Totally amazing musings on D/s from Harper Jean:
As Trin's post suggests, however, neither [the concept of play nor that of ritual] is quite adequate to describe D/s relationships where the power exchange permeates much or all of the relationship. I suggested the analogy of a religious order, but here's another way of thinking about it: positive cognitive dissonance.
(Leon Festinger coined the term "cognitive dissonance" in 1957 to describe how members of an apocalyptic sect reconciled their belief system with the failure of the world to "end on time," creatively reconciling logically incompatible information. As in that case, the term is generally used to describe a kind of active, irrational denial that is ultimately maladaptive. But I recall noting that in some modern mystical traditions the idea has been given a positive spin -- embracing paradox -- and that suggested my thinking here. Or for those who prefer to appropriate a different fancy phrase and use it way out of context and with a positive spin, we could redeploy Du Bois's concept of "double consciousness.")
It seems to me that by necessity individuals in D/s relationships view themselves and their relationship to one another through two very different, and seemingly opposed, lenses at the very same time: one in which the dominant partner has control and the submissive is not autonomous; and one in which both are fully autonomous individuals. The D/s reality depends, of course, upon the autonomous reality, which both circumscribes it and gives it life. And yet both partners must inhabit both realities at once for the relationship to work, must believe both that the submissive is free (to disobey, to renegotiate) and that he is bound. (One might say something similar about the tension between "one-ness" and "two-ness" in vanilla marriage, though obviously there are differences.)
In this way, D/s relationships neither "just" play (an explanation that many D/s folks would find inadequate and possibly insulting) nor "real" abuse (as is sometimes thought by outsiders). Rather, the power exchange is in a sense very real for the participants, even as they retain their autonomy.