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Sep 28, 2021

Understanding power in relationships, as seen in 'Crave' by Years & Years

Olly Alexander's latest track explores what it means to lean into submission. So why does playing with power feel so good?

This week Feeld supported the release of ‘Crave’ by Years & Years—a daring dance track about leaning into submission to the point of embracing it. ‘Crave’, says Olly, ‘is a playful way of inhabiting the deranged sexual energy I’ve always wanted. In the past I felt like I’ve been dominated by toxic relationships, and I felt like it would be fun to turn it on its head.’ Consider this a risqué cut of kinked-up, club-ready pop, and Olly Alexander using his platform to push the boundaries of mainstream superstardom.

Despite the obvious BDSM reference in the lyrics and video (check out the video to see Olly Years strung up and whipped into a frenzy) the track references something present in almost all relationships—the delicious pleasure of being at the mercy of someone you just can’t get enough of and the pain that often causes. 

The only thing I crave

Is the pain from you

I’ll do anything to stay

If you want me to

Baby I don’t ever

Wanna replace

All the heartache

For a dream come true

The only thing I crave

Is the pain from you 

So why does it feel so good to give up your power to a lover or partner, and is it something you need to be wary of doing?

Often in a relationship, you can feel like somebody has power over you. This can be a natural part of a relationship, and few relationships are free of any kind of power exchange, but it’s important to be aware of how power plays a part in your relationship and to be aware of the power you might hold yourself. 

As sex educator Lola Jean explains, ‘Power and specifically control can be a large kink or draw for many people. Control can often be a burden or stressful for many, so relinquishing this can be a meditative experience. Ultimately, the test of whether this is healthy to explore is whether the release of control or power is empowering to you. Does this loss of control turn you on? Does it make you able to turn off your brain so you can relax?’

There are lots of ways that exchanges of power are present in relationships as well as sexual scenarios. Obviously in BDSM or kink play the exchange of power is often obvious, sometimes it’s literally visible—for example, if one person is tied up or otherwise restrained; they have literally given up their power to the other person, they are physically powerless (although more on this later). 

Understanding how power factors into relationships and sex can be important to having healthy, communicative and happy relationships and experiences. 

Power exchange fantasies are extremely common 

In ‘Tell Me What You Want’, a book that examined the sex lives of Americans by collecting data for over 4000 people, social psychologist Dr Justin Lehmiller found that 93 per cent of women and 81 per cent of men had fantasised about being sexually dominated. And 85 per cent of men and 73 per cent of women had fantasised about dominating someone else. 

The stats above prove just how common these fantasies are. Perhaps BDSM is not the niche sexual interest it is often portrayed to be—If you’re interested in playing with power dynamics in the bedroom, Feeld is the perfect place to explore. Use the search by desires feature to list your interests and search other users looking for the same. Be bold and don’t be afraid to use your bio to explain exactly what you’re looking for—being open and honest goes a long way!  

Power can be a normal part of a healthy relationship

Most romantic relationships, whether casual or more committed, involve a balancing of power. For example, one partner might earn more than the other and so have greater spending power, or one partner might take on the role of disciplining children more often. This can be a normal, healthy, part of a relationship but it’s important to be aware of power—arguably even more so if you are the party with the most power. Have open conversations about responsibilities and roles within your relationship and keep checking in with your partners to make sure they are not feeling that their needs are being overlooked. 

Power in multi-person dynamics 

Obviously when more than two people are involved in a relationship or a sexual situation, the power shifts differently and can sometimes be a little more complicated.

This can be particularly true if you’re dating as a couple. If you’re an established couple looking for a third, the balance of power will probably be tipping towards you, the couple. This is partly because you know each other better than the third person, you can perhaps pick up on non-verbal cues from your partner, and you have a history of built-up trust and understanding. Be aware of this and go the extra mile to make your date feel comfortable. You can read more about this in our piece How to date IRL as a couple.

