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Three common pitfalls when playing with power (2020)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

I just came back from Gothenburg, where I taught a workshop around the question – can BDSM be spiritual? As a way to introduce power play beyond bedroom bondage, spanking and 50 Shades of Grey. The key pillars where power, space and ritual. As most of the participants were new to the subject, I reconnected to three common pitfalls. I like to see them as hidden traps, as they are the kind of mistakes that one doesn’t notice directly.

The first one mostly applies to the dominant, and it is burning out by serving. I should write by “only” serving, or doing it too much. Dominating something is a paradoxical balance between holding space and being selfish. Almost everyone wants to be a good master by taking care of the submissive, and almost everyone is emphatically and caring people. Of course, some people are psychopaths, but this text is not about them. Also, many people find the dominant part of the power dynamic interesting, do that because they want to learn, or be allowed, to focus more on themselves. So they already have an “over serving” tendency. That’s what they know, and how they feel most safe interacting. And this is a good trait – don’t get me wrong on that – but eventually, they will burn out.

There is a joke saying that once during one’s journey of learning to tie advanced rope bondage, one will make the statement – I’m not going to be an amusement park, anymore. In the long process of learning the suspensions, one is often grateful for practising on the techniques. Having a partner looking for the endorphins rollercoaster, rather than a deep power play, is perfect in this case. But eventually, the focus will shift from the rope pattern to the power play (I hope), and then the dominant will likely say – I’m closing down the amusement park. This statement symbolizes a change in the dominant because when I meet beginners, they feel selfish when practising techniques, and they struggle to at the same time give a profound experience to their partner. Or at least many people mindfuck about it. Once they get good at the techniques, practising longer serves to balance the “holding space and being selfish” scale.

So one must find another way of being selfish, or burn out. Here I often get the question, so how do I go about that? And there is a term from the Japanese kinky underground scene that I love – to be “maniac” – about something. To find something about the submissive to lust for, madly, like a maniac, and then diving deeply into that. It may be the sounds they make when aroused, how they sob, how their hair smells, or how their mouth taste. And selfishly take that. Or find a situation or sensation that the dominant lusts for, and guide the submissive into providing that. Of course, they might overlap, the submissive and dominant desires, hopefully, they do. But the important part is that the dominant learns to balance holding space and being selfish.

It’s funny for me to see this acted out in a workshop’s microcosmos, where most people end up wanting to be submissive because there is such insecurity about being selfish.

The second pitfall is more for the submissive, and its about evaluating one’s performance. So, the way I see it is that the dominant is giving suggestions, and the submissive is following. The question that arises for many submissives, especially if they usually are more dominant outside play – am I following the directions good enough? Is this scene taking the right direction? And maybe even, what the hell is the dominant trying to achieve? Asking these questions to oneself is often a first step in evaluating the situation, leading to taking over control—and not submitting or surrendering. There is a paradox for the submissive here; on the one hand, one should evaluate to know if what’s going is within their borders, but on the other hand, doing this is taking back control. So the submissive must learn to balance, just like the dominant is balancing between holding space and being selfish.

Actually, when I meet a new submissive and offer the idea that they do not have to evaluate or understand the situation, most of them express a colossal release, after thinking about it. Because the intellectual process is hindering the body from letting go into submission and surrender. But how does this work concerning consent? There two parts to that answer. One is in the trust of the relationship with the dominant partner, which can be evaluated outside play. Maybe even together with the partner, by reflecting on what happened in the session. Secondly, by embodying self-protection, and that is a broad subject. It starts by learning to be transparent with one’s experience and show how the scene impacts the submissive—by using body language, breathing, and sound. Suppose the play involves more risky elements, like rope suspensions and heavy impact play. In that case, the submissive must learn to recognize dangerous pain and either use their body to mitigate the risk or communicate it. It’s all easy to write, but it takes practice to embody.

The bottom line is that if you want to play the dominant role, then learn how to balance holding space and being selfish. And if you are playing the submissive role, then learn how to balance keeping yourself safe and not evaluating the situation. And maybe finally, if you in either position, find your self bored, then I recommend switching it around.