Submissive Power Is Hot Stuff

Statue of kneeling woman arranging her hair
Image: Toilette de Vénus (Rodin), reproduction available from
This is the second post in the Submissive Power series.

It is a cliché that the sub has all the “real” power. And I really, really hope it’s not true.

Yes, I can stop it any minute and yes, hotel security is a lot more likely to help me than him. (Apologies for non-inclusive language; I’m writing about my personal experience.) But good grief, when someone is looming over me with a paddle and an enigmatic smile, the last thing I want to be thinking is, “Nice job, minion!”

What I want is to please him. That’s why they call it power exchange. Because power is the ability to get what you want. And it’s true that he’s getting his wants met in spectacularly obvious ways. But that’s exactly what I want too! To make him want to hurt this creature shivering with desire, to make him laugh at my sobs, to make me crawl back for more again and again.

That’s power flowing in both directions, however deceiving appearances may be, because I am so getting what I want.

I think we’ve started losing sight of this kind of submissive power, and it’s a damn shame. When Venus In Furs was written in 1870 by the man who gave his name to masochism, it was still a new and startling idea that someone might want – desperately – to give up the power to satisfy their wants. And so the author anticipated that reaction by turning the paradox into the central theme of the whole book. Nearly a century later, The Story Of O was published, and that author too stated that her novel was about a woman not just wanting sexual slavery, but manipulating her masters into giving her exactly what she wanted.

That assertion confused the heck out of me and my reading group. We combed the book and all we saw was O being kidnapped and coerced and, at best, bullied. They even tell her, “If you don’t obey immediately, they’ll force you.” Ooh – I mean ick.

But you can’t ignore what an author says about her own book. If she says O was manipulating her masters, we’re missing something.

I have two theories about our divergent perceptions.

(1) By definition, a slave used to be someone held against their will. The mere fact that a slave could be getting exactly what she wanted was therefore enough to make people question who was really in charge – even without begging or charming or bargaining.

(2) Maybe Pauline Réage was right. Maybe those of us down here are doing something incredibly powerful by just obeying and saying “I love you.”

I have been forced to take this hypothesis seriously because my doms are so good at giving me what I want. After the second newbie had had his way with me, I decided it was past a coincidence. Yes, I’m picky, but I hit on them because they’re good people with minds and hearts, not because I think they’re good at doing something I haven’t even allowed them to try yet. And yes we negotiate, and I try my very best to hand over the user manual, and yes, there are spectacular misses – but there are also all these uncanny little things they seem to figure out by themselves.

But, you know … I am telling them.

When I fall silent. When I wait for permission. When I relax into a touch – or not.

When I look stricken and obey anyway, pupils dilated, my whole body ready to jump at the next order.

When trembling gives way to panic, when my throat does wild things without help from my mouth.

When I start biting off noises and grimacing. When I stop making any sound at all and my eye contact becomes pointedly non-committal.

I’m telling them a lot. And we’re not even counting all my flavours of thank you.

Is this manipulation? With all respect to Pauline Réage, that’s not what I would call it. Far from choreographing it for maximum effectiveness, I’m a bemused observer of my own reactions. I think I am getting better at it over time, but it doesn’t feel like something I’m learning to do. It feels like learning not to do things. Not to hide myself, not to run away, not to fight.

Is it seduction? Well, post-mortem analysis suggests that it’s certainly, um, effective. But I can tell you, it feels a lot more like the seduction is being done to me than the other way round.

Because I am getting what I want. But if all is going well, I am definitely not in control. All the specifics are, however temporarily, in someone else’s hands.

It reminds me of advice I once read about working animals: A good specimen will teach you how to train it. Just watch what it does naturally. All you have to do is connect those responses to your own will.

A German Shepherd wants to protect. A husky wants to pull. A labrador wants to fetch.

I want your pleasure to come from my suffering.

And when I’m getting what I want … you can consider us both drunk on power.

