View From The Top: Power In Theory, Power In Practice

Sarah looked up at me, kneeling, naked on the bare wood hotel room floor, her hands on her thighs, eyes closed, mouth open. She was drooling. Her makeup was blurred and messy and smoky around her eyes.

I was still almost fully dressed in dark jeans, black leather boots and a black tee shirt. I had taken off my favorite blue and silver tie (the sound of her breath being knocked out of her when I shoved her chest-first onto the bed and pulled her wrists behind her back) and my button down shirt (“Undo the top button. Now one more.”), but left the rest on. My belt was unbuckled, jeans unbuttoned, the zipper now wet. My dick stuck out, hard and stiff, and just a little of her saliva dripped from the tip.

I circled around her, each step a click of my boot, my hand resting on the shaft as I pondered what to do with her next.

The thing most people don’t understand about Sarah’s submission — and that of many submissives, I think — is that I couldn’t actually “make” her do anything that she didn’t want to do. She was a strong-willed, stubborn, brilliant, opinionated person, full of agency and desire, and if she didn’t want to do something, she wouldn’t. Full stop.

But I constantly worried about my own power. I worried that I would “make” her do something she didn’t want to do, that she would hold it against me, that I would go too far. I over-negotiated. I begged her to tell me what she wanted. I service topped anything she desired. “I want what you want,” she would tell me. I would whisper it back.

We played out such a fantasy. She wants what I want, but I want what she wants. And does she really want anything I want, or does she only want the things that line up with what she wants? Luckily, we were so compatible sexually at first that almost everything we desired overlapped, and I rarely came up with scenarios that pushed her edges.

Except for that one scene in that hotel room. It was primarily about sensation. She had been teasing me all day, whispering things in my ear in mixed company, sliding my hand up her skirt under the table. I was worked up and full of energy, that mean growl coiled up in my belly and ready to pounce, and she gave me those eyes one too many times, and I just wanted to devour her. I tackled her onto the bed and held her down with my body as she giggled and bit at my upper arms. I had her kneeling on the floor and begging to suck my dick. A while later, after using some of the impact toys she had picked out, she whispered her safeword, then started repeating it louder: “Mercy! Mercy, mercy, mercy.” And I stopped.

I hadn’t heard her safeword before. I was high and mean and loving the bite of the whip against her, but that word switched everything off and concern kicked in immediately. Are you okay, what do you need, here’s some water, let me get you a blanket, want to cuddle on the bed, is there anything your body would like right now? I overwhelmed her with questions. She asked for a snack and a break, then some sweet connected sex, and to talk about it tomorrow. We figured it out. I trusted her more because she asked me to stop. She trusted me more because I had.

It took me a while to trust Sarah’s agency, and to trust myself not to go too far, while still holding us both through these intense, intimate and precarious scenarios where I took power over her.

But thinking of it as “power” — the shorthand for this kind of play, what the kink community often calls power exchange — doesn’t capture the right meaning. The opposite of feeling powerful is feeling disempowered, and people frequently assume that if the dominant is “taking power over” the submissive, the submissive must be “giving up power” and disempowered. But this isn’t the case at all. Sarah told me that submission was where she felt her most powerful, where she felt like she could swallow the world and vibrate with its energy. Many other submissives express similar things — that submission is a place of great strength and power.

Institutionalized power structures also come into play. Kink communities are microcosms of larger communities, and have all the same problems with racism, sexism and abuse. That institutionalized power affects personal relationships, but the kink communities are not particularly good at elevating the discussions about intersectionalities, privilege and oppression as they relate to power exchange.

Power can be personal, as in personal empowerment, or systemic, as in institutionalized power, or it can be used in a kink context, as in power play or power exchange. All meanings coexist and overlap.

A dominant friend of mine defines power as “the ability to act,” a definition of power I like more. It relates to the personal, the systemic and the fetishized uses of the word, and it shows a core value of the dominant holding the say of what is done in the relationship.

Sarah and I talked a lot about power in our relationship — who had it, who felt it, how it flowed between us. It wasn’t always smooth. As we dealt with the intimacy issues of domesticity and subconscious patterns that come up in longer term relationships, our day-to-day interactions started to become struggles with power in a way that was only frustrating, not sexy or fun. While we both continued to love the authority polarity within sex and kink play, telling her what to do outside of the bedroom became more loaded and complex.

