on power, heartbreak and the mainstreaming of (only some) kink

heartbreakThis week, Autostraddle published an essay by a self-identified lesbian dominant discussing her recent break-up with her submissive. It caused a bit of a stir in the comments section; the editor shut down comment; then a reader noticed the article had linked out to one of my reading lists and contacted me in case I hadn’t seen the kerfuffle and wanted to weigh in.

I gotta be honest. I’m super leery about this, because it’s impossible to know what’s going on in someone else’s relationships. And it feels like asking for trouble to even try commenting because I’m so aware of how not informed I am. I think we’d like to think that all abusers are visible to the naked eye, but they just aren’t. Sometimes people do terrible shit right under your nose and you just don’t see it. And some people may be abrasive, abrupt, narcissistic or otherwise socially unpleasant—or come across that way in their writing—but never actually do harm in intimate settings. I’ve had a few online interactions with the author and she certainly doesn’t seem like an axe murderer to me, but who knows what’s in her chest freezer?

But since this is happening on the internet already, and the general topic is totally in my wheelhouse, I will offer a couple of observations.

The critical comments seem to fall along two main lines.

The first basically asks, is it possible for full-time D/s to be healthy, ever, at all? Is this not just veiled abuse by its very nature?

If you’ve read any of my own past writing, you’ll expect my giant eyeroll here. I’m tempted to mount a spirited defense of full-time D/s, because it irks me beyond measure every time I hear this tired old argument rehashed yet again. But I have to say, after 20 years, I’m fucking tired. I’m so tired, friends. So tired of people questioning whether the particular intimacies and pleasures I’m personally most deeply wired for are essentially sick, essentially exploitative, essentially fucked up and wrong.

In a way it’s almost worse because these questions, more often than not, don’t come from rabid right-wingers who think we should all burn in hell; they come from fellow perverts who are perfectly happy to enjoy scene-based kink but balk at the idea that maybe power doesn’t have to be temporary. In having this knee-jerk reaction, the message basically sounds to me like “my kink is okay (because I only do it for an hour at a time and then put it away) but your kink is not (because you dare to acknowledge you want more and then actually pursue it).” It digs a chasm between us that doesn’t actually need to be there; there should be room for all of us in this dungeon.

But it seems like over the decades of kink’s further mainstreaming, what’s happened is that kink hobbyists have drastically multiplied, and perhaps because of those numbers, many of them now see themselves as safer, saner and more consensual than full-timers because of what they perceive as built-in healthy limits on what they do.  (I feel like there’s a kink community parallel with polynormativity here, but I’m too tired to flesh it out this very second.) The rest of us, this odd minority that insists on eschewing bite-size scenes in favour of a power-flavoured life, must therefore be super extreme and dangerous and possibly unhinged.

I would counter-propose: Sometimes, the supposedly healthy limits of scene-based kink actually prevent you from talking about what may be an ongoing thread of power betweeheartbreak2n people, or within yourself and your desires. Sometimes, rather than providing a safe framework, a scene provides a shield against your acknowledgement of real-life power dynamics you’re too uncomfortable to name and deal with ethically. Sometimes, power is real, but because you’re so invested in calling it play,  you can’t even look at it in all its truth—and therefore you cannot possibly do it responsibly. Sometimes, the container is actually a prison.

Power unacknowledged is power uncontrolled. Power feared is power denied.  Power denied is power abused. And yes, that’s true on both sides of the slash.

I’m not bashing scene-based kink. I’ve done it; I know it can be totally fine. And I’m also not saying all full-time D/s is healthy, far from it. My point is only that there’s nothing inherent in either approach that makes it safer, more consensual, or otherwise better than the other. Just because it makes you uncomfortable, just because you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it’s inherently more dangerous than what you do. I wish the prevailing ethic grasped this more robustly than it seems to these days. (I’m aware that I’m cementing my curmudgeon status more with every passing paragraph.)

