Rules v Intent in Power Exchange Relationships; Some Cautionary Tales
Note: Names, context, and some details have been changed to protect the anonymity of my clients, and I have the consent of said clients to share parts of their stories.
Definitions and some Context
I’ve been a student of human sexuality/gender/identity since I learned about the Guevedoce Boys of the Dominican Republic, the specifics of which are outside of the scope of this particular article. Suffice to say that my interest was piqued, and in the decades since, I’ve immersed myself in scholastic and self-study of as many things sexuality, identity, and relationship as possible.
Over the years, I’ve worked with people who are interested in exploring 'alternative' relationships and sexual expressions, including ethical non-monogamy, BDSM, and more. One such expression of alternative relationships is Power Exchange.
These are relationships in which consenting adults create their relationship in such a way that one person has power and authority over the other person. As I’m sure some of you are going to the ‘but that’s abuse’ place, here’s an article from The National Coalition of Sexual Freedom that delineates the distinctions between abuse and BDSM
Here, I'm specifying power exchange here as "A relationship context in which procedures, protocols, activities and decisions occur outside of equality. One partner has power/authority over the other partner in the areas to which both agree.”
These relationships are consensual and collaborative and intentional. As adults with agency and sovereignty, power exchange relationships are a form of role play, even though many people identify fully as submissive and/or dominant.
As an illustrative example of consensual BDSM/Power Exchange, I will introduce you to Sally and Karen.
Sally enjoys feeling like she’s being taken, so they agree that Karen can hold Sally’s wrists down on the bed, pull her hair, spank her, etc.
The conversation that creates these agreements is called a negotiation; it is overt, specified, sometimes in writing, and agreed to by both parties prior to any activity taking place. This is one way that people who engage in BDSM cultivate consent.
If you are in a ‘regular’ relationship, you negotiate as well, though it might be more implicit than explicit, and I’ll explore that in a later article.
Some people explore power exchange outside of the bedroom. For example, I have counseled couples and individuals who are interested in consensually taking control over what their partner wears, choose what their partner will eat at a restaurant, and even design elaborate scenes wherein the dominant partner is fully in charge of the submissive partner for a period of time.
A Taoist Model for Power Exchange and How It Relates to Rules and Intent
I use the model of Taoism to explore pretty much everything, and I’m sharing that here to be transparent about my bias. If Taoism is a new/ish concept for you, here is a short primer.
For the purpose of this article, I'm exploring the opposites of Rules (letter of the law) and Intent (spirit of the law). These are in no way the only options for structuring a relationship, and neither is better than the other. I simply find them useful.
A rules-based power dynamic is inherently yang, could look military in style, and might manifest with these traits:
specificity as to where the submissive stands/walks in relationship to the dominant
specificity as to how the dishes are to be placed on the table
specificity as to how the dominant wants their clothing cleaned
the submissive having a list of things he/she is permitted when the dominant is absent
rules for how the submissive is to speak to the dominant
the submissive having set times for things like email, reading for pleasure, and 'off the clock' activities
the dominant giving discrete directions
the dominant having little room for deviation from the directions
In essence, the dominant makes the rules and the submissive follows them. Think of this as command-and-control.
In complex power exchange contexts, such as non-monogamy, there might even be 'ranks' among the submissives. Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace series is a fictional portrayal of this kind of fantasy. The operative word being fantasy. She is a far better writer than the 50 Shades of meh… so if power exchange erotica is in your wheelhouse, I encourage you to check out Laura.
But I digress…
Rules-based power exchange relationships are negotiated towards order, specificity, and often have a handbook. There are urban legends of dominants having encyclopedia-level detail of all the rules their partners are to follow. How these people keep track of such things, I have no idea, and for some, it's pleasurable.
To my eyes and ears, when I speak with people who operate in these contexts, they are seeking the execution of a working system and that is a measure of success. Individual preferences on the part of the submissive are often surrendered to the dominant in order to make the system work.***
These power exchange relationships are orderly and highly structured. They have ‘lots of rules’.
In contrast, an intention-based power dynamic is going to look chaotic and disorganized.
An intent-based power exchange is inherently yin in nature and might manifest with these traits:
general guidelines for where the dominant wants the submissive (in eyesight)
the submissive having a high degree of choice whether the dominant is present or absent
the submissive actively participating in the creation of their personal experience in the relationship
the submissive having general guidelines for personal time/activities
the submissive having a great degree of freedom of speech (in contrast to specifically codified language, such as ‘this girl’ and ‘this boy’)
fewer (or no) protocols (see the Rubel link above)
high expectations for creativity on the part of the submissive from the dominant
room for change – nothing ‘written in stone’
In my experience, people who operate in the realm of intent tend to see success as demonstrating growth and self-actualization. These people also, in my experience, are more at home with ambiguity in governance.
I also believe that there's an inherent assumption in rules v intent based power exchange relationships that has to do with ability on the part of the submissive. I believe that rules-based dynamics have the inherent belief that the submissive is not able, and therefore must be trained into whatever expression the dominant prefers. Intent-based relationships, I believe, have an inherent assumption that the submissive is not only able but responsible enough to have some say in their experience. This has parallels to teaching. If you're interested, here's a video I shot a while back.
And I digress again...
Please do not read that rules-based power exchange doesn’t create self-actualization, or that intent-based power exchange can’t be an operational system. I’m talking in general themes here.
