Dominant or Submissive? Paradox of Power in Sexual Relations

In sex, which role—active or passive—would you think offers more control?

Posted Jun 11, 2012

Servitude (BDSM) / Wikipedia
Source: Servitude (BDSM) / Wikipedia

This series of posts on human sexual desire has uncovered many intriguing ironies and paradoxes. But perhaps the most fascinating and beguiling among them are the apparent contradictions that exist in the realm of sexual roles: namely, dominant, submissive... or both.

As in the rest of my posts on the absorbing subject of erotic interests, most of my points here will be grounded in Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam’s Internet-based research project—out of which emerged a volume of truly awesome scope. Entitled A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire (2011), it reports many facts about male and female sexual cues that hadn’t before been brought to light.

The Changeable Roles of Dominance and Submission

The best place to start this discussion is by pointing out that all of us, along with several other mammal species, appear to possess subcortical circuits for sexual dominance as well as submission. One example that we can probably relate to pertains to female dogs, who sometimes mount other females or (for that matter) legs of humans. Such seemingly “perverse” acts are controlled by sexual dominance circuitry. But—and this is what’s crucial—both types of circuits are connected to the brain’s pleasure centers.

Arguing inductively, Ogas and Gaddam state: “Since heterosexual female macaques mount other females, and heterosexual male bonobos allow themselves to be mounted by other males, it’s reasonable to presume that they also feel pleasure from switching over to the other side.” And this is why the authors avoid making hard-and-fast distinctions between dominance and submission—for humans, too, seem capable of shifting from one role to the other. And even though most individuals prefer a single sexual stance, still each role seems to offer its own gratifications. (see pp. 200-201). Going beyond this viewpoint, it’s useful to explore the paradoxical possibility that there can be submission within dominance—and dominance within submission.

Feeling out of control is intimately related to anxiety. So what is there about being submissive that can make it thrilling (as opposed to threatening)? What needs to be stressed here is that since such a one-down sexual role is more or less selected, there can be—at least as imagined— a certain measure of control embedded in the subordinate role. The fact that sexual submission sites for straight males are even more popular than domination sites (though both are quite popular) indicates that flipping to the other side may offer its own satisfactions precisely because it’s such a stark variant.

So, for instance, there’s a large miscellany of male submission sites—from ones devoted to forced feminization (e.g., “Strapped in Silk”), to CFNM (Clothed Female[s], Naked Male); to several flagrantly masochistic sites, such as CBT (which—trust me on this—doesn’t stand for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy but something else that ends in the word “torture”). Clearly, in the vast majority of these sites, what’s graphically displayed is role reversal. Here it’s the woman who’s dominant (or the aggressor) and the male who’s portrayed as submissive and sexually exploited or abused. Ogas and Gaddam ask the question as to why a man, “with desire software ... biologically and socially programmed to be dominant,” would enjoy watching porn featuring a submissive male being “degraded or humiliated?” And then come up with the neuroscientific answer that such fans are getting in touch with their female submissive circuitry, also wired to their brains’ reward centers.

I’d note, too, that we might similarly view males and females as embodying “active” and “passive” relationship predilections, such that nurturing the recessive part of their relational beings may at times offer them satisfactions unavailable through enacting their primary circuitry. Add to this the likelihood that men in particular may eventually tire of regularly having to be in control (i.e., dominant), and it’s fairly easy to see why many males would find tantalizing the idea of practicing a new form of control through fantasizing, ironically, the novel pleasures of totally relinquishing control.

As regards gender and tendencies toward dominance, it’s generally believed that men strive for dominance and control mostly because of their higher testosterone levels. Surely, it’s significant here that women who are given testosterone supplements not only reveal increased sex drive, but also more aggressiveness, greater willingness to start fights, and less aversion toward taking risks. But even without such supplementation, many women prefer taking on the typical male role of seducer (vs. seduced).

Ogas and Gaddam’s conclusion? “It’s safe to say that most women have a very complex relationship with their desire to be dominant or submissive, one that is much more problematic than that experienced by men” (p. 204). Moreover, although most women aren't erotically aroused by watching or reading about a male’s sexually abusing a woman, there are yet a substantial number of women who (again, similar to men) find themselves psychologically and physically turned on by such scenes of humiliation and degradation. And this is doubtless the main reason that rape, even today, remains a popular category of “fan fiction” sites (which center on female arousal).

BDSM and the Sexual Ambiguity of Power

BDSM is the acronym for “Bondage, Discipline, and Sadomasochism.” Which sounds like a form of sexual expression highlighting the harshness of inflicting and receiving pain. Yet the practice is actually more cooperative and mutually gratifying than the term might imply. For in BDSM the submissive (or “sub”) willingly grants the dominant (or “dom”) power over them, and they do so out of trust and respect. This transferring of control is commonly called “The Gift”—that is, it’s an arrangement—not coercive but consensual. And the “gift” itself is an agreed-upon ”power exchange.”

Most fascinating about this sexual compact is the general recognition that although the sub willingly forfeits his power to the dom, he’s doesn’t really abandon it either. Typically, the sub has at his disposal a “safe word” that when put into play will instantly compel the dom to freeze in his aggressive tracks. So the sub need never fear being irretrievably forced outside his comfort zone. In Ogas and Gaddam’s description of such “play,” note how the pressure is actually much more on the dom than the sub: “A good dom pays very close attention to the sub’s experience and determines when a sub may be approaching his or her limits. It takes training and experience to become a good dom—usually by serving as a sub for an established dom” (p. 208). And this last remark may be seen as tying into the fact that besides doms and subs, there are also switches: individuals adept at taking on either role in BDSM scenarios.

