When and how are the giving of gifts a form of manipulation?


And what of never looking a gift horse in the mouth?

A great expression carries history and relevance.  To look a gift horse in the mouth?  The expression refers to looking at a horse’s teeth to determine its age and health—in other words, the body can lie and tell us all is well, but when looking “under the bonnet” to see what is really going on, we look at the teeth and know the truth.

In olden days, the horse was a valued animal…a true beast of burden, a means of transport, even a companion. They were central to life, and central to economic status.  The gift of a horse was a treasured and honoured gift, and not altogether uncommon.  That is what the expression was born from—a horse a valued gift, so don’t look it in the mouth and think ill of the giver.  In other words, this expression was intended for gifts of value.

The expression was popularized in the Middle Ages, ironically first appearing in print in a book on marriage!

“No man ought to looke a geuen hors in the mouth.”

John Heywood, A Dialogue of the Effectual Proverbs in the English Tongue Concerning Marriage (1546)

The concept itself, however, is much older.

“Noli … ut vulgare proverbium est, equi dentes inspicere donati” or (“Don’t … as the popular proverb goes, inspect the teeth of a gift horse”).

St. Jerome, ca. 420 AD, writing in St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians

The Greeks had an expression which conveyed the same meaning, “Praise the gift that anyone bestows.”  And while the Trojans certainly might have felt otherwise, it is clear that this admonition is central to Western thought.

Both Cambridge and Collins dictionaries add nuance to the meaning of the original expression by qualifying it as being offered “something good” or as a “free” gift, respectively.  These nuances add a path to interpretation or qualification which are not held in the original admonition.  After all, noting something as “good” or “free” involves making a judgement. This fits a more modern spirit.

What does the expression actually mean?  Don’t question the value of a gift.  But why not?  What’s wrong with that?  Does to question a gift’s value mean to never know its value?  What is the value of a gift?  For whom does it give value?  I’d like to know.

How did the expression come about?  Is it really wrong to find fault with something that has been given as a gift or a favour?  It seems ungrateful or even churlish to think so, but are there circumstances where it is appropriate to look askance at a gift?

Giving and occasions

There are many occasions when gifts are given.  There is ritual about it.  Birthdays, some holidays, giving birth, a wedding.  In many instances, there are rules ascribed to the process.  Wedding lists, for example, are designed with ease in mind—because there could be many gifts for a couple, a managed list ensures that a couple does not receive duplicate gifts; they may be luxuries that a young couple might not permit itself or be able to afford; and they may be traditional items that mark entry into a new stage of life.

I grew up in a family that was big on lists.  I don’t know why, but I never liked them.  I hated the idea of saying “this is what I want,” and writing it down.  From a young age, it already felt vulgar.  To this day, when my siblings or parents exchange Christmas lists or say what is on their birthday lists, I can’t help but think it feels childish or selfish.  Is this wrong?

My own thoughts on gifts for others

I have this thought that a nice gift is a gift that the receiver would like and welcome, but is also one that would be a treat, the kind of treat that they wouldn’t buy for themselves—mainly because it would feel too self-indulgent.  That might be because of what it is, lingerie for example, or because it is just too expensive.

One of my favourite BDSM educators and authors, Sharyn Ferns, posted on the expense of lingerie and gifting recently.

Sharyn Ferns, BDSM author and educator

There is obviously some level of risk in this kind of giving—knowing what someone will like takes a degree of intimacy.  In my own heart, shopping in this way, is hard to premeditate.  In other words, it is hard for me to imagine what to get someone special in advance…that might be a matter of days or longer.  Buying something ahead of time makes it seem less fresh, less spontaneous.

I also think that a gift should also hurt a little.  Not a lot, but certainly it should have an edge to it.  I am referring to the giver…and saying that it should be a gift which is a little more expensive or a little harder to get, something rare, something unique—in other words, requiring thought, effort, expense.

This kind of giving is antithetical to a shopping list.  Why?  Because it requires you to think about the person, to really get inside, to have insight, to understand.  I believe that forcing yourself to think about this on a deep and visceral level, is the essence of a true gift.

