Power and Surrender (BDSM Series Part 1)

You’re reading the first in a series of BDSM, or what we might call power play. A few years ago, a survey by Redbook magazine reported that sixty-nine percent of women want to feel controlled in bed. These days, it’s a short hop from light force or a slap on the fanny to more intense thrills. Movies like the critically acclaimed Secretary brought erotic dominance and submission into the mainstream. And books like The Story of O and Anne Rice’s well-known “Beauty” series have become acknowledged literary classics. Recently, mass market romance publishers started to command prime real estate in chain bookstores with their erotic romances with a kinky twist. Harlequin meets the Marquis de Sade? Our mothers would have been aghast. But never has a fascination for discipline and surrender, punishment and restraint, been so flaunted by the media where these days, glossy, boot-licking magazine ads share bindings with elegant fashion spreads and celebrity profiles.

As a result, curiosity about the world of bondage and discipline, pain and pleasure, is only natural. In fact, fantasies tinged with BDSM are so mainstream and so popular that they’re starting to lose their kinky cachet. Now that’s really scary for people who want to think of themselves as “different.”

The phrase “BDSM” is really shorthand for describing all the ways that we can use psychological and physical strategies to highlight power distinctions, ramping up sexual excitement and pleasure in that way. BDSM includes dominance and submission, sadism and masochism, bondage and discipline, and master, mistress and slave scenarios too. I’m going to be speaking in detail about BDSM as we move along, but first I want to concentrate on the essential concept of power exchange, or playing with power, because it underlies everything else I’ll be talking about – and, actually, it’s at the core of all our hot fantasies, even if they seem to have nothing at all to do with BDSM.

When I talk about playing with power, I’m referring to power disparities – that is, one person having more, and the other person having less. I’m referring to all of the creative, seductive, conscious and consensual ways that partners can use power and sexuality to bewitch each other, arouse each other, and sometimes to connect in deep and sacred ways. I am NOT talking about the ways that people use coercion or devious methods to overpower, manipulate, or oppress others, whether in relationships or in society. We all know that even the most ordinary relationships can explode with power-struggles – conflicts over who’s right, who has control in the relationship, who can get away with exerting more psychological punishment if their needs aren’t met. But rarely are these power issues addressed head on – except in therapy. Instead, they operate at a covert and subterranean level, where they also subvert trust and intimacy. But that kind of insidious power is NOT BDSM.

BDSM is about deliberate and consenting use of power to enhance relationships. However, within the world of BDSM, we also find a set of themes that can be brought into nearly every relationship; themes that are certainly present in sexually exciting relationships, and extraordinary sexual experiences. By exploring BDSM we can also discover ways to help us navigate all our erotic journeys. There is something to be learned about consent, negotiation, trust, safety, authenticity and creativity for everyone, whether you prefer your erotic treats to maintain a strictly vanilla flavor, or whether you wouldn’t mind a few licks of kinky.

So I’m going to illustrate what I mean about power by reading you a short fantasy tale. This is genuinely a fantasy – because it’s not something that would likely happen to any one of us – and that actually makes it perfect for our purposes. A version of this fantasy first appeared in my book, Fearless Sex – and as I tell this story, I want you to think about how the subtle, yet unmistakable, use of power exists in the story. If you’re a woman, try to imagine that you’re the main character. And you also might want to close your eyes as I tell you this fantasy, and just picture it happening.

Ready?

You daydream that you’re at the movies, sitting between two male strangers. You unbutton your jacket to reveal bare breasts in the half-light. One stranger looks – the other one pretends not to notice. You stroke yourself – your nipples harden, long and very visible. The film is no longer that interesting for one stranger. He stares at you instead. You smile, and his hand comes to rest on your thigh, so you shift a little, your miniskirt riding up until he feels your crotch, also bare, and he slides his hand higher, feeling how hot and moist you are, and shaven, soft as silk. His eyebrows raise a notch. The guy on the other side cant resist a peek, and this other stranger begins fumbling between your legs. He looks straight at your breasts in the other guy’s hands, and he puts another hand on your left knee. You take it and place his thumb in your mouth. He leans in and replaces it with his tongue. Your mouths are frantic, nibbling, sucking, and now the other one wants a kiss too. You turn to him. Three of his right fingers are deep inside you, and you’re now dripping and even hotter. The left guys hand bumps into right guys hand by mistake. They both say “sorry.” You laugh. One of them bends and takes a nipple in his mouth. The other does the same. One reaches into his pants and begins to stroke himself. Whose fingers are in you, you wonder? Cant tell, but hes sure good at the motion. In awhile, you come. The lights come up. You get up. You leave. You don’t bother to say goodbye.

