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The Psychology of Submission

We pull back the covers on steamy bedroom power plays.

| August 28th, 2012
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sexual submission

Evelyn can’t forget her nine-and-a-half-weeks-like experience, a kinky affair with a guy named, Mark. “I was smitten. It was an opium-like high,” she says. 

Much like the movie of the same name, her adventure was different than any sex she’s had before or since.  She met Mark through a mainstream dating site. Then 38, Evelyn, a six-figure executive, was looking for a husband and made it a point to hold off on sex until perhaps a sixth or seventh date.  But with Mark she found herself in his apartment by their second date. She tried to play hard to get, but it wasn’t long before all her defenses were broken down. “It was a game,” she says. “And I couldn’t bring myself to push him away and walk out.” 

Power-play in sex, even with some mild pain, isn’t as rare a taste as you might guess. When Evelyn asked Mark how often he succeeded in his dominating overtures, he said that about half of the women walked out the door immediately, while the others, like Evelyn, succumbed. 

In surveys, anywhere from 8 -50 percent of both men and women report fantasizing about some kind of submissive kink. The wild success of the sado-masochistic novel “50 Shades of Grey,” is proof positive that heretofore unmentionable topics like BDSM (an acronym that comprises bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism) is now a titillating one for the general public.  

MORE: Why Are Submissive Fantasies a Turn-On?

Submission fantasies don’t mean you’re a submissive doormat or otherwise troubled.  Research by Patricia Hawley, Ph.D and Will Hensley at the University of Kansas found that women who fantasize about submission don’t score any higher on tests of neuroticism and tend to be assertive types like Evelyn, a master persuader and pursuer in her work. If your feminist hackles are rising, it helps to know that men are into submission fantasies, too.  

Sex therapists say that actual power-play sex, a step up from fantasy, doesn’t seem harmful, assuming appropriate health and safety precautions are taken. It may also have little consequence outside the bedroom. Submitting to a spanking shouldn’t make you less assertive (or pushy) with your boss or husband—nor resolve any real-life power struggles, says San Francisco sex therapist Linda Alperstein. “Sex and life run on separate tracks,” she says. A couple can get along well and be dull in bed. They may have fabulous sex, kinky or otherwise, and fight nonstop. “Sex is just sex,” she says.

QUIZ: Are You Sexually Satisfied?

  So if your goal is intense pleasure, you may consider some experimentation.  For those who enjoy it,  kinky sex has a “heightened level of erotic focus,” says New York sex therapist Stephen Snyder, M.D., and like Evelyn, people often say it makes them “high.”  As Liz, 51, puts it, submission “makes me feel incredibly alive.”  One experience she recalls as “the most freeing moment of my life. It was a sense of ego-lessness, I no longer belonged to me; I belonged to him.”  

On the milder end of the continuum, it’s easy to add a little “spice” to standard fare—ribbons around wrists, plastic handcuffs, spanks and nipple pinching. Submission and domination can also be about mind games—let’s say, ordering your guy to stand at the other end of the room fully dressed while you do a slow tease, pretending to ignore him. You’re sharing secrets, playing, taking risks and making your private world more unique and intense. 

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