Traditional power signifiers and D/s

I like to think I’m above it, of course: giving value to traditional power signifiers conveyed by social norms.

But I’m not.

Education, sophistication, success, intelligence, achievement, wealth are all ways that many of us ‘traditionally’ place people on the power spectrum. I know some of you are now going ‘not all of us!’ and I know that. I ALSO want to go ‘not me!’, but that’s not true. I’m pretty solidly middle class and grew up with those values.

I recently spied on some people I used to know at school and university using my friend Google, and my unconscious reaction to what I found was ‘Ooh, impressive’ or ‘Oh, not’.

So a friend who completed a PhD overseas, has travelled a lot, is the head of creative arts at a university, runs a successful consultancy, is involved in various community art projects is in the ‘ooh, impressive’ category.

One who works at McDonalds and who plays local cricket, falls into the ‘oh, not’ basket.

I don’t base my opinion of them as a *person* on those things, but I’m still impressed (or not) by it. I kind of hate that about myself but it’s still true.

My relationships have all been with men who were pretty much on par with me in terms of ‘traditional’ power, even if their power manifested in different domains. For example, I’ve been out with a man who was well respected and semi-famous in his niche area of expertise. He made zero money at it, but that was irrelevant. His achievements were impressive.

The only way I am outside of the ‘traditional power signifiers’ evaluation is when I see people who have a particular passion for something and run at it full tilt. Even if the thing they are passionate about doesn’t bestow any of those traditional power signifiers upon them, I’m still all ‘ooh, impressive’ over it.

Geez, so what, Ferns?! What has this got to do with D/s?!

Here’s the thing for me: It’s not enough for me to ‘agree a power dynamic’ with someone. I have to *feel* it. It has to be organic, genuine, and real.

It’s not easy to define why I feel it with some men and not with others. For the most part, I feel like my *will* is just stronger and submissive men with whom I fit feel that also and react to it in a way that works for me. In my logical brain, when we are pretty much ‘equal’, my ‘strength of will’ is the thing that tips it in my favour. And when we are actually pretty equal in terms of power, or I have stronger traditional power signifiers, that’s fine.

But there was one time when I had initial discussions with a submissive man who was *in all of those traditional ways* ‘better’ than me.

He was better educated, smarter, more sophisticated, more successful, wealthier than me… ALL OF THOSE THINGS. And not just a little bit: there was a serious and rather obvious gap in all of those things. He was, in all those traditional ways, much more powerful than me.

I was shocked to find myself struggling a bit to find my feet because for the first time, it didn’t feel like we started out as equals at all. I had never struck that before, and I was surprised and fascinated by my reaction.

Truth be told, I loved it in many ways, because learning new things about myself is so interesting. I felt off-kilter with him, even intimidated. It was new and strange and I felt like I was an observer watching myself navigate something foreign. I was trying to find that solid ‘organic’ power base that is the foundation of my relationships, and I had to work pretty hard not to go ‘uber Domme’ on him as a kind of short-cut power-grabbing manoeuvring, but that would have been play acting. I’m NOT ‘uber Domme’ and while that might have worked, it would have been a game of ‘pretend’, and not actually a step towards establishing any kind of strong foundation.

Things didn’t work out with him, which was a shame for me. I’d have loved to play with that power differential in different ways: there was so much potential exploration in it.

TL;DR: My relationship to D/s power is complicated, but there has to be an organic foundation for it to work for me.

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28 Comments

  1. Hmmmmm I need the challenge of a man in power. “….better educated, smarter, more sophisticated, more successful, wealthier than me…” It has to be in the mix somewhere. It’s not the only thing that keeps me engaged. Many other things factor in. Physical attraction, personality, sexuality….. But I tend to get bored quickly, enjoy being challenged and when that power is willingly surrendered… OMG…Heaven!

    I was raised around affluence and power. I’m far from wealthy. But that is more than likely why I’m drawn to it. It’s familiar.

