On Being Submissive

What Doctor William A. Henkin, Ph.D had to say on submission:

Sometimes men who like to be submissive in their sexual lives fear that their erotic desires undermine their masculinity. The parallel concern among women is the fear that being sexually submissive is incongruent with feminist beliefs. These popular misconceptions imply that being sexually submissive means a person has less power than someone who likes to be sexually dominant. But in fact, no one can give up power she doesn’t already have. To choose to be sexually submissive may mean, instead, that a person has so much power she can relinquish it without feeling diminished; then the more power a person has to give up, the greater his gift when he surrenders.

It is inherently difficult to define actions by labels, so if this question applies to you it can be helpful to know what you mean by “submissive.” For one person submission means doing what the dominant partner says, while for another it means allowing the dominant partner to take the lead in enacting mutually satisfying behaviors. A submissive bottom might serve his dominant partner as the domme wishes to be served, while a submissive top might go out of her way to find out what pleases her bottom. Some submissives are eager to surrender in conventional ways, but others like to be sassy and make their partners earn their dominance. Some people are submissive in their relationships 24/7 and under all circumstances, while others occupy a subordinate role only in the bedroom. But apart from criminal abuse and coercion, no one submits who does not choose to do so. In other words, submission, like dominance, is simply one way some people get what they want. Dom or sub, none of these preferences can really alter a man’s masculinity or a woman’s feminism.

At a BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) party in San Francisco long ago, where dominants are famously dressed in imposing black leather, one well-known top showed up in a high-necked white lace Victorian gown. When one horrified guest objected, “Tops don’t wear white lace!” the woman replied, “Tops wear anything they want.”

I think the same position is appropriate for feminists, be they dominant, submissive, or otherwise. Feminists do what they want to do in their sex lives. The key is that they want to. In this regard, feminism is not defined by what a woman does in bed, but rather by what she does in her head – and in the voting booth, the planning committee meeting, the workplace, and sometimes in the streets. The same holds as true for men as it does for women. We are not taught in our society to be gracious about serving: we’re taught that it’s menial and even demeaning. But submissive service – being and doing your very best for the pleasure and honor of someone you esteem – is the ideal that underlies chivalry, courtesy, and the most fundamental forms of politeness. (Neither, incidentally, are we taught to be gracious and humble when served; so to cover our awkward embarrassment we become haughty and distant when offered respect and we are mean to our servants, thereby robbing ourselves as well as them of the intimacy devotion entails.)

The ancient Taoist “yin-yang” symbol shows how dominant and submissive contain one another. Domme and sub are like inhalation and exhalation, the systole and diastole of the beating heart, or the anode and diode of a battery: without its complement either one is useless. A world in which dominance is a sign of strength and submission a sign of weakness cannot truly value human qualities such as compassion, nurturing, and communication, or the kind of surrender that mystics claim can lead to God. As a result, to live in such a world is to live cut off from others, to some extent, and from essential parts of ourselves as well. When we discover the power we derive from gracefully turning our own power over to another – consensually and by negotiation – we can also discover the limits stereotypes impose on us, and the freedom that lies in living for our experience rather than our labels.

Article By William A. Henkin, Ph.D.Psychotherapy, Counseling, Sex Therapy for individuals and couples HSAB

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