I’m hypersensitive to power dynamics. I intuit hierarchies the way a cook intuits whether or not a soup needs more salt. It’s one of the reasons I’m drawn instinctively to D/s, and why I love Secretary so much. But more on that in a bit….
Interestingly, power doesn’t have nearly so much to do with position and title as one might think. Boss / employee, parent / child, even Dom / sub – these relationships are vertical in theory, but in practice situational power is fluid and highly dependent on external factors. An influential title is not enough to guarantee that a power dynamic remain static. That’s because situational power has little do with rank, and everything to do with having what someone wants.
Take the boss who is caught embezzling by an employee. He wants to avoid jail, so suddenly the person who relied on his good will at review time has the power. It shifted with context, leaving the boss who once had control at the mercy of his subordinate.
This kind of power simmers beneath the surface of any situation in which people interact. Generally speaking, contextual power goes to whichever party has what the other person wants – love, approval, sex, money, security, respect, whatever. This form of power is leveraged by the honey pot, not by the person who wants a taste.
But there is another kind of power, one that is far less fluid. This other kind of power is defined not by the situation, but by self-possession and control. You can see it when the context shifts, and the honey pot changes hands but the person who should be pursuing it doesn’t.
Let’s go back to the example of the boss who was caught embezzling. What if his employee comes to him demanding blackmail? What if, rather than pay the blackmail, Mr. Embezzler weighs his options and chooses to make a deal with the authorities? While he would still be subject to the institutional power of the law, he will have preserved his autonomous power of choice because he exercised his will and addressed the situation on his terms, and not the blackmailer’s.
That is personal power, which supersedes context. This is the kind of natural authority that claims situational power. While someone who exercises personal power can still be affected by changes in context, their response is entirely their own. It is not determined by the pursuit of what they want. Unlike contextual power, personal power is dictated not by desire, but by choice.
The sort of decision I described Mr. Embezzler making requires incredible personal power. Rather than reacting on impulse to the change in his fortunes, he exercised control over his response and defied his employee’s bid at taking control of the situation – not to spite the employee but, rather, because addressing his crimes on his terms would likely lead to more leniency than he might otherwise get.
That is not easy – the impulse to follow a knee-jerk response is strong. But that’s what personal power comes down to – defying that first, knee-jerk impulse. Do you react immediately or measure your response? Do you take the high road or jump in, guns blazing? Are you ruled by your reactions or do you weigh your options and pursue the one that most aligns with the preservation of your terms? Are you aware of what your terms* are?
*Quick note: I’ve used the word “terms” here a few times, and it occurred to me that I should explain what I mean. When I say “terms” in the context of interpersonal relationships, I mean those things that are most important to you. Terms can be anything from your principles and values, to your needs. Knowing what your terms are in any given situation makes it easier to ensure that you keep them.
Outside of corporate crimes, where can you see this sort of power exchange play out – hopefully in a completely legal way? While power dynamics underlie even the most mundane interactions, there are few places in which both forms of power are played with quite so explicitly as in D/s and BDSM.
In D/s (and other forms of kink) the dynamic of a scene is controlled by one person. Ostensibly, that person is the top, but only if he exercises his will successfully over the sub. In other words, the top has to inspire the bottom’s submission – holding the title of “Dom” isn’t enough. As Laura Antoniou wrote, to dominate is a verb, which means topping requires taking active control of the scene though the assertion of personal power.
This doesn’t always look like what we read in fiction. Take the scenario of the recalcitrant sub. I’ve read many stories in which the top snarls and makes a great cock swinging show of his dominance while the plot put him back in control. It’s much rarer to see a fictional Dom portrayed as possessing, let alone asserting, genuine power. That’s why I love Secretary so much.
Edward Grey is subtle and tremendously considered. He watches Lee and maintains control over their dynamic not through grand displays of dominance, but through the nuanced manipulation of their shared context. He ensures that situational power stays with him by exercising patience and control – the opposite of responding to impulse. But what makes Secretary so wonderful is that it also chronicles Lee, the submissive in the relationship, as she develops her self-possession and gradually asserts power over other aspects of her life, including, at the end, successfully managing contextual control over her relationship with Grey. It’s a well-rounded portrayal of a nuanced power dynamic, one that capitalizes on the complexities of contextual power and personal will.
Power is a lovely game, one whose stakes are defined by the players. Personally, I love to play the game almost as much as I love to watch it play out. It’s endlessly interesting because it’s as varied and dynamic as the people involved. But in a far more serious sense, being aware of power dynamics can help you keep your footing when the going gets rough (and it will always get rough, if only for a bit). Knowing your position in a power dynamic can help you navigate a situation without letting context steer you into a wall. The key is knowing what you want, and whether or not you want it badly enough to compromise your place on the curve.