“There is no such thing as a dominant or un-dominant activity. It’s all about the attitude.”
– Raven Kaldera in his workshop “Real Service” with Joshua Tenpenny, Fetish Fair Flea, Providence, RI, January 12, 2008, Westin Hotel, Narragansett Ballroom B
To continue with the theme of exploring dominance and submission via picking apart some of the ideas I encountered over this past weekend at the FFF, this next piece is about styles of dominance.
For starters, I wanted to take a look at Raven’s concept of styles of receiving service. He sees them as existing along a continuum of “parental” to “celebrity” and the attendant ideas of proactive vs. reactive service styles. Interestingly, a commenter brought this exact reference up just earlier today – prescient folks you are!
Raven illustrated his continuum with two examples on the extreme ends of it. He talked about two D/s couples going to a restaurant. A “parental” dominant would order the food for him/herself and the submissive, feed the submissive from his/her hand, decide when dinner was over and pay the tab. A “celebrity” dominant would have the submissive go in and get the best table while he/she smoked a cigarette outside; the submissive would order the food because he/she would already know exactly what the dominant’s preferences were; they would eat together, and when the dominant was finished, she/he would expect the submissive to take care of the bill while he/she went to the bathroom, and then wait for the submissive to get the car and drive them home.
It’s an interesting model. You might use the words “control” versus “expectation” to describe the same thing, or perhaps “active” versus “passive.” I feel like I’m trying to find other ways to frame this not because I disagree that there are differing styles of receiving service, but because I feel like neither end of that spectrum Raven described is particularly appealing. I know that Raven was in no way intending to paint dominants as either parent stand-ins or royalty wanna-bes, but I can’t help but find the two images pretty distasteful. I don’t want to be anyone’s parent. Mr. Man, the awful overstepping “master” of a couple posts back, talked about the submissives in the room as “beautiful children” over and over again, and it creeped me out every time – daddy role-play might be cool in some ways, don’t get me wrong, and if that’s the flavour of a given relationship I take no issue with it whatsoever, but from there to genuinely seeing your submissive as though they were a child and not a fully functioning adult? Icky! (Not to mention seeing all submissives as children whether they’re yours or not… even more icky.) I also don’t see much appeal in being a celebrity, at least not the way Raven described it. The implied arrogance and the idea that the dominant is actually pretty clueless about what the submissive does – “just make things happen for me” – just rubs me the wrong way.
Is this my desire for balance rearing its head again? Perhaps. Is this indicative of my own discomfort with a lot of what seems to come with the idea of dominance? Probably. Sure I’m a dominant, but I’m not a control freak and I don’t want to be a substitute parent, nor do I want to have slaves rolling out the red carpet and blaring trumpets for me and running around catering to my every silly whim. Maybe that’s because the picture this paints of the submissives is so unflattering – the counterpart to a parent is a dependent child, whereas I want to deal with intelligent, sexy, strong, competent, independent grown-ups; the counterpart to a celebrity is an adoring and probably undervalued hanger-on, and I want to deal with people who perceive me realistically (not fan-bois) and who also perceive their own value, not people who like being ignored and trod upon.
Don’t get me wrong. I know Raven wasn’t attaching all these negative ideas to his framework. I’m the one doing that, and to be honest, if I enter into the subtext of what he’s saying rather than engaging solely with the imagery and what it brings up for me, it makes a lot of sense.
On the “parental” end of things, well, part of the thrill of taking on dominance with someone is that they place their trust in me to make certain decisions. Sometimes that may well extend to what or how much someone eats, how they dress, the particulars of their manners and behaviour, when they get to go to the bathroom or be excused from serving me, and any number of other things that could (if you chose to see it that way) be reminiscent of parental control. That’s not how I see it and it’s not how my bois see it, but in the realm of objective comparisons, it’s not entirely inaccurate either.
On the “celebrity” end of things, there’s definitely a distinct appeal in having my submissives know my preferences and cater to them, whether it’s how I like my grapefruit served (in a bowl, halved but not pre-sliced, with a sprinkling of cane sugar and a serrated spoon), how hard I like my back massaged (very) or the precise folding and organizational system I use for my clothes (complex and picky). I suppose if you chose to look at that as though I were a celebrity wanna-be, you could see the resonance – but for me, the joy I take here is in shaping someone’s attentiveness and usefulness, not in sitting back and allowing myself to be pampered with blinders on as to how it happens. And I certainly don’t want my bois to see me as though I were up on my high horse expecting the entire world to bend to my whims with no thought as to the kind of work it requires to please me or how much it costs the submissive to provide their service. That kind of attitude just grosses me right out and I want no part in it.
