Submissive Strength: Contradiction or Koan?

Green leaf in palm of black-and-white hand
Image by nebojsa mladjenovic (CC BY‑NC‑ND 2.0)
This is the fourth post in the Submissive Power series.

Recently Valery North paid me the gigantic compliment of a critical response to my blog post about submissive strength.

I came away wondering if I had contradicted myself. But dammit, I know everything I said was true!

And then. I realised. These apparent contradictions, they’re actually koans! That’s Zen Buddhist for paradoxes which help us to see a Higher Truth.

Ahem. OHM.

Koan 1: On Control

I said that I don’t want to feel in control of what happens. But I also said that I should have control over my emotions.

This paradox has an easy copout: we could just say that the boundary between the dom’s control and mine is my skull. But that’s simply not true – the wonderful thing about submitting is letting go and experiencing instead of making decisions and overthinking them. And in my case, I don’t just want the dom to be in charge of my emotions, I also want him to play with them sadistically.

But I think there is a way to resolve the apparent contradiction. You know how when something is too heavy, you can’t put it down smoothly and gently? Because you’re not really in control, you can’t hand it over in a controlled way. I think that’s what I want to be able to do with my emotions. I want to hold myself open to everything I want to experience. Everything the dom wants me to experience.

Ferns and I have been talking about the courage to be emotionally vulnerable. A lot of it depends on whether the dom inspires trust, but there’s also a big component of confidence in yourself – believing that you can take what the dom throws at you without throwing up your shields, not being afraid that you’ll hate yourself for turning into a puddle. That’s the kind of strength and control I want as a sub: the power to refrain from defending myself.

Koan 2: On Vulnerability

I’ve written about resolving not to rely on the dom for approval or forgiveness or happiness. But I’ve also written repeatedly that my kink is about desperately wanting to please the dom.

So do I want emotional independence or not?

Here I wasn’t thinking of play, but rather the day-to-day relationship. You’ll have to forgive me for not describing just how dependent and hurt and defensive and angry I got in my previous relationship, but if I had then maybe you would agree that I had to move away from 100% non-consensual dependence ALL THE TIME. I am the definition of high-maintenance. What I want is the ability to say, “He’s ignoring me right now, but that’s okay.” Joshua Tenpenny recently gave a talk where he said his master had worked to make him less emotionally vulnerable to him, and he had welcomed that because while it felt “very amazing” to be so vulnerable all the time at the beginning, it had also been “chafing”. YES. But it’s easier to motivate myself to change if I think of it as irritating to the dom.

Or, to put it positively, it’s also about making them feel loved. When you’re trying to be totally transparent about your needs and wants, that’s good up to a point – but if you’re relying on the dom to fulfil all those wants, there comes a time when it’s indistinguishable from selfishness. Ferns has described this from the dom’s point of view, and I think she’s put her finger on how I have screwed up in the past. You need reserves of strength and security, or you become the weak link in the relationship. I’m not saying there are no limits, but there must be a buffer zone of give and take. Some of it has to come from us subs some of the time.

And again, I think this is about trust as well as confidence, the dom’s worthiness as well as the sub’s strength. To be emotionally vulnerable in a real relationship, you have to be willing and able to accept hurt, knowing that neither of you will let it go too far.

I am so not there yet. But I don’t think it’s something I have to learn alone.

Thank you so much to Valery North, Joshua Tenpenny and Ferns for making me think!


8 thoughts on “Submissive Strength: Contradiction or Koan?”

  1. Great post! I like the part you added to the text of your previous comment @ mine, about “make them feel loved”, and I’ve written a new post to discuss that. A couple of quick points to mention here:

    1/. I think BDSM, and especially D/s, as a whole tends to function in very koan-like ways (not coming from a Buddhist background, I don’t want to claim they actually are koans as such, but that “apparent contradiction” seems so integral to so much of BDSM, no wonder we love discussing What It Is That We Do so much!) It’s a very spiritual experience, even as casual play, for that reason.

