Sunday, July 31, 2011

Kaelah's Corner (Jul 2011):
Mirror Mirror

In my Kaelah's Corner post Therapy? and the follow-up post Speculative Questions I asked the rather controversial questions whether therapeutic effects explain a (smaller or bigger) part of our spanking fantasies and kinky relationships. Both posts led to a very lively discussion in the comment section. Among other things, the question came up whether it is possible to speculate about other people's experiences and motives at all and whether there is an inherent risk of being judgemental and spreading prejudices.

I absolutely agree that it is usually very difficult to know what's behind the surface. What are the motives and drives for someone's kinky fantasies? How does the dynamic of a particular kinky couple really work? As Abel's comment showed, for instance, visible factors like age differences don't necessarily tell us anything about the power dynamics in a kinky relationship. I also think that our points of view towards different forms of play and relationships depend on our personal experiences, desires and fears, and therefore can be prejudiced.

But for me that doesn't mean that one shouldn't explore these topics. On the contrary, from my point of view it calls for a more intense analysis, for a closer look both into the mirror and into the world. Which prejudices do I have? Where do they come from? And are these prejudices completely unfounded or not?

A big part of the discussion on the Therapy? post was centred around the topic of kinky relationships and especially relationships which involve a unidirectional power dynamics. I thought a lot about my own opinion about these kinds of kinky relationships and came to the conclusion that I am indeed prejudiced against them. So, I would like to take a closer look at this topic today.

I want to begin with a more detailed definition of what I mean when I'm talking about a “unidirectional power dynamics”. First of all, I'm not talking about role-play, where one person is always the top and the other always the bottom. I'm talking about relationships in which both partners have clearly defined roles which are (more or less) permanently valid, also beyond kink. Secondly, these roles have to be designed in a way that assigns one partner with a leading responsibility while the other partner has a responsibility to follow their partner's advice and/or certain rules which have been agreed upon. And third, the leading partner holds the following partner accountable for misdeeds.

Of course, Annapurna was absolutely right when he said that there are vanilla relationships with a power imbalance as well! As a matter of fact, the reason why I personally never ever want to live in a partnership with such a power dynamics and why I have such a negative gut feeling towards this form of relationship is that I have seen negative examples in vanilla partnerships, especially in the generation of my parents and grandparents.

Luckily, there were other examples even in my grandparents' generation as well. While my grandfather and grandmother on one side of the family lived the “classical” life of working man and housewife, there never was a unidirectional power dynamics between them. When my grandmother unexpectedly got very ill, my grandfather took over at home and cared for her for many years until she passed away. He also was the one who cooked when I visited my grandparents as a child.

I've seen women, though, who were not only emotionally dependent on their partners, but who also depended on them financially. These women couldn't leave their husbands even if the relationship developed in a bad direction, because they neither had the financial background nor the self-confidence to lead a self-dependent life. And there were some people, women as well as men, who were completely helpless when their partner became ill or, even worse, died. The women because some of them didn't even know how a simple bank transfer worked and the men because some of them didn't know how to cook the most simple meal or how to switch on the washing machine.

So, this is where my prejudices against relationships with a power imbalance come from. The question is, do the risks and possible negative outcomes which I have observed in the vanilla world apply to kinky relationships with a unidirectional power dynamics as well?

In the discussion on my post Therapy?, the question was raised whether bottoms who are living in such a relationship would be helpless without their partner. I don't think that most of the people who are engaged in a kinky partnership with a unidirectional power dynamics would be unable to care for themselves if they hadn't got their partner. But I'm of the opinion that the relationship makes life easier, which can be a good thing but also a bad thing, depending on how the people involved really use their relationship. From my point of view there can be two general ways of using a unidirectional power dynamics in a kinky relationship:

If "girls" / "boys" / submissives use the relationship to grow from it and to build up self-confidence through the knowledge that they have a daddy / mummy / master / mistress or HOH who loves and bolsters them, I consider that to be a good thing. And if the top gets something out of helping her or his partner to grow, I think that's a good thing as well.

There is another possible way of using that kind of power dynamics, though, and that is the form that comes close to what I have experienced in the vanilla world and feel highly uncomfortable about. What I'm talking about is the combination of a bottom who doesn't want to grow up at all and a top who doesn't want a grown-up, equal partner, either. To my mind, this form of relationship is very unhealthy and can lead to quite horrible situations similar to the ones I've described above. I assume that this is also the form of relationship Bogey (of Our Bottoms Burn) had in mind when he admitted to having prejudices against daddy - girl relationships.

