Sex and power are strongly linked and interact on many levels between romantic partners. The use of power can be split into two broad categories: the power to control others and the power to love others. Power to control is implemented through direct force, examples of which are: authority, fear, or obstruction. The power of love also influences, but without domination. Instead, it offers nourishment, growth, connection and freedom. The second is power which values you and your needs. The first does not.
Our personal power is granted from birth. True power is our ability to make our own lives satisfying rather than to control or manipulate others. Free will offers us the opportunity to oppose others and life, if we so choose. If love partners battle for power, love will be blocked, resulting in emotional disconnection, tension and a withered sex life. Conversely, if partners share power and control, love will flow, opening the gates for emotional safety and good will, optimal conditions for a good sex life. Power imbalances in a relationship are bad for sex...it is no coincidence that a partner with too little relationship power is much more likely to have low or no sexual desire.
The opposite is true within the sexual arena, given that emotional safety has been established, where power imbalances are grist for the mill with the potential to generate high arousal, intense excitement and highly erotic play. Beyond mechanical, unimaginative sex, much of sex play is rooted in experimenting with power. Even in the most basic of sexual experiences, power is demonstrated by who is on top versus who is on the bottom.
Partners’ life experiences with power, especially from childhood, when powerlessness was acute, had a direct impact on emotional and sexual development. As children, many experienced harm through the mis-use of power; used in unbalanced, poorly controlled ways. Most of us, at one time or another in our childhoods had to cope with the simultaneous lack of safety and powerlessness, causing us either intentional or unintentional emotional wounds. Reacting inflexibly to power, with either defensive aggression or passive retreat, is the developmental result. These challenging life experiences show up in our sexuality in the form of the erotic interest in power or powerlessness.
Significant themes in our human drama are the quest to obtain personal power, the experience of finding power unobtainable, and feeling unsafe because of powerlessness. All this is manifest in sexual play in which partners request and deliberately create scenarios which call for large differences of power assigned to each sexual role. It fosters intense excitement. Bondage, domination and submission, use of pain, or role play between unequals are obvious examples. Playing with power during sex is an attempt to relate to, heal from and grow from much earlier experiences with issues of power, but more often, powerlessness. Power dynamics spark an erotic charge because the possibility of healing and the potential for a deeper completeness is near. Within sexual play, the kinds of power used does not mean that outside the bedroom partners possess these same kinds or amounts of power.
For most of us, having no power is undesirable. It is associated with weakness and vulnerability. Yet during sexual play, powerlessness has a hidden benefit, so long as safety is assured. By being taken, wanted and chosen, a less powerful partner's desirability is confirmed. Desirability is another large theme within sexuality and love relationships. Female partners have a propensity for valuing confirmation of her desireablity. Male partners lean towards valuing the possession of power. These are not rigid roles.
Playing with power during sex is a vital piece of what makes sex relevant and exciting in our lives. Most partners gravitate more towards either power or powerlessness. When partners possess the flexibility to experiment with both dominant and submissive sexual roles a sex life has the greatest potential for fun, excitement and growth. This article was first published in SoCo Magazine as part of the column, Under the Sheets.