Psychology of Power Exchange

How I Met Your Mother popularized the idea of a “reacher” and a “settler” within each relationship. They argued that no matter how equal a relationship may seem, one partner will always have a higher status than the other. In other words, no matter how equal you think your relationship is, somebody has more power than the other.

 

A vanilla couple in a good relationship will be happy to ignore minor inequalities. They’ll toddle around, blissful in the illusion they’ve created for themselves that says they’re both totally equal. Contrary evidence will be ignored, and they’ll be perfectly happy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

A vanilla couple in a shitty relationship will have one partner try to assert dominance over the other. Maybe the “dominant” partner is insecure for some reason, and they take it out on the martyr. Maybe one person is a raging misogynist and his partner has been raised to believe she’ll never be good enough. Maybe they’re stuck in an abuse cycle. I don’t know; there’s a lot of ways for this shit to go wrong.

 

But a kinky couple? They look at power dynamics, giggle coyly, and revel in the new toy they’ve just found.

 

I don’t have space in a single blog post to explain why you can’t escape power struggles, even on the small scale of two people in a bedroom together. Just trust me on this one: power dynamics are present in literally every interaction you have with another person. What you do with the power you have (or don’t have) determines who you are.

 

The Power of Submission

I’m going to assume you’re heteronormative, and you’re most comfortable with monogamous heterosexuality. (Because if you’re not, you probably already know more than I do and don’t need this blog in the first place.) So to you, your idea of a submissive partner is most likely a woman. Women are generally viewed as (and most comfortable with) being the submissive recipient of sexual advances. They aren’t supposed to be sexually aggressive, and there are a lot of pejoratives to describe women who defy this stereotype.

 

At a glance, this seems like women are powerless. They are at the mercy of the powerful men who predate upon them.

 

But if women truly are powerless, and nothing more than vaguely sentient Fleshlights, then why are so many men angry at them? Why does Men’s Rights Activism exist? Why do so many men whine about being friendzoned? Why do pick-up artists think they need to trick women in order to get them to consent to sex? Why can’t pick-up artists just walk into a bar, point at a woman, and tell her when and where to service him?

 

Because men aren’t the ones with actual power in a consensual sexual context. A woman decides when and how sex will happen. She’s actually in charge, even when she lets the man “do whatever he wants.” She can say no, and he will obey.

 

The Allure of Being Dominated

I don’t know if you’ve ever read a romance novel. I have, for science purposes, and I can tell you, that shit disturbs me way more than visiting dungeons and going to Littles munches.

 

Ironically, the more I learn about BDSM, the more I realize I can’t enjoy romance novels because I am deeply, and abidingly, vanilla. To my very core. I’m so vanilla my soul has red hair and freckles.

 

But other women, most of whom think they’re vanilla, love that shit. They love watching a man objectify and borderline abuse a woman and gradually turn into a good man because he loves her so much. That might sound like the man is the actor in that scenario, because he’s the one at the beginning of the sentence, and he’s the one doing the things. He’s the one grabbing her, ravishing her, forcing himself on her…..or is he?

 

Eh. No, not really. First of all, he’s a character in a book and can’t act without being read….by a woman. If she chooses to stop reading, he not only stops what he’s doing, he stops existing. Second of all, he does all that bullshit because she’s irresistible. Her allure compels him to action. She passively accepts things she made someone else do to her.

 

And that, readers, is the delineation between abusers and doms: in an abuse situation, the dominant partner is actually dominant, but in BDSM, everyone knows the sub’s in charge.

 

The Gift

There’s something relaxing about surrendering your power to another person. Especially if you’re a powerful person in your normal life, and your mere words have massive consequences.

 

Maybe you deal with enormous sums of money. Maybe that money belongs to other people, and they yell at you every day about their funds. Perhaps you hold lives in your hands. Maybe you’re an ER doctor, and that statement is completely literal for several hours a day. Maybe someone died today because you weren’t strong enough to hold back the interminable advance of Death.

 

Or maybe you’re struggling with daily existence. Maybe the weight of starvation and homelessness weighs on your head every day. Maybe you wake up with your wife and one-year-old son, and you’re not sure how you’ll feed them tomorrow.

 

For you, the idea of giving your power to another person, in a temporary and safe setting, means you get to relax at last. Someone else is in charge, and you know you can trust them to hold your interests at heart. You know you trust them because you have a safe word, and they will stop any time you ask.

 

If you’re in this category, you have a lot of company. Porn sites showing men getting dominated are extremely popular. I have no doubt their popularity is because men are raised to be strong and in charge. I’m certain they fantasize about taking a moment to relax and let someone else be in control. How good it must feel to shed those responsibilities, even for a short time.

 

Or maybe it’s the opposite. You feel so powerless it overwhelms you. Something horrible happened to you, and you feel crushed beneath the cage that envelopes you. You are so powerless you can’t order a goddamn burger from In-N-Out without worrying you’ll be hurt again. Maybe the thought of surrendering your power to someone you trust would remind you that you have power to give. Perhaps you will feel strong and powerful just because you can stop someone from hurting you.

 

If you’re in the second group, you understand the paradox of giving away something you don’t believe you have. If you give it away, it must be yours in the first place, right? You can’t exchange power if you have none.

 

And that’s my favorite part about BDSM: the submissive partner becomes stronger by relinquishing their own power. It’s a beautiful paradox.

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