Drew Cordes

Power Problems in Kink & BDSM Relationships

Filed By Drew Cordes | April 15, 2013 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: BDSM, kink, power exchange, problems, relationship, risk aware consensual kink, sex

Thanks to carefully considered awareness, education and social campaigns by experienced practitioners and educators (as well as the misguided, incredibly naive, anti-feminist, bigstock-Love-Game-341711.jpgbarely literate trilogy of a certain British "author" who shall not be named), kink and BDSM relationships have crept into greater cultural awareness in the past few years.

Many of us are aware of the basic guidelines and operations of relationship dynamics based around the consensual yielding and wielding of power - negotiate and respect limits, use safewords, strive for self-awareness, communicate with your partner openly and honestly, be safe, sane and consensual... All good things.

It's not that simple, though, is it? It never is.

Because the guidelines listed above are so stressed and repeated in kink communities and in kinksters' practices, there's a tendency for us to believe that our relationships are less prone to confusion and emotional or physical abuse. This is a dangerous assumption.

Online & in Private

Abuse, or rather the capacity for abuse, is most identifiable in online kink circles. Let's acknowledge this right off the bat: A large percentage of kink relationships form through the Internet, maybe even a greater percentage than vanilla relationships. (I have no proof or statistics for this, just the rationale that our numbers are fewer and we're not easily recognizable out in the physical world, so our niche naturally turns to the net to find one another.)

Anyone on Fetlife or any other kink websites who discounts the staggering amount of sketchy folks and predators who clog our inboxes every day is turning a blind eye to vast numbers who gladly and repeatedly use the premise of power exchange for abusive personal gain and satisfaction. They may be idiots, but that doesn't mean they're harmless, and that doesn't mean no one ever falls for it.

Most people with a decent head on their shoulders won't be taken in by guileless assholes with transparent, destructive desires, and I don't think online dating is inherently a dangerous practice, but kinky or not, my custom word of warning to anyone doing their dating online is: It's easy to be charming on the Internet.

Additionally, many of those "online-only" folks, as well as a lot of other kinksters will say they just don't prefer to be "in the scene." They keep their interests private. The scene - full of munches, discussion groups, parties, conferences - is highly structured and has a wealth of education and oversight available from fellow experienced members. It is, obviously, harder to take advantage of someone when you're surrounded by other people (though it does still occur).

This doesn't necessarily mean all those who prefer to keep things private are hiding abusive tendencies. Lots of people who keep kink private are incredibly experienced, knowledgeable and considerate; often the desire for privacy is because of a sensitive or public profession, or just the conviction that sex or play is a personal, private thing (weird, right?). Moreover, this preference does not necessarily make them more likely to err than those who are active in the community, but it does mean that some of the natural safeguards and learning opportunities that arise just from being in the community will be absent.

The Illusion of Control

Those 101, common-sense advisories out of the way, let's shine a light on some of the more insidious ways consensual power exchange malfunctions - even between knowledgeable, affectionate partners.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of kink, BDSM and power exchange is the illusion of safety. Negotiation of physical limitations and emotional boundaries that should not be crossed during play gives both (or all) players the impression that as long as you play within those lines, everything will be fine. Eventually, everyone who plays the way we play finds out this is not the case. Sometimes, we learn it the hard way.

It is impossible to negotiate everything - there will always be the unforeseen, the forgotten, the honest mistake, a slip of the tongue, the misplaced self-assurances of "I can handle it." We are going to screw up sometimes. If this is the way we're going to play, we better accept that and prepare ourselves to deal with the fallout of when things go wrong. Because they will. Hopefully not often. Hopefully not in a terribly damaging way. But part of preparing for play is preparing to deal with and accept responsibility for missteps.

When things do take a wrong turn, we have safewords in place for our protection, but that is no failsafe. There is a common misconception that even though the submissive partner relinquishes themselves to the dominant partner, the sub still retains the ultimate power to stop everything via the safeword.