I'm not sure how many kinky relationships are that extreme, though. That's why I'm more careful with being judgemental about kinky relationships with a unidirectional power dynamics in general. But some of the relationships I know about in our community seem to fall somewhere in between the two forms of relationships which I have described, and I think that some of them show a worrying tendency towards the latter, potentially unhealthy form.

Interestingly, there seem to be other people out there who have made similar observations of what they consider unhealthy kinky relationships. While Bogey and, to a certain extent, Georgia openly admitted to having negative gut feelings towards kinky relationships with a permanent power imbalance, private feedback showed that there seem to be more people who have made experiences with relationships of this form which they found problematic. But they would rather talk about it in private than in public.

Obviously, there is a fear of generalising and of hurting people when talking openly about this subject. But while I absolutely agree that one must be careful not to make generalisations and not to judge others based on isolated experiences or mere gut feelings (this isn't about judging people, it's a critical discussion about lifestyle choices, anyway), I find it a bit sad that a completely open and honest discussion about this topic doesn't seem to be possible in our community. And I have to admit that it also leaves me with the feeling that there might be some truth to the assumption that there is not only a fair number of relationships with a unidirectional power dynamics in our community, but that a certain percentage of them really constitutes the potentially unhealthy kind which can prevent people from growing instead of helping them to grow.

Just to make that clear, I'm only talking about my personal opinion towards certain aspects here and the question of how I evaluate a certain way of life. Growth and self-reliance are very important to me (for me they are essential parts of life as a responsible adult) and I prefer to be among people who stand up for themselves.

But others might have very different needs than I have and everyone is of course entitled to their own lifestyle! However someone chooses to live their life or not, and regardless of how happy or unhappy it makes them or how well it works or doesn't work for them - it is their own decision and I wouldn't want to tell anyone how to live their life as long as their choices don't affect me.

That being said, I do take the freedom to voice critical thoughts about possible pros and cons of different lifestyles, in a careful and respectful way. And I sometimes wish that there would be more open and controversial discussions out there in our community, because I think we can learn from them. Even if it's just gaining a better understanding of our personal prejudices and where they are coming from. To my mind open discussions usually do more than that - they can lead to more balanced opinions and the reduction of generalized prejudices. As long as the participants of the discussion listen to each other, that is.

Of course there is a certain point where people shouldn't be allowed to do whatever they want to do, though. In her comment on my Therapy? post, Indy raised the question how often kink is used to cover real abuse. I think that there can indeed be a very thin line between consensual kinky play and situations where someone doesn't really have the freedom of choice that is a necessary precondition for consent. But that is an important topic of its own which clearly deserves a separate post.


Mija said...

Interesting topics. I'm not so taken with the use of the word "therapy" outside a professional context, but that has to do with my own experiences in and with mental health. I think coping mechanism might be a better term, but that may just be me.

First, going back to your earlier posts, I'm not at all convinced that people in the kink are more (or less) likely to have experienced childhood trauma than the general population. I think we see it more in the scene because we're more likely to talk about it and wonder about past abuse, for example, and its effects on the kink. I say this because I've taken a number of courses that explored issues of childhood and, when you get people talking about their childhoods in that context, you discover a significant percentage of any population experienced violence and abuse when they were growing up.

Like you, my first experiences in the scene had me a bit disturbed by what you call unidirectional power dynamic. In my case I was both attracted and repulsed as my vanilla marriage (which was ending at that time) involved a relationship with a man who was 15 years my senior and had been one of my university professors. It ended partly because I outgrew it. I saw that dynamic quite a few scene relationships -- the mentor / parent figure top taking care of and in control of the younger / more naive bottom. It's why an important element in my relationship with Paul has always been that we're both near the same age and equals, even while he "drives" as it were, the punishment part of our lives together. It's important for me and him to know I could take care of myself without him, however much we both enjoy his taking care of me, so to speak.

