Not long after I posted about conceptual frameworks for D/s relationships, I got a note from a reader who had a few questions for me. (Go check that post out if you need some context for this…) I asked permission to post those questions here, along with my answers, because they were thought-provoking and eloquent.
I read your recent posts to your blog last night and had a few comments. My big one is I don’t have any sense of why you (or anyone) want to be in a 24/7 “Thing.” My question is very simple, and I would love to see you address it in a future blog: what needs are being met by being in this relationship? (Obviously, I would be interested in both the perspective of the PIC and the POA.)
(Note that in my earlier post, I used the terms Person In Charge, or PIC, and Person Obeying Authority, or POA. They aren’t perfect but they’re pleasantly generic and they get around all of the problems I have with some of the other terminology out there.)
Well, for starters, I don’t think there’s a single answer to this one. People do this in extremely different ways, for a wide array of reasons, and of course any given pairing brings their own personalities, language, and sets of beliefs to the experience.
Speaking for myself, for a long time I actually wouldn’t have said it met a need—in fact it was really uncomfortable for me to get used to the idea that 24/7 worked for me at all, let alone being something I might want or seek out, and from there to saying I “need” it is even now a stretch, though it’s probably closer to true now than it ever has been. I don’t need 24/7… but it feeds me like no other kind of relationship does, and it would take a radical shift for me to decide to enter a serious relationship where that wasn’t part of the package.
Like all of us, I live in a culture that both celebrates and condemns overt power dynamics; that shames people for being powerful; that tells me that especially as a woman, I’m not supposed to want power or enjoy it; and that doesn’t teach us much about how to hold power responsibly, gracefully, or in ways that benefit others.
The introduction to Tammy Jo Eckhart and Fox’s new book, At Her Feet: Powering Your Femdom Relationship (which I have not read in full yet) contains the following paragraph:
“Neither of us has lost or lent out our individual power. By working together toward the mutual goal of a healthy and successful M/s relationship, we help each other improve as people and as a couple, enhancing and increasing our power and therefore directing a higher quality and greater quantity of power toward the dynamic itself. Beyond just the two of us, this power expansion also gives us the foundation from which to contribute to the well-being of everyone around us.”
That sort of leads into one of the things I’d say I get out of M/s, which is extreme intimacy that’s mutually constructed and that benefits all involved with greater self-knowledge, greater health and more generosity of spirit. For me this is about the experience of cultivated, detailed deliberate attunement between two people; a sense of each person’s place, responsibilities and expectations of each other, and a shared clarity about the relationship framework. Somehow that also ends up being exquisitely sexy, in this sort of primal lizard-brain way that I simply cannot explain so I won’t even try. But I must say that no other kind of relationship, in my own life, has ever gotten my brain and pink bits fired up in quite this intense, reliable and lasting a way.
I threw the question “What do you get out of 24/7?” out on Twitter (@sexgeekAZ if you wanna find me there), and a few people responded with their own answers, and have given me permission to share them here.
“I get a sense of being taken care of, that someone I trust has my back, that I have an emotional safety net. What we DO is a mix of domestic stuff (dishes to errands to chauffeuring), time-management, and body-access, by & large. It’s also very, very tied into the romantic relationship I share with my servant, though that’s not how it started out.” – Amazon Syren
Amazon (a PIC) points to another thing that really works for me, too—that sense of being taken care of. It’s a really mutual thing and it’s largely based in differentiated styles of caring. Some people really gravitate toward caring for others in a very anticipatory way, figuring out what they might like and making it happen seamlessly. Some people like to surprise, distract, entertain; some like to listen, analyze; others like to be uber-reliable, and position themselves as a rock to be leaned on. Still others tend toward caring for others in a more directive way. I have a fond memory, for instance, of a friend a number of years ago who knew I was really busy and overworked, and she was pretty pushy about making a date with me anyway; and then she called me and cancelled it at the very last minute and insisted that I was to take the evening to myself in order to relax, with just as much a sense of commitment to that as I had been willing to put into clearing my schedule to spend time with her. She even went so far as to prescribe a hot bath by candlelight, if I recall. It was pushy, but it felt wonderful.
