Victims or Pets

by Kenneth L. Stewart, Ph.D.  

     Last summer, while browsing in my favorite bookstore,

Hungry Mind,  in St. Paul, Minnesota I came across a

strange and wonderful book that has helped me

understand the aesthetics of power.   The book is: 

Dominance and Affection:  The Making of Pets  by

Yi Fu Tuan (1984), a distinguished Professor of

Geography at the University of Wisconsin. 

He writes about aspects of psychological geography

and human experience in physical and human environments

.  I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Tuan last December

while visiting Jim Gustafson.  A slight man in what I

imagined to be his late 50’s or early 60’s  met me outside

his office and invited me in.  I walked through this dark aisle of books in stacks to the ceiling back to his desk at the end of the room where a trio of windows surrounded his desk, letting in the late afternoon winter sunshine.  He told me that being a naturalized Chinese allowed him to look at his surroundings from an angle different than most of us.  When Dominance and Affection was first published, it was greeted with some controversy.  People did not want to look at the darker sides of affection.    His basic premise is that we all want to dominate in some way or another. And when we dominate without any  affection, it produces the victim.  But when we dominate others with affection, it produces the pet.  “So, you can be a victim or a pet” I said to him.  “Yes,” he said, laughing. “Take your pick !”  Let me explain.  

     In Dominance and Affection he explores the psychology of playful domination, its interesting and sometimes horrifying effects.  He suggests that the desire for power and the desire to dominate one another seems inherent in human nature.  Even during times of cooperation between persons one might conceive of such acts as having the goal of dominating a third party – such as nature or other human competitors.  To many of us, this might seem like a fairly cynical view.  We might argue with Tuan that there is, after all, such a thing as unconditional love.  Surely that is without any ulterior motive.  He would respond by insisting  that while agape love is a social fact, it is very rare and is more likely to show itself in momentary epiphanies than everyday life. Its the baser aspects of “love,” such as lust, obsession, and passion seem to be more closely associated with power and dominance than agape love.  Observers of the social scene, novelists, social scientists, and we therapists are generally less preoccupied with unconditional love, and seem to have our hands and ears full of stories about the baser forms of love.  However, in addition to lust and passion, Tuan suggests we can benefit by studying affection – which is not the opposite of dominance, but it is dominance with a human face:  “Dominance may be cruel and with no hint of affection in it.  What it produces is the victim.  On the other hand, dominance may be combined with affection, and what it produces is the pet.” (Tuan, 1984, p. 2).  

     While power (or agency) can be good and represent vitality and effectiveness – a state of being that we all strive for, it can also conjure up images of abuse or even heresy.  For example, when I used the word “power” in the presence of a group of orthodox Batesonians recently,  I was attacked with a great deal of vehemence (with no accompanying affection !). But Tuan suggests we go beyond the social and economic realms of power and instead examine power and dominance in the aesthetic realms, in the realms of pleasure, play, and art. For example, if we look at a Bonsai tree from an aesthetic perspective, we see that it is beautiful in its shape and miniature form.  But, if we realize that the form it takes was made possible by torturing the plant, by cutting, wiring, and manipulating the plant’s growth in various ways, then the “beauty” of the plant takes on a different meaning.  Similarly, he asks us to consider if it was right for a woman of eighteenth-century England to keep a black boy as a pet, even if she dressed him in finery and allowed him special privileges.  

     In ancient times, potentates, as a means of displaying their power, would have lions and other powerful animals in prominent roles in processions.  These symbols of power were under the domination of the more powerful and feared human leader.  Furthermore, the pleasure we feel when feeding animals at the zoo, although it may seem generous and innocent, derives from a base of superiority and enjoyment in the exercise of power. While pets may seem to exist for human pleasure, no matter how fond some owners profess to be of them, castrating the males or spaying the females for convenience is not given a second thought.  

     While all of this is interesting, what may be the most interesting to therapists is Tuan’s discussion of children and women as pets.  In the 19th Century, the woman was seen as the guardian of the home, the haven from a heartless world.   As child-wife, she was expected to prattle on entertainingly and to dispel the clouds gathering around her husband’s brow as he returned from battlefield of economic life.   But as women were understood to represent both culture and nature, they were seen as a mysterious forces that threatened to domesticate and emasculate the male, robbing him  of his freedom and wildness.  She must therefore be dominated, tamed, and harnessed.  In patriarchal societies, women in harems, as playthings and pets, had no rights or purpose beyond that as objects of prestige and sexual indulgence.  Each member of the harem had her exact duties to perform and she might spend most of her time perfecting such skills as coffee-making, dressmaking, and accountancy.  Her moment of glory would come if  she should ever catch the Sultan’s eye and rise to a special status above the others.  “...a woman’s greatest aspiration and constant hope (up to a certain age) was to be able to crawl humbly into the bed of her lord.  Humiliation plumbs a poignant depth when its victim regards it as the highest form of honor” (p. 126). 

     Tuan says that pets are diminished beings, both literally and figuratively, serving the needs of vanity and pleasure of their possessor.  As personal belongings, they are supposed to charm us so that we might take delight in them and yet be able to set aside if we momentarily tire of them.  We like our pets when they can amuse us with particular tricks or minor talents that we have taught them.  They can be doted on, teased and even called names of “endearment” that serve to humiliate them further.  In colonial times, slaves were given such names as Pompey or Socrates or Othello or Alexander the Great.  Being called either “boy” or a name of someone so obviously of a different status than the person serves to humiliate and tease them. They were sometimes dressed in fine livery or at other times in tatters.  What may at one level seem like benevolent patronage is only a pernicious blend of affection and condescension.  

