Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Yes, My Lady: The Power of the Exchange of Power

The exchange of power is at the heart of present-day, constructed, consensual sadomasochism, dominance and submission. Supporting this assertion is the assumption that the parties engaged in the exchange of power are attempting to come to the exchange as equal parties; that is to say, all subjects see and respect one another as equal human beings. Furthermore, the assumption exists that the parties wish to engage in the transfer (or exchange) of self-power to enhance sexual fantasy and reality. At the core of the exchange of power is an attempt to lose power and/or control for one subject, known as the bottom/submissive, and to gain power and/or control for the other party, known as the Top/Dominant. In order to understand the process of the exchange of power, and furthermore, the ramifications of such an act, I will examine these assumptions and what is involved in the exchange of power itself.

In The Art of Sensual Female Dominance: A Guide for Women, Mistress Claudia Varrin defines power exchange as the "empowerment of the female by the submissive's surrender of control to her (p. 223)." Thus, a bottom must be willing to give up control in order to empower the Top (a female in this example). We may also assume that the Top in this example would not be empowered should the bottom not concede control. Given this assumption, one could argue that the bottom comes to this agreement with more power than the Top because without the surrender of the bottom's control, the Top has no power or is not empowered. The Top seems to be the passive recipient of the outcome of the act of the bottom. To make the exchange of power successful, it is the bottom who actively participates.

Next, inherent in the exchange of power between two or more parties for the benefit of sexual (and/or spiritual, physical, psychic) fulfillment is the awareness of one's own and each subject's power. To those who oppose the practice of SM, this is what is so threatening about BDSM, D/S. Most subjects in the United States, particularly those who purposefully do not engage in SM, are not aware of their own power. Furthermore, they do not want to tap into their source of power, particularly for sexual fulfillment. They see power as inherently dangerous and damaging. They especially do not believe that sex and power should mix; power should remain outside of the bedroom, if you will. Power is not seen as sexy, safe, sane, or consensual.

To the SM practitioner, power is sought and meant to be played with; queered, if you will. Power is seen as sexy, enlightening; it is believed to be exchanged safely, sanely, and consensually. To those who oppose SM, power cannot be exchanged, toyed with, or controlled. Power most definitely cannot exist for the consensual benefit of all parties involved (including those parties not involved, but related to the parties engaging in SM).

My analysis of the exchange of power differs greatly from every other SM writers: for example, in SM 101: A Realistic Introduction, SM practitioner Jay Wiseman explains that the reason why people are against SM is that they simply do not understand SM. Moreover, Wiseman attempts to demonstrate that if SM practitioners could just educate people about what is truly involved in SM, then somehow these people would come around to our way of thinking; see the light, if you will. However, I completely disagree with this line of thinking. The philosophy and practice behind anti-SM precisely understands what is involved in SM -- they do not agree with the exchange of power. They do not concur with power. They can only see what damage the use and abuse of power has done. Power, using it, seeing it, taking responsibility for it, causes them shame, contrition, and remorse. No amount of SM education is going to relieve or change their negative experiences of and reactions toward power.

Furthermore, it is no coincidence that many of the SM community have privilege: be it white privilege, class privilege, urban privilege, and/or male privilege. Through privilege and experience, SM practitioners are able and willing to tap into what Varrin calls their "internal well of power." The major difference between SM and non-SM practitioners is that SM people tap into their internal well of power; they look more freely at their sexual behavior and fantasies. Where SM players try to figure out how to deal with powerful sexual urges and desires in a safe and realistic manner, non-SM people steer away form having to admit and look at their sexual urges and desires. SM players devise rules in attempt to control and contain these powerful desires. As Wiseman asserts, "they 'ritualize' how these urges will be expressed (p. 16)." Whereas, people who are consumed by the threat of SM, I assert, ritualize how these urges will be avoided and denied.

In conclusion, SM, the exchange of power, is the exploration of controversial and risky sexual activities. It is experiencing what, in On the Safe Edge: A Manual for SM Play, Trevor Jacques describes as "things we know few people have had the privilege to see or in which they've been able to take part (p. 18)." In the United States, most lawmakers see to it that we will remain among the few who have had the privilege to see or take part in the exchange of power: in some U.S. jurisdictions, the exchange of power between consenting adults is illegal. Furthermore, many people in positions of power in the U.S. attempt to avoid and deny the presence of SM: recently, the State University of NY (SUNY) Albany has come under attack for allowing a student club called The Power Exchange to be organized to educate college-age adults about SM and fetish practices. The Power Exchange is a discussion-only group that was created by students for students. Imagine something so powerful, so threatening, that discussion only of it comes under attack. Know the force of conscious, consensual exchange of power.

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