When most people hear the word "dominance," they picture abrasive, arrogant assholes who force their will upon others. However, those of us into the D/s lifestyle understand that dominance of this kind is neither acceptable or sustainable.
What Evolutionary Leadership Theory Tells Us about Dominance and Consent
Even the most submissive BDSMers eventually grow tired of abusive, self-centered tops.
If we want to keep our kinky relationships non-toxic, benevolent dominance is the goal. Incidentally, this may have been key to the survival of our ancestors. Evolutionary leadership theory explains how the dominant hunter-gatherers who led our species through history used their power to benefit their followers, and the crucial role consent played throughout the process.
Let's examine dominance and submission through the lens of leadership and followership, and how we can apply awareness of evolutionary psychology to our kinky relationships.
What is Evolutionary Leadership Theory (ELT)?
This theory was originally introduced by a German professor of social and organizational psychology named Mark van Vugt in his book, Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow, and Why it Matters. It suggests that both leadership and followership were important for the reproductive success of our ancestors.
Put simply: power exchange has always been linked to baby-makin'. Surprise surprise!
Here's an overview of the key points of ELT:
- Leadership and followership evolved to make group activities like moving, hunting, and fighting other groups easier.
- Sustainable forms of dominance and submission are handled consensually in human societies, rather than through force or intimidation, as is the case for many social animal species.
- Dominance evolved as an attractive, panty-drenching trait because the efforts of adept leaders aided the survival of the group as a whole.
- There's a mismatch between the ancient world and modern society that causes clashes between our innate psychology and the organizational structures we have today.
How Leadership Helped Hunter-Gatherers Survive and Thrive
Research has shown that groups with leaders generally do better than those without. Having someone in charge helps us coordinate, make quick decisions, delegate tasks, and stay focused on our goals. ELT argues that leadership evolved to help groups become more effective. Adept leaders were considered attractive due to the fact that their guidance benefitted their subordinates.
The ancient world was a harsh place full of threats to our survival. It was in the interest of societies to choose leaders to guide group members through complex situations. In times of perceived conflict, strong, masculine, bold individuals were chosen. In times of peace, members often chose older or more feminine leaders with stronger social skills.
Evidence of this trend continues today. Our most aggressive world leaders tend to focus on external threats, followed by promises to protect "us" from "them."
The Benefits of Leadership and Followership
Our ancestors enjoyed the same benefits of leadership that many kinky doms seek today, like respect, prestige, control, privileges, and heightened sexual appeal.
Likewise, their followers were motivated by many of the reasons bottoms are attracted to submission in BDSM. They could take a backseat and thereby avoid the responsibility and pressure leadership entailed. Rather than having to mull through the best course of action for a given situation, they were simply required to put their faith in their leaders and act. For many of us, following the direction of a skilled leader is far more calming than the alternative.
How Dominance Differs for Humans and Animals
Animals who are members of social species, like chimpanzees and gorillas, have to compete with their peers for things like food and sexual partners, and stronger animals thrive at the expense of weaker ones who fear aggression. The hierarchy of leadership and followership reduces violence within these groups.
In human societies, however, enthusiastic cooperation is important for survival. We're a lot less likely to willingly fall in line behind leaders who act like complete dicks. We prefer to follow people who display integrity and generosity because we know we're more likely to personally benefit. We also possess the cognitive skills to gang up on leaders who abuse their power.
In short, our leaders can't maintain their status without our consent. Those who try to do so are punished by way of ruined reputations, criticism, disobedience, abandonment and even murder.
I can think of a few awful doms who suffered several of these consequences in my local kink scene. (All except the murder part, fortunately.) Accountability is one of the main benefits of an organized BDSM community. Would-be abusers have to be kept in check so the rest of us can have nice things.
The Clash Between Innate Psychology and Modern Society
The problem with evolutionary psychology is that our brains adapted to help us thrive in the African savanna, an environment most of us no longer inhabit. Many of our innate psychological mechanisms no longer make sense or align with modern conditions.
For example, we still tend to place tall men in management positions. Choosing leaders who were physically imposing and fuelled by testosterone made sense when tribal warfare reigned, but is little more than an aesthetic preference in a world where few leaders actually go to battle.
Another problem is that leaders these days have far more power than our ancestors who ruled the roost. Overthrowing shitty leaders was relatively easy for dissatisfied groups back in the day, but nearly impossible in modern corrupt societies and organizations that have been structured to benefit those in charge.
Our innate psychology tells us that giving power to certain types of leaders will enable our survival. With modern life, however, many aren't so sure this still applies. The empowering spread of knowledge has levelled the playing field somewhat, making traditional hierarchical relationships both undesirable and largely unnecessary.
How Can We Use Our Innate Psychology to Benefit Our Modern Relationships?
ELT argues that adapting how we approach leadership and followership can help us overcome the types of clashes mentioned above, thereby creating more effective and enjoyable dynamics within our relationships, specifically within groups.
Skilled business managers, for example, motivate their teams to participate in the success of the organization rather than ruling with an iron fist, which creates resentment, fear, and an overall shitty work culture. Organizations do better when their participants are happy and want the group as a whole to succeed.
We can also apply this to our kinky partnerships by crafting D/s dynamics that benefit everyone involved and include input from both (or all) participants.
As a functional switch in BDSM, I prefer to submit, but have topped many times. While dominating my partners, I always ask myself, "Will this benefit them somehow? Are they going to look back and see what I'm doing to them now as a positive thing?"
To answer these questions during play, I need to understand my partners and their desires, fears, goals and ways of thinking.
And as a sub, I've developed a keen awareness of whether a top I'm playing with is focusing on my needs, their own, or both simultaneously. If I perceive it's the first or second option rather than the third, I'm out. If the purpose of playtime is to create scenes for mutual benefit, I'll be game for the majority of ideas my tops bring to the table.
In the BDSM world, we must constantly wrangle with the challenge of explaining to outsiders and beginners how power exchange operates behind the curtain. When people get the wrong idea about how to approach domination and submission in consensual ways, they can easily behave abusively and then wonder why the experience didn't turn out well. This is especially true in scenes that grapple with consensual non-consent.
Meeting the Needs of All Involved
We all face considerable challenges in making our relationships work, on both micro and macro scales. We want everyone to feel valued, respected, safe, and equal these days, but power dynamics still undeniably must play a role for society to function. Furthermore, we crave the power dynamics involved in leadership and followership. They are programmed into our brains and run in our blood.
If we want our relationships to stand the test of time as our ancestors did, we should take a page from their book by approaching both sexual dominance and leadership in a way that's consensual, enjoyable, and beneficial for all involved.
Molly Lazarus is a kink and sexuality writer based in the Bay Area. She dreams of a world where consent-loving hedonists can explore the depths of their depravity without fear of persecution or sexual abuse.