So, picking up where I left off yesterday, I’m going to try and pick through a second reason why I think most information on power exchange doesn’t talk about the learning curve involved in getting comfortable holding, and wielding, power. This second theory – which you can see from the title – is a little thornier. People can get Touchy when gender norms get brought up and/or criticized. Hell, I’m already fighting the urge to cover this whole post with the standard giant blanket disclaimer about how “not all guys are fill-in-the-blank” just to pre-empt any derailing that might crop up.
Well, screw it. Here’s the deal: For the purposes of this post, I’m talking about socialization and What We Get Taught as a culture (both in terms of over-arching/mainstream Anglo Canadian culture AND in terms of what we, as great big pervs, bring to our own kinky sub-cultures). Which means that yes, actually, I am talking in generalities and “supposed to be’s” and all the rest of that stuff. Consider yourselves disclaimed.

Okay. So! Gender. It’s basically my pet topic. It’s buckets of fun and, as far as I can tell, it’s the basis for how the various hierarchies in our[1] culture(s) are structured and maintained. Whee! 😀

Basically – and I know a whole lot of you reading this are already well past the “well, duh” stage on this front, but I’m going to spell it out anyway – as a culture, we’re very into binary opposition as a means of categorizing the world and setting up our value-systems and so-on. It’s convenient. Two is a really simple either/or equation, and it keeps things easy. (You can tell this isn’t going to end well, can’t you?)
I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure where we, as English-speakers, get this. I’m inclined, in my no-facts-to-back-this-up way, to pin it squarely on Rome. In part because it was the Roman Empire that forced Christianity – which subscribes a whole hell of a lot to this dichotomy – on the rest of Europe, and in part because it was the Latinate vernacular (French), with its masculine and feminine nouns, that gave us a big chunk of our own vocabulary when it was brought over by William the Bastard Conqueror to be the language of the new Ruling Class in England. But, for all I know, the Gaels and the Saxons and the Welsh and the rest of the Isles’ people were doing hierarchical gender binary[2] crap for ages before 1066 rolled around. (Hint: If you have info on this, in any direction, feel free to drop me a link).

But, yeah. Whether as a function of our culture’s Christian history or as a function of something else, Anglo-Canadian (and, as far as I know, Anglo in general) culture tends to divide things along gender lines. And, since we also divide everything along the lines of “good” and “bad” (or at least “good” and “not nearly as good as all that”), we end up with lists like the following[3]:

Good, Man, Sky/Outer Space/Heaven, Civilization (Urban/Urbane?), Light, Strength/Power/Invulnerability, Business, Pride, Wealth, Fame/Glory, Intellect, Streamlined/Fast/To-the-Point, Aggression, Goal-Oriented, Knowledgeable, Sex, Mind…
Bad, Woman, Earth/The Depths/Ground, Nature, Dark, Weak/Powerless/Vulnerable, Home, Shame/Humility, Poverty, Anonymity, Emotion, Embellished/Slow/Frilly, Receptive/Yielding, Experience-oriented, Intuitive, Romance, Body…

And, yeah, this is a really simplistic set of comparisons. But bear with me.

See, there are behaviours/situations that fall under the “Good” list, but which are seen as inappropriate for women (who fall under the “Bad” list) to undertake or experience. Which is why women with money are “gold-diggers”, women with fame are “attention whores”, women with businesses are “bad mothers”, women who fuck are “sluts” or “bull-daggers” (depending on who they fuck and whether or not they present as masculine (good, but not if you’re a woman) or feminine (bad, but appropriate if you’re a woman), and so on), and women who generally don’t act “like women” are said to be “shameless”. It’s also why guys who hang out with kids – as stay-at-home dads or as child-care providers or as early childhood educators – are assumed to be gay and, for that matter, why “gay”, when we’re talking about gay men, is linked (though the fabulous concept of “if one, then all”), with effeminacy, sexual receiving/yielding, weakness, vulnerability, dirtiness, flamboyancy, and an obsession with home décor[4].

So what the hell does this all have to do with kink?
Oh, I’m getting there!

Okay. So the Anglo cultures that gave rise to BDSM are pretty-much all working from that same list. Consequently, most, though not necessarily all, of the people currently and historically involved in The Kink Community were raised in the goldfish bowl of that cultural milieu, that set of beliefs about how the world is set up.

So take that set of beliefs and transplant it to a sub-culture where “power” is out in the open and Officially not based on your gender ID. What do you get?

Unfortunately, what you typically get is hidden power-structures that leak out all over the place. Stuff like the deep-seated assumption that service-oriented people exist to be taken advantage of, OR are in perpetual danger of being taken advantage of and must, therefore, be Protected because they obviously can’t take care of themselves. Stuff like cis-dressing gay leathermen’s discomfort around cross-dressing gay leathermen. Stuff like the pervasive idea that, if you ID as a Top you’d better fuck like a Man, and you’d better NEVER bottom, or you’ll lose your Top Card on the quick. Presumptions that being a Bottom means you’re also a masochist means you’re also submissive (when you might be a total domme who likes to direct how she gets fucked). Assumptions about “dominant sexuality” never being receptive, and that go hand in hand with assumptions about receiving blow jobs as “not actually receiving” because they involve penetrating someone else’s mouth[6]. Assumptions about the boundaries that submissives are or, more to the point, aren’t “supposed to” have. Assumptions about women being “naturally” submissive and men being “naturally” dominant and the accompanying crap about submissive men not being “real” men and dominant women just “needing to find the right man” (or being Totally-Frigid-and-this-is-a-selling-point); or dominant men being ever so uncomfortable when there are submissive men and/or dominant women sceneing in their general vicinity; or whatever[7].