An acquaintance of mine challenged this notion recently, and it has had me puzzling ever since.  The observation was that this kind of giving was manipulative, and more about the giver than the receiver.  I can’t get my head around that, though.

I think on a practical level that for those who are close to us, really close, that this kind of giving makes sense.  Recognising too, that from time to time you will get it wrong, and that it is okay for the receiver to return the item, to exchange it, to be honest in their feedback…so that you will tune in better next time.  For people who are not so close, this kind of giving is not apt—we don’t have the knowledge, they won’t have the freedom to say no, and it is presumptuous.

Thinking about gifts for myself

Some people are hard to give gifts to.  I may be one of them.  There are several reasons: 

  • I don’t always know myself
  • I tend to buy the things I want as it happens
  • I hate saying what I want for the reasons described above
  • I struggle to receive

Many people struggle to receive even if the other attributes are not common.  But why should this be difficult?  Some believe that those who have difficulties receiving do so out of pride.  But many psychologists attribute a difficulty in receiving to having experienced offerings as a manipulation tactic.  Things that were given had strings attached.   Culturally, we are also often taught many ideas which can interfere with open-hearted receiving:

  • To get anything in life that is of value you have to work hard for it, to earn it
  • When you get something you have an obligation to reciprocate
  • The giver may have ulterior motives
  • Others may have needs greater than yours
  • When something is given it can also be taken away, and that hurts
  • It’s wrong to ask, wrong to express need
  • It is wrong or rude to turn a gift down

If you are in tune with your resistance to receiving, you might note these feelings if you feel like saying:

  • You didn’t have to” — Is there a sense of duty, pressure?
  • This is too much” – Is there a low sense of deserving?
  • I feel bad that you did all of this for me” – Are there feelings of selfishness?

Just giving

For some people, giving is a love language.  For others, it is just a mechanical way to discharge obligations.  “Buy it now” buttons on websites and gift reminder buttons aren’t just about ease of shopping, but also about ease of doing your duty.

Things are not love.  Food is not love.  But the effort and thought and expense that goes into giving things can certainly be expressions of love.

The scriptures comment on this.  In a biblical sense it is not the act of giving that God loves.  Rather, it is the state of cheerful openness that God loves in the act of giving.  Do you give with an open heart.  Was there joy in the act of giving?  Did you solve someone’s problem with your gift?  Does your gift answer the question, “what would be helpful?”  And most importantly, did you give because you mean it?

I love giving.  I believe that I give with an open heart, and that I do so even when the gift is not well received.  I cannot recall ever having given with strings attached, or to get something in return.  I give with an innocent cheerfulness that just feels good.  It feels really nice to think about nice things to do for someone you care about.

What happens if you approach giving in this way and the person receiving doesn’t receive it this way?  Rather instead they suspect your motives, reject your gifts or worse, insult them?  I’ve only ever encountered this once in my life.  What happened?  I lost all desire to give to that person.  An ex, she was always about what she wanted…and anything that was given which was not something she had articulated wanting, was not welcome.  That was the default reaction.  It was as if the effort and expense were an affront.  In addition, she felt that my giving was a form of manipulation.  Sure made me feel good, and good about her.  It was one of the nails in the coffin.  That is an extreme example of looking at a gift horse in the mouth.  The original expression was about the gift itself, but this particular person’s behaviour was about the act of giving.  Such a shame.

What of the gift without value?

Where do you set the line?  Is it monetary?  Is it effort-based?  What if you didn’t want it in the first place?  What if its value is high, just not to you?  What if it has no value to you?  What if you think it’s ugly?

And what if you feel that to receive such a gift is to accept expectations that might come with it?  That there are strings attached?  More than just a thank you?

Do you turn it down?  Although the expression says you should not, at least its original (and probably more literal form), it makes sense to do so.  It is the nicest thing to do.  It is far better to gracefully say no, and give a benign reason.  “I’m not going to accept this gift because:

  • I just got one
  • I don’t feel it is appropriate for you to be giving me gifts
  • I have a very specific need in this area and this is not it
  • I prefer to choose this type of item for myself—it is too personal.
  • Etc.”

