Who really has the power? It’s an age-old debate within BDSM circles. Is it the Dom or the Sub? “Go not to the elves for counsel, for they shall say both no and yes.” The answer is so often given as “It depends”, or “both”. Others answer based on what they feel is important to them.
One thing that bugs me about these debates is that very often people will argue not from Submission but captivity. For example, this comment on Xiao Yingtai’s post Submissive Power is Hot Stuff:
when someone I’m with is tied, gagged and busy experiencing what I’m doing to her, she has no choices, no power. That discretion is all mine.
While the commenter also goes on to say, “by giving herself to me so thoroughly, she exercises the power to please me via the gift of herself,” to me this is focussing on the other parts of BDSM rather than on D/s.
When someone has me tied and gagged, it is true that I have no choices and no power. But it is not necessarily true that I am submitting. In her Submissive Icons post, Yingtai writes of the fictional women she rejected, “All tears and rage – wilful, but not strong. They weren’t submissive, they were powerless.” In that situation, all I control is whether I struggle or relax. If I am happy with what’s happening, I can struggle or relax for good reasons; if I am unhappy with it, I can struggle or relax for other reasons. Most bondage play I enjoy as a bottom involves more symbolic bondage: I can reach the clips to unhook them on my leather cuffs, for instance, so at a pinch I could get free anyway. This is why rope bondage in particular is a huge headfuck for me: it doesn’t have the “quick release” voluntary aspect any more, and it would take a special top to keep me stable mentally during a rope scene. (More on emotional turmoil later in this piece.)
Neither “struggle” nor “relax” is submission, in my mind.
Strip away the bondage, the SM, and look at what’s left. There’s “discipline”, and there’s D/s. Inasmuch as “discipline” is physical, then it overlaps with SM as far as I can see; inasmuch as it is mental, then it overlaps with D/s. So let’s ignore that term unless it comes up organically in terms of D/s.
I can’t bind you. I can’t hit you or hurt you physically. As a Dominant, all I can do is say what I want. What happens then? Nothing I have any control over, that’s for sure. You, as my Submissive, can choose how you respond to my expression of desire or need. I might have some form of threat, that failure to submit will draw a line under the D/s element of a relationship, for example, or change how I view you as a person or as a Submissive. There may be agreed consequences, or the threat that I will give another instruction, and another, that (if obeyed) would limit your pleasures or future options.
But the important stuff happens in your head, as the Submissive. My orders only mean something if they mean something to you. An end to D/s between us only means something if you want to obey anyway. A change in my perception of you (or your Submission) only means something if you place value on the things that would change.
When I looked at my Dom Icons, I was puzzled that I didn’t have any icons of strictness on the list, because I have been described by partners, and view myself as being, very strict. Strictness is an expression of discipline, or perhaps an expectation of it. Discipline, from the same root as disciple, is more than just following rules, in my mind. It is understanding and positively engaging with the rules.
Yingtai, in her post, Are You Strong Enough To Submit?, writes, “That’s courage. It’s simply about choosing to do the right thing when part of you is screaming not to.” This to me is where discipline comes in. But sometimes it isn’t “the right thing”, it’s just, “what I expect of myself”. Yingtai quotes herself, “It’s practically the definition of kink that some part of us is shouting, ‘Yes yes yes!’ while another part is screaming, ‘No no no!’” Again, I question the exact expression: sometimes it’s just not that strong a “yes” or “no”. But the sentiment is valid.
But where is the Dominant in all this? I am a passive observer, providing the nudge to set it all in motion. At best, I inspire a desire in a Submissive to say, “Yes, I will be disciplined in responding to your wishes.” I create some trust or bond between us that makes it possible. At some point, that desire and willingness to submit may lead to a willingness to undergo the bondage, the SM, the gags, and whatnot as well. If I do my part properly, then those will be positive experiences even if they are not pleasurable.
~ ~ ~
Wrapped up in Yingtai’s “Strong Enough?” post are questions of control. Working through how I felt about the questions raised there also helped me to work out why I felt troubled by the language of Jemima2013’s post yesterday on dealing with past anger, “I wish they were dead”. I suspect that the conclusions I’ve reached are not that far from the intention in Jemima’s case.
Yingtai quotes a source:
The submissive has NO CONTROL over the situation, the dominant’s ideas and wishes or the course of a scene.
The submissive HAS CONTROL (and should have) over her own emotions, stamina and determination, as well as her own level of perfection.
I have already argued above that while a Submissive cannot control (but can sometimes influence or suggest) ideas and wishes in hir partner, zie certainly does have the ability to control or influence the situation, and in doing so may also affect the course of a scene. Control over stamina, determination, and “perfection”, may reasonably be seen as the domain of “discipline” as I used the term above.
It gets trickier when it comes to emotions, though.
Of course in one sense any way you feel is the right way to feel, since it is how you feel, however as someone who wants not to be motivated by negative emotions I have had to consider the value of anger.
