The false dichotomy behind a “natural” dominant/submissive
I want to thank Dumb Domme for this post because it gives me a source I enjoy linking to in order to launch into a discussion that doensn’t immediately fit what she has written. Also, it is my apparent mission in life to separate good science from bad (because I consider myself a scientist and believe science is the inherently beneficial effort to improve the human experience).
When you get into the car, do you put on your seatbelt? I don’t care if you do or not, I want you to consider that the answer you give might have its foundations (but not its complete answer) in your genetic makeup. Go ahead and be skeptical, because I am generally skeptical about such claims. However, after looking at the work of Guang Guo at UNC, I’ve tried to enrich my understanding of that idea.
Prof. Guo (and his colleagues) has found a statistically significant link to whether or not a male wears a seatbelt and a specific iteration (9r/9r) of the DAT1 dopamine transporter gene. In general terms, this specific genetic iteration provides a protective effect against males developing risky patterns, even when controls for social characteristics are implemented. What this does not mean is that whether a man wears his seatbelt or not depends on having the 9r/9r DAT1 iteration. It means that having it, or not, influences whether he does – and at what age he begins to do so (potentially).
I’ll leave that hanging and look at genetics from a different point of view. I have my Grandma’s mouth – the lips and shape are unmistakably passed along from her. I have the body hair pattern of one maternal grandfather and the thinning hair of another. My voice is, at times, very much like my father’s. The point is that physical attributes are passed along genetically. This is undeniably true, and hardly needs even the introduction that I have given it.
If the structure of my hands or of my mouth can be influenced by genetics, then is it not also possible that the structures within my brain are also influenced by genetics? I don’t know if there is a definitive answer, but the answer seems likely to be affirmative. Since different brain structures control different behaviors and thought patterns, we could then infer that some preferences and behaviors could follow lines of inheritance.
For example, schizophrenia is often seen to run in families. So is depression. Is it possible that sexual submissiveness or dominance is also influenced by genetics? This is where I point out that there is a genetic link, through the 9r/9r DAT1 genotype’s protective effect against dopamine, to whether or not a man wears a seatbelt or not. If seatbelt wearing is linked to a specific gene; then why not wanting to control or be controlled in a sexual encounter?
I want to be clear that I am not arguing that there absolutely IS a genetic component to BDSM. I am saying that it is possible that there is a link. Then I am asking: So, what if there is? Does it make any difference?
Let me leave that question hanging while I talk about Michael Shanahan’s study linking genes to school dropout rates. This study is important to me because it finds two things. First, there is a specific genetic iteration that correlates to academic achievement (through disruptive behaviors – not through innate intelligence). Second, it found that the extra risk this genetic iteration poses towards academic success can be overcome with the right environmental controls. This, put simply, means that we are not slaves to our genes.
Back to the previous question: What does a (possible/probable) genetic link to F/m (because that’s what this blog focuses on) mean? It simply means that there are people for whom dominance and submission is a natural state in an intimate relationship. Shanahan’s study shows that these natural tendencies can be defeated. (What it doesn’t show is if these kids whose environment overcame their disruptive genes ever enjoyed going to school – so we can’t extrapolate as to whether a genetically disposed submissive who is pushed into a non-submissive role is happy about it. Based on my experience, the answer is no (because I believe I’m someone whose genetics orient them towards submission in intimate relationships).
But if environment has the power to overwhelm genetic tendencies; then it surely has the power to shape them. The sum of my life experience has led me to express my submissiveness towards Mistress Delila in specific ways – for example, kneeling in supplication or putting my head in Her lap. What’s more, I am, to some extent, in control of my environment. I can expose myself to various stimuli or cut them out of my life entirely (with limitations, of course). This means I am constantly becoming submissive, even while I am now, and always have been, a submissive man.
This is a sort of reasoning way to get to what Carl Rogers deduced in the 1960s:
This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.