    I think many would admit that in our own ways we have what we judge what is “..‘Ooh, impressive’ or ‘Oh, not’…” It’s all relevant to the life that surrounds us.

    ~ Vista

    1. “I was raised around affluence and power. I’m far from wealthy. But that is more than likely why I’m drawn to it. It’s familiar.”

      So interesting. It makes perfect sense, and I think that probably makes a big difference, yes.

      I’ve always been relatively equal to the men I dated, so if he happened to be wealthier, well maybe I was better educated. Or perhaps he was smarter, but I was more successful. So there was always a kind of balance.

      There’s no way not to sound arrogant about this, but finding men who are *’better’ than me in all those ways that signify power* has just never happened except for that once (ha! so arrogant!).

      And I imagine that part of that is because I just don’t mixed in circles where those men live–I don’t for one second believe that there aren’t a ton of them out there (that would be too arrogant even for me!).

      “I think many would admit that in our own ways we have what we judge what is “..‘Ooh, impressive’ or ‘Oh, not’…” It’s all relevant to the life that surrounds us.”

      Absolutely right.

      I also think that for a lot of people this stuff is probably completely irrelevant. I think needing to have a feeling of organic power AND feeling the weight of social power signifiers as part of that equation is a very particular combination that might not be the norm, but I’m not sure, so I appreciate your input.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      Ferns

    2. “I think many would admit that in our own ways we have what we judge what is “..‘Ooh, impressive’ or ‘Oh, not’…” It’s all relevant to the life that surrounds us.”

      And in thinking about this a it more, of course you are spot-on.

      Even if someone feels the way I do about power and traditional power signifiers, and having the balance of it on my side, of course it’s all *relative* to you: what you believe, how you feel, your history, your values, your perception… all that.

      Fascinating.

      Ferns

    3. Ye gods, I keep thinking about this now, thank you so much!! :)

      So to ask you a question if you don’t mind: do you need to feel organic power in the relationship (that is, not the power he willingly gives up, I mean in the natural dynamic)? Or is it irrelevant for you?

      If you do need to feel it, and your man is ‘better’ than you in those traditional power signifiers (not just his job or money, but he’s smarter, more sophisticated etc etc, all those ‘measures’), how do you feel that organic power?

      I keep thinking that for most people this is all completely irrelevant. Which is so interesting to me.

      Ferns

      1. Awwww Great question! Yes, I do need to feel that organic power just as you do.

        “…but he’s smarter, more sophisticated etc etc, all those ‘measures’…”

        Many times it’s the education/smarter, maybe even more sophisticated that draws me. It’s breaking down the barriers inside him that those very things create. I love my mind and know I can go toe to toe with anyone. Street smarts/life wisdom over book knowledge. It also gives me the opportunity to break down some of my own barriers (know it all attitude) and learn something…another way of approaching something.

        This I have found opens them up even more to me, finding a safe place to explore and surrender what they were maybe even afraid to admit to themselves. The surrender that comes from that…the bond that comes from that..draws me even deeper into them.

        I have always said, to me it’s not about the actions we move in but why we need to move there. I want to know that I have stripped him bare and he now looks at me in awe. Damn that’s nice!

        ~ Vista

        1. “Many times it’s the education/smarter, maybe even more sophisticated that draws me. It’s breaking down the barriers inside him that those very things create.”

          Ahhh, interesting, thank you.

          I got nowhere near any ‘breaking down barriers’ with this one. We were still in some pretty basic ‘getting to know you’ territory.

          I’m so curious to see how it would have played out and how (or if) I’d have dealt with it. Shame: it could have been really fun.

          General call-out to any submissive man who is in all of those ways better than me: Come and be my guinea pig, mmkay?