Eventually, during one of our weekly check-ins about D/s, Sarah asked to scale down the tasks and protocol that extended out of the bedroom. I was heartbroken, upset and disappointed, but of course I agreed — I didn’t want her to do things she didn’t want to do. It took some practice to undo some of the behavior that had become habit, but we were gentle with each other and ourselves as we transitioned back into more of an egalitarian exchange. The problem was, I still wanted that 24/7, the outside the bedroom protocol and more submission. So did I want to stay in this relationship, that, while technically open, was more like monogamish? What other ways would we need to renegotiate? How would I get what I want, when part of what I wanted was to be with Sarah? Were my desires for bigger, more and more extreme dominance and submission unrealistic? Would I ever find someone who would be not just as willing, but also as interested as I was in exploring that level of exchange?

That fall, Sarah and I separated in the best ways we could. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t pretty. But we tried our best to be adults, and be gentle with each other. I hated being single. I started making lists of qualities I was looking for, writing personal ads and asking the universe to send me someone who wanted the equal and opposite of what I wanted: a slave, a submissive, and a partner.

A few months later, I met rife.

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is “the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queer women” (AfterEllen), who “is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places” (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. Sinclair identifies as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor and an introvert. Follow their writings at Sugarbutch Chronicles.

Sinclair has written 40 articles for us.

25 Comments

      • As someone with a PhD I’m pretty sure it’s not true – but it’s often easier to analyse and can give really good insights into how to design better experiments!

        As a sub… I’m not sure I want my Domme to view our 24/7 D/s relationship as an experiment! However, I would equally like to think both she and I learn from our experiences in a reflective and nurturing manner and I know from sometimes bitter and sometimes hilarious personal experiences I and every Domme I’ve played with and my Mistress who I live with now have learnt more from the times things have gone wrong than from another time they’ve gone right.

  1. I just wanted to say, I’ve read this three times now and I’m still struggling to really understand it. That’s not because it’s badly written; it’s not, it’s a lovely bit of prose. But, I’m really, really sub and although all the words make sense I can’t quite get the mindset to make it all click.

    But I keep coming back because it’s really thought provoking for me. So thanks for writing it.

  2. i am so jiving with your framing of power as “the ability to act”! it sounds a little like a cliche, but submission is so much about empowerment through choice. when i play with people, i don’t want to unburden myself of my own power or take their power, i want to add an additional element of power — on top of what already exists.

  3. I was wondering if any of you could give advice/insight on something…I think I’m a masochist (haven’t experienced much but I know I definitely like being slapped in the face) but I’m not submissive. I don’t feel super dominant either although I think I have tendencies. But I can’t find much on non-submissive masochists. I enjoy pain and feel like I truly need it in my sex life to be happy but I don’t want someone talking down to me, ordering me around, or “forcing” me to do anything. If I have a partner who wants it then I’ll compromise but it would have to be minimal. I don’t even like bondage because I freak out at the thought of the vulnerability/loss of control. Any time I hear of a bottom being more demanding it is highly looked down on. Unless they are actually super dominant and ordering their sub to do stuff to them…which doesn’t interest me either. I’m not fond of porn anyway but I couldn’t find anything like what I wanted in that, books, or in articles online.
    I’m sorry to go on like this haha. I just feel very lost and like I’ll never find someone compatible with me even if I do manage to find someone in the BDSM community. Sometimes I feel like I won’t fit into the community at all.
    Any advice,stories, information,insight is truly appreciated.

    • The whole BDSM umbrella contains the three subsets of bondage & discipline, dominance and submission and sadism and masochism. Usually people have non-equal amounts of all three on one side or the other. So I like being bound, I’m very sub and I’m somewhat masochistic. I also have a technical interest in doing bondage.

      It’s not that uncommon to find someone who is really strongly into only only aspect, like you, although it limits your chances of finding someone truly compatible and matching you in the other direction obviously.

      Depending on where you are, if you have an active community with munches and the like go and see them and ask around once you get to know some people. They won’t beat you, nor tie you up, at the munch, and they might well know someone who is more sadist than anything else. Or you might find someone where you’re willing to negotiate minimal submission in exchange for the sort of pain-play you want and they’re happy with that.

