A patient man am I, down to my fingertips,
the sort who never could, ever would,
let an insulting remark escape his lips,
A very gentle man...
~ I'm An Ordinary Man, My Fair Lady Soundtrack
That’s right, me and Rex Harrison, we are the gentlest and most patient of creatures. Mostly.
However, there are certain things about my own beloved kinky culture that annoy me. One of them is the phrase, “Total Power Exchange”, commonly shortened to “TPE”.
What does that mean? Well, “power exchange” is another of way of referring to a dominant/submissive interaction, either a scene or a whole relationship. It’s not a term I’ve ever taken to, although I have no problem with it.
But TPE? Well, I looked around for the origin of the exact phrase “Total Power Exchange” and here’s (an edited-down version of) what I found.
Total Power Exchange, or TPE for short, is a derivative of the concept of power exchange in a D/s relationship. The term refers to a relationship where the dominant has complete authority and influence over the submissive's life, making the majority of decisions….
The phrase Total Power Exchange was coined by Steven S. Davis in the newsgroup alt.sex.bondage during his debates with Jon Jacobs in the mid 1990's.
My general understanding of a TPE relationship, gathered from people who say they practice this, is that it’s a relationship in which the submissive has no right of refusal to anything the dominant commands. Anything. At all. Anytime. Ever.
Now, let’s be clear. I am very much in favor of dominant/submissive relationships. But this TPE business? I don’t like it.
I think TPE is positioned on the idea that the submissive having any limits whatsoever is bad, and something to be overcome. I don’t agree with that idea. I have seen people who claim to practice it compare it to a parent/child relationship. They mean that in a positive way, but the logic is flawed. The role of a parent is to grow this little person into a big one and eventually send them out into the world. TPE seems like the precise opposite, in that the goal is to shrink a grown-up functional person down into someone who feels that they no power. TPE people usually insinuate - if they don't just say outright - that they feel TPE is superior to other expressions of d/s. I think putting forth the idea that the best and highest example of consensual, affection-based slavery is one that most closely mirrors real, non-consensual slavery is a mistake.
(Yes, I’m aware that TPE people always say that the slave should never be told to do anything really wrong, like killing their children or suchlike. I believe them. That still doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.)
Interestingly, I can’t ever recall talking to someone in real life who used that exact expression, TPE, to describe their own relationship. I am sure that people do, but there can’t be that many of them, or I would have encountered them. Thus, my impression of TPE is that it’s mainly a concept that you run into online. And that’s not something that’s going to increase my respect for the phrase.
On one level, it’s just words. Part of me thinks: If it makes you happy to create important-sounding acronyms for your kink, then fine, enjoy yourself. It’s not going to affect my life.
But especially in a shadow world like kink, language can shape the culture. It’s important that we examine them and provide appropriate community feedback to concepts. And as a writer, I think words are important in themselves. In this context, the word “total” is an intensifier, like the words “really”, “truly”, or “very”. Any writing teacher will tell you that overuse of intensifiers waters down your message. It's like saying "extreme", or "hardcore". Advertising-speak has invaded the kink language. I expect to see TOTAL POWER EXCHANGE on a can of energy drink any day now. It bothers me.
And psychologically, it conveys a whiff of desperation. When I read “I’m into TOTAL power exchange”, what I see is someone jockeying for credibility and status that at some level, he’s not sure he deserves. It’s a one-up statement. It's a way of saying "my special brand of dominance and submission is better than everyone else’s.” If you have to say that, to yourself or anyone else, then you have issues.
Everything BDSM people do, we construct in our heads. Once you get past the safe/sane/consensual part, there is no rulebook anywhere on how to do this, and no one gets to decide what kink means to the people doing it. Having limits in a relationship – in any relationship – is normal and healthy. This “Total Power Exchange” concept is silly and a bit pretentious at best, and I think it has the potential to be a negative force in a relationship. You have a dominant/submissive relationship? That’s dandy. The exact parameters of that are up to the two of you. Shape them however you want. But when random people start setting out rules for that, like they were carved on stone tablets, then you lose me. “In a TPE relationship, the slave must always wear purple shirts on Wednesday. The slave can never ever wear green shirts on Wednesday. Otherwise it’s not a true TPE.” Right. Whatever. If I wanted someone else setting out rules for how my intimate relationships must look, I’d could have stayed in the vanilla world, married some nice boy, voted Republican, and gone to church every Sunday.