          Ferns

  2. Oh sure, just ratchet up the bar even further for potential submissive, Ferns! Even if they are your “better” in brains, education, money, career and success, you’ll probably be the more famous, more thought provoking blogger, almost certainly the more famous sex blogger and unquestionably, the better fem domme blogger. So what’s this poor über man/mensch to do??? :)

    I know, classist and painfully subject to socialization of goals and aspirations, do you suppose d/s is that much different than regular dating? When we see a couple walking down the street, we horrifically traditional, middle class types frequently play the game, “who married up?” Tall, young blonde with nebbishy, middle age guy means he must have cash or she’s not so bright. Etc, etc.

    People date for many reasons, but it’s rare to see somebody “settle” for less they could probably get. Maybe it’s not mere socialization, perhaps one might argue evolutionary theory in there.

    Another great post. November rolls on.

    1. “Oh sure, just ratchet up the bar even further for potential submissive, Ferns!”

      *laugh* Ratchetting away here.

      “So what’s this poor über man/mensch to do??? :)”

      Accept a gracious ‘thank you’ for the compliments.

      “I know, classist and painfully subject to socialization of goals and aspirations, do you suppose d/s is that much different than regular dating? When we see a couple walking down the street, we horrifically traditional, middle class types frequently play the game, “who married up?””

      I have a whole ‘bean theory’ about dating in general, of which the short version is: people will find others who have the same number of beans as them (there is complexity to the bean theory, such as ‘who values what beans’ and ‘the perception of beans’ and ‘skewed market value of beans’, but the theory holds up pretty well: watch out for it on Oprah).

      As for the D/s thing, for me it DOES skew the ‘normal’ dating rules. Otherwise I wouldn’t even be thinking about this. If I didn’t feel like the organic power balance had to be in my favour, this wouldn’t be a topic worth thinking about. If I was submissive or vanilla, why would I care about how much the traditional power signifiers fall in his favour? I wouldn’t.

      Ferns

      1. Ferns,
        I didn’t sign earlier post, but it’s still me. You’ll be able to tell from the typo deluge.

        I love the bean theory. I think it explains a vast majority of relationships and a good percentage of breakups. (“What??? How am I married to this self-important, horse’s ass??? I can do better! See ya!)

        – As for the D/s thing, for me it DOES skew the ‘normal’ dating rules.

        NEWSFLASH – Ferns says dommes not subject to evolutionary theory like all those deluded, middle class, striver-vanillas, obsequiously grasping for societally defined status! Chumps!!!

        But seriously, and very sincerely, how do you distinguish between “organic power balance” and “traditional power signifiers”.

        (Oh, did I stumble into, “Advanced Gender Neutral Studies: An Asymetric Examination of the Impact of Marxist Theory on Sexual Relationship Dynamics”? Sorry, I thought this was Astronomy 101.)

        Fern Fan.

      2. “I didn’t sign earlier post, but it’s still me.”

        Well you didn’t sign this one either, Fern Fan! I’m guessing that I know you, but I’m always reluctant to assume I know who someone is when they don’t identify themselves.

        “NEWSFLASH – Ferns says dommes not subject to evolutionary theory like all those deluded, middle class, striver-vanillas, obsequiously grasping for societally defined status! Chumps!!!”

        *laugh* Yes, I speak for all Dommes: The Domme-borg has voted me their spokesperson!

        “But seriously, and very sincerely, how do you distinguish between “organic power balance” and “traditional power signifiers”.”

        I find this question confusing: I don’t distinguish between them.

        For me, the organic power balance is made up of many (often complex) factors, including traditional power signifiers, but this was my first experience of the traditional power signifiers being heavily weighted in his favour and discovering how that skews the organic power balance. That discovery was the point of my post.

        And no, you stumbled into ‘The Theory of Ferns 102’, the advanced class. No wonder you are confused…

        Ferns

    1. *smile* Thanks.

      I did feel out of my element: I think curiosity will often outweigh discomfort when I’m engaged. Plus I really liked him, and you know, hormones :).

      Ferns

  3. GREAT post and echoes many things I have felt through the years both in sexual attraction and life attraction. I realize that my life, which is fairly white collar and diverse, is probably just as weird and fascinating to some of my Facebook friends from high school and college who have very different levels of jobs as theirs is to me, yet in completely reverse ways.