Another workshop over the weekend gave me a further new perspective on the concept of receiving service and on what a dominant’s actual role can be. It was entitled “Dominant As Muse” and it was given by Mistress Max Rulz. She’s a down-to-earth, warm and no-nonsense sort of woman from what I can tell, and while our styles are pretty different in many ways, a lot of what she said really resonated for me. She defined a master as “someone who inspires and/or enables someone to grow emotionally, spiritually and intellectually in their own right.” She then went on to say that “a master is someone who has done just that themselves, who has self-confidence and self-esteem.” Fair enough. If D/s is no more than an erotic game, then it can happen between anyone, but if someone’s going to take on a role involving real-life decision-making and control in someone’s life that extends outside the bedroom, they’d better have their shit together.
She went on to say, “A master carries at least two leashes. One to put on their slave, and a very short one to keep on their ego. Master is no more synonymous with divine than submissive is with weak or stupid.”
Thank you, Max Rulz. As soon as someone speaks about humility within dominance, they’ve got my vote, and both Raven and she did so on numerous occasions – which brings the total number of dominant presenters I’ve heard mention this up to four, the other two being Midori and a Toronto-based dominant known as Goddess Lakshmi. I think there is no coincidence that three out of four are women (all three women of colour, no less) and the fourth is an intersex trans guy. Living on the margins, it would appear, is an excellent way to get a realistic perspective on your own humble humanity even if you choose a dominant role.
Max Rulz also said, “A muse is one who inspires another to do what they might otherwise do for themselves.” Her idea was that a dominant should be a muse for their submissive. Okay. When I think of a muse, I think of some semi-mythical creature with enormous emotional pull who provides something for an artist or other creative person to strive for. I don’t think that’s something a person can choose to be. I’m happy to hear it if I’ve inspired someone in whatever way, but I think that in order to take on the role of a muse in someone’s life, that person needs to put you there and it needs to be a fairly organic process; you can’t step in and decide to become that, and they can’t decide to put you there by an act of choice or will. Besides, being a muse is rather passive. The muse is an image in an artist’s head, a lustful or creative fantasy, not a person who takes up real decision-making power in their world. So. Inspiration as the role of the dominant? Okay, fair enough, but I see that as being a partial or optional role, not so much the be-all and end-all of it.
Or perhaps I just need to frame the idea of inspiration with a figure other than a muse – inspiration on its own is not the issue. As she said, “We don’t always realize what we do that inspires others. Imagine the effect we can have on someone we’re deliberately working on. We’re doing this on purpose!” Very true. Inspiration in its broader sense – in the sense of setting an example, providing encouragement and positive reinforcement, providing discipline and having high expectations of someone as a recognition of their potential – all these things are totally valid in a D/s dynamic.
But one particular piece of her presentation really stood out for me, and that was a question she threw out to all the dominants in the room. “As a top, what is it that you think you deserve? We often think of self-esteem as being a submissive or bottom issue, but not necessarily. How good do you want it? Let’s face it, we are creating our reality. (…) This person who is your charge is hanging on your every word. They are here to serve you. They volunteered for this!” (Yes, she really does speak with sufficient emphasis to merit that much italicizing.)
For some reason this concept of “deserving” really struck me. It made me think back to a workshop that Laura Antoniou gave on D/s a couple of years ago in Toronto, in which she tossed dozens of questions out to the audience to help the dominants frame the specifics of what they wanted. I remember frantically scribbling down notes because until that very moment when she started asking the questions, I had no idea how to frame who I was as a dominant or how to even begin explaining what my preferences were – as a firm believer in independence, individual choice and self-determination, I was still figuring out that it was okay to have preferences about another person’s behaviour or service to me, as opposed to simply accepting it as a kindness or favour. Holding power in a scene was easy for me, but taking it up in an ongoing fashion left me feeling completely baffled. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around what made it okay and why anyone would want a relationship like that, and yet at the same time, people had started to serve me whether I asked for it or not, and the experience was enormously compelling; I couldn’t deny that it called out a response from somewhere deep inside me, but I had no idea what to do with it. So Laura’s questions really helped me come up with ideas about the nitty-gritty everyday shape of service. However, she wasn’t able to answer the larger question which loomed for me: what’s the purpose of all this? What’s the point? What does a submissive get out of this, and how am I supposed to find the language to explain what I get out of it?
