The reality is that we call these relationships “Power Exchanges” for a reason. The reason is that there is a give and take from both sides of the equation. There is a sexiness to power, just as there is a sexiness to giving your power to another to use as they see fit. These things do not happen in a vacuum. They live and breathe in dynamic relationships.
I do believe that dominant and top type people get short shrift for the service that they provide. Yes, I said service. And I know some of you reading are bristling, and some are confused. The bristlers are those who think “I do not serve!! I am served!!’ and those who are confused are probably thinking “Well, that doesn’t make sense. Isn’t it the job of the submissive to serve?”
Yep, it can be. And plenty of people who are submissive get off on serving other people. Service simply means the act of helping. In kink parlance, being “in service” to someone often means that you have agreed, for some period of time, to be available to help to that person. It is akin to Bruce Wayne’s faithful servant, Alfred, showing up always with the right beverage or weapon just in time. But being “in service” isn’t the only way service happens.
Dominants and masters are, themselves, in service to the dynamic they wish to create. While they are nominally in command, that command has to be managed in order for a successful power exchange dynamic to grow and thrive. The dominant who does not see that their position as a steward of the relationship is service misses an opportunity for reflection and self-assessment.
“How am I doing in serving myself, my submissive / slave and this relationship?” is a great question to ask, and one that facilitates a healthy dose of humility.
How do dominants and masters provide service?
To answer this question, I thought about how the people who have received my submission have helped to facilitate my life.
My first dominant offered me an opportunity to explore my newly accepted kink self, and a place to explore my role as a member of a Leather household. He taught me about the Prime Directive, and that has served me in ways that are beyond my capacity to fully parse. Teaching someone how to care for themselves is a service that dominants can be uniquely positioned to provide. It is a remarkable approach to the dynamic to serve as a teacher, a mentor, a midwife to the explorations of your submissive partner, or your budding slave.
Even “playing” or engaging in a “scene” – the term commonly used to denote specific BDSM / kink interactions – is work. Back in the day, Leathermen used to refer to their implements of delightful torment as “tools” and their Leathersex as “work,” which is not only hot, but also quite apt.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to watch a sadist prepare for a night out, I can tell you it often takes quite a bit of effort. If they’re someone who enjoys a particular play-style that embraces a specific type of equipment, they’ve gotta pack and haul it. Set up the scene, maintain a safe space for the duration of the scene, monitor the bottom or sub they’re topping, bring the scene to a conclusion, and land the plane safely after everyone’s been flying. Too often this work is neglected, and the amazing service that this truly is isn’t acknowledged as such.
Plus hauling around all that shit, swinging that flogger, tying that rope, and helping you to put yourself back together again, if need be? All that is a LOT of fuckin’ work, y’all.
What do the dominants say?I posed the question in passing on Facebook, and on FetLife (a kinky social networking site), and a few friends had some thoughts on how they serve from a dominant or top space.
A gentleman with the handle Khall wrote on how the connection that dominance and submission creates functions to create safe space for him and his submissive –
“…beatings after a hard day, offering the relaxation of slipping into comfortable/desired role. I take all the weight on her shoulders, and cut it off with my flogger. Because she’s not allowed to let the outside world bow her back. Only for me.”
Those of us who find release in our masochism are well cared-for when someone takes the time to say “You’ve had it rough out there, and over that you have little control. Now, in our own safe space, we can play how we like and find relaxation there.”
Sometimes the scene serves us as an ordeal.
I have, as a submissive, asked my friend Graydancer to top me from a place of very hardline sadistic domination, and not stop the scene until I used my safeword to stop the scene myself. I asked for this because I was in a place in my journey where I felt I needed to know I would maintain my own boundaries. I was on shaky emotional ground, and wanted the reassurance that I was able to take care of myself.
Now, my friend, while capable of very intense play, prides himself on being able to play without pushing his partner’s beyond the brink. Most tops do love riding that edge. So my request for him to push me until I stopped – knowing that I would be doing everything not to “safeword” – was something that was a stretch for him, too.
In service to our friendship, and because who doesn’t like to beat the crap out of a masochistic friend once in a while, he accepted the challenging situation. I walked away knowing that while I can take a licking and keep on ticking? I was also able to call “Red” when it was too much. I embraced my limits. And that is an invaluable service.
