Liz, who lectures around the world and tends to run the show in many situations, is always a “bottom” in bed. She has known since college that she can’t “get off without submitting,” she says. “I just want to do whatever he wants and know he has complete power over me.” Her mild-mannered, devoted husband, is a “top,” and they’ve agreed to non-monogamy. Liz has had several “tops,” some of whom have been partners off and on for years, and even become friends along the way.
Power-play in sex, even with some mild pain, isn’t as rare a taste as you might guess. Anywhere from 8 -50 percent of both men and women report fantasizing about some kind of kink in surveys,and the success of the (very mildly) sado-masochistic novel “50 Shades of Grey” suggests an eager audience for what was once a taboo realm.
Submission fantasies don’t mean you’re a doormat or otherwise troubled. Research by Patricia Hawley, Ph.D and Will Hensley at the University of Kansas found that women who fantasize about submission don’t score any higher on tests of neuroticism and tend to be assertive. If your feminist hackles are rising, it helps to know that men are into submission fantasies, too.
Sex therapists say that power-play sex has little consequence outside the bedroom. Submitting to a spanking shouldn’t make you less assertive (or pushy) with your boss or husband—nor resolve any real-life power struggles, says San Francisco sex therapist Linda Alperstein. “Sex and life run on separate tracks,” she says. A couple can get along well and be dull in bed. They may have fabulous sex, kinky or otherwise, and fight nonstop. “Sex is just sex,” she says.
People often say power-play sex makes them “high,” or "feel incredibly alive.” Liz recalls a sexual experience as “the most freeing moment of my life. It was a sense of ego-lessness, I no longer belonged to me; I belonged to him.”
You can start with ribbons around wrists, plastic handcuffs, spanks and nipple pinching. Submission and domination can also be about mind games—let’s say, ordering your guy to stand at the other end of the room fully dressed while you do a slow tease, pretending to ignore him. You’re sharing secrets, playing, taking risks and making your private world more unique and intense.
Being precise and forthcoming is invaluable for any kind of sex, though not always easy. Alperstein once taught a workshop called Speaking up While Lying Down. “It’s very difficult to say how you want to be approached, touched or be done to,” she says.
The danger comes when either party agrees reluctantly, in order to keep a relationship.
Sex with a true top is far different than asking a cooperative boyfriend to play out a fantasy. Hans, a 45-year old top, just won’t go along: “I do what I do to give myself pleasure, to dominate her, and I decide.” That’s where “safe words” come in. In safe power play, the submissive can halt any activity by saying a nonsense word.
“Don’t do anything you don’t want to do,” says San Jose psychotherapist Margaret Cochran. Too much compromise simply won’t work. “You’ll become resentful and exhausted,” she says.