so you go to work hungry and dressed for casual Friday on a Tuesday.

Positional is for “the ones who can’t help but do it.” Raven said, “Sometimes it’s safer for them to do it in contract to someone so they’re not giving it away on the street corner.” According to them, these are the people who are most likely to serve outside a BDSM context; service is a part of their identity. The drawbacks are that tops can be (or at least feel) interchangeable, and it can be easy to get stuck in a sense of “this is the way I serve” – for example, as Josh said with a tone of mock horror, “I can’t hit you! That would shatter my world!” To which Raven responded with a grin, “If I order you to do it, impress me.”

I would add another con – in my experience, a lot of the people I’ve seen whose motivations are largely positional are often the most frequently taken advantage of in the D/s world, whether by demanding dominants who don’t consider their submissives’ needs, or by event organizers who think that anyone service-oriented is their 24/7 volunteer, or by dominants with poor boundaries who impose their demands on people with whom they have no negotiated agreements. This isn’t to say that positional submissives are unable to stand up for themselves; but when a good chunk of a person’s identity rests on seeing themselves as useful, service-oriented and competent, sometimes that motivates them to accept behaviour or make decisions that are satisfying in the sense of identity validation but detrimental in other ways.

This reminds me of the big strong power-lifter who will lift your boxes even if he’s got a bad back because it makes him feel like he’s still as strong as ever. The psychological equivalent of a hernia or a slipped disc is no fun; it bugs the shit out of me when I see people causing it or allowing it to happen. In a sense, that’s where the dominant’s role in such a person’s world can come into play – much like a coach who decides to push a power-lifter to add another 5 pounds but not another 50, or insists that the lifter take a break from training to let an injury heal, a dominant in such a submissive’s world holds the responsibility of setting limits so that the submissive doesn’t overextend and suffer the consequences. Minus such a dominant, the onus is on the submissive, and that can be challenging. Of course it’s all the more valuable if the submissive learns to do it well. Raven’s quote, at the top of this post, applies in many ways to dominants, but in this sort of situation I think it applies equally to submissives. That balance between appetite and judgement is crucial for health no matter which side of the D/s coin you may be on.

This whole framework of course inspired quite a lot of thought on my part. I can look at the people who’ve served me, and whom I see serving others, and see a fascinating mix of motivations – which, of course, I can only in truth guess at from the outside. But it’s nonetheless intriguing to observe what people do and how they do it.

I’m thinking, for example, of someone very close to me who’s generally not motivated to serve anyone or anything – in fact, who grew up feeling that service was really a way of letting other people walk all over you, and so actively avoided it. But in relationship with certain really specific people, she is inspired to serve to incredible depths, going far out of her way to make other people’s lives easier and give the absolute best she has to offer, which is considerable in quality and impressive in scope. Devotional seems the appropriate word.

In contrast, I encountered someone this weekend who impressed the hell out of me. We didn’t even exchange names, which I regret, but I will remember the incident for a long time to come because it so perfectly illustrated what I’m talking about.

My boi and I were heading out of a workshop and my water bottle needed filling. Bottle in hand, he noticed a table laden with eight or ten water jugs and stacks of glasses at the back of the room. He picked up the closest jug, and it was empty. The next one too. It wasn’t until jug number 7 or so that he found one with water inside. He proceeded to fill our bottles with it. Then, another boi showed up and started to do the same thing – jug number one, empty. Jug number two, empty. We pointed him in the direction of the full ones and he said thanks. Water Boi then took two of the full jugs, walked to the accessible end of the table, and set them in the spot of the first few empty ones. He then moved the empty ones to the less accessible end of the table. Then he smiled at us, made a couple of friendly comments, filled his water glass and left. In other words: Water Boi’s first and foremost thought was, “how can I make life easier for the other people who will soon encounter this same problem,” followed by “I want to be friendly to these strangers,” followed by “and I want a drink.” In that order.

Positional? Holy cow yes. Clearly, Water Boi is of service whether he’s in contract to a specific person or not. And yet, he wasn’t doing that creepy thing of throwing himself at someone’s feet without permission; “positional” service, at least in his case, had nothing to do with bad boundaries or non-consensual submission, because there was nobody nearby to serve other than me and he clearly wasn’t aiming his action in my direction. Rather, this was simply his way of moving through the world and a reflection of the way he sees himself.

(I should make it clear here that my own boi, whose motivations definitely lean heavily toward the positional, was filling my bottle first because I was standing next to him thirsty and waiting for it, and Water Boi kinda beat him to the punch of the more general service. It wouldn’t do to misrepresent!)

Now, both Raven and Josh made it quite clear that they don’t believe any one of these motivations is inherently better or worse than any other. They also made lots of room for how these things can overlap. Even in just the two examples I gave here, there is definitely overlap; the devotional person I referred to has come to a place where she no longer sees service as a degrading or unfair thing to do in a general sense, and in fact provides all sorts of service in her everyday life with the community, friends and so forth. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it entirely positional service, but it definitely spills out from the confines of the devotional. And though I of course can’t say for sure, I have little doubt that Water Boi, when in a relationship with someone, takes on a fair bit of devotional energy himself. Plus, many of us play with D/s and service in transactional ways regardless of the way we might give or receive service in more established relationships; there’s no shame in finding a sense of complicité with someone and acting on it without any need to build a deep relationship or a core piece of self-identity around it.

What’s intriguing to me to observe in all of this is that I tend to gravitate toward submissives who are one thing, and try to encourage them to be at least a little bit of something else.

