Submission and Power

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October 1992

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1992 by William A. Henkin

<Q> People in the SM community seem to accept the idea that if you are powerful and have a lot of responsibilities in your public life, you prefer to be a submissive in private play. Is this really true?

<A> When I teach I am at some pains to distinguish between a label and an activity. As you might expect, then, I think it's important to recognize that submitting, surrendering, giving up power, going under, and serving are all activities some people do sometimes when they're in a scene or in role. They are not definitions of who or what a person is.

Certainly some people who wield a great deal of personal or social power in their public lives prefer to relinquish control in their private play. It gives them a chance to relax their grip, and permission to reverse roles in all kinds of ways is one of the delights our little game affords us. But other people – or the same people at other times – like to extend their public power in the private sphere, and to dominate. Permission not to reverse roles is another delight altogether.

A question I might put to you is, which members of what part of whose SM community accept this idea you've asked about? My question is not idle, because the people you love and learn from inform your beliefs and experiences, and contribute to the ideas that become true for you.

Some enormously powerful people love to give it up and give it up and give it up. One man I know frequently asserts that he would like to be enslaved forever, if only the world was different. But whenever Monday comes you'll find him running his show with as firm a hand as ever. He may want the world to be different when he wants the world to be different, because he finds it erotic to submit; but who he is may not simply be submissive.

Other publicly powerful people enjoy being dominant in private, too. A woman I know has learned that what she does in public teaches her new skills to take to her private life, while what she learns in private provides new skills she can take out into the world. As a result she has expanded her experience of dominance in both realms.

And some people in the SM community are more concerned with the exchange of erotic energy than they are with dominating or submitting: they may prefer one role on some days and another on other days, or they may always be comfortable as tops or as bottoms, but they seek the role that best reflects the way they're wired up so that the energy flows.

I think yours is a serious question, related to last month's query about feminism and to another I've been asked to address in a column yet to be written. And I think its very seriousness deserves a separate paragraph.

I acknowledge the passion, the sincerity – and the seriousness of purpose – required to engage in SM as I know it. I also think it's important to keep in mind its theatricality, and to remember that a "role" enacted in a "scene" is part of a "play" both in SM and on the stage. A sort of guru of whom I was fond in the 1970s said that enlightenment was about lightening up and having a good time, whereas a too-serious purpose smacked of endarkenment.

So although I have my own play preferences, which are not always PC and not always PI, I think Hamlet had it right. As Shakespeare had him say in a very different context, the play's the thing.

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