15 thoughts on “Submissive Power Is Hot Stuff”

  1. I grow tired of this “the sub has all the power” business, because true, zie can withdraw consent at any time and stop everything, but equally, so can I as the top. A sub can no more force me to hit hir or give hir orders, than I can (and if I can genuinely force hir, then it’s crossed the line from D/s into something not okay)

    Power exists because we choose to create it, and because something calls us to do so. The thought about, “A good specimen will teach you how to train it. Just watch what it does naturally. All you have to do is connect those responses to your own will.” is, I think, spot on for both bottoms and tops (I suspect you intended it to refer to both?)

    The passage about how you tell your partner so much, reminded me of a similar passage in Staci Newmahr’s book, Playing on the Edge, where she talks about how she could use her responses to direct a scene (although I observed when I read it that it needs to be calibrated between the two – if someone goes limp and/or silent in a scene, I have a tendency to get panicky). She also talked about being a “bemused observer of her own reactions”, reporting wondering whether she was going to safeword or not, as though it was out of her own control to do so.

    Fascinating thoughts, all of this post.

    1. Goodness, I’ve NEVER thought in terms of training a dom! But when I bare my soul via user manual and feedback, I really cannot deny that they are learning. Hmm. Well, I concluded a very long time ago that the very same act can be dominant or submissive depending on the locus of power control. So I guess I’d rather say they are training on this talking lab specimen, not under my tutelage? :)

      Having said that, I think there is some truth to the “sub in charge” paradigm in some people’s minds. Doms often seem willing to try BDSM activities that are part of the sub’s kink and not their own – but we are not so happy to turn around and say that subs should reciprocate by undergoing pain that they don’t like. I think this is a double standard arising from our discomfort with power dynamics. I definitely agree that Good, Giving and Game puts subs at a greater risk of being traumatised than doms, and that more caution is therefore indicated. But I think that still leaves some fun territory to explore, given enough trust and experience (and this qualifier is very very important!).

      Thank you for the rec! I have added it to my Goodreads.

  2. I particularly wanted to pick you up on this: “Doms often seem willing to try BDSM activities that are part of the sub’s kink and not their own – but we are not so happy to turn around and say that subs should reciprocate by undergoing pain that they don’t like.

    I don’t think anyone has said Doms “should” do things they don’t enjoy. Equally, I have heard many subs talk about being willing to try (or undergo) pain/play types that they don’t like, because for them there is some other pay-off.

    As a Dom, I’ve done a lot of “BDSM activities that are part of the sub’s kink and not their own” and sometimes I discover something I wouldn’t have expected. Other times, I discover that it’s not something I enjoy. If I really dislike it, then it doesn’t happen again; other times it might be something I save until I particularly want to give a special treat. I do this because the power to give pleasure is as much a part of being Dom as the power to torment. (And of course, it’s part of the power a sub has, too).

    At the broadest interpretation, the range of kink in a relationship is simply “whatever neither partner has vetoed”.

    – – –

    As for training a Dom: “Just watch what it does naturally. All you have to do is connect those responses to your own will.”

    You say, “I want your pleasure to come from my suffering.” By the same token, a sadist wants you to suffer for them. A Dom wants to have control over you. That’s, “what it does naturally”.

    So, “when I bare my soul via user manual and feedback, I really cannot deny that they are learning.” – that is the second part. You are connecting their responses to your will. You’re giving a Dom the means to have most effective control (because it accords with your nature and will); you are giving the sadist the best way to appreciate your suffering (because, again, they can get the best feedback to appreciate your suffering).

    As you say in the OP, “All the specifics are, however temporarily, in someone else’s hands.”

    1. I am delighted to be called out! I still wouldn’t describe it as Training Doms to My Will, but I think we just use words differently.

