The power of sex, woman holding a gun in a power stance

I have previously written about what it means to me to be a submissive, something absent from my current relationship. It’s not that power-play is something my partner hasn’t tried, it’s something he fundamentally can’t wrap his head around. If it’s play, he says, then there is no power exchange. If it’s real, then there is no consent.

For a time I believed it was simply the ‘play’ part that was lost on him, perhaps the product of an overly literal mind. A recent conversation with one of my lecturers made me see that perhaps it’s the concept of power that is the real issue. ‘If your partner doesn’t believe that sex — any sex — necessarily involves power, it’s because he is the one who has the power.’

My inner feminist riled. But we have an egalitarian relationship, I wanted to say. We share the power. No one dominates. Before I could protest, my lecturer (who in this case most definitely had the power) continued: ‘He’s a white, heterosexual male, yes? Therefore, he has power. He just isn’t aware of it.’

All sex, our lecturer posited, involves power and penetration. He defined penetration broadly to include of the vulva, vagina, anus, mouth and hand, by any means.

I have heard people argue that the person being penetrated is necessarily vulnerable, that being fucked takes a greater emotional and physical toll than fucking, but I still imagined the act of sex could be egalitarian unless those involved determined otherwise. Involving power was a choice, not a given.

Then a fellow student pointed out the many ways in which my partner might not be aware of his inherent power as a white, heterosexual male. He doesn’t experience fear walking the streets, doesn’t have to worry about being intimidated, harassed, or sexually assaulted. He takes his safety and his sexual agency for granted.

She was right. Not long after we started dating, my partner related a story of him and his drunken mates cornering a lone female in an elevator one night. The group of males kept pressing different buttons, preventing the female from exiting. She laughed and played along, he told me. I was horrified. Don’t you realise how frightened she would have been, that her response was most likely a ploy to keep things calm until she could get out of the situation? One female to five alcohol-fuelled males is not a harmless game, it’s a threat.

He had no idea. He still doesn’t get it, not really. She was there by choice, she played along, that’s not how it happened, we didn’t corner her, she could have got out at any time. He may never understand the response of a woman who has endured a lifetime of male entitlement to her sexuality, how it’s safer to play along than risk a violent response. It was only after the abduction and murder of Jill Meagher around the corner from my house that he started to meet me at the tram stop when I came home late at night, or when he accepted that I wanted him to accompany me after dark.

From that perspective, I can appreciate he is not at all aware of his own power and doesn’t understand how it feels to be powerless, vulnerable, afraid.

This ignorance of the experience of disempowerment, my lecturer argued, is why he fails to grasp the power inherent in sex. Those who can consciously play with power during sex are those who understand it, who have experienced its absence or presence, who hold power or who have had power held over them, not necessarily in the bedroom but in life.

This theory fits with the stereotype of the high-powered executive who likes to be Dominated and humiliated sexually. Someone who understands the power they hold, who consciously relinquishes that power through sexual role-play. It explains why someone who has been raped or abused, or who has had power taken away, might fantasise about Dominating or submitting, choosing to take or relinquish control, thereby regaining agency over his or her power.

I also see the potential for non-D/s sex to involve power, and understand the vulnerability required to allow someone to penetrate you in any way.

Yet the sex I share with my partner doesn’t feel like it involves power. Not the way I have experienced with people I would describe as Dominant or submissive. With those partners, we exchanged power not through specific acts, but via attitude and approach.

While I appreciate my lecturer’s argument and see how it applies to power play, why being penetrated can involve relinquishing power, I am not completely sold on how it applies to my current situation. Then I wonder if I am simply blind to the exchange of power in which I am immersed, or enculturated not to see it, just as my partner is unable to see his inherent privilege.

Does this theory fit with you? How do you define sex and power? What does power mean to you, not just in power play, but also in any sexual exchange?

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