#7: Is All Sex About Power?

A question I keep asking is: What is sex?

Pix credit: Unsplash, Artem Labunsky

Earlier this week, in a conversation about BDSM in the animated movie Mulan (yes, my mind goes there) and 50 Shades of Grey, a friend said, “Actually, Jean, what’s the rationale behind BDSM?”

And then she followed up with questions that made me realise: 1) she thought all BDSM was about pain and risking death, and 2) that it always involved roleplaying. 

I wanted to say, “It’s not about pain. It’s about power.” I wanted to talk about the euphoria people experience in worship or “kneeling before God” in the church. I wanted to point her attention to the 40-day fasts and all the other forms of abstinences we practiced as Christians. I wanted to say a whole lot of other things that even in my mind right now, sound like blasphemy. 

Instead, I simply replied: There are a lot of different kinds of play. Different people are into different things and are into it for different reasons.

And doesn’t that apply to all sex? 

Is sex a power play? 

There’s a famous quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, but is actually of unknown origins, that goes: Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power. 

I think about this saying often because in a lot of analyses of sexualised media and pornography, power is often brought up in some way. 

One of the criticisms of mainstream pornography is that women are objectified and subjected to the male gaze, the male body, to male power. In the media any form of female sexualisation is often construed as “oppression by the patriarchy” or the inverse ie. that it is female “rebellion against the patriarchy”. 

How could it be two opposite things at the same time? Or is it a matter of who is “narrating” that particular piece of media? Remember the controversy that was Blurred Lines? How do you define that as patriarchal while Cardi B’s WAP is considered empowerment? Perhaps the lines are blurrier than we realise.

But what I have observed is that the words used to refer to sex and relationships between genders imply that there is a constant power struggle. This is also seen in the Malay context where in the Malay language, the penis is often called senjata lelaki (men’s weapon) and the male orgasm is also referred to as suami tewas (husband loses). 

Based on the two phrases, it seems as if it’s a common understanding that a “man’s weapon” is not a very powerful one since it always “loses”. What it also implies is that in sex, there is a “winner” and a “loser”. 

So if all sex is a play of power, then what is BDSM? 

Does BDSM = Sex? 

It feels, to me, like a strange question to be asking. But some people have tried to answer it. 

In her article in a special issue of Sexualities, called BDSM Studies, Julie Fennell explores “BDSM subcultures” and writes that not all “BDSM practitioners” participate in “sexual BDSM”. While most people might see BDSM as something motivated by sexual desire, some scholars have argued that BDSM practitioners “seek recreation, enjoyment and satisfaction more than sexual pleasure”. 

But even so, Fennell found that concepts like “sex” and “sexual” are “hotly debated within the community itself”. In her survey of 1642 respondents, she allowed them to self-define the concepts of sex, play and BDSM. Eventually, her discussion of the results she obtained states that “social context is the deciding factor” that affects what is “understood as sexual and sex”. 

“The relationship between BDSM and sex is extremely subjective and socially determined for those who practice it the most publicly,” she wrote. 

So, if perception is what matters, then what is sex? I find myself coming back to that question over and over again. 


Fennell, J. (2020). It’s complicated: Sex and the BDSM subculture. Sexualities, 0(0), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460720961303

Reading / Watching:

Neither Here Nor There. I’m re-reading my supervisor’s thesis on Malay masculinity and re-enjoying it. I remember being fascinated the first time I read it and after six months of school, I feel like a different person coming back to it again. In this new light, I feel like it’s churning out new insights that I missed the first time.

Fire in Her Dreams. I just finished reading this book, which is part of a series in which women “mate” with dragons who came through a rift and caused an apocalypse on Earth. It’s as hilarious as it sounds, but these sorts of erotic novels are my guilty pleasure. I tell myself I’m getting inspiration for my last chapter on occurrences of sex with the supernatural in Malaysia. 

I have been swamped in the last couple of weeks – with work and school, among other things. Some days, I wish I had more time to just sit and think. On those days, I can understand why Thoreau “went to the woods” even though there’s no wifi there 😂  PS. I love getting your messages and emails. If you have feedback or want to start a conversation, just hit reply.