Power exchange (also called Erotic power exchange) refers to one person giving their submission in exchange for another person giving their dominance. The exchange is the power that is always inherent in dominance & submission. Another way to see it is that the submissive exchanges their authority for the dominant's responsibility.
This can be applied to individual scenes or to people's entire way of relating to one another. Power exchange may be applied to very specific aspects, such as lovemaking or finance, through to every part of life for a couple or poly group; it is often found in relation to BDSM but is not restricted to it.
Power exchange is a dynamic that involves both body and mind, intertwining them in collusion with a partner to create a balance between them which they find erotic and fulfilling.
In its most familiar form, power exchange is a spontaneous occurance between two lovers. The range of commitment to BDSM power exchange varies from a momentary scene, fleeting and well-defined, to a witnessed, formal collaring with an agreement which governs the submissive's entire life.
Spontaneous Power Exchange
Few couples haven't experienced at least mild power exchange, even if it's just throwing the partner onto the bed prior to a friendly ravishing, playing around with blindfolds or addressing the other as "Master" or "Mistress" for a ten-minute scene.
One person may willingly and consciously hand over personal autonomy or the power dynamic may arise between the parties in the relationship as a spontaneous result of their interpersonal chemistry, in which case no conscious decision is made. This power can manifest in an endless variety of relationship dynamics.
BDSM power exchange starts at this mild level, with one difference: the partners understand what they are doing and consent to it.
Power Exchange for a BDSM scene
In its most basic form, BDSM power can be exchanged on a momentary basis, which may be as simple as one person addressing another person as "Master" or "Mistress" during a scene or S/m activity specifically designed to express this power exchange to each other.
In most power exchanges as referred to in a BDSM scene, there are limitations on the power the dominant has over the submissive, such as safewords, time limits and/or explicitly negotiated understandings of what is allowed. In this "safe, sane and consensual" BDSM, power exchange is always negotiated. Before play, the participants (unless familiar with one another and the intended scene) would discuss their physical and psychological limitations, establish safewords (words that will signal the cessation of the scene) and work out what activities they will engage in.
In activities where the predominant or main goal is the sexual excitation of the Bottom, an aspect of power and control can be a crucial attraction. Whether physically or psychologically bound, the Bottom is subjected to stimulation by the Top. Such play often ends with the Bottom allowed to orgasm by the Top. Tease and denial can also be a substantial component of this kind of roleplay. This kind of power exchange, especially, is the type typically known as erotic power exchange, or EPE and is enacted in many forms by people who are unaware that they are involved in anything to do with BDSM.
Power Exchange for Life
Some people want to consciously live in a power exchange relationship, where the partners make an arrangement that covers the duties and responsibilities of the submissive(s) and dominant that are intended to be a long term commitment. Some service relationships are understood to last only as long as the submissive maintains performance standards.
This need not incorporate any aspects of BDSM (see 'Taken In Hand', below) but nevertheless exists when a submissive willingly gives responsibility of certain aspects of their lifestyle to a Dominant. Sometimes, the arrangement of a BDSM power exchange relationship involves a witnessed, formal collaring with an agreement which on which aspects of the submissive's life the Dominant will govern.
Many people wanting relationship-based power exchange reject extensive negotiation and eschew the use of safewords, preferring instead to accept heightened risk and facilitate a more "natural" interaction. The conflict between the need for risk and the need for limitations and safety is at the heart of the SSC and RACK controversies.
When power exchange becomes 'total'
In its most intense form, a submissive gives her autonomy to her dominant to rule all aspects of her life; this form of exchange of power is generally referred to as Total Power Exchange, or TPE, although that phrase is beginning to fall into disfavour mostly because power exchange can rarely be absolutely total. In this case, and subject to the interpretation of each partner, all or most responsibilities and decisions within predefined and negotiated limits are given from the submissive to the Dominant. TPE takes place most often in a Master/slave relationship.
Perhaps strangely, formal agreements, especially written, are not so common with TPE. This is justifiable on the grounds that there is no aspect of the submissive's life that is NOT governed by the dominant. See consensual non-consent. However, an understanding between the parties for the dominant to provide a lifelong presence in the submissive's life is required and is sometimes accompanied by a witnessed, formal collaring. Collared slaves have responsibilities and duties that vary from the moderate to extreme micro-management.
Types of power exchange scenes
- A type of roleplay in which one person pretends to be a dependant infant, child or adolescent. (See main topic.)
- School roleplay
- A roleplay involving school teacher and student, often involving either a flogging or manipulative sex. (See main topic.)
- Trainer and puppy
- Where the submissive pretends to be, or is forced to act, like a dog or puppy. (See main topic.)
- Temporary moments when Owner and slave interact to mutual pleasure. (See main topic.)
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Types of power exchange relationships
- Head of Household (HOH)
- Much like the 'traditional' marriage, this is a relationship that exists in many vanilla households (think of the phrase "who wears the trousers"). It is listed on this site because a HOH relationship is consciously consensual, where many vanilla situations just evolved or are imposed by one partner on the other. (See main topic.)
- Domestic Discipline (DD)
- A healthy DD relationship maintains because one partner is willing to be disciplined and another is willing to discipline, where that discipline is done for the good of the other partner or the partnership itself. The purpose of this is to lessen conflict and promote harmony, mutual respect and closer 'connection' between partners. (See main topic.)
- Taken In Hand (TIH)
- More narrowly-focused than most types, TIH is based on a male-led, heterosexual, monogamous relationship allowing for consensual non-consent from the woman. (See main topic.)
- Daddy/lil girl or Daddy Dom
- A relationship dynamic where one partner takes a recognisably parental position with the other partner. There is more often a noticeable age gap in this type of relationship than in others but it is not about age - the 'Daddy' can be younger than the 'lil girl'. Confusingly, the "Daddy Dom" can be female but in most such heterosexual relationships, they refer to themselves with terms like Mummy/boy. (See main topic.)
- Dominant/submissive (D/s)
- By some defintions, all power exchange relationships are dominant/submissive, except those where the parties normally switch. The narrower focus of the meaning of a D/s relationship, however, is of people who acknowledge to one another that one is in a dominant position over the other. (See main topic.)
- Total Power Exchange (TPE) or Absolute Power Exchange (APE)
- An extreme of power exchange, often used synonymously with Master/slave. This term is more often used by those where the submissive owns property and can act in her own right but will follow all orders of the dominant. (See main topic.)
- Master/slave (M/s) or Owner/Property
- An extreme form of power exchange, where one partner considers themselves the property of the other, in all practicable meaning. While it is talked about a great deal, it is actually quite rare because of the high level of time commitment from the Master (owner) and the depth of dependence the slave (property) has to be prepared to accept. (See main topic.)
- Dominance and submission - a Power Exchange Relationship on BBC's "Guide to Life, The Universe and Everything."
- What is EPE? at the Fetish Information Exchange.
- Abuse vs Erotic Power Exchange by The National Leather Association International.