Xiao Yingtai @ University of Abject Submission has been writing a fascinating series about Submissive Power, and her latest instalment is Sub Ethics: Owning Our Power.
I’ve had in my “pending” file since February a piece by Xan West about Doms’ emotions and how they are frequently ignored. While not every point resonates with my experience, it’s certainly a thing that affects me, as an emotional top with mental health issues.
My last partner had a habit of responding to things with a joke, “[thus-and-such-phrase YOUR FACE!” As her Dom, I felt under a lot of pressure to come back with a witty retort that twisted her “joke” back around on her, to maintain the power. Because I am an insecure, emotional Dom. And sometimes, I couldn’t think of one and I felt like I’d failed somehow (which is ridiculous, but it is what I felt and therefore not ridiculous). Eventually, she cottoned on that I was struggling with it and checked in, and we negotiated that situation.
Xan West talks about how, “Tops (especially masculine tops) are often prized for being closed systems; inscrutable and invulnerable.” If a bottom can reach our emotions, then zie can influence us, and we seem less powerful. As West continues, “It is the very not-knowing of a top’s inner workings that is often part of what makes that top hot. To illuminate a top’s journey or desires is to explore and discuss that top’s vulnerabilities and needs, to spoil the fantasy.”
To be this impressive, impassive figure is in some ways a relief for me: “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.” But it is also not sustainable without a chance to deal with the emotional side as well. As Xiao Yingtai writes:
A sub is a very powerful source of affirmation, but that also enables totally unintentional guilt-tripping. And if a dom has nowhere else to recharge, they’re going to need looking after sometimes.
Leadership is a position of startling vulnerability. We hold their hearts in our hands. They need us to remember that.
There are those who claim that they can’t be a sadistic Dom with someone they love; I can’t do it for someone I don’t love, because the love is what makes the difference between random violence and a meaningful experience. And once one loves someone, and do so with that level of intensity, then yes: that person really does hold one’s heart in hir hands.
Yingtai mentions two other points of pressure where Subs’ behaviour can be problematic: the “privilege of the weak”, and “bestowing unwanted privileges”. Both are very familiar.
Here’s her examples of “privilege of the weak” in Subs:
My friend Tilari sometimes wears gorgeous furry feline ears at cons. People are always touching without asking. And the worst offenders are women, including subs.
So it’s not okay for me to touch without asking. It’s not okay to keep asking for a play date after Master Hotness has said no. And it’s also not okay for me to say no with disproportionate verbal force.
I have seen this, and I think in many cases what seems to happen is there’s an assumption that a Dom is always “on” and ready to give appropriate discipline, draw the line clearly and firmly in that sexy, powerful way. Whereas a fellow Sub seems to be read as being equally open, and playful, and “on”, as the person touching is (and thus okay with it “automatically”).
Both the points seem to be summed up by the question of boundaries. The “privilege” issue is about assuming someone else will set the boundaries (so I don’t need to observe them); the “unwanted privileges” issue is about not expecting there to be boundaries. I think in every relationship, I have had as a top, I have had to say “no” to an offer of some level of power at some stage.
These are not too far removed from the way creepiness works (and indeed, I reference “privilege of the weak” in that context). There are Subs whose thing is to push to see what they can get away with, and sometimes that’s a fun game for a Dom with a “you’re for it now!” – but at others it is just annoying, or even, unsettling (especially when “no” is pushed at again).
The exception is Yingtai’s comment that, “It’s also not okay for me to say no with disproportionate verbal force.” This is much more about simple care. Context means a lot here: if Dom suggests a form of play zie would like to experiment with, and Sub says, “No!” in shocked, offended or scornful tones, that’s one thing; if Dom moves to do something that for whatever reason the Sub isn’t ready or available for (emotionally, that is), then a startled or fierce “No” is understandable and can be softened afterwards as necessary.
The standards of ethics for BDSM are not so hard to derive from everyday standards of respect and empathy for others. Very often, it’s not about what you do so much as how you do it, and to what effect (and intended effect). When I coach people on online roleplay/cybersex, two of the most common points I need to make are:
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes; what do they need to know to imagine the sights, sounds and sensations?
- Don’t try to tell the other person how they feel or react, but let them tell you
Putting one’s partner first, in other words, and acknowledging their experience of you as valid. And that works for both sides of the coin.