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Erotic relation as power game: An essay on “Existential Imperialism”

© 2009 Nikolaos D. Hasanagas,

Technological Education Institute of Kavala, Greece

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(Paper presented at the International Congress: Family and Equality 'Justice and Male & Father Self-Respect‘. Drama City, Greece, 3-5 January 2009. Organized by the Men’s and Father’s Dignity Association Greece (SYGAPA))


Aim of this analysis is to describe the erotic relation as a power game between genders. It is going to pose hypotheses and initiatives for further research and not to present research results. Power practically means dependence through exchange procedure and it is not a separate type of relation. Every relation in our life, even the most “innocent” one, is a power relation (offering-receiving). According to Popitz approach, power can be distinguished in four categories: a) action power (violence, deprivation, isolation), b) instrumental power (threat of action power without implementation), c) data-setting power (inflexible mass control based on material instrument), and d) authoritative power (love and trust). Erotic relation can be composed of “love” (authoritative power) and “bribery” (instrumental power). Depending on the “value” of the gift and return, relations of different dependence level can be recognized. A weak-dependence relation is the “friendship”, a middle-dependence relation is the professional cooperation, and a strong-dependence relation is the erotic relation. The higher the dependence is, the sooner the offering should be counterbalanced by a specific and equivalent return. Otherwise, a conflict/ breaking of relation will take place. In case of erotic relation there is however an obstacle: usually the partners hesitate to clarify what exactly they expect from each other, because clarity would eliminate any “romanticism”. Erotic relation is more susceptible to conflict than “friendship” or professional cooperation, because erotic partners sacrifice clarity for the sake of “romanticism”. In the case of the erotic relation, the game becomes intractable and unclear and the dependence gradually stronger. Thus, here we call this situation “existential imperialism”.

Key words: dependence, clarity, romanticism, love, “bribery”


1 Introduction

Aim of this essay is to try a description of the erotic relation as a power relation. It will pose hypotheses and questions and not present research results. It is an essay rather than a purely “scientific” paper. Therefore, it consists of explorative thoughts and uses only a few references. We will argue that the erotic relation is a relation of strong dependence (power) and leads to an intractable game, which we here call “existential imperialism”. We will support the position that this relation is composed by material offering (“bribery”) and “love”.


2 Erotic relation and power

It is easy to suggest a definition, but it is difficult to suggest a definition with properties. Social Sciences are full of definitions without properties (or undefined concepts), and each researcher may define differently the same word. A definition is always arbitrary. The important question is what properties it has. For this reason, we should not discuss a lot about a definition but about its properties.

The concept of power is the cornerstone of Sociology. In a society without power, Sociology would be useless. Power may simply be defined as the possibility to impose a will even against resistance. Weber had suggested this definition which implies that the existence of power is empirically provable only in case of resistance.

Popitz (1992) suggested a much more elaborate categorization of power: a. action power, b. instrumental power, c. data-setting power, and d. authoritative power. This categorization seems to be applied to all fields of our life. Using these categories one can understand and “demarcate” every social phenomenon. Before we further analyze these categories we should clarify that the categories a, b, and c are used for achieving external control, while category d is used for achieving internalized control (internalized control is a control under which the controlled person is obedient even when the power holder is absent or cannot directly supervise him).


2.1 External control

- Action power

Action power is the implementation of: 1. corporal punishment (from a slap to a child to death penalty), 2. deprivation of material resources (from depriving a child of chocolate to a big fine), and 3. isolation (from locking a child in a room to life sentence). This form of power is based on the physical vulnerability and on the finite physical strength of the human beings. Action power can take place within a couple e.g. as a simple beat, alimony, or isolation of children from the ex-husband. It appears in case of breaking or stress of erotic relation: depriving someone of the purely corporal –sexual- satisfaction as material offering, and pressing him to obtain it as paid sexual service.

- Instrumental power

While action power just “eliminates” the controlled person, the instrumental power “instrumentalizes” him. Instrumental power is the threatened but not implemented action power. It is based on the plausibility of threat and on the weight of the threatened penalty or of the promised reward. It is effective as long as it just discourages any “undesirable” behavior, without being needed to be converted in action power. Thus, instrumental power is hardly empirically detectable and it often makes the false impression that it does not exist and everything is working well because of a “natural and harmonic order”. All our life is, though, full of networks of instrumental power. The threat of police guns and of imprisonment is also the basis of the state and the law order. Examples of instrumental power within a couple are the threat of divorce and alimony, or of prohibition of using the car, or of not giving jewelry as a present etc. The interdependence within a couple is partly based on instrumental power: e.g. threat of not offering sexual satisfaction, which cannot be obtained by the wife (or husband) against her (or his) desire, because violation is penalized. In case of this deprivation, the only peaceful solution is the paid sexual service, which is often of unpredictable quality. Thus, as we will discuss below, a very important component of erotic dependence has the form of “bribery” (sexual satisfaction as material offering).

