Power Dynamics and Hierarchies
by Aramock Nanuck
Individuals have written a lot specific to the lifestyle of late, but it usually is quite unrealistic or filtered by the neo-Christian ideal. Even some of the journalist or academic materials are not what could be considered unbiased. Probably the person who first brought this to the forefront in modern times (1980's onward) is Ivan D. Chase, who published articles on this subject; while the most relevant and specific to the lifestyle is: "Dynamics of Hierarchy FORMATION: The Sequential Development of Dominance Relationships" 1982. It is a good summary of how dominance comes to bear in social groups and inevitably forces a hierarchical structure to come to take. More recently, Dulcinea Pitogara has written a lot on "The Kink-Poly Confluence," which also deals with how hierarchies form in poly-amorphous relationships. Little focused research should get you the academic works. Still, many of them miss the emotional and structural aspects that drive a strained power dynamic when more than one person rises to challenge dominance in a community. It is tough to write about lifestyle power dynamics if you do not live it. So the understanding of power and control is as much a metaphysical as a psychological thing.
From where do these structures and organizational hierarchies come? Mostly, those involved in BDSM are a community of such wild varied proportions with a mix of everything imaginable that stratification was a natural occurrence. Once people began to have an assortment of relationships, then those involved started forming hierarchies. This lifestyle is mainly about dominance and structure while ignoring all of the kink sides to it. So power distance and rules had to come in place to allow for this distinction within a varied group structure. Also, this lifestyle is much closer to a feudal or oligarchy than anything else and certainly as far removed from democracy as it can come, so it was natural this would emerge. Those in the lifestyle moulded and adapted the details of the hierarchies. Many individuals helped to codify the structures over the past 40 years. The dynamics allowed participants to exist within an extraordinarily complex social order of this lifestyle.
Those above them almost always dictate the rights or privileges of those who are at a level. Complex power structures and a poly household, in particular, require an agreement supported by the will to enforce them strictly according to the terms of reference. Those entering the group do so at varying levels, and only through negotiation can change the terms of reference for their station within the organization. As with all organizations, the larger it becomes, the more difficult it is to maintain a dynamic nature to change. These dynamics affect the people already in the organization and their position in it. The power structure must remain evident as the relationship progresses from a couple to a threesome (or more-some) to a genuinely poly organization. The pecking order remains constant within a small group. Still, as the groups mingle (i.e., Orgies, Events or Munches), the dynamic requires more and more structure to avoid the antithesis of this lifestyle anarchy.
The intent is to avoid cases where two dominants wrestle for power or suppresses the other as a part of the process to merge their groups. Ultimate, there is only ever one true dominant, and the others take secondary or tertiary roles. The submissives follow a long chain back their old structures or end up blending. Highly, highly dynamic. It is also where the need to submit in front of the host becomes the primary demand. The submission of a master to another forces the subordinate usually into an act of sexual shame. The submitting dominant loses face in front of the other dominants and his/her submissive, making them subject to the will of the primary. This power transfer is almost instant in the submissive minds but can take longer and repeated re-enforcing on the subordinate.
Advancement and Demotion
Movement through the ranks from lowest of low to high or in reverse is always possible. The human dynamic is constantly at play, plus even with a "glass ceiling," the best of dominants will not just allow but encourage challenges among subordinates for the pride of place. Keeping the dynamic alive and properly managed keeps the subs from challenging the dominant. Semi-public forums establish areas for these trials to occur. Frequently organized around events or munches where acts of true humiliation follow the preceding defeat. The power and dynamic of the results always are transferred to the dominant hosting the event. The power transfer enhances their stature while diminishing the importance of those competing. Regardless of circumstance, the challenge reduces the winner simply for competing. The competition hearkens back to the days of gladiatorial challenges. The dominant receive many rewards for allowing guests to view the spectacle.
Now there are situations where juniors will challenges seniors for the pride of place; in the same way, younger males challenge the Alpha male of a pack of wolves. While most likely, it is the offspring who hold the most substantial likelihood of success. The emotional attachment and protection of one's young form a dominant's biggest weakness. Conversely, when dominants compete, there can only ever be one victor, and the loser must drop one but many levels to indeed prevent a resurgence from the same challenger. So in those cases many times failed challengers become a slave themselves, and their slaves become peers or even superior to the challenger further humiliating it.
BDSM is not a democracy, nor can it survive as such. This lifestyle demands authoritarian rule, a dictatorship if you will. Dominants, as a result, also become sadists and control freaks. Those who lose their edge inevitably lose their power, and become fodder for other dominants. Some submissive members become switches and aspire to be dominants. But in this harsh reality of the lifestyle can never genuinely be dominant in the presence of other dominants. They must strike on their own and raise their hegemony or overthrow the current dominant and, in turn, make them submissive to the new dominant. This aspect of the lifestyle is truly as close to what predatory pack animals live as is possible and is the only way to compare our lifestyle and culture.