Dominance and submission is about control rather than compromise, power rather than sex, and has as a basis for these things a very strong trust.
2.0 D/s Lifestylers
- 2.1 Use of the Terms "Master" and "slave"
- 2.2 Trust
- 2.3 Consent
- 2.4 Training
- 2.5 Obedience, Happiness, and the Need to Serve
- 2.6 Slavery and Ownership
- 2.7 Collaring
- 2.8 Punishment and Conflict
- 2.9 Scenes and Safewords
- 2.10 Humiliation, Objectification, and Self-Esteem
- 2.11 Social and Psychological Issues
D/s is probably the most esoteric part of BDSM. The vanilla person looks at sadomasochism and sees the sadist and the masochist doing their thing for mutual pleasure, and even if they don't like it or don't understand it, it is still obvious what the people are doing and why. Vanilla folk and kinky folk sometimes use the term S&M to mean the entire scope of all things kink, leading to further confusion.
D/s is not about the hardware, it's not about pain, it's not about bondage. D/s is about an exchange of power. It is a relationship in which the balance of power is unequal. It is about the mind, about psychological control. There are many who would argue that BDSM is sick, wrong, or an indication of mental illness. D/s relationships are not immune to becoming abusive; in fact, their nature makes it easier for abuse to creep in unnoticed - and easier for the target of that abuse, usually the sub, to excuse it as being "part of the relationship."
D/s is not for everyone, any more than golf or tequila or politics is for everyone. And for those who do claim it as their kink, the depth to which D/s is a part of their lives will vary from them using it to add a little extra spice in their sex lives to being a part of a 24-7 total power exchange (alternatively referred to as a lifestyle relationship or a Master/slave relationship). D/s-ers can arise from all walks of life - any sexual orientation, any profession, any personality, any ethnicity, any culture. As such they can be wonderful people with whom to cultivate a friendship or a relationship, or they can be complete and utter assholes. Sometimes the former turn out to be the latter.
For purposes of discussion, D/s-ers can be sorted into two broad categories: the first contains those for whom a power exchange is extra spice in a sexual encounter. They may use the terms "Master" and "slave", and one of them might wear a collar; but those terms are usually reserved for the bedroom, and the collar may just be another attachment point (a la bondage). After the spankings are dealt and the rope is put back in the toy chest, they are back on equal footing and will go about negotiating their compromises like most other vanilla couples. Some of them form relationships that are for D/s play only; i.e., they generally do not have much contact with each other at all beyond the bedroom.
When D/s partners are interacting with each other sexually, an observer might not be able to tell whether it is bedroom-only D/s or lifestyle D/s (see below) - when actively being practiced, the two can be very similar.
Some people may even be engaging in mild D/s without realizing it. Unfortunately, such people also tend to unconsciously seek out vanilla partners who will match them - submissives can easily wind up with overbearing, abusive partners; Dominants may only be interested in doormats with no spine.
The terms "Dom" or "Domme" (female), "Dominant", "sub", "submissive", and "switch" are all for general use - even someone who enjoys only the slightest bit of sexual submission or dominance in the bedroom could use these terms to describe themselves. A switch is someone who enjoys both roles, not necessarily at the same time nor with the same partner.
2.0 D/s Lifestylers
The second category contains people who are sometimes called "lifestylers"; these are the people upon whom the primary focus of this writeup rests. D/s is how they style their relationships; the relationships that will make them the happiest are the ones that have a power exchange at their core. Whatever aspects of S&M or bondage they might enjoy, they may feel that they have a need for D/s. Their minds are wired to want to surrender or to take control to some extent, almost a screw the roses, send me the thorns attitude. This does not mean that submissives are all meek soft-spoken pushovers and dominants are all type-A take-charge bullies... the personality of a Dom/me or sub rarely reflects that wiring to the rest of the world. A shrewd eye and ear might pick out a D/s lifestyle couple while they are together in public, but around anyone else the Dom is simply that unassuming quiet guy, and the sub is that non-conformist free spirit.
This category contains a spectrum of people and their wants and needs; it also contains couples in various stages of their relationships. For some lifestylers, the goal is to have a partner in a 24-7 total power exchange or Master/slave relationship. Finding said partner is just as difficult as a vanilla person finding a vanilla partner. Just because a Dom and a sub are on the market for an M/s relationship doesn't mean they're automatically compatible. Just like in a vanilla relationship, a lifestyler needs to find a partner who shares at least some portion of their worldview, hobbies, likes, dislikes, and kinks.