- Data-setting power

This form of power is always implemented through inflexible material instruments (e.g. buildings) and produces mass effects. A wall, for instance, separates the changing rooms of men from those of women. Data-setting power is based on the physical vulnerability and on the finite physical abilities of the human beings. One could claim that data-setting power is identical with action power because of its similar basis. However, it is not really identical because data-setting power works at macro-level (inflexible mass effects) and action power at micro-level (it has more immediate, flexible and individualized effects). This form of power could influence the erotic relation game at macro-level. If, for instance, there was no wall between male and female changing rooms, then the erotic relation could become more accessible and more “demystified”.


2.2 Internalized control

- Authoritative power

Authoritative power is distinguished in 1. gaining trust and 2. gaining love. As mentioned above, contrary to the other power categories, authoritative power does not necessitate the presence of supervisor. A possible disadvantage is, yet, that it may need more time to bring results. Trust can be defined as not feeling any need of checking/ examining/ supervising. If A follows what B says without considering necessary to examine it, then A trusts B. “Love” is here defined as letting someone influence one’s character or as identifying one’s sentimental status with the sentimental status of someone else 2. When A lets B influence A’s character, then A loves B. When A feels every time what B feels, than A loves B. A man, who cleans his shoes on the doormat because his wife demands to do so and continues to do so even after the death of his wife, loves his wife. We can say that his character is strongly influenced by his wife or he wants to make her (spirit) happy. This cannot be just an adopted routine at this age and if he hated her, he would even get rid of the doormat. A woman who loves her husband may try to satisfy him by a tasty lunch. A man who loves his wife may try to satisfy her by offering small presents (not necessarily expensive) which he believes they express deeper emotional messages. Thus, it is not always easy to distinguish “love” from “bribery” empirically.

In general, trust is based on the lack of knowledge, while “love” on sentimental weakness.

Both are quite strong and “dangerous” forms of power. A patient takes a medicament without examining it because he just trusts the doctor, even if he visits him first time. Thereby, the doctor can poison him. A parent may love his children and try to make them happy but and he wants to control them when crossing the street. In the first case, the patient trusts the unknown doctor without loving him. In the second case, the parent loves the children but does not trust them to cross the street alone. We see that trust and love are de facto different forms of power.

A man can trust a woman without loving her. Can he also love her without trusting her? The answer is that one can trust without loving, love without trusting and, of course, love and trust simultaneously. Sometimes, the genders feel emotional attraction to each other even if they do not know each other. This attraction is already a degree of “love” (at least according to the definition of “love” given here). It practically means that the man is interested in the opinion of the woman about himself (or inversely). Afterwards, they are expected to become more familiar with each other and ascertain whether they are “loyal” and “trustworthy” or not. In some cases, a man tries to make his wife feel happy (e.g. with presents or compliments), but he also controls always what she does and where she is.


3 The erotic relation as “existential imperialism”

Power is practically expressed through the dependence and thus through the exchange of a gift with another gift (return) between the exchangers 3. These exchangers are interdependent: A expects to receive a gift from B, and B expects to receive a return for this. The higher value recognized by the B on the gift of A, the more dependent B becomes and the more power A exerts over B. The higher the value is, the stronger the dependence is.

Popitz was quite pragmatist when he stated that power is not a separate kind of relation, but every relation, even the most “innocent” one, is a power relation. Power appears between “friends” (e.g. exchange of a nice chat with a drink), between generations (e.g. exchange of obedience with ethical and material support), between politicians and voters (e.g. exchange of favorable policies or promises with votes), between genders (e.g. exchange of sexual satisfaction with jewelry or a positive comment in public) etc.

When the gift and the return are considered by the exchangers to be of low value, then this is a weak-dependence relation. In this relation, A does not expect a specific return counterbalancing accurately the value of the gift nor in specific time in order to avoid conflict. Such a relation is the “friendship”. A pizza of 5 euro should not necessarily be compensated with another pizza of 5 euro or with 5 drinks of 1 euro very soon in order to maintain the “friendship”. A satisfactory return for the pizza may even be non material (e.g. a nice chat) and not in the next day or next but perhaps in one year or even later and the “friendship” will probably be maintained. This is a generalized exchange (gift and return of no specific value and in no specific time). A generalized exchange should be a weak-dependence relation in order to avoid conflict.