Why shouldn’t we query a gift’s value?

To query the value of a gift is to query the value of the giver.  Some givers will exaggerate the cost of an item, how hard it was to find, its rarity, or some other desirable attribute.  You might see through this.  There is no need to let them in on your knowledge.  But you now know that this person is prone to embellish.  For everyone else, give the benefit of the doubt.

What is the value of a gift, of something, of anything?

The value of any gift is in the eye of the receiver.  I once gave my wife a very, very expensive bedside clock from Asprey & Girard.  She had expressed an interest in a travel clock, and this, although the size of a travel clock, as an object of bejewelled and ornate beauty, was no travel clock.  

I felt miffed that she never used it, had no idea how expensive it was, and promptly went out and bought a little plastic Braun travel clock.  I really had no right to be miffed…she did…because I didn’t tune into what she wanted enough.  But at the same time, when I asked her about it, she said to me that it was beautiful…and in the end she kept them both on the bedside table.

There was a clear imbalance in value in that example between giver and receiver.  Not good.  Driven by cost and lack of fit for function.  What of gifts that you might search for.  Let’s say you’re in Paris, as one is, and she asks you to pick up something for her that is only easily found in Paris.  Let’s say while you are there in the shop, she is asleep in another time zone, and you don’t really have another chance to shop again, but spot the same item, but in different colours.  You think she might like that, being able to change with the mood, and after all they cost almost nothing, so you get every colour—all ten of them instead of the one she asked for.

What if her response is, “you should have just gotten me ten of the one I asked for.”?

“But they were sold out, and I couldn’t wake you, and they weren’t expensive, you don’t like any of them?”  And what about thinking that there is this expression on her face that says she doesn’t like them simply because they weren’t what she asked for?

Or what if she doesn’t say anything, but instead accepts them happily, thanks you profusely, and then several months later tells you that they were of no interest and that she used them for something else entirely—something which was somehow disrespectful to the gift, to the giver?  What if she says, “you might as well have just given me the money?  That would have been preferable.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think much of that kind of behaviour.  Put yourself in the giver’s shoes.  No big deal, was there, couldn’t get all of what you wanted, thought I might as well add a few other things just in case…voila.  She might think, “why the heck did he give me all this crap.  Now he probably expects me to be grateful.  It’s too much.  It’s suffocating.”  Or something like that.

The gift giver surely intended to give value, to do a favour for, and certainly seems to have done so willingly in this episode.

For whom does the value accrue?

The value for the giver and receiver never accrue for the individual, but for the two of them as a giving-receiving pair.  If we are good at it, of giving and receiving, with each other, then the collective value that this represents in our lives grows.  It feeds intimacy and trust, and diminishes feelings of risk.

The giver

Gift giving is an art.  To give well requires understanding.  It requires an ability to empathise.  To put yourself not just into someone shoes, but into their hearts.  Think for a moment back to your childhood, to a birthday, to an important holiday, one where you received a gift or gifts that almost made you feel as if your heart would break.  Now think as a giver, and how you might land a gift that could create the same feeling.

It has to be too much.  It has to be out of the blue.  It has to be something very, very special.  I always love birthdays and major holidays for the opportunities it presents to really give.  I love spending the time inside someone else’s heart to try and figure out what will recreate that sense of childlike joy and wonder, that will make the heart overflow.  Perversely, I am also a lastminute shopper.  For some reason, the pressure of time, the emotional and physical presence of the gift receiver needing to be recent, needing to be in tune with where they are as close to the moment of receiving, all conspire to help me into the heart space of empathy.

