Most of this essay was originally part of my keynote speech for the 2013 MTTA Retreat. The original can be found at my website.
Many of us in power-dynamic relationships are inspired by eras of the past. I’m not just talking about the leather bars of forty years ago. Some of us hang over documentaries or fictional dramas about ancient Romans and their slaves, or perhaps medieval liege-lords and their vassals, Renaissance servitors, Japanese samurai and the households they belonged to, Victorian great houses, or even 1950s American family life. Sometimes we find pearls of wisdom. Sometimes we have to throw out a lot of irrelevant ideas, including some we may be glad aren’t relevant today. We’re inspired by these past examples of power exchange, and we might even find some of them pretty hot . . . but the truth is, what we’re doing at its core isn’t anything like them. What we’re doing has never been done before in history.
We’re creating relationships of unequal power that are not only consensual, but negotiated down to the last detail. We work on going into these relationships mindfully and thoughtfully. We use them to improve each other. We put a huge emphasis on the happiness of both people, and on their mutual responsibility for creating that happiness. And we communicate all the time about how things are going — there are no great cultural injustices in our institutions of consensual slavery that must remain unspoken lest the whole edifice fall down.
We do what we do not as part of a heavy burden of cultural oppression, but as a choice — a choice that sometimes requires us to stand against the prevailing norms in our communities. We have no laws or social standards to back us up — no one is going to hunt down runaway slaves for us — and many people would be horrified if they knew what we were doing. We have no standard cultural template to default to — not even one it doesn’t pay to look at too hard, one that doesn’t fit our practices very well. Instead, we encourage each other to custom-build our unequal relationships from the ground up for each couple. After thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of years of human beings doing power-over in personal relationships astoundingly badly, here we are at least trying to do it well, something that has never been done before.
That’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s incredibly subversive. Do you know just how subversive you are as a consensual Master or slave?
I know that once I got into a real, all-the-way-to-the-wall ownership situation with a real slave, my slave Joshua, both of us started to notice things. Things about power, in our own relationship and that of others. We noticed the power dynamic inherent in the situation when the cop stops you on the road, when you’re in front of the judge, when you’re in a classroom with a teacher, when you’re facing down a waiter.
We noticed the healthy egalitarian couples we knew, watched them pass power back and forth in an easy dance. We watched other couples fight over power, fight over something that they couldn’t — or didn’t dare — articulate: “In this one situation, this one circumstance, I want to have the power. I want you to give in to me, and surrender.” And yet we knew that was what they would have said, if they’d been honest.
We knew that dance, only for us it ended differently: with honesty, and then with “. . . and this is what I will promise you in exchange,” or “I promise that I will do everything I can to help you find a way to be okay with this, and that obligation is the price I pay for this power over you.” We wanted to tell them, “It’s okay — there is a way to do this right, where no one is shamed and no one is oppressed . . . and no one is enabled to behave badly.” Actually, that’s something that we in this community may be the only ones who notice: that to be the person on top and to be encouraged — or even allowed, through apathy — to behave badly and to harm others is soul-rotting. It’s as bad for the Master as it is for the slave.
We noticed this when we ended up in power struggles with outsiders, and we wished we could just sit the person down and discuss it in the language we’d learned over time to describe the dance of power — and that they would have the same commitment to being clean about it that we do — or, at least, that we encourage each other to do.
The last fifty years have seen people slowly doing the work of throwing out power dynamics that are nonconsensual and unhealthy, and in some cases regardless of whether they were nonconsensual and unhealthy. Contrary to the idea that we are throwbacks to the time when those criteria were unquestioned, the truth is that we’re the ones who are going out to the puddles and fishing through them to find the small number of consensual and healthy power-dynamic babies that got thrown out with that very filthy bathwater, and then we bring them inside, wash them up, and commit to keeping them clean. That’s not an easy task. People have failed at it for a long time. Maybe we’re tilting at windmills, but I’d like to believe it’s just that this baby’s time has come to grow.
