Defending the politics of bdsm: power at the mercy of pleasure

Inequality in bdsm works very differently from the real power imbalances imposed by patriarchy. In bdsm, people choose their roles according to their own sexual desires, not their gender. A woman or man doing bdsm may choose a dominant or submissive role, or switch from one to the other, purely according to what pleases them. In bdsm “power” is erotic and fluid.

We are powerful guys, and we are Serious

The arbitrariness of “power” in bdsm contrasts with the seriousness with which power is held in patriarchy. By turning the symbols and even the idea of power into sexual playthings that may be taken seriously but may also be picked up, swapped or put down at whim, there’s a sense in which bdsm mocks and undermines real power.

Bdsm’s mild subversiveness is reinforced by the paradox of how power relationships work in bdsm.

The person who holds the outward signs of power, in bdsm, is not so powerful in reality.

The submissive holds the chain

A dominant may wear lots of black, carry a riding crop and snap out orders, but he or she is still subject to the submissive’s power. In the orders they give, the bonds they arrange and the services they demand, dominants must remain within a range defined and consented to by the submissive.

If the dominant goes far or repeatedly outside that circle of consent, the submissive is likely to end the dominant’s illusory power without notice.

People sometimes use the term “power exchange” to describe bdsm relationships, but not as much power really changes hands as may appear on the surface. Whether they are male or female, submissives retain more power than they and their dominants pretend.

Similarly, the economics of bdsm relationships differ from those of traditional marriage. In traditional relationships the person with the higher income holds more power, and that person is still likely to be a man. In bdsm the dominant partner is not necessarily a man, nor the person with the higher income. In bdsm, “power” is never what it seems on the surface. It does not follow gender. Nor does it follow money.

It follows desire. It follows love and lust.

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