I very infrequently shop ahead.  I very infrequently know what I am going to get for someone.  I might have a rough idea, maybe of a style or type of gift, but more likely, I will know in which part of some city it will likely be.  And yes, I will just go to such a city, go to such a neighborhood, and then start walking and see what I find.  I believe that the world opens up to us like a pomegranate when we are open to it.  I wrote about this in New York once.  How I felt as if I was being pulled along.  The forces are very gentle, but if you focus on feeling them, and let your body take you without your mind interfering, you will end up where you need to be.

In the case of my wife, I loved to give her clothes.  I gave jewellery for a while, but since we were robbed and everything was stolen, I no longer feel safe giving that.  What thieves steal clothes?  They should, because haute couture even on eBay is still haute couture and fetching prices higher than even second-hand Tiffany rings.  After all, one of a kind, is always unique.  My wife has noted her appreciation for these gifts, and I take as one of the greatest compliments she has ever given me when she told me the night I told her I was transgender, that she had benefited from that through my gift giving.  Of course she has heaped a pile of unpleasantries on top, but I will cherish that comment as if chiselled in granite, and relegate the rest to the cesspool of emotion that nobody needs.

As a giver, the ultimate prize is that the gift lands.  That the receiver really does appreciate it.  That it moves her in the way that you hoped; that your spelunking in the folds of her emotional landscape proved accurate.  That you understood.  That you felt.  And that this understanding and feeling took you to a place that enabled you to give a gift that created joy.

The receiver

One of my siblings never liked anything that she was given.  Growing up it was ‘follow the list’ or the gift would be refused or worse, disrespected.  We all complied, but it never felt good to give in that way, never came from the heart. But who are we talking about here?  The giver or the receiver?  She was delighted when she got exactly what she asked for.  So what if the giver wasn’t motivated or inspired by the list.  For whom is the giving done anyway?

I struggle to receive, and apparently this is so common that I will have to blog about it.  Mistress often noted how I struggled to receive in session.  My struggle was so real that I never really even understood what she was talking about.  Don’t think for a moment that I didn’t try, and that I didn’t think about it all the time.  

In short, receiving is difficult for people who have experienced receiving with emotional strings attached.  People who have absorbed the social lessons of giving and receiving which create guilt as highlighted above.  People who have come to feel that they are unworthy or that people have ulterior motives.  Join me for a moment in silent prayer to all such people, for whatever reason, who struggle to receive.

Pity the person who when given a gift, struggles to accept it.  While it is true that gifts can be given with poisonous intent [is not the story of Original Sin, the giving of the apple, not one that the patriarchy has used to vilify women’s ulterior motives?], to enter into receiving with suspicion is to “look the gift horse in the mouth”…and that is a way of letting down the self.  

Just as we might admonish the gift giver to give with an open heart, so too must we ask the receiver to do the same.  Even if a gift giver might have suspect motives, perhaps we can begin with the thought that the gift is a form of apology, that it is an acknowledgement that strings attached are not appropriate, and that it becomes an opportunity to dig for deeper understanding.

Have you ever given a gift with pure intent and had it thrown back at you in one way or another because your motives were called into question?  Have you ever had this happen and been told, “well maybe you didn’t think it consciously, but it was surely the underlying motive.”?  I know I have, and while I believe we are capable of acting in ways that we might not consciously realise, I have to go back to this thought that how we see the world, creates the world we see.  In other words, when you look at the world through rose-coloured glasses, the world becomes that way…but when you see things in a negative light, that’s how they become in turn.

Gift lists in BDSM

For those of you who are not familiar with the professional BDSM community, the gift list is a very common thread for the professional dominatrix.  Positioned as a way for people to show gratitude, they serve both a path to provide a financial benefit to someone admired, but also a way to ensure that this energy is channelled towards gifting that will be well received.

I do know that some people are troubled by this, by the idea that there is a list to shop from.  Indeed, this taps into what I wrote at the top of this post—that lists somehow take spontaneity and “giving” out of the equation.  I have had some wonderful conversations with people on both sides of the Provider/client slash in BDSM on this and understand the value of the list to both sides.

