Erotic Power Play

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E R O T I C   P O W E R   P L A Y



by William A. Henkin, Ph.D. and Sybil Holiday, CCHT



Copyright c 1988, 1990 by William A. Henkin and Sybil Holiday

Revised edit copyright c 2008 by William A. Henkin




[This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the 31st Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex {now Sexuality}, Friday 11 November 1988, at the Cathedral Hill Hotel, San Francisco, California, and published serially in Sandmutopia Guardian, issues 9 & 10, winter 1991 and spring 1992. Sybil and I prepared both the presentation and the article jointly; we spoke in tandem in the former and retained the tandem format in print by using our relevant initials at the beginning of each section. I kept the same format for the last revision.


[In deference to the contemporary problem of identifying humans in the third person singular without using stumbling syntax and bad grammar, or appearing to prefer either traditional gender over the other, we used masculine and feminine forms more or less randomly, except when the content of a specific sentence or paragraph seemed to dictate otherwise.


[Thanks to Marty Klein, Program Co‑Chair of the 1988 SSSS national conference, for inviting us to address a formal gathering of psychotherapists and educators on the subject of erotic sadomasochism in the first place, back in a time when doing so was distinctly radical. Thanks also to the late Cynthia Slater and Chris Schwertfeger for their critiques of that presentation. Finally, thanks to our original manuscript readers Kaye Buckley, Jay Magus, and Amber Rae for encouraging us to reconsider some of our more technical language; the late Kim Storch for reminding us of the power people’s unconscious motives exercise in their quests for self‑realization; and Patrick Califia for both his rage and his ceaseless quest for clarity in the written word.


[Acknowledgments notwithstanding, we take full responsibility for this article’s perspective, and for whatever insights and errors it may contain. There are many ways to practice and to understand erotic power play, and we wish neither to imply that ours is the only one nor that it is the best. Our thoughts on, understandings of, and experiences with the subject are just that: ours. If your take on erotic power play differs from ours, go out and write a paper of your own – please. This is a topic that needs wider discussion.


[Finally, since Sybil and I wrote this paper the entire world of what we called leather or SM has changed. The world of BDSM that has replaced it – and the worlds that are yet to come – may think very differently of our topic than we could have imagined in 1988.]








1.  A Personal Introduction (SH)


I worked in the adult entertainment industry for more than 20 years, first, briefly, as a prostitute (from street walker to high‑class call girl), a masseuse, and a go‑go dancer. I was then a stripper for 12 years, manager of a burlesque theatre for four, and for one year I owned and operated a small phone sex business. Finally, for six years I worked as a professional dominant specializing in gender transformation with transvestites and transsexuals; age play, or infantilism, with adults who find it erotic to be treated as very young children; erotic pain, or sadomasochism (S/M); and erotic power play, or dominance and submission (D/S). Currently, I work both alone and with my partner as a counselor and educator in these and associated areas of sexuality, intimacy, and relationship.


I am not writing as a sex worker or counselor, however, but as an individual for whom two decades in the sex industry are very much part of a personal evolutionary process.


While stripping in 1972 I began to learn something about the power of being female. After all, I was being paid just to be what I was at birth – female – and what I had subsequently evolved into – a woman who celebrated her sexuality. At night I would take to the audience what I had learned in bed with my boyfriend, and the next day I would take to bed what I’d learned on stage. We all had a very good time.


Stripping, I started to learn who I was by learning what I liked and did not like, and learning how to give to or withhold from other people what they liked and did not like. Over time I became a sweet sex kitten who could charm people into giving me what I wanted. But I did it covertly. Most of the time I did not ask for what I wanted directly but instead manipulated whatever situation I was in by allowing my current male to think he was in charge. Then, subtly, by sounds and movements I would encourage or discourage the direction of his actions.


In 1979 I was aware of S/M only from reading adult magazines written by people who were not into the scene for an audience they did not understand. In those publications people were always in role and there was almost no negotiation. Since the writers apparently could not conceive of anyone wanting to be whipped or bound, or wanting to submit, their storylines were usually non‑consensual. For example, a burglar might be caught and overpowered by the lady of the house, tied up, beaten, and degraded. In the rare scenes that were nominally consensual, dominant women were inevitably portrayed as man‑hating bitches and submissive men were portrayed as lowly, pathetic wimps who never stopped groveling.


Around that time a friend told me about the Society of Janus (, an educational support group in San Francisco for adults interested in erotic power play. She invited me to a meeting, but I had no interest in such goings‑on; and as I could not comprehend spanking and whipping without the emotional and psychological components of punishment, anger, or violence, I passed on her invitation.


She did begin to attend Janus meetings, however, and within one month – after she had attended two meetings – her behavior with me had changed so dramatically that I became curious. D/S and S/M are not what you think, she said: I have been domineering and manipulative in our friendship without your consent or my awareness; I now wish to play power games only in a consensual erotic manner, and to eradicate them from my personal relationships.


And she began to do as she said she would. I thought I had to check this out! First, I had to find out what had had so profound an impact on my friend. Second, I couldn’t stand the idea that there might be some sexual activity about which I did not know. Thus I began, tentatively, to explore the world of real S/M and D/S.


As I started to come out I defined myself as a top, or dominant, rather than a bottom, or submissive; later I redefined myself as a switch – someone who might occupy either role, depending on my mood, my partner, and the situation in which we found ourselves. At first I did not know what I really wanted, nor would I have known how to ask for it if I had known. I did not even know that I did not know – and that was what I began to learn first. Obviously, under these circumstances, I also did not know how to get what I wanted.