      I have worried that my post gives the impression of an EQUAL power exchange. In my case, it’s really not. My partners don’t use all the extra power they have over me during a scene, but it’s there. In almost every way, it’s harder for me to influence what’s happening. It’s not an equal relationship during that space of time, and I find that it takes hard work from both sides to balance the power again afterwards. Oh well, maybe one day I’ll find someone who will let me live comfortably at the bottom of the seesaw. :)

      1. I think maybe we do use words differently. Here’s the way I think I would describe it: Your will (drawing from what you’ve said) is to submit, and to have someone to submit to. Someone who does that naturally shows you how to train them to fit well with that will. The end result of that training is the relationship you describe. And they are, of course, training you to their will at the same time. The two processes combine to construct that unequal power between you.

        1. True, but … I don’t think I can use the word “train” in situations where I have less power! But I know it is pretty normal for people to differ on connotations like this, so I’m happy that we don’t disagree on the essential understanding of the dynamic.

  3. In a sense there’s nothing you can offer the dom, since he can take what he wants from you anyway.

    But Wm Blake scrawled, in a notebook:

    “What is in women that men most desire?
    The lineaments of satisfied desire.
    What is it in men that women most desire?
    The lineaments of satisfied desire.”

    I’ve always liked that. All the things you can do to your partner’s body, and have them do to you are wonderful, but I think most people want above all to hear and see in the lines of their face the signs of their partner’s pleasure and satisfaction. That may not be the explicit goal of the scene, but if it’s missing then most of the emotional satisfaction isn’t there either.

    So of course doms want to make sure their sub is pleasured.

    It’s just that the way we do that can be complicated. Banning the sub from coming sounds like a way of stopping her from having pleasure, but (for many subs) that kind of control over them is incredibly pleasurable, sensually and emotionally.

    As for giving a submissive what she wants, if the submissive is too obvious about it, I (and many doms, I think) will note what she’s hinted at, and not give it to her. But some time later, when she’s forgotten, or thinks you have, then you give her that … thing she hinted she’d like.

    The idea is that she feels the dom is paying attention and is on her side, but she feels (accurately) that she can’t make anything happen or not happen at any given moment.

    So the signals the submissive gives, about her reactions definitely affect the dom. The dom often tries to disguise the extent to which this is true, so she doesn’t feel in control.

    Overall, I’d say the submissive gives information that the dom uses, not training.

    (Well, there was a girl who’d put on knickers with a monkey-print pattern and wander round the house in them when she wanted a spanking. It always worked in no time at all. Was I trained? Um… maybe.)

  4. Two things, if I may…

    First up, my wife, who writes erotica, told me about your blog, so as time has allowed, I’ve been peeking here and there, and I’m so impressed with your perspective I’m bursting with it. I’ve never encountered a masochist who ‘gets it’ so thoroughly, who’s so well considered. Major kudos to you for your excellent work!

    Secondly, in response to this post, (speaking as a sadist), it’s easy to argue that a bottom has a veto, and I think that’s where the major perception comes from, even if that veto is abeyed ahead of time (“Sir, please accept my safeword….”). You’re clearly right about the exercise of power, though — when someone I’m with is tied, gagged and busy experiencing what I’m doing to her, she has no choices, no power. That discretion is all mine. Yet you’re also so very correct that by giving herself to me so thoroughly, she exercises the power to please me via the gift of herself.

    So very impressed with you.

    1. Um. Er. I am constitutionally averse to praise of this kind from male strangers. It’s not just that I don’t believe it, I also bristle like a threatened cat. I’ll have to think about why. But I AM delighted to hear that you’re bursting with blog goodness. Now there’s a compliment worth having!

  5. I hate the ‘sub has all the power’ thing too. I don’t, because I chose to give it to him. Yes I can use my safeword but likewise he can stop anytime he desires too. I am not operating his strings, he is not a puppet for me to control. We are two people feeding one each others kinks, his by having the power and mine by giving it up to him. I always say we are two equals who came together and negotiated and inequality that makes us both happy


What do you think?