That said, what I've seen over the past 14 years in the scene makes me less inclined to fault relationships based on a unidirectional power dynamic. While I haven't seen many last a decade or more, what I have seen are relationships that are fulfilling and leave the bottom (who is generally the one I know best) better off emotionally (and in some cases educationally and materially) than they were before. These bottoms are people who, for whatever reason, wanted a romantic Mother or Father as adults. If the relationship isn't abusive, that is, if it is about consent and caring, one or both people may grow out of it (I don't know of any who haven't but I'm sure they exist), but that doesn't mean those 3-7 years weren't valuable and good.

I do think there's a danger in looking at other people's relationships and wondering why / how it works. It's hard enough to understand how our own work even when in them. I never assume I understand what even my closest friends experience behind closed doors with their partners. Likewise, knowing someone in the scene online or in real life isn't enough to understand the complexity of their dynamic. If they're happy and feel healthy in it, I assume they know and are right. Conversely if they feel abused or unhappy I encourage them to get out and offer to help if I can.

Anyway, these are just my late night thoughts on reading your post. I hope they're helpful.

Rich Person said...

I suspect there is very little difference between people in the scene and those that aren't in terms of what they bring to the table. I guess that the one point in "our" favor is that the scene makes the power dynamics visible and explicit, which may make it easier for people to deal with problems. Also, there may be more explicit support for healthy relationships in the scene. People are sensitive to many issues that are glossed over in the vanilla world.

So, for people that are in the scene for any length of time, perhaps they develop better relationships on average.

Kaelah said...

@ Mija:
Thanks a lot for your thoughtful comment!

I agree with you about having to be careful when using the term “therapy” in a non-professional context. That's why I put it in quotation marks and tried to point out that I'm not talking about kink as a substitute for a professional therapy. Nothing can substitute professional help when dealing with mental issues!

I think that you are right about the question of negative childhood experiences as well. I assume that I have come across references to those kinds of experiences more often in the kinky community than in my vanilla environment for three reasons: 1) The kinky community is more heterogeneous than my vanilla environment. 2) People seem to be more likely to talk openly about such personal experiences in our community. 3) I think that these experiences can influence for example personal limits in our kinky play which is another explanation why they are mentioned in discussions about kink.

I've also made the observation that especially younger men and women who live in a relationship with a unidirectional power dynamics outgrow it after some time. That's what to my mind shows that many kinky relationships that incorporate such a dynamics allow the participants to grow. This is what makes them different from the negative vanilla examples which I have experienced. But I think that there are also (fewer) kinky relationships that prevent people from growing. When I read about relationships with a unidirectional power dynamics, though, it always seemed to me like these forms of relationships were seen as some kind of “holy grail” by many members of our community. And I didn't find any discussions about possible risks. That was the main reason why I wrote this post.

Speculating about others people's relationships indeed means walking a fine line. I try to be careful by only talking about possible tendencies which I'm observing. I try to base my analysis on what others have said about themselves and their relationships and on aspects than can be observed (like break-ups of relationships). And I only talk about a sum of observations and don't speculate on a specific relationship.

Your comment reminded me to very careful about the wording, though. I usually re-edit my posts several times before publishing them, anyway, but I took another look at my post after having read your comment and made some additional little changes, nonetheless. It's important to me to point out that this post is about a critical analysis of possible pros and cons of different lifestyles and lifestyle choices, it is not about judging people.

Our Bottoms Burn said...

Here's power dynamic for you, I now depend on you to do my deep thinking for me. This allows me more time for play.

I updated my Spanking Styles to include your words on how a DD relationship could be positive for both.

Abel1234 said...

Another thoughtful and brave post. I know there are some who object to exploration of *why* we behave in particular ways; I'm not one of them! I also think it's very valid to explore issues from one's own personal perspective, in the knowledge that others have different experiences that they can share to enrich your understanding. So well done on posting this.

As I hinted in a comment on a previous post, my own circle of friends - in real-life and online - contains a fair few couples (and other combinations) that might be viewed superficially as "unidirectional". Under the surface, of course, they're not - the roles, the submission, the accountability are something that empowered individuals choose to do to fulfill their kink needs rather than fundamentally shaping their lives.

Now, I know there are some where the power dynamic is more permanently one-way, in every aspect of the partners' lives. If this is what they've each chosen, consented to, enjoy; if each is able to modify or end the relationship if necessary, temporarily or permanently; if the arrangement makes them feel loved, empowered, enables them to thrive... then that's wonderful.