However, this notion puts an unfair burden on the sub to always recognize and object if something isn't working. Is it really wise or fair to place the ultimate responsibility of judgment with someone whose adrenaline, endorphins and hormones are positively raging, who's experiencing extreme states of pain and pleasure? Who could keep their wits perfectly about them in such a state? Furthermore, there are times when subs are out of sorts, even non-verbal and can't safeword.

There may be times when a sub is flying high and wants more, more, more, regardless of consequences. The dom has to take responsibility in these situations. Perhaps its best to err on the side of caution.

Afterward, the sub may gain some clarity on what they felt during play. They may express regret or feel genuinely hurt, and placing the onus entirely on the sub allows a boundary-pushing dom the excuse of saying, "Well, you didn't safeword," or "You didn't let me know," thus shirking any responsibility, disrespecting the partner's feelings, and refusing to recognize a misstep and learn from it for future practice. It's unrealistic to expect a sub to never regret or feel differently about an experience after its over. That's when words like "communication" and "respect" take on their true meaning, and test who's using them as buzzwords and who's really devoted to their principles. Instead of becoming defensive and pushing blame, we have to honor each other's feelings of dissonance or violation, and work through them together.

In turn, a sub or bottom should not expect their dominant partner always will make the right decision, either. One doesn't have to hang around the scene for very long or participate in many group discussions to hear the familiar refrain of "I'm not a mind-reader," from doms and tops. Relinquishing power does not mean relinquishing responsibility for oneself. One may call their partner "master," but we're all still human. We all need help, guidance, and forgiveness for honest, repented mistakes - masters included.

This does not just stop at sex or play; expecting the dominant partner in 24/7 power exchange to bear the yoke of life decisions for both people is a heavy, heavy burden. Even those who identify as slaves cannot entirely surrender their agency. Decisions such as physical and mental health, career path, familial relations... these are deeply personal, complex issues that cannot just be dumped off on someone else. It is unfair to both parties. Furthermore, the long-term relinquishing of these issues might leave a submissive partner feeling genuinely disempowered and destitute should the relationship end.

Even those who are certain theirs is a lifetime commitment will still face serious illness and death at some point, and when those things happen, the partner who has willingly parted with their power for years and years better be ready, willing and able to shoulder that yoke of responsibility again - for themselves and perhaps for a now-incapacitated dominant partner as well.

Surrender power, surrender decisions - but do not surrender your life, and do not surrender your judgment.

An Equal Foundation

Let's stop claiming that the power dynamics in our relationships allocate more or less fundamental responsibility for each other's well-being to one or the other partner. To use an architectural metaphor: We consciously erect, engage and play with the structures of power, yes, but the foundations on which we build those structures must always be equal and level, just as they must be in healthy vanilla relationships.

The ways in which dom and sub, master and slave, tops and bottoms (etc.) must take responsibility for each other's well-being is certainly different than the ways a vanilla couple must, but make no mistake, the duty to do so still must be a shared and equal effort. Falling prey to the romanticized illusion of total power exchange, of an unbalanced foundation is when people get hurt, slowly marginalized, disenfranchised.

Let's stop claiming the negotiation/communication processes in our relationships automatically translates to everyone's needs and desires always being honored. Let's stop claiming the nature of power exchange results in fewer (or greater) instances of abuse than the general population. Let's see some real statistics first. Until then, clinging to this claim discourages, however subtly, victims from stepping forward, and transgressors from recognizing their actions.

To pretend what we do is always safe and sane is naive. There will always be mistakes.

Rather what we should do, all parties, is forge a contract before we play, before we yield and wield -- one that recognizes: Shit happens. We will do our absolute best to respect each other, our limits, our safewords ... There is no promise of 100 percent certainty that one of us won't fuck up, or that we won't veer into some dark, unpleasant territory; but we can promise that if someone starts to fall, the other will not hesitate to dive down after them. If it gets ugly, emotional, painful, we won't leave until we make it right -- or as close to right as it can be. We're in this together.

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