D/s and M/s relationships are great for people with polarized or complementary styles of expressing love or care to go all out and use them on each other. The example above notwithstanding, I tend to gravitate toward providing care in a directive way, and I tend to gravitate toward people who provide care in a service-oriented way. But ultimately, we’re each in service to the other, if you really think about it.
“I get to be me. Not just for a moment but all the time. I don’t have to try to fit society’s roles. I am loved, valued and secure.” – Tonya
(Interestingly, I can’t tell from this whether Tonya’s a PIC, a POA or both—and even more interestingly, it doesn’t matter, because what she says works equally well in all cases.)
Tonya speaks to another piece, about the range of permissible expression of (or desire for) power in society at large. To me this resonates as well. D/s and M/s allow us to be who we are all the time, rather than squeezing certain aspects of ourselves into prescribed containers. I often describe M/s as relaxing. It’s work, to be sure, but it’s work that goes in line with who I am, rather than the everyday work I do to appropriately function within what the rest of the world thinks is okay—which largely requires that we ignore, apologize for or politely minimize power dynamics (and which, I might add, therefore makes room for enormous abuses).
It’s incredibly delicious when someone not only gives me permission to be all the way myself, but who actually desires that in me. Speaking of their submission, a partner of mine once said, more or less, “You mean you really want this? You actually like this? All my other partners have found it annoying.” It was such a sweet moment for me to be able to say “No, that is beautiful, it’s exactly what I want, and do not ever be ashamed of that.” It’s like we each give each other permission and encouragement to be who we most deeply are. It’s just so damn easy.
Of course there was, and sometimes still is, a lot of work for me to get through all the “nice people don’t do that/want that” and “what gives you the right?” and “how is that possibly good for him/her/you?” messages that society imposes on people who take up power. And I know that for people on the submissive end, they often have to fight messages like “but that makes you weak and pathetic” or “you’re just immature and dependent” or “be a real man” or what have you. We all face that in plain old SM play, so just imagine how much more of it there is to deal with in 24/7—unless of course you’re a sociopath or just a totally insensitive clod. But for me at least, the evidence shows me that I’m on track: I have happy, healthy, vibrant, sexy, turned-on, honest, communicative, caring, kind, lasting relationships with people; and even when it comes to the ones I’ve split up with, I still maintain trusting friendships and a sense of family with them, every one. Peggy Kleinplatz lists some of the things that society at large can learn from SM relationships about trust, intimacy and mutual vulnerability—“Lessons from the Edge: Learning from Extraordinary Lovers” in the book Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures if you’re curious. A lot of those apply quite nicely to 24/7 dynamics.
zbeline, a POA, writes a longer reason for her interest in 24/7, which I’ll quote here in full because it’s really kinda beautiful:
“I do it because I found the right person to do it with. I do it because it still works amazingly for us after 18 months. I remember longing for it, a long time ago, and having evening-long discussions with a friend of mine, now in a live-in, 24/7 M/s relationship, who was not quite there back then, but had been there in the past with more or less success. She said I opened big eyes (not surprised eyes, just very hopeful ones, I guess) when I asked: ‘Can people really do it?’ I knew people who said they were in that kind of relationship, but I was still doubtful that was completely true.
“By the way, why am I into power exchange in the first place? The short answer would be because it is hot in many, many respects. I mean, for me. Kink-wise, power exchange is what works for me. Oh, I can take part in hot SM scenes without a deep involvement beyond the scene, of course, but there has to be an exchange of power, if temporary. Other scenes in which some hard struggling or sensation play are involved, for example, without the surrendering of one’s power into the other person’s hand, can be fun, and I can enjoy them, but they don’t make me deeply wet. That is also true when I top: I need to be given the power over the other person, and I have no interest in fighting for it. It’s fun to watch, but that’s not my personal cup of tea.