I somewhat share your concern that some of the relationships of these sorts that I've heard of don't always meet these criteria - dare I say it, sometimes with religion as a complicating factor - and those give me cause to worry for the well-being of those involved.

Kaelah said...

@ Rich:
That's a very interesting theory! I'm not sure about it, though.

I agree with you that in our community the power dynamics can be more visible than in the “vanilla world” because we have official labels for certain types of relationships and people often use them in order to describe the power exchange in their relationship. But to my mind, even if people use the same label(s) to describe the power dynamics in their relationships, they don't necessarily mean the same thing. For instance, I think that there are daddy-girl-relationships that incorporate a real, permanent power imbalance and that there are daddy-girl-relationships between equal partners as well.

And while we are more open about our relationships, in my opinion we are maybe more reluctant to ask about the healthiness and possible risks of certain lifestyles. I think that is because we are very careful about not judging others for their lifestyle choices because we don't want to be judged for our kinky lifestyle, either. I'm also sure that some people incur self-denial about the nature of their desires and relationships. One example are people who completely deny that their desire for spanking has anything to do with their sexuality, even though what they say and do implies that there is a connection.

So, I would say that we indeed tend to talk more openly about relationships and power exchange in our community (at least in the online community!), but I have to admit that I'm not really convinced that kinksters are generally more likely to take a critical look at their desires and relationships and not to fool themselves about them.

@ OBB:
I'm very honoured to know that you included some of my words in your definition of spanking styles. Although I'm of course sure that you are very well capable of doing the critical thinking yourself - I think you simply prefer to focus on the fun! ;-) Which might indeed be a very wise choice...

@ Abel:
Thanks a lot for your thoughtful comment!

I have to admit that religion wasn't on my radar when I wrote my post, but what you say makes of course a lot of sense. I guess I didn't think about that aspect because highly conservative or even fanatic Christian beliefs aren't as much of a problem in Germany as they are in other countries. For instance, we don't have any mentionable numbers of people who want creationism to be taught at schools or anything like that. My own experiences with religion and the church were very positive as well. In my youth I found many caring and reliable friends in my local parish and the older parish members encouraged us to do creative things and to talk openly about our thoughts, wishes and fears.

But of course religion can also be used to establish certain power structures that oppress people and keep them in a state of immaturity. In combination with kink that can indeed be dangerous.

To my mind religious beliefs aren't the only possible threat, though. I think that there are non-religious beliefs that can be dangerous in combination with kink as well. For instance, if you have one partner who believes that he or she is an awful person who permanently does everything wrong, in combination with a partner who, instead of being supportive and encouraging, feeds that belief and uses it to take a dominant and oppressive role in the relationship. That is a combination I've been thinking a lot about lately. It can of course occur in combination with religion as well (one partner believes that she or he is a bad sinner who needs to be punished and the other partner feeds that belief instead of providing love and support).

Anonymous said...

My dear Kaelah,

Once again you have written a most thought-provoking post that plumbs the depths of our interest in non-traditional activities between consenting adults, especially if those interests include canning, spanking, or other forms of power play.

I agree it’s quite possible to speculate about the origins of other people’s behavior; I do it all the time almost reflexively, but to do so without judgment or prejudice may be neigh unto impossible.

Psychologists routinely make queries about the nature and origin of human behavior, and have done so over the last 150 years or so. The more disciplined among those queries have used the scientific method to minimize inherent researcher bias. Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, have been less careful in this regard, relying, for the most part, on the observations and opinions of highly intelligent and charismatic figures in the field of both psychology and psychiatry. Personally, I would have to count myself among such thinkers.

To be completely objective would, of course, be a laudable goal, but I assert it is impossible, for in order to achieve such a position we would first have to know our entire past history, and then find a way to undo its influence on our feeling and thinking. We would, in effect, need to cultivate a beginner’s mind in a Buddhist sense, something of which only a very few us are capable, myself included.

The best we can hope for is to explore our own past to know how our own unique psyche developed. With such knowledge we can better understand why we react with affection toward some and recoil in either disinterest or even disgust toward others. Most of us don’t take the time required to learn about our inner landscape, but instead focus much of our attention on the comings and goings of others and the pleasure feelings that we experience gossiping about the seemingly aberrant behavior of others.

