Updated: Aug 23
Power exchange relationships have many similarities to vanilla relationships. Both require kindness, understanding, communication, and support by and for partners to success in the long term. In most cases, both vanilla and power exchange relationships involve sex between the partners. Both types or relationships require respect, but respect is a bigger deal in power exchange relationships than in vanilla relationships.
Power exchange relationships (i.e., Dominant/submissive, Master/slave) are hierarchical. The Dominant or Master takes on the roll of leader, head of household, and final decision maker. The submissive or slave agrees to relinquish power in areas of their lives and allow (even embrace and love) giving power over to their Dominant or Master. For this type of relationship to thrive and for a sub or slave to feel confident in their D-type’s decisions, there has to be respect. A sub or a slave needs to show respect for the relationship to thrive.
Respect vs. Love and Trust
Respect is different than trust or love. Respect is comprised of a confidence and admiration of someone’s abilities or qualities. It is a recognition that someone has both the skill or capacity to do something and they carry that out in a way that inspires admiration. For example, someone may have the capacity to manage a budget (that would be a skill). How they use their decision making power to care for the family determines if it is an admirable skill. If they care for the family in a way which provides for everyone and takes the needs of others into consideration, that is admirable and worthy of respect. If they balance the budget by denying health care to the one child they dislike, that would not be admirable and therefore not worthy of respect.
You may love someone you have little respect for. I know many parents who love their children but are horrified at how they live their lives and don’t support their decisions at all.
Trust isn’t the same as respect either. Someone may be consistent in their behavior and you are sure they will carry out an action, but you may dislike the action. For example, I worked with a woman I learned consistently lied about money to embezzle it form the group we were in. I could trust her to skim from every show. There was absolutely no respect for this and I left that group shortly after I learned how consistent she was with this behavior.
To respect someone, you must be able to trust them to do what they say, to admire their decisions and actions, and to be confident they will do the right thing.
Dominants and Respect
Being a Master or Dom(me) takes both a large number of skills and the capacity to use the skills to care for the people in their charge (including their subs and slaves). While we tend to focus a lot on the skill aspect of being a Dom(me) or Master, we don’t talk much about earning and keeping respect.
For me, we need to talk about respect and its role a lot more in the kink community. In the last decade the community has exploded in numbers. Through popular culture and the increased sexual tourism of dungeons, play spaces, and just general sexual exploration, this influx has changed the community and how many people understand D/s and M/s relationships. With that influx we have also seen the values of vanilla relationships and wider cultural norms becoming part of the BDSM world. This has diminished the talk about respect.
Respect in any field is earned. No one shows up the first day on the job in a new field and is granted the same respect as an established leader in the area. As a researcher, it took me years of publishing, presenting my findings, and working with others to earn respect for my skills and knowledge. Paying my dues and learning and doing the grunt work was important. At the time, a lot of it seemed like BS to me and I hate cleaning data. However, looking back after years of work, I understand what I learned at that time allowed me to grow as a researcher and helped earn the respect I have today.
The same is true with kink and power exchange. The reason so many of us OG folks are dismissive of the new “Master” who discovered kink and power exchange a year ago is that we understand what type of learning goes into developing the skills and understanding it takes to be a good Master. Learning goes beyond reading stuff on Fetlife and chatting online. Like most things in life it takes a lot of real life practice.
With the influx of new folks to kink it has been difficult to maintain some of the training and mentorship that was available 15, 20 or 30 years ago. As a community we have had to change to help new folks enter the kink world. Now, many play spaces offer orientation nights and “tastings” to help newer folks learn about different forms of play. Classes on all aspects of kink are flourishing (yay!). Blogs, books and podcasts about basic BDSM are flourishing (yay!).
Unlike your job or your place in your religious organization, however, many adults assume they are pretty awesome at all things sexual. Since many people enjoy BDSM and kinks as just a sexual thing (think roll playing as part of birthday sex) and not as set of skills which need to be learned and practiced, it is hard to convince folks that they need classes, mentoring and practice. The thing is, if you don’t take the time to learn and practice, you won’t ever have what it takes to earn deep respect.
Subs/Slave and Respect
It isn’t just the dominant (left side of the slash) folks who need to earn respect: submissives and slaves need to earn it too. Submission isn’t simply liking to get tied up or doing what you are told. A submissive or a slave in a relationship needs to be able to make decisions and do it respectfully.
A sub/slave earns respect in a couple of ways. We increase our own skills. Submitting isn’t just lying there while stuff is done too us. A good rope bottom works on flexibility for example. A sub for impact play may work on increasing pain tolerance. A good service sub or slave practices and helps develop the protocols they work under. A good slave/sub works to develop anticipatory service. Submission is as active as dominance.
Additionally, the folks on the right of the slash work on showing respect. Using your Dom(me)s honorific, staying a step behind them, learning to really listen and follow directions are all ways we show and earn respect. Just like dominance, submission takes learning and practice.
Loss of Respect
The loss of respect in a D/s or M/s relationship is devastating. I have seen people betray a partner’s trust, violate a boundary, even cheat and the couple can come back and thrive after that. The loss of respect between partners in a D/s or M/s relationship is a much more severe relationship issue.
As a submissive, I respect the D-type I am in a relationship with. If they lose my respect, my sexual attraction and my desire to show them respect goes out the window. It is more than just breaking a trust. If someone does something (usually many things) which ends up with me not being able to respect them, I can’t see them as a Dom(me) or Master/Mistress anymore.
I know several D-types who have a similar reaction to subs/slaves they lose respect for. A sub/slave can act up, push back against the rules and protocols, can be a brat and the relationship can survive if the respect remains. If the sub/slave does something which loses them respect, the relationship generally ends shortly after that.
How To Keep Respect
Respect consists of several things. A person must have the skills for the role they want (or be willing to learn), must keep the other partner’s needs and wants in mind, must be kind, and must communicate. Because respect is a multi-pronged thing, one or two of the parts may be fractured and respect remains.
For example, a sub may channel their inner brat at time and taunt or tease their D-type. The D-type may not like that behavior or correct that behavior but the relationship remains strong because even when being a brat, the sub/slave shows respect. I might chide a D-type about his graying beard (I have actually told my man his beard is gentrifying with the whites driving the blacks out). However, I do it with a tone that lets him know I approve of the incoming grey and I regularly let him know how amazingly sexy I find his salt and pepper look. We remain strong because he knows despite the teasing I respect him.
On the other hand, if I seriously attacked his looks and regularly put him down for something that would clearly show disrespect and the fracture in the relationship would be deep.
Many couples in power exchange relationships for the first time don’t understand how critical respect is to maintaining a strong D/s or M/s relationship. It is not until the respect is shattered that they realize the relationship may really be over.
It is worth the time to figure out what it takes for you to respect a partner and what you need to do to earn and keep respect. It is not needed to the same degree with everyone you sleep with. However, for long-term, emotionally bonded couples, it is a critical element that deserves more attention than it is getting.