It is actually amazing to see people - outsiders especially - struggle with the phenomenum of BDSM (erotic power exchange if you like). It is, however, just as amazing to see that “the community” seems to forget about the obvious, when it comes to explaining what it is we do.
First this. There is a difference between “defending” and “explaining”. And that, in itself, is a power ritual.
When operating from the “defending” position the defender de facto places him/herself in the underdog position and, through the act of defending, the defender implicitely agrees that he/she is being attacked and - again implicitly - acknowledges that there is a reason for this attack, no matter how futile this reason may be.
Coming form the “explaining” (teaching or informing, if you like) position, he/she who explains places him/herself in an entirely different position: as an equal in the power-situation or - especially in a teaching-situation - in an even more powerful position. Personally, I prefer the the explaining-position, when it comes to talking to outsiders about BDSM.
Back to the subject at hand.
BDSM is nothing but an explicit (magnified) form of power play between people. And not necessarily limited to the sexuality-issue. In fact, the sexual connotations are probably part of the power-instruments, partners/players have in a BDSM-situation. That is why it would be very helpful if any research on BDSM would be taken OUT of the sexuality corner and into the corner where it belongs: sociology and anthropology - i.e. the sciences of the human behavior patterns and cultures.
BDSM doesn't belong (or at best only partially belongs) in the field dominated by therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and doctors.
Why, you might ask.
Power dynamics are as normal (and essential) to the human race as eating, drinking, breathing and sleeping. In other words: without it, the human race just doesn't function the way it does. And neither does any society, human or animal. Just look at a society of monkeys, or lions, or elephants, or starfish and you'll see power patterns. Patterns that are different from the human ones, but still power patterns. And these power patterns (next to such things as feeding and hunting) almost always apply to sexuality as well. Makes sense, since from an evolutionary point of view reproduction is priority number one. Keeping the species alive and in tact is even more important than breathing or feeding. Evolution doesn't care if you die - as long as make sure you have taken care of your offspring, so the species continues to exist.
Reproduction = sexuality = inherent power dynamics!
Overpowering is natural (and genetically encoded) and in principle evolution again doesn't care about moral, legislation and other norms and values. It just cares about reproduction and adaption. And - quite frankly it doesn't matter who (male or female) takes the initiative - one partner will make sure he or she gets what he/she wants from an evolutionary point of view. Which is: mixing strong genes with other strong genes.
Since adaptation for any species is just as important as reproduction (reproduction in itself is useless if the species doesn't adapt as well) norms and values are important and as a result will probably become an important part of the lovemaking/reproduction RITUAL. And ritual is the key word in any power driven situation. Ritual and conventions.
Here we go. Laborers and employers have their own rituals, when it comes to playing out the power dynamics between them - for example to gain better wages. Of course everyone knows that strikes will eventually lead to negotiations and to an end-result. So if we know we'll need to negotiate sooner or later, what's the use of a strike or a demonstration? Well, that is the power ritual. And that power ritual is part of the power-dynamics. Much like a mating ritual, actually. Fight first, become friends afterward and find a solution. The ritual is needed to allow both sides to later explain they were the winner. To each other as well as to the ones they represent. And even more important: the entire powerplay was an effective method to show how much they CARE!
Similar power rituals exist in politics. They do not always seem to make sense, but at least you might argue that since they've been around for centuries, we (the human race) apparently need them. And again the “we are showing we care” argument is just as important as the ritualistic behavior towards each other.
Similar principles apply in schools, or in economic competition, or in the workplace, or ….. well, you name it. There is hardly any area in a human life where there are no power dynamics involved, one way or another. So power dynamics are part of the way we (the human race) behave. Hence it is no surprise power dynamics will also play a role in the sexuality between partners. And they do - even in a non-BDSM context.
So power rituals in a sexual context are nothing new and nothing special. Showing you have power in many cases means: you care!