    On the Dom/sub and sexual attraction realms, as a switch, I could never see myself submitting to someone who I felt was “beneath” me in career, education, or just life experience NOR did I ever want to Dom someone who I would not want to just go have a beer with at some point too to discuss life events and mental things, etc.

    Now, while there is something to be said for the beautiful muscle boys that you just want to walk up to and say “talk stupid to me???”, but, I could never see myself having anything but that moment of lust for them and that certainly rarely translates to more – at least with me.

    You know my situation now, but I am absolutely fascinated that my husband is multi-degreed and works inside people’s heads on a daily basis yet can turn that off to put me in my place when and if needed. On the switch, my sorta sub boyfriend is smart as fuck, owns a few businesses and that just makes him so much hotter to me too. But, I guess those are just personal preferences for me?

    However, when I think about it, those in my life who are in absolute platonic roles fit the same criteria because that’s just what we have in common. I have nothing but respect for my former associates or friends that work in fast food or have tradie jobs, but I just don’t have a lot to talk with them about for more than a few minutes, so is it not just what it is?

    1. I think (to complicate matters further) that there are about a billion compatibility factors in attraction that sit to one side of the power balance: you’ve mentioned some of those (things in common, attraction beyond initial lust etc).

      But THIS is interesting to me:

      “I could never see myself submitting to someone who I felt was “beneath” me in career, education, or just life experience”

      For me (and I suspect for you if we were to pontificate over a few drinks :)), it’s more complex than those three factors (let me talk to you about my bean theory!), but the SENTIMENT here is the exact complement to what I was talking about from the dom-side.

      I think when I struck this particular situation, part of me WAS thinking ‘well, why doesn’t he see this clear power imbalance as an issue?’, but he didn’t seem to. And perhaps those ‘traditional power signifiers’ do not hold the same *power* for some people as they do for others (I’m thinking up to Vista’s comments where because she grew up around certain of them, they no longer have the kind of power they might have for someone to whom they are foreign).

      An aside: I know some submissive men *fetishise* that kind of imbalance (ugh!) because submitting to someone ‘beneath’ them is sooo humiliating *nnggghhh splooge*, which is a whole other thing.

      I think I was wondering why he wasn’t thinking exactly what you said. And maybe I was worried that at some point he would have thought along those lines, which probably added to my feeling of struggling to find my feet. I kind of had to find my organic power base outside of my normal experience BEFORE he got to that point for it to have a chance to work (this thought makes me laugh, like it’s some kind of subconscious race).

      “my sorta sub boyfriend is smart as fuck, owns a few businesses and that just makes him so much hotter to me too.”

      Your relationship is interesting to me (not just because ‘phwoaarr hot’ either :P): Your evolution to him being your ‘sorta sub’ I mean (go check out his blog for the details, dear readers).

      It’s not a primary relationship which changes everything, and it evolved quite quickly, but part of the reason the nature of it changed was because the organic power balance shifted, and once it did, the D/s agreement that sat on top started to fray. In my experience, a D/s agreement that doesn’t have that foundation tends to flounder because it no longer feels like a real thing.

      I wonder if you think that makes sense (I’m looking from the outside and obviously extrapolating my experience onto you: only you know what it felt like).

      Thank you for making me think about this further.

      Ferns

  4. Hmmm… Bean theory. I can see that.

    And the “Who married up?” game… Yeah, I’ve been on the receiving side of that, and I gotta say, most people make all kinds of WRONG assumptions based on what they see. Especially when, in my marital relationship, there is such an obvious age differentiation. (Well, it’s not as obvious as it used to be, because I’m not as young as I once was. And because, laugh lines.)