2.  A Clinical Introduction (WAH)


I have long been intrigued by the ways in which different kinds of life situations illuminate the varied facets of people’s personalities. As a counselor and psychotherapist I also have a clinical interest in personal presentations, and a special concern with processes by which people integrate the disparate, sometimes split off, parts of their personalities or selves.


In both private and community practice, however, as well as in my own psychotherapies, I have found that before a person can integrate her parts, those parts have to be differentiated out from her overall psychic make‑up. The process of differentiation, as people know who have been through a deep psychotherapy, is also one of specific identification.


Everyone accomplishes some degree of self‑identification in the normal course of growing up. But the process of growing up is one of acculturation as well as one of maturation, so that as we are in the midst of discovering all those special attributes that make us who we are, we are simultaneously being trained to subdue, suppress, or otherwise disown important facets of ourselves. In the ensuing confusion, few people grow up whole. Instead we are to one degree or another dis‑integrated, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as being separated into component parts or particles; reduced to fragments; having had our cohesion or integrity broken up. Disintegration is, to varying degrees, the condition that as adults we either accept or try to alter.


One of the most direct ways I know for a person to gain access to hidden facets of his self, and hence to move toward integration, is to explore his sexual personas; and one of the most direct ways I know for a person to explore his sexual personas is to examine the attitudes he brings to sexual activity. But to examine sexual attitudes usually requires more than intellectual assessment: it first needs exposure, practice, and hands‑on experience. It also requires a perspective concerning the variety of people’s experiences that is not influenced by cultural norms.


For me, the process of becoming psychologically whole may also be seen as a path of spiritual transformation. One sexual path with a spiritual tradition is erotic power play, which is also the title of this article. But please consider what these terms denote.


The Oxford English Dictionary devotes a single paragraph to the word erotic, whose meaning boils down to sexual love, that which pertains to the passion of love, or that which is concerned with or treats of love; whatever is amatory.


The same dictionary gives the definitions of power more than two pages, including: the ability to do something, or to act upon a person or thing, especially in a strong way; possessing command or control over others; dominion; rule; government, sway, command, domination; control, influence, or authority, including authority given or committed; hence, sometimes, liberty or permission to act.


The OED spends nearly six pages defining the word play. The definitions include exercise, brisk or free movement, wielding a weapon lightly and briskly in a contest (for example, sword‑play); passing gently around, or striking lightly upon something (as may waves, wind, and light); engaging in a game, representing or imitating (as in a theatrical performance); amusement, diversion, sport, frolic; cessation or abstinence from work; enjoyment, joy, pleasure, delight; amorous disport; dalliance; sexual indulgence.


On the heels of these definitions let us consider the psychiatric diagnosis of Sexual Disorder, category Paraphilia, specifically the paraphilias Sexual Masochism and Sexual Sadism, as explained by the reference book used by virtually all psychotherapists in the United States:  the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Third Edition, Revised (DSM‑III‑R).*  Then we can distinguish these paraphilic activities from erotic power play, with which they are sometimes confused.


* This text was written soon after the DSM-III-R was published in 1987; the DSM-IV, published in 1994, appeared to retreat somewhat from previous DSMs’ apparently stringent interpretation of these forms of sex play, but still did not acknowledge the difference between sexual theatre and fantasy on the one hand, and the violent acting out of dangerous behaviors on the other. The DSM-IV-TR, the fourth edition text revision, published in 2000, continues to fail to make this distinction except in the most limited, technical sort of way. All the DSMs are copyright (c) by the American Psychiatric Association.


According to the DSM‑III‑R, the essential feature of sexual sadism and sexual masochism is


recurrent, intense sexual urges and sexually arousing fantasies of at least six months’ duration, involving [for masochism] the act (real, not simulated) of being humiliated, beaten, bound, or otherwise made to suffer, [and for sadism] acts [also] (real, not simulated) in which the psychological or physical suffering (including humiliation) of the victim [sic] is sexually exciting. [In both paraphilias] The person has acted on these urges, or is markedly distressed by them.


As a writer I am unclear what an urge or fantasy might be that is “not merely simulated” – a real fantasy? But more importantly, as a therapist I am sure that the failure, refusal, or

inability to somehow act upon an urge that is “intense” or a fantasy that is “sexually arousing” will sooner or later result in marked distress. Oscar Wilde observed, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, that “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” If it is not the only way, yielding is surely the most effective way to relieve the pressure an unfulfilled temptation creates; and though yielding raises the spectre of possible harm to oneself or to others if the action is nonconsensual or unsafe, DSM‑III‑R points out that “Frequently people with these disorders assert that the behavior causes them no distress and that their only problem is the reaction of others to their behavior”; yet it* continues to pathologize the behaviors.


Erotic power play, by contrast, presents an opportunity to enjoy specific “recurrent, intense, sexual urges and sexually arousing fantasies” in a safe, consensual manner, where the values of the urges and fantasies in the subject’s psychic life can be identified, differentiated, and integrated.


The conditions required for a psychiatric diagnosis of sadism or masochism, then, are different in a very significant way from those required for a diagnosis of a thought disorder such as schizophrenia, a mood disorder such as bipolar disorder, or a personality disorder

such as hysteria. For a diagnosis in these last three categories, subjective distress and/or significant impairments in interpersonal functioning and in relationship to the external world must be present.


* and subsequent DSMs


DSM‑III‑R’s introduction to the Personality Disorders is most pertinent to our discussion. It begins with a discussion of personality traits, defined as enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself... exhibited in a wide range of important social and personal contexts. It is only when personality traits are inflexible and maladaptive and cause either significant functional impairment or subjective distress that they constitute Personality Disorders.


