Towards a general theory of BDSM and power

There is something going on with kink and power, something which is constantly hinted at in discussions of BDSM but is rarely fleshed out. It is common to hear claims that kink is empowering, either because it gives some insight into power, or because it allows for some sort of self-expression or self-fulfillment, or simply because it gets a person off. The question before us is: how? How exactly do kink activities empower, even when on first sight they might seem regressive or barbaric?

Recent analyses of BDSM have tended to focus on power as a central organizing element for kink. For example, a recent study claimed that “power, and not the giving and receiving of pain, is at the core of SM”. Appropriately, the article was published in a book titled Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures. While power may in fact be central to BDSM, there are certainly other motivations for kink. For example, some masochists specifically like the endorphin rush: one of my girlfriends is high for a full day or more after a session. Also, there are kinds of kink that do not contain much in the way of power exchange, sensation play for example.

So analyses of power are not sufficient to explain or even describe BDSM. However, power is clearly important to much or even most kink practice, and therefore a theory of BDSM and power is crucial to understanding how kink integrates with political and personal power.

Let us start with a claim that most kinksters are familiar with: BDSM is a form of play power. That is to say, the power dynamics in BDSM are almost always agreed to in advance by all parties, and are almost always consensual. Not only that, but it is typically possible to withdraw consent on a moment-to-moment basis. This holds true even in 24/7 D/S or “total power exchange” relationships. The trick to analyzing these relationships is to understand that the appearance of non-consent is an important part of the play, which is still ultimately consensual in most cases.

Note that while I am using the phrase “play power”, often the power in BDSM practice is entirely serious. For example, many people integrate D/S practice into their daily lives, and their kink is less about playtime and more about restructuring their relationships or lives. Others may limit their kink practice to scenes, but those scenes may be spiritual, healing, exploratory, transcendent, cathartic, or many other things that are not necessarily “play”. I’m using the phrase play power in order to differentiate our negotiated power exchanges from cultural power, the kind we are reluctantly pushed into by the world we live in.

BDSM play power stands in contrast to most forms of power in the wider culture, which are actually nonconsensual. Working in modern culture is generally one’s only lifestyle option, and various forms of power are exerted on anyone in an employment situation. The exploitation of the lower classes is nonconsensual. Sexism, racism, and homophobia are nonconsensual, and the ideologies that support these systems of power are exerted on the populace in a nonconsensual manner. The uses to which a person can put their body are at least highly coercive in many cases. And so on. We are in fact swimming in a soup of nonconsensual power dynamics, where our personal strategies are typically shaped by sets of options that can range from mildly undesirable to downright horrific.

In effect, BDSM is a separate power domain from power in the wider culture, though of course the two definitely interact. It is that line of interaction that we are interested in. How do the power dynamics of the wider culture inform BDSM, and how does BDSM affect the wider culture? Towards understanding this, let me make another claim that should come as no surprise to kinksters:

The play power dynamics of BDSM mirror the nonconsensual power dynamics of the wider culture.

D/S mirrors the exercise of authority and submission to authority. S/M mirrors violence, both on the giving and receiving ends. While it may be fashionable to think that violence is rare in modern culture, the possibility of violence is still a constant presence in our thoughts and power dynamics. M/S mirrors slavery or extreme forms of control. Bondage mirrors restraint in its various forms. The use of cages mirrors imprisonment. In a nice piece of synchronicity, one of the kinky play spaces in San Francisco houses actual jail cells from the old city jail.

This becomes even more clear if we look at fairly specific forms of BDSM roleplay. Uniform play mirrors the authority of the military or police. Medical play mirrors the doctor/patient relationship. Daddy/Mommy play mirrors the parent/child relationship. Age play and infantilism mirror the general subservience of children and infants. School play mirrors the teacher/student relationship. Secretary play mirrors the boss/worker relationship. Financial domination mirrors the power of money and payment. I was having trouble coming up with BDSM scenario that mirrored the sex work relationship, but then Bitchy Jones (whom you should all read) conveniently provided me with one.

