Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Leather & Grace, Part III: Playing with Power

We UUs have, to put it mildly, a rather ambivalent relationship with power. On the one hand, we come across as extreme individualists; on the other, we retain many of the structures and trappings of our Protestant Christian forebears. We detest creeds and shibboleths, constantly reviewing and questioning every jot and tittle of the covenants and affirmations which hold us together, arguing over resolutions and forcefully asserting our right to disagree. Yet we still call ministers, elect congregational boards, and turn to district and national staff for guidance. And even then, there will be those who complain that all these elected and appointed elites have “too much power” for their tastes.

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.


  1. I agree with your assessment of the typical UU mixed feelings about power. Something that need be considered is that all relationships only average equal sharing; sometimes it's 80/20 one way, sometimes the other. We all have different needs and abilities, and in any given situation one partner will have greater desire or expertise than the other, and be deferred to. Equality lies in being able to change roles as needed.

    Adding to the confusion is that in the BDSM community, all is not how it might appear on the surface. Sometimes it may be that the one being flogged is actually the one in power, controlling the scene with their reactions. Sometimes it is the "top" whose limits are being pushed by a passive-aggressive "bottom"- the phenomenon of a masochist with a dominant personality is more common than one might imagine.

    The ultimate test for any relationship is, are you happy? Do you care about the happiness of your partner? If the answers are yes, then power is being shared, regardless of the activities in question.

  2. Owning the fact that power has erotic elements is perhaps a step on the road to admitting that power is meant to be shared. And then, beginning to share it.