Not too long ago, I spent part of a weekend with a group of leatherfolk. Part of the agreed-upon deal was that one person’s boy was in service to the entire group for the duration of our time together.
This boy was a master at his craft. His service was seamless. I had only to shiver, and a jacket would appear. Drinks were refilled as if by magic. He was respectful and yet warm, friendly but unobtrusive. And this wasn’t about any existing knowledge of our preferences or needs; he was just extremely observant and took initiative when appropriate. Really, I was thoroughly impressed. When our time together ended, I made a point of mentioning to him and to his dominant that I really appreciated the quality of his service.
The boy mentioned that none of the others had said anything about it. Nobody else had thanked him.
Now, he wasn’t bitter about it; in fact, he was quite philosophical. No grouchy-pants here. But his remark really got me thinking.
Sometimes, the whole point of good service is to be invisible. Many service-oriented types strive to anticipate, to meet needs before a dominant actually even knows those needs exist. And in many of those cases, the proof of having achieved the quality that they’re striving for is precisely that the dominant doesn’t notice what’s happening. They only see the results, and sometimes those results are simply as expected. “I’d like to wear my white shirt tomorrow” is a simple request. Sometimes that might mean taking the shirt out of the closet. Other times, that might mean laundering it in a complex ritual of products and timings to get that awful stain out, washing it, drying it, ironing it and sewing back on the button that popped off last week, and then crossing town to get it to the dominant’s door in time for work the next day. For some submissives, their satisfaction with their own work lies in the assurance that a request will be met regardless of whether it’s easy or hard. Sometimes, it’s the very the fact of a task being difficult or complex or exacting that makes it so satisfying. And the height of satisfaction sometimes occurs when the results are assumed (by the dominant) and delivered (by the submissive), no questions asked, no explanations given.
A dominant’s assumption of good service can be an indication of deep trust in the submissive’s abilities; a dominant’s lack of explicit verbal direction can in fact be a highly evolved form of non-verbal communication. A slight pause, a raised eyebrow, a glance – these things can convey eloquent messages and the submissive’s understanding and response is effectively their part of the fluid, beautiful, elegant and harmonious dance that is D/s. And even when that’s not happening, the sheer satisfaction of being so damn good that you know what someone needs before they even have time to think of it can be pretty powerful – as can the satisfaction of rendering a service to a community by means of easing the work of some of its members, even when there’s no direct interest in those members as individuals per se. In short, sometimes effectively taking a submissive for granted, or being taken for granted as a submissive, is the turn-on. It is the reward. It is, paradoxically, the thank-you and the recognition.
On the flip side, sometimes being taken for granted sucks. Sometimes it just means there’s an arrogant dominant (or two, or five, or ten) who assumes they’re entitled to being waited upon hand and foot and feels no need to say thanks or recognize a job well done. Sometimes it means the submissive pours out their energy and skill to make magic happen, and they go home drained and empty and dissatisfied because nobody noticed all their hard work or held up the dominant end of the “fluid, harmonious dance” bargain – they simply took the goodies and ignored the person behind them. And worse still, I know submissives who would feel guilty, who would feel like they were not “submissive enough” or not like a “real” or “true” submissive, simply for daring to want that recognition. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this makes them doormats; it doesn’t. It makes them people who operate on a service-oriented paradigm that simply does not line up with mainstream society’s understanding of how relationships work. That doesn’t mean such folks always operate in perfect emotional health; certainly destructive patterns can come along with this mindset. But it’s not unhealthy by definition. It’s just not a perfect pairing with someone who’s not willing or able to hold their part in the dance.
Ah, the question of pairing. In leather community, we know and interact with people who are openly and proudly service-oriented more than we’re likely to in mundane society. But many leatherfolk have personalities and relationship paradigms that have nothing to do with receiving or giving service or submission. In addition to that, there’s a numbers problem going on. To make a long story short, whereas I have yet to encounter someone who can explain the reasons for this to my satisfaction, it’s a fairly established fact that in most segments of the community, bottoms – including submissive and service-oriented folks – outnumber tops by a fairly large margin. So there aren’t enough dominants for all the submissives out there. And of the dominants that exist, not all of them have any inkling of how to appropriately respond to or receive service. So even though dominants who know what to do with service do exist, there aren’t enough of them to go around. As a result, many service-oriented people have a hard time finding satisfying relationships, through the leather community, into which they can channel their desire for service.
So what do they do? They combine leather community (the community that is friendly to their kink) and service (the kink in question) the best way they know how: they volunteer.
And they volunteer, and volunteer, and volunteer. They’re the first in line to do the thankless clean-up shift after the party. They’ll get up at an ungodly hour to drive a visiting presenter to the airport, or shop for weeks for the most hard-to-find of party decorations, or lift heavy objects that nobody else will attempt to move. These people often end up being the backbone of the community – the people without whom shit just wouldn’t get done. But because they often operate in a mindset that precludes asking for thanks, and because not everyone realizes what’s going on or knows how to hold up their end of the paradigmatic bargain, these folks are often the ones we forget to thank.
In a sense, on a micro level we’ve got a problem with individual dominants or groups of dominants who don’t handle service well, and on the macro level we’ve got a problem with an entire community that doesn’t handle the service of its members well. We can blow this up well beyond the question of submission – all volunteering is a form of service, whether you’re a dominant or a submissive or a switch or a puppy or a fetishist or a sensation player or whatever else. Some groups and people do a great job of recognizing and rewarding or thanking volunteers; some, not so much. Some groups guilt their members into helping out, or criticize the volunteers without taking the time to understand what’s going on or offering to help out, or rely on the same people for eons without ever offering to pitch in and lighten the load.
Now, I’m an optimist, but I don’t expect this to change anytime soon across the board. I’d love to see a community populated exclusively by wonderful, self-aware, kind, appreciative people who don’t ever make drama or get bent out of shape about things, and who put their time and effort into community-building rather than being do-me queens who just expect to show up and be entertained. I hold no illusions that this community exists, at least not in perfect form. I do know from experience, however, that the proportion of “good” people to “bad” ones can radically shift depending on a variety of factors, not the least of which is the personality and principles of the leaders. This can make for some amazing and wonderful experiences, as much as it can make for frighteningly dysfunctional ones.
I think it’s just important to recognize, across the board, that nothing is given for free. Everyone has a motivation for what they do, and when we happen to benefit from the results of others’ efforts, the best thing we can do in return is figure out what form of recognition suits them best. Sometimes that means a fanfare and a plaque. Sometimes it means a faintly pleased nod. Sometimes it’s the inner satisfaction of anonymity and the knowledge of service well rendered or a good deed done. And it can run the gamut between the extremes, and many other places to boot. Let’s just not make the mistake of thinking those forms of reward are one and the same, or that anyone’s entitled to benefit without cost (however small or easy to pay), or that anyone truly wants nothing at all in return for what they do. So when we’re so lucky as to be on the receiving end of a benefit, whether it’s a magically filled drink or a fantastic weekend-long leather event, it behooves us to find out what would constitute fitting thanks, and to provide that thanks to the best of our abilities.