     In order to justify dominance (with affection), it is important that  distinctions get made between culture and nature, between mind and body, with righteous justification that culture and mind can dominate nature and body. This kind of condescending attitude, Tuan says, justifies the belief women and slaves, fools and blacks are immature, naive, sexual, and in need of constant control.    “Men of power, arrogating to themselves the attributes of mind and culture, find it pleasing to have around them humans of a lesser breed – closer to nature – on whose head they may lay an indulgent hand” (p. 167).  


     When I shared these ideas with other members of my domestic violence treatment team, we thought of a number of implications for the men and women we saw in therapy. It helped us understand from a unique perspective, the complex nature of domination within a context of affection. Domination without affection is easy to understand in  it’s victimizing practices.  But domination with affection creates a complex set of associations in which the mixture of control and “benevolent” affection  produces highly ambivalent reactions in its recipients.  The relationship feels good and stifling at the same time.  As a result, as “pet” you are much less quick to raise a voice in protest. Linking dominance with affection helped us better understand the powerful ambivalent feelings so prevalent in abusive relationships.  Things aren’t as simple as they look. A woman might feel attracted to her partner when others can see little appealing about the relationship.  After all, she likes getting the affection from him.  It feels good.  The desire to be benevolently taken care of resides in most of us.  Its just that in the case of couples caught up in domestic violence, benevolent caretaking always seems to be tied to domination with, but most often without, affection.  Simultaneously attracted to him by the affection and repulsed by his practices of control and domination, an abused woman often feels confused as she is continuously subjected to the chaos created by his quick shifts from dominance with affection to dominance without affection.

     Tuan’s metaphor of the master / pet relationship also helped us understand that some women more willingly take on subservient roles than others.  These women were likely to feel confused, dependent, and frightened.  One woman, became  pregnant with a fifth child while separated from her abusing, occasionally affectionate and chaos-producing husband. (He would alternate from reading the Bible out loud to her to threatening to getting in her face and threatening to hit her.) Unable to go through with an abortion, she felt trapped.  One team member likened her condition to that of  “a deer in headlights”  – frozen, unable to think of any evasive actions to take.  Another woman would occasionally behave in a child-like manner, acting excessively dependent, calling her husband at work who would describe her phone calls as “prattling on” about nothing significant. She would  show irresponsibility in managing the family finances.  Her husband in turn, would become furious with her (with no affection).  She seemed more devoted as a pet to him, but he seemed to treat her in a dominating, disrespectful manner, much as a master might beat an animal for not performing well.   

     However, we found another woman less deferring and with greater sense of her own entitlement.  This independent behavior on her part seemed to engender appeals for affection on his  part.  He wanted reassurance from her which he equated with affection and sex.   One night,  six months after entering therapy, he asked his wife if she would be his “whore” for an evening.  But since their history had as turning point an incident of marital rape, this appeal for submission and subjugation seemed like just another case of sexual assault to her.   She refused to be humiliated any further (dominance with forced sex, no affection).  However, the team later inadvertently discovered and she subsequently revealed to the female therapist member of the co-therapy team, that she was having an affair with her boss at work.  This had been going on for at least two years.  So while she was treated as a victim in her marriage (dominance and sex with no affection) conversations with the my co-therapist seemed to suggest that she was being treated as a pet by her boss.  

     To dominate someone with affection and have the relationship remain stable seems more like a scene out of another era. But Tuan’s metaphor is still instructive.   The metaphors of dominance / affection, master / pet are sometimes funny, but often horrifying as a lens through with to view contemporary male / female relationships. We did not encounter many relationships in which the woman was simply willing to be her husband’s pet. But dominance/affection as a metaphor helped us understand how many of these relationships might have started out that way – where the woman was deferring and subservient and the man was dominating with affection, charm  and  promises.  Such gender stereotypes seem especially prevalent in violent relationships.  But pet status sooner or later becomes intolerable.  Dominance inevitably ceases to be “benevolent.” Cruelty and humiliation eventually emerge in any relationship based on a master / pet arrangement. Using this metaphor,  our team found women treated with dominance and affection (treated as “pets,” early on in their relationship);  women treated without affection but as objects of gratification by men (where the man thought of her as a pet, but she felt like a victim); and women treated as victims without affection.  We also found one man objecting to being treated as a pet by his wife (he used the term: “toy-boy”).

      As a metaphor for understanding the aesthetics and pragmatics of power in gendered relationships – dominance / affection, master / pet – is quite useful.  Tuan says in his concluding remarks that we all like to be occasionally passive and taken care of at times. We can even enjoy being played with, if affectionately, at least for a while.  Being temporary dominated can be pleasureful, if along with the domination comes power and intimacy and some tangible rewards, or at least some affection.  But this arrangement wears thin if it lasts too long, isn’t easily reversed, or given up altogether in favor of an respectful relationship among equals.   Or as  Barb Stanton, a  member of our domestic violence treatment team said, “No matter how well I treat my dog, when I open the door, she still wants to make a break for it.” 


Tuan, Y. F.  (1984).  Dominance and Affection:  The Making of Pets.  New Haven: Yale      University Press.

Marriage and Other Arrangements