I wish people didn’t rest so easy on their scenes and safewords. They are by no means guarantees. The kind of scrutiny that gets aimed at full-timers is at least as necessary for scene players, and in some ways more because the whole setup by its very nature encourages people to deny, avoid and ignore the power dynamics at play in everyday interactions, in the chemistry between people, in broad social hierarchies and in the specific microsocial ones that permeate kink spaces. Some people are so invested in pretending such things evaporate when the cuffs go on and reappear when the aftercare is finished that they wilfully ignore reality, and encourage one another in that ignorance across an entire booming subculture.

With full-time D/s, done well at least, this reality is named, discussed, and that helps hugely in managing power with all the respect and care it deserves. I’m not saying full-time D/s is above criticism in its particular instances. I just wish so much of the criticism I hear weren’t so fucking predictable, so comfortably uttered by people ensconced in their own flawed frameworks—people utterly convinced that their skepticism is well-founded and objectively rooted rather than deeply entwined with the discomfort and shame about power that permeates so much of kink’s classic narrative structure.

The second type of criticism comes from commenters who seem cool with D/s, possibly even full-time D/s, but see cause for concern with this author or this relationship in particular.

These commenters say that the article as written raises a bunch of red flags about the dominant’s general fitness for duty, as it were. When she writes about her grief when missing the service her submissive used to provide, they say she comes across as missing the service more than the actual person. They wonder whether her desire for her submissive to heal from past trauma, and to help her in that process, is actually a form of practicing unqualified therapy.

Readers also point out instances of what appears to be dubious consent on the part of the submissive. For instance, they ask if she could reasonably consent to a full-time D/s relationship in the afterglow of an intense scene. They wonder why the dominant felt it was okay to re-ask the question of full-time D/s after the submissive had previously said no. They also question whether the submissive consented to have a potentially identifying photo of herself published in the article header, and whether she consented to being written about at all.

To be fully honest here, my eyebrow went up at a couple of points in the essay too. My reaction was at times “huh, that sounds questionable,” but more often along the lines of, “I’m afraid the way this thing is said will leave a poor impression on certain readers.”

Let’s take the waterboarding thing, for example. The author describes entering into a conheartbreak3versation about full-time D/s with her submissive directly after doing a waterboarding scene. Readers understandably wondered whether that was the wisest time to be negotiating relationship parameters with long-term implications because of endorphins, emotional states and so on. The author gamely responds to this concern in the comments section, along with many others; in this case, she explains that waterboarding wasn’t necessarily the edgiest scene for these two specific players, that the submissive asked for it, that the conversation about relationship parameters and the order of events had already been agreed to in advance, and so on.

I thought she did a solid job in the comments of explaining this piece, along with quite a number of other bits about which readers expressed concern or doubt. I can’t know what I don’t know, but her subsequent explanations strike me as clear and thorough, and sufficiently resolved any concerns I had upon my initial read that I can chalk the rest up to differences in personal style.

My own real criticism of the essay lands elsewhere.

It isn’t so much about the essay’s moments of insensitivity or self-focus. I don’t love those bits, but to me they’re just human, and as such quite authentic. It’s a personal essay about grief; the whole point is for the author to describe the specific feelings of loss engendered by this breakup, and that project is not fundamentally *about* the other person, it’s about the author’s feelings. I might have written it differently if it had happened to me, but I don’t think the author is wrong to feel how she feels or to write about it.

But I think with this essay, Autostraddle bit off more than it could chew. The author—and perhaps more importantly the editor—should, I think, have realized that writing about full-time D/s for a general (if queer) audience would require a whole lot more explanation up front in order to avoid the problems and misunderstandings that spilled out into the comments section. In focusing in on the particulars of grief, the author omitted all the disclaimers and contextualizations that would help bring a skeptical reader along for the journey—and there are very few places on the interwebs where such skeptical readers won’t form a solid subset, if not majority, of the overall readership.