Click image to enlarge.
images by Michele Serchuk
What dominance “looks like” is a slippery question, too.
I like to ask folks to imagine the following scenario: You see a couple, one serving the other a luscious meal, cutting up the food, lovingly feeding it to the other. Who is the dominant? Who is “in charge”?
Well, yeah. You cannot tell from the actions what the dynamic is there. Intent is everything.
If the person being fed hates cooking, and loves being waited on hand and foot, then as a dominant, they may order their submissive to cook and feed them. However? If someone is a control freak and loves controlling everything that goes into the body of their submissive partner? They may well order them to be still while they are hand-fed.
My friend Holly, who identifies as butch and a service top, is all on board with the intention of cooking as a great way to see how people approach service.
“My favorite thing to ask people is how they cook. If they cook as a bottom they cook to please – get the favorite ingredients, favorite dishes, and preferred presentations. But for me as a Daddy, as a host & as a top I cook from a place of ‘I am going to make something amazing and you are going to put it in your mouth and you are going to like it.’”
A service top?
“Service topping” is a term that sometimes gets a bad rap among kinksters. It really refers to those folks who focus on the service of the bottom as a vital facet of their topping, or giving sensations in play. Some kinky folks will use the term dismissively. “Oh, she’s just a service top, she’s not a real dom.” Which is crazy bullshit.
First off? Being in service doesn’t mean you are submitting. It means you are doing something helpful, facilitating the creation of safe space, being generally awesome.
Secondly? There are fewer things more “real” than human connection, and this is something that a top in service to the scene can provide.
So what do dominants and tops do emotionally? What service are they providing there?
Sometimes it is the safety of space within which the submissive can fully express their submissive self. Or the knowledge that they are safe, protected, and well cared for.
When I asked how dominants exercise their control and therefore provide service, my friend Spencer Bergsteadt, a well-respected Lawyer, Advocate for Transgender issues, and a dominant who identifies as a “Daddy,” said
“I provide service all the time to my partner(s). It might be through taking charge of the travel plans (…) It might be at an event where I set the dress code so that my partner will truly shine at the event. It might be in keeping other people in check. The other night we were at a play party and my girl was talking to a few friends. There was a new person there with whom we were not acquainted. I was sitting about ten feet away when said new person started putting the moves on my girl. I simply said ‘You should step back about three paces.’ to the new person who was then flustered, came over to offer apologies, etc. On the drive home later, my girl thanked me for being so observant and for helping her to not have to handle the situation herself.”
The Dominant Protector
The “dominant as protector” is a lovely, chivalrous dynamic that provides a safe space wherein the submissive is permitted to live and breathe in their place and lose the fear of being vulnerable, open and … well, submissive!
That this is a two-way street is clear Hell, sometimes it’s a multi-lane highway, with off-ramps and clover-leafs. And while submission takes work, effort and focus, dominance does, too.
I loved the visual my friend Elaine Miller presented when describing the energy exchange between dominant and submissive.
“I visualize the D/s dynamic between two folks as an oscillating bucket of goodness shoved back and forth on a big fat line of communication. Each side’s gotta put in that push effort and aim the shit correctly or it all goes out of whack. Pun intended. What’s in the bucket? Lust, trust, safety, fear, scariness, excitement, planning, caring, caretaking, detail-oriented mango-just-the-way-I-like-it-slicing-thank-you-boi, trustworthiness, skillfulness, daring, don’t-worry-about-that-I-got-it-darling, and I-know-what-you-want-so-I’ll-do-it-until-you-faint...and so forth.”
As we romp in these erotic playgrounds and explore out inner landscapes, it is vital that we respect ourselves, and the work we do to make these glorious, shimmering, twisty, crazy-beautiful, complicated ecosystems that we call “power exchange relationships” nurturing places to be.
Assuming that the dominant does not work is a sure-fire way to foster resentment. Assuming that the submissive doesn’t have power is a sure-fire way to erode respect. But when we acknowledge the beauty in service, be it dominant or submissive, master or slave? We take a step into a wonderful intimacy and a new level or erotic exchange that can make work feel like fun and fun feel like ecstasy.
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