What is power?
My fourth grade teacher used to always challenge us with the question, “What do you mean by that?” It was her way to lead everything back to building vocabulary. But an incidental effect of that vocabulary building was that there grew a shared understanding within that class of the words we commonly used.
I bring this up because there is possibly no more overused word in the BDSM community than “power.” Yet, as far as I can tell, there is simply no shared understanding of what that word means. This means that any number of heated arguments can break out because people simply interpret that word to mean what is convenient to them. I am as guilty of this as any other person (after all, I remain hopelessly human).
Since I teach political science, I have had to develop an understanding of power and how it is used. The definition I have come to favor is “the ability to influence behavior.” It is a very broad definition, but it is narrow enough to be useful, and I think it is a very good definition to use with respect to a D/s relationship. Influence can be over or covert, obvious or subtle. In political science, they often talk of “hard power” and “soft power.” Again, I think that is a good concept to adapt to D/s relationship. If nothing else, it helps break down the stereotype that all Dominants rule with a heavy hand and the sharp crack of a whip, and it provides a framework to discuss this stereotype.
Hard power is power wielded nakedly. It is a direct command, at the lower end of the scale. At the upper end, it is in the administration of extreme force. When it is used, everyone in the immediate area knows that there is a power dynamic in place. This should not be taken to mean that it is the “stick” of punishment versus the “carrot” of rewards. Actually, both carrots and sticks are forms of hard power – they are overt attempts to shape behavior.
Soft power, on the other hand, is just as controlling, but it is not always as easy to see. It is the art of making another want to do what you want them to do, without having to actually tell them what to do. I do this with my kids all the time. When I see them cleaning up after themselves, I tell them how much I appreciate it and that it makes me happy to see them doing things without being told.
It is because of my understanding of power and the way our relationship revolves around it that I recently decided not to describe what we have as a “power exchange.” Strictly speaking, there is no exchange. Once I knew that She was the one I wanted to surrender to, I simply released all claim to power within our relationship. The release is total in that I accept Her leadership and authority throughout all aspects of our life together. If She is not exercising control over any area of my life, it is simply because She chooses not to do so at this time (or maybe I just don’t notice Her pulling my strings).
I do not, however, stumble around as an automaton. I have feelings and sometimes they are very strong. I have beliefs, some of which are fundamental to who I am as a person. And I have limits on the morality and responsibility I am willing to surrender. I am a person. I am simply a person who has surrendered all of the ability to influence my primary relationship to my partner in that relationship. Simply put, I have given up all of my personal power in the relationship to Mistress Delila.
Her control of me may be soft or hard, depending on the situation and Her mood, but She is always entitled to exercise it. That is the basis of our relationship, and, even if it challenges me, I will return to that time and again. And I will decide to submit over and over and over. THIS is what I WANT our relationship to be, and it is what SHE wants as well.
I’ve been asked what I would do if She ordered me to do something that violated my deepest personal values. That question makes no sense, because it presupposes that I chose to release my power into the hands of someone who would be willing to violate me. I didn’t just fall to my knees for the first woman who smiled at me. There was a lot of discussion about what we want, what we need, what we expect – and what would never be contemplated.
What would anyone do if their life partner suddenly demanded things that were completely out of character? Seek medical help, possibly? People change, of course, but most adults do not suddenly become their own antithesis. If they do; then that is generally taken as a sign of mental or medical illness. Just because Mistress and I have a purposefully skewed power dynamic doesn’t change this.
The upshot of this is that a Total Power Release is a very individual type of relationship. It isn’t just an agreement between the two of us…it is how I express my love for Her. It is no less valid or real because it cannot guarantee success against every single challenge the future might throw at us, much less those things which reality simply cannot allow to happen. It might not look “Total” to someone else, but who cares? I’m not in this to please anyone outside of the relationship. It’s what She wants and what I need, and that is enough.