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Reactance to Enslavement

The theory of "Psychological Reactance" was first proposed by J.W. Brehm in 1966 [1], and has become a well established tool in the academic study of persuasion and related psychological processes. This essay briefly reviews the theory, and then applies it to Internal Enslavement.

Brehm's summary [2] is "In general, the theory holds that a threat to or loss of a freedom motivates the individual to restore that freedom. ... The theory stipulates what constitutes a freedom, how freedoms can be threatened or eliminated, and how the ensuing motivational state (psychological reactance) will manifest itself." The theory also associates the state of reactance with emotional stress, anxiety, resistance and struggle for the individual, and assumes people are motivated to escape from these feelings.

Reactance Theory uses the word "freedom" in a quite specific way, and still talks of freedoms even when they have been "threatened" (made harder) or "eliminated" (made impossible.) "Freedom" in this sense corresponds to an imaginable behaviour: something the subject might want to do, even if they cannot.

Wicklund [3] has given a convenient summary of the theory, with headings grouped under two categories:

Variables affecting the degree of reactance
  • Strength of a threat
  • Presence of a freedom
  • Importance of the freedom
  • Proportion of the freedom threatened
  • Implication for future threat

Effects of reactance
Direct reassertion of the freedom through behaviour
Attempting direct restoration of the threatened freedom is the most obvious way to respond. Most of Reactance Theory concentrates on what happens when this is prevented.

Greater liking for threatened behaviour
When a freedom is threatened, subjects usually begin to want it more than before. For instance, expensive perfumes are more desirable than cheap scents, largely because they are harder to afford.

Indirect reassertion of the freedom
If a given freedom is eliminated, that freedom may be restored by the performance of a behaviour which makes the subject feel the orginal freedom is still possible. As Wicklund says, "For example, performance of a behavior that is either more costly, dangerous, or taboo than the one eliminated would imply to the performer and to the observer that the eliminated behaviour can be performed." This is more about the subject feeling as if it is still possible, rather than genuinely believing it: "the performance of a behavior more extreme than the one eliminated does not directly re-establish the loss. It serves, instead to prove something about the worth or power of the individual."

Wicklund went on to propose a "hydraulic principle" which compares reactance and water under pressure, blocked in one direction, only to burst out in another: "When a freedom cannot be regained directly the motivation resulting from that freedom will push over into a second freedom."

This usually takes the form of feelings of hostility towards the person threatening or removing the freedom.

Of crucial importance to students of Enslavement, the theory was revised by Brehm and Wortman in the 1970's to also account for conditions of "helplessness", where the initial reactance to the removal of a freedom melts away in the face of an insurmountable superior power. Reactance Theory's description of this process gives unique insights into the patterns of resistance and submission that are observed during Enslavement.

Brehm also suggests that reactance can almost always be overcome by sufficient force: "Very high forces to give up the freedom will still result in compliance. Only if the importance of a freedom is extremely great - perhaps as great as the importance of life itself - will great forces fail to produce compliance."; but that the state of helplessness which normally ensues is associated with depression and low performance. It remains to be seen how well these general statements apply to the specific cases of dominants and submissives.

Application to Enslavement
Graph of reactance

We must now attempt to apply the theory to a submissive in a Master / slave relationship.

As with ordinary subjects, a submissive is normally around a baseline level of reactance in everyday life, and therefore experiences a certain level of reactance-induced stress, anxiety etc, just from the usual restrictions that physicality and every day life impose (having to choose where to sit, what TV programme to watch, whether to go out tonight etc.) These restrictions and threats to freedom are normally taken for granted, and it's easy to forget that they are restrictions on freedom at all, but we need to remember them since they are an important part of the psychological environment of Enslavement.

Now consider a submissive in a Master/slave relationship. Extra restrictions can be imposed by the people she encounters in her life (employer, relatives etc) as well as by her Master, and they can all raise her reactance.

However, let's take a very specific case of freedom and restriction which is unique to the slave and her Master: the slave is in a room with her Master and we are considering her freedom to move around. The slave may be allowed to sit on chairs, move around "freely" (but nevertheless subject to the restrictions imposed by gravity, what feels comfortable, whether she can alleviate boredom by reading or watching TV.) In this case, she may experience the everyday baseline amount of reactance.