It is interesting what one can learn about a Domme from the things she puts on her list.  And how the Domme populates the list is also intriguing: does she put things that are baubles or life necessities?  Does she put lingerie or things that speak of the sexual/erotic nature of her profession?  Does she put toys and furnishings which both titillate and serve to reduce her operating costs or investment in play?  How much of her personal passions does she reveal through the selection of items?  How much is utilitarian?  Does she put spiritual or intellectual items there, books, things which show her broader interests?  I learned a good deal about people from their lists.  It spoke to me at times even more clearly than their websites or Twitter postings about what kind of person they would turn out to be.

What if you buy a book for a Domme and buy the same book for yourself?  Is this flattering or is it selfish?  Are you learning what she will be learning so that you can be more relevant to her in conversation?  To better understand her interests?  Are you stealing her private thought space by learning about something which is of private interest to her?  Or are you making it possible to share something with someone you respect, simply because it is a form of respect?  I suppose that it will depend on the view of the receiver.  Ask.

A Domme’s gift list is a form of compensation.  For someone who is benefiting from her content and not sessioning with her, it is an inexpensive and nice way to show your gratitude.  For someone who is sessioning with her, it is a nice way of sending a “tip” or simple gift.

I am aware that there are “bad” practices too.  That some dommes choose gifts that can be easily returned—and might receive many of them, and so return them for the cash.  That thanks is not always given…Of course, when straying from a gift list, the risk of thanks not being “deserved” goes up.

How we react to the contents of a gift list is also an important part of a dynamic.  As I contemplated a gift list, I shared the thought that I would never buy lingerie.  I can appreciate how beautiful it is, but I was uncomfortable with how overtly erotic and sexual it was…that it was too intimate a gift.  That’s me.  I know that many clients love to give lingerie.  Love to give it also because they hope to see her in it.  That’s another strike against it for me because it has strings attached.  At the very beginning of time with Mistress, I wanted to send her a gift and was drawn to a whip.  In the end I never gave it because it spoke from a selfish place—that I could be said to be giving such a gift because I wanted it to be used on me…and that felt wrong.  I felt the same way about anything that could be deemed sexual, toys, etc.  It just wouldn’t feel right.

Final thoughts

Mistress once observed that I gave to avoid receiving.  That I was oriented towards giving as a way to protect myself.  That it was much easier for me to give.  That receiving was so hard for me that my default was to give instead.  Giving has certainly always been one of my Love Languages, at least the way I give love (and my fault of that book is that it is more about how we receive love).  But in the end, I think that our perceptions in the act of giving and in the act of receiving are actually more important than the gift itself.  It is the feelings that the act of giving and receiving create, not just in one of the two, but in both, and how these feelings mingle together.  If either one is tainted by ulterior thoughts, then the entire endeavour is sullied.  Cultivating purity on both sides is worth doing, as there are few things more beautiful than a gift given with purity of heart, and one that is received with purity of heart.

3 thoughts

  1. very interesting. i am a terrible gift giver many because i don’t know what to give and like you i have or get what i need, want or desire. So i a difficult receiver of gifts as well. i once told my ex wife that just being with me is a gift to you. maybe just another of the reasons we divorced. so now after reading this i will do some self discovery. Maybe that’s your gift to me

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I can be a gift to you through this writing, that is a gift to me. Thank you.
      I got onto this whole topic really through BDSM, as I was forced to confront many cherished ideas, habits, and so on. The whole trope of gift lists and dominatrixes taps into this older gentleman lavishing gifts on a woman half his age phobia I have. That is a legacy of my grandfather, who was an awful man to the women in his life, but who gave away enormous sums of money to women (professionals or not, but infatuations) in his twilight years. I wonder if the issue is genetic!
      Certainly there are gift giving men out there, and the whole sex-positive escort and SW industry is filled with this.
      I would consider myself generous, but I felt a certain coldness to the mechanics of a gift list. In the end, I found a happy compromise by communicating and learning, but that path was strewn with so much noise and interference from the recipient that I lost my desire to give…and when that happened, I knew the jig was up. When we no longer wish to give, it’s time to walk.

      Liked by 2 people

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