Is BDSM total power exchange ever a valid relationship structure, or are submissives in total power exchange relationships mentally ill?

Question

Is BDSM total power exchange ever a valid relationship structure, or are submissives in total power exchange relationships mentally ill?

Answer

Throughout history, people have classically had a difficult time understanding relationship styles and relationship structures different from the ones they would choose for themselves. In the 1950s and 1960s, people accused those in interracial relationships of being mentally ill, sick, or wrong. In the 1980s, the same was said of those in homosexual relationships. Today, we struggle with these accusations being slung at those in open, polyamorous, non-gender conforming, and/or BDSM / power exchange relationships.

At the end of the day, any relationship entered into by consenting adults is not something it is right for people outside of the relationship to judge — including total power exchange relationships. Naturally, this raises the issue of whether it is possible to consent to a relationship as extreme as a total power exchange relationship. Wouldn’t you have to be mentally ill or psychologically manipulated or abused to consent to such a thing? The short answer to this question is, simply, no.

Researchers have investigated whether those who participate in BDSM and power exchange relationships are mentally less well off then those who participate in more vanilla-style relationships, and you can read the results of their study here. Perhaps surprisingly, when researchers evaluated 902 BDSM participants in comparison with 434 vanilla controls, they found that those involved in BDSM and power exchange were in fact in better mental health than the controls. As the study authors concluded, “The results mostly suggest favorable psychological characteristics of BDSM practitioners compared with the control group; BDSM practitioners were less neurotic, more extraverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, [and] had higher subjective well-being.”

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Those who identified as dominants were found to be in the best mental health, followed by those who identified as submissives. Contrary to the expectations of many, control study participants tested worse than both dominants and submissives.

Taken together, these results suggest that it is illogical to conclude someone is mentally ill on the sole basis of them choosing to submit as part of a total power exchange relationship.

Given that we cannot conclude submission is indicative of mental illness, it really isn’t possible to determine whether someone’s relationship is abusive or non-consensual just by looking at the terms of the relationship.

Of course, we also can’t conclude on the basis of someone’s total power exchange relationship terms that the relationship is not abusive. The terms themselves give us no information. If the relationship was entered into under duress, then of course it is non-consensual and abusive. The key point is that we cannot presume duress based on how extreme the relationship terms are. Some people really love being degraded, subjected to pain, losing control over their finances, and having their outside relationships determined by a dominant. These things can all be freely chosen consensually. If these things are being imposed non-consensually, we are not looking at a consensual BDSM power exchange relationship, but are instead looking at abuse.

In a previous column, I addressed how a submissive might attempt to explain that his or her relationship is consensual, in the face of accusations of abuse, manipulation, and non-consensuality. You can read that column in full here. I used a metaphor in that column, comparing power exchange relationships to being voluntarily caged: “You think I’m trapped in my Master’s cage, and yes, that is true. However, it is important for you to realize that this cage is one that I designed for myself, and it is very comfortable for me. Aside from that, I hold the keys to this cage, and I can let myself out if I need to. So, at the end of the day, am I really being caged at all?” The answer, of course, is no. 

Some people will argue that BDSM total power exchange relationships can easily turn abusive, and therefore, they should not be permissible or looked upon favorably. Now, it’s definitely true that BDSM power exchange relationships *could* easily turn abusive. However, it does not follow that these relationships should not be permissible. The fact is, BDSM power exchange relationships are incredibly high-trust relationships. They should never be entered into lightly, as the submissive must trust the dominant not to use his authority to harm the submissive non-consensually, while the dominant must trust the submissive not to wrongly accuse the dominant of psychological or emotional manipulation, coercion, or abuse.

There are many legally recognized precedents for these sorts of consensual, high-risk, high-trust relationships. The highest profile type to come to mind is marriage. Who in their right mind would agree to share all of their property with another person for life‽ Yet this is the default relationship model in Western culture. Marriages frequently turn abusive or coercive, and more than half end in divorce — but few try to outlaw this relationship structure. Other legally recognized forms of consensual high-risk, high-trust relationships include medical and/or legal power of attorney. Legal power of attorney is itself a power exchange relationship; these agreements allow a person to invest in another the ability to do business as them and to essentially legally assume their identity as that person’s “agent.” In the case of medical power of attorney, one person legally invests in another the ability to make life-or-death decisions on his or her behalf. Naturally, either of these types of relationships could easily be abused. However, when entered into consensually, they are legally recognized as valid and appropriate.

So, if marriage and power of attorney are valid relationships when entered into consensually, it follows that a BDSM power exchange relationship is equally valid and not deserving of public censure.

I welcome a continuing conversation about the morals and ethics of BDSM power exchange relationships — feel free to leave a comment below, or to get in touch with me via our contact page.

Viro the Science Collie

Viro Science Collie is a PhD virologist and medical writer, experienced in teaching, technical communication, and writing for the public. He has been active in the furry community since 2012 and has been happily and ethically non-monogamous for much of that time. His interests include non-traditional relationship structures, technology, biological science, and tennis.