NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, March 1, 2021

Destigmatizing Sexual Fantasies of Power and Submission in Relationships

I have been exploring topics related to sexuality in my recent articles, including What is Good Sex?, Understanding Your Sexual Accelerators and Brakes, Overcoming Problems With Spontaneous Sexual Arousal vs Context-Dependent Arousal and To Rekindle Passion Fire Needs Air.  In this article, I'm focusing on destigmatizing sexual fantasies of power and submission in relationships.

Destigmatizing Sexual Fantasies of Power and Submission in Relationships

Political Beliefs About Egalitarianism vs Erotic Pleasure
The Women's Movement fought hard to reduce gender inequality.  To their credit, the Women's Movement also brought to light the double standard which criticized women for sexual experimentation while applauding men who roamed sexually, including sexist attitudes of "Boys will be boys"and "That's how men are." 

The Women's Movement showed that these gender differences aren't biologically rooted--they're social constructions which needed to change.  

Books like Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective also served to restore a sense of sexual ownership to women--both legally and psychologically.

In her book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, Dr. Esther Perel posits that, while the contributions of the Women's Movement were undeniably positive, there were also some unintended consequences.  She believes that the emphasis on egalitarianism in sexuality, which purged any expressions of power, aggression, and transgression, is antithetical to erotic desire for both men and women.

According to Dr. Perel, while power and control dynamics are problematic in an emotional relationship, these same dynamics, when eroticized, become sexually pleasurable for many couples.

Sexual Dynamics of Power and Submission Have Become More Common
Whereas in the past sexual power and submission were considered fringe behavior, during recent years, these dynamics have become more common and acceptable among consenting adults behind closed doors.

According to a study published in the March 3, 2016 edition of The Journal of Sex Research, nearly 47% of women and 60% of men have fantasized about dominating someone sexually.  

The same study revealed that almost 47% of adults would like to participate in some form of nontraditional sexual activity, and 33.9% said they were involved in some form of nontraditional sexual activity in the last year.

Destigmatizing Sexual Fantasies of Power and Submission
At one point, many mental health practitioners considered sexual power and submission practices to be pathological.  

However, in 2013 the American Psychiatric Association (APA)  destigmatized these sexual practices in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5).  For the first time, the APA made a distinction between consenting adults who engage in these sexual activities and those who force others to engage in these behaviors without consent.

Rather than pathologizing these sexual dynamics, many therapists understand that a couple's political beliefs about equality in their everyday life might be in sharp contrast to what they find sexually pleasurable during erotic play.

Destigmatizing Sexual Fantasies of Power and Submission
The following examples are a composite of many different heterosexual couples and have no identifying information:

Sue and Dan
During the day, Sue, who owns her own business, makes many important decisions involving staffing, business strategy and the financial aspects of her business.  She is a strong supporter of women's rights and considers herself a feminist.  However, when she and her spouse, Dan, are having sex, she prefers to allow him to be the dominant one and she takes on the role of the submissive.

Two years before, when they first started seeing one another, Sue felt embarrassed at first to tell Dan that she preferred to be dominated in bed.  However, when she finally summoned the courage to tell him, Dan was excited about it.  

To start, they established a "safe word," which they agreed upon. They agreed that when spoken the safe word ensures that the current act stops immediately.  They also negotiated other agreements in terms of informed consent about all their sexual activities.

Dan, who usually deferred to Sue in their everyday life, liked the idea of being dominant in the bedroom.  This power dynamic in their everyday life didn't change.  Like Sue, he had never played with sexual power dynamics in his previous relationships, so this was all new to him.  But both of them soon discovered that it added excitement to their sex life.

Jan and Ed
Ed was a senior partner at a large law firm.  He often worked long hours. He was under a lot of pressure to bring in new business for his firm.  

He and Jan were married for five years.  Early on in their relationship Jan and Ed experimented with their sexual fantasies of power and submission.  

Since Ed had many responsibilities at work, he enjoyed being submissive during sex with Jan.  Jan, who had a more passive personality in her everyday life and in her relationship with Ed, enjoyed being dominant during sex.  It really turned Ed on to allow Jan to be in control sexually, and it made Jan feel empowered in a way she had never felt before.  

Occasionally, just to be playful and to add something new to their sexual activities, they switched roles and Jan was the submissive sexual partner while Ed was dominant.  They were both adventurous and liked to be playful with new roles and exploring new fantasies.

Whereas sexual fantasies about power and submission were pathologized as being "abnormal" in the past, they are now accepted by most contemporary psychotherapists as being a normal part of sex.

It's normal for there to be a difference between how a person might be in their everyday life in terms of gender egalitarianism and what they find erotically exciting.  

As discussed in the examples above, a person who has a dominant personality in his or her everyday life might fantasize and enjoy being submissive sexually and vice versa. Some couples alternate roles between being submissive and dominant.

Trust and informed consent between consenting adults are crucial to sexual dynamics involving power and submission.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.