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Power & Control

July 20, 2009

I realized on a long ride on public transportation shortly after KinkForAll, that power is not eroticized for me. Which at first made me go ‘huh.’ There’s all this talk of power exchange, or even more final, total power exchange in kink. Immediately after though, I realized that the corresponding concept that is eroticized for me is control. And then I desired to dissect etymology and try to figure out what it all means in what may seem like a pointless intellectual exercise but I think has real meaning.

In my Oxford American dictionary, the first definition of ‘power’ is:  “the ability to do something or act in a particular way, esp. as a faculty or quality.” The second is “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.” When studying words I tend to (though not always) place more stock in where they came from than how they are currently used, and so for me what is most meaningful about the word ‘power’ is its etymology (from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, as it had a more thorough explanation): “Middle English, from Anglo-French poer, pouer, from poer to be able [emphasis mine], from Vulgar Latin *potēre, alteration of Latin posse.’ Significant to me is that ‘power’ shares these roots with ‘potent.’

The first definition for ‘control’ is: “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” The etymology here is much less meaningful to me, as it has to do with accounting.

“ORIGIN late Middle English (as a verb in the sense [check or verify accounts] esp. by referring to a duplicate register); from Ango=Norman French contreroller ‘keep a copy of a roll of accounts,’ from medieval Latin contrarotulate, from contrarotulus ‘copy of a roll,’ from contra- ‘against’ + rotulus ‘a roll.’ The noun is perhaps via French controle.”

Though I am doubtless ignoring both vernacular and historical uses and contexts of these words, for me the relationship between power and control seems to be this: power is ability, and control is the exercise of an ability to influence or direct.

I am able to do a great many things in a d/s context, none of which mean a thing if no one allows me to do them. I only get to exercise my power if someone gives me control.

Admittedly, in many cultures, and definitely in Civilized cultures, power and control go hand in hand (such as state government). In vernacular, I’ve heard them used synonymously. But I think there is a palpable and not trivial distinction. For instance, I know a couple of people who have a great deal of power in a certain context, but no overt control, while I know another person in this context who has no real power, but has a very great deal of control, which they do not choose to exercise.

I don’t believe d/s is inherently hierarchical. Many people choose to express d/s through hierarchies, because hierarchy has been eroticized for them (such as slave/master, domestic servant/wealthy person, subject/royalty). I personally have a fetish for the first example. In these hierarchical contexts, power and control have traditionally been held by the master/wealthy person/royalty (though there are countless cases of the slave/domestic servant/subject actually having the real power and control behind the scenes).

But if d/s is not inherently hierarchical, which I don’t believe it is, then it follows that both submissive and dominant partners both have power. Which leads me to the actual point of all this philosophizing.

I am completely confused by this idea that seems so prevalent that submissive people have no power, or give up their power. Of course they have power. That is what makes them so SEXY. Submissive people have the power to give their submission and accept dominance where and how they will, to give control, to reclaim that control, to go down on their knees, to ask for more even though it hurts like hell, to turn dominant people into mush. Submissive people have just as much power as dominant people, as any other person. I don’t think a submissive person’s power is something to be given over, and I wouldn’t want to take it.

What I will gladly accept if it is given to me is control. The very idea of it makes my chest feel kind of dizzy and a zip go through intimate places. Oh, and it makes me wet. Seriously. I want control of whether you’re wearing clothes, the arrangement of your limbs, where and how to hurt you, your orgasms, your sounds, your breathing, whether you can move. I also want to do what you want, paradoxical as that may sound to the BDSM tropes. I’m not going to get off on it if you’re not enjoying it, though I will get off on it if you will later enjoy how unpleasant it all was.

My power quotient does not suddenly multiply if someone submits to me. The power does not ooze through osmosis from them to me. The idea feels unbalanced, bizarre. I have exactly the same amount of power as when I started. I have the power to give dominance and accept submission where and how I will, to accept control, to relinquish that control, to give pain skillfully and pleasurably, to do my damnedest to make this the best thing ever. The control given to me can be reclaimed at any time, but I keep my power.

All a submissive person’s power, all their ability, all their potency, that is the definition of my desire. If someone submits to me I don’t want them to give up their power, I want them to keep it, build it, use it.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2009 4:51 am

    I frequently think that “power synergy” is a better phrase than “power exchange” for basically this reason, and find “giving up power” just … annoying.

  2. ranat permalink*
    July 21, 2009 4:48 pm

    ‘Power synergy.’ That’s an interesting image for me. To me it seems to imply balance, but also shifting flow of power between the parties involved. The definition in the Oxford American Dictionary I used for this post also says “to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects” which I find very appealing.

  3. Leah B permalink
    July 22, 2009 12:50 am

    This entry is borderline erotic in my opinion. There is so much more to enjoy in having the aforementioned “control” than “power”. The whole TPE thing always weirded me out – it gave me that awful stereotypical image of a man cowering in a corner with a scary leather domme looking all menacing. It just seems more forced than anything. I’d hardly even call it an exchange. I think the way you explain having control in a D/s situation is more of an exchange. Both people have power, but one is yielding control to the other.