    I think the ‘familiarity’ issue is spot-on though, and frankly – no matter how hard we try to deny it – we all go looking for our daddies & mommas. Whether it’s in something superficial, like hair color and body type, or something to do with security blankets or philosophical/religious/political preferences… Yeah, there’s that too. And often those things aren’t obvious or don’t manifest until late(r) in the relationship. {I speak from experience.}

    For traditional power “stuff”, I live in the land of yoga hippies and techie geeks and obsessive-compulsive tree-hugging baristas. It’s hard for me to discern power structures in a ‘typical’ way where I live because most of the people in my little corner of the planet are waaaaay left of center when it comes to those things. Some of the richest guys around here wear threadbare jeans, and some of the most successful business owners drive beat-up, junked-out Subarus. But that works for me, because overt symbols of wealth put me in a bad mood.

    I will say that the strongest D/s power ‘spark’ I’ve ever experienced happened with a man whose background – the part of the country he was raised in, the values he was raised with, the types of experiences he had as a child, etc – was similar to mine. We have become very different people, but there is/was an instant understanding of Our Roots, which means the way we’ve individually branched off makes an organic kind of sense. {At least it does to each other.} Not having to constantly *explain* where I’m coming from is huge, because it opens the door for deeper discussion on a myriad of things and it impacts the speed at which the relationship can/does progress. And ‘progress’ in my relationships means there is a power exchange.

    I don’t know if any of that makes sense. I’m rambling, I know. And going on tangents.

    But this is fascinating. :) Great topic!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Mrs Fever: I like your rambling *smile*.

      I think the ‘trophy partner’ is an interesting thing, where my bean theory applies better than it being about ‘traditional power signifiers’.

      Youth and beauty both have power and can be worth the same number of beans as wealth and power to those who value those things. Which is why those pairings aren’t uncommon: Theoretically they could both be bringing the same number of beans to the table.

      Devil’s in the details of how the *actual* power in such a relationship may work: to your point that “most people make all kinds of WRONG assumptions based on what they see”.

      I think your comment about familiarity and your anecdote about someone with whom you have a shared history ring true for me also, which is why I’ve never really struck a real outlier like the man I talk about in this post.

      So interesting. Thank you for commenting.

      Ferns

  5. This is fascinating. I hadn’t ever thought about it before, but as I was reading this post and the excellent discussion in the comments, I realized that I am initially attracted to a man by the traditional power signifiers in which he is better than me. For instance, my first impression of my current sub (before we had exchanged any real conversation) was “fit, extroverted/charismatic, and musically talented.” Then, as I get to know a person and discover ways in which the traditional power balance falls in my favor, I start to be able to think of them as a potential long-term partner. On the other hand, I have a friend who is “better” than me in every traditional way, and despite some mutual attraction at the beginning of our friendship, I would never even consider approaching him about a D/s relationship. The organic power differential is just too heavily on his side of the equation.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing that (and I agree, it IS fascinating!).

      You’ve described pretty closely how it works for me. The men I’m attracted to are all kinds of amazing, with talents and skills and wonderfulness that I’m lucky to have, but ‘something’ tips the power balance in my favour.

      I mentioned in my post that it’s often just my ‘force of will’ and if we start with a pretty equal organic base, that’s more than enough.

      As I think about it now, it doesn’t really matter what it is that tips the balance. And it doesn’t even matter if it’s ‘real’ or not, I just have to feel it, and I know it when I do.

      (now I sound a little unhinged, I think: like I can just conjure up some imaginary thing like a crazy person and pretend it exists… heh)

      I’m glad to hear that other people feel it in the same way, thank you for that.

      Ferns

  6. Very interesting pionts Fern, I could see how it would be fascinating to have your real world “superior” as your submissive on so many levels, I also think there would need to be an amazing amount of trust/respect to stop it bleeding out into real life…. I shall ponder this more and grace you with my answer later
    Coug
    *looking all wise and pondering in a totally HAWT way*

    1. “I could see how it would be fascinating to have your real world “superior” as your submissive on so many levels”

      *smile* Yes! At its best, that would be wonderfully hot to have at your disposal.

      I think for some (a lot? most?) people the whole idea of some sort of ‘organic power base’ is completely foreign.