What the DSM‑III‑R defines as a paraphilia sounds to me like a personality trait which may, under some circumstances and for some people – when it is “inflexible and maladaptive and cause[s] either significant functional impairment or subjective distress” – be a sexually focused disorder of the personality.


The justification for diagnosing as paraphilias the activities with which we are partly concerned in this article, however, closely resembles the justification by which social and moral judgments used to be rendered in psychiatric terms to mark the diagnosis of homosexuality as a disorder. And as it used to be with that now‑liberated personality trait, the medical frame creates a social justification for intolerance and prejudice that may provoke, among people who engage in erotic power play: guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, and other iatrogenic disturbances that are not otherwise significantly inherent in an individual’s personality.


In other words, using a medical/psychological frame the DSM‑III‑R creates an implication of disorders by fiat out of traits that do not otherwise meet clinical criteria for disorder – that do not impair individuals’ functioning or cause them distress – as in other contexts the legal frame creates victimless crimes, and the religious frame creates victimless sins. This is similar to the doctrine that to fantasize a sin carries the same weight as committing it, and so condemns the person who imagines killing her boss or spouse rather more roundly than it does the one who commits an actual burglary.


Insofar as they are like personality traits, paraphilias are psychologically meaningless by themselves; it is individuals who imbue them with significance. One person likes to be tied up because as a high‑powered executive of a large corporation she is in control of too many people and too many variables for too many hours of too many days to retain her emotional balance, so that her psyche demands relief from an excess of responsibility; another likes to be tied up because he has been so thoroughly indoctrinated to believe sexuality is bad that he can only enjoy an erotic life when he is helpless and can pretend he is not responsible for the activities that excite him. One person likes to be tied up because it frees her; another because it secures him.


Given the diagnostic criteria provided in the DSM‑III‑R it is little wonder that many psychotherapists and educators confuse the clinical disorders of Sexual Sadism and Sexual Masochism with the give and take of sadism and masochism in erotic power play. This confusion can be reduced by recognizing that the disorders and the erotic expression may not be causally connected, even if they are linked. We may readily recognize these behaviors as deviant, for example, without pausing to consider that (or why) deviance itself is socially defined. Those behaviors that are regarded as deviant in erotic power play may be so called because they are social or cultural taboos rather than because they are disordered. Just so did Christian missionaries, coming across cultures they did not understand, define many peoples’ religious rituals as sinful, and destroy them because they did not comprehend them.


Erotic power play can simply be a form of sexual pleasure, as it can also be a path of personal, psychological, and spiritual development. To define such activity – absent distress, harm, or functional impairment – as a mental disorder is to place chains on the human spirit, and to produce a chilling effect on the very processes psychotherapists and educators are trained and charged to encourage: the healing and liberation of damaged and imprisoned personalities, and their integration in the full creative expression of human beings.





 3.  Negotiation (SH)


We’ll return to the matter of erotic power play in a couple of paragraphs. First, a word of explanation.


The format of the remainder of this article embodies an outline of one way an erotic power play scene could proceed, except that it is not intended to be erotic. We will not address the physicality of an S/M scene in that we discuss neither bondage nor whipping nor service nor worship. Neither will we approach our discussion from the perspective of the four basic components I always include in my own scenes, which are safety, consensuality, a negotiated contract, and eroticism in some form. Instead, we will address the emotional, psychological, and spiritual courses that can follow from a scene, by taking a specific group of subject areas that overlap with mine, and that often are components of actual scenes. Those topics are:


* Negotiation

            * Ritual/ Sexual Magick

            * Power ‑ Control Cycle

            * Energy Exchange

            * Switching

            * Straight Time


A few pages back I noted that when I came out into S/M I neither knew what I wanted nor how to ask for it nor how to get it. Up until that time I had participated exclusively in vanilla sex – foreplay, masturbation, fucking, and sucking. Vanilla sex had been very juicy for me over the years and had rewarded me with an ample number of orgasms. In what follows I do not mean to disparage or diminish the value of vanilla sex: all flavors are based upon it. However, in vanilla sex I had never had to say what I wanted: erotic communication was made up of body language used by unconscious design. I could wiggle this way and waggle that way or not. I could moan encouragingly or groan discouragingly or not. But I had no practice in speaking directly about sex, nor had most of the people I had met up till that point.


When one young man offered to be at my service, therefore, and to do anything I wanted, I was at a loss for both words and concepts. I stepped back, figuratively speaking, to reflect on my dilemma. Eventually I learned to talk about topics whose existence I had never before even acknowledged. What do I really need? What do I really want? What is the bottom line and what is the icing on the cake, to mix my metaphors? I found I had to communicate to engage in erotic power play if only to say something like, “I like foot worship, not whipping.”


Communication remains the most important aspect of my personal journey into erotic power play. The people I have met in this arena share such a diversity of interests that I continually have to redefine my needs. One result has been that I have discovered the nature of some of my own hidden agendas and agreements. Most people seem to me to have these kinds of secrets from themselves, as well as from their partners, and to walk around hoping those desires will be fulfilled by chance. Certainly I walked around that way for years, until I learned I could take direct control of my sexuality and empower my entire life as a consequence.



