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How to say no without breaking a power dynamic? (2022)

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

This is probably one of the most common questions I encounter in my retreats on domination and submission. How can I let go of control but still care for my boundaries? Or how can I alter the direction of a scene without breaking it? And I want to see it as a submissive skill to learn and master.

But, first, maybe unnecessary, let’s cover the basics of a no before we can graduate to more complex relationships to the concept of will. First, a “no” should always be met with a thank you. Thank you for not letting me abuse you. Thank you for protecting your boundaries. Thank you for making me feel safe dominating you etc. Learning how to say no, is learning how to say yes. And learning how to say no is knowing oneself and the responses to different unwanted situations. Like fawning, fighting, flighting, or freezing. And they all go from mild to extreme, for example, from agreeable to codependent, tensing to brawling, withdrawing to panicking, or numb to apathetic. Knowing one’s boundaries and being able to communicate them is a great gift. The musing An anatomy of yes and no goes into more detail if you are curious. Now onto the more complex topic of will inside a power dynamic.

I believe that the most fundamental goal in a power dynamic is to stay in the power dynamic. So any communication that aids in maintaining the polarity is helpful and, therefore, an act of submission. This, I think, is a constructive way to relate to saying “no”. And there are two keys to this communication as a submissive. The first is understanding what is the focus of the play right now. For example, is it me sucking on a pair of fingers in my mouth, receiving a spanking while counting and saying thank you, or being tied in a challenging position. And if something else is taking the awareness away from this focus, then it’s good to communicate that. For example, the painful knot under my foot may be taking away from the experience of sucking on fingers. And very likely, the dominant is unaware and needs the submissive’s help to know. So the communication is not really a “no” to the knot but rather a “yes” to the sucking. It aims to plunge deeper into the power dynamic. Just for reference, a predicament is different when the dominant consciously creates a kind of stimulus that the submissive mind alternates between. So communicating boundaries, or maybe issues or worries are better words, to stay longer or go deeper is excellent.

The next key is to communicate what’s happening without making a decision. Of course, a no is a clear decision, but there is often very possible to speak, verbally or non-verbally, before a no reaches a no. And it is an grayscale, knowing what to communicate as a decisive no and what to give as information. I think it depends on trust, not the puffy fluffy hippie kind of trust, but how much I trust that my partner can act on the information so that I remain safe and inside the power dynamic. I have some long-term play partners that whisper; I’ll (literally) pass out soon if you don’t change this bondage position. And being OK with passing out if I decide to stay longer because they know I can bring them down safely even if that happens. But it doesn’t often occur, as making people pass out is on edge for me as the dominant, but anyway, you get the idea. However, the submissive needs to know the trust required to communicate things as information rather than decisions and not expect a specific action.

Because when the hard no is spoken, it breaks something. It is supposed to; it’s the whole point. Sometimes I think about the difference between playing with sensations and power. When the feeling, rather than the meaning, of a spanking, is the goal. Then there is no dynamic to be broken, but when the power play is the purpose, maintaining a fantasy or fiction becomes a key.

Another way of dealing with it is opting in rather than opting out. That means continuously showing that one is OK by seeking closeness, being attentive and transparent with one’s experience. However, many submissives find this scary, as it’s vulnerable to be seen in this way. I think it touches upon the division between submission and surrender. When practising submission, it becomes more accessible to opt-in because the focus is already external, on the interaction with the dominant. On the other hand, when going into surrender, it’s more common to go inwards and be less communicative. So, continuously opting in will create a noticeable change if the body suddenly starts to fight, flight, or freeze, ever so lightly. However, it doesn’t work with fawning in my experience because it’s almost impossible to know if they are opting in or fawning when they follow my journey. Fawning can be defined as consciously or non-consciously but, most importantly, non-consensually adapting to another-therefore avoiding one uncomfortable situation by ending up in another.

As a dominant, you can smoothly help create opt-in situations for your submissive. For example, a few weeks ago, I told this imaginary story about how I would pee on a person I didn’t know and without talking about it beforehand. Maybe someone reading this musing will also find it more entertaining than disgusting. Starting off, I would bring the focus to their mouth by gently tracing their lips’ outline. Then, slowly separating them with a finger, opening up, and giving the sensation of being ready to receive. Next, I would start touching myself, close enough to their face so they could smell me, knowing that it’s me that they will receive. At the same time, my gaze would move from their eyes to their mouth and back. Then I would squirt a little bit to their right while maintaining eye contact. Next, I would hold their hand to the left and wet it, asking them to smell and taste it. Finally, come back to eye contact while opening their mount with a finger. Again, never forcing it but just implying that it should remain open, ready to receive. Now, if they kept opting in during this almost ritualistic choreography, I would feel very safe peeing. And again, as I’ve written so many times, the journey makes the experience worthwhile. And so much safer.

In the role of the submissive, the final consideration (for this musing) is the distance between yes and no. The answer is very individual. But, if it’s very close, one will likely come off as ambivalent. And less safe to play with because a yes will turn into a no and then back again. Some people enjoy being closely in contact with their yes and no and feeling how it moves from one to another. And sure, it can be an exciting balancing act and empowering to feel heard and respected. But it’s also draining and takes the focus away from the actual power dynamic. And I believe the more trust that exists, the more a “hard no” transforms into sharing information without expecting any specific action, therefore maintaining the power dynamic. This, combined with learning how to opt-in together, is the key to altering a scene’s direction without breaking it. I believe.