It’s a truism in the BDSM community to say that “the bottom has all the real power.”
What is meant by that, is that whoever is receiving the pain, bondage, humiliation, etc. is empowered to stop all activity with the use of a safeword, and therefore they retain ultimate control of the scene.
My feeling on that is… eh, not quite.
First of all, tops have a right to safeword too. That is as it should be. Anyone involved in BDSM play, or indeed in any kind of sexual activity, or any allegedly consensual human interaction with anyone at any time, should have the power to tap out if their boundaries are crossed.
It also means that the mystic power of the safeword is not exclusive to bottoms. It’s a power equally held by both (or all) partners in the scene.
It’s good that safewording power is shared between all partners. Imagine what could happen if it wasn’t! You’d have tops pushed past their boundaries, flogging, fucking, and fisting long after they’d become exhausted, uncomfortable, miserable, or just plain non-consenting. No good all around.
So if your thesis statement is that “bottoms have all the power” and your evidence for that argument is “bottoms can safeword,” your logic is flawed, since tops can safeword too.
My feeling is that in any interaction, no one person should ever have “all” the power. (Is that my anarchist roots showing, or just my common sense speaking out?)
In any power exchange relationship (or other human interaction), power should be shared.
That doesn’t always mean it’s shared equally.
Let’s look past transitory top/bottom roles, into the more permanent roles of an ongoing power exchange– e.g. Dominant and submissive, Daddy or Mommy and boy or girl, Master/Mistress and slave, Owner and property.
Some people insist that, even in these ongoing power dynamics, the s-type retains “all the power,” with their continued ability to exit a dynamic which no longer works for them.
But of course, Doms, Masters, Mistresses, Owners, etc. all have the right to do that, too.
(Some dynamics exist where, allegedly, the s-type actually has no power to end the relationship. The viability of that type of power exchange is a complicated discussion, and is actually beyond the scope of my experience, so I am not going to talk about it here.)
So here we are, seemingly at an impasse. Both parties, after all, retain agency in their ability to withdraw consent. Does this make them equals? Has any power actually been exchanged? And if so… who has it?
My answer, after reading some Jack Rinella last night, is that the s-type does not have all the power… but rather, they are the source of all the power.
Think about it. The authority of the Dominant is meaningless without the consent of the submissive. (A Dom who retains authority after consent has been withdrawn is more properly called an abuser.) A Dom can do nothing, exercise no power, without a willing subject.
Does that mean the submissive has all the power?
No. The submissive is voluntarily giving up a lot (but usually not all) of their power. They hand it over. They do not retain it.
The power comes from the submissive, but the lion’s share of it lands with the Dominant.
(If you really think about it, that means submission comes from the Dom, because obviously, without a Dominant partner, surrender is at best meaningless and at worst an manipulative, abusive imposition.)
At the end of the day, maybe this is all a semantic game. But it’s fun to think about.
And I think this framing helps expose some of the guts, the inner workings, of the machinery of D/s.