And of course, even edgier types of play nicely reflect mainstream power concerns. Knife play, fire play, play piercing, wax play, and takedown scenes each mirror a particular form of violence. Abduction play mirrors kidnapping. Urethral play and fisting mirror the cultural obsession with penetration.

Those of you already know where I am going with this are asking yourselves, what about sexism and racism? Sexism shows up in dirty talk, rape play, forced feminization, heterosexual spanking parties, high heel fetish, and certain practices found in D/S, M/S, and S/M. Which is not to say that these practices are necessarily sexist, just that they are mirroring sexism. The connection with D/S and M/S is the reason that it is easy to draw (hopefully false) parallels between mainstream BDSM practice and the highly sexist practice of certain fringe groups. Racism shows up in race play and cuckold parties and of course is conceptually present in anything calling itself “master/slave”.

Some of you are jumping up and down by now, so let me offer the following disclaimers to the above formulation. First off, the power mirroring that is occurring is probably not the only thing happening in a particular BDSM situation. For example, the primary purpose of fisting is generally screaming orgasms, and any operation of power is probably incidental. Second, I am not stating that power is necessarily the cause or purpose of any of these activities. Third, there are a number of BDSM activities that cannot be mapped to a cultural power dynamic in this manner, including: sensation play, balloon fetish, and material (leather, PVC, rubber, nylon) fetish. So this formulation does not span all BDSM practice.

However, the reverse is true: there is an amazing coverage of mainstream power dynamics. I am having trouble coming up with well-named pervasive mainstream power dynamics that are not in some way reflected in BDSM play. (If you can think of any, please help me out in the comments.) In any case, it is too much to think that the above listing is somehow a coincidence. Clearly there is some sort of parallelizing relationship happening between BDSM play power and actual mainstream power. Given that the effects of BDSM on the mainstream are weak at best, we can come to the following conclusion:

The primary power operation of BDSM is a claiming or borrowing of nonconsensual mainstream power dynamics, which are reproduced as consensual play power in BDSM settings.

In other words, BDSM contains a set of tools for sandboxing power dynamics. And in fact, if we take a look at what BDSM practitioners are concerned with, we can see this happening. Kinksters are masters of consent, having produced a number of new and novel forms of consent, such as the safeword, the contractual consent, the consensual “non-consent” of D/S described above, positive consent through screams of pain, and so on. Similarly, kinksters are excellent at eroticizing the formerly non-erotic, or making pleasurable what was formerly not. We even have a word for it: “to kink”. As in, “I kink hard for watching someone crawl”. Consent and eroticization can be seen as tools for taming what would otherwise be fairly nasty power dynamics.

(On a humorous side note, have I just explained Quantum Fetish Mechanics?)

However, again I have not said anything that is particularly surprising for practitioners of BDSM. The real question for a theory of BDSM and power is the next step:

What are the power effects of using BDSM to sandbox mainstream power dynamics?

This is the real question before us. How do people use this BDSM sandboxing for their own particular power strategies? What are those strategies? What effect do those strategies then have on power in the culture? Is BDSM culture progressive or regressive in terms of leveling out power imbalances?

Of course, this is going to be complex. BDSM sandboxes a number of different sorts of power dynamics, and people are then going to incorporate the play power of BDSM according to their own personal strategic situation. So we can expect that there will not be one particular power effect, but rather a whole host of power effects. The real task of a general theory of BDSM and power is the enumeration and categorization of the different power strategies enabled by BDSM sandboxing, and a description of their power effects. The remainder of this essay will be devoted to my necessarily incomplete brainstorm of power strategies.

A side note for the theorist types: I am using a extended version of Foucault’s theory of relational power, where any conceptualized interpersonal influence is a form of power, not just the ones produced by well-scripted cultural roles like teacher/student. Also, the conceptual operations of power are internal as well as relational, so a person may deploy conceptual strategies to expand their own ability to operate within their own conceptual constraints.