To be especially clear about my last point, I don’t see either Ludwig or yourself falling into this category. Quite the contrary, both you and Ludwig have taken considerable measures to be both open minded and fair while also voicing your personal preferences. Certainly, I have tried to learn by your example.


Anonymous said...

My dear Kaelah,

As to the issue of spreading prejudice, I’m less certain. Surely if one were impressionable and lacking in strong opinions about the topics we are discussing, it’s entirely possible that such an individual may introject (assimilate en mass) the attitudes, values, and beliefs of others, making them his or her own. This sometimes occurs with individuals in relationships in which one partner dominates the other or in a group in which a leader is especially charismatic; it also occurs when one has no partner at all but experiences a vulnerable emotional state of mind that does not permit a balanced perspective or clear, rational thinking and problem solving. Yet for many, opinions do form early so it’s not really clear whether prejudice can become contagious once a view of the world has formed. However, I’m not suggesting that we can’t be influenced or change our minds in light of new evidence or experiences!

Count me among those who believe it’s possible to unearth the motives and causative agents of behavior. Why? I ascribe to a casual universe. For every action there is an underlying agent whether that agent is known or can be detected. To believe otherwise is to accept the notion that events either happen by coincidence or by magic. Having said this, there is some degree of randomness in our lives, for I do not fully accept the notion we live in a pre-determined world; free will and conscious decision do play a part. But when it comes to human behavior in general, I’m much more of a determinist. It’s all a matter of knowing the developmental history of the person being observed, and then applying various psychological theories to account for that person’s behavior. Believe it or not, therapists do this all the time; I’m no different.

Where people like me run into serious trouble is when we believe our observations have predictive value, which they never do, or when we know what’s best for others, when we clearly don’t. For example, I have no way of knowing the long-term outcome of any relationship until an outcome occurs. I can surmise that a couple may divorce, but I never know when and how. After a major event does take place, only then am I able to look at past events and construct a reasonable explanation as to why a certain course of events occurred rather than an alternative set of events. Such analysis is indicative of after-the-fact reasoning.

Without a doubt, our personal experiences do, indeed, affect our opinions about various forms of adult play and are, therefore, inherently prejudiced. How can they be otherwise? For example, there are those who enjoy golden showers, but for me I either react to such activity with indifference or maybe even disgust. Why? My experience around toilet training was far from neutral. My mother, who was in charge of my upbringing, held a somewhat negative view of the body’s natural functions, including urination, defecation, and menstruation. She also held resentment toward me and my other siblings for being relegated to the task of teaching us bodily self-control, among other things relating to parenthood. Her attitudes forever influenced me in a negative way toward other forms of sex play, like golden showers, and of course there’s society’s general negative attitude toward such practices that happens to correspond with what my mother held to be true.

To be continued

Ludwig said...

One thing I can wholeheartedly sympathise with is Kaelah's main motive for writing about this topic in the first place, which she alluded to in the comments:

"When I read about relationships with a unidirectional power dynamics, though, it always seemed to me like these forms of relationships were seen as some kind of 'holy grail' by many members of our community. And I didn't find any discussions about possible risks. That was the main reason why I wrote this post."

I've read countless posts, comments and discussions myself where "daddy-girl relationships" and such were talked about as if they were the ultimate, the holy grail, the kind of relationship everyone strives for in the spanko community.

Now, if people have found their perfect mate and their perfect relationship, and if they are happy with it, that is wonderful as far as I'm concerned - more power to you! But the redundancy of always reading the same story wore me down a bit, too. How this "girl" or that "girl" has finally found her older, wiser mentor and ersatz father figure, who guides her, teaches her discipline and helps her to get her life in order, and how great it all is... And all the commenters agree how great it is and how they would like a relationship just like that. Usually, it all seems a bit stereotypical and uncritical, frankly.

If nothing else, this discussion is an interesting counter-point, and it raises some questions that aren't usually raised.

I don't think that there is anything wrong with "daddy-girl relationships" at all - they are neither generally good nor generally bad for the people involved, you have to look at each individual case. But yes, like any other type of relationship, they can have downsides and dangers as well, and I think that tends to get lost a bit amidst all the enthusiasm in the spanko community about schoolgirls marrying their headmasters.

Also, more important than looking at others, it is enlightening to look at one's reaction to others and at one's possible prejudices, as Kaelah is doing here.