In an erotic relation, the gift and the return are of high value for the exchangers. Thus, this is a strong-dependence relation. A high value gift like sexual satisfaction from A to B cannot remain uncompensated too long and of course it should be compensated with a specific return of equal value. The higher the value of the gift, the sooner it should be compensated. Every day, every hour or even every second passing without a “worthy” return is an accumulative reason for conflict. The return for a sexual satisfaction can be another sexual satisfaction, jewelry, compliment or perhaps even a nice chat. An exchange of gift and return of specific value within specific time is a balanced exchange. A strong dependence should be a balanced exchange in order to avoid conflict.

For better understanding we also present the case of professional relation as a complementary example. This is a middle situation. The value of gift and return is not as high as in erotic relation and not as low as in “friendship”. Thus, a middle level of clarity of value and of deadline is enough. Indeed, sometimes a businessman cannot pay debts to other businessmen just in time. However, this does not necessarily cause big conflicts. Also, he may sell products at lower prices to clients, though he knows that he will not gain their preference surely and immediately. A freelancer (e.g. an attorney) often does not offer advice with the “dropper” but he demands an approximate total price at the end.

The three types of exchange relation can be depicted as geometric areas on the diagram 1 (satisfaction of gift x waiting time for return). The area expresses the feeling of the “favor” one partner does to the other. Areas with same shadow pattern refer to the respective exchange relation type. The area of A quadrant should be in any type of exchange relation (balanced, middle and generalized) counterbalanced by an equal area of B quadrant in order to avoid conflict. The higher the value of gift, the shorter the waiting time should be in order to avoid the conflict and of course the return should be of specific equal value. In an ideal erotic relation, the areas should be as narrow as possible. When they are so narrow that they become a single vertical line throughout both quadrants, then this is the case of simultaneous orgasm.


Erotic relation as power game Diagram One


Diagram 1. The position of erotic relation among exchange relations


Also, we understand from the everyday life, that if two partners can well manage a relation of weak dependence, this does not assure same success at a relation of stronger dependence, while the inverse is more possible. If some partners are well cooperating professionally, this does not mean that they also succeed in marriage, but there are many examples of partners who opened a store while they were married and they cooperated harmoniously also as professionals.

An erotic relation can be finished without conflict and even converted into “friendship”, if the “areas” are exactly counterbalanced. Very often this is extremely difficult because the gifts and returns remain unspecified, though they are of very high value. In erotic relation, though it is a strong dependence relation, and the gift, the return and the deadline should be specified in order to avoid conflict, normally no one of the partners dares to talk clearly 4 about his/her expectations because clarity would spoil the “romanticism” of the erotic relation. What we define here as “romanticism” in an erotic relation is nothing but the satisfaction of successful using of emotional intelligence on gender-specific expectations. Each partner should prove his/her ability to “guess” alone what the other partner expects. Otherwise he/she is not considered to be “worthy” of love by the disappointed partner. A “knight” should be able to “guess” what his “princess” needs. Otherwise, he is degraded in a “servant” who just executes her specific and explicit orders and this is no “romantic” at all. What we here define as “romanticism” is perhaps the feeling which some people may call “intimacy” in the everyday language.


Erotic relation as power game Diagram Two


Diagram 2. “Romanticism” and clarity


For this reason, erotic relation is developed to a hard power game without rules in which the dependence may become unpredictably stronger and stronger because of gradually accumulated gifts which are practically translated in debts and often should be compensated with continuously accumulated, valuable but unspecified returns. This intractable game which may lead even to suicide is here called “existential imperialism”. Winner is the partner who feels more “bored” and the final winner is the partner who stops “loving” first. A situation of erotic relation where there are completely clear rules but no “romanticism” is e.g. the prostitution. In prostitution, sexual service is accurately compensated with money in cash after 60 minutes. In prostitution, there are no accumulative reasons for conflict and consequently no “existential imperialism” because prostitution is characterized by very high clarity and very low “romanticism”. This is the most honest and peaceful erotic relation.


4 The composition of erotic relation: instrumental and authoritative power

In erotic relation, smiling and tears, meekness, gentleness and aggressiveness, sexual satisfaction and deprivation are some forms of reward and threat. The power of erotic relation can be composed of “bribery” (form of instrumental power: reward which can be deprived in case of disobedience) and “love” (form of authoritative power).

