[epistemic status: really, really tentative; I’m throwing this out there to see if other people relate to my experiences]

I am very submissive.

I don’t like leading things or being in charge. It is scary and stressful and I’m not very good at it. On the other hand, while I tend to be a Chaotic Good bastard in relation to authority that I don’t respect, there is nothing more emotionally satisfying than obedience to someone I do respect. There is a very deep sense of rightness when I am following rules which I believe are reasonable. I love being of service; some of my most cherished romantic memories are of being asked to do chores that benefited my partner.

Until a few years ago, I was under the impression that everyone worked the same way I did. However, I have been informed that many people like being in charge of things and having power and do not actually have a visceral reaction of horror at the idea of telling someone else what to do, and while this still sounds totally fake, I will accept it.

My hypothesis is that there are other people like me: people who have what you could perhaps call a “power orientation” to dominance or submissiveness, leadership or followership, being the guy or being the guy the guy counts on. I have a very strong power orientation towards submissiveness, which is why I even noticed it; most people’s power orientations seem to be far milder than mine.

Our culture does not seem to offer many frameworks for talking about consensual power dynamics. In fact, a lot of the time when you bring up the topic, people assume you’re talking about sex. (This is not about sex!) That gave me a lot of trouble identifying as a switch sexually, because it felt like delegitimizing my nonsexual submissive power orientation.

I am aware of two frameworks used to discuss consensual power dynamics, both of which focus on romantic relationships. The first is 24/7 BDSM; the second is Christian complementarianism. Both are unsatisfying.

24/7 BDSM has a lot of accouterments– the collars, the contracts, the protocol, the terminology– that are really off-putting for many people. What if I don’t want to kneel naked when my partner enters the room? What if I feel uncomfortable calling myself his slave and him my master? A lot of the writing about 24/7 is written by people who are jerking off; it can be tremendously difficult to pick through all the “and the slave is under orders to offer me a blowjob once every hour!” to get to the advice. And it really, really doesn’t help with the “consensual power dynamics are all about sex!” mindset. While nonsexual BDSM is a thing even for people who aren’t into 24/7, in the public mind BDSM is something you do to get your rocks off.

Christian complementarianism requires one to embrace a religion which is not actually true, and which comes with a lot of harmful baggage about masturbation, premarital sex, and lust. Besides, because male headship is a commandment from God, it is far too prescriptive. What about male submissives and female dominants? What about– god help us– egalitarians? Many wives and husbands wind up guilt-ridden because they’re trying to live up to a power dynamic that isn’t right for them; many men become domineering, many women doormats; many people are submissive or dominant at a partner who isn’t interested and may not even know what’s going on; many people end up having an egalitarian relationship and simply claiming that it’s complementarian, which confuses the issue terribly.

I hope to open up the floor for discussion of alternate frameworks for consensual power dynamics. Particular questions which interest me:

  • How many people who like consensual power dynamics are there? Are we five percent of the population? .01%? Nearly all?
  • Do all people’s preferred consensual power dynamics have a distinct “top” and “bottom”, or are there other forms? What do those forms look like?
  • How closely connected is neurodivergence and having a orientation towards power? I notice in myself that many of the things I’m currently framing as “submissiveness” could equally well be framed as “autism and borderline personality disorder”. Is this a common experience?
  • Do people have different preferred power orientations (including “egalitarian”) in different areas of their lives (work, romantic relationships, platonic friendships)?
  • How does the same power orientation look in different contexts? A submissive at work is going to be different from a submissive at home.
  • Are there different “flavors”? Mine seems to focus on obedience, service, and being taken care of; what other flavors are there?
  • What are the best practices for having a healthy relationship with a power dynamic? What are the best practices for maintaining your independence and self-reliance as a submissive, or not becoming a total asshole as a dominant?