Hence sexual power play doesn't belong in the “therapist corner”. You need to eat, otherwise you can't have sex. That doesn't turn food-science into an area for sexologists and therapists. You need to work in order to stay alive (and actually your economical success has a huge influence on your ability to mate). That doesn't make economics the area area of psychologists.
In other words: power behavior is normal human behavior and power behavior in (or with) a sexual context is no different.
Next question: is magnifying the power dynamics in a sexual context any different from other power situations?
By designing a system where - and not only for practical reasons - we elect people to represent our interests when it comes to shaping and controlling the general society, the human race implicitly acknowledges that politics is a profession (although many might argue they're not) and that an explicit power system is useful. If not, why do we need elections and (probably more importantly) “winners”? Why do we need different ideologies when we could just as well design a system, based on the concept on what is needed and reasonable? One answer is that the human race again needs to be able to see these power struggles going on and as a result identify with the winner of the battle.
The economy simple does not work without competition, although it would probably make a lot more sense to simply share what we have and - as a planet - work together to preserve the planet and grow what we need.
Still, life doesn't work that way. An important part of marketing is that people want to share the success (of a brand or a product) in order to be able to identify with it. Again we need winners - someone or something with a strong power appeal.
And then we're not even talking about the appeal of sports!
Not everyone wants to be part of a “power circle”. Not everyone becomes a politician, or a salesman, or an athlete. Some do. In sports, ahtletes are pretty useless without spectators.
In economics, products (and hence product-designers and marketeers) are useless without people buying them. And politicians are useless without the electorate.
So in any situation a small group magnifies the power-dynamics within that groups and plays and works with it. Hence, it only makes sense to expect a group of people to do the same in their lovemaking/sexuality. And yes, some do - they are “into BDSM”.
Apparently “we” are not much different.
But, there may be something else. “We” have things like fetishes, leather “uniforms” and power symbols such as whips.
Ritualistic behavior again is no different from other power situations. The powerful business world has its own symbols and rituals. Try entering a board-meeting in your jeans and T-shirt. No one will identify you are a powerful economical hotshot. However, dress sharp, buy an Armani suit, a tie, a cellphone, an attache-suitcase and an Audi or a Porsche and EVERYONE will recognize you as one. No different from leather trousers and a whip, I'd say.
A police uniform (among other things) is a symbol of power, so is the doctor's white coat and the teacher's jeans and sweater. Most members of any social group will tell you: “if you want to be one, look like one”. Show your colors. You don't go to a baseball-match wearing your fishing outfit (and most certainly not wearing the colors of the club you do NOT support!).
Each social group - especially when it comes to the power dynamics within that group, has its own “fetishes” and rituals. Again, in sexual behavior things are no different. The “sexual power hotshots” (the BDSM-group) have their own. In principle, leather, whips and cuffs are no different from the Armani suit, the police-uniform and the baseball cap. Different in the way they look, but no different when it comes to function.
If the above is all true, is there any difference when it comes to “picking our battle grounds”, i.e. the “arena” where the power play is being exercised?
I'm afraid the answer again is: not really. Politics belong in their specific “houses”: the capitol, town hall, you name it. Legal battles belong in courthouses. Sports have their arenas and stadiums, the business world has its board and meeting rooms and BDSM has: its dungeons and the bedroom.
In other words: magnified power dynamics is nothing new, when it comes to general human behavior. And magnified power dynamics always require their specific environment, their specific rituals, behavior patterns, lingo, norms and values and fetishes and rituals.
So, no - “we” are no different. We're actually very human.
©2007 Hans Meijer
Hans Meijer is 54, a Dutch former journalist and government spokesmen, webmaster and filmmaker, active in the sexual and erotic information realm.He the chairman for the www.powerotics.com Foundation. This organization is dedicated to provide quality information about alternative lifestyles. His 5 e-book series “Shibari Fumo Ryu” about the Japanese erotic Shibari technique and art is considered groundbreaking. Reproduced with permission.