Why bother with Power Exchange?

In a recent conversation, I was asked about Power Exchange. “I see the point of BDSM play, but why would anyone get into a power exchange relationship?” In the spirit of Heraklitus, I aimed for insightful and funny: “To stay awake.” In fact, the underlying philosophical point of organizing relationships in terms of Power Exchange is precisely to live as authentically and intentionally as possible.
Power exchange relationships come in many flavors, from topping or bottoming during a scene at a play party, to full-on, 24/7 consensual slavery. Beneath this variety, there is at least one common theme: People take charge of their relationships by negotiating and making agreements about who has which powers and under what conditions. To negotiate a relationship in this way is to engage in a self-reflective process that involves (at least) knowing who I am. In the process, I must be aware of my needs and desires, acknowledge what gets me off, and articulate my “terms and conditions” clearly to others. Each agreement to exchange power is a choice that structures a relationship, but to be a genuine exercise of autonomy, it must be authentic and intentional. In short, it requires, among other things, being awake.

A Zen story from the Mumonkan illustrates the challenge. Zuigan, a renowned Chinese teacher, trained himself with the following dialogue, which he had with himself every day:
“My Master!”
“Yes, sir!”
“Be wide awake!”
“Yes, sir!”
“From now on, don’t let anyone deceive you!”
“Yes, sir!”
Since “anyone” includes both Zuigan-Master and Zuigan-trainee, he must be exhorting himself to be on guard against deceiving himself, too.
Being awake enough to exercise autonomy authentically and intentionally requires self-understanding and self-critique, which in turn require deep commitment to honesty and integrity — especially with myself.
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