If two D/s'ers meet and take an interest in each other, their relationship can grow over time, just like a vanilla one. If we consider an M/s relationship to be most involved state possible for D/s, and liken it to a vanilla marriage, then we can also draw a few other ideas from the analogy: first, An M/s relationship should not be rushed. If you have only known your partner for a few months, then offering yourself to them as their slave or accepting an such an offer from your partner is generally a bad idea. Second, people do change, and sometimes they change more than the relationship can bear. Third, people sometimes put forth an idealized version of themselves when building a relationship, and once it's established, they fall back to less desirable behaviors, leading to the slow decline of the relationship.
Though the nature of an M/s relationship can lend itself to an interesting sort of stability, things can still go so wrong that the conflict resolution mechanisms just can't cope. D/s and M/s relationships have some extra communication channels and conflict resolution mechanisms that can be used to enhance the levels of trust to a very high degree. They can also be used to turn that stability into stagnation, or worse, to turn that trust into a mechanism to keep a submissive in an abusive relationship.
A lot of the stuff in section 2 can apply to D/s relationships that are not total power exchanges. It's just that with the TPE's, this stuff is going on all the time, and its frequency in non-TPE's will vary from relationship to relationship.
2.1 Use of the terms "Master" and "slave"
For ease of reading, I will be using the default pronouns of a male Master and a female slave. There are plenty of male slaves and female Mistresses out there too, and of course same-sex couples. In case it isn't clear, in a Venn diagram of dominant and submissive (with the overlap between those two circles being switch), Master and slave are sub-sets of Dom and sub. The differences between Master and Dom, and slave and submissive, are not always clear nor necessarily agreed-upon by all practitioners of D/s. Generally, they denote a difference in the degree to which D/s is a part of the relationship as a whole.
So, what is this Master/slave thing? Slavery is illegal, right? Yes. But a D/s slave enters into and stays in the relationship because she wants to do so. Her submission was not beaten nor coerced out of her; she gave it willingly to her Master; he understands and treasures this gift of self and trust, and will use it for the betterment and happiness of both of them. So long as neither partner irreparably violates the other's trust, they exist in a harmonious balance of complete surrender and complete control. Some people in such relationships describe themselves are Master and slave.
It isn't legally slavery - a slave's Master can't sell him or her (well, they could try, and you can bet the indignant slave would up and leave the relationship); i.e., it isn't a physically binding slavery. Some folks describe it as mental enslavement - but don't take that to mean a total mental dependency, for this is not the case (or at least it shouldn't be). It is a state of being in which the slave feels that she belongs to her Master, one in which the Master feels that he owns the slave; a state in which the slave's obedience to her Master is of utmost importance to her, a state in which the Master nurtures the slave and helps her grow. Just as in vanilla relationships, Masters and slaves don't need legalities or social constructs to tell them that they love each other.
Below, I will attempt to elucidate the various aspects of D/s, and how they figure into a total power exchange or Master/slave relationship.
In order for power to be given and received, there must be trust. This is true even in S&M scenes, since the bottom must trust the Top to understand their limits, and the Top must trust the bottom to articulate those limits. In D/s, people are dealing with power exchanges and dependencies that demand some rather high quantities of trust. Solid vanilla relationships also have this high level of trust.
We all have people with whom we would trust our cars, our money, perhaps our lives, and maybe even our psyches. Think a moment on the bounds of that trust. And if you're not in one already, imagine being in a relationship, whether vanilla or kinky, in which you can trust your partner with everything that you are, a relationship in which your trust knows no bounds. A relationship in which you trust them to look out for your physical well-being, even when and especially when you are helpless. One in which you trust them to not hurt you, even though you drop all of your emotional barriers and armor while you are with them. One in which you trust them so much that you can tell them, "I will do anything you ask of me."
In lifestyle D/s, such trust must be earned by the Dominant over time. Some submissives give it too easily, and wind up being hurt mentally and/or physically because they gave it to an abusive Dom/me, or gave too much too soon. Some Dom/mes want more than their sub is willing to give at the time, and may push so hard they end up pushing the sub away from them. It is a complex dance, and it can be dangerous for the unwary sub whose instincts are screaming at her to do whatever this nice man tells her to do, even if she only met him a week ago.