Okay, not I’m pulling yet another string into this tangled mess. This comes from something I wrote a while back. As a summary, I’ll say that the point is that we (men) are immersed in social pressure to be “manly.” (Women face their own set of social pressures.) It begins before we are born and it hits us from nearly all directions at nearly all times. We cannot say that it has no impact. We can only recognize the impact and act to counter-balance it when we believe it is wrong. As I said just up the page a bit, we can have (limited) power over our environment and how it influences us.
Now, I’ve said all of this so I can address DD’s central question: Are Dominants born or made? Then answer, I believe is: The evidence is inconclusive. There is probably a genetic predisposition. However, a person’s life will decide whether that genetic predisposition is activated or not. Just like you may have a genetic predisposition to lung cancer, but if you never smoke it never gets activated. What exact environmental factors activate, promote, and influence sexual domination are unclear, and likely will vary widely across a very large population. More to the point of the question: IT DOESN’T MATTER.
People talk about “natural” dominance and submission, inferring a genetic component, as if it were somehow better than dominance or submission learned through social interaction. It isn’t! In fact, given the fact that humans are inherently social creatures, and immediately set up societies everywhere they go, social influences are just as natural as genetic influences! This is especially true when you consider the multi-generational arch where gene influence behavior which in turn influences gene which influences other behaviors, etc., etc.
Even if someone “has always known” their sensual power orientation (did I just invent a term?) their memory doesn’t include some portion of their life. I have a very good memory, and can vaguely remember some big and scary events that happened when I was three years old, but I can’t remember a lot more than I can. Just because you remember always being one way doesn’t mean that it is because of genetic predisposition. You, too, were subjected to a world’s worth of socialization before you knew what it was.
To me, if we strip it down to its bare essence, sensual power orientation is about control or be controlled. Other kinks may be involved, but the heart of it would appear to be who is in charge. That is best understood, in my mind, as an orientation. As DD says, it is not immutable – it is flowing, changing direction, evolving. For some, it may even switch directions. But for a large number of us, it points in a single direction – though not as deeply in that direction for any two people.
We are all captains of our own life-ship. Our parents laid the basic hull structure of that ship with their own biological material. Then life added rooms and knocked down walls. We floated aimlessly for a while. We went the direction we were told we should go. But the nose of the ship kept turning a certain way. Is it nature or nurture? Who cares? I doubt any thinking individual can swear that it is entirely one way or the other.
Just like the captain of a ship is responsible for its actions, we are responsible for what we do. I don’t care how deeply you’ve sailed into the Sea of Dominance, you better damn well know your ropes if you expect to come alongside my ship – because this ship is the only thing between me and the deep, blue sea and I’m not going under for anyone! The responsibility of knowing what you are doing only deepens if you represent yourself as an old salt when your partner is still green around the gills.
In other words, it’s a damned sight more important that a dominant knows the skills necessary to pull off what they are attempting than it is to know if she has specific genes or just a kinky life. F/m covers a lot of territory, so learn the specific risks and safety precautions you need so that it is rewarding for everyone involved. If you aren’t an expert, start slow and build slow. You can always come back to push a little further – unless you are dead, in which case it doesn’t matter.
I want to revise and extend a specific statement from DD as way to close by way of example: DD wrote: The idea that ‘you have it or you don’t’ doesn’t support a culture where dominants are encouraged to ask questions, admit mistakes, or use caution — and that’s dangerous. It doesn’t promote honesty — I suspect that’s why many dominants lie about their experience — out of fear of not being ‘true’ enough or ‘natural’ enough to be a ‘real dominant.’
In the history of the NFL, there are few running backs who had more impact that Walter Payton. I heard an interview with him after he had retired a bit and he was asked why he remained at the top of his game for so long. His answer went something along the lines of this:
When I began, I didn’t care about technique. I went out there and I ran. I was fast enough and big enough to do the job. But I made myself a student of my position, and as my physical talents leveled off, I was able to improve my technique. I became a better running back because I worked at being a better running back.