I'm sitting silently with a dozen others in the meditation pool at a hot spring resort, observing a woman laying in the water as her husband softly keeps her body afloat and away from others. Her eyes are closed. She looks peaceful. I want that. Noticing now three couples doing this, I wonder if any of the men crave this floating experience the way I do. Would they ask for it? Would the women enjoy providing this experience for their partners?
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I'm talking to someone after a west coast swing class about how the role of following in a dance seems much easier than leading. Followers just need to allow their body to glide into the space that the lead creates, I say, they don't even need to know of a move to be able to dance it! Leads must learn the steps and move with careful intention, constructing the shape of the dance on behalf of the partnership. He says following is harder for him. He says it's hard for him to let go and have someone else control the dance. He can practice a dance step until he masters it, but he can't imagine how to easily practice the skills of moving to someone else's cues.
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As I've thought about gender more since switching to they pronouns, I've been noticing a lot of situations where the man seems expected to provide an experience of vulnerability or relaxation for a woman. I see men give women more massages than vice versa, and women seem to disproportionately be little spoon or the head on someone else's chest. I've been especially thinking about this in the context of kink -- I've previously only taken the role of being tied or hurt by someone else, and these days I'm also exploring the role of being the person in power. I enjoy practicing the skill of dominance, but the intensity and release of a submissive role continues to appeal to me more. Dominance feels like hobby practice, and submission feels like taking drugs and bubbly feelings and emotional release.
I've asked men what draws them to these kinds of roles and heard two common answers. One is that they enjoy the process of mastering a skill and take pride in demonstrating these talents. The other is the satisfaction of providing a special experience for someone else, and deriving joy from how happy they are.
But why not experience those things first-hand? When I ask men why they don't follow in dances or get tied at rope events or be little spoon, they sometimes say they had just never seen that as an option for them. But many say that releasing some of their personal body autonomy to someone else is too vulnerable and challenging. Floating in a pool while your partner holds you requires some trust that they won't drop you. Following in a dance requires some trust that the lead won't twirl you into someone else. Allowing someone to hurt you requires some trust that they won't destroy you. Letting someone else control an experience means that it could go all kinds of unpredictable ways, and the stress of this can make it harder to relax or enjoy the experience.
A lot of people regularly default to one of these roles: providing or receiving. Gender roles and expectations are pervasive through everything we do, and I wonder how many people don't seriously consider that the other role is an option for them. There are nice things about being the "provider" -- by diving into this role, I've developed confidence in my skills and practiced the creativity of curating an experience for someone. But I especially want more people to experience "receiving", to be able to trust someone to have some control over them, to feel safe temporarily giving up some independence, to let someone else care for them in ways that feel vulnerable. There is so much joy and connection that can come along with vulnerability. I wish that for everyone.