Trust can be given in the form of consent. As a sub comes to trust her Dom more and more, she will expand the list of things which she consents to do with or for him. Eventually, a sub might give all their consent - all of their trust - to their Dom/me, allowing that person to henceforth have control over every aspect of the sub's life, should they wish to exercise it. This is the heart of the glorious contradiction that is a D/s or Master/slave relationship: how does one choose to have no choice? How does one consent to have no future consent? There is a name for it: metaconsent.
Some people believe that once metaconsent is given, that there is no longer anything the Dom can do that would qualify as abuse, which if you think about it, is rather absurd. To use some extreme examples, what if the Dom kills his sub? Permanently cripples or disfigures her, or otherwise endangers her health? Causes her to lose her job? Causes her to lose her sanity? Causes her to become so mentally unstable that she becomes suicidal? The idea that there can be no such thing as abuse in a "true" or "real" Master-slave relationship is the product of people who are unable to separate fantasy from reality.
Another aspect of this trust is the ability of the sub to remove their emotional armor around their Dominant. To some degree or another, all of us learn that we are vulnerable unless we hide some parts of ourselves from the world at large. We hide some of our emotions, we hide our crazier thoughts, we hide our fantasies, our impulses, our desires. We wear a mask or two or three, and if we're lucky we have a few close friends whom we know will not just tolerate, but accept, most of who we are.
Once the entirety of a sub's trust is given, she will discover that it has suddenly freed her from the need to protect herself, from the need to put a lid on her self-expression, and from the need to armor her heart when she is with her Dom. For this person has not only made sure he understands all of who she is, he has not only accepted it - he has embraced it. Every flaw, every fear, every dream, every hope, all of her; and in doing so, he has taken a sort of possession of her. She trusts him so completely that she can give all of herself to him, and knows that he will not harm her.
And while this may seem all shiny and heartwarming, there are some Doms out there who think that the relationship is not complete unless that emotional vulnerability and trust goes both ways. Because if a Dom can't trust his sub with his inner self, what's the point? If he feels he has to hide his fears and uncertainties from her so that he can maintain his status as a Dom, he's not really a Dom, he's just pretending to be one. And if you think about it, in successful vanilla relationships, that trust does go both ways equally.
Training is not especially easy to comprehend. We all know about training pets and about training for a job. How does training work within the context of a D/s relationship? It is partially a natural extension of the inherent power exchange: the Dom has some form of consent of the sub to modify her behavior. Behavior modification occurs in every relationship, D/s and vanilla, and arguably in every friendship... but in the latter two, it occurs mostly on an unconscious level, and affects both partners equally. In D/s, the Dom can take an active, overt hand in it. Training usually does not take place until the Dom and sub have established a relationship that has some indications of being potentially long-term. It makes for rather open communication when combined with the sub's trust: since the sub can be emotionally open and freely express her opinions, and the Dom can make his wants and needs obvious, there is usually little guesswork involved in either partner trying to figure out whether the other is pleased or unhappy about something.
A few examples of training: some Doms may prefer certain kinds of etiquette-- a specific way of kneeling, times when it is appropriate, times when it is expected; a certain style of dress for specific occasions, times, or locations. A sub may just pick up on this sort of thing over time, or the Dom may drop hints or flat-out tell her what he wants. This "training" may be as simple as the sub being told once that she must always wear racy underwear, or it can be as complex as conditioning her to orgasm on command.
A sub can become willing to become whatever the Dom wants her to be, because she trusts him to understand how he will affect her, trusts him to not make her into something she mislikes or even hates... trusts him to heed what she already is, and to use her own attributes as well as his desires in the training. And this can go horribly wrong, if the Dom trains the sub to disregard her own feelings, to believe that she cannot exist without him, to think that her only purpose in life is to serve him, and to be emotionally dependent upon him. Think about it, what happens if the Dom dies? Suddenly the sub no longer has a reason to exist? What if the relationship ends? A good Dom will bolster the self-esteem of his subs, not tear it down.
