Hi! You’ve been linked to this essay because the kinky forum you came from has been derailed by an argument over whether or not no-limits power relationships can be a real thing, and the person who posted the link is hoping that maybe you can cut that argument short and get back to whatever more interesting thing y’all had been talking about before.
As with many unproductive arguments, a big part of the problem here comes from people talking past one another—because they have different notions of exactly what they mean by no-limits.
“There can be no limit to my power over you.”
– Wanda, Venus in Furs
People arguing that it’s impossible to have no limits are usually imagining a hypothetical relationship where the hypothetical dominant partner might order the hypothetical submissive partner to do literally anything at any time, for no reason at all, and where the submissive partner would leap to obey without question. So they often roll out reductio ad absurdum examples of the most horrible things they can imagine being commanded to do, like “What if they told you to cut off your own arm with a spoon?” or “What if they ordered you to poop on your mom?”
This hyper-literal interpretation of no-limits probably does exist only in fantasy. People are certainly capable doing extreme things because somebody told them to, but being willing to let your partner tattoo their name across your face less than a day after you met them, or even consensually kill and eat you, doesn’t mean having no limits. Often, people who are willing to submit to extreme demands have their own need for extremely demanding dominance. They’d get bored and leave a relationship where the most intense thing that ever happened to them was missionary position sex with the lights off. And that’s a limit. It’s just a limit in a different direction.
“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”
– Albert Einstein
People arguing that no-limits relationships can and do exist are often thinking of specific actual relationships—often their own. This tends to make this argument get real personal real fast, because it sounds like the folks on the other side are saying that their cherished relationship, that they may have lived in for decades, doesn’t exist.
Those folks who have lived no limits relationships generally have a different understanding of what no-limits means. They’ve done the work of finding a partner who is compatible with their needs and boundaries, and building a powerful rapport that lets the submissive partner release their grip on their own limits and hand them over to their dominant partner’s control. The submissive partner no longer has to maintain No Amputations as an official limit not because they’re fine with having their arms cut off on a whim, but because they have profound confidence that their partner won’t order them to cut off their own arm—unless for some bizarre reason cutting their arm off is actually a good idea.
There’s an interesting way in which this kind of relationship is actually the opposite of the first understanding of no-limits. In the hypothetical relationship where the dominant partner might do any crazy thing at any time, the dominant partner is the one who’s utterly free from thinking about limits. In this kind of no-limits relationship, it’s the submissive partner who gets to dissolve into a sense of limitless compliance. The dominant partner takes responsibility for making sure that they use their submissive only in ways that don’t violate their shared sense of what would be unethical or overly damaging or otherwise out of bounds. They take on the limits so that their submissive can forget about them.
“The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Most arguing over the reality of no-limits submission comes down to these two different understandings banging into one another.
Some people see the second definition as being somehow fake—like the people in this sort of relationship are pretending that they don’t have limits when really they do. They pose questions like “If you’ve never crawled through shattered glass for your dominant, how do you know you really have no limits?”
But look at it this way: when people get married they often promise to love one another and stay together, no matter what, until the day they die. Everyone knows that many marriages end in divorce. Most married people understand that there are potential situations in which their own marriage would end. But almost nobody feels the need to challenge married people about their relationships being fake. When our friends get married, our first reaction isn’t to say “Oh yeah!? What if your spouse went bankrupt, contracted leprosy, cheated on you with an alpaca and joined ISIS? I bet that’d show what a fantasy that ‘death do us part’ bullshit really is!”
We understand that the vows are aspirational—they’re setting an intention, and it’s always possible that intention won’t come to pass exactly as planned, but that doesn’t make them fake. Maybe try thinking of no-limits relationships kind of like that. It’s possible that any of them they will run into some unforeseen limit someday, sure, but that doesn’t make them fake or mean that the people in them are deluding themselves. And it definitely doesn’t make it your job to shit all over their relationship.
On the other side, folks arguing in favor of the reality of no-limits sometimes do get carried away with how much they romanticize the idea, and end up making their relationships sound like magical fantasylands. That not only invites argument, but also can bring some real harm to people who are trying to figure out how power relationships really work.
I think that most of us like to play up our kinky self and skills and relationships at least a little when we’re in kinky spaces or kinky conversations. We put on our good leathers and our best high protocol behavior, and we share the stories of the kinky highlights and successes of our lives. And we tend to focus less on the times when we’re not wearing the leather pants, or tell the story of the time that Lord Mightydom totally forgot about dinner with his submissive’s parents and was two hours late and his submissive was really hurt and angry and he spent the next two weeks apologizing and feeling really bad about it because it was totally his fault.
In the case of no limits relationships, this tendency to talk up our kinkiness can make real life no-limits relationships between limited, fallible, imperfect human beings sound like fantasy ideals of constant perfect obedience. Because of the natural and understandable tendency to focus more on talking about how you’re devoted to total obedience to your Lady in all things, and not to dwell on the fact that you have really strong beliefs around ethical child rearing and insisted on lots of talking with her to make sure the two of you were compatible there before you agreed to become hers—and that if she got hit in the head and turned into an anti-vaxxer that’d be a serious fucking problem for your relationship.
I’ve talked with people who haven’t yet had a ton of experience with real life kinky relationships, but who have been exposed to a lot of this bragging about how “true dominance” or “real M/s” or whatever can have no limits and no problems and no imperfections. Some folks I’ve talked to have gotten stuck in abusive relationships because they’re trying so hard to be no-limits like all those perfect slaves they see bragging and they don’t want to fail by setting limits or negotiating for their needs. Some folks go from failed relationship to failed relationship, discarding each whenever they encounter resistance or disobedience or, y’know, humanity, because they’ve been sold this perfect image of a flawless no-limits relationship and their real life relationships never measure up. And some get bitter about the whole idea of no-limits and turn into the people who argue with you that it doesn’t really exist.
So if you’re on the pro-no-limits side of these arguments, take a look back through your FetLife group posts and think about what you’re projecting. You know that you and your partner are both imperfect humans who make mistakes, make compromises and bow to necessity when you have to—but does that come across in the image you’re sharing with your community?
If you want to help your community, and others who may be standing at the beginning of the path you’ve traveled, talk about the hard parts. Talk about the false starts and the rough patches. Talk about the work you’ve done to make sure the relationship is good for the partner who’s surrendered their limits.
So that’s my prescription.
Pro-no-limits people: Acknowledge your essential human limitations. Show some humility. You’ll both do good for your community and defuse some of the attacks that people make on your relationships.
Anti-no-limits people: Consider that ideals can be real and important things even if it’s possible that they won’t always be perfectly adhered to, and maybe allow people to enjoy the romance of their relationships without you pooh-poohing them all the time.