Imbalance of Power

copyright 2005 by Pat Powers

The slavegirl exists in a weird gray area in the damsel in distress continuum. She may want to make love with her master with every fiber of her being, but his power over her is such that she's not really ABLE to give consent. A man who owns a woman owns her body, by definition, and in most slaveholding societies that meant that all a slaveowner had to do in order to make a female slave his mistress was order her to his bed, in chains if he likes. It's purely a matter of personal preference on his part, while there's no choice at all on her part.

A slavegirl is a damsel in distress whether she's bound and gagged or not. Should she attempt to escape from her master, the police and the citizenry are not on her side -- it is their duty to return her to him for more double dildo bondage sex. This is very different from the situation of a kidnapping victim, who can count on help from the police and the citizenry should she escape.

Metaphorically, a slavegirl's place is kneeling before her master, her hands bound behind her back, her feet shackled to a spreader bar, her mouth forced open by an O-ring gag. She is forced into this position by the judges, policemen, politicians and good citizens of her society. (This is why slavery as a real institution was such an evil thing, and why most everybody with any sense of humanity is glad it's mostly been wiped out.)

But evil as it was in real life, in sexual fantasies and works of fiction that draw their strength from such fantasies, it's powerfully dramatic. You can't create sexual drama about relationships with uneven power relationships, where the relationship is more unequal than the one between a slavegirl, her master, and the society that keeps her on her knees before him.

Unfortunately there are forces that have worked to make the treatment of unequal power relationships between men and women weak in movies, and they've also made slavery themes weak. Even the exploitation films of the 80s that were obviously inspired by the Gor novels did not deal directly with the slavegirl experience the way the Gor novels themselves did. In fact, Norman so far has been the only mainstream writer -- ever -- with the wit to see that slavegirl sex fantasies could best be expressed as romances between the slavegirl and her master.

You have to go back to the fifties and sixties, with the uneven power relationships that were then common between men and women, to see such dynamics fully explored, as in the very Gorean "Jupiter's Darling." Men and women had a much better grasp of how love could bridge uneven power relationships because they were living it, in those days.

Now the playing field between men and women is much closer to being level than it once was, and people are learning to play with artificially created uneven power relationships, for fun and for sexual gratification. And that means we don't see movies from the 50s and 60s in the same way they were seen by their intended audiences. Or if we do see them the same way, it means we are either very, very old or Southern Baptists. (If we find the movies too liberal and provocative, we are both very old and Southern Baptists.)

The 50s movies were able to portray unequal power relationships between men and women that involved romances, but they were diffident about dealing with the power differences. And it's not hard to understand why, when you read the advice to men in a few marital relations books from the period. (Yes, I have done so, but my interest was scholarly rather than personal.)

The advice to men is to keep their wives involved in their decisions, to let them know what they're thinking, to give them areas of responsibility such as cooking, childcare and housecleaning, and to respect their decisions within those areas. You have to hold them accountable, of course, and let them know that you are watching them and appreciative of their efforts.

It all sounds dreadfully familiar. It's the exact same advice you'll now read in articles and books on management, written for managers who want to keep their employees productive and gruntled (as opposed to disgruntled).

And of course the advice is also totally bogus, in that the underlying assumption is that there will never be an iota of real power sharing between the husband/manager and the employee/wife. It's all about making them feel like they have power without actually changing the power relationship at all. Sure, employees and wives can propose anything they like, but it's still up to the bosses and husbands to approve it.

That's why films in the 50s and 60s never dealt directly with the power imbalances in male/female relationships. It would have run directly counter to good marital relations. It would have been considered to be rubbing women's nose in it. When a power imbalance is nonconsensual, the folks who have the top hand don't generally want to talk about it.

That's why it wasn't until feminist films like "Up the Sandbox" and "The Bell Jar" came along that there was any focus on male/female power relationships. The feminist films zeroed in on the power relationships because their whole focus was pointing out how unequal relationships between the sexes was.

Whenever discussion of unequal power relationships come up, it's to the disadvantage of those who have more power. That's why the uneven power relationships between Hannibal and his captive (in essence, a slavegirl who has not yet been formally enslaved) are strictly subtextual in "Jupiter's Darling." That's why the power relationship between the harem girls and the heroes in "Son of Sinbad" are strictly portrayed in terms of romance.

In the feminist era, power relationships could be examined, but always in terms of either attacking inequality between the sexes, or supporting some aspect of the sexual status quo which might be deemed worthwhile. Romance might be part of the formula, but it was always in the service of making more poignant the power imbalance equation.

The notion that power imbalances might be fun or sexually gratifying was left strictly to the sexual bondage subculture.

In the films of the era which didn't deal directly with feminist issues, the power relations tended to swamp romance. Take some of the 80s sexploitation films that were obviously based on the Gor novels, like "Barbarian Queen" and "Deathstalker." Sure, there were LOTS of scenes involving power imbalances between men and women in such movies, some of them involving sex, mostly in the form of rape or attempted rape. But there was no romance.

The closest thing to romance I've seen in any such film was the one in Barbarian Queen between a young kidnapee/serial rape victim who falls for her chief molestor/captor and later voluntarily becomes his concubine, but ultimately winds up sticking a shiv between his shoulders.

It was a lot more interesting than your average B-movie relationship, but somehow they managed to completely omit the nature of both the personal and sexual relationships between the two of them, so it, too, followed the pattern.

In the feminist era, romances occurred between the guys who rescued the women from slavery/kidnaping/what-have-you, not between the women and their captors, enslavers or what-have-yous.

But things are different now, as recreational power imbalances are becoming increasingly commonplace and increasingly accepted, there are some exciting stories to be told, some exciting movies to be made.

But to make powerful and compelling films in a society in which power imbalances are recreational in nature, diffidence is not the way to go. It's necessary to take the opposite tack, and focus on the power imbalances, exploring the romantic and sexual gratification possibilities as you do. It's now possible to have romances in such films because audiences now understand that power imbalances can and do occur within a consensual context.

But to make such stories as compelling romances between real people we're going to have to have something better than rote recitations of scripted sexual fantasies. We'll have to dig a little deeper into the psyches of the characters. You can read more about that in the essay "The Necessity of Personality."