What’s perhaps most interesting in all this is the psychological (rather than sexual) relief that many alpha males in socially dominant positions experience in identifying with the submissive role (think bankers, CEO’s, even university deans). Fantasizing themselves as “liberated” from all the responsibilities that go with functioning in dominant professional roles offers them a respite from always having to be in control. And, of course, since they get to choose the fantasy material that most turns them on, they haven’t really given up control in such a way that might produce anxiety. So it’s something like having their (erotically escapist) cake and eating it, too. It’s certainly significant that Ogas and Gaddam emphasize that BDSM play, unlike other sexually ritualistic practices, isn’t generally geared toward inducing orgasm. Instead, it’s about taking care of a (non-sexual) need—which, I would add, has been fervidly eroticized. You might even call the whole thing an “alpha holiday.”

In non-BDSM, specifically gay porn, the case that could be made for the sub (or bottom’s), having more control in the relationship seems, if anything, even more persuasive. Ogas and Gaddam quote a 24-year-old middle school teacher as reflecting: “The bottom is really in control. He sets the pace, he’s the gatekeeper.” (And, I’d also point out, he at times instructs his dominant counterpart what to do to him.) The person just cited also compares such a relationship to what most of us would agree represents a standard heterosexual one, observing: “Think of a woman—she’s the one that ultimately chooses what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen” (p. 147).

Which takes us to the final section of this post, in which I’ll demonstrate that, at least as dramatized in the genre of women’s romance fiction, women may put themselves in a position to be dominated yet pretty much define the terms of that domination—which eventually places the ascendant hero in a far more submissive role. Or perhaps it might be said that the relationship ends up exemplifying something much closer to the feminine ideal: a truly democratic union.

Women’s Romance Novels: True Love and the Curious Integration of Submission and Dominance

In earlier posts (see here and here), I discussed the fact that women generally prefer taking the submissive role in relationships. Which is why they typically choose alpha males, who by definition are perpetually dominant. Yet even here ambiguities and paradoxes abound—such that interpersonal roles can subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) get reversed.

Consider Ogas and Gaddam’s citing the famous words of Swiss author Madame de Staël: “The desire of the man is for the woman; the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man” (p. 109). If a large part of a woman’s arousal derives from feeling sexually desired—or even better, irresistible—then we can appreciate the essential plot line of virtually all romance novels, which for decades have been hugely popular. And if this continually repeating fictional fantasy never seems to grow old, it’s because so many female readers seem hard-wired to respond to it.

So the question then arises: Do women experience “relational power” in knowing that they’re erotically cherished and adored—the object of a man’s strongest craving? And is this, finally, akin to Henry Kissinger’s immortal line: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”? (i.e., what most turns women on is the man’s sexual longing for her). If the male is so enamored of a woman that he’ll do anything to make her his own, if he’s “enslaved” by his boundless passion, then who, after all, is in charge of the relationship? Obviously, however much an alpha he may be, his obsessive desire for her ends up putting her in control of the relationship. Initially, she may have had to surrender to him, but now he’s the one who must capitulate. In fact, her passivity, reserve and submissiveness can be seen as revealing (however unconsciously) a certain sexual cunning. For how can these classically feminine qualities not be seen as ultimately giving her an advantage—a means of finally gaining the relational upper hand?

And this pretty much characterizes the sum and substance of romance fiction. Ogas and Gaddam refer to Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels (2009), in which its authors affix a label to this power of the heroine to erotically ensnare the man through his overwhelming desire for her. To them, it’s her Magic Hoo Hoo (to me, frankly, not a very felicitous designation). Still, it does capture something of the woman’s surreal ability to transform all that’s lacking in the male, and the relationship, through a certain feminine mystique. It also brings in the gloriously romantic element that earlier had been missing from the story, when the hero could only perceive the heroine as a sex object. But once he’s romantically smitten, his heart (before rather prickly, but now preternaturally softened) is no longer able to view the damsel as sexual prey—which earlier had allowed him to (mis)treat her accordingly.

Now, unequivocally, she’s become his love object. Hopelessly enamored of her, he’s now totally dedicated and committed. Their emotional bond permanently secured by the heroine’s (ugh) Magic Hoo Hoo, relational power shifts to her and (as romance authors describe it) for the good of both of them.

Which takes us right back to a woman’s cardinal evolutionary need to find a male who will never abandon her and can therefore be trusted to protect and provide for whatever children the two of them may bear. So, ironically, although she may still—as an intrinsic feature of her feminine charms—be submissive to him, she’s yet in control of the relationship. Or, it might more accurately be claimed, each of them now has control... but in different ways.

Historically, a great number of romance novels have spotlighted the heroine’s non-consensual, and even degrading, sexual deflowering by the hero. And, according to Ogas and Gaddam, rape was a frequent occurrence in such fiction in the ’70 and ’80s. But there’s nonetheless a certain consent implicit in the female reader’s tacit agreement to vicariously participate in (or surrender to) such a dangerous, threatening, yet terribly exciting, experience. That is, the reader’s involvement in episodes of possibly brutal domination is essentially voluntary, volitional. So, in identifying with the heroine, the "spectator" not only can bask in the experience of being physically irresistible to the hero but—through simultaneously distancing herself from anything that might be too disturbing about the heroine’s deflowering—also maintain sufficient control over the situation.

The formulaic ending of the romantic adventure is that whereas the innocent, submissive heroine may earlier have been sexually deflowered by the alpha hero, now he’s emotionally deflowered by her. Her Magic Hoo Hoo has, after all, both tamed and conquered him, so at last he may become the strong, steady, safe and protective mate of the heroine's dreams.

NOTE 1: Here are the titles and links for each segment of this 12-part series:

NOTE 2: If you found this post in some way enlightening (as I very much hope), I trust you’ll consider sharing it with others—so they, too, might garner new insights on the subject.

NOTE 3: If you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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