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June 1998

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1998 by William A. Henkin

<Q> I find I have such a powerful interest in control that it seems, well, to control me. Is this a problem I should seek help for?

<A> I must say I've never met anyone involved with SM who did not have a great interest in control, and when you think about the interests that unite you with your fellow Janus members – tops, bottoms, curious, switches, or others – you should not be surprised to find control high on the list. Arguably, control is also a deep interest among politicians, peace officers, home-makers, heart surgeons, and gardeners, but one experience that distinguishes people with SM interests is that we have eroticized our feelings about the subject.

People both with and without first-hand SM experience have proposed reasons someone might eroticize control, chief among which is the notion that an interest in SM is awakened by uninvited sexual activity in early childhood; a minor variant is that an interest in SM is awakened by repressed sexual curiosity in later childhood. For some people these direct pathways may prevail, but for some others early childhood sex and later childhood repression appears to preclude an interest in SM, and still other people who were not repressed or sexualized prematurely become interested in SM anyway. Legitimate markers may someday be found to suggest how, that, or if a person might develop SM interests, but no studies I know point to anything definitive. Before I range too far afield, let me return to the nature of control in an SM context.

In some though not in all ways, control seems to me to be related to power. For instance, when I top I do not want to top a wet noodle. I want a bottom who has a full measure of power to give to me without depriving him- or herself, ideally including awareness, self-esteem, personal satisfaction, and a reasonable proportion of fulfilled expectations in his or her own life because a person can't give to someone else any more than what s/he already has or is. I want to top someone who is what Dossie Easton has called a "full-powered bottom," and when I bottom I want to give the same qualities I seek as a top. In a similar vein, most tops like to have some forms of control over their bottoms, sometimes even including a measure of control over their biological functions, such as eating, breathing, sleeping, excreting, and sexual release. But a bottom cannot give control over these or any other activities to a top unless the bottom has already learned to control them in him- or herself. Otherwise, for instance, a highly aroused bottom who has just reached the point of orgasmic inevitability cannot obey the top's command that s/he refrain from that release.

To answer your question: whether in SM or in life, if you top you really must have self-control to run a scene successfully; and if you bottom, self-control enables you to bring a most valuable gift to bring your top. If your interest in control controls you to the point that you cannot be your own top – that you cannot control yourself in your own life, as well as in your SM play, whether you self-define as a top, bottom, switch, or other – it might behoove you to learn that sort of self-control, either on your own or with appropriate guidance.

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