      Like everything else in this world, tread cautiously. There’s no particular reason someone who is more into pain-play should be worse than any other form of top but I think you’ll find a lot of people will warn you about it. We’re conditioned early not to hurt each other and it can be hard, even in BDSM circles, to discuss it sensibly. When Mistress and I talk about it, and we talk about a lot of really quite kinky things without any trouble, we often run into issues. How bad does it sound when you say things like “I like that you get turned on by inflicting pain on me?” Even though it’s true, and I get turned on by her hurting me in various non-permanently harmful ways too.

      So be prepared for some awkward conversations but someone is out there that’s safe and sane and will match your needs.

      • Thank you so much for replying! :)

        I think I’m a little too nervous to go to a munch even though its just a social gathering. I still feel a lot of guilt over wanting people to hurt me so having a group of people know intimidates me. I know they would all be like-minded though. I will definitely try to get up the courage one of these days haha.

        yeah I wouldn’t mind hurting someone else either. I think I could handle both. That works to my advantage a bit hopefully.

        I understand how the conversations can be a bit awkward. I have done minor things with my last ‘vanilla’ partners and they were ok with it but I didn’t want to push it so I didn’t really ask for it much. And as I said earlier, I’m trying to get over my shame. They were both super accepting though and tried to tell me not to feel bad about it. it just wasn’t something that they were into personally. I’m lucky in that regard.

        Thank you again for taking the time to reply :)

    • What you’re describing isn’t that uncommon. For example, my boyfriend is primarily a masochist, he’s a little bit submissive BUT bondage is a hard limit for him. So we mostly do pain play (on him) and bondage (on me, because I’m a switch and he likes to tie me up). We like to think BDSM is like a buffet: take what you want, throw away the rest, there is no right formula.
      This being said, I relate to what you’re saying. I felt I won’t fit into the community either because I’m “picky switch”: I’m interested only in certain specific forms of submission, I’m a sadist but not a spanker, I’m not really a masochist but I’m a spankee, etc. It took me a bit of time to realize I’m not a bad kinkster.
      [Sorry for any mistakes, English is not my native langage]

      • Thank you very much for replying :)

        Its good to know there are other people who are masochists but not super submissive. I’m glad that that has worked out for you two.

        I too am a bit strangely picky in what pain I am ok with. I love being slapped in the face but I don’t want someone to spank me :P maybe with a toy of some kind but not with their bare hand. I’m not really sure why haha.

        I understood you perfectly :) your English was fine

        Thanks again for replying :)

    • In response to “I just feel very lost and like I’ll never find someone compatible with me even if I do manage to find someone in the BDSM community,” I want to point out that you aren’t necessarily limited to finding a partner in the BDSM community. There are things that I do/participate in during sex that don’t turn me on. However, my partner being turned on is the sexiest thing ever, so I will happily do some things that don’t in and of themselves do it for me. Sexual compatibility doesn’t have to mean that you and your partner enjoy all of the same sex acts for the same reasons. You say you need pain-play in your sex life. You could potentially find a partner who doesn’t need pain-play but still understands your need for it, is happy to participate, and loves having sex with YOU. Also, that wouldn’t make you any less kinky or mean that you don’t belong in the BDSM community.

      • That is very true. My past few ‘vanilla’ partners were willing to slap me in the face. They weren’t sure about it at first so I didn’t want to pressure them at all but they offered sometimes :) . they were not willing to go anything beyond that though. I didn’t have any toys but if I had, they wouldn’t have been able to use them on me. They never shamed me for anything and even reassured me that it was ok for me to like pain (still struggle with the shame) .If the relationships had lasted longer they might have become more open minded but it ended before we got there. I guess I didn’t think that many vanilla people would be able to go past the minor stuff.

        Thank you so much for replying :)

    • The great thing about the Internet is that it has limitless space, so we can have both this discussion and the ones you mentioned. Your comment also appears to be suggesting that posts about BDSM and QPOC safe spaces are mutually exclusive.

    • Your comment is taking up space that could go, I don’t know, to acknowledging that there’s room for people to have different sexual tastes than you without somehow not belonging on Autostraddle.

      V, you comment on every View from the Top post and it’s really tiring that you come exclusively to shit on something that you disagree with — but WHY? Why do you feel the need to take up space on this part of Autostraddle exclusively to yuck on some else’s yum? If you don’t feel that this narrative reflects you, AS publishes an amazing range of stories that surely do speak to you.

    • It’s really nothing to be disturbed about. Like you said, you don’t know enough about the subject matter! In this case, both partners are getting exactly what they want from each other and from the relationship. Everything is based on consent and mutual love and respect.

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