Dominance: Power and Sex

By Amber Perera

Sex is repetition. It is an endlessly generative act of biological trickery. This article will unpick some of the moral and political dilemmas of BDSM.

Dominance in this article will be defined as the assimilation of another’s will into your own. Domination in conversation means speaking over you. Domination in the classroom is telling you to sit back in your chair and be silent. Domination in the bedroom is tying you up and holding you hostage. It necessarily implies relinquishing freedom on part of the submissive: giving yourself up, like a worshiper of a deity.

Sexual dominance, at its root, is an acknowledged performance. It is not only the performance of power but its non transferability which makes it harmless: consent in the red box, and discontinuity outside the red box. In the red box one may like to whip and choke and tie. Outside the red box, they may be a cog in some corporate machine.

But does this lead to alienation from our desires, the unclear wall between the private and the public breaks down. When a woman likes to be tied and hit and slapped; in a society that normalises sexual violence against women, can this ever be a nonpolitical choice?

Kate Millet is clear that the personal is political. ‘Coitus can scarcely be said to take place in a vacuum; although of itself it appears a biological and physical activity, it is set so deeply within the larger context of human affairs that it serves as a charged microcosm of the variety of attitudes and values to which culture subscribes. Among other things, it may serve as a model of sexual politics on an individual or personal plane.’

Sex can blur the boundaries between self and other through the grazing of skin, drawing blood, causing pain.

The body is never private when engaging in acts of intercourse, and given that western socialisation prioritises male experience and enforces dominance hierarchies in which men reign atop; the conclusion is that heterosexual sex is generally coercive.

The question of consent was posed in its most extreme form by Andrea Dworkin. Frequently misinterpreted under the tagline that ‘all heterosexual sex is rape’, her argument is more accurately conveyed in the following quote: ‘There is the outline of a body, distinct, separate, its integrity an illusion, a tragic deception, because unseen there is a slit between the legs, and he has to push into it. There is never a real privacy of the body that can coexist with intercourse’. The body is never private when engaging in acts of intercourse, and given that western socialisation prioritises male experience and enforces dominance hierarchies in which men reign atop; the conclusion is that heterosexual sex is generally coercive.

However, the body is not meant to be a private thing. The body never exists privately. The act of eating is to bring some being into oneself, to open the boundary of the body. To give birth, to cradle and hug, break the nonexistent glasshouse of selfhood. Sex disturbs the self/other boundary, but that boundary itself is an illusion: even when breathing, we welcome in air that does not belong to us, and breathe it out again to be used by another. The difference with sex is that it is another person that disturbs the illusory wall we put between our bodies and the world.

The body is not meant to be a private thing. The body never exists privately.

The moral question of sexual dominance does not have absolute answers. We eat for comfort. We hug for comfort. We swim in warm water for comfort. But when this feeling becomes disjointed – eating spicy food, back scratching, spanking; distorted feelings of comfort are deemed unacceptable.

Sex becomes fetishistic when it is not about intimacy. When it is not about the other person. Fetishises are not wrong in themselves, but when the bodily elements of a person are used as instrumental if used without respect for the person themselves. Sex doesn’t have to be about spiritual connection, but it is difficult to have entirely transactional sex without safe, sane and consensual boundaries and communication.

Sex, when performed devoid of human connection, can be complete violation. If your humanity and dignity does not feel like it is being respected, you may be questioning your position of power. Why did I cry after that, or walk away feeling empty? Despite physical pleasure, without consent, sex can utterly be used as a tool of power.

Despite physical pleasure, without consent, sex can utterly be used as a tool of power.

But sex can be a humanising experience too. Humanity can be found within intimacy, like the divinity of religious ceremony or harmony of music.

Or, sex could embrace objectification, advocated by the BDSM community in using bondage to heal emotional and sexual wounds. In relinquishing control to someone, being completely at the mercy of another human will, is very similar to the act of being held and provides human comfort. We are led through many things blind, like surprise parties or blind dates, and the ritual of rewriting violence in places of comfort creates the same feelings of surprise and intimacy.

It requires a mental space much like meditation, often called subspace, in which you are entirely attuned to every bodily sensation. The joy of being treated like an object allows you, for a moment, to release the fixed human subjectivity and become an object. You become a chair upon which someone rests the weight of their being, entirely sensation without the cerebral.

It’s difficult to adjudicate whether any sexual act is always immoral. Personal pleasure is individual: getting piercings, swimming across the English Channel. The reason those acts are not frequently considered immoral, even if they are peculiar or extreme, is because they do not implicate any other people. But an act is not immoral just because it looks difficult, painful, alien – provided that consent is carefully considered.

What sexual dominance means is that private acts can easily slip over into public power relations. Power play is inevitably psychologically rooted. I add a note of caution: even if with a consenting partner, violence in sex devoid of intimacy means there is still a moral imperative to question your desires and complicity in existing power structures outside the bedroom, and engage in the necessary aftercare.

Illustration by Amber Conway

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