Also, the below list of power strategies should not be read as a list of causes for BDSM. Instead, it is properly a list of effects of BDSM, which are independent of any particular cause or motivation. I am not getting into the nature/nurture debate here. While any particular strategy below could in fact be the reason that a particular person comes to kink, and while most of the below strategies are voluntary, a particular strategy can be used whether or not the person is doing kink for that reason. A good analogy is the heavy pain bottom who visits the dentist and does not need novocaine. They are not pain bottoming because they want to impress the dentist. Rather, their ability to handle the pain of the drill is a side effect of their pain pursuits, which presumably have other motivations. Similarly, the below strategies are perhaps typically bonus side effects. Also, they are generally optional, and any particular BDSM practice will likely only engage some of them, or none at all.

Without further fanfare, I give you my list of the potential operations on power within BDSM. If you have any to add, please do so in comments.

1) As a testing or training ground for power dynamics. In other words, to gain more power over the operation of one’s power dynamics. This is the widest and most obvious use of sandboxing, and a number of the below strategies are particular instances of this.

Want to know how good you are at submitting to authority? Or at exerting authority? Want to know what it is like to have obscenities screamed in your face? Or what it is like to do the screaming? Want to know exactly what words like “dirty”, “slut”, or “sir” mean to you? Want to know how to eroticize brushes with the police? How to stay sane while restricted in some way? Want to know what it is that makes you cry? And what crying means to you? Want to know about all those little impulses to be cruel floating around in your brain? Want to figure out what they mean? Want to know what your emotional triggers are? Want to know the difference between a punch that just hurts a lot and one that breaks something? Want to know how well you can operate through a haze of pain? Kinksters will happily help you with all of this.

The most obvious (though not the most interesting) examples of this are those that involve the body in extremis. I know a woman with a nasty case of agoraphobia, who knows that it kicks in right around seven feet. She has been doing a lot of rope suspension, and pushing her limit upwards. In another example, a non-kinky military man approached a sadist woman. He wanted to know exactly how much pain he could take, and he found out.

In a more subtle example, a girlfriend of mine has identified that she eroticizes misogyny in the bedroom. She is a strong feminist and has very little patience with misogyny outside of the bedroom. Her kink practice does not give her any special tools for handling misogyny. However, she has found herself more aware of normative (and therefore invisible) sexualized violence and its variations, having endured (and enjoyed) its more extreme forms.

This particular power mechanism would be progressive in most cases, as giving people power over their own situations is generally liberating. However, this of course depends on which people and what sort of power we are talking about. If a domineering man uses BDSM to train himself to be more domineering, or a violent person uses kink to become more violent (in the way that martial arts is occasionally used), then that is not an improvement.

2) To confine problematic power dynamics. We are heavily trained in games of power from a young age, games which of course are deadly serious. So, it is unsurprising that we are constantly flexing or creating power over others, even when we do not want to. By creating a playground for these power dynamics, BDSM allows a person to channel urges to power into a play arena.

I am not saying that people doing BDSM would somehow be monsters if they were not into kink. I think we have already debunked the various “BDSM is just a repurposing of abusive tendencies” theories, and we do not need to rehash them. This is more complex and subtle.

Let me illustrate using my own sadism. Since very young, I have had a strong streak of mischievous urges, which have bordered on the cruel. Rarely have I actually indulged these urges: I have always been one of the most gentle men you will ever meet. However, since coming to terms with my own sadism, these urges have significantly reduced. I feel like this is due to the new perspective provided by my kink practice. If I am going to cover someone with bruises in a couple days, any other form of physical tension seems entirely petty. Other things seem petty too, like getting angry over pointless arguments. My sadism has given me a new level of equaniminity, one which surpassed my previous even temperament. Notably, these mischievous and competitive traits are generally considered masculine power dynamics. While it is very difficult to be sure of what is happening in my own head (since these processes are largely unconscious), I feel that my sadism may be helping me contain problematic portions of my own masculinity.

In this way, particular urges to influence or power can be contained with BDSM practice, whether that practice is D/S, S/M, or other arrangements of power.

