Power means a lot of things to a lot of people. But what seems clear (from thinkers like Foucault), is that power is pervasive, and power dynamics are present in all relationships.
Power in couples
Identities of ‘dominant’ or ‘submissive’ seem to be fairly coherent and straightforward, especially when it comes to sexual roles, but the reality (even in sex) is often more complex than that.
The easiest way of seeing how power works in a romantic relationship, is to see who decides what will happen (or not happen) between a couple across different domains. For example:
- How much time does the couple spend together?
- What does a couple do when they spend time together?
- If, when, how often a couple has sex?
- What happens during sex?
- How does a couple socialise together?
- How are the couple’s finances decided?
Power operates more subtly through the person who dictates the discourse (or frame of reference) that a couple or a group functions within. For example, there is power in the fact that I am setting out my views on power: I am the one creating reference points, from which I am inviting you to think about power.
Power and sexuality
Therapeutic groups and workshops can be conducive to identifying (in real time) how we relate to power. In particular, how we feel about leading or following, how we take up space, and how much we need to feel in control.
I am struck by how the usual way we relate to power sexually is often reflected in the way we relate to power in groups. What I have also learnt from the sexuality workshops that I facilitate is:
- People often confuse sexual roles (active/passive) with power roles (dominant/submissive). For eg. A passive partner who tells their active partner what to do in sex, or how to do it, is, in effect, dominating.
- Many men feel pride in being dominant and shame in being submissive. Despite significant recent social changes, traditional gender roles are still deeply ingrained.
- For people who are attached to an identity of being dominant or submissive, adopting the opposite power role can be intolerable. Familiarity with a particular power role is linked to safety and control, although there is an acknowledgement that an openness to the unexpected and less rigid power roles can lead to a more vibrant sex life.