Submission is not a gift.
I honestly thought this trope has lived out its natural lifespan.
I thought that when it started flashing up in the course of my Etsy kink-scrolling on mugs and T-shirts from those scammy Chinese sellers, it was conclusive proof that it had left the current field of legitimate discussion altogether.
Unfortunately, it seems to have had a recent resurgence in popular discourse. So, I wanted to concisely summarise why this analogy is as inaccurate as it is unhelpful.
Equally, I understand the urge to convey that submission is given freely and cannot be forced. Which I wholly support – as I have said before, submission is not a passive thing and cannot be wrested from someone unwilling.
In fact, if the idea of ‘submission as gift’ existed purely as a pretty metaphor, purely a poetic way of expressing a trite romantic notion, I’d happily consign it to the compost heap of sundry erotica cliches and move on. The problem is, it’s been around so long, it’s become ingrained as an analogy – a more pragmatic comparison drawn to facilitate understanding. ‘
And trying to understand submission as analogous to a gift is an excellent way to get your understand into quite a twist. Here’s why.
Risk in giving a gift is discrete and limited
When we come to give a gift, what we are giving can generally be quantified. The cost to you is limited to whatever thing you wrapped in that pretty paper, and therefore so is the risk. By contrast, while risks can be managed in power exchange, they cannot be so strictly defined, (particularly within the scope of 24/7 dynamic).
Which is not to say something will go wrong, but you know. Risk aware kink and all that requires that people coming into kink with a very clear awareness of the risks.
So, to summarise:
A gift, by definition, is:given without any expectations of what is to be given in return;
- a one-off;
- limited in risk to the material nature of what is given;
- takes only a moment; and
- generally requires the giving party to take no further action or responsibility beyond that moment.
- part of a mutually fulfilling relationship;
- comes with a variety of risks which will change over time; and
- requires the submissive to both take action and responsibility further down the line.
In fact, if you drew a Venn diagram of words which can be used to describe submission and the concept of a gift, the only overlap I can think of would be ‘valuable’, ‘freely given’’, and ‘socially inappropriate to donate to a charity shop’.
In fact, do you know what? Let’s have a Venn diagram. Why not. We all need to live a little and it is a bank holiday weekend.
So, submission as a gift is a poor analogy. But why does this matter? Why debate flowery semantics?
Well, for one thing, semantics are rather my thing.
But, more importantly, analogies are supposed to help simplify and improve the accessibility of a concept, through comparing it to something everyone is very familiar with. This analogy does precisely the opposite.
But why does that matter? Well, the thing about popular analogies is that they often form the basis of most people’s understanding. The words in them become the building blocks for people’s conversations, which in turn shape how they understand each other.
And this particularly analogy is not just bad – it’s so inaccurate as to be completely wrong.
In fact, comparing submission to a gift fails to something foundational
Namely, that submission is not a stand-alone quality, which cannot be neatly bottled and gifted. Just like dominance, it’s a kaleidoscope of instincts and feelings and thoughts, which responds to, brings out and is brought out by its equal and opposite force.
Submission and dominance require each other to really exist. Rather like fire and oxygen, neither can exist in a vacuum.
In other words, for submission to be ‘given’, someone else must actively participate and dominate (and vice versa). So, therefore, it’s not a fixed quantity which can be ‘given’, because really, it doesn’t exist before someone chooses to ‘accept’ it and dominate.
So, comparing submission to a gift misses the entire point that it is something which develops naturally over time as the dynamic, the trust its built on, and the people party to it develop too. That to submit you need someone to actively dominate.
It fails to convey that connection really lies at the heart of D/s. Although that connection may be fleeting and shall, the beauty of dominance and submission nonetheless lies in the fact they are reactionary. A dynamic comes from the interplay between two equal and opposite forces, caught up in each other in a glorious push and pull. A dance with a leader and a follower, in sync, in step. You can no more ‘give the gift of submission’ than you can dance a ballroom waltz on your own.
So, submission is not a gift
It’s just one half of a beautifully complex connection which, by definition, requires (at least) two willing and committed participants. It describes one half of a symbiotic state, in which two forces perpetuate and drive each other forward.
Which makes the analogy of ‘submission as a gift’ an incredibly structurally unsound building block to use in constructing an understanding of power exchange. And personally, I think we should aim to minimise the number of unhelpful building blocks out there. The most popular analogies we bandy around should serve as a shortcut to genuine understanding, not an additional obstacle.
So, let’s finally put this unhelpful analogy to bed. Not only does it not do submission justice, but it perpetuates a number of unhelpful misconceptions.