It sucks to have to educate while you’re grieving. The immediate aftermath of heartbreak is not when you really feel like explaining to the general public why your relationship was valid in the first place; why you’re not a horrible abuser and yes it was all consensual and no it wasn’t exploitative, and service is a love language, and if you wanted a housemaid you’d hire one, and so on. You want to pour your grief onto the page and feel seen in it, not give a D/s 101 “here are all the specific ways this was consensual and also here’s my ex’s written sign-off on this article including the picture” rundown. And, frankly, explaining this stuff would have dragged the article into much more of a heady place, and less of a heart-based one; and that would have compromised the writing in a different way.

But I think those of us who choose to live out full-time power dynamics are not yet well enough understood that we can afford the luxury of assuming a friendly and knowledgeable readership.

We may never be. I hate that this is true, but it’s true. Kink in general still suffers from this problem; we may have reached the point, culturally, where mention of spanking doesn’t send half the readers off to cancel their subscriptions, but swim much outside those familiar and shallow waters and I guarantee you readers will still kick up a fuss. And if that’s true about [insert random slightly-edgier-than-Fifty Shades kink act here], then it’s hugely true about full-time D/s (for which we can perhaps in part blame those same accursed books for presenting simple abuse as sexy kinky good times).

heartbreak4I don’t like that the world profoundly doesn’t understand full-time D/s, but I do acknowledge it. So even here, on my own personal blog where I’ve been writing about such topics for fifteen years and where readers are pretty likely to Get It, I find myself being way more careful about how I phrase things than I am among friends. For whatever reason, that step of carefully preventing readers’ misunderstanding wasn’t taken in this essay, or if it was, the author and editor came to a very different conclusion than I’d personally have come to about how to manage it. Why? I have no way to know and I won’t speculate. But I do think that’s where the problem lies—at least based on my reading of the essay and the author’s subsequent comments.

Perhaps the article should have been written a different way to compensate. Perhaps it should have been published somewhere else. Sadly, I suspect not even a general kink website would really be the place for it, given the aforementioned scene-based paradigm that’s taken precedence, and the overall mediocre quality of online writing about kink, where genuinely interesting content is too often sparse. It pains me to think FetLife might be one of the few places something like this essay could go, because it’s far too beautifully written to be relegated to someone’s journal page, but I don’t know how to get around the problems with readership that come with an audience outside an author’s personal network, and I’m not aware of any kind of online magazine particular to D/s practitioners (hit me up if you are!).

This essay needed a full slate of disclaimers and explanations in order to come across well to all but a select audience, *and* disclaimers and explanations would have in some respect compromised the literary quality of the essay. As an editor, I could go through it line by line and list the places where I’d have asked for a rephrase, a qualification or an expansion, a content note or a preamble. As an editor, I would have been sad to have to ask for probably two-thirds of those changes, but I would have done it anyway.

I will close by once again saying (see? disclaimers!) that none of this means I have any actual knowledge of the author’s D/s relationship.

For all I know, despite our perfectly pleasant online interactions, she could have committed terrible abuses. I want to make real space for that to be a possibility while also acknowledging that the same is true of any other writer who presents their side of a breakup. Unless we have direct personal knowledge of the person or situation, we only know what we’re reading. A master manipulator could write a grief essay that would raise no flags for readers at all; a flawed but basically fine human could write a grief essay so maudlin and navel-gazing as to make you believe they were the worst person to ever enter the dating scene. And an editor could shift either one of those essays in a different direction entirely.

I’m glad I got to read this particular essay, and I wish its problems had been nipped before it was published so that it could have existed only as a (very necessary) essay about D/s breakup grief rather than also as a flashpoint for certain persistent and likely unresolvable cultural tensions.

Mostly, I wish there was more writing about D/s and BDSM breakups. We could use an anthology or three. Power-dynamic grief has some particular features you just don’t find elsewhere. For anyone reading who has experienced it: you’re not alone, your relationship was valid, your grief is valid, and I hope in time you find reflections and support that speak to you and see you in the fullness of your D/s. Power acknowledged can be power celebrated, and power lost can be one hell of a heartbreak.


