It’s really no wonder that power exchange relationships are so misunderstood. The helpless damsel trope has been the only one to surface into mainstream film and literature among the cult followings of kink artists and authors. A wealthy, powerful, sexually animalistic man seduces an innocent and emotionally scarred woman. He is stern-faced and demanding. She is demure and pleasing. She swoons at his feet. He makes her his sexual slave. Aaaand scene.
But every relationship has an exchange of power, right? Granted, not all come with “yes Sirs” spoken from beneath the lowered eyes of a collared submissive, but someone is the pants-wearer in most relationships. We really aren’t that different.
When I was young I had a steady relationship with my television. In the summers I could stay up all night, my glowing romance with the flickering screen undetected. I found “I Love Lucy,” and watched every episode, fascinated by her devotion to Ricky juxtaposed to her fear of him. Squirming in and out of his control, I watched Lucy cower against the mantel, all “yes Sirs” to a stern faced Ricky with hands on his hips. And then he took her over his knee, and he spanked her.
So began my endless curiosity with power exchange.
Thus emboldened with my quest for eroticized 1950s style power exchange relationships, usually called "domestic discipline," I made my way into the kink scene. I've made mistakes. Most of my errors were made from granting trust where it had not been earned. I learned quickly why playing within a kink community - where people supposed to be held responsible for the reputations they earn - is so important for kinksters flirting with the fringes of sadomasochism.
My sins as a submissive are surely forgivable. I was conditioned by Rene in “Story of O,” and by Mr. Grey in the film “Secretary.” I learned that dominants desired passivity, emphasized femininity, and demanded devotion. I learned that submission was a consequence of lack of self-worth, and masochism a twisted endeavor at self-harm. Misdirected by the malformation of kink in media, I mistook my fortitude for fragility.
This – this fallacious notion that my desire to relinquish control is a symptom of a flawed personality, a weakness to overcome - on top of societal pressure from the feminist left to abandon patriarchal constraints for the liberty of fem-power. Not only was I becoming a sexual outlaw, I was an affront to my fellow feminists. It was a confusing time.
Not everyone is lucky enough to understand how delicious it is to suffer.
- Katherine Hepburn
It wasn’t until I became more selective in the people from whom I accepted instruction that I learned “empowered submissive” is not an oxymoron. Submissiveness is not equivalent to weakness, doormat, gullible, or naïve. Submission is a study in humility and self-control. Humility requires confidence. Self-control requires strength. Confidence and strength are empowering.
I drove all afternoon to his house in Austin. When I got there I opened the unlocked door and knelt in the middle of the floor where he had laid a mat, and a blindfold. I had memorized the positions he had given me a week earlier, though I was baffled at how I would be asked to implement them in service. I slipped on the blindfold and laid my hands palms up on my thighs. Behind me, I heard him enter the room and make himself comfortable on the couch. I felt his eyes tracing the curves of my hips.
“Ichi,” he said, the Japanese word for “one.” I stretched my arms on floor in front of me palms down until nose touched the floor. “Ni.” Two. I responded by lying prostrate on the floor. “San. Hi. Go.” I lifted to all fours, then up on my toes with my palms flat on the floor, and then stood up again.
I moved through the positions as he counted, and between the gravelly depths of his intonations I found a rhythm, a fluidity of motion. Beyond the sound of his voice – Roku. Shichi. Hachi. – and his meditative manipulations of my figure, the world melted. We practiced – encouraged by his praise and occasional adjustments to perfect my posture – until the motions flowed from one to the next without thought or hesitation. I swam in oceans of peace.
Both contrary and complementary to each other, the submissive and Dominant are yin to each other’s yang. Though it may seem on the surface that one is serving the other – in the best of situations each are catering to the needs of the other. This kind of structure and discipline, even using common yoga positions in the example above, in the context of eroticized power exchange sharpens focus, self-control, and inspires confidence that transfers into life outside of the kink scene. It also engenders intimacy and trust between the players, and it’s not difficult to see how meditative this might be. Indeed, to those well practiced in meditation, it could even have transcendent effects when washed in endorphins and dopamine.
Submission can actually engender power: realizing that you have something to give, and that you are capable of mastering your own will to give it up the way your top wants it instead of the way you think s/he should want it, can inspire pride: not the false pride of an inflated ego, but the true pride that, like humility, comes from knowing the depths of yourself.
- William Henkin
But the outsider, the kinkless, the feminists – they are so rarely able to see the value of submission. So rarely able to wade waters beyond the perception that being on your knees is a position of weakness, when in fact unsheathed vulnerability and unwavering tenacity are signets of strength.
Now, with the release of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” we have yet another model of the helpless damsel trope for new submissives to emulate. Where is my submissive superhero? My humble heroine? My demure demigoddess? Where are the strong, confident submissives? Toni Morrison said, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”
Someone hand me a pen.