2.5 Obedience, Happiness, and the Need to Serve
The word "obedience" tends to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many Westerners, because our cultures condition us to value independence and personal freedom above almost everything else. Happy kinky people tend to think about the word a little differently when it comes to their relationships. Obedience for them is something along the lines of putting the Dom's happiness above one's own, assuming the trust is there that the Dom will look after the sub's happiness and well-being without having to be asked or reminded.
It's a rather different way of being in a relationship. It means the sub either rarely asks for what she wants and needs, or does so with zero expectation. This is great as long as it works - that is, as long as the Dom actually cares about her happiness and well-being and makes sure that the sub is thriving in the relationship. Because it is, after all, a relationship - both people in it are presumably there because they're getting some of their needs met.
There is a good example of this kind of obedience towards the end of the movie Secretary (spoiler warning for this paragraph), though it can be construed as an example of real punishment as well, due to the conflict between the two characters at the time. When Edward tells Hathoway to put her hands on the desk and her feet on the floor and then storms out, she doggedly persists in obeying him even though he doesn't return for a few days! Even when someone physically removes her from the desk, she struggles out of his grasp and returns immediately. She is obviously miserable, and yet obviously hell-bent on obeying Edward, who watches unseen from the window, pleased and touched by her devotion.
The obedience aspect of a D/s relationship can be very helpful for a sub who is not spectacular at managing their own life; assuming, of course, that the Dom is actually making good decisions for the sub. I've heard some people compare it to being in the military - some folks thrive with that kind of structure. Others find it oppressive, and the expectation of obedience can allow abuse to flourish.
2.6 Slavery and Ownership
All of those things together, the absolute trust, the metaconsent, the emotional openness, the willingness to be changed, the eagerness to please; those are what make up D/s slavery for a lot of people. Not a slave in the physical sense, though physical restrictions on this person's freedom may occur; rather, we have someone who can be internally, mentally, enslaved. If that person is in a relationship with a Dom/me who has taken the time to earn their trust, who has openly accepted and embraced all that the submissive is, who has taken care to provide a relationship in which the sub has no need nor want to hide anything, who has never violated that most precious gift of submission and trust and obedience, who has guided and shaped the sub into someone who makes both of them happy, and who has acted in a way that meets the needs of the sub as well as themselves, then the makings of a Master/slave relationship are present.
By popular definition, a Master is supposed to assume total responsibility for a slave, though most Masters will require a fair amount of autonomous responsibility from their slaves; the majority of them have careers and full-time jobs, just as their Masters do. It's pretty pointless for a slave to contact her Master and ask him exactly what he wants on the grocery list every single time she goes to the store. Likewise, few Masters enjoy that sort of constant micromanagement. There aren't many house-slaves that stay at home all day, wearing nothing but a collar and doing nothing but housekeeping. Most slaves would find this stifling and boring, if not outright emotionally traumatic; it is the responsibility of the Master to not demand this sort of thing from a slave who wouldn't enjoy it. Perpetually unhappy slaves tend to leave, especially if they've brought up their problems with their Master and have been ignored or punished (real, not play) for it.
This is what most D/s-ers regard as the final consummation of a Master/slave relationship: the Master 'collars' the slave, which usually involves him affixing a collar about her neck along with whatever else the two feel is appropriate. It can be an entire ceremony or a single moment. Traditionally, the Master is the one who offers it; but it is not unheard of for a slave to tell her Master that she is willing to wear his collar.
How can you tell a collar that a Master has put on his slave from one that the slave has given to her Master to symbolize the gift of her submission, or from one used for play or simply for jewelry? You can't, short of asking the person.
2.8 Punishment and Conflict
This is often a source of confusion. There are two kinds: play punishment and 'real' punishment. The former is a style of play or interaction that can be found in D/s relationships along the entire spectrum of intensity. It involves the Dom 'punishing' the sub for some minor, playful, or role-played infraction, where the 'punishment' is something (bondage, spanking, whipping, sexual servitude) that both partners enjoy.
In any case, this play punishment is not meant to correct any behavioral problems or resolve any conflicts. I would like to emphasize the difference here between playful and serious disobedience - a sub refusing to reveal the location of their Master's car keys after hiding them is one thing; taking his car out for a spin without asking first is something else entirely. Even oft-repeated and ill-timed playfulness can result in real annoyance; a good Dom or Master will make it known