words fail, or, trying to talk about power (part 1)

Hey, everyone. So it’s been five months since I last posted, and eight since the one before that. Thanks so much for sticking around. I’ve missed you.

In the last two years I’ve started and finished a master’s degree, started a PhD, saw a partner through a tour of duty in Afghanistan, went through a very sad breakup, found new love, dealt with four deaths in the family and two health crises (one that’s ongoing), kept up with my freelance writing/translation/editing work and my travelling sex educator career, continued to co-organize An Unholy Harvest as well as running a pervy book club, and done a whole fuckload of yoga to keep myself sane. Had I known how tough these years would be, I think I’d have made some different choices, but hindsight is 20/20… and the universe has given me a lot of joy along the way as well. (And who better to appreciate the pleasure/pain combo than a sadomasochist?) In the meantime, as I inch ever closer to finishing with the gigantic backlog of work that’s plagued me since late 2009 (!!), I hope to start posting more regularly again.

First up: a post I’ve been working at off and on for a few months now. It’s long – ha! There’s a big surprise. So I’m splitting it in two, just to see if I can hold your interest.

Beyond that, if you’re curious to know what I’m up to, sign up for my newsletter by sending me an e-mail at SexGeekNews-subscribe@yahoogroups.com—I’ll be starting that up again soon too. Or follow me on Twitter, @sexgeekAZ. If you’re interested in taking a workshop with me, check my workshops page; it’s fully up to date with my upcoming visits to Amherst, Boston, Vancouver, Whitehorse, Victoria, San Francisco, Berkeley and more. Drop me a line anytime at veryqueer3 at yahoo dot ca if you’d like to book me—I’ll be scheduling for the fall/winter season soon!

It’s nice to be back.


This post is, more or less, about defining M/s (Master/slave) relationships. I realize that I’m treading into very treacherous territory by attacking this topic. Recall the classic question, “What’s the difference between a submissive and a slave?” Throw that one into any BDSM discussion group, wait five seconds and watch the fur fly. It’s inevitable. Why? Because the terms “submissive” and “slave” mean different things to just about every person who uses them. Same with “master.” And, well, just about everything else.

So let me get some terminology out of the way. First of all, I don’t like the terms “master” and “slave.” Well, “master” I have less of a problem with as it has a number of general usages—among other things, I’m officially a master myself now, with the paperwork and everything, thanks to finishing a graduate degree. “Slave,” on the other hand, sits very uncomfortably for me, and I explain why in a fair amount of detail here for those who are curious. The basic gist is that it’s just plain inaccurate when it comes to describing the kind of power dynamics engaged in by most people who use the term in the realm of kink.

This all being said, I don’t actually care what terms you use if you’re in such a relationship, or for that matter, even if you’re not. My point is that in the vast realm of consensual power-based relationships, there exists a very tiny minority that function according to a set of basic parameters that makes them quite distinct from the rest, even though they may share many surface characteristics with any number of other types of power-based relationships. For the purposes of both broad scope and clarity, then, I’ll use PIC (for “person in charge”) and POA (“person obeying authority”) in the rest of this post.

Let me describe the kind of relationship dynamics I’m trying to talk about. This is not intended as a formal definition, in the sense of “if you don’t do this you’re not a TRUE (insert term of choice here).” It’s more like the common features I’ve observed that create a baseline common ground among people doing a certain fairly specific sort of relationship.

1. Full-time. As in, 100%. The power exchange reaches well outside the bounds of the time that the two people in question spend directly (physically) or indirectly (phone, e-mail) in one another’s company. It is not something you do; it’s more like something you are, and you then align your actions with that state of being. You don’t take breaks from it; I’m not even sure how you would attempt to do that. It’s not about stepping into a persona or character and it’s not about narrowing or reducing one’s scope of being or interacting. Rather it’s about integrating the power dynamic into every facet of life. This requires deep desire, discipline and mindfulness on both parts. Especially intense moments within the relationship may be framed by rituals, symbols, items of dress or the like; people who do this kind of relationship are of course fully able to engage in temporary role-play as they please, within or outside the relationship; and some people simply like to engage in a lot of ritual and costume in their day-to-day life. But these items, rituals, clothing and so forth are in no way required in order to make the thing itself real, and there is no need to get into a certain headspace in order to do it, much like you don’t need a wedding ring to be married.