With “bribery” we here mean sexual satisfaction only as a material resource which can be offered by another woman of equivalent physical status and skill who is paid in cash, as well as the return, when it is material (in this case, we have to do with a professional relation). The “formal” wife may also demand material return (e.g. jewelry, car, expensive entertainment or also money) for offering a “willing” sexual satisfaction to the husband. This “bribery” is institutionalized (if A tries to get it against the will of B, then A will be charged with violation or theft).

Contrary to “bribery”, “love” cannot be purchased, as it is person-dependent. For this reason, “love” is the cornerstone of “existential imperialism”. When A –the “lover”- is controlled by the “loved” B, then he/she adjusts his/her behavior to the desire of B in order to offer maximal satisfaction and may gain only B’s appreciation as return, which is of course costless for B. Appreciation can just be expressed by smile or words and does not necessitate any serious behavior change or anything else from the “loved” B. This appreciation is regarded by the A as “love” of B to him. Sometimes, A does not expect any appreciation from B immediately nor even in future. But even in this case there is an expected return: A may feel that he gains appreciation from the image of B which A has constructed in his mind. In other words, A sees B in this rare case as an idea and not as a common person. In simpler words, A does not want to accept that “B is not person he supposed to be” at the beginning of the relation. This is the strongest and “worst” case of “existential imperialism”.

When “lover” has not enough erotic emotional intelligence to guess the specific desire of “loved” and nobody speaks clearly for the sake of “romanticism”, the game of “existential imperialism” becomes sharper. “Love” can be exerted during sexual exchange or in the rest of a couple’s life. The “lover” should guess the specific sexual fantasy of the “loved” or the specific compliment that the “loved” wants to receive from him etc. Here we must clarify that compliment which is expected in public and aims at image-making is also “bribery” because it could be made by a paid person (as in the case of some politicians who pay people to hurrah them), while a compliment expected when the couple is alone is “love”.



Diagram 3. Power composition of erotic relation: a challenge for quantitative social research


What is the average composition of erotic relation (percentage % of “bribery” and “love”) in erotic relations which lead to marriage or are broken without hostility and converted in “friendship” or in marriages which are relatively free of conflicts? (diagram 3) Can “love” (e.g. adjustment to sexual fantasy) be well outbalanced only with “love” (e.g. adjustment to sexual fantasy too) in order to eliminate the probability of conflict or also with “bribery” (e.g. jewelry)? And if “love” should be counterbalanced only with “love”, then should it be of same nature (e.g. compliment) or a compliment can also be counterbalanced with adjustment to sexual fantasy? “Bribery” should be counterbalanced only by “bribery” or also with “love”? All these are questions of quantitative social research and can be answered in terms of social statistics or quantitative network analysis. If they are answered with strong statistical coefficients, the sociologists and psychologists may be able to give more effective advice against conflicts and divorces.


5 Problematization instead of conclusions

First of all, we should not forget that this text is written by a male author and it is not based on empirical results. Thus, it inevitably expresses a personal “male view” which is not necessarily representative of the male population. As this was an essayistic rather than a scientific text, we can suggest problematization rather than make conclusions.

A main question is, who is the winner and who is the victim of “existential imperialism”. Both genders can be at the position of “lover” and “loved” and both have always their arguments and complaints. Females e.g. may believe that they should be justified for any behavior that can be characterized by men as “irresponsible” or “ungrateful”, as they are “fishers” and not “hunters” in partner selection or because they are (or going to become) “mothers” and so they have the right to do anything they believe it is “right” for the children they have (or they are going to have). They may justify their behavior as the only possible strategy against a system that it is still under the control of men or as a strategy for rapid progress and balancing of “rights” after many centuries of “oppression” and “exploitation”. Male victims believe that women demand various “bribery” (money, jewelry etc) and offer only the standard “bribery” of corporal, sexual satisfaction and/or appreciation, which cost nothing for the women. They also accuse women that sometimes they only enjoy the generous male “bribery” without returning anything (ungratefulness, cheat). This “bribery” is also converted into alimony without being combined with father’s co-influence in the upbringing of children.