    There’s an argument that always flares up when people suggest that a submissive has just as much power as a Dominant. Some say a true Dominant would not let a submissive have any power. I believe that as a Dominant woman, I wouldn’t dominate something that isn’t there to be dominant over. Hence why some of those BDSM-oriented social networking sites make me sick to my stomach. Having random people who don’t even know me telling me that they want to be my slave is nowhere near a turn on.

  4. July 22, 2009 1:29 am

    Synergy- yes! “To produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects” yes!

    Neither party should be disempowered… both should be empowered… like being each other’s generator or something!

    I’ve been thinking energy/power… but control is the like the crux, the fulcrum along which power/ energy shifts and flows…

    hmmm I has much thinking to do! Thank you for this post!!!

  5. July 22, 2009 4:41 am

    Glad to have thrown you an interesting phrase-concept.

    It’s one of those things that’s a lot truer to my experience than the more common language – in part because I believe that power is most effective when it comes from center (insert martial arts digression here), and because I have a strong service and nurturing orientation, getting into a place where that’s able to be fully expressed unlocked my personal power.

  6. ranat permalink*
    July 22, 2009 7:07 pm

    @ Leah B – “There’s an argument that always flares up when people suggest that a submissive has just as much power as a Dominant. Some say a true Dominant would not let a submissive have any power.”

    Yeah, I’ve encountered this argument before in mandom and femdom stuff, largely on the internet or in old BDSM magazines. After my early knee-jerk reactions of “Someone is acknowledging dominance and submission as a good thing YES,” I’m left with “Wait, what? That doesn’t make any sense.” I feel like it has to be related to the way d/s is assumed to be a hierarchy, and all the cultural baggage we all carry.

    A couple of the catalysts that helped me articulate this were Nameless and Ireen, who put into words a desire I shared for powerful submissive men. Jones does something similar with her desires for butch, muscled, raging man-beasts. A lot of times I think this idea of a powerful submissive man gets translated into physical power (which is way hot), but more so I desire this inner power.

    “I believe that as a Dominant woman, I wouldn’t dominate something that isn’t there to be dominant over.”

    I’ve definitely felt this when wading through the he-slime model of femdom. I just felt, “Wait, there has to be something there. There has to be something to dominate.” I think this was my initial understanding of my desire for submissive partners who acknowledged, cherished, and used their personal power. And from what I’ve seen, limited though my experience is, a lot of submissive people don’t. The Scene seems to be echoing the dominant culture with this imbalance. “Power here, powerlessness there.” And I think it contributes to so many of us dealing with this, and this.

    @Lissy – “Neither party should be disempowered… both should be empowered… ”

    I was actually thinking of these exact terms, but hesitated to use them because of how they get thrown around a lot. I totally agree. Empowerment is for everyone, and I don’t think that empowerment for submissive people is something that gets acknowledged very often in kink.

    @Dw3t-Hthr – What I want to know is, goddammit, why is the fact that submissive people have power not common knowledge? Why is there yet another dichotomy of “Thou shalt have power, thou shalt not.” What perpetuates this idea? I have broad answers, such as the usual things I blame shit on, but on an individual level, what convinces us that unbalanced power is somehow hotter than balanced power?

  7. July 22, 2009 9:41 pm

    I feel like it has to be related to the way d/s is assumed to be a hierarchy, and all the cultural baggage we all carry.>/i>

    Yes! and hierarchies love dichotomies- so we have dominant= power=control= strong= good = better and submissive= powerless= no control= weak= bad= slime… in my opinion, Dominants who buy into that stuff, are trying to steal power/ energy from submissives because there is no consent involved in such an assumption, and no exchange either.

    Similarly, submissives who make such assumptions are also trying to steal energy, they’re looking to be empowered- in terms of that generator/ amplifier affect without actually having to exchange any energy of their own…

    And stealing power to my mind is well… the sign of an immature psyche… one not confident of its own power… if someone is confident in their own power they don’t need to steal others…

    I hesitate to say that I sometimes wonder if that’s not the reason for the perpetuation of such tropes… that people in general just need to grow the hell up and own their own power and quit stealing other peoples’…

    I’m all for the empowerment of everybody… mostly because I think people would stop behaving like a$$holes if they were actually aware of their own power.

    I could go on, but I’ll stop now… :)

  8. July 22, 2009 9:41 pm

    fucked up html- sorry!

  9. July 22, 2009 10:38 pm

    My pet theory about what perpetuates this idea – at least in the parts of American culture I grew up in – is that the only people who count are the leaders. It’s a power fetish thing, in its way, just at the societal level: ambition, aspiration, all of this stuff is geared in the direction of rich-wealthy-famous. Success is measured in dollars and influence, not in joy.

    Someone who doesn’t have those aspirations? The cultural narrative for that is that there’s something wrong with them. And the cultural treatment of support jobs – the necessary things that aren’t prestigious – is that nobody would take them if they were competent to do something else. Real people of value go for the executive suites.

    Choosing the one-down position, by any framing, can very easily in this context come across as saying “I’m not worthwhile, I’m worthless, I can’t do anything better with myself.