      The fact that “He agrees to be submissive, he’s submissive” is the starting point and off they go.

      I also think that for some dominants, the power comes from their sexuality (i.e. their submissive is in thrall).

      Neither of those would work for me. I want them both, but as a foundation for a power dynamic, they don’t work for me.

      Thank you for your HAWT pondering!

      Ferns

  7. This is very, very interesting. I found that I cannot submit to someone who I feel is less intelligent than me. I had a short thing with someone a couple of years ago and it was delightful at first. But as I got to know them better I noticed a gap between us, intelligence-wise. From then on, I couldn’t submit anymore, because I felt superior.

    1. I missed your comments somehow.

      This makes sense to me and I recently had a conversation with a friend about this very thing: that some people value a *particular* attribute as a power signifier and they have to feel that the person they are submitting to is ‘better’ than them in that particular way.

      Ferns

  8. There’s more: Traditional symbols of power (clothes, cars etc.) are repellant to me. I come from a relatively poor family and I automatically feel superior to people who were born wealthy because I made my wealth for myself. It was the same when I was at uni: I felt superior to the students whose parents paid for their education (I was working 2 jobs). I don’t think I could ever submit to someone who I feel is on some level “beneath” me. Arrogance? Maybe.
    What I’m trying to say is that superiority is very subjective. I find the comments on this topic intriguing. It’s so very interesting to see what kind of power attracts people. For me it’s confidence and intelligence that signify power, for others it’s success or wealth.

    Btw: My current partner (4 years now) is on all levels my equal. We both built up our lives from scratch. I know what he went through and what kind of strength he needed to get where he is now. I look up to that. And that again makes it easy to submit.

    1. Fascinating. Thank you for sharing.

      “What I’m trying to say is that superiority is very subjective. I find the comments on this topic intriguing. It’s so very interesting to see what kind of power attracts people. For me it’s confidence and intelligence that signify power, for others it’s success or wealth.”

      Yes! It’s completely subjective.

      For me, it’s a really messy and complex combination of things, so *usually* with the men I meet and like, it works out about even and I can easily tip it in my favour.

      I do wonder if there is a gender split here in how people evaluate power also, given that men will often have more access to some of the traditional power signifiers. That is, I wonder if het maledoms struggle with femsubs who hold the organic power balance as measured by those signifiers MORE than femdoms dealing with malesubs. Hmmm.

      Ferns

  9. It’s pretty important to look at D/s from this angle, I think, because D/s is about power, and if we neglect to look our “traditional power signifiers”, then we overlook aspects of ourselves that we are indeed bringing to the table in a relationship. So I hardly think it’s “vain” or “pompous” to evaluate and take into consideration a potential partner’s power signifiers and determine if, in relation to our own (since that is unavoidable), we’re impressed, unimpressed, or maybe even a little too impressed. Since, like I alluded to in my response to your comment, I don’t think these things are just power signifiers, because very often (though not always, e.g. your example of having a passion for something), they are correlated with actual power. Like, surely there is a big difference in actual power between the friend with a PhD and the friend who works at McDonalds, no?

    I get what you mean about feeling intimidated. But what about the other way around, with someone who’s in the ‘not impressive’ category? That would feel pretty weird to me, personally, as if my traditional power signifiers/’real world’ power were taking over the dominance factor I bring to the table with my personality.

    1. This is such a great comment, thank you! I mentioned over on your blog that I wanted to do a follow up post on this.

      I haven’t (obviously), but I’m still thinking about it.

      A quick response to this one though:

      “Like, surely there is a big difference in actual power between the friend with a PhD and the friend who works at McDonalds, no?”

      I called them ‘traditional power signifiers’ because I mean ‘in a capitalist patriarchal Western society’, so if you live in it and you believe in it and you value it (i.e. most of us, frankly), then yes. But SOME people don’t see the world that way, don’t value those things, so for them power isn’t at all measured in those traditional ways.

      Ferns

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