This auto-ethnographic study of first-hand experience in a BDSM “power exchange” (Women’s Perspectives of BDSM Power Exchange – E. Prior; Journal of Human Sexuality, 2013) includes interviews with dominatrixes is really thought provoking; here are some of the findings:
By asking the following question I explore the dynamics of power through the lens of BDSM:
- What is power exchange in this context? What does it mean and how do women in particular do it and feel about it? Does engaging in SM power exchange affect other areas of their lives?
So then, what is power exchange within the BDSM context? According to the women I interviewed the answers to this question range from a very basic “Just two different people playing a role” or “It’s a give and take” to much more complex answers. Ms. Allison described power exchange from the dominant perspective:
“…essentially what I seek is that surrender, that commitment, that choice to hand the reins over to me, to give me the scepter and for it to be a joyous and willing choice makes it even better… for me the power exchange only has meat to it when it is not required from either party and is a conscious choice to make certain declarations to each other which change the dynamics of a typical relationship” (Interview with Ms. Allison, January 12, 2011).
subjanice and slave barbara described power exchange from the submissive or slave perspective:
“Seductive. (laughs) Very seductive. Power exchange is where you have an agreement that one person is going to lead and one person is going to follow. One person’s going to support the other person in wherever they want to lead totally. One person’s going to agree not to make the other person wrong no matter what they do. You can no longer have that discussion… I think that’s the ultimate power exchange, truly, that you can be with that person and never make them wrong… if you can accept them the way they are and the way they’re not and empower them always, that’s the power exchange that can create miracles… … I think that the true power exchange is to somehow give yourself to that person so that you’re all of a sudden having hot sex in a way that he didn’t really see it coming… and that’s what I do… that’s for me… that’s the ultimate power exchange to renew a person… return them to themselves” (Interview with subjanice, February 8, 2011).
“From a slave’s perspective, total, which is another reason why I am not in a Master/slave relationship, because for me there is one gate… one yes… Total power exchange is merging my needs, my wants, my desires to that of the person I am in service to” (Interview with slave barbara, January 25, 2011).
In my experience as a dominiatrix, I saw it less as an exchange of power and more of a balance, giving up and/or taking, surrendering or submitting, and setting and obeying of rules. The two women interviewed for the study below make it clear that power is not what is being exchanged at all, but control or authority over one’s personal power is what is being given or exchanged.
Slave barbara said:
“One thing that I didn’t say about power exchange that I want to go back and readdress is that when I talk about this aspect and when I teach it I don’t use the word power because it comes back to this issue about whether the slave is a dishrag or not. Slaves that I know are extraordinarily powerful people and what is being exchanged is not power. I don’t give my power away. I can’t. It’s an energetic part of who I am… what I can consciously give away is authority… so what I talk about is authority exchange as opposed to power exchange. What I am consenting to is giving you authority over my power. You better have equal… equivalent amount of power to be able to deal with it because if you don’t I’m in control… so I don’t think we exchange power, we exchange authority… We’re not exchanging power; we’re exchanging authority in a conscious, consensual manner…” (Interview with slave barbara, January 25, 2011).
Whereas Claudia described it in this way:
“In a sexual… the sexual area of course it’s almost similar where generally the person on the bottom is handing a certain amount of control to the other person in terms of what’s going to happen, however because there’s such a… frequently such a level of negotiation it’s… it’s not so much that the one person has all the power but it’s they’ve been handed the power… which is I guess similar to the example of the birthday because it isn’t that the birthday person has real control over everybody else they’ve simply been handed the control of the… what will happen next and so I… it’s hard to define power exchange. I’m sure there are several official definitions of power exchange but to me it’s one person or persons has handed control to someone else in terms of what’s going to happen next and for a period of time the person in control is going to be either conducting events or conducting… not even just physical events but maybe even psychological or even what is discussed or what is said in the next period of time.” (Interview with Claudia, January 28, 2011).
Where you agree that power is either exchanges or “taken” or shared I found it interesting (and reflective of my own experience) that these women’s lives (“vanilla” or otherwise) were fully integrated into their psyche:
They used terms like balanced and authentic to describe how there really is no difference for them, no clear demarcation between what they experience within BDSM and what they experience in other social or personal spheres, like home or work. Other women felt that these were very separate for them; what they experience at work or school is very different from their BDSM experiences. I found it interesting though that they still described their BDSM life as being the “authentic” one, and the other facets as being separate or disconnected. This makes room for an argument that for some women BDSM power exchange is not merely fulfilling base human needs for sexual contact or interaction, but is also being used to fulfill and explore the intellectual and emotional needs of those so engaged.
A fascinating look into women’s sexual/relational power perspectives, which I think is relevant whether or not you are a part of the BDSM community…after all isn’t every relationship really just an exercise in power?
(Image by Michelle Wild for shutterbugbour.com)