Friday, 11 April 2008

Power and Life

I'm currently bogged down with work, and more interested when I do have free time in doing BDSM rather than in theorizing about how feminism should think about it. (Actually having a partner will do this :) But I do want to bring something up as a possible discussion topic.

I often see feminists claiming that domination and submission is a bad pattern for... well, for anything really. Whether it be intimate relationships or the role of social institutions,
some feminists strongly contrast something "egalitarian" or "peer-to-peer" or "equal" or "respectful" or the like with a twisted dynamic in which someone seizes and wields power to everyone's detriment. I'm thinking of this now because I've just re-read Judith Herman's excellent Trauma and Recovery on post-traumatic stress disorder, and I notice her giving warnings about the therapeutic relationship becoming one of "domination and submission" (as well as warning that many survivors expect healing to involve a "sadomasochistic orgy" of cathartic revelation, rather than slow and steady progress working with traumatic memory.)

Some such feminists allow for the BDSM flavor of D/s as some sort of odd special case, either because it's consensual or because they think of D/s as time-limited sex play. Which makes some sense, except that D/s isn't always time-limited sex play, and that, well, while I think consent means a hell of a lot, sometimes we do consent to things we oughtn't.

So I really wonder if it's the right tack to take that there's this universal bad thing called "domination and submission", and D/s as done by us is simply the exception that, ultimately, proves the rule. We're so resourceful that we can (sometimes) do it wisely, but it's just bad in the first place, really.

I understand her concern, and even share it -- power dynamics have to be gardened, in a sense. Trimmed and kept up so they don't slip into dysfunctional inequality. But at the same time, I wonder if "domination and submission" really is naturally dysfunctional, or if the problem is either:

1) People are lazy. Most of the time they don't care about the responsibilities that come with wielding power, or the responsibilities that come with submitting (those being keeping a hawk-eye on your boundaries, and standing up for yourself if/when they get pushed.)

or

2) Domination and submission is bad as a social structure. Power can never be wielded wisely over groups; such a thing invariably involves oppression, violence, silencing, stifling, etc. The confusion comes when people don't distinguish between interpersonal power dynamics, which may be benign or positive even outside of BDSM, and social ones.

Any thoughts? I find myself wincing when I see the phrase overused as what's obviously wrong with the world, but I have trouble articulating just why.

16 comments:

Zula said...

I think it's a combination of the two. Cop-out answer, I know. However, #2 really got me thinking about the idea of "what's rational for the individual is irrational for the masses."

For example, on Minnesota Public Radio (or perhaps National Public Radio; can't remember which), an economist was talking about the recent slump of the American economy and the Prez's planned stimulus package. Basically, he said that the smart thing for people to do with the money would be to invest it, save it, etc. That would be most likely to improve their economic condition. However, on a country-wide scale, that might actually make things worse because no one would be putting that money back into the economy.

What's good at the micro level might not work at the macro level, and vice versa. It's a lovely paradox of sorts.

Trinity said...

Zula,

Yeah, makes sense to me. But one of the things Herman was also mentioning was the therapist-patient relationship, and... well, for sufficient values of "domination" and "submission" that *could* count. After all, one is placing oneself under the care of an expert, in a sense... acknowledging that one cannot solve a psychological problem alone or with peers like one's best buds.

SO *shrug* I guess it boils down to me really wanting to know what exactly is meant.

Trinity said...

Also: Your blog is teh awesome.

blessed-harlot said...

I appreciate this thought-provoking post. I would want to add to the conversation that there is a natural, extended period of power inequality that factors into most healthy adults' lives - being parented at some point as children. We cannot live our entire lives in "egalitarian," "peer-to-peer" relationships (I would hope the average 2-year old is not given the burden of having only peer-to-peer relationships), and so I would argue that our psyches cannot be made up only from the elements of egalitarian relating.

From a transactional analysis perspective, a healthy adult is going to have an integrated "inner child" and "inner parent." This is some rambling that your post has inspired in me, so I don't know how I would necessarily connect this idea with D/s, except to say that good parenting is a precedent for a healthy yet unequal relationship. Marilyn Patterson would also argue that doctors, therapists, lawyers, teachers, and clergy have inherent power differentials in the relationships they encounter, that are not necessarily unhealthy in nature.

Trinity said...

"I would want to add to the conversation that there is a natural, extended period of power inequality that factors into most healthy adults' lives - being parented at some point as children. We cannot live our entire lives in "egalitarian," "peer-to-peer" relationships (I would hope the average 2-year old is not given the burden of having only peer-to-peer relationships), and so I would argue that our psyches cannot be made up only from the elements of egalitarian relating."

YES, YES, YES, YES, YES, THAT, YES.

SnowdropExplodes said...

I think the relationship models explained by this relationship counsellor are useful in understanding what's going on here.

