The power of submissiveness
Updated: Sep 1
One thing I've noticed in my work is that a LOT of people are curious about learning how to be an effective Dom/me (for Dominant/submissive BDSM play), yet it seems to have crossed the minds of far fewer people that there may be some benefit in learning how to become an effective sub.
In my POWER & PRESENCE programme, we talk about ethical power play as the SHARING of power, an energy exchange of sorts in which the Dom/me gives their presence, their skills, and their mental and/or physical energy, and, in return, the sub gives their vulnerability. BOTH parties are giving something.
Despite how it might look from the outside, D/s play - well, at least the ethical kind - isn't really about the Dominant having complete power over the submissive. What we are aiming for in order for this exchange to take place is more like a "power with" scenario, which requires collaboration, respect, mutual empowerment, and connection. BOTH parties hold power.
AND... "outside world" power dynamics impact how we play
How we engage in power play is influenced by what we think power is and how we have experienced it in our own lives. "Power over" is the most common form of power most of us have experienced (and still experience) in our lives, and we are aware of the devastating effects this can have - oppression, control through fear, and all of the other forms of harm that are driven by our longing to possess more of this supposedly finite resource.
We are all involved in power dynamics all of the time, whether they are explicit or implicit.
From my earliest “serious” relationships around the age of 18, I was engaging in kink - although I didn’t realise that’s what it was at the time. I was always the submissive party, going along with whatever my partners wished to explore. I was (mostly) willing but I wasn't considering what my wants might have been and they didn’t really come up in conversation. I didn't question my role until much later in life and I think this is fairly common in (although definitely not limited to) people who have been socialised as female, for whom people-pleasing traits are often prevalent and celebrated. Submissiveness is an easy role to fall into from this place.
This is what I have come to describe as “submissiveness by default” and this can occur when we are not actively questioning the already implied domination of those around us. For example, a female assuming that the male partner will (and should) take the lead. Or a younger person assuming that an older person has more experience and authority.
The risk when we take this paradigm into our kinky play is that we might not have true consent.
One of the things that I don't think is discussed enough in the kink world is the way in which "outside world" power dynamics impact our ability to be in consent. There is often an assumption that all parties are entering into an agreement on an equal footing, and with equal opportunity to say no. Many people think that they are having clear conversations about consent but aren't taking into consideration the ways in which power dynamics can make these conversations imbalanced and incomplete.
Here are some examples of how this might show up...
Like younger me, some people may never have been asked before what they want or enjoy, or have been given much space to explore this. When they are asked, they may be more likely to default to allowing things to be done to them. This can be exacerbated by:
Imagining that the Dom/me (as the holder of power) knows best and therefore should just be able to do as they please
"Submissive pride" - wanting to be a "good" sub who doesn't "make a fuss", often with the hope that Dom/mes will want to play with us more/again.
Not having experiences of having your boundaries celebrated or even acknowledged at all (or perhaps receiving negative responses to putting a boundary in place) and therefore not truly believing that access to your body is a gift that not everyone is entitled to.
When this happens, it’s much easier for the submissive party to slip into compliance rather than consent.
I not only want to feel empowered as a Dominant, but for the people who I play with to feel empowered too.
I WANT the people I play with to be empowered because mutual willingness is at the heart of consensual play, and this is only possible when all parties feel able to speak up if something isn't right for them. I also want our play to be fun and the likelihood of that is waaaaay higher if there is trust and we ALL feel safe.
So how can submissiveness be empowered? (and isn't this an oxymoron?")
Put simply - empowered submissiveness can happen when there is an active and conscious process, underpinned by independent thinking and engagement.
ALL parties involved in ethical power play need to have given thought to what they want to happen and be actively involved in the negotiation.
Empowered submissiveness requires us to be actively engaged in understanding our own wants, needs, and boundaries, so that we can communicate these to others. This process in itself is an acknowledgment of the power we have to make choices for ourselves. We can then enter into the process of co-creating an environment that will lend itself best to our process of actively surrendering.
The clients I am working with are consciously choosing to be submissive - they are very much aware of the power they possess and are handing it over in an empowered way for a limited period of time and within the specific context that they have defined. For them, power play is a way to develop their self-acceptance or to experience surrender. It's not a perpetuation of what they are experiencing day-to-day.
I still love to step into the role of submissive, perhaps even more so now than I used to! It has a totally different quality nowadays because I have spent a lot of time learning about my desires and limits. I feel empowered in myself and I know that my submissiveness is a gift to the Dom/me, just as my play partner's Dominance is a gift to me. Both people are in choice and can choose to withdraw their gift.
In summary, kink offers us the opportunity to create new worlds that operate entirely differently from our day-to-day lives. It can offer a space in which we can explore, exaggerate, reverse, or tear down existing power dynamics. However we choose to apply power dynamics in our play, what we can't do is pretend that they don't exist or ignore the impact they might have on those around us.
Image credit: Artem Labunsky on unsplash