Recently, someone on Twitter pointed out that I might have to explain the term ‘power exchange’ after I used it in a tweet. A quick Twitter poll suggest that enough people don’t know what the term means or want to hear my take on it, so here goes.
I’ve never seen any attempt a history of the term, but a few older doms I know say that they first heard it used in terms of the energy that flows between dom and sub during pain play and other similar scenes. When a scene goes well, dom and sub are both drawing something out of the other, a bit the way an actor and an audience interact when a theatrical performance is going well, each side encouraging the other. In a situation like that, a dom becomes more aggressive and cruel as the sub becomes more submissive and eager to please. Different body language conveys different energy; a sub whose body is erect and quivering with energy is showing his eagerness and drawing out a reciprocal eagerness from the dom, while one whose body is straining against the bonds may elicit a more cruel energy from his captor. And a dom’s words and body language can call out different energy from a sub. A dom who is being cocky might elicit some resistance from the sub, forcing the dom to ‘earn’ his dominance by overpowering the sub.
But by the 90s, the term ‘power exchange’ was being used to describe not a scene but a relationship. Prior to the late 80s, there was not an enormous amount of effort being spent writing about what bdsm was in an abstract way. It was simply a practice some people engaged in (Larry Townsend’s The Leatherman’s Handbook stands as an obvious exception). But as kink started to grow in popularity and became slightly less underground, some kinksters began trying to understand BDSM in the abstract, to figure out why it was different from domestic violence, and so on. And at that point, some people began to explain BDSM relationships as being rooted in ‘power exchange’.
The basic notion of power exchange is the consensual surrender of the submissive’s power in the relationship to the dominant. When a dom and sub agree to be in a relationship that lasts longer than just a scene, they start to establish some rules about the roles they will play, although those rules might not always be fully-articulated. Ideally, the dom and sub will negotiate clear rules about when and how far the sub is expected to obey the dom. For example, the sub consents to let the dom take the lead during sex, or to be tied up or spanked. The sub may agree to do the dom’s domestic chores, and so on. In a full-out power exchange relationship, the dom may control most facets of their household and domestic life, may dictate the sub’s diet or work-out schedule, control the sub’s grooming and dress, and so on.
Many kinksters realize after they find kink that they were trying to exchange power in their previous vanilla relationships but were doing it without articulating the rules. That usually ends in either frustration or arguments. So it’s important to understand that kinky power exchange is explicit, with all involved knowing what the rules are, agreeing to them, and possessing some ability to re-negotiate the rules should it become necessary. ‘Implicit’ power exchange, where the couple is not openly discussing the power dynamics of relationship, can often lead to conflicts (for example, arguments over money or who does the chores) and in extreme cases may turn into domestic abuse. All relationships involve some sort of power exchange. What separates kinky relationships from vanilla ones is that kink gives us a framework for explicitly discussing the power dynamics whereas vanilla couples can often be oblivious to the choices they are making. (After I had my ‘dominance epiphany’, I remember thinking, “oh, that’s why my ex and I argued about money so much! I wanted more control. I just didn’t understand that that’s what the issue was.”)
It’s easy to see what the sub is giving to the dom. But power exchange goes deeper than a simple giving away of power to the dom. This is power exchange, not just power yielding or power taking. So what does the dom give to the sub? Subs don’t, as a rule, want power, at least not as power is conventionally understood. (Kink is paradoxical, and subs can find that surrendering power can be strangely empowering, helping them live their best lives and be more confident in who they truly are.)
What a dom gives to a sub is structure and rules and on a deeper level a place. I like to say that a dom becomes the center of the sub’s universe, acting like the sun around which the sub’s planet orbits. The dom’s gravitational power holds the sub in place, providing a sense of security, a fixed point that stabilizes the sub’s life, an anchor that helps the sub weather life’s storms. (Not all subs need that; some subs are very confident in their place and need a superior for some other psychological reason.)
Viewing a kink relationship this way helps clarify one of the things so much of the kinky porn gets wrong (as well as the view of BDSM from the outside). A dom doesn’t just get to take from the sub. The dom is giving as well. He doesn’t just have privileges; he has duties in the relationship. Early on in my relationship with my first slave, I had given him a rule that he was supposed to open doors for me. But he started to complain that I was just opening some doors and walking through them before he could open them. That upset him because it made him feel like he wasn’t doing his job well enough, that I didn’t trust him to get that rule right. That taught me that I had to slow down as I approached a door to allow him to step ahead and open it. Doing that well and consistently made him feel proud of his service and made him want to serve more. So one of my principles about rule-making is that when a dom sets a rule, he is bound by it as well. He has a duty to allow himself to be served via that rule. Because kink is a reciprocal power exchange, even if it looks like the power only flows one way.