    2/. I have quite a troubled relationship with the concept of “worthiness”; I think it can be quite a harmful ideal or objective, especially as it’s wrapped up in the ways masculinity is used to punish men (by other men, especially – feminist-style analysis!) For me a big part of my development on emotional courage and vulnerability has been to become okay with not being, or needing to be, “worthy” (and Lord knows, I’m not there yet!) but accepting what’s offered anyway (as either D or s – which is the other side of the emotional coin from “He’s ignoring me right now, but that’s okay.” and often co-exists with that, I suspect!) So talking about “the dom’s worthiness” seems awkward to me, and I would prefer to see it described in terms of qualities rather than judgements (like Sub strength is a quality, not a judgement)

    1. 1) Yes!

      2) Maybe this is another area where we would rather use different words for the same thing? Domming is a position of power, and I feel very strongly that one has to be worthy of power. Responsibility, commitment, sheer ability to get the job done. And since masculinity is an identity that carries privilege, I respect those who strive to be worthy of it, who feel a duty to those who don’t have that privilege. That’s part of what I was trying to describe in my post on Condescension or Kindness from Above.

      It pains me very deeply that I don’t get that vibe from gender relations here in America. It’s much more like men feeling worthy of respect from other men, as you say. It’s almost like people believe so fundamentally in equality here that they cannot bring themselves to accept that they have privilege, and therefore the duty to use it well. What I keep seeing in young men here is that they think they can reject their privilege and interact with women as equals. Hah. Denial is not the answer.

      So I’m really hoping we just have different associations with the word ‘worthy’? And of course I realise you don’t live here and may have a different experience, it just sounds uncannily similar.

      1. > “I feel very strongly that one has to be worthy of power.”

        I find this statement very troubling. I think for me “worthy” is too close a synonym of “deserving” or “owed”, which in turn leads to a key problem with privilege, namely, “entitlement”. That in turn is linked to the conception of women as the “gatekeepers” of sex, who are supposed to grant it only to “worthy” men (and if they choose men deemed “unworthy”, it goes bad for the women, with slut-shaming at the bottom end of that range of punishments).

        So to say, “be worthy of power” or “be worthy of privilege” – well, that line of thinking when I was younger led me down the “Nice Guyism” path. The only way to win is not to play, but instead to be the best me I can be without reference to “worthy” or “deserving”.

        I think this post probably captures a lot of the rest of the problems I have with the idea of “worthy” as a requirement.

        The final thing is that it seems to create a barrier to human interaction: just as “don’t even try to date if you’re suffering from depression” – if you’re short of some “worthiness” standard, don’t bother trying to be a Dom? In either case, I would be condemned to a life of solitude and loneliness. But by not worrying about “worthy” I was able to cast off guilt and accept responsibility. By not worrying about “depression” I was able to just get on with not letting it control or ruin my life.

        > “So I’m really hoping we just have different associations with the word ‘worthy’?”

        Put bluntly, my association of the term “worthy” is wrapped up in its negation, which translates as, “all the reasons why you’re not allowed to be happy”. Hence choosing to opt out of the game.

        1. I think we may have to agree to disagree on the word “worthy”. But I think your explanation makes it clear that that doesn’t mean we disagree on the more important things like taking responsibility.

          1. Probably. To quote a phrase from our other misunderstanding thread, “I experienced too much of that kind of pain” – so I probably can’t grok what you’re using the word to describe. To quote myself, “qualities rather than judgements” – worthiness can’t ever be freed from the latter, but we probably agree about desirable qualities (and recognising that anyone can fall short of them, however “good” they are).

  2. I literally have too many things to say to leave a useful comment. I’m going to have to sit with my thoughts for a bit before I try. Suffice to say, I often think of D/s dynamics as a form of practice – mindfulness, awareness and compassion being critical to my understanding and relationship to dominance. That you explored the apparent contradictions in your relationship to submission in terms of koans resonated to a ridiculous degree. Hence my need to sit the hell down and digest it. It’s just so very much in line with my own instincts, it kind of amazes me.

    1. Have you had time to digest? :-) I’m actually a little surprised because I see those things as much more relevant to submission. Domming, at least the control-oriented version, is an active role and there are all kinds of things you can learn to DO. Whereas my frustration in seeking out education for subs has been partly assuaged by the realisation that the main thing I need to learn is how to ACCEPT. And most of what we know about that comes from spirituality traditions, it’s not the kind of thing people hold BDSM classes about.

      Then again, I can see that mindfulness is useful to everyone! And awareness and compassion are DEFINITELY qualities I want in a dom. So you are right after all!

What do you think?