Alternatively, her Master may deny her the use of chairs, may insist she kneels or stands, or must ask for permission to move, and so restrict her and raise her reactance according to the importance of the freedom she has been denied (for instance, if she finds kneeling rather than sitting to be painful, then she will experience more reactance.)

But as the slave's Master, he has yet more powerful restrictions available to him. He may use bondage to physically restrict her as she tries to move her limbs (eg with cuffs) or as she moves around the room (chaining her to a wall, tying her ankles, body-wrapping her in clingfilm.) The Theory of Reactance predicts that as these restrictions of important freedoms are increased, then her reactance, stress, and anxiety increase, as shown in the diagram.

It is important to underline that the restricted freedom must be important to the slave at the time: if she is bound in clingfilm, her initial reaction may even be boredom and lack of concern for her predicament. Only when her nose begins to itch, for instance, does her lack of freedom start to become important to her. At this point, she may begin to struggle, or try to talk her way out. Only when all her attempts to restore the freedom have failed and she is on the point of being convinced of the fact, does she reach the peak reactance at this critical level of restriction. Once this is reached, further restriction (including further realisation of how restricted she is) pushes her from the reactive into the helpless region, and her reactance collapses.

The crucial insight in the application of mainstream Psychological Reactance Theory to Enslavement is that the slave's level of reactance and stress in the helpless region may be lower than the baseline reactance that she experiences in everyday life. For the slave - in contrast to the subjects normally considered by psychologists - being pushed over the reactance peak and forced into helplessness at the hands of another person, perhaps aided by "whips and chains", is a deeply positive experience, even a need.

This process has been described many times by writers from the BDSM scene, for example by Cleo Dubois in her interview for "Different Loving": "[When you're effectively bound] you can think of escaping, but eventually, if you try to escape and realize that you cannot, then a switch goes off in the mind. You have to accept." [4].

A Case in Point: The Locked Door

However, Reactance Theory also explains similar processes present in the wider Master / slave relationship, as well as the physical forms of domination such as bondage already discussed.

I encountered a striking example of reactance a few months into my relationship with lili. It began when I decided to put a lock on the room with the computer, and it will be illustrative to go through lili's account of the episode, written in her diary that night, and well before she was aware of the theory.

"I had a pretty long day at work, but it wasn't too bad. I was planning to check my e-mails when I got home but when I got to the top of the stairs Master has locked the door. I felt really annoyed and frustrated, I stood at the top of the stairs for a while. I shook the door and tried to unbolt it."

lili's ability to exercise an important freedom (reading her emails in the hour before I got home) is threatened by the locked door. A new experience for her. She tests the most obvious way to achieve direct restoration of the freedom: she tests the bolt to verify that it really is securely locked

"Then I thought about unscrewing the bolt and putting it back on, but then I thought that the "monster eye" would see me or that Master would be able to tell that I had been in, so I daren't."

lili considers other direct ways of restoring the restricted freedom, but realises these are impractical (including the possibility that the camera in the room is recording.)

"I came back downstairs and was still feeling very frustrated. I sat on the sofa then sat on the chairs, but that only made me feel better for a second."

lili isn't permitted to use the furniture without permission, and previously had no difficutly in complying with this rule. Following the predictions of Wicklund's hydraulic model, she becomes more reactant towards restrictions on other freedoms - sitting on furniture, in this case - and exercises them. This is a very clear example of what Brehm called "preservation of other freedoms" when restoration of the first freedom is impossible.

"Then I felt bad, so I ate some of Master's chocolate instead (sorry Master!) that just made me feel bad too."

Finally, she feels some amount of hostility, which she directs at eating some of my chocolate (which she doesn't normally want to eat.)

"I went in the bath. I reasoned with myself. I have no argument. I have no business in there other than my mail and the things in the desk, all of which Master gives me access to if he chooses or decides I need to. I don't have any say if he chooses to lock that room. I guess it did "slap me in the face", the reality of it all."