Again, this power mechanism is going to be progressive in some cases, and regressive in others. We can see the regressive example in the stereotype of the high-powered executive who pays a dominatrix to make him submit once a week. (Note that the stereotype could be entirely wrong, as there has been no actual research on this to my knowledge.) To the extent that there are men like this, and to the extent that they are using the sessions to reinforce their overly aggressive attitudes in day-to-day life (which again may or may not actually be happening), this is potentially regressive.

2a) To confine problematic sexual power dynamics. While this has been improving, we still live a culture that cherishes sexual violence. Many of the media depictions of sex incorporate violence (though at this point, many do not), and it is not uncommon for television shows to portray rape in a manner that trivializes it. In fact, there is a general trend of associating sexual fervor with light violence, though this is probably not a new phenomenon. We can extend this to power in general. Sexuality is often portrayed in a manner that incorporates power in some way, whether that power takes the form of violence, irresistibility, consequences, ownership tropes, or other associated meanings. In other words, we move a lot of power through the sex act.

In this cultural atmosphere, it is not surprising that some people want their sex rough, or otherwise infused with power. In fact, it is more surprising when people want their sex free of power (or rather with less power), because they are bucking the cultural trend. While this might just be my biased view, I suspect that sex and power are rarely divorced, and there is generally more power dynamics in sex than we like to admit.

The association of sex and power serves a particular cultural purpose: it helps oppressive power dynamics persist, even when the people participating in a particular power dynamic would rather drop it. The power dynamic becomes mandatory because of the association with sex. If the dynamic is dropped, people literally may lose the ability to get it up, get wet, get off, or get it on. In less extreme cases, sex just becomes less fun. In this way, the culture trains people to link problematic power dynamics directly their experience of pleasure, ensuring the continuation of said power.

Sexual kink potentially provides a mechanism for breaking this connection, by containing the dynamic to sex itself. To take a particular feminist example, a person who is sexually attracted to submissive women can date someone who is just submissive in the bedroom, not all the time. BDSM mechanisms of consent and negotiation can be used to keep the submission confined to sex. Of course, this only works to the extent that a particular BDSM dynamic is confined to sex or play, but as I pointed out above, almost all BDSM is play.

And of course, this can be used in a regressive manner, though I suspect it is not particularly likely. The regressive example would be confining a liberatory impulse within sex. While I have no doubt that this actually happens in the wider culture, most of the impulses sandboxed by BDSM are not particularly liberatory in their original form, so it is hard to find examples of this specifically within BDSM.

3) To detach particular power roles from their usual nonconsensual assignment. When BDSM sandboxes power roles, it names them and acknowledges them as roles that can be played by anyone, unlike the original roles, which were attached to particular bodies or cultural positions. In this manner, formerly oppressive roles become free-floating, available for use in a number of unconventional settings.

The most obvious example here is gender: the culture works hard to assign particular gender roles to people based on their body, and then forces participation in particular power dynamics based on this supposedly immutable gender. However, in BDSM these power dynamics are explicitly labeled and become roles that anyone can take, changing them from nonconsensual forms of oppression into useful tools of power. Thus we have bottom men and top women, along with similar arrangements between men or between women. (Note that this BDSM operation therefore resembles in some ways the usage of butch/femme among queer women, and top/bottom among queer men, and modern BDSM arguably grew out of the latter.) Critics of BDSM make much of the resemblance between kink and gendered power dynamics, while largely ignoring these counterexamples. Defenders of BDSM constantly cite the counterexamples because it is in the non-normative examples that we can see what is actually happening.

Another good example of this detachment operation is in mommy/daddy play. Normally, one has to be a father or mother interacting with a child or a child interacting interacting with a parent to access these power dynamics. In other words, they are attached to particular cultural roles. However, in kink practice the mommy and daddy roles are detached from the approved cultural form of parenting, and generally become available across the board. In addition to being available for sexual mining, these roles can be used to create familial dynamics in situations that are normally denied such dynamics by the overall culture, such as queer situations.