2. Broad-based. The PIC’s authority is not centred on or limited to sexual or erotic matters. In fact the PIC’s authority is not limited to much of anything at all—it’s extremely broad and basically encompasses pretty much every facet of life. Let me be clear, though, that authority does not mean control (as in, the micromanagement of someone’s entire roster of everyday activities), although control is usually present to varying degrees in different areas depending on the particular dynamic at play.

Let me also be clear that it doesn’t mean the PIC makes all sorts of arbitrary decisions without consultation. Hardly. It’s just a question of where the final say lies. And for all that I said this broad authority extends beyond sex, this doesn’t mean sex isn’t part of the deal—most of the time it is. But I’ve met pairs who are not engaged in sexual relationships, and in some cases are not even compatible in terms of sexual orientation (i.e. a lesbian slave to a gay male master), who are still doing This Thing together. In no way am I trying to say this is more “evolved” or “pure” than relationships that include sexual activity. Far from it. In fact I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a lot harder to do this without the handy tool of sex. Sex and sexual energy are extremely well-suited channels for expressing and experiencing a power dynamic, and when they are not available, great creativity must be exercised in order to make up for their absence. What I’m getting at here is that the power dynamic does not depend on, and is not enacted through, sexual and erotic energy alone. It’s about life as a whole.

3. Time-consuming. I mean this in two ways. First of all, it usually takes quite a long time to establish the kind of trust it requires to enter into this type of relationship—as well it should. I’m talking months, even years of slowly moving toward the kind of dynamic that’s all-encompassing. Even once a state of what I would call ownership is reached, that becomes a starting point for deepening the relationship; it’s a process, not an achievement. I don’t have a fancy name for the often quite long in-between stage where you’re definitely doing This Thing but the one-hundred-percent-ness of it hasn’t been all the way established quite yet, but many people refer to these relationships (or simply their existence as a PIC or as a POA) as a path, which seems accurate to me. And once you pass through the doors of ownership, guess what? The path keeps on going.

This is not to say that “instant” dynamics of this kind don’t exist, because they do; sometimes, the chemistry, trust and readiness line up and everything falls into place quite rapidly. Nor do I mean to say that they can’t develop very quickly, because even outside “instant” dynamics, they can. Still, I would assert that time is a crucial element in solidifying and deepening these relationships, even when a solid baseline of power is established right away. That leads to the second element of the “time-consuming” idea, which is that This Thing requires a substantial time investment for development and maintenance purposes. A lot of that time investment will be spent talking. Y’know, sitting around a meal and having conversations. Getting to know each other at an incredible depth of intimacy and detail. Learning each other like a favourite book.

4. Earned. The PIC and the POA earn each other’s trust—they do not simply assume it, even though trust-building by its nature requires occasional leaps of faith. (Sometimes trust is enacted before it is earned, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; trust is, after all, a choice.) The particulars of how this happens are radically different from one relationship to the next, but there is no question about the degree of responsibility each party holds. What I’m getting at here is that trust must be maintained with care and attention on both sides, or the dynamic will crumble very quickly—or persist in existing despite wreaking great damage on one or both participants. If deep trust is established, things that from the outside might look like a PIC’s arbitrary decisions or cruelty or even neglect, or a POA’s thoughtless obedience or, on the flip side, presumptuousness, are in fact carefully considered actions born out of the extensive knowledge of one another’s desires and needs.

5. Bound. The PIC feels honour-bound to care for the POA, and the POA feels honour-bound to care for the PIC. Honour and ethics are prime factors here. This binding may or may not be physically marked (collar, ring, tattoo, whatever) and if it is, that marking may be one-way or mutual (though nobody talks much about the ways in which a POA might mark a PIC and in my experience it is not nearly as common as the reverse).

Regardless of physical marking, though, the binding exists and often outlasts the duration of the relationship itself. In a sense, this binding is consensual but not chosen. I know that’s a weird thing to say, and I’m struggling a bit with how best to explain what I mean. My former boi came up with the concept of antennae. As in, a POA’s energy can sometimes come to agreements with a PIC’s energy completely independently of what the people themselves decide to do about it—as though they each have antennae that hone in on each other and have entire conversations and decide what’s going on while the people themselves figure out how to catch up, get used to the idea and put it into action. I have often observed that the people who do This Thing don’t decide to turn the power on, and they certainly couldn’t decide to turn it off, even by splitting up. Assuming nobody does anything that breaks it—as in, betrays trust in an irreparable way—I’m not sure it ever really goes away. Sometimes power fades over time, but boy, does it ever take a long time, and it rarely departs without leaving a permanent mark that shapes the POA, and usually the PIC as well, from that point forward in terms of how they move through the world and how they engage in future such dynamics.

