If you’ve been following this blog, you may have noticed that I make a lot of references to my idea of the Inner and Outer Layers of BDSM. That’s because, as I see it, almost everything in BDSM touches on this idea one way or another. It provides a useful route into BDSM, which is by its nature a somewhat confusing thicket until you find your pathway through it. So here’s another thing I think of in terms of Inner and Outer Layers.
Power exchange and kinky sex are inherently performative. Doms, subs, slaves, goddesses, pups, leather daddies, baby girls, and whatever other role you might adopt in sex and relationships all have one thing in common. They are roles we play and there are rules to those roles. Just like actors on a stage, our roles have costumes and props; you can’t be a leather daddy without your leathers, and adult babies need their diapers and their bottles. The roles constrain our behavior during play; a sub who refuses to be submissive is breaking his role and probably frustrating his dom and reducing the dom’s sexual pleasure (although some doms like having to ‘conquer’ their sub, so the roles have variations to them). Our scenes have scripts to them. If you’re playing a rape scene out, the last thing the dom ought to do is ask permission or apologize, because the sub wants the experience of encountering a cruel, aggressive figure who forces sex without remorse. (Getting permission is what the pre-scene negotiation is for.) Even if there isn’t any structured role-playing going on (by which I mean the dom and sub pretending to be people they aren’t, like cop and burglar or teacher and student), there are still expectations about how we will play our roles, and violating those expectations too much will tend to reduce satisfaction.
None of that is to say that doms and subs must follow rigidly-enforced rules of play. Players can switch roles during scenes or experience a moment of awareness where they decide to go off-script because something interesting is happening. Some people may prefer their leather dom to be laughing and joking a lot, while others may prefer him stern and angry. We don’t generally set the roles ourselves–we draw off of ideas we’ve seen in porn, in film, and elsewhere in our culture–but we do get to write the scripts for those roles. Do what arouses you and leave out the rest.
The deeper the power exchange, the more important the performance of our roles becomes. If you’re just doing an occasional kinky scene with your partner (the burglar occasionally breaks in to tie up the lonely housewife), the performance doesn’t have to last any longer than the scene, and might even end during the sex. But if you’re trying to work power exchange into your relationship in some more serious way (for example, the fabled 24/7 Master/slave relationship), the performance itself becomes a part of the relationship.
Years ago, when I was training my first slave, I gave him a rule that if we went anywhere, he was required to open doors for me. A few weeks later, he expressed some frustration that I wasn’t consistently following the rule. I was frequently just walking through doors, which confused him and made him feel like he was doing a poor job as a slave. I realized that, having set a rule around doors, when I approached a door, I had to perform my role as master in a small way, pausing briefly to allow him to step forward and get the door for me. By not performing my role as master, I was denying him an opportunity to play his role as slave. Those performances mattered, even if we just going to the mall to get a sandwich.
And here’s how this relates to the Inner and Outer Layers. Performance is an Outer Layer issue. It’s what people looking at the kinksters see, instead of what the kinksters experience. But when you’re interacting with your sub or your dom, they’re looking at you, which means you’re performing your role for them. They are your audience, and you are theirs.
One of the dangers of established dom/sub couples is that they can get so used to their dynamic that they start to forget that they need to perform, that they take their roles for granted. If you’re a sub, your master is going to expect you to make periodic gestures that perform your role as sub. Maybe that means wearing sexy outfits for him, or kissing his feet, or telling him how manly he is or whatever it is that tells him you’re submissive and he’s dominant. And conversely, if you’re the dom, you need to periodically put on those leathers or invade the sub’s personal space or pinch their nipple. The act of performing your role becomes an important way to remind each other that you value your power exchange, find your partner desirable, and need to express your kinky self. In other words, the Inner Layer gets expressed through the Outer Layer. Kissing your master’s feet or pulling your sub’s hair becomes a way of saying ‘I love you’, just in a different language.
But here’s the tricky thing. Saying this is a performance doesn’t mean it’s not real. The challenge of power exchange is to find the part of you that genuinely is your role and then perform that piece of you. Kink is a performance of the real. And it needs to be real. If you’re playing a role you don’t enjoy (or once did but no longer do), your performance is going to become hollow, pro forma, and uninspiring, and your power exchange is going to start feeling like a burden instead of a joy and pleasure.
So you need to dig into yourself and find the truly dominant or submissive part of you. My evolution as a dom has been a process of finding the parts of me that are genuinely selfish, cruel, and demanding and then learning to express those qualities in ways that nurture rather than harm my partners. When I tell my boy Spunky that he’s a worthless piece of human trash, I am saying that not because I think Spunky genuinely is worthless, but because I know that there is a worthless part of him that the cruel asshole part of me can interact with for our mutual pleasure. If I hadn’t found that asshole piece of me and become comfortable with it, I wouldn’t be able to touch that part of him and our relationship would be much poorer as a result. So my performance as a verbally abusive asshole enables me to connect with him while reminding myself that I’m not just the asshole I perform for him. The performance enables me to do dark things without feeling like I’m a genuinely bad person.
When I work with a new boy, I spend a lot of time asking him questions about what arouses him, because it helps me home in on the parts of him he’s going to need to connect to in order to give a satisfying and meaningful performance for us. Training involves teaching a boy how to perform the role I need him to perform for me.
But just as kink involves an Outer Layer performance, it can’t all be just that. No one is entirely dominant or entirely submissive in all parts of their life because the Outer Layer is just half the story. We all exist on the Inner Layer as well. The most dominant man in the world still needs time to express the other sides of his personality. He needs time to be silly or sad or confused or in need of comfort, because he’s a real human being. And the most submissive man in the world still needs those same things because he too is only a human being. The sub who is the 24/7 worthless slave locked in a dungeon is a fantasy, not a reality. It exists in large part because porn collapses context and tends to hide the Inner Layer, causing a lot of people to think that there really are people like that. There aren’t actually whole people like that. Rather, there are people who enjoy performing that role. But eventually being locked in a cage being ignored gets boring, no matter how deep the performance goes, because every slave has other parts of himself that need acknowledging.
One last point: knowing that kink is a performance can be helpful to novices because it demystifies the whole thing and reduces the pressure for perfection. They need to learn the basic rules to perform their role, but they shouldn’t feel so intimidated by the role, because just like the actor on tv isn’t actually a brilliant secret agent who knows how to fly planes, pick locks, defuse bombs, perform krav maga and open-heart surgery, so too the novice dom or sub doesn’t have to actually know how to do it all. They just have to know the skills necessary for performing their role. If you want to be a rope dom, you need to learn safe rope work. But you don’t need to have mastered the single-tail whip to be a rope dom, so learn the skills you need for your particular role. If you don’t know a particular skill, you can admit that your performance doesn’t cover that skill, just like the actor who doesn’t actually know how to hack a computer can admit he’s giving a performance. Realizing that all the other kinksters you see are also playing roles can take a lot of pressure off you.