“Now back the the 24/7 part of your question. Same answer: because it is hot. With an extension: because it is deeply hot. Because I need to surrender my power into hands that I trust, I tend to be hesitant to just jump in and play with people I don’t know much. Or sometimes I will do scenes just to experiment some new sensations or try a new technique, but as I said above, that doesn’t completely do the trick for me. I need to have a connection with the person I submit to, obviously, and I need to be around people who feel the same need. And although it’s interesting to explore horizontally, and play with a variety of people, I also find it a bit more rewarding, in the long run, to explore vertically, with the same people, to deepen the experience.
“I know I wouldn’t have to be in a 24/7 D/s relationship for that. I could have relationships with people I love and trust deeply, and D/s could just be a part of the deal. That happened in the past, and that was fine. I do it now because I met someone with whom my naive description of a 24/7 D/s relationship (‘What I know is my ideal D/s relationship is one in which the other person would have the power to shift the mood from the mundane to the kinky’) hit the target. It brings me peace to know that I don’t have to pretend there is no power exchange between the moments when there is (in the bedroom, in the dungeon…). For, to me, D/s always tended to colour other aspect of a relationship anyway, even when it was agreed it wouldn’t. I like it now, because everything is clear.
“I find myself at home in that kind of relationship also because it is based on openness. In other relationships, in spite of my need or quest for sincerity, I have sometimes found myself… mmmm… not really lying, but tempering down the truth to protect the other person. Hiding emotions for the same reason. A D/s relationship is based on openness. Also, the fact that I don’t shut down my vulnerability between moments of intimacy means not only that I have to remain open, or want to, but that I become incapable of closing myself to the other person. I like the ‘absolute’ aspect of a D/s relationship. At least, in its ideal expression.
“What I get out of it, is a sense of rightness, of peace. Things are just as they should be, and nobody has to pretend they are something else. Of course, it is a work in progress, and not always a rectilinear one, with glorious moments, a few spectacular failures, but always rewarding in the long run. And erotic, of course.”
I can’t say these snippets represent the perspectives of all PICs or all POAs, of course, but it’s at least a start, right?
Second, you use the example of choosing someone’s outfits, but there’s not much at stake there. This leads to my second question: Is it desirable or even possible to make all the decisions in a relationship?
No, on both counts. You’re totally right about the choosing-outfits example—it’s convenient for illustrative purposes but isn’t particularly deep.
The way I’d describe 24/7 relationships is not that one person makes all decisions and the other makes none. It’s more like the decision-making process shared by the two people looks different than it might in a non-power-based relationship. Any good dominant knows they can’t make decisions without consultation or discussion, or make decisions without explaining them to or running them by the submissive. The dominant may technically have the right to do so, but they can’t realistically exercise it outside extreme or urgent situations, and rarely at that, because that sort of thing damages trust, and trust is the currency of the entire relationship structure. Dominant-only decisions can work in small matters, such as shirt colour choices, but even then, not without a lot of work at the beginning, and never without exception.
It’s just that the mutuality of the decision-making process may lie in a different place. To arrive at a good decision, the dominant has to ask a lot of questions, really probe to find out what the submissive needs and wants, and really listen to those responses and filter them through what they know of the submissive’s desire to please or obey; the dominant needs to make saying “no” a safe thing for the submissive. On the flip side, the submissive needs to work on clearly stating desires, needs, particularities; on answering questions with accurate information and not with what they think the dominant wants to hear; and so on, and so forth. (Of course the particular challenges look different in each individual power pairing, and are even reversed in some cases; I’m just describing some typical ones here.) Sure, the final decision may lie in the dominant’s hands, but if he or she makes the wrong call, you can be certain that the next time around, the submissive won’t really be “as submissive,” because he or she won’t be as trusting. Do that for a few rounds and the relationship falls apart—and so much for 24/7. So there’s no way that decision-making in 24/7 is a one-sided process. It’s deeply mutual, it’s just coded through the mechanisms of a power dynamic.