Other group dynamics (such as a threesome between three single people, or a foursome with two couples) are a great opportunity to explore power, and to step outside of a role that might be more usual for you. As in any sex, make sure to keep checking in with the other people involved and continue to seek enthusiastic consent.

Power in kink and BDSM 

While power might be a more visible and more obvious aspect of BDSM and other kink play, like bondage, it also gives lots of opportunities to play around with power, and to try doing things differently.

Daniel Saynt, who is the founder of NSFW a sex-and-cannabis-friendly private members club in NYC, explains that being too rigid about how we explore power in BDSM can be limiting. Trying new things can be fun and can help you to empathise with partners:

‘Sexual dynamics are very entrenched in the idea that one partner has the power in the act. There is the top, lead or more dominant partner who is giving, and the bottom or more submissive partner who is receiving. This way of thinking about sex is dated and doesn’t address the full spectrum of sexual experiences that someone can have. It also can become stale for some people, especially those looking for exchanges of power during sex. It’s important to understand that there is a power balance that can be played with during sex and that just because you’re more of submissive or more of a dominant, it doesn’t mean you’re stuck in that role and can’t explore an exchange.’

It’s also important to remember that while a person might consensually give up their power during sex, in reality they need to be able to regain this power at any given moment. A common system used in kink play is to employ a traffic light system. This lets the person in the more receptive role communicate how they are feeling, and to say stop in a clear way. Green essentially means ‘that’s amazing, carry on’, yellow or amber means ‘that’s still good, but that’s my limit’, and red means ‘stop right now’. You might return to whatever you were doing after a person says ‘red’ but you should stop, check in with them, and take some time to bring the balance of power back to a more even footing.

When does power become problematic, controlling or abusive? 

Of course, it’s possible to abuse power. And it’s important to be aware of how power in a relationship can also lead to an unhealthy (perhaps even unsafe) situation. International sex educator and self-proclaimed ‘sex hacker’ Kenneth Play shares some thoughts on how to recognise problematic power dynamics:

‘The first sign of an unhealthy power dynamic is when you feel like your negotiated and stated boundaries are being pushed, violated, or disregarded. In healthy power dynamics, people are negotiating where the power comes from as equals and the agreement is respected by both parties. When you can no longer trust the person to honour the boundaries you’ve laid out together, that means that the power exchange has become non-consensual. If this happens, the best thing to do is speak up. Step out of any pre-negotiated power dynamics and get back to the place of being equals, and then address the situation. If it gets too problematic, you might need to get professional help or take some space from the relationship.’

As Lola Jean explains, ‘There is a large difference between healthy power exchange and coercion. Power exchange happens on a wide spectrum that can look different for everyone. For some it means complete control over basic decisions down to what you’re going to eat for breakfast, where as for others it is more of a continuous power exchange that goes back and forth between two partners. Pay attention to what feels right for you and then tailor and adjust specific to your needs.’

Ultimately, if you feel as though you have a safe space in which to communicate your needs, power play can foster a feeling of increased intimacy between you and your partner, or partners. And if you’re looking to try and approach prospective partners about power play from the get-go, these are some of the ways you can do it via the Feeld app:

How to discuss power play with other humans on Feeld

- Use your bio to explain that this is one of your desires 

- Use search by desires to list your specific desires, eg. dominant, submissive, kink. BDSM etc

- If you have a preference towards being submissive or dominant discuss this openly (but try to be open to changing things up) 

- Be aware that experimenting outside of your usual preference can be a great way to better understand your partner(s)’ experience 

- Discuss boundaries before you start to play, and remember to keep checking in 

- Consent is the single most important part of power play. Always seek enthusiastic consent (anything other than a ‘yes!’ is a no) 

As Lola Jean concludes, ‘Ultimately, power exchange isn’t inherently good or bad, it all depends on how and where it is used between two people. We can use any tool or experience to one’s benefit or detriment, which is why communication is so important!’

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