I’ve Got What You Want

How far do you think he'd go for that pie?

How far do you think he’d go for that pie?

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.

Movie poster for The SecretaryOutside 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.

8 comments

  1. Power dynamics are always fascinating. It seems to me that the people who make a big show of being in power have the least control. I love the different levels of power and I have really come to believe that you have to own/possess yourself before you can own any power. One of the aspects of The Secretary that I love is the development of her ownership of herself and the position of power that she is then in because of it. In D/s there are many different levels power exchange. There is behaving submissively which might appear to give the Dominant power but is truly fragile. Then there is owning your own power and choosing to exchange it with your Dominant and submitting.

    The way power works is fascinating in all areas of life. One of the things that I most adore is helping others to realise that they own their power and control even when circumstances are hard.

    1. Thank you for this comment – you brought up a couple of points that I very much agree with. It does seem that people who make the biggest shows of power, have the least control. In fact, very often control = power, with the person who best measures their responses harnessing the dynamic, despite bluster and posturing on anyone else’s part.

      Secretary is beautiful for the exact reason you describe – Lee quietly learns to claim ownership of herself, and as she does, she gains an autonomy that she couldn’t have imagined before entering into the D/s dynamic with Grey. It’s a subtle testament to the fact that power dynamics are layered and complicated, but massively influential in how we address our relationships to ourselves and the outside world. The fact that you help others get a sense of their power and control, even in difficult circumstances, is beautiful and powerful in and of itself. I wish more people had the same impulse. xx

  2. I too love power dynamics, and I’m very interested in the idea you raise of everyone having their own power.

    I realize that I am most definitely attracted to a kind of power in submissive guys, and it’s been that way as long as I can remember. Most of that time, that “power” can be as simple as autonomy. But it shows up in other ways too. (“Control” might be a better word for what I mean, but they are definitely linked, anyway.)

    1. I’m attracted to power in submissive men, as well. In fact, when a man with the sort of strength autonomy lends a person chooses to submit it’s one of the most powerful turn on’s in the world. For me, it’s especially evident in discipline and, as you said, control. The ability to master himself, and the strength and trust to hand himself to me. It’s amazingly powerful.

  3. Thanks. Too tired to put together a lengthy coherent response, but this touched on some excellent points. Entering into a relationship consciously can set the stage for something wonderful, and that is even more important in any D/s interchange. Crucial, in fact.

    1. Thank you! Your point about being conscious, and entering into a relationship aware of yourself and your potential partner, was well made. I appreciate your taking the time to comment, especially tired 🙂

  4. Love this post, Malin.

    “Power is a lovely game, one whose stakes are defined by the players.”

    I’ve never really thought of defining power in this way but, now that you’ve pointed it out, I think it’s an excellent way of looking at it. (I’ve always envisioned it more as three-dimensional box – the walls of which are moved inwards and outwards according to the kink, fetish, scene, situation.)

    Quiet power will always rule my roost; give me calm, calculated and considered any day of the week.

    Jane xxx

    1. Thank you, Jane. This is one of those subjects that I could think about and mull over forever. Power and power dynamics are endlessly fascinating. I love your idea of a three-dimensional box where you can adjust the walls at will – I think it creates a visual that represents how fluid power is. As for quiet power, I absolutely agree. I have no patience for posturing and hollow displays. I love feelings person’s gravity, both in a kink context (because I love powerful subs) and in regular life.

      M xxx

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