Giddens (1992) stated also that the main weakness of men is of sentimental nature, while the main weakness of women is of economic nature. One also says that the two erotic lives of a man are the “real” and the “imaginary” which are completely different, and the two erotic lives of a woman are the “economic” and the “sentimental” which are almost identical. An answerback of women is that the men want from the women always the same thing (sexual satisfaction), while women expect from men something special. The criticism of men to this is that the women do not know what this “special” thing should be and they are never satisfied. Thus, they are “immature” to use the freedom they have acquired for their own interest as well as for the common interest and thus they lose in reliability, they spoil the trustfulness and the “social capital”, and they destroy their psychological health.

Theories suggested from time to time about the phenomenon of “love” have just posed hypotheses concerning the development of “love” (e.g. intimacy, passion, commitment- Triangular Theory of Sternberg) or concerning the sentimental weakness (Attachment Theory: Jealousy and Possessiveness) (Kelly 1998). However, they do not examine the relation between “love” and “bribery” as well as their connection with the gender.

What strategy can one follow, if he/she wants to avoid “existential imperialism”? Giddens (1992) suggested democratization of erotic life: passing from “you should be so…” to “we should be so…”. In this way, both genders will obey to objective principles. However, Giddens does not say who is supposed to pose these principles objectively, as long as any “legislator” can be either male or female and it is questionable whether there can be understanding between male and female world. “Average” solutions may sound “democratic” and “fair” but they may dissatisfy both male and female part.

Not to “love”? This sounds a decisive but too hard strategy. Of course there are men who have developed so individual and intellectual worldview that they have gained independency of women appreciation (and perhaps of the appreciation of anybody else). However, this requires mental effort, intellectual and wealthy life and perhaps “illuminative” incidents (these are, for instance, relations which are characterized by some people as “deep disappointments”). This solution is surely not feasible to and not desirable by everyone.

The most feasible strategy to all –however still not easy- seems to be the clarity. Of course we are far away from the complete clarity but we are also far enough from older patterns of “romanticism” (e.g. “knight- princess” role pattern). The genders could try to find out new and simple patterns of “romanticism” or to replace the demand of emotional intelligence with more explorative discussions between them and tolerance. The genders should not forget that they were two different and isolated “worlds” for many centuries (perhaps since the genesis of humanity). So, it is not a shame to explore each other sincerely and explicitly.

In any case, there is a factor which reduces “romanticism” nowadays and thereby we could say that it works in the war of “existential imperialism” like the winter in Stalingrad battle. This factor is the increasing anxiety for the career and the economy: Anxiety not only makes both genders more reluctant for “romanticism” but may also deprive men of the time to think of women appreciation. In general, genders seem to have more and more other things to do than being involved in “existential imperialism”. Although the anxiety is supposed to have come about from the “loss of paradise”, the steadily increasing anxiety of our days is perhaps a new “common” enemy, which may bring the genders someday together.



  1. Information about N.D. Hasanagas: BA, MA and PhD in Social Sciences. He is teaching staff at higher education. Contact: Pavlou Mela 12 st, GR 54622, Thessaloniki, Greece. nikolashasanagas@yahoo.com

  2. We should also notice that when parents try to conform their children to their patterns (e.g. no smoking, being efficient pupils, being polite etc), this is no love –at least according to the definition given here- but just narcissistic exploitation of the children by the parents. When a wife demands from her husband to wear certain clothing, arguing that he will become thereby more impressive in public and this will be favorable for him, but she just wants him to make a better public impression for herself or in order to show the public that she has an impressive man, then she practices also a narcissistic exploitation over her husband (of course, the husband can also exert similar narcissistic exploitation over his wife, when he demands e.g. to make her hair blond or to wear certain jewelry).
    When the exploited subject obeys because he wants to avoid making the exploiter feel unhappy, then he loves the exploiter. When he obeys because he is really convinced that he will make a better public impression favorable to himself, he trusts the exploiter. When he obeys just in order to avoid exploiter’s grumbling as physical annoyance or further oppressive behavior of exploiter (e.g. no physical sexual satisfaction), then he is pressed by instrumental power.

  3. In erotic relation, there are as a rule only two exchangers.

  4. Albert Camus stated in his book “La Pest” that the misfortune of people do not speak clearly. Independent of what the context was or what the writer exactly meant, this is a statement which is verified in gender relation.



- Giddens, A. 1992: The transformation of intimacy: Sexuality, love & eroticism in modern societies. Polity Press. Cambridge
- Kelly, G. F. 1998: Sexuality Today. The Human Perspective. McGraw – Hill
- Popitz, H. 1992: Phänomene der Macht. J.C.B. Mohr Tuebingen


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Peter Douglas Zohrab

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7 November 2019