The essay for my Queer Theory class… hopefully it’s somewhat coherent, I’m not quite sure if it is.
A man and woman go out to dinner at a restaurant. The woman opens the door for the man to enter the establishment, she pulls out the chair for him before he sits down, and when the waiter comes to take their orders, she orders for the both of them. In this situation, who is submissive? Is it the man, is he being lead and treated as a subordinate by his mistress? Or is it the woman, is she an adept submissive who is serving her owner by taking care of his needs?
A man and woman are in their bedroom, the woman is on her knees and receives a slap to her cheek, then a hand in her hair, gripping it and pulling it back tight. She is spit on as her face is made to look upward, and then slapped again. The man sits on the bed and drags her with him, tugging her across his knee to give her a spanking, not satisfied until her ass is a bright shade of red. She is screaming and struggling, but despite being physically capable of freeing herself, she does not for fear of repercussions. Is this scenario depicting abuse, or simply play?
Both of these scenarios show potential ambiguity within power exchange relationships, but in very different ways. The first demonstrates the diversity of what power exchange relationships can look like, the second is a more shocking representation of what play can look like, and how to an outside observer, it could appear to be abuse. The point of both of these is to show the diversity and fragility of what could or could not be consensual power play activities. There is not just one way to experience or practice relationships of this type.
Often when subjects such as sadomasochism, or BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/submission, and Sadism/masochism), are explored relationships which break social norms are analyzed, such as gay or lesbian BDSM relationships, or heterosexual relationships in which the normative power structure is reversed: the female is dominant, the male is submissive. The paring which on the surface goes along with societal norms is sometimes dismissed as patriarchal because the male partner is dominant while the female partner is submissive. Despite what seems like a patriarchal situation, male-dominant/female-submissive relationships are built on both parties having equal power over the relationship, though unequal roles in power exchange scenarios.
The Use of Sex Categories
Male-dom female-sub (M/f) relationships are often viewed as conforming to patriarchal expectations of gender and power. The differences between relationships are often not taken into view. The activities often engaged in run a wide gamut and don’t have to include pain, what sadism and masochism are usually linked with. The addition of other terms to sadomasochism in order to create “BDSM” has broadened the ideas and activities which are included, since generally when sadism or masochism is thought of the only images that come to mind are those of painful beatings, cruelty, and torture. While these are certainly part of the activities which are included within the realm of BDSM, there is quite a bit more which is included.
The point of distinguishing M/f relationships from other types of relationships is a separation due to social perceptions rather than actual practices. While some have argued that since females are socialized by our patriarchal culture to embrace the ideas of submission to males, female subs are essentially just buying into that patriarchy, into that system which subordinates them, and into that perpetuation of gender stereotypes and roles. This is perpetuated by the small group of BDSM participants which believe in gender supremacy. That is, belief that males naturally rule over females and are naturally dominant to females natural submissiveness. Gender supremacists make up for a portion of BDSM participants, just as they make up a portion of non-BDSM participants, but should not be considered the voice of the entire subculture.
While there are some trends that many M/f couples follow and many female-dominant/male-submissive (F/m) couples follow, there are also vast differences between couples of similar gender configurations. While there are similarities, they are not necessarily due completely to gender either. Terms such as M/f, F/m, M/m (male dominant/male submissive), and F/f (female dominant/female submissive) can be useful, just as any labels can be useful. That is: as long as we don’t stick too rigidly to them, and understand that not one person or idea can be encompassed by one label. In this paper, the point of using labels such as these described above is to distinguish between societal perceptions of M/f vs. F/m relationships, as opposed to making a general argument regarding the practices of individuals within these relationships.
BDSM is all about power: playing with power and what it means to have power. Through playing with power we are able to recognize that there is no innate or natural power which one person has. If power was innate, we would not be able to play with it or change it from moment to moment. All power is constructed, all power is socially given, and none of it is inherent to the person. Through play with and the recognition of constructedness of power the realization that there is great power and strength in taking on the submissive role is able to be reached.
Individualistic societies devalue vulnerability and weakness, and promote independence and assertiveness to gain value and prestige. Any delving into vulnerability or powerlessness is a sign of weakness and associated with character as opposed to a temporary state. Because of this, those who take the submissive role within power play encounters, especially if they are female, are often thought of as having the same characteristics which they play with as their core personality characteristics. While this is the case for some participants, it is not for everyone. Characteristics such as caring, attentiveness, and support are often overlapping between power play and life, passivity may not be. In fact, many submissives are leaders or otherwise powerful outside of the bedroom.
There is no power play or power exchange without the submissive giving over that power and the dominant taking that power. If there is a failure on one or both sides play cannot occur, and there is the possibility of slipping into abuse. The dominant has no power except for that which the submissive gives him. It is through the understanding of this that the beginning of the realization of the value of the submissive partner is able to occur. While in any relationship all partners should be valued and respected, it is easy for someone outside of BDSM to fail to see the value in the submissive role, for reasons already mentioned. The realization that there is no power exchange without the submissive actively and willingly giving up her power is truly important for this.
Another part of the submissive’s power is in passive aims. Passive aims can be described as “being active through being passive,” and in this case the passive aims are often getting what is desired through the guise of passivity. Through giving over power, submissives put themselves into the passive role, into the subordinate role, but in doing that they are able to achieve their aim, if that be simply to feel dominated, to be treated in a certain way, or whatever the personal goal may be. If needs and desires of the submissive were not being met, there would be no submissive as she would not desire to continue the exchange.