In the past, the primary authority that told people what they could do in their personal relationships was society. Both men and women bottomed to the prevailing social customs — for economic survival, for the ability to remain part of their communities (which might come right back to economic survival), or because it never occurred to them to do it any other way. Now we’ve taken those old power-over patterns and dissected them in the modern-sexuality lab under the bright lights of communication and transparency and peer support. We’ve taken them apart, customized them, and put them back together. We know how that sucker works. We know how to control a power-exchange relationship, rather than letting it take control of us.
Or at the very least, we’re learning, and we know more than people who’ve never thought about it. I won’t say that we know it all, if only because it seems like every time I go back to the Master/slave Conference there’s something more to learn. But I think that people who struggle against nonconsensual power, in and out of personal relationships, have a lot to learn from us . . . if we can just figure out how to talk to them.
Right now, the number of people who live in a mindful, conscious power-dynamic relationship is growing. We’re attracting people from all over, of all ages . . . and of all lifestyle inspirations. It’s not just the leatherfolk and the Goreans anymore. There are M/s people representing dozens of different styles, some of which have no names because couples made up their own unique styles as they grew into their relationships. There are people in nonsexual service relationships and married couples who — gasp! — have never practiced BDSM or kinky sex. Some of these are reluctant to be counted as part of our community because they don’t see what they have in common with us freakier types.
There are people practicing many different styles of M/s trumpeting that theirs is the One Right Way to Do M/s, and there are also people all over the place who think they’re hearing that, whether or not it’s actually being said — because, if nothing else, they aren’t hearing themselves included in the discussion. In other words, we have got to the point where we don’t really know who we are and aren’t any more, or who is and isn’t included in the magic circle.
But this is a stage of growing pains that other movements have already seen. Yes, folks, we’re a “movement.” Does that surprise you? (Guess what: When you develop activists, you’re a movement. We’re a movement in its infancy, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.) The LGBT people have been here already — are drag queens and leathermen in the same boat as Log Cabin Republicans? The polyamory movement is a few steps ahead of us — are they in the same boat as Mormon and Muslim polygamists?
Who are we worried about being in the same boat with? I’m not talking about serial killers. I’m talking about well-meaning people you’re a little uncomfortable to be mentioned with in the same breath. Maybe for you that’s the Surrendered Wives or the Domestic Discipline people, or the Christian conservatives, the Goreans, the poly genderqueer TNG-ers with their facial piercings and ratty clothing, the people who dress like they came out of a Renaissance fair — or the household I found on the Internet who have created a Master/slave Jaguar Cult complete with fancy rituals and great big headdresses. Maybe, for you, it’s the people who desperately want to see their customs and protocols become the community norm everywhere so that they can feel at home wherever they go. Or maybe it’s the people who would rather eat broken glass than submit to anyone else’s protocols or community customs.
Maybe, for you, it’s the person sitting across the table from you right now.
Trouble is, we’re all here, and there are more of us all the time, and we have to learn not only to make space for each other but to appreciate and learn from each other. Not only that, but we need to reach out of our swiftly growing demographic, made up of its random small communities, into places where people don’t know anything about what we do except the unsavory rumors — and there’s someone sitting in the back row feeling ashamed of their desires who desperately needs to know that there is a real, honest option besides shame and hiding. I was that person once. Maybe you were, too. Don’t let them down the way we were let down. Talk about M/s — not as kinky sex but as a relationship choice.
In fact, this is my first challenge for you all: At least once a year, find a way — if only anonymously — to get this message across to someone on the outside who needs to hear it. And if for some reason you can’t come out of the closet to anyone, support someone who’s taken on that job. People need to know that we are here, we are healthy, and we’re not interested in oppressing them.
That’s why I don’t like pseudo-scientific theories about what broad category of people ought or ought not, based on genetics, to be dominant or submissive. Of course, half my dislike is because those theories are usually sexist (and heterosexist), but the other half is because they assume that what we do requires justification beyond, “We choose to do this because it makes us happy and fulfilled. If we were the only people on the planet doing it, we’d still do it.” That’s the kind of justification that changes worlds, and people’s minds.
