Are Our Terms Fit for Purpose? Total Power Exchange (TPE)

Society trains us to impose order on every aspect of our lives. Our past, present and future are restrained, splayed out on the bench, ready for us to spunk post-it notes all over the particulars. Relationships, lifestyles, career paths; nothing escapes having multiple theories attached to why we do what we do. A blessing and a curse.

Discovering our communities, our tribes, we label ourselves in order to translate our identities to those that don’t understand. Conflict is caused through mixed meanings. We struggle with our self-imposed labels as much as those dictated by society, because we all bring unique experience to how we define the people we connect to. What we know on a singular level is somewhat ill defined, highlighting the need to collaborate and distil collective meaning into our labels.

The ‘ideal’ romantic relationship differs between social groups, being set within the limits of whatever political leaning and religion the majority subscribe to. Think about this for a second, a whole other blog post in itself: Monogamy – We have all met that person who would be only slightly offended by a secret affair, yet outraged, incensed by the idea of polyamory. If this isn’t regressive thinking on their part I don’t know what is. Have we really conditioned ourselves to believe the only way to maintain a non-monogamous relationship is to carry it out behind the backs of those we love? God forbid we entertain the notion of an honest, open, polyamorous lifestyle where everyone we know and love is on board.

We all naturally assume we know best. Us kink folk are as guilty as the mainstream of imposing order on the meaning of relationships. I would argue that a D/s dynamic can be more robust by ensuring a level of malleability is maintained throughout – a regular revisiting of contracts, a relaxing of protocol on occasions where life demands such, and whether using blanket consent or not, keeping lines of communication open.

A small minority of ‘Masters’ will tell you that there’s a set of protocols that we ALL follow. Their dictates range from moderate – ‘slave is not slave unless slave is collared’ (that one has some merit, which we will discuss later), to very specific – ‘slave is not slave unless slave has spent seven days and nights locked in a cage 24/7.’ No one Master is the authority on the lifestyle as a whole.

Surface level – Master/slave dynamics are all about order through protocol. I doggedly refuse to water down a lifestyle into something so simple and easy to swallow. Every relationship is messy and complicated at times. Yours isn’t messy and complicated? First, check you’re not lying to yourself. Second, you might not be doing it right.


Total Power Exchange

A dynamic in which a Master assumes any and all control over a slave. It’s a big part of the M/s lifestyle, but can just as easily be employed within any D/s pairing or group. TPE is usually, but doesn’t have to be 24/7.

24/7

This is used to indicate that a D/s relationship is long term, either for defined periods of time or that all participants are in it for the foreseeable future. Without TPE used alongside, the amount of power and control a submissive retains can differ wildly between individuals.


Traditions don’t have to be a set of hard rules for EVERYONE to abide by. Rituals and symbols are there to be utilised only if and when we want and/or need them. If we are to use base definitions as a springboard, we can pay homage to a community’s teachings while finding fulfilment by making our own protocols, choosing our own uniforms, training and punishing our subs in a way that speaks to our own ideals.

How I see a Total Power Exchange

The argument that a relationship of this sort is an all or nothing approach; a Master controlling every single aspect of a slave’s life absolutely has merit. It’s right there in the words that surround ‘Power’. It can also be viewed as a journey – one of mutual fulfilment. With my owned slaves, I am hopeful for a lifetime of voluntary servitude.

The term TPE was coined in the mid 90s by Stephen S. Davis. Below is a snapshot widely shared, written in 1999 during a debate about the terms on alt.sex.bondage:

A TPE (Total Power Exchange) relationship, sometimes described as an absolute lifestyle d&s relationship (that such relationships can actually be neither “total” or “absolute” is agreed; these are ideal states to be worked towards but which will not be achieved, which is why TPE may be better seen as a process or goal than as a state), is a relationship in which no impediment to the exercise of the owner’s power is accepted (some may, of course, exist, and what prudent owners do is to avoid direct collisions with these impediments, while working to overcome those that can be overcome (since the laws of gravity can’t be overcome, a sane owner isn’t going to ask a slave to fly (w/o appropriate equipment, of course), nor will a sensible owner try push a slave into things that are hard limits for hir (but the owner might push a slave up against what the slave thinks are hard limits but which she can in fact overcome)). Such things as safewords, contracts, negotiated limits, and anything else which recognizes / acknowledges / formalizes limits on the owner’s power are inimical to TPE.

A Journey

He sees TPE as an “ideal state to be worked towards”. Realistically, one will never achieve absolute power over another without crossing the line from Master to abuser. That’s exactly where I am at with my own dynamic. Though I would stress that I see it as an intention rather than a goal. A goal suggest a system of points scoring. For me, it’s more about implementing a philosophy in which we push the boundaries of the exchange to the limit. Occasionally, with consent, we push beyond…

A Master is not a God

We can play with the idea of a slave worshipping its Master and surrendering absolute control, but everything has a finite crescendo.

