The visible face of BDSM seems to reinforce and eroticize harmful power relationships. But our lived reality is the actual opposite: we expose and dismantle these power relationships and rebuild them fully consensual, negotiated terms.

bdsm power

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Part 1: Premises

Because I am a nerd, I’ve been reading this book of sex philosophy essays, and every single one of them has me thinking. Some of them are awfully outdated, but others ask fundamental questions, questions that I cannot get out of my mind as I fall asleep at night.

In his 1997 essay “Patriarchal Sex“, Robert Jensen writes:

Sex is sexy because men are dominant and women are subordinate; power is eroticized. In certain limited situations, those roles can be reversed (men can play at being sexually subordinate and women dominant) so long as power remains sexualized and power relations outside the bedroom are unchanged.

It’s hard to argue with this. I find dominant men sexy. Power is erotic, especially power I give up. In Jensen’s and your typical radical feminist analysis, all power relationships are wrong: inside and outside the bedroom, power used or imposed over women and other subordinate groups is patriarchal, harmful, wrong.

Is there a way out of this, especially for us kinksters? Are we getting off to patriarchy? Am I a bad feminist with a false consciousness of freedom of choice when I am simply living the scripts that patriarchy wants me to live? Are we making things worse in the world because we have power relationships in the bedroom?

I think that there is a way out of this, and it begins with an examination of how power relationships are actually established in kink relationships.

What a full BDSM scene is like

If you remember part 1, I discuss at some length how people who criticize BDSM tend to focus on the play itself rather than the entire encounter. Here’s how a full BDSM scene typically unfolds:

  1. Negotiation. This means that the people who want to play together talk at length about what they want to happen, how they want it to happen, the things that shouldn’t happen, and how to notify each other if something wrong happens.
  2. Play. That’s the heart of the scene. The people do the thing they said they would do. Good players maintain consent throughout by asking questions like “are you ok?” and “how does this feel?”. That’s often the bits that porn cuts out, just an FYI. But if you were there to watch a real scene unfold, you would pick up on these cues.
  3. Aftercare and debrief. Unless it’s been negotiated that way, players don’t usually just hug and go their own way. There’s a “decompressing” part, the aftercare time. This usually involves some form of cuddling or sitting quietly as the endorphins come down and people regain their normal sense of themselves. A little bit after, or sometimes a day later or so, the players come together to discuss the scene. What did they like? What did they not like? How could it have been better? All these things are typically discussed at length.

This isn’t new for many of my readers, but remembering that BDSM isn’t just floggers and rope is essential for my argument here.

In my view, BDSM doesn’t re-inscribe power relationships that exist outside the bedroom or play floor: it actually undermines them.

Exposing power, negotiating power

Imagine if you could go to your local police station and say: “okay, well I give you the power to arrest me if I murder someone, but not if I smoke pot.” Or you go to your boss and say: “I give you permission to assign me tasks, but you don’t get to tell me when or how I do them.”

In BDSM, power relationships are exposed, explicit, and negotiated. In other words, every participant chooses what kind of power they want to exchange and exactly what this exchange entails.

For example, E. has certain powers that I have chosen to give him. He can tell me to go take a walk, to shave, or to wait for him naked at home. He can tell me to orgasm or not. And when we are together in the bedroom, he can tie me up, spank, cane or flog me, and penetrate me at will. He can also order me to serve him beer and coffee and food.

There are things he cannot do: messing with my work and my school are the two things that I retain control over no matter what. If I have assignments, readings, or work to do, he will not use his power to get me to do other things. He is extremely respectful of these boundaries.

To the point: the ability to negotiate power is power. As a submissive-leaning person, I am not a helpless victim of patriarchy who eroticizes the abuse of women. On the contrary: I see these expectations and explicitly choose and reject those that suit me and those that don’t. In kink, power is malleable, fluid, explicit. BDSM exposes the power relationships between us all and enables us to sculpt it the way we want.

Think again about how amazing it would be if you could negotiate every power relationship you have in your life. Your professors, your boss, your landlord, your police department, every level of government: you could just go and say “here’s what I want you to do for me, and here’s what I can do for myself.” Instead of implicit power relationships shaped by patriarchy (yes), colonialism, racism, ableism and heterosexism, you get explicit power exchange that is negotiated and agreed to by all actors.

bdsm power

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Implied and explicit control

Appearances are deceiving. It appears as if I am deferring to E. because he is a man, or because he is a dominant, or because he is a dominant man. But if this was the truth, then I would defer to any man, any dominant, any dominant man. And you should ask other dominant men in my community how deferential I am…

In short: not at all.

E. has power over me because

  • I chose him
  • I chose what kind of power
  • He respects my boundaries

There is absolutely nothing that is implied or undiscussed in our power exchanges. I am, always, in control of what happens to me, within our negotiated frame. In other words, his power over me exists within certain lines that I have drawn. Outside these lines, we are equals.

So to Jensen I say: not quite. I understand that typical heterosexual sex happens along these lines: assumptions of power, of dominance, and of gender roles guide these encounters. But in kink, at least the kink I practice and the kink I want to see in the world, none of these things are actually assumed. They are all made explicit, negotiated, and agreed upon. No submissive woman is submissive because she is a woman; she is submissive because she chooses to submit to a certain person at a certain time and under certain conditions. Outside those negotiated boundaries, our power relations are actually equalized. We make no assumptions. We treat everyone equally unless told otherwise and we are always painfully aware of power relationships that exist outside our community.

Trust me, most kinky women I know, both tops and bottoms, are fierce feminists who see and acknowledge all the power systems that rule our society. We see the sexism and the racism and the ableism; we see the assumptions and the unfair gender roles and the oppression.

We should know, because we dismantle them in our private lives.

Good advice? Helpful information? Thank me with a coffee!