Raven expressed it really well in the “Real Service” workshop. He said, “As tops, we suffer from a lack of role models. We don’t know what we want, don’t know what to ask for, don’t know what it’s possible to ask for, and don’t know what’s appropriate to ask for.” And when speaking about his parent/celebrity continuum, he pointed out that depending on the gender demographics of a person’s specific corner of the leather community, that style can be very prescribed, to the point where an entire group of people may see it as wrong to do D/s in any way other than theirs. In his words, “Sometimes you need to fight outside society’s messages and your leather community’s messages and your sub’s messages about where you should be on that continuum.” Put that lack of fitting role models (clearly still a problem for me) together with strong messages from various outside forces (and inner ones), add my unanswered question about the larger purpose of ongoing D/s, and no wonder I couldn’t figure out what the heck to tell someone who asked me “What can I do for you, Ma’am?”
And Max Rulz says I need to answer the question “What do you think you deserve?” Wow, would I ever not have been ready to even consider that two years ago. Me? Deserve? I could barely bring myself to tell someone how I liked to have my socks folded when she asked explicitly and impatiently for the seventh time. What could it possibly mean to deserve that sort of service? To expect it and feel entitled to it? To shape it and guide it as though it were my right to do so? Good lord. Talk about cringe-inducing. I don’t think I have any particular issues with self-esteem, as Max Rulz framed it, but I do think my comfort level with anything that might smack of self-indulgence or ego-stroking is pretty minimal.
I’ve come to a few conclusions in the last couple of years that have really helped me gain a great deal more comfort. I think sitting in this weekend’s workshops really showed me how far I’ve come in my journey to figure out this part of myself. It was extremely satisfying to hear Raven express the big answer I came up with – he does it better than I do, so I’ll quote:
“Half of my job is to give this person a path that’s good for them. The other half is knowing that there is a chain of command here and I’m not at the top of it. As I treat him, so the Universe will treat me. What am I doing with the time he has freed up for me by serving me? I need to take it up and go out and make a difference. Doing D/s at home is not enough. Use that energy and time to go out and do your activist work, follow your calling. Whatever it is, have an impact outside your apartment. Have their service further whatever task you’ve been given. Ask yourself, now that I have the privilege of this service, what can I do with the time freed up by it? How am I becoming a better person rather than simply becoming more lazy?”
Now all of a sudden, if you take that concept of D/s – of the submissive as providing service (quite possibly as part of their own spiritual discipline, whether explicitly acknowledged as such or not) to make it possible for the dominant to further his or her work of making the world a better place – then it’s not so hard to see how there might be a question of deserving on the part of the dominant. I’m in a place, today, where I might be able to start taking up Max Rulz’s question and entertaining the notion that perhaps I do deserve what’s being given to me, rather than simply being lucky to have it.
If I’m taking up power in someone’s world to shape them, to balance them, to care for them, as far as I am able to do so and within my own limits as a human being, and that submissive is devoting their time and energy to making my life easier, then I’d better do something worthwhile with that service and the ease it creates in my world. And if I’m devoting my time and energy to making the world a better place – in my case through teaching and writing and volunteerism and activist work – then sure, I deserve that service. It has a larger purpose outside turning us both on. Yes, it means we provide really wonderful and intimate forms of care and love to one another – service on their part, caring authority on mine – but further than that, it’s contributing directly to goals we both feel are worthwhile.
Of course there is pleasure to be taken in the power exchange. I don’t kid myself that having my boi sit at my feet and feed me grapes is furthering the queer rights movement or saving small children from exploitative labour practices. But shaping a relationship that’s mutually satisfying and pleasurable, and that’s framed explicitly and always in terms of power exchange, means that when there is “real” work to be done it will get done quickly and well, and with mutually valued goals in mind.
Does this mean I think that D/s done purely and exclusively for pleasure is a bad thing? No. If it works for the people doing it, they’ve got my blessing. But for me, I don’t think I could even begin to believe myself to be deserving of the kinds of service I’ve been receiving these past few years if I didn’t feel I was doing something worthwhile in the world that was furthered by the energy and effort of the people who have been or are devoted to me in one way or another.
Does “deserving” mean that if my bois disappeared tomorrow, I would stamp my foot and whine about how I no longer had anyone to prepare my grapefruit and rub my back? Hardly. I’d take it as the Universe’s message that I needed to be doing those things for myself again for a while, and try to figure out what I needed to learn in the process.
Does it mean I feel so entitled to service that I’ll start demanding it from everyone I meet in inappropriate ways? Hardly. Service is a privilege. I might be able, now, to argue that it’s one I deserve, but it’s certainly not one I expect to always have at my disposal. My semi-Buddhist notions of universal impermanence dictate that nothing lasts forever; so while I have it, I’ll keep doing my best to receive service well, and to make my life’s work an attempt to be worthy of it.