The crucial thing to note is that, although he uses the term Master/Slave to refer to the dysfunctional relationship model, and "Friend/Friend" to refer to the peer-to-peer version, here is how he describes BDSM on his explanatory notes (I confess to having been instrumental in crafting the wording here):

These relatively small, but widespread, communities participate in Dominant/Submissive relationships. They are sometimes called D/s, or M/s communities. As a counselor several times I have run into members of this community, and found them to be usually more informed about healthy relationship skills than the general public. What I found is that these people seek to participate in relationships of 'mutual informed consent', where both parties have agreed, sometimes in contract, to a division of responsibility between an enactor or decision maker and a follower/an obedient one/an aider. They may thus participate in sexual and other activities that are mutually satisfying and safe, while at the same time are outside the norms of “polite” society. The phrase “mutually informed consent” shifts these relationships, now using my terms, to be a Friend/Friend relationship with a Leader/Follower dynamic. The 'D/s' or ‘M/s’ community's use of Master/slave (notice the use of upper and lower case) refers to this Friend/Friend dynamic, and has no relationship to the 'Master/Slave' relationship that I describe and that I believe is ‘epidemic’ in normal long-term relationships.

I think this is what confuses people about BDSM as opposed to "domination and submission" in the sense referred to in the summary of Judith Harman's remarks.

As Al Turtle explains, most people do slip into a "Master/Slave", but that is because they are unaware of the power relationships that are going on, not through "laziness". However, people rarely "slip into" a BDSM D/s relationship (it does happen from time to time, I suppose). Mostly, there is some form of negotiation that takes place. Because D/s brings everything into the open, the unconscious power dynamics that for the basis for a dysfunctional relationship are stripped away and situations have to be negotiated on a peer-to-peer basis. As Al Turtle puts it, instead of unconsciously accepting the 'Master/Slave" format, we negotiate a relationship according to a "Friend/Friend" format in which the roles and responsibilities of the two friends are clearly understood.

Of course, it doesn't always work that way in real life, but as Al Turtle observes, "[D/s relationships are] usually more informed about healthy relationship skills than the general public."

Daisy Bond said...

I don't think it's #2, in part -- you can never have one group justly overpowering another. But I also think "domination and submission" is basically morally neutral; it gains a moral dimension in context, like most other things do.

It does back to all that government with the consent of the governed business. A despot? Bad. A democratically elected president? Good. What's bad in the first case isn't that a person has power over others -- it's that the power is unjust, undeserved, and almost inevitably abused.

Unjust imbalances of power (tyrant/populous, rich/poor, white/of color, abuser/victim) are wrong and bad. Just, fair, consensual imbalances (parent/child, teacher/student, doctor/patient, dom/sub) are pretty much useful and great.

The problems are injustice and cruelty, not "domination and submission."

Daisy Bond said...

Whoops, this should read:

I do* think it's #2, in part -- you can never have one group justly overpowering another.

alterisego said...

I don't think we can ever escape from non-BDSM D/s dynamics in our lives, so I'm wary of saying that they must all be condemned. Relationships between people depend on compromise, and that tends to involve certain patterns of people ceding decision-making powers to other people. When I tell my friend every time he asks that I don't much care where we eat lunch and that he should decide, this is not me being a sexual submissive. This is me being polite to the person driving me to lunch and forming a compromise, which is generally seen as good manners.

I'm also of the opinion that very few vanilla romantic relationships exist without some sort of power exchange element, though the participants may be unaware of it or claim it doesn't exist.

ellefromtheeast said...

I think that #2 is in part a *result* of #1. One reason that power can never be wielded justly by one group over another* is precisely because it takes so much energy and attention to maintain consensual boundaries. I'm thinking of my friends in poly families, and with just four or five people, it's about all they can do to maintain those kink relationships and hold a job (and even so, they're barely keeping it together). Anything bigger in scale beyond that just seems impossible to do justly. So I'm okay with people using "domination" as a bad thing if it's clear they mean on a mass society-wide scale.

---
*Note: I think groups can govern themselves - I'm not an anarchist - and this can, through delegation, look like one group governing another, but that's different.

Trinity said...

"I don't think we can ever escape from non-BDSM D/s dynamics in our lives, so I'm wary of saying that they must all be condemned."

Yes THAT. I think we all do "vanilla D/s" all the time. We look to mentors, teachers, experienced people for advice and guidance. (We also look to charismatic windbags and swindlers.)

And I don't think it's odd to do THAT with our lovers, even if we're not kinked. There's a lot I can say about vanilla folks I know, and who holds what kind of power in those relationships.

Not getting off on it doesn't make it go away.

Anonymous said...

I believe that most people prefer to ignore the fact that there are power dynamics involved in most relationships. They are usually not as overt as those in D/s, but by denying that they exist at all, we compromise our ability to deal with them in a deliberate, conscious manner.

Trinity said...

I totally agree with you, anon. I do think some people who like the idea of abolishing hierarchy accept that all interactions have power relations, though. They just think this is fundamentally a failing. Which I don't. I think power relations need to be attended to and addressed, but not dissolved. I don't think doing so is even possible -- and "officially" doing so usually means someone ends up a despot who can always claim "oh, I never said we weren't EQUALS!!!" while in the middle of doing really repressive things.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I haven't run into an "abolished heirarchy" situation that wasn't full of power undercurrents that make me twitch, none of which I could acknowledge or react to overtly without bringing down social disapproval.

Which means that whenever I run into the "If we abolish heirarchy the world will be better" I sort of cringe and edge away, because ... coercive, oppressive, scary, no.

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