Perhaps this is a core reason why so many UUs are uneasy with BDSM. It’s not the flogging or the bondage gear or the fetish attire – it’s the issue of power, of one person being dominant and the other submissive. To be more specific, it’s about assumptions regarding power, and how those assumptions can cloud our perception of the reality of D/s relationships. Longtime leatherman Hardy Haberman sums it up best:
For most of the world, domination is a sign of anger and suppression, yet in the context of a leather scene it can be an act of caring and affection. As children we were taught that submission is a sign of weakness, yet in our realm submission becomes a voluntary surrender of power and an act worthy of respect.
Dominants do not simply demand power from a submissive, nor does the submissive simply bow down at any given dominant’s command. The healthy D/s relationship is one of continual communication, negotiation and mutual growth – just as in any other human relationship, including those we find in spiritual community. And while D/s relationships may be overtly hierarchical, they begin from an equal footing, with each partner retaining the right to call for a reassessment of their relationship dynamics.
This is not to say that we don’t have kinksters with their own issues about power and control. But the BDSM community is in many ways a paradigm of an explicitly covenantal community. From customs and etiquette to written rules and contracts, we are constantly negotiating and delineating how we interact with one another, and what it means to be part of our tribe.
“But don’t we do that in UU circles, too?” Sure, although I’d say a considerable number of UUs do so “under protest” – that is, they’d rather not have to deal with power structures within our movement. Even more so in personal relationships, where feminist and progressive sensibilities presume that partners must be completely equal. Problem is, what if you don’t want to be always equal all the time? If equality is imposed – whether by rule of law or force of habit – how is that better than imposing hierarchical relationships? On the other hand, if the partners in a relationship mutually agree to other models for sharing and entrusting power, and they are happy in such an arrangement, how is that worse than any other?
Lord Acton is famous for the warning: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” – and you’ll note the emphasis added. When we consider power as a tool, a means to an end, then we are more likely to use it with balance, and to learn when and with whom it can be entrusted. It is when we see power as an end in itself, even as an entity unto itself, that we run into the dangers we so often fear.