4.  Negotiation (WAH)


Negotiation is the art of getting what you want. Because we live in a competitive society, we ordinarily hear about negotiation as the process of getting even more than you want – getting as much as possible, in fact, while giving up as little as possible. This win‑lose dynamic is the way politicians negotiate: the way powerful nations traditionally negotiate arms control, for instance. This kind of negotiating is based upon the art of selective communication: of playing your cards close to your vest, keeping aces up your sleeve, catching people with their pants down, and, if you’re good at it, getting something in exchange for nothing.


This kind of negotiation is not what we are talking about. Because of the nature of communication that can take place during erotic power play, the negotiation we are talking about is a win‑win dynamic that centers on the art of complete communication: of laying your cards on the table, holding nothing up your sleeve, and, if you’re good at it, getting all you need by giving all you can.


Negotiation includes both initial and ongoing, verbal and non‑verbal communications. In erotic power play negotiation is the underpinning for consensuality: you cannot agree or consent to give something if you do not know it has been requested, or to accept something if you do not know it has been offered. In addition, the more completely and openly people negotiate about what they want or have to offer, the more they establish their parity, as it is difficult for unequals to negotiate truly: all parties know that ultimately the person with more inherent power can pull rank.


At this point we must acknowledge that we are discussing an ideal erotic power play negotiation. In the real world few partners negotiating a scene are equals in all regards. Having said so much, however, we can also observe that one value of clear communication between partners is to establish parity. That parity, in turn, establishes the basis for mutual respect, which allows the stronger person not to pull rank. Hence, respect is the sine qua non of trust, which in its turn is one absolute necessity for intimacy. It is through intimacy that we validate ourselves and each other and create opportunities to grow, through an explicit awareness of who we are and who our partners are. In this way, intimacy can be one of the chief objects of erotic power play.



5.  Ritual:  Sexual Magick (SH)


People are passionate and have a need to engage with power. However, we seem to have no socially acceptable method to express this need directly and physically except through competitive athletics, war, and freeway driving. In fact, with the exceptions of dancing and sex we have no non‑competitive, non‑angry means by which to express our physical passions with each other at all. Therefore, we have few means to experience the intense emotional intimacy that can accompany such passions.


Instead, we sublimate: we deny our passions through repression and suppression, which results in a kind of psychic compression. When you squeeze a balloon in one place, it enlarges in another; the air doesn’t go away, it is merely displaced. So when we repress our power needs they don’t go away but show up elsewhere – often inappropriately and usually unconsciously, as, for instance, in non‑consensual physical or emotional abuse, chemical dependency, and other destructive and self‑destructive behaviors.


In order to express our passions, needs, and desires appropriately we have first to discover what they are. Erotic power play is one way to discover them, and simultaneously to learn about their meaning and scope. Then, through our growing awareness, we may become able to make deliberate choices about what we have learned.


The expression of passions, whether we are conscious of them or not, sometimes can be volatile. Therefore, it is highly desirable that someone be in charge of any scene in which those passions might figure, giving the other participant or participants the freedom to go out of control safely.


Fig. 1:  Sexual Intensity / Power Continuum

(not a hierarchy)


|                                                               |                                                                    !

|                                                               |                                                                    !

|                                                               !                                                                   !

|                                                               |                                                                    !

|                                                               |                                                                   !

|                                                               |                                                                    !

|                                                               |                                                                    !

|                                                               |                                                                    !

| X_____________________________ Y______________________________  Z |

|                                                               |                                                                    !

| vanilla sex                                   D/S & S/M                      pure power exchange     !

|                                                               |                                                                    !

|                                                               |                                                                    !

|                                                               |                                                                    !

|                                                               |                                                                    !

|                                                               |                                                                    !

|                                                               |                                                                    !




Fig.1 represents a continuum of sexual intensity and power, proceeding from left to right. In vanilla sex (X), let us say for argument’s sake, we have two people engaged in lovemaking. As they proceed along the continuum they become increasingly lusty and passionate; as they approach the middle of the continuum (Y) they are fucking furiously, biting and scratching and leaving hickies and long fingernail marks.


In pure power exchange (Z) one person goes beyond his limits of passion and gives up power and control over his sexuality, his needs, his desires, and himself, in trust, to another. We shall address pure power exchange a few pages below.


In between vanilla sex and pure power exchange lies the realm of erotic power play. In erotic power play limits can be explored and defined in acting out the preliminary negotiation. Boundaries are established, tested, and redefined so that all parties can know when their limits have been reached – or breached.


This is a space in which ritual can most readily meet sexuality, first because ritualized situations and activities are negotiated, defined, and formalized. They are contained. At least by implication they have an agreed‑upon beginning, middle, and end. Second, in any kind of sexual activity people have an opportunity to test the boundaries of intimacy, and such a test can be facilitated by such forms of representation as role‑playing.


Role play is a kind of ritual that allows people to act out thoughts, feelings, and attitudes that may or may not be socially acceptable. In D/S and S/M all roles are defined in relation to power. For instance, in a ritualized situation a person can play at being a bully without damaging anyone; can play at being a victim without being harmed; can play at being a baby without permanently abandoning adulthood; can play at being a parent without taking on a family. In a sort of theatrical context, negotiated ritual allows people to safely explore some extremes of their own imaginative fantasies. From the outside this kind of play‑acting, or sexual theatre, may look like unconscious acting out, when it has in fact become a conscious process as in psychodrama.


6.  Ritual: Sexual Magick (WAH)


A major function of ritual is to let us know who we are beyond the confines of our small, individual selves. Baptisms, confirmations, bar and bas mitzvahs, long pants, graduations, marriages – all ceremonies tell us, even as they announce it, who we are to ourselves, our families, our friends, our communities, and our world.