    So there’s this cultural resonance, that the support position, the one who obeys, the one who’s not making the executive decisions, that they’re a lesser person, probably interchangeable, certainly not an assertive and independent power that happens to choose not to be in charge. And that lesser being is the only one allowed to have flaws and frailties – I suspect this is one thing that drives the stereotype of ‘submissives are high powered exec types in the real world’ – so there’s still appeal in being an unperson to be had.

    That’s my pontificatey theory, more or less.

  10. July 23, 2009 3:49 pm

    Power is a term I tend to use for situations that can also go beyond free and freely revocable consent. Pretty much the way Max Weber defined power: ‘every probability, within a social relationship, to implement one’s own will, including against resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests’ – “jede Chance, innerhalb einer sozialen Beziehung den eigenen Willen auch gegen Widerstreben durchzusetzen, gleichviel, worauf diese Chance beruht.” (Max Weber: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.)

    This definition is only about power within social relationships, and therefore much narrower than the broad ‘ability to do something’.

    With enough repression, I might perhaps have ended up as one of those deeply unhappy people who seek out power positions specifically because there they get a chance to order some people about, scare people, and make at least some people’s lives miserable nonconsensually. (I think this potential for actual harm is diligently overlooked by people who try to commoditize, prettify and cutesify dominance and sadism.) Inside kink contexts, you sometimes notice the tendency to pretend there’s a social power relationship in hey-everyone-bow-to-me!-people who can’t figure out the difference between specific individuals who may have consented to obey a specific someone, and members of the general public who haven’t.

    So personally, describing dominance and submission between freely consenting people, I don’t really tend to use the term ‘power’. ‘Authority’ might perhaps be useful – ‘the probability of commands being obeyed’ by specific people who recognise that authority (Weber, too). And ‘control’, like you’ve used it here, ‘the exercise of an ability to influence or direct’: ‘I want control of whether you’re wearing clothes, the arrangement of your limbs, where and how to hurt you, your orgasms, your sounds…’

    Power in the sense of Max Weber’s definition is something I like in erotic fiction, especially the creative ‘regardless of the basis on which this probability rests’ part.

  11. July 24, 2009 6:29 am

    Here’s an example where I use ‘power’ within consensual interaction. In erotic roleplay we pretend there’s a social power relationship between us, which de facto there isn’t. Within a given scene, we create a hierarchical scenario in our minds, pretending I have power and means to implement my will against his will, which de facto I can’t.

  12. ranat permalink*
    July 31, 2009 2:04 am

    @Lissy – I hesitated to use the word, but ’empowerment’ was exactly what I was thinking. In any relationship, sexual or no, both parties need to be empowered, and in d/s as it seems to be understood by most people, the deck is stacked against both parties. I think stealing energy is a really good image for that.

    @Dw3t Hthr – “So there’s this cultural resonance, that the support position, the one who obeys, the one who’s not making the executive decisions, that they’re a lesser person, probably interchangeable, certainly not an assertive and independent power that happens to choose not to be in charge.”

    This is interesting, I’ve overlooked those dynamics for so long because of how little they related to how I viewed the world that I hadn’t really examined in depth at how they influenced perceptions of dominance and submission. I may identify as dominant sexually, but socially I see myself in a support role, not a leadership role. I like it that way. It’s what I’m good at, it’s where I have the most motivation.

    “And that lesser being is the only one allowed to have flaws and frailties – I suspect this is one thing that drives the stereotype of ’submissives are high powered exec types in the real world’ – so there’s still appeal in being an unperson to be had.”

    From a storytelling perspective I find those kinds of juxtapositions really compelling, but what seems to not be recognized in reality is that A) Sexuality is not personality and B) Sexuality is not social position. Submissive and dominant people are not more prone to have certain kinds of personalities and social positions, except maybe when those personalities and social positions are the only outlet provided by our culture that remotely resembles something fulfilling. Previous to admitting my sexuality I tended to be very domineering in my relationships, but once I directed that energy down the channel it was meant to flow, that behavior has mostly faded out.

    @Ranai – “Inside kink contexts, you sometimes notice the tendency to pretend there’s a social power relationship in hey-everyone-bow-to-me!-people who can’t figure out the difference between specific individuals who may have consented to obey a specific someone, and members of the general public who haven’t.”

    Exactly, I think it’s this ‘sexuality = social position/personality’ idea. Being dominant doesn’t mean someone’s farther up some imaginary social hierarchy or they have to be bossy and bitchy. It just means they’re dominant.

    “In erotic roleplay we pretend there’s a social power relationship between us, which de facto there isn’t. Within a given scene, we create a hierarchical scenario in our minds, pretending I have power and means to implement my will against his will, which de facto I can’t.”

    This is really similar to how I relate to the interaction between my sexuality and hierarchy right now. Several hierarchical models have been eroticized for me, and in the context of fantasy I can enjoy them. It’s recognizing that they’re fantasy and not reality that’s vital.

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  1. “Relinquishing Control and Gaining Power” « beyond the hills

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