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.