3a) To detach particular sexual roles from their usual nonconsensual assignment. This does not just apply to gendered sexual roles, but also to other assigned sexual roles, for example the sexuality that the culture infuses into parenting or children. Also, we can see this in teacher/student play, which does not require that actual teachers or students participate. Similar claims can be made for most forms of kinky sexual roleplay.

Foucault’s main point in A History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge was that sexuality had become a central form of power in the culture, infused into all sorts of new situations and then used to manage people in those situations. This detachment operation of BDSM isolates the sexuality from these situations, making it available without the management aspect. In effect, the sexualization of culture becomes available for sexual mining without the associated problems of power. This detachment operation, combined with the confinement operation above, means that BDSM is a significant point of resistance to the regime of sexual power, arguably on the forefront.

3b) To create access to gender. As described above, the detachment operation makes gendered power roles available across the board. But gender itself can be best described as a series of power relations, which means that it is gender itself also becomes available. By making gender roles available, BDSM gives people the ability to access gender, either their own gender or other genders.

The culture makes much of gender, and piles on the associations and power dynamics, overloading the concept of gender. It is rare that a person of any gender has access to the full set of promised power dynamics, even when they are cisgendered and normative, because the expectations are simply unrealistic. This is a primary mechanism of cultural control – people are managed through their quest to achieve their own gender, which can range from prescriptive through difficult to near-impossible.

BDSM gives people access to gendered power dynamics, through the ability to roleplay and reproduce power dynamics from the culture. This can be used to access gender that has been denied for whatever reason. For example, a man who is in search of particular forms of masculinity, can access those particular forms, whatever they might be. This breaks through the general cultural difficulty around achieving masculinity. This can of course be progressive or regressive depending on which masculine aspect we are talking about.

Of course, this access to gender can potentially be useful for transgender, genderqueer, or gender-deviant people, because it can be used to explore or achieve gender. My own gender deviance serves as an example: when I top, the kink archetype I identify most closely with is femdom. I realized this sort of by accident, when I tallied up my list of favorite toys (whips, crops, clothespins) and cross-referenced it with my style (cruel in that light touch kind of way). Which leads me to the suspicion that I am using my kink as one way to express my own femininity. Given the many restrictions I have on expressing femininity (the first one being my body), any ability to express femininity is a bonus. In other words, I am accessing gender in my kink. This access presumably spills into my non-kink practice, making me more confident in effeminacy or simply just more effeminate.

(Astute readers will have noticed that this at odds with the way I may be using my kink to confine my masculinity. However, both can actually be accomplished, and in any particular moment while scening, I may in fact be simultaneously reproducing and confining my masculinity while expressing femininity. And in fact, I can feel a sort of dual-gender overlay happening at that moment.)

I have heard anecdotal reports that there is an overly large trans presence in kink, but I have no solid references to back that up. If anyone from the trans community would like to weigh in on this potential connection, I would love to hear it.

Of course, this gender mechanism can be used in progressive or regressive ways. A great example here is forced feminization play. The politics of this sort of play seem to depend on the purpose to which it is put. If it is used as a mechanism to explore a positive femininity (possibly in pursuit of gender deviance), then it is most likely progressive. If it is used as a sexual mechanism that reinforces stereotypes of women’s degraded sexuality, then it is regressive.

4) To create new kinds of power. Given that BDSM can be used to detach power from its assigned cultural roles, and then play with it in a format where it has largely been neutralized, we can logically expect that new kinds of power are being created. Mostly this happens through a mix-and-match process where one or more detached power dynamics are combined and/or applied to a new situation.

For example, some D/S practitioners conceptualize their D/S relationships as a kind of mentorship. While there is nothing new about mentoring, this particular form is different in a number of ways: the mentor is chosen, the arrangement is relatively stronger in terms of control than other mentorship arrangements (for example, teacher/student), and the relationship can have a sexual component, though it does not have to. While D/S mentorship has its roots in power arrangements that included a mentoring component (military play is arguably the biggest influence here), it has evolved far enough to be an independent power dynamic. Modern culture has abolished or weakened most traditional mentorship arrangements, including any kind of sexual mentorship, so it is unsurprising that BDSM culture is trying to create new forms of mentorship.