My boi M is overwhelmingly positional in his approach, and I find myself often setting limits on his service and encouraging him to see things as more transactional – not in a dismissive sense, but in the sense that if he’s going to provide service to someone I want him to do it in a way that the other person is capable of receiving and appreciating, rather than pouring out his soul and exhausting himself for someone who won’t notice or can’t take it up or won’t appreciate what he’s offering. And while he’s also got a solid dose of the devotional, there are times when I want more of it – for example, there are certain types of service and markers of relationship that we’ve agreed are exclusive to us, to prevent exactly that “interchangeable dominant” feeling. Not that either of us are worried we’re interchangeable to one another; it’s just a question of setting parameters that reflect that.

My boi L tends toward the devotional, and I’m thrilled and honoured to be on the receiving end of very focused and personalized service from her. When it comes to the question of “would you serve me even if you hated me that day,” the answer on her part would be yes, without question, and it’s because of her own extremely strong sense of duty and honour; I doubt she’d ever withdraw her service if she were feeling grumpy at me, and it’s nice to know that the question has been asked and answered. With all that in mind, there’s no question about whether I’m satisfied with her service; however, it’s somehow equally satisfying on the occasions where I see her widen her scope and do things to make life easier for other people around us as well, which seems to happen most often when she and I spend time with boi M and other people in my chosen family. It feels good to play a part in that, to encourage the positional to rise. It feels balanced somehow.

And perhaps I’ve just nailed something. Perhaps, if I were to try and name my role as a dominant, it would be as a balancing force. Does this mean I always know what’s best? No… but if someone’s submitting to me in the first place, it’s probably at least in part because they value my way of seeing things, which means they’re at least somewhat likely to agree if I point out a particular pattern in their behaviour or psychology. And if I’ve agreed to be a dominant to them, it’s probably at least in part because I value and care about them and want to see them happy and whole and healthy, and to me that means balance in all things. So all signs point to the likelihood that my balancing endeavours are welcomed.

Of course this whole triad of possibilities is only one framework to explain the motivations someone may have to serve, so your mileage may vary. It could be really interesting to come up with a whole bunch more motivations that sit outside these three – I’m not coming up with anything brilliant right now, but I’ll chew on it, and ideas are welcome. There is so little out there written about D/s that any perspective is intriguing to pick apart, and all the more so when it comes from people I respect who share values I hold dear.

Further picking-apart shall ensue in coming posts…

8 thoughts on “striking the balance: the motivations to serve

  1. Very interesting. Thanks! Another avenue that might be interesting to think about is the motivation one may have to be *forced* to serve. Just like some don’t enjoy pain for pain’s sake but like being forced to submit to pain, I’m sure there are some who don’t enjoy serving but may find an appeal in being forced into servitude.

    It would be interesting to look at various possible dynamics as well. Being forced by one person to serve that person versus being forced by one person to serve many, immediate versus long-term service, etc.

  2. Interesting thought. Would you agree or disagree that being forced to serve falls into the “transactional” category? In other words, “if you force me, I’ll serve; if you stop, so will I”…? Or were you thinking of that from another perspective? I’m curious!

  3. i don’t think you can have success long term all the time with one single motivation. While i’m not sure what my blend is, that class really made me think about my reasons.

    i also liked that particular class because of the two radically difference scenarios (parent v celebrity maybe?) of D/s dynamics. Again, my experiences are a blend, but such a contrast is very helpful in terms of perspective.

  4. This is far outside my realm of experiences but totally fascinating nonetheless. The “balancing” top is an interesting model, acting much like a good coach or mentor.

  5. “Would you agree or disagree that being forced to serve falls into the “transactional” category?”

    Hmmmm. Actually, I had tried to apply the transactional model and hadn’t come up with anything but I guess you hit the nail on the head . . . I won’t serve unless you force me. I hadn’t thought about it that way at all but it makes sense.

    I guess I would expand on this and include what I originally had in mind in a more explicit way. I guess wanting to be forced to serve one person one time only or for a short time could be strictly transactional but to want to be forced to serve one person for a longer period could be a quasi devotional thing. Finally, being forced to serve many . . .positional.

  6. Hmm. I think the framework was about motivation rather than how things play out though – in other words, if force is the motivation (person A forces, therefore person B serves) then no matter how long or how many people, the motivation is still transactional. Longer-term application of the paradigm could certainly appear devotional, but if the forcing stops and the serving stops immediately (or close to it) as a result, then the transactional nature of the thing would still be true. Same with being forced to serve many – if the force is still the motivating factor, then while the behaviour may appear positional, in truth it isn’t.

    All this being said, it also makes sense that there might be psychological slippage over time. Force once might be transactional, but repeated force over a prolonged period might bring the server to a place where s/he began to perform service out of growing devotion, such that if the force were dropped, the service would continue. Same with the idea of serving many – over time that might start to feel natural and right such that the force would no longer be necessary for the server to wish to provide service, as a positional motivation develops.

    Isn’t it intriguing to consider all this stuff?! Happy geeky brain over here… 🙂

  7. Hi Sex Geek.
    I don’t completely agree that it necessarily remains transactional if it’s ongoing. I have to think about it some more because there’s a lot of nuance here. I guess coming from the perspective of someone who does like to be forced, I wouldn’t see an ongoing relationship based on this mutual interest as transactional, especially if I want to be forced *by that specific person*. So it’s not *just* the force that motivates me, it’s being forced by, for example, one specific guy. My desire to be forced by him to do all kinds of things ranging from sucking him off to getting him a beer becomes devotional in my view because I only want to be forced by him.

    If I enjoy being forced only by big, bearded men, I’m putting myself in a certain position vis à vis big, bearded men. Again, it’s not the force motivating men, it’s being forced by a particular kinds of person.

    I guess I would concede that there is a transactional level in there but I wouldn’t frame these interactions with that as the overarching model, at least not in my case.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s