Power Exchange: Equal vs Equivalent

i was a 20 year-old college student when i got my first glimpse of Ancient Greece in a 101 Art History course.  i felt inexplicably drawn to it and knew i’d need to, one day, stand among the ruins.  i enjoyed and appreciated the art of Florence, Rome and the Dutch Masters but they didn’t beckon the way Greece did.

The Propylaea: the entrance to the Acropolis
Standing beneath the majesty of these moved me to tears

One day, 25 years later, my friend, Mary, who loves to travel called and said, “I want to go to Greece, wanna come?”

One of the things i had to do in preparation for the trip was exchange some US dollars for euros.  At the time the dollar was worth about $.75 against the euro.

When you get 4 quarters in exchange for a dollar bill, that’s an equal exchange.   When i turned my dollars into euros, i knew it wouldn’t be an equal exchange and i was okay with that for a couple of reasons:

  1. i was aware there’d be a discrepancy before i made the exchange
  2. the value the trip held for me made an equivalent exchange acceptable

my point?  Not all exchanges are equal but they should at least be equivalent… and equivalent is subjective.

What happens when an exchange is not equal or equivalent

Mary and i arrived at our hotel in Athens after an 11 hour flight and decided to explore the Ancient Agora, which was within walking distance.  It was originally a civic gathering place but is now primarily an open air market with shops and restaurants.

We poked around a little bit before deciding to grab some lunch.  A shop owner recommended a place and even gave us his card saying, “Give this to the waiter and he will take care of you.”   Can you guess where this is going?

We took his advice, presented the card and were enthusiastically greeted, seated and fawned over.   The waiter made special recommendations because we were guests of his friend.  We never saw (or asked for) a menu.

Roof Top Dining in Athens
Yup, that’s the Parthenon in the background

We shared an appetizer, each had an entree and shared a bottle of water and a dessert.  It was all delicious and came with a hefty $70 bill (that’s US dollars — before the tip.)

It was the most expensive meal of our 12-day trip… and we ate at some kickass restaurants like this rooftop one —>

Yes, we got a delicious lunch in exchange for a fee but was it an equivalent exchange?  Not by my standards, primarily because it lacked informed consent, since  we did not know what we’d be getting or what it would cost us.  

The same thing happens all too often in power exchange situations – people enter into an exchange without both parties having a clear understanding about what they’ll be getting and what they’ll be expected to give in exchange.

Mary and i couldn’t complain too much about that lunch gouging because we recognized that we held some responsibility for what happened.

  • we accepted what was presented, without question
  • we assumed that the other party would take good care of us according to our unspoken definition of what that meant

In other words… we never communicated our limits or desires.

It’s worth noting that accepting responsibility for our contribution to the inequity of the exchange doesn’t absolve the other parties of their less-than-honorable intentions and actions — but that’s their karmic junk to deal with.

So, the moral of the story is this:  If you’re going to enter into some form of power exchange –be it for the length of a scene or the rest of your life– it is best to do so with:

  1. a clear understanding of what you want to get out of it and what you’re willing to give to get it
  2. enough discussion to be certain you’ve clearly communicated those things to the other party(s)
Master and i have a non-egalitarian power exchange dynamic

That means there are things in our relationship that are not equal but the relationship is in perfect balance because we are in complete agreement about the inequality.

He is in charge.  He wants to be in charge and i don’t want to be.

He is the decision maker in all things.  He welcomes my views and opinions but always makes the final decision and i like being relieved of that responsibility.

Can you see how a non-egalitarian relationship like ours can still be a balanced one?  In giving him what he wants, i also get what i want.  It’s an unequal but equivalent exchange that results in two very happy people :)