9 thoughts on “on power, heartbreak and the mainstreaming of (only some) kink

  1. Thank you for your comments on the article. When I first read it, although I could not completely relate with the content, I felt «validated» by the mere topic, as this is not a topic that is often addressed. Of course, it’s more exciting to talk about kink when it’s happening than when it’s over. Last October, I had submitted a proposal for a workshop called «Endings» on bdsm breakups. I withdrew the proposal before it could be accepted or rejected so it never got offered, but I really thought it was an important discussion to have among us. I wanted to address this question, among others: bdsm breakups, how they are just like any other breakups and why it’s a different kind of heartbreak. But I would have also been faced with the issues you raise: the difference between ending a relationship with kink in it and one based on power exchange. It is, indeed, two different things, the latter sometimes delving into the core of deeper, more ancient layers of identity. Anyway, maybe I’ll have a chance to give the workshop one day.

    1. Any discussion of power in kink is so complicated. Because we use similar language to talk about different things – for some kinky folks power is a sex toy, for others it’s a way of life, for many of us it’s both. But it sure does make it hard to have a productive conversation when the two main factions don’t always recognize that they’re not talking about the same thing, because the underlying assumptions and parameters are so drastically different. I hope you get to offer your workshop at some point when the timing and fit are right for it!

  2. Thanks. Well written. It seems that people comment all the time, bases on very little information. No much can be done but your response provides food for thought.

  3. Thank you so much for this nuanced take on the whole kerfuffle.

    I read the Autostraddle piece right around the time it posted, and have been following the ensuing twists and turns across various media since. The whole thing made me super uncomfortable, and I think you did a thorough job of capturing various reasons for that.

    As someone with light kink experience (definitely nowhere near the level of 24/7 dynamics) and much more trauma experience/knowledge, I was uncomfortable with some parts of the piece but my first thought when I finished it was “this comments section is gonna go nowhere good, fast.”
    I’m really grateful for the breakdown you provide of the scene based/full-time split, because that gets to a pet peeve of mine in general, when people think if they just do the “right” practices or use the “right language” (scenes, safewords, non-violent communication, etc etc etc I’m gonna grow up and be a curmudgeon too it’s my destiny and it’s already happening) then they’re all good and immune from having to go deeper, to deal with messy stuff like power dynamics and/or the particulars of any specific interaction/relationship/dynamic.

    In my opinion, you pointed the arrow in the right direction in calling Autostraddle to account for posting the piece in that form and apparently not being prepared for the blowback. From the positive comments on the piece, it’s clear that there is an audience for BDSM, D/s, Domme content that overlaps with the general Autostraddle audience, I just wish they had executed this better/hope that they can find a more productive way going forward to hold that space for people in the community to share their experiences.

    Anyway this is much longer than I planned, but I’m personally, selfishly, so glad you took on this mess with such knowledge and grace because it helped me process my own reactions—thank you.

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment, fellow curmudgeon. 🙂 I, too, hope they find a way – and it is not gonna be easy, so I feel a lot of compassion for the editors. But it would make me sad if the solution ended up being “no BDSM.” Anyway glad this helped you process! 🙂

  4. I appreciate your response to this. I read the Autostraddle piece a couple days after it went up and it touched me so much. I’ve been in the scene a long time. I’m in a 24/7 M/s dynamic. And I’m starting to write publicly (if semi-anonymously) about these things. So it’s difficult to see the OP’s piece be handled in the way that it was. I agree that Autostraddle bit off more than they should have. Their readership is kink friendly but there is way too much nuance in full-time power exchange to try and explain, like you said. I don’t know where we’re going from here with kink and power exchange and the public eye but I worry about it sometimes.

    1. So do I. I don’t want to create a hierarchy here, but some things are beyond the pale for the average reader, and 24/7 D/s or M/s is beyond the pale even for the average kinky reader. I don’t know what the solution is, but until those general truths change, folks who want to write or publish about these topics have to do it very, very carefully.

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