Maymay’s been posting a bunch of legit political theory this week about Dominance in the context of rape culture. Although they’ve been linking a ton of my work, I had a killer week at school, so I haven’t had much time to weigh in. But I did want to say something to address the emotional content of a question someone asked early in the week:
Is your concept here that [D/s relationships] should be transitory (ie when healthy become obsolete) and short or at least not permanent in their duration? Or is your concept that there is a transformative initiation between a dominant and submissive where these two emerge with different roles or identities (as with the other roles where the definite article replaces the article for parent/child, and the others could become just fellow citizens)
I guess my question is,during/after confronting the shadow self (Lacan?) Can/will these entities remain in loving and/or power dynamic relationships with one another. ..and furthermore will/should the dominant remain a/the dominant and will/should the submissive remain a/the submissive?
Maymay and I have been talking for a long time about the importance of investigating the roots of our own kinks. A lot of people seem to interpret this as being “told how to have sex,” rather than being asked to think critically about how they have sex, but what we’re suggesting really isn’t that dramatic. It simply involves asking ourselves thoughtful and honest questions about where our fetishes come from.
Because so much of BDSM skirts the edge of — and sometimes dives right down into — rape, violence, abuse, racism, misogyny, and other forms of oppression, it’s important to understand our erotic relationship to these things as best we can. It’s important not only to understand our kinks on a personal, psychological level; we also need to understand where they come from on a larger cultural and political level, and be conscious of which social institutions we are supporting and/or undermining when we act them out. The reason this kind of self-awareness is important is so that we can give our partners the opportunity for genuinely informed consent about getting involved with us.
In other words, I want my partners — be they Dominant, Submissive, Switch, Rolequeer, Vanilla, or something else entirely — to “know what they’re signing up for” when they choose to play with me. That means I’d better be damn sure I know what they’re signing up for, myself. Because that’s a thing about consent: If it’s not informed, it’s not consent.
It’s especially important to be as transparent as possible when you’re playing with someone who is more vulnerable than you. That’s why Dominants have extra responsibility to do this work. Dominants typically have more power out in the world (due to Domism) AND more power inside a given D/s dynamic (because that’s how most BDSM scenes/relationships are set up) than people of other role orientations.
That’s all pretty much common sense. I imagine most people are on board with wanting to have authentically consenting erotic interactions. So, why is there so much resistance to the idea that Dominants might want to spend some time meditating on what their desire to play dress-up as rapists has to do with rape culture? And why is there so much resistance among Submissives to the idea that this might be a valuable practice for their Dominant partners to get into?
One possible answer: Fear of loss. What the questioner above seems to be asking is, “What if my partner and I do the work to better understand our kinks, including taking an honest look at the parts we’re not very proud of, and we wind up not being into each other anymore?”
It’s not so much a fear of being told not to have a certain kind of sex; it turns out nobody else gets to decide what kind of sex you have, not even people who are really opinionated about it. It’s the fear of a future in which you no longer WANT to have certain kinds of sex, or sex with certain kinds of people, that you find super hot right now.
That’s a legitimate fear. There’s always the possibility that if you look at yourself too closely, you’ll discover you want to change. You might investigate your kinks and discover that some of them are based in personal trauma or in a political belief that doesn’t gel with your sense of ethics. If you do, you might choose to work on healing some trauma, and potentially lose that erotic trigger in the process. Or you might decide you want to bring your sex and your ethics into alignment, which could result in choosing different partners or kinds of play than you currently do.
Of course, you might not do any of these things. Maybe you’ll look into the shadows of your erotic life and discover that you’re totally chill with whatever you find there — or that, while there’s stuff there you’re not 100% happy about, the cost of trying to change it isn’t worth the sacrifices you’d have to make. In either case, you still come out with more information about yourself. But that doesn’t make the potential unknown any less scary.
I don’t have much sympathy for peoples’ fear of losing their identity as “Dominant” or “Submissive” because, as broad terms describing the kinds of play a person enjoys, those words are so oversimplified that they’re essentially meaningless. But the fear of losing sex that turns you on and relationships with people you love is something I have a lot of compassion for.
So, let me say this: I have a history of some childhood sexual abuse. Of course, this has some influence on the way I have sex as an adult. I’ve also had a number of partners who I’ve loved and, when it didn’t devolve into panic attacks or crying meltdowns, I’ve loved the sex we had. For a long time, I resisted working on my childhood issues in therapy, even though they were causing me lots of problems in my life not limited to panic attacks and crying meltdowns, in part because I was scared that those childhood wounds were what defined my sexuality. If they healed, I’d no longer be the person I was. And I had no idea whether the person I’d become would still be attracted to the people I loved.
I finally went through therapy. It did change who I was and the way I had sex. With one partner, it actually made sex much easier and more fun. Ironically, this was the relationship that I’d been the most worried I might damage by going to therapy. With another partner, the ways I changed made it almost impossible for us to connect erotically, and we didn’t have sex for a long time. That was hard. It’s still hard sometimes. I miss how intensely they used to turn me on and I grieve for that part of our intimacy sometimes. But we still love each other. We’re still together. We’re learning new ways to be intimate. Generally, I’m healthier and happier in my life now than I was before. And going through my process around my sexual history has made some space for the people I love to work through their own.
Also, most of the stuff that turned me on before therapy still totally turns me on. I just have more complete information now about what’s going on when that happens. There’s some stuff I stopped doing because it didn’t feel good to me, and there’s some stuff I stopped doing because I decided I didn’t feel right about it even though it was still hot, but I’m still kinky as fuck. (As of this writing, I’ve had Maymay chained to my bed in puppy paws and pet collar for the past 24 hours.) And I’m still asking myself hard questions about what that means, whether it’s good for me, whether it’s good for the people I love, whether it’s ethically justifiable, and what the larger social consequences are of playing that way. I hope I’ll continue asking myself those things for the rest of my life.
So, to answer your question about what can or should happen to you, to your identity, to your power dynamics, to your loving relationships as a result of confronting your “shadow self“, the answer is: I don’t know. I’m not you. You’re the only one who can find that out. It’s scary. It’s hard work. You might not want to do it. I don’t want to do it most of the time and I don’t do it nearly as much as I could. But, personally, I think it’s worth it.