Anthropologists, sociologists, ethnologists, mythologists, and other psychologists of culture note that where a heritage of meaningful rites of passage does not exist, people will feel enough of a spiritual imbalance to make up rituals of their own. It’s become a cliché that our society offers us a paucity of rituals that touch the spirit, and that those that exist are for the most part competitive or not negotiated: football games, invasions of small islands, and the episodic opportunity to vote for more or variations of the same.


In erotic power play, rituals of substance can be conceived, developed, and executed in ways that can touch their participants on numerous levels at once: they can be physical, emotional, cognitive, or spiritual; sexual, political, and religious; they are simultaneously as sophisticated and creative as the human imagination can make them, and as basic and primitive as the psyche’s drives for power and sexual fulfillment.


Geoff Mains points out in his book Urban Aboriginals that erotic power play activities closely resemble the tribal rites of some non‑linear societies. They embody the ways people behave with one another all the time. But because they are deliberate, volitional, and consensual they provide a basis upon which participants can define themselves in a society, including, not excluding, the parts that in that culture they have been trained and even obligated to suppress.


Some time ago I attended what was billed as a Pagan Faerie Piercing Ritual, in which about a dozen men and women of above‑average intelligence and education, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, most of whom held responsible jobs in their communities, and some of whom are at least locally well‑known for their creative endeavors, met ceremonially to have holes made in their bodies in which jewelry could be worn.


Many people in the most middle of middle America, such as women who wear pierced ear‑rings, have had similar physical experiences without a lot of ceremony. Piercing itself was not the only point of this ritual, then; nor, only, was the intense sensation of sharp surgical steel opening its way through flesh, which some participants found erotic. Ritualized, the piercing was also a symbol, a means, whose end was the sort of group communion I, at least, associate with deliberate spirituality.


In fact, the ritual was a religious ceremony celebrating the participants’ humanity and their commonality of purpose with the earth, with the cosmic forces that in other eras might easily have been interpreted as gods and goddesses, and with each other. By the end of the evening the participants had shared something like what Abraham Maslow called a peak experience; and they had, in one another’s company, surrendered some measure of the control people ordinarily exercise over the performance of their lives. They had attained a state of communion – com-union; what the Oxford English Dictionary calls a religious fellowship; a sharing or holding in common with others; a mutual spiritual intercourse – that enhanced rather than diminished their individuality.


Despite my own terror of needles – I once quit a course of acupuncture because I kept breaking out in cold sweats – I returned to that circle one month later, to participate in their service like an anthropologist gone native. People sang and chanted, played instruments and invoked loving spirits while I had my ear pierced. If my experience was not erotic in the sense that it was not genitally sexual, it was surely one of spiritual love. And it was not at all the experience I would have had if I had had a hole shot through my flesh at the local mall.


In order to escape the failures of rituals with form but without substance, we can embrace the substance of rituals that do affect people deeply. For some people erotic power play can be one such ritual, transforming the S/M of sadomasochism into the S/M of Sexual Magick.



7.  Power‑Control Cycle (SH)


Once two or more people have negotiated and established the form for their ritual, they have the chance to begin exchanging power. In the San Francisco Sex Information training it is said that all sex involves fantasy and/or friction. By fantasy, SFSI does not mean that something is unreal, but that it is the psychological more than the physical component of sex. Sex happens, that is, in the mind and/or the body. In these terms, power exchange largely constitutes the fantasy – the mind realm – of sex.


Exchanging power, control, and responsibility can be the psychological mind‑set of an erotic power play scene – the focus that happens chiefly in the mind. But there are many means by which this end may be achieved, and one does not imply another.


My experience as a professional dominant taught me that a masochist is not a slave is not a baby is not a bondage devotée is not a fetishist is not is not is not. Each preference, like each activity, stands alone. I do not mean that a masochist may not also like bondage or any other bottom activity: only that a taste for one does not necessarily imply a taste for any other.


Twenty years ago these distinctions were not generally acknowledged to the degree they are today. When Cynthia Slater founded the Society of Janus in San Francisco in 1974, it was only the second formally structured S/M organization in the United State s after New York’s Eulenspiegel Society. Janus’s regularly scheduled meetings provided a forum in which issues about erotic power play could be discussed and debated in a safe, supportive atmosphere. As communication developed, so did the vocabulary and the concepts that made up the variations of S/M. In time, these discussions went beyond the confines of Janus meetings; and it is in part due to Cynthia Slater and the Society of Janus – as well as to other educational and support groups that followed – that we have even been able to write this article.


In any event, it is entirely possible to be a dominant submissive or a dominant masochist whose fundamental position is, Fulfill my fantasy! “Make me lick your boots,” one might say; “Do me exactly the way I want to be done! Move that clamp to the right and whip me harder – no, not with that whip – okay, that’s enough, you can stop now.”


This kind of submission is not really submission; it is not giving up control: quite the contrary, it is getting done, or having a fetish indulged. There’s nothing wrong with getting done, but it is important to keep the definitions clear.


What is submission is what happens in the mind of a bottom who is actively engaged in the process. Ultimately, if all goes well, that submission can turn into sweet surrender: the turning over of personal power from the bottom to the top.


In the course of preliminary negotiation the bottom defines her power by acknowledging the nature of her interests and the extent of her limits. During the scene itself, as power exchange occurs, the negotiation continues both verbally and non‑verbally on an ongoing basis: Can we go this far? Yes. This far? Yes. This far? I don’t know. Want to explore? Sure, let’s stretch.


Whether or not the partners continue to extend the boundaries of their play, it is at the edge of the bottom’s limits that the bottom trusts the top to take care of her in the moment of vulnerability; and this edge is where the pure exchange of power can occur.