Dominance and submission, to be effective, must be willed acts and that the submissive is making a choice to put herself into the power of the dominant. The submissive gives the dominant her submission in order for each of them to be fulfilled in different ways, and in order for each of them to explore, learn and grow through the experience. By doing so, she creates the illusion of helplessness that gives her permission to be more vulnerable and open than she could normally allow herself to be. The dominant is then compelled by the submissive, to explore and push against her emotional blockages, and explore his own emotions, desires, and self through this interaction.
Both parties are, in a way, submissive to each other’s needs and desires, or these explorations would not be effective. The dominant must continually be aware of the submissive’s reactions, desires, and needs in order for him to lead the interaction. Both parties are also equal in their mutual, albeit different, needs, desires, and approaches to the relationship. The only inequality happens through the submissive’s conscious decision to give her power over to the dominant, in the hope that they both will learn and grow as people, with and towards each other from the experiences shared from this choice. In this way, the relationship is built on egalitarianism. Even though it seems as if the dominant has all the power in the relationship, there is, in fact an exchange of power and a mutual respect of both roles.
All power play includes ways for the submissive to veto actions by the dominant, even that which is commonly referred to as Master/slave, an extreme form of power play where the slave has no power, no rights, and has little ways to get out of the situation short of leaving it all together. Even in Venus in Furs, which is an example of a Master/slave relationship (master, in this case being gender neutral, though often the word mistress is substituted for female masters), we are shown that Severin is able to leave, and he does so when it goes too far. The reason why he says that he does not want to leave is because he is a man of his word, and he does not want to go back on it. The real reason is that he also has some hope that it has all been her playing out his fantasy, and that not everything said is true, as we see when she professes such and though he is shocked he is easily accepting of it.
Leaving the situation completely is an extreme example of the submissive’s power over the scene. In most instances there are previously agreed upon limits and safewords. Limits are activities or scenarios which either party will not take part in. There may be soft limits which may be delved into on a rare basis if deemed necessary, or hard limits, which are never to be participated in. A safeword is a codeword or series of codewords usually chosen by the dominant which can be used by either party to indicate a limit is being reached or a scene is going too fast. The codeword usually may indicate either slow down or stop, depending on the codeword used. If either the dominant or submissive is about to be in a position where the safeword cannot be communicated verbally, usually a nonverbal method of calling safeword will be agreed upon as well.
Because the submissive always has the choice of setting her own limits, safewording, or simply leaving, the question comes to: who really runs the show? Is it the dominant, even though the submissive has continuous veto power over activities practiced or scenarios acted out? Wouldn’t that be like saying that the President has no part in passing bills, even though s/he has the power to veto them? However, that’s not to say that the submissive has all the power, but it is a power exchange, as it is often referred to, not just power giving and taking. There is power given up on both sides, otherwise the Dominants of today would look much more like the sadists of DeSade.
Sade’s sadists “Sade-ists” are remarkably different from the contemporary use of the term sadist. Sade-ists do not desire consent, and, even, desire no consent. Their play is completely one-sided. Contemporary sadists, however, are generally part of this greater term BDSM, they are not rapists or mutilators, but partners. Sade-ists as depicted are rapists, mutilators, and humiliators, and ones which do not desire consent. The term sadist is used as someone who enjoys inflicting pain on another, but generally someone who submits to one of two philosophies of BDSM: RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink) or SSC (Safe, Sane, and Consensual). RACK is exactly as it sounds, the recognition that there are risks to many types of activities which may be engaged in, and continuing to practice and play with those activities as well, while keeping the risks in mind, and only engaging in activities which are consensual and desired by both parties. SSC is an alternative to RACK, basically acknowledging the same ideas, that all play should be kept as safe and sane as possible, as well as completely consensual.
While respect, trusts, and consent should be components in any relationship, not just a BDSM relationship, they are especially important regarding any play, and they are also examples of both the potential for empowerment and egalitarianism within power exchange relationships. All three are tied together. If there is not consent, it is abuse. In order to get consent, there must be trust on both sides. Without trust, consent is impossible. Without consent, BDSM and RACK or SSC are not possible. In order to trust someone, you must respect them, and in order for someone to trust you, you must respect them. When there is a breach in respect, it is difficult to have trust or consent, and respect must then be worked on and remade. BDSM hinges upon these three interactions, and is unable to be played out and especially is unable to be empowering without the mutual exchange of respect, trust, and consent.
Through the acknowledgement of constructedness of power dynamics, the power which the submissive holds within power exchange relationships, and the acknowledgment of dominant and submissive roles as equally important it can be said that BDSM practices encourage egalitarian thinking instead of discouraging it. Far from blindly accepting patriarchal thinking, there is a lot of thought that goes into accepting the desired roles of dominant or submissive, and especially for any feminist participants—of which there are many—a confrontation of internalization of both patriarchal and feminist ideas has to be made before being able to play with power exchange without guilt.
While there are as many desires to enact BDSM play as there are people who do, there are many misconceptions about what motivates someone to become involved in this type of sexual play. Though those who embrace gender supremacy must not be ignored within the BDSM culture, there are plenty more people who approach BDSM through egalitarian ways, even if they would not term it as such. The simple recognizing and accepting of all participants in BDSM as equals despite the status they choose to inhabit is more widespread than gender supremacy.