Here we see lili moving into acceptance that her freedom to use the room whenever she pleases really has been eliminated. This corresponds to the region of helplessness on the diagram above, but crucially, isn't characterised by the feelings of resentment one might normally expect based on "vanilla" relationships, and the depression described by Brehm. Because of her natural desire to submit, lili can accept it and even feel more secure in doing so. Instead, her negative feelings come from guilt at the way she expressed her reactance:

"I am sorry that I reacted the way I did now. I hope Master will not be too annoyed. I could not tell him, but I can't not tell him. What's happening to me? When Master came home I was feeling really bad."

As we see, lili considers not telling me, but realises this is not a viable option either since she is denied emotional privacy: her body language etc would prevent her from concealing from me that something had happened, and I would then question her until I had the details.

(Subsequent discussions made it clear to lili that her feelings during this episode were natural, reassured her about my feelings towards her, but made her understand that crossing the line into disobedience wasn't acceptable.)


By applying the Theory of Psychological Reactance, we have a useful point of contact between the ideas of Internal Enslavement and mainstream Psychology. It is striking how well Reactance Theory predicts the responses felt by submissives in very diverse situations, all the way from physical bondage, to the dynamics of a Master / slave relationship.

Since mainstream psychology considers reactance to be a normal part of the minds of humans, and, as we have seen, it is present in submissives, we see no reason to deny that it is a perfectly normal emotion for submissives in Master / slave relationships. This is not to excuse disobedience, but it goes some way in explaining the roots of disobedience arising from reactance. Paradoxically, a heightened level of reactance can be a symptom of productive change underway within the slave's mind, and a necessary stage that must be gone through before reaching acceptance of her Master's control of a certain freedom.

Furthermore, understanding the various ways in which reactance shows itself (described at the start of this essay) will help a Master anticipate his slave's behaviour as her freedoms are progressively restricted.

Finally, the hydraulic model of reactance shows that the way to prevent a specific act of disobedience is by the elimination of that freedom, rather than by expecting the slave to dominate herself into obeying: as restrictions are increased, the pressure to disobey is naturally transfered to those freedoms most easily restored - that is, those which have not been eliminated yet. If we wish to ensure with certainty that a specific act is not committed by a slave, we need to ensure that the freedom to commit it has been eliminated. Otherwise, as her other freedoms are restricted and eliminated, the pressure rises and it becomes possible for her to commit the act we wish to prevent. The removal of emotional privacy is an important tool in eliminating freedoms by guaranteeing the eventual discovery of any disobedience that is committed.

Future directions

There are many open questions still to be addressed and needing more research:

  • If anxiety is measured during BDSM sessions, perhaps by heart rate or galvanic skin response, how does the anxiety (and therefore the reactance) vary with increasing restriction, and as the subject moves from the reactive to the helpless region?
  • Is the steep fall from the reactance peak to helplessness associated with the entry into subspace? When is it necessary to "crash" into subspace and when can it be entered "softly"?
  • How does the shape of the reactance peak differ for different submissives, at different times, and for different freedoms? Does the peak get smoothed out as the submissive is repeatedly forced to cross from reactive to helpless regions?
  • How does the emotion of reactance differ from any conscious testing of the Master by the slave, perhaps to convince herself that he is not going to let her down by allowing her freedoms she wants to escape from?
  • How much is the ability to accept helplessness (without causing depression and other forms of unhealthy reaction) something learnt in childhood, learnt in adulthood or a genetic disposition?
  • How do dominants experience reactance? Do dominants seek to lower their level of reactance below the normal baseline by escaping from restrictions? (ie moving towards the left of the diagram.)


1. "A Theory of Psychological Reactance", J.W. Brehm, 1966, New York, Academic Press.
2. "Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control", S.S. Brehm and J.W Brehm, 1981, New York, Academic Press, pp93, 96, 115-6.
3. "Freedom and Reactance", R.A. Wicklund, 1974, Potomac (Maryland), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp10-11, 86.
4. "Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission", G.G Brame, W.D. Brame and J. Jacobs, 1996. p206

Last updated 11 October 2000.

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