When I’m dominant I’m concerned that both my partner and I have a good time. I will usually take the other person’s fantasies or interests and, respecting his limits, fulfill them my way. For me it is the exchange of power that is important rather than the fact that I am top.


Still, the exchange is different for me when I top than when I bottom. As top, I’m on the receiving end of all this power and trust that’s being given to me, which is an experience I find exhilarating, intoxicating, and intensely erotic. At the same time I have to maintain control and responsibility for both of us, not get drunk on the energy, nor lose control. I am the container, and the more I practice erotic power play the more I learn about assuming power and control, and the more I learn about employing them judiciously, in the dungeon as well as in my everyday life.


However: in order for this exchange of power to occur, both participants must be aware of their own needs as well as the needs of their partners. If the top concerns herself only with her bottom’s needs, she will not take care of herself and will come to feel exploited. So too, if the bottom is concerned only with pleasing his top, he will come to feel exploited. By the same token, being dominant doesn’t mean you get to have your way all the time, and being submissive doesn’t mean you get to relinquish responsibility. In both cases people have to make certain their own and their partners’ needs will be met. That certainty can be established during the preliminary negotiation for a scene. When that certainty becomes a reality, both people can relax and deepen their levels of intimacy and trust.



8. Power‑Control Cycle (WAH)


For me, this phase of erotic power play is entirely volitional at the beginning. Let us say I am going to be the bottom in a scene. In the course of our initial negotiations I have chosen to give away my power to someone else, who in agreeing to be the top has chosen to accept power in the same spirit. We have agreed that she will hold that power for a specified length of time, or until some experience occurs which we can both identify, and which I will address shortly. The negotiated, consensual, volitional way in which the power is then balanced makes it easier for me as the person relinquishing power to next surrender control. After all, if I have agreed to give up power within the context of this ritual, for what do I need control?


But that does not mean I don’t also still want control. Being out of control can reactivate old fears, even in a familiar ritual state with someone in whom I have enormous trust. I have enough control issues of my own that my desire to maintain control of my situation falls into conflict with my agreement to give up that control to someone else.


Surrender, therefore, begins as a voluntary exercise for me: an exercise of will in which I honor my agreement repeatedly, giving up control intentionally, over and over again. Each time I let go of a little more control my partner and I complete another step in our ongoing negotiation.


The cycle is something like this: I give up control and that feels good (relaxing), so I want to give up more control and that feels better, so I want to give up even more control and that feels still better, until the process itself takes over and spins out of my control. Finally what I am surrendering is my small‑s self – my ego, my personality, my “William” or “Bill,” the me that does business in the world.


It is in this stage of surrender that I fall into an altered state of consciousness, which I experience as my large‑S Self. That Self is a relatively pure state of being; a state of “is‑ness,” say, compared with my normal state of “doing‑ness.” I just am. I’m not sure it isn’t correct to say that “I” disappear(s), in a way. From my perspective it is not too much to say I fall into God. In part, that is why I refer to this as a spiritual experience. This is also the point at which what I am doing becomes largely involuntary and a kind of psychic orgasm becomes inevitable, which is the experience I’ll address as my part of our next topic, energy exchange.



9. Energy Exchange (SH)


As power exchange is the fantasy, so energy exchange is the friction – the body realm – of sex. To have a direct experience of what I mean by “energy,” try the following exercise. Since the first step entails closing your eyes you might want to read through the steps before you do the exercise, or have a partner read it for you as you do it. I do want you to have a particular experience from doing this exercise, but not all people have it and it is possible you will not. No harm done if not, and you may find value in doing the exercise anyway.


1.  Close your eyes.

2.  Place the palms of your hands together as if you are praying.

            3.  Rub your palms together briskly several times.

            4.  Separate your palms about one inch.

            5.  You will probably feel an intangible something between your palms.

            6.  Slowly move your hands toward and away from one another in a gentle clapping motion, without letting your hands touch.

            7.  Play with the sensation of the intangible something as if you’re packing a snowball.  See how large a snowball you can create without losing the sensation.

            8.  Move your hands out slowly until you lose the sensation, then gradually bring them back toward each other and recapture it.

            9.  Stretch the boundaries of the sensation as far as you can.

10.  Bring your hands back to within about an inch of each other, but still not touching.

            11.  Compare the sensation you feel now with the sensation you felt immediately after rubbing your palms together (step 4). What are the differences? The similarities?

            12.  Bring your palms together and let them touch.

            13.  Open your eyes. 


The sensation most people feel between their hands in the course of this exercise is an energy field that exists all around the body. Some yoga systems posit a channel of energy running parallel to the spine from the top of the head down through the center of the body to the base of the spine, ending roughly between the gonads. According to these systems there are seven energy centers running down this channel, and one in the palm of each hand and another in the sole of each foot. The locations of these central energy centers, or chakras, corresponds roughly to the location of some of the endocrine glands.


If, during the exercise, you did not feel any sensation between your palms, you might try clapping your hands together a few times at step #3. The physical stimulation produced by the impact of skin against skin when you clap focuses your mind on a localized physical sensation. Some people can be stimulated by very modest touch, or even by the thought of being touched. Others need more powerful sensation. This is one reason some people like to have their cheeks caressed, and others like to have them slapped.