During his definition, Stephen suggests that “safewords, contracts, negotiated limits, and anything else which recognises/acknowledges/formalises limits on the owner’s power are inimical to TPE”. I see his argument. How can a Master possibly have limits to their control in a Total Power Exchange? Let’s be realistic for a moment. I am a Master, I am human. I am fallible. Our power is intrinsically limited.

Total is open to interpretation

The Total in a TPE must be subjective to the individual Dominant. The total amount of control you as a rational human being are willing to take combined with the amount of power you are capable of exerting. This doesn’t make some Master’s any better than others. Considering your limitations helps you not be an idiot.

One can only take what is given. To take more would lead to us potentially crossing the line of consensual non-consent. My dynamic like all other legitimate D/s relationships is one based on mutual fulfilment and yes, mutual respect. The subjective Total is whatever is left after negotiation, contract and so on. Total Power with the caveats that reality demands; pragmatic TPE. This doesn’t threaten your power as a Master. I would suggest to a budding Master, were they threatened by such things, that they might consider taking a step back, analysing exactly what it is they hope to get from a D/s dynamic.

Stephen acknowledges impediments to an owner’s power, and how it’s an owner’s job to avoid coming up against these in their exchange. He also correctly points out that no owner should put their property in the way of direct harm and respect hard limits. What he ultimately shows is that a true TPE begins and ends with a slave putting complete trust in the hands of a Master. But this can’t be so at the beginning of a relationship. And it certainly MUST be earned.

When caging a slave long-term, during initial training I don’t lock it in a cage for an entire week. It’s all about graded exposure. Yes, there is a pushing of soft limits, and a Master coaching a slave to develop a resilience, a fortitude. But it’s all about a process of increasing that exposure. For those brave enough, or with previous experience, maybe you start with a few hours of containment, for those completely new, you might not try anything beyond an hour at first. Over time, with developing trust and communication, you steadily increase the length of time spent in the cage and guide the slave in finding and gently pushing its limits.

As a relationship develops safe language can become superfluous, negotiations become irrelevant, unless taking a detour down a previously unexplored path. Contracts become shorter and shorter. The more you explore each other’s limits, trust and open communication leads to a more intuitive understanding of boundaries and calculated risk. I’ve seen multiple instances of contracts that, over the course of a long term relationship lasting years, become single sentences. Something along the lines of ‘whatever Master’s will, I will obey them.’ This should only come with complete trust in each other.

As you can see, TPE is indeed a process that develops over time. Of course, some can reach a form of it quicker than others, depending on the individuals involved and the trust established. The extent of a power exchange is whatever is negotiated between the Dom and the sub involved.

Oversight and mixed protocol

In keeping such a relationship sane, protocol should also be measured. Everyone, including a Master, needs a respite from high protocol.

My style of control is largely one of oversight. When protocol is high, I may take the opportunity to micro-manage, but that’s not my default setting. It’s a fallacy that all Masters micro-manage their slaves. I need a level of intelligence and proactiveness that inspires a modicum of independent servitude. Yes, I expect and desire dependency on the slave’s part, but I need a slave who has the skillset to succeed outside of the stable also. Everyone pays their way – there are no free rides.

This is just what works for me. I know other Master/slave partners and groups who function within a more extreme, perhaps more traditional dynamic in which slave is sometimes literally under lock and key 24/7. Again, it’s all about what works within a context of consensual non-consent.

So why not just call it a partial power exchange and be done with it?

I engage in partial power exchanges with some submissives and even some I would consider slaves. There is a huge difference between what I will expect of a submissive for a partial power exchange. For my owned slaves, I expect and get a hell of a lot more. I need the distinction.

Why not just 24/7 then?

24/7 lives alongside TPE in defining our relationship. 24/7 reminds us that this exchange is not only as Total as we can get in a Safe, Sane and Consensual way, but that every minute of our lives, whether together or apart is spent being owner and property.

Accept the grey areas

When looking beyond kink as a casual sex game, the grey areas of a D/s experience might seem to contradict the idea of a TPE. To consider a Master’s respect for a slave goes against everything we are taught by mass media. But the nature of respect being mutual in our lifestyle is one of the reasons we do what we do. It doesn’t make you any less of a Master to acknowledge this. It reminds you that you are human. We Masters are just as fallible as anyone else. The sooner we recognise this the stronger and more powerful we become.

To recognise that I have limits, and to forge ahead despite them, occasionally challenging those limits, just as I challenge the limits of my slaves, brings yet more strength to a dynamic that can become a truly spiritual connection.

The only labels that matter are the ones you, for good or ill, impose upon yourself. These speak to your identity, defining you and your path. Remember, these are just my opinions. Our subjective opinions are all up for debate. I’d encourage you to scrutinise anything in your own way.

So, tell me, what’s your view on the meaning of a Total Power Exchange. Or even a 24/7 if that’s your thing? How about those of you in a Partial Power Exchange? Or have you managed to do what we should all perhaps do and say fuck it to these labels and live a life that is authentically your own?

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