Power

4 Apr

Maymay’s response to my last post got me thinking about power.

The guy I talked about in this post once told me, when we were sharing fantasies, “The amount of power you want to give your partner – it’s unbelievably hot.” Oddly enough, I had never thought about it that way – I’d thought about my partner “taking charge” or ‘taking control.” Him taking. I hadn’t thought about me giving. And I hadn’t really thought too much about power exchange in an explicit way.

There’s no doubt that power imbalances turn me on like nothing else. Sure, there are many things that turn me on, but make me feel powerless sexually (in a consensual, fantasy kinda way, of course), and you’ve hit the jackpot. I think that’s where the “wanting what I don’t want” phenomenon comes from. In fact, my first memory of feeling aroused came during a game of “bad doctor” at the age of four, and by seven I was feeling tingly at the idea of being kidnapped.

And as an adult who identifies as a feminist, it seems obvious to me that sex and power were interrelated.

But in mainstream American society, the relationship between sex and power is really kinda Not OK to talk about. Bringing it up in mixed company gets you blank stares or snickers about Monica Lewinsky and leather-clad dominatrices. Or dismissed as a “humorless feminist.”

I think this is one of the things I like so much about BDSM (well, in addition to the fact that it turns me on, of course!). It’s ok to acknowledge, talk about and even play with power dynamics in an explicit way. Maymay might be correct that the community doesn’t deal with power as well as it could – but it certainly does so better than mainstream culture.

I’ve wondered occasionally whether this explicitness is the real source of mainstream discomfort with BDSM – it’s not just the actions and dynamics that make people uncomfortable, but the fact that these actions and dynamics are talked about and made explicit.

It’s one thing to play with power and sex, but to actually be honest, explicit, and unapologetic about it – that’s downright subversive.

6 Responses to “Power”

  1. SnowdropExplodes April 4, 2011 at 3:30 PM #

    It’s one thing to play with power and sex, but to actually be honest, explicit, and unapologetic about it – that’s downright subversive.

    Yes! This!

    I discovered your blog thanks to Maymay’s response and linkage, and I am very glad I did.

    I think this discourse and openness about power (even though it is not always handled deftly) has given me through my involvement in BDSM (as a top) a much greater appreciation for how power works in lots of other situations where it may or may not be obvious.

    • feministsub April 4, 2011 at 8:40 PM #

      Thanks for the comment!

      That’s interesting that your involvement in BDSM has helped you develop a broader power analysis. I’d love to hear more about that.

  2. Susan April 4, 2011 at 11:54 PM #

    I think you’ve hit on something really interesting, and I appreciate your optimism. I’ve often felt discomfort at the way that BDSM eroticizes magnified versions of power relationships that exist – and are often awful – in the real world. I often wonder if we’re just reifying shitty dynamics, and I think that sometimes we are. I like the idea that, just by magnifying them, and thus making them more visible, we are subverting them.

    I might have to come back to this once I’ve rolled it around in my head a bit more.

    • feministsub April 5, 2011 at 8:02 AM #

      “I’ve often felt discomfort at the way that BDSM eroticizes magnified versions of power relationships that exist – and are often awful – in the real world. I often wonder if we’re just reifying shitty dynamics, and I think that sometimes we are.”

      Oh, believe me – I know exactly what you mean by this. It’s something I’ve struggled with in terms of my own fantasies and preferences. But I do think that we can make it be whatever we want it to be, and use it in a way that’s both subversive and empowering.

      BTW, I took a quick look at your blog and I love it. I too went to a “progressive” but shockingly prudish small liberal arts college.

      • Susan April 5, 2011 at 11:27 AM #

        Absolutely. And there’s certainly something to be said for BDSMers being more likely to examine their preferences, and the implications of how they engage with others sexually, by virtue of falling outside the sexual mainstream. You can’t always follow the script when you’re kinky (or poly, or even queer). The kink community (or rather “”kink” “community””) has its own scripts, some of which are as harmful, or more harmful than the boy-meets-girl-and-Cosmopolitan-magazine-will-tell-where-to-go-from-there model. You’re right, though: thoughtful people will continue to think, and BDSM can be a good entry point into thinking about power dynamics and sex stereotypes. I’m excited to keep reading what you write about this.

        And thank you! I’m loving your blog as well! Definitely going to keep following you.

      • SnowdropExplodes April 6, 2011 at 5:09 PM #

        I recommend Staci Newmahr’s book “Playing On The Edge: Sadomasochism, Risk, and Intimacy”. Newmahr is a feminist ethnographic researcher who spent 4 years studying an SM community in the US, taking a bottom role. Fascinating reading.

        She writes quite a lot about these issues in Chapter 5, here’s a sample of her analysis:

        SM is constructed around conquest and defeat, dominance and submission, and power and powerlessness. Power differences (whether lived, performed, or fantasized) lie at the core of all SM interaction. Based on this quest for inegalitarian experience, SM is not subversive at the level of gender ideology. Gender is about power, and SM builds on, draws from, romanticizes, and eroticizes power differentials between actors. If the feminist agenda depends on attacking inegalitarianism at the sites of all its manifestations, it follows that SM should be under assault.

        If, however, it can be feminist to disentangle inegalitarian dynamics and realities from both sex and gender, then there is room for another feminist perspective on SM. SM explicitly rejects gender as an organizing category of social life, often subverts gender roles as normative and sex-based, and contains the potential for further and more extreme subversion. That is, SM often extricates power differentials from genitals and gendered presentations. Further, for many players, this subversion is a conscious objective of SM.

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