Whatever degree of intense sensation stimulates you at any particular moment is the degree of intense sensation that starts to focus your awareness on your body’s energy. In a scene, the top is the person who devotes energy to increasing the stimulation, so that the bottom’s energy and awareness of the energy both begin to build. Endorphins and other, related opioids kick in and, like a jogger breaking through the wall, the bottom becomes naturally high. The excitement that attends his experience provokes his adrenal glands, and as they release adrenaline he naturally gets higher. Some people who top say they also feel the stimulation resulting from the release of opiods and adrenaline in their bodies.


With all this excitement going on inside and outside his body a phenomenon called stimulus transference can take place. Then, what was once experienced as pain is experienced instead as pleasure. The bottom who is being slapped or spanked or whipped now dances along the line that is the interface between pleasure and pain.


Eventually, as all the forms of stimulation build, the bottom may pop, experiencing an energy release which is orgasmic in tenor and intensity, and is deeply relaxing, but is not always ejaculatory in men, and may or may not be genitally focused in people of either sex.


I, as the top, receive my energy back transformed through and increased by the bottom’s energy. In addition to genital orgasms, my entire body is bathed in a diffuse, intense erotic glow.



10. Energy Exchange (WAH)


In the course of the power‑control cycle we have been discussing, I, as the bottom, become relatively empty. As I said, I just am. Relative to my base‑line consciousness there is little of “me” present. Instead there is a kind of empty space, a kind of psychic void.


Now, we know that nature abhors a vacuum, so you would not expect that I am going to stay even relatively empty for long: no longer than the merest fraction of a micro‑milli‑nano‑ second. And in fact that is what happens. As soon as I become void I am filled up again, suffused, with energy. (It is not at all the same kind of energy, but anyone who has worked long hours at a stretch will recognize how abruptly energetic a person can feel when she’s been dragging along battling to keep her eyelids up, standing up and walking around at every opportunity, sticking her head out the window for breaths of fresh air – and she gets her second wind abruptly, or a strong cup of coffee kicks in. I am filled with energy in that way, though as I say it is not that kind of energy that fills me.)


So I am suddenly energized again, this time with enormous power. This is not my individual power any longer. You’ll recall I gave that away already. Instead, this is what the Jungians might call an archetypal power, what psychics have called cosmic power, an energy all gnostic spiritual traditions have some name for. And it is not mine: I want to emphasize that this energy does not belong to me. There is nothing I could do with it. There is nothing I can do with it, except to let it pass through me.


This is the experience I addressed regarding the power‑control cycle. In fact, if there is a pay‑off to the process of erotic power play for me beyond the pleasure of the play itself, this is it. Because I now give up the power of this roiling energy to my partner, and with it I relinquish all responsibility. In this moment my partner owns me. I am as close to nothing, as close to a cipher, as I can imagine being in a human body. And this is when I feel the kundalini rise.


Forgive me if that does not sound humble. I do not know what else to call what I experience. The kundalini, in the Hindu tantric traditions, is the life force itself, represented by the serpent power that lies coiled in the root‑center of the body, at the base of the spine, more or less between the gonads. When it awakens as a consequence of some major transformational event in a person’s life – or when it is intentionally awakened through one of the relevant meditative disciplines – it is said to rise through the chakras, the body’s energy centers, bestirring and illuminating them as it goes. This energy does not, cannot, belong to the person who experiences it: it is life force energy in the service of enlightenment, utterly non‑personal.


In any case I say I feel the kundalini rise because my body commences to contract and unwind in a series of slow spasms that begin somewhere deep in my abdomen. First I am doubled over as my belly contracts, and then my whole body opens up as my belly flexes and arches, and an electric feeling rushes up along the pathway of my spine. Sometimes the energy seems to shoot straight out the top of my head. Sometimes my head is snapped backwards by it rather dramatically. Sometimes I have felt the energy burst like a fireworks rocket in the region of my heart. In any case the wave recurs numerous times and leaves me feeling satiated, drained, and satisfied in a manner that reduces the feelings of a genital orgasm, by comparison, to something like a very pleasing sneeze. And it has an extremely brief resolution phase: I have repeated the essential experience again – and again and again – within minutes.


I have seen women’s bodies flex and contract in orgasmic spasms, and that is the closest physical approximation I can make to what I experience and what I believe I am not alone in experiencing, because I have heard other people describe something like this as an S/M orgasm.



11.  Switching (SH)


People do not always reverse roles – in a scene or at all – but switching has been an essential component of my evolution as a top. When I entered the scene in 1979 switching was not a common term or concept. What I remember is that switches were regarded as elusive, undecided, and unpredictable, much as bisexuals once had been.


However, in the early 1980s the Society of Janus presented a panel of people who identified themselves as switches. During their discussion I realized that part of my rationale for being a top exclusively was that I was afraid to bottom. I was afraid to lose control: I was afraid to trust. Since I also recognized that fear as my personal edge or limit, I decided to seek out the bottom’s experience in order to meet my fear, and to grow both as a human being and as a top. Thereafter I changed my self‑definition to that of a switch, or, as one young man called himself, a “dominissive.”


In 1983 I went to work as a mistress‑in‑training and redefined myself as a top who switched. I had had enough bottom experience by that time to know that my erotic preference really did lie in controlling the scene, but I also knew that though I was a top, I did not yet know how to be one.


For nearly two years I was submissive to the mistress in charge, and under her instruction was dominant over our clients. In this middle position I learned to be a top, by learning what people in both positions felt. I had to learn how to let go of my own beliefs and ideas about how a scene should proceed, and so I learned that it was truly possible to simply want to please or serve another person. I learned not only how it felt to wear nipple clamps, but also what it felt like to put them on someone else, as well as some of the different ways I could put them on a body. I knew already how it felt to be whipped, and now I learned when to change from a light whip to a heavy one, from a whip to a paddle, from a paddle to a cane and back.