Are you seeing where I’m going with this?

We carry the stereotypes embedded within the mainstream culture we were raised in – whether that culture has benefited us in any or many way(s), and whether we know it or not – we carry it into the subculture where we find Home.

And I think those stereotypes, those assumptions about who does what “naturally” and/or the types of motivations behind why certain (groups of / types of / categories of) people do certain things, are part of why the majority of The Literature on power exchange starts out by assuming a comfort with power that may or may not actually be there.

Let me break this down.

In my (limited) experience, the vast majority of books on the subject of power-exchange presume a man as the dominant half of a given dyad. The submissive half can be either, or any, but a lot of this stuff – everything from Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns to The Master’s Manual, from Protocols: A Variety of Views to <Slavecraft – is written from the perspective of a dominant man, regardless of his sexual orientation.
The books written about dominant women and/or the men (in this case, with the exception of Midori’s Wild Side Sex[8], it’s always men on the bottom – F/f power exchange doesn’t seem to get much press outside of fiction[9]) who love and serve them frequently approach the subject from an assumption that women need to be coaxed into dominating their men, or else are taking on a dominant role to please their male partners. Or they take the opposite tack and go the female supremacy route – a route which basically flips the genders in that list I wrote out, and presumes that all women are dominant by nature (and, as such, are presumed to be comfortable with entitlement from the get-go).

Regardless, it’s assumed that either you, as the person in the dominant role, are comfortable from the get-go with holding power or you aren’t really dominant at all, but are taking on that role for the sake of your Person. Which is a miserable set of options to be faced with if you do want to hold power in someone’s life, but aren’t yet comfortable with doing so or are tying to get a handle on how to do it to good effect with grace and confidence.

I think the gendered reasons for why the learning curve involved in getting that handle on holding power are so frequently left out of the (literary) conversation is… something like this:

If Dominance is a masculine trait, then Dominance must (via “if one, then all” thinking) also be (a) invulnerable and (b) proud. To bring up the vulnerability – with all its accompanying fears, foibles and fallibilities – of learning (on the job, no less) how to hold power effectively in an ongoing way, is (in theory and, again, via “if one, then all” thinking) effectively to disempower and shame the Dominant. To render them – if I take this to its logical end-point – not really dominant at all.

Which is utterly stupid, when you think about it.

If you think about it.

That’s the trick with culturally-embedded narratives. They get fed to us so young and get reiterated and confirmed and re-taught to us on so many different levels, that it’s hard to excise all of them, no matter how hard you try. It’s why big, lefty feminists with gender analysis under their belts sometimes think that femininity and/or submissiveness are brainwashed ways of catering to The Man; it’s why dominant-identified women sometimes get twitchy over bringing the tea. And I think it’s one of the reasons why we, as a subculture, don’t talk about the learning curve, or about the vulnerability inherent in revealing your desires and your needs, or about the sense of safety submissives give their dominants by being what they are to us, for us.

If I’m dominant, then I must be all-knowing. If I’m dominant, I must be invulnerable. If I’m dominant, I must be fearless, impermeable, I must never have had to learn anything about this stuff. I must have known it, naturally, all along.

It totally doesn’t work like that. But our culturally-indoctrinated paradigms tell us it does.

Stay tuned. Tomorrow I’ll (most likely) be talking about “Dominance: What Does It Get Me OR Why Anyone Would Want to Do All That Work”.

Ms Syren.

[1] Anglophone Canada, in my case, but this pretty much applies to all of “Christendom”, AKA: Europe, or anywhere Europeans have colonized.

[2] This really wouldn’t surprise me, to be honest. Feel free to weigh in!

[3] Which applies to present-day value systems. What’s in that table hasn’t always been the case in how we divide things. “Emotion” – or at least “Passion” – has been coded as a masculine trait at a number of points through history, even as “intellect” has always been coded (in spite of Sophia and Shekina) as the perview of the masculine. We still see it, actually, in axioms like “boys will be boys”.

[4] It’s also why Brown people are coded as “dirty” and presumed to be “poor” in this culture, AND why poor people are coded as “dirty” and expected to act decently ashamed about their financial situations, AND why poor and/or Brown women are presumed to be even more sexually available/receptive than white/wealthy women and poor and/or Brown men are (typically[5]) presumed to be even more sexually aggressive/dangerous than white/wealthy men.

[5] Unless they’re also being coded by this (white) culture as feminine – like, say, that stereotype about Asian guys and penis size.

[6] You just keep telling yourself that, honey.

[7] For some more in-depth analysis on this subject, check out: Topping a Top and, for that matter, A Disturbing Equation OR Musings on Masculinity (both from Sex Geek);
Domism: Role Essentialism and Sexism Intersectionality in the BDSM Scene (from Yes Means Yes).

[8] If you know of any others, please send them my way!

[9] Not that I’m knocking the porn, mind you, but I think the situation is telling with regards to what it says about what (and possibly who) women’s sexuality is “for”, and why (and for-whom?) a woman would take on a dominant OR a submissive role.