As for whether it is possible for one person to make all the decisions—no, not even by the kind of process I describe here, at least not directly. This is where a concept like “protecting the property” comes in handy—this one I borrow from a grateful slave and Guy Baldwin, who co-authored the book Slavecraft. They write about the idea that the submissive is in charge of properly managing themselves because they are the property of the dominant. A person’s thinking changes when they are considering themselves to be the highly valued and treasured property of another, and required to respect another person’s value system. So for instance on their own, they might not eat greens every day, but knowing that their dominant wants them to be healthy, they might be motivated to do so. A 24/7 relationship can essentially build in a requirement for the submissive’s self-care and self-management. On the flip side, if a dominant is requiring high standards of self-care for a submissive, it becomes important to set a good example, so a dominant is often challenged to take better care of themselves too, and ask for the submissive’s assistance in that project. It can be a great little feedback loop. The question “what would my dominant have me do?” also comes in handy—it’s a way for the submissive to make decisions based on the agreed-upon adoption of the other’s value system even in the absence of that person. This is a concept that some refer to as internalized enslavement. It’s very deliberate, very chosen, and very pleasurable. And it’s all about the submissive making everyday, ongoing choices to engage in the dynamic as much as the dominant. There is absolutely no way this kind of relationship can work if it’s about force, guilt, coercion, and so forth. It only works when daily, moment-to-moment choices are being made by both participants, and that requires enormous self-discipline and agency on the part of the submissive as much as on that of the dominant.
In short—24/7 can allow the reach of the two people’s influence in one another’s lives to extend into extremely intimate and vulnerable places that most relationship structures don’t typically account for or have the language to discuss, and the mutuality of that influence is crucial to its maintenance. Beyond that, 24/7 not only codes and makes explicit the power dynamics that are going on, but it engages with them deliberately, and deepens and enhances them rather than simply naming them; and this whole thing (often) happens with a strong correlation to erotic gratification, which saturates the entire experience with the kind of pleasure—intellectual, physical, emotional—that most other types of engagement with power dynamics don’t really include.
Third, I think reflective couples think about and discuss the power dynamics in their relationship all the time. I’m not remotely convinced being “vanilla” makes you less thoughtful about power dynamics — it certainly doesn’t play out that way among my friends. There is a lot more discourse about power in certain politicized communities — therapists/social workers, lesbian-feminists, socialists, leather folks, and that may make people who participate in those communities more reflective about their personal power dynamics OR NOT. There is no shortage of irony or hypocrisy or just plain bullshit floating around. As my partner is fond of saying, there’s no cure for human nature.
Yup. I agree. I certainly don’t think there’s any automatic relationship skill set that comes with being kinky, and I’m not at all saying that vanilla relationships can’t be thoughtful about power dynamics. Also, in no way am I extending my statements about 24/7 to the entire SM/leather community—24/7 practitioners are actually a very tiny minority therein to begin with. And I’m also not saying that everyone who does 24/7 is doing it with the kind of consciousness, care, thoughtfulness and sense of responsibility that I describe here and in my earlier post. In an ideal world this would be true but I’m not so naive as to think we live there.
As for discourse about power in other communities, yes, you’re quite right on that count too. I can imagine a pair of therapists, say, who discover that their intimacy can go far deeper with a fellow therapist because they too have shared language around relationships and power dynamics. So I certainly wouldn’t want to try and stack my preferred kind of intimacy against theirs and tell them mine comes out the winner—I don’t know why that would be useful to anyone, and I certainly don’t think anyone would be qualified to judge such a thing in the first place.
What I am saying is that 24/7 dynamics provide a particular set of concepts and language, and allow for a particular range of pleasures, that frame and sustain intimate relationships in a distinct way—not better or worse, but certainly distinct from any other. For a lot of the people who do 24/7, the kind of deep intimacy and pleasure that we experience in these relationships does vastly outstrip any other kind we’ve had—but that’s perhaps because we’re cut out for relating this way (in terms of our thinking processes, our spirituality, our sexual proclivities, and so forth) and so of course when we discover it, it works well for us.
I think the distinction, for me, between 24/7 and other types of relationships in which power is discussed openly and frankly, is that in 24/7 power is not just discussed but deliberately increased—in the sense of continually deepening the power polarization—and this process is explicitly enjoyed as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end (though it may well be that too). I don’t know of any other structure in which this is the case. This still doesn’t make it better or worse than anything else, but it does make it distinct.