The Psychology of 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.

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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.

Your partner also needn’t be the yin to your yang, as long as you’re both willing to listen and try, says Alperstein.  Being precise and forthcoming is invaluable for any kind of sex, though not always easy. Alperstein once taught a workshop called Speaking up While Lying Down.  “It’s very difficult to say how you want to be approached, touched or be done to,” she says.

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The danger comes when either party agrees reluctantly, in order to keep a relationship. “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do,” says San Jose psychotherapist Margaret Cochran. Too much compromise simply won’t work. “You’ll become resentful and exhausted,” she predicts.

For some dominators like Mark, kink isn’t just extra, it’s essential.  Liz, who lectures around the world and tends to run the show in many situations, is always a “bottom” in bed. She has known since college that she can’t “get off without submitting,” she says. “I just want to do whatever he wants and know he has complete power over me.”  Her mild-mannered, devoted husband, is a “top,” and they’ve agreed to non-monogamy. Liz has had several “tops,” some of whom have been partners off and on for years, and even become friends along the way.

Sex with a true top is far different than asking a cooperative boyfriend to play out a fantasy. Hans, a 45-year old top, just won’t go along: “I do what I do to give myself pleasure, to dominate her, and I decide.” That’s where “safe words” come in. In safe power play, the submissive can halt any activity by saying a nonsense word.

In the course of Evelyn’s affair (which ironically lasted just over nine weeks, she recalls), she tried things she would never have imagined she’d enjoy, including going from being someone who normally called the shots, to one that obeyed them. “If I stopped he would order me to continue in a rough loud voice, then demand that I beg him for more. I loved it.”She broke it off when she realized he was pushing her past her comfort threshold. “I never liked pain and that’s where he was going,” she says. Once her decision was made, they both moved on and she was left with a hot memory and a richer understanding of herself.

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