Now, in that fantasy, a key element was the juxtaposition of two opposing forces: the will to act upon someone, to do something TO them – and the surrender to being acted upon, to being the object of someone else’s will. In this fantasy, the woman was variably willful and surrendered. She unbuttoned her jacket and exposed her breasts to two complete strangers. Willful. She remained impassive while they suckled and penetrated her. Surrendered. The men, too, were at various times active and at other times, receptive to her will. In this fantasy, the power differentials were not pronounced, but they were present. There was no resistance, yet the tension was palpable and the question of what would happen next and how things might go generated much of the heat.

Now think about your own fantasies – which are probably much more dramatic than that one – and ask yourself: are you usually the person who is taking action, who is doing something to another, or are you the person who is surrendering, allowing something to be done to you? It doesn’t matter which…and it doesn’t matter if sometimes in your fantasy you are one and sometimes you’re the other. You’re looking for the dynamic tension, either way – the drama, so to speak – in every fantasy, and seeing how it lives at this conjunction between power and surrender. Nearly every fantasy is an intricate dance, an intricate choreography, intertwining action and surrender, dominance and submission. If you thought those words applied only to “kinky” sex, take note – they apply to all exciting sexual exchanges.

Now, why do I qualify this with the term “exciting?” Well, you can have sex that is so cooperative, so unchallenging, that there is very little power or surrender involved…sometimes not even much surrendering to pleasure. And those sexual experiences – and the relationships that are consistently without dynamic sexual tension – tend to be tame and forgettable. Long term marriages, for example, often lose their heat because partners stop challenging themselves, and most of all, they stop challenging each other. If there is no dynamic tension in the bedroom, there is no erotic thrill ride.

In many fantasies, power dynamics are clear cut. One person is fully in control, the other is clearly not. Our sense of ourselves in our favorite fantasies may center around being primarily directive, aggressive, dominant, and only secondarily receptive, if at all – or it may be just the opposite. You may notice that despite the differences in details, most of your fantasies – or the fantasies that you respond to most strongly when you see them or read them – place you primarily at one end of the act-upon/surrender-to continuum. You’re always dominant. You’re always submissive. Or you might notice that you are flexible, able to pirouette between poles with agility and grace.

When we realize that the heat of most fantasies and the intensity of most erotic experience relies on playing with power dynamics, we can suddenly see that the conservative, traditional, “vanilla” couples, and the most adventuresome kinky couples have a lot more in common than we might have thought. The difference between them is a question of how much they are willing to exaggerate and dramatize power disparities for the sake of arousal and pleasure. How exotic or how ordinary are the practices and the props that they bring into the bedroom? Is there a huge difference, really, between a nipple held tightly between your teeth or that nipple gripped tightly by a clothespin? Is there a huge difference between clamping your hands down on your partner’s wrists during sex to ensure she can’t move, and tying those wrists to the bed with rope? Yes, the devil is in the details – the more demanding the details, the more responsible for your partner’s comfort and safety you will have to be. But, beyond that – which act is “vanilla” and which is kinky? Can you really tell the difference? Which technique is BDSM and which is just “spice?” Which exchange is about power and which is about… power?

It’s really no surprise that a study released by the Kinsey Institute in 2000 found that fifty-two percent of couples had tried bondage, compared to just ten percent in 1975 – another bit of evidence of the universality of high erotics. Keeping this in mind will help create a context for everything I’m going to say about BDSM, erotic power, and sexuality in all the other articles on this topic.

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