We can see something similar at work in some forms of queer and leather families. One of the penalties of being queer is the loss of culturally-approved family structures, so in some cases leather and kink have stepped in to create family. The power dynamics imported by the leather or kink community can be used to organize people into family-like structures. In some cases this is obvious, like the mommy/daddy play I described above, but in other cases the original dynamic (for example military or teacher/student) does not particularly resemble the finished product.

Another good example can be found in certain forms of financial domination. While most such domination is just an extension of an ongoing D/S relationship, some people pursue the financial control aspect with no other contact. The prize for the submissive is the loss of control or humiliation in having their money taken or controlled. This definitely borrows tropes from dominatrix sex work, only without the work part. It is of course possible to argue that our modern culture provides a multitude of ways to spend money that seem to have little purpose beyond the spending itself, but usually there is at least some pretense at commerce, which does not seem to be present here. While this practice seems to follow the same politics as sex work, it is definitely a new sort of arrangement.

4a) To create new kinds of sexuality. Again, it is fairly clear how this could happen. If BDSM eroticizes power (or builds on culturally eroticized power), and at the same time detaches power dynamics from their usual cultural roles, then we can expect that BDSM mixes and repurposes power dynamics to create new kinds of sex and sensuality.

There are endless easily-recognizable examples of this. One of the hottest scenes I have seen recently involved wax play, including the flinging of hot wax onto genitals. Foot fetishists get aroused by giving foot massages. Some submissives can orgasm from command alone, and some pain bottoms can orgasm from beatings alone. Even the ones who are not coming, are typically getting hot, along with their tops.

In the multitude of new sensualities produced by BDSM, the genitals play a very different role than in the mainstream. Instead of being the be-all and end-all of sex, the crotch becomes one sex organ among many, or is even repurposed entirely, for example as a conveniently sensitive place to apply clothespins, needles, or wax. Even when various traditional forms of sex are happening, often they are not the main event. In this case the crotch becomes a useful way to get someone off while you are (say) hurting them. I have focused on bottom examples here, but similar things happen for tops, where the body becomes a series of tools for pain or domination, and the bit between the legs is not necessarily the most important tool.

The ability to create sexuality rounds out the kinky forms of resistance to Foucault’s proliferation of sexual power, as mentioned above. Indeed, the most powerful tool of the regime of sexuality is the ability to create (and therefore control) eroticism, so creating eroticism in a subversive manner is a primary tool for any resistance to the culturally-sanctioned regime of sexuality.

We can generalize this argument to power as well. BDSM provides a prime site for creatively resisting power, as in the various examples I have provided. It is tempting to think that this happens despite the resemblance between BDSM and nonconsensual forms of power in the greater culture, but that is inaccurate. Rather, this potential resistance exists specifically because of the resemblance between kink and bad power relations. This is no surprise: forms of resistance to culturally hegemonic power typically mimic the power they resist and work within the conceptual space laid down by that same power. A strong form of cultural power cannot simply be avoided: even if one was to walk out into the wilderness alone, it would still be in their head, indoctrinated in a hundred little ways. Rather, resistance to power typically seeks to transform the power it resists.

So, is BDSM progressive or regressive? Good question. As I have noted above, there are numerous ways to use BDSM for either purpose. And from what I have seen in the community, the problematic usages are certainly frequent. So there is some question as to whether the current overall effect of kink is good or bad.

However, I want to make the claim that BDSM has a greater potential for positive political action than negative. While kink provides a number of ways to advance or reinforce oppressive power arrangements, it is certainly not alone in that: just turn on your television to see some other ways that oppression can be maintained. However, the operations of power available in kink are rare (though not unique) among forms of resistance, especially if we are talking about the power of sexuality. Moving forward, we should not be surprised if culture-changing forms of resistance grow out of kink practice.