People struggle with the idea of personal responsibility here, preferring to see themselves as mere flotsam tossed by the waves which make up their lives. This may be the place they are at, but that place is one of disempowerment and danger.
It is a hard lesson, as anyone who has been in therapy will testify. Others may hurt us, but only we are responsible for the thoughts in our heads and how they make us feel [snip MH caveat]. We all have a choice, whether to stay in the [drama] triangle or not.
My struggle is that I do feel my emotions strongly, and they are reactions to things around me, and often seem to be spontaneous and overwhelming. They do not seem to be sourced from consciously controllable parts of my psyche. I feel I have to accept them as a “fact of life”.
As for anger, tears and hurt in the past and not so distant past, so with BDSM: when I bottom, I am emotional, and do not feel “in control” of them, but buffeted by the storms of life (That sounds like a cue for a hymn…)
That may seem like a deviation from the main point, and of course my personal faith is just my personal approach. But the concept of an anchor in the storms of life, of something that regains control over the situation, is my next point.
My emotions may be turbulent, as changeable as the wind and as beyond my control as them. But I am not powerless flotsam in life, either: I can chart my position, chart the winds and the waves, and attempt to steer a course through them that keeps me safe and afloat. While I may not be in control of my emotions, I am in control of how I relate to them and what I do with them once I feel them. As Jemima writes, “I have to consider the value of anger.” I stop to consider what conflict has produced a negative emotion, what purpose it can serve, and what harm it is likely to do; and I consider what goals I have and what possible outcomes. Then I decide how to direct it. In this, at least, I have choice.
Why, then, would I reject the statement that, “A Submissive has control (and should have) over her own emotions”? Yingtai, in quoting this assertion, writes, “That’s not how everyone plays. But it’s pretty close to how I try to play … it’s so important for me to be strong enough to quell the warzone in my head.” When I practice submission, and in particular, when I practice bottoming with bondage and SM either with or without D/s, I find a space where it’s safe to not quell things. I overthink everything. It’s so deeply ingrained in me, and the battle to understand and navigate my emotions is probably one of the biggest sources of my overthinking.
D/s gives me a clean space: as a top, I am in control of my emotions but the purpose is simplified, the influences clearer. This makes navigating simple.
As a bottom, I still need to be aware of myself but I can at last go with the tides, reporting my position (to the top, who can then make decisions about navigation and which winds to summon) rather than seeking to influence it. But when I submit, my control is the same as when I am a top. I win because things are simpler and clearer. And I can stop if I need to.
Some emotions can’t be left to run their course. I mentioned my issues with rope bondage earlier. If I were to leave that alone, the most likely course would be panic – potentially dissociating or a panic attack, which would be a Very Bad Thing. I could say that I just won’t ever do rope bondage, but it’s also something I really want to be able to experience. As Yingtai would put it, “some part of [me] is shouting, ‘Yes yes yes!’ while another part is screaming, ‘No no no!'” In a kink situation, I can still choose how to deal with the fact that panic is racing through my system, but whatever I do is not going to stop it completely. I know that I need to communicate the crisis to my top, because I will need help to rebalance. Trusting a top doesn’t get rid of the panic urge; it just gives me the confidence that someone will keep me stable enough to enjoy it.
~ ~ ~
Yingtai quotes herself in the Strong Enough post:
I want to learn to be a strong and ethical slave. I cannot control what my dom (or the world) throws at me. I can, and should, control how I feel about them. I have more options than making my dom aware of the problems and asking him to fix them; I can make our lives go better all by myself. I don’t rely on my dom for forgiveness or approval, because I want to give him the freedom to worry about other things. My conscience is my guide. I take responsibility for my own happiness and success.
I often have a strong urge to find a Dominant and submit to them when life challenges. I know this to be an unhealthy approach both to D/s and to my own life. I need to find these answers for myself, regardless of the turmoil. But I struggle with the idea of being responsible for my own happiness and success. I have responsibility for what I can do to achieve those, of course. But I do not control everything that can affect my success or failure.
One thing I do not control is how a person views what I’ve done. In talking about what I understand by humiliation, I explained that one thing that’s a hard limit is being disparaged for something I believe I do well. That goes for the specific as well: if I approve of my efforts but a Dom is unimpressed, that hurts and if it’s deliberate, it’s a dealbreaker. Yingtai talks of not relying on her Dom for approval; again, I can’t make that work for me.
Yingtai, in her Sub Icons post, wrote:
In submissive mode I am a quaking puddle. Authority, grace, decorum? Nope. Laughable confusion. Argh.
It makes me question whether we even mean the same thing by “control your emotions”.
And I think it also reveals the thought I want to conclude this post on. No, I don’t feel in control of my emotions, regardless of all the work I’ve put into being aware of them and managing them.
I cannot and do not “control” my emotions; and I refuse to be made to feel like a failure because of it. I’ll find another way to win.
Because, Dom or Sub, I have that power.