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Two ways to be intentional about power in relationships

The world of non-monogamous relationships has always overlapped significantly with the BDSM community, to the point where there's now a monthly munch just for self-identified monogamous people — they're a minority here. It would seem that there's a blunt irreconcilability between certain types of BDSM relationship styles, particularly D/s or total power exchange, and relationship anarchy.

After all, how can you be committed to power exchange in a relationship if you’re also committed to abolishing the structures of power? Doesn’t RA specifically speak against the kind of sexualization of power and obligation that is central to D/s? Although it's undoubtably true that many D/s partnerships become heavily dyadic, there are more ways that RA and D/s can have synergy than it might appear.

RA doesn’t have to be about striving for nobody to have any power over anyone else. In fact, I’d argue that this goal is not only unobtainable in any kind of society, it also fails to take into account the shared reason-giving and obligations that make up material life with any other person involved. What matters, at least as I understand it, is not that nobody has the right to hold anyone else to an obligation, it’s that when we give each other obligations we do so in an explicit, negotiated way. RA isn’t about removing power structures entirely, it’s about only developing power structures that everyone who is affected by them can directly, freely consent to being a part of, and can renegotiate or leave whenever they need to. It’s about starting from the principles of liberation and equality, and making all the ways that power flows in relationships explicit so that everyone can agree to them.

This way of thinking about RA is radical because it takes the idea of power and brings it into the foreground when we negotiate our boundaries within relationships. Power structures are often hidden to those who benefit from them, and painfully clear to those who are oppressed by them. RA rejects this, and pulls power out of the social contexts that allow it to remain hidden and destructive to individuals, relationships, and communities. So does D/s.

Have you noticed how Hollywood’s portrayal of kinky power exchange almost always has an older, male, materially successful Dominant and a younger, female, less successful submissive? Money and status are signifiers of an individual deserving their power and authority within society; that’s why they’re used by lazy directors and authors in content like Secretary and 50 Shades of Grey.

Society explains explicit power dynamics in terms of desert. If you have more money or material resources, if you’re more intelligent, if you have greater access to knowledge, then you deserve an elevated status in society and your power is greater than those below you. You have the power to make decisions and to ensure the outcome of those decisions in a way that others below you don’t, because you’ve earned it. Of course, even a brief glance at the way society is structured shows us that inequality touches our lives before we are even born. Unearned, undeserved wealth and power oozes through society; nobody achieves anything all by themselves.

In a consensual D/s relationship, between masters and slaves or owners and pets, power is not based on access to material resources or on some notion of deserving it through intelligence or hard work. Being a Dominant in a D/s relationship doesn’t require any justification with reference to society’s measures of who deserves to have power, the only conditions Dominants need to satisfy are negotiated with their submissives.

This makes D/s a radical approach to power. Like RA, D/s pulls power away from society’s frameworks, makes it explicit, and sets up new requirements to make the use of power ethical. Consent, negotiation, and mutual care are the key elements of ethical D/s.

Although RA’s goal is to minimize the asymmetry of power across all our relationships, and to dismantle hierarchies that privilege some ways of relating and loving about others, and the goal of total power exchange is to increase asymmetry within clear and consensual limits, both concepts have a lot in common. Both concepts radically deracinate power and provide an example of what life could look like if society stopped relying on the traditional ways of obfuscating and justifying power structures. For that reason, I call myself both a relationship anarchist and a slave: I am committed to destroying the explicit and covert power dynamics within vanilla society, and replacing them with relationships where everyone consents to how power is concentrated, and works towards an ever more mindful way of meshing our lives together.

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