Note: This article and subsequent articles about various aspects of power dynamics and kink within relationships is not meant as specific suggestions or clinical advice and is only meant as a psychological examination of diverse sexual behaviors.
In an earlier article, I talked about the psychologist Donald Mosher’s three types of sex— trance, role-play and partner engagement. In this article, I want to take a much closer look at the psychological aspects of the second category, role-play.
It is first important to understand what is meant by the term “role.” According to the dictionary definition, a role is a “characteristic and expected social behavior of an individual.” I think the key ideas here are that roles are implicitly social in context and are based on agreed-upon (social) expectations. Roles come in many guises. We all have interpersonal roles– such as mother, father, child, brother, sister, etc. We have work roles– supervisor, apprentice, etc. And we have many other contextual roles– breadwinner, caretaker, jokester, black sheep, villain and so on. The more roles we have, the more we can feel boxed in, living up to a multitude of social expectations. Often, we may find ourselves in a multitude of roles– father, brother, son, husband, breadwinner, boss, entrepreneur, and so on. Every single role foisted upon us (or that which we willingly take on) add another wall to our sense of possibilities and freedom.
Someone, for example, who is a a mother who also has a very demanding corporate job and is the breadwinner for the family would probably find it much more difficult to behave with a sense of carefree abandon than someone who was a 16-yr old student. These things are obvious. But the one thing that I think is absolutely essential to keep in mind is that even though we may be boxed in by a myriad of roles, our essential psychological needs remain unaltered. If we crave the desire for novelty, wild abandonment, carefreeness, or danger, it just doesn’t go away because we play a certain set of roles in society. It’s still there. And often we just have to grin and bear it and suppress it away. Or, best case scenario, sublimate it, which basically means to pick up some other hobby or activity that can give us a taste of our cravings.
But the point is that, at our core, we extend far beyond the limits of what is allowed by the boundaries of our social roles. And all of those elements which fuel our desires– aggression, lust, fear, anxiety, envy, greed– must be smothered away, and only sometimes come out in our fantasies and dreams, or indirectly in passive-aggressive behavior. In this way, we have very limited social outlets for the wide spectrum of our internal desires, and often we must find a way to tolerate “through quiet desperation” the concessions we make to be included in the social pact.
I would argue, however, that there is perhaps one very clear, direct and transparent way that we can obtain access to our internal life in a way that’s safe and insulated from social consequences (if handled privately)– our sexualities. Through sex, we can experiment with, test out, and immerse ourselves in the various roles that exist internally but that can never bear the social light of day. Through this kind of sexual role-play, we can unleash our aggression, our anxieties, our fears– in short, the darkest recesses of our minds in a what that is contained to that specific sexual episode and in a way that can be discussed, analyzed and reflected upon. Through this kind of exploration, an accountant trapped under mountains of payment ledgers can become a ruthless dictator or a benevolent master or a damsel-in-distress. A homemaker who is harried by taking care of three kids can become a seductress, starlet, or Amazonian queen. The possibilities are endless. In this way, sexual role-play allows us access to parts of ourselves that have been previously split off. It allows us to the opportunity to much more fully understand ourselves and achieve a sense of integration and wholeness, rather than the sense of fragmentation that we may experience from being sectioned off by a host of social roles.