My second challenge to you is best illustrated by an anecdote. Recently on a social network that provides support to Master/slave relationships, a submissive woman posted that her 17-year-old daughter kept asking why she always deferred to her husband and was encouraging her to stand up to him and get her way. The woman said she felt too embarrassed — and, to be honest, a little too shamed — to explain to her teenager that they were M/s, so out of nervousness she babbled something about the Bible saying that women should defer to their husbands. “I don’t even believe that,” she said, “but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.” Her daughter responded that she was weak and stupid, and said she was disgusted with her.
In my own post, I wrote what I wish this parent could have said to her daughter, something that every teenager needs to hear:
“Honey, there are a lot of different kinds of relationships. Some people like to have everything equal between them. Some people are more comfortable if they’re in charge of the relationship, and some are more comfortable if they can let the other person be in charge.
“I happen to be one of the latter people, and it makes me a lot more comfortable to let your dad be in charge of the big things. We were lucky that we found each other, because if people don’t match up well in this way, there can be a lot of fighting.
“Someday you’ll figure out what you want in a serious relationship. Maybe you’ll want everything egalitarian. Maybe, like your dad, you’ll want to be in charge and have someone who follows you. Maybe, like me, you’ll want someone else to be in charge. Whatever you choose, just understand that you need to pick someone who wants the same thing that you want, and you should talk it all out first to make sure that you both want the same things. I hope that someday you find what makes you happy, as happy as we’ve been, doing whichever you discover is your way.”
This explanation has the benefits of:
A) not mentioning M/s or D/s or anything kinky;
B) not being gender essentialist, in case the daughter is a future Domme (or just egalitarian);
C) actually being something she can take with her and use; and
D) being entirely true.
The mother posted the next day, saying that she’d taken this information and had a heart-to-heart with her daughter, and at the end of it the girl had kissed her and said she was glad her mom was happy.
This lesson came home to me in my own life recently. My daughter, who is 27 now, has been a very dominant person practically from birth. In her teens she had boys kissing her boots for Doritos. No, really — I remember coming into the house when she was a teenager, and there were three boys flocking around her while she held forth about horseback riding. One of them gestured to her open bag of Doritos and asked for some. She said, “You know what to do,” and he got down and kissed her riding boots! That’s when I decided it was time to teach this girl some basics about honor and noblesse oblige.
However, I didn’t explain to her how power-dynamic relationships actually work, and as an adult, she chose to be egalitarian. But when she visited our home state for a few months after the breakup of her last egalitarian relationship, she came to me and said, “So tell me about this power-exchange stuff. Because I think that’s what’s been going wrong.”
Apparently the last boyfriend was not so great with money, and she gave him an ultimatum: either get his financial situation in order, or turn everything over to her — bank accounts, house, mortgage, everything — and she’d see that the bills were paid. She felt this was a perfectly reasonable solution. I had to say, “Honey, that’s not the sort of thing egalitarian people usually think is reasonable.”
I’ll never forget what she said next: “But I just kept waiting for him to figure out that everything went better when he just did what I said!”
How can we help parents talk to their budding teens about the different ways in which people can choose to structure their relationships regarding power and authority — without resorting to platitudes that fail to give them the full story and leave out many possible paths? I’m not saying we have all the answers yet, but it’s something we need to be thinking about. Because if someone had honestly explained power exchange, back when I was a teenager thinking there was something wrong with me, it would have helped so much! (I watched the Peanuts programs on TV and wondered why Peppermint Pattie got so upset with Marcie, because when I was in grade school, I would have loved having someone follow my orders and call me Sir.)
So this is my second challenge to you: Find a way to put the information out there so that young people can get it — because they really are the future.
To all of you who are reading this, and who will go on to read this book: May you be blessed with knowing just how subversive you can be, and with knowing exactly where to use that. May the Powers That Be give you lots of opportunities to teach, and the savviness to know what language to speak in. And may you never forget that you need no justification except: “We chose this because it made us happy. And that is a beautiful thing.”
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