All the ideas I had picked up at Janus meetings or by listening to bottoms and tops talk began to make sense in an experiential way. I found that when the mistress in charge did not maintain control of a scene, or her attention wandered from it, the erotic tension fell away and the space in which she and the client and I all sought challenge and surrender ceased to be exciting and erotic. I learned what my own limits felt like, and how they could be stretched over and over again: how they could be approached and exceeded, approached and exceeded, approached and exceeded so that I had a physical experience of the profiles of pacing and timing. I started to learn to trust my instincts. I started to learn the difference between a real limit and a limit made up of fear and inexperience. I learned to gauge when the time was right to move forward and press a bottom’s limits even though he believed he could go no farther toward what he regarded as his absolute edge.


I came away from my experience believing that it is more difficult to be a good top without bottoming at least once than it is to be a good top without bottoming at all. I came to believe that since I had switched it was easier for me to gain access to psychic, spiritual, and emotional parts of myself than when I had only played one role. In short, I expanded my options. And now I value the gift the bottom gives more highly than ever before. It is a gift I myself have given.



12. Switching (WAH)


For me, the moment of switching can be instantaneous. The top space uses the same energy as the bottom, it is simply turned on its head. When I switch I experience a shift of being, from a docile sweet surrender‑er wanting nothing so much as to please my top, to a hungry animal champing at the bit to feed. It is an enormous charge to take over the erotic reins I have previously given up, and in a way I actually become someone else.


I do not mean I become a whole different personality, as someone might who dissociates severely, because I am sufficiently conscious to be in control of being out of control. Top or bottom, it is all me, witnessing my own experience. But within that framework I do become at least another feature of myself.


I remember asserting, when I first became involved with erotic power play as something more than an occasional adjunct to standard genital sexuality, that I was all one guy. That was true then, and it is true now. In the months that followed, however, partly consequent upon work I was doing in my own therapy and partly upon the evolution of my sexual relationship, I came to associate certain sets of emotions, thoughts, attitudes and beliefs with specific facets of this one guy. “Bill” turned out to be my central organizing principle, the man most of my friends and associates knew; “William” wrote articles, books, and checks; “Billy” was an innocent who went into hiding when I was about two years old; and there were others.


As long as I assumed that I was all of a piece I felt puzzled by some of my behaviors. Occasionally, for example, I became a little reckless when driving. But as I came to name and identify some of my parts I could see I contained a domineering man who was a dimension of myself, not simply an introject, who wanted to drive faster, overtake other cars, and punish all other drivers who did not operate their vehicles according to his code. That man sometimes addressed his orders to Billy, who is all innocence and trust and does not know how to do anything but obey. In short, my car was being piloted by a two‑year‑old under the direction of a highly aggressive, punitive dictator. Whoa! I sent both of them to the back seat, and riding with me is now a far less taxing experience. Similarly, in the contexts of romantic and erotic love, I no longer have to function as Bill all the time. Billy gets his due, as does the dictator.


Freud talks about fixations as places of arrested psychosocial development. In a different but related regard Jung defines complexes as “partial or fragmentary personalities” which can actually upset the stomach, upset the breathing, disturb the heart, and so forth.

 (Collected Works, Vol 18, p 72). 


To the extent that I have properly identified my subpersonalities, or alternate personas, the kaleidoscope of perceptions they bring me have become keys to understanding how I grew and grow, and why I function as I do at any given moment. Brought to light, honored for their contributions to the person that I am, my parts do not have to scramble for permission to exist. In exchange they allow me – Bill – to achieve dimensions of control over my internal life I have always imagined might be possible but never could quite grasp before, while enhancing, not constraining, my freedom and spontaneity. They have helped me see the ways in which all of life is erotic power play.



13. Straight Time (WAH‑SH)


In erotic power play negotiation is ongoing. Before a scene participants negotiate interests, limits, and boundaries. During a scene they may renegotiate. Straight time is the negotiation that can happen after a scene is over. It may take place minutes, hours, days, or even weeks later, and its subject is the scene itself. It does not always happen, but straight time offers participants the opportunity to discuss what worked and what did not work; whether or not they wish to play again with each other; and the possibility of exploring other facets of erotic power play that were not part of the original scene. They can get feedback from each other on their techniques and on their attitudes in the same kind of safe, supportive space for which they first negotiated.


Unlike mid‑scene negotiation, straight time negotiation almost always entails verbal communication, which may be as simple as each participant saying Thank you, or as complex as a blow‑by‑blow re‑examination of the entire scene. The salient feature of straight time is that it presents both or all participants with the opportunity to complete the experience that was the scene so that they can move forward in their pleasure and/or their growth with a feeling of satisfaction with themselves and regard for their partners.


One of the features of erotic power play that attracted us both when we discovered it, and that held us as our experiences evolved, is the high value most participants in the scene have placed on frank negotiation and consensuality. Straight time is straight not only because it takes place out of role, free from the theatrical trappings that typically accompany the body of a scene, but also because as straight talk it reflects a commitment to honesty and open communication. From politics to religion to sex and love, erotic power play at its best can be a model for human behavior that works to further participants’ pleasure in the reality of their lives. Surely we do not believe that everyone in the world ought to learn the business of the business end of a whip. Yet, we wonder how much interpersonal damage could be alleviated if every human interaction was treated with the respect most players in the S/M ‑ D/S community accord one another, and if every such interaction concluded with the assessment and evaluation available in straight time.




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