The Poisoned Gift

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “The one with the real power in a D/s relationship is the submissive, because they can choose to revoke their submission any time they want.”

I hear this idea pretty frequently, and it’s always struck me as a really weird thing to believe. Do people think that the dominant partner can’t equally well revoke their dominance any time they want? It’s a consensual relationship on both sides; so if “real power” is the power to end the power exchange then both partners hold it equally. So I could understand thinking that consensual D/s relationships are really, fundamentally egalitarian, but this idea that being able to end the power dynamic means submissive partner holds all the cards just doesn’t make any sense.

Well, I think I’ve got it figured out. I don’t think that anyone actually believes that dominants can’t end their D/s dynamics; it just doesn’t occur to them to think that they ever would. Because they’re imagining D/s as a thing that the submissive partner gives to the dominant one, an idea that often goes by the name the Gift of Submission, or “GoS” for short.

In the GoS vision of D/s, the dominant partner is the one accruing most or all of the benefits of the relationship and the submissive partner just gives and gives. So if the dynamic ends then the dominant partner loses a lot and the submissive partner loses little or nothing. Because they weren’t getting anything in the first place, yes? They were just giving, giving and giving submission.

Imagine a relationship where I just came to your house and gave you a hundred bucks every day. You’d be pretty invested in that relationship continuing because, hey: free money. Pretty likely over time you’d even adjust your lifestyle so that you were counting on that free money coming in, and then you’re dependent on me. But I have no reason at all to continue the relationship; I can end it on a whim and lose nothing but hassle and expense. That’s how charity can turn into manipulation, and that’s how you end up with the submissive having all the real power.

So here’s the thing. If you think of D/s as something that the submissive partner gives to the dominant one, then yes: you’ve trapped yourself in a world where submissives have all the real power, because they have nothing to lose and the dominant partner has everything to lose. But if that isn’t where you want to be, there’s a simple way out: recognize that there’s as much or more to give from the dominant side of the slash.

If you’ve been doing GoS D/s from the submissive end, think about those times you retracted your gift from a dominant and ended a D/s dynamic. Did you feel like you lost nothing? Maybe you did, in which case you were probably dealing with a lousy dominant. But if you did feel a sense of loss, then try and notice what it was about. Did you lose structure? creative cruelty? parental nurturance? That’s what your dominant was giving you. Learn to notice and appreciate it during a relationship, and you’ll stop feeling like the one with all the real power—`cause you’ll be invested in the dynamic along with your partner. Stop looking for a dominant who is worthy of your gift, and start looking for one who dominates you in ways you can hardly believe you’re worthy of. Then you’ll feel dominated without that little asterisk that says actually you’re the one really in charge.

If you’ve been doing GoS D/s from the dominant end, think hard about what you have to offer to a D/s dynamic and how you could get better at it. Then start insisting on having your contribution recognized. Stop thinking of yourself as the lucky, passive recipient of a gift and start thinking of yourself as a contributor to building something awesome and hot between two people. Yeah: it means that you have to do some work instead of lying back on the couch and getting submitted at. But you won’t feel like a beggar just hoping your partner doesn’t take their ball and go home.

So hey: you know who really has the most real power in a relationship? It has nothing to do with dominant or submissive roles. It’s the person who needs the relationship less. This is the Principle of Least Vested Interest and it is both unavoidable and a little depressing, kind of like gravity. In any kind of consensual relationship, whoever has the least to lose (or thinks they have the least to lose) is the one with the most leverage. The GoS idea, and deducing from there that submissives hold all the real power, is just a version of least vested interest.

So do you want to have real, fundamental power in your relationships? Here’s the answer in two easy steps (the “easy” part is a lie).

1. Make sure that you’re giving your partner a lot of what they value, and that they recognize it. That means listening and learning what it is that they value, investing serious time, attention and energy into making it happen, and not standing for being taken for granted.

2. Be bigger than your relationship. Develop hobbies, passions, friendships—maintain an identity and a sense of your worth that doesn’t depend on being your partner’s partner. Build your life so that if your relationship ends you will mourn, but not be crushed.

That’s it. Those two things are the foundation of having real power in any consensual relationship, whether you’re coming at it as a dominant a submissive or neither. Any special dominant skills or tricks have to be built on top of that foundation, and without it your partner really is the one holding all the real power.