I won’t go quite so far as to say that this binding is permanent, though others have said that or similar; I’m a great believer in impermanence, and I haven’t been on this earth long enough to be able to certify the permanence of this type of bond in all situations. But it may be awfully close.

6. Spiritual. This one’s a bit iffy, because the idea of spirituality is awfully slippery, and in some cases the spiritual aspect of these relationships is not clearly articulated even between the participants. But I’m including it anyway because the vast majority of the people I’ve met, seen and read about who do This Thing seem to have some understanding that they’re part of a larger system than the closed circuit of their individual relationship—that they answer to a higher spiritual force, whether they conceive of that force as God, Buddha, flow, spirit, “what is right,” or something else.

Note that in no way am I using the term “religious” here—this is not in any way obliged to be about a formal belief system. And I’m not talking about the temporary states of ecstasy or transcendence that can be reached through intense SM play, although those may happen too. It sounds dreadfully vanilla, but rather than thinking “constant sex party!” we might be better off drawing comparisons between these dynamics and monastic religious or spiritual practice (tip of the pen to Raven Kaldera and Josh Tenpenny for that concept), or intense, immersive and emotionally compelling artistic, scholarly or physical pursuits.

7. Humble. With that spiritual thing in mind, I think a key piece of these relationships is humility. If you’re going to take on an extremely broad authority-holding or service-providing role in the life of a fellow fully competent adult, you need to be well aware that you aren’t perfect and don’t have the answers magically inside your own head. You need to make judicious use of the resources available to you, and that includes people and information sources well outside your own areas of expertise. You need to recognize your limits, keep your ego in check and understand that you are only entitled to that which you can properly hold—and proper holding takes work. You can’t just stand around and be fabulous.

With this in mind, as soon as people start to behave in ways that show they believe in the superiority of this type of relationship, or in their own personal superiority to others because of their participation in this type of relationship, or (worse) by their station as a PIC within one, it instantly makes me suspicious that they’re not really doing This Thing I’m talking about at all. I’ll own that this may be simply a case of me noticing behaviour that I find personally distasteful and imposing my judgement on the “truth” of such people’s relationships because of that. If that’s the case, I’m torn between wanting to apologize (since, after all, I can’t know the internal reality of anyone’s relationship whether I like their behaviour or not) and wanting to say, so be it—I really do think that if you’re too self-satisfied you can’t possibly be listening as carefully as you need to in order to do a full-time power dynamic well.

Note that none of this has anything to do with the sex, gender, age, ethnocultural background, ability, perceived attractiveness, employment status, or sexual orientation of the people involved. This is no small thing—far too many people in the world at large equate social capital with the ability to hold power or the suitability to give it over, and far too many perverts equate the object of their personal fetish with those same things. (Needless to say, the “All women are goddesses!” line of thinking makes me a bit ill, for example.)

Read on for part 2!

3 thoughts on “words fail, or, trying to talk about power (part 1)

  1. Your words make me shiver. Thank you so much for writing it down. Thank you so much for feeling the same and putting it in words.
    >> … it rarely departs without leaving a permanent mark that shapes the POA, and usually the PIC as well, from that point forward in terms of how they move through the world and how they engage in future such dynamics.<<
    I am still in the bonds of THIS THING. Can't explain it better than you do als: consensual, but not chosen. I am marked and shaped, feeling honored of my former PIC.

  2. “far too many people in the world at large equate social capital with the ability to hold power or the suitability to give it over”

    I don’t think I have ever heard this stated so succinctly and so well. Thank you. It drives me personally crazy and is obviously (obvious to me because of my personal experience) and simply not true that anyone who wants to be in charge has to be larger/richer/older/[pick an adjective that conveys greater social capital] than the person over whom they hold authority.

    PS I’m really looking forward to hearing you speak in Boston!

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