Rules and intent can create tension in negotiating a scene and are incompatible in some ways.
As an example of how things can break down due to the occasional incompatability of intent and rules, I’ll introduce you to Pat and Joe. Pat is the submissive intent-based partner and Joe is the dominant rules-based partner. (submissives can be rules-biased, and dominants can be intent biased. I’m simply citing an example).
While negotiating play, Pat says 'no restraint of hands’. Because Pat is intent-based, her request means 'the entire class of behaviors that will keep me from being able to use both of my hands will be excluded from interactions'.
Joe agrees to ‘no restraint of hands’ with an internal wink, because she agreed to hands, but not hand or feet for that matter.
During an erotic moment, Joe binds one of Pat’s hands. Pat gets upset because Joe broke their agreement. Joe says ‘I promised not to bind your hands… plural. You can still use one of them’. Ok, very funny, haha. Since Pat wasn’t harmed in the exchange, Pat lets it go.
But what about in a larger context of the relationship as a whole?
What if Pat and Joe are also non-monogamous and have sexually intimate relationships with other people. Let’s say that one of the negotiated agreements of the relationship is ‘new people shall not be at home alone with either of us for a period of 3 months’. Pat hears ‘Joe won’t be alone with a new person for 3 months’.
And then Joe meets someone super interesting and awfully exciting, and this new person asks to have a conversation with Joe in private, so Joe takes the new person to a mall parking lot and they talk in the car.
‘But the rule is that we won’t be alone at home,’ Joe explains. Pat, however, feels like Joe broke their agreement. Pat isn’t so sure they can trust Joe now.
Can you imagine how hurt Pat would be if Joe took their new partner to a hotel?
I have had pretty much this exact conversation with a couple. The Joe in the relationship genuinely couldn't understand why Pat was so upset. Empathy, Joe... empathy.
Seekers of loop-holes sometimes do so at the expense of the emotional well-being of their partners. When those seekers of loopholes are in the dominant role of the power exchange relationship, this can lead to an abuse of power.
Another example: Sally and Karen spent a little over a year exploring power exchange in and out of the bedroom. The nature of the exchange outside of bedroom was rooted in service. This means that Sally performed services for Karen, such as doing the grocery shopping, balancing Karen’s bank book, packing for overnights, cleaning the sex toys, etc.
Sally had a major stress moment in her life the week before she and Karen were going on vacation: her cousin died. Sally was deeply grieving and much of her inner focus was on her felt experience of the loss.
Karen is highly rules-based and didn’t have any leeway for Sally with regards to Sally’s tasks. This forced Sally to prioritize Karen’s lists of tasks over her own emotional well-being.
You can see where this created a problem, yes? When they went on a vacation together, the whole relationship exploded. It went KaBlooey - Thermonuclear Meltdown - Total Fail - 100% Fuct Dup.
When Sally and Karen came to me so we could talk about the breakdown, I listened and asked some questions. I identified one of the core problems with the power exchange, as a conflict between operating from Rules v Intent
The dominant, Karen, operates from the idea that agreements should be followed to the letter of the law, so when Sally’s cousin died, it didn’t matter to Karen. Sally had work to do. ‘Soldier Up!’ as it were. This created so much pressure for Sally, that she opted out of the power exchange. She simply couldn’t take it. Karen’s lack of empathy played a major factor as well. Karen was so stuck on ‘these are the rules’ that she was blind to the changing needs of her partner.
‘Hold on, Kayteezee. Weren’t you just describing how rules-based people look for loopholes in the rules?’ Yes. Yes I was. It can also be the case that rules-based people are rigid in their following of the rules, sometimes to the detriment of the relationship.
Can Rules and Intent Live Happily Together?
The $10,000 question. If you are guided by intent and your partner is guided by rules, how do you negotiate? How do you relate? How do you ensure that you understand the consequence of your agreements?
Here are some of my thoughts:
Be as transparent as possible about your setpoint.. If you are rules-based and look for loopholes, I believe you have an ethical responsibility to disclose that to your partner. If you are more intent-based, you also have an ethical responsibility, particularly if your partner is a ‘follow the rules’ type.
It is challenging at best to relate to a person who uses rules as a way to create loopholes for themselves. At a minimum, you are likely to find yourself surprised while playing with them. Other relationship shrapnel could be catastrophic to the pairing. I’ve seen entire polycules dissolve because one of the partners found a loophole and took advantage of it.
The more rigid the rules of the relationship, the more likely it is to fail. Tao says to be like a young tree, bending in the wind.
One way a person can abuse ‘intent’ would be to do something half-assed, or not at all, and then say ‘I intended to get it done, so that’s good enough’. Or maybe there’s an agreement in the relationship about using condoms for any penetrative acts, and ‘ooops. I forgot to use a condom. It’s ok, though, because I intended to us one’.
Intent is a weapon for absolving oneself of responsibility if misused. ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you, so you can’t hold me accountable’, meanwhile the inner dialogue is something like ‘fuck you Sandy.’
In conclusion, I want you to know that rules and intent are not inherently right or wrong, good or bad, as biases. They exist. It’s what you do with them that matters.
* (all identifying markers have been changed to honor the anonymity of the people in this article and any clients invoked have given me express consent to write about this)
*** Clearly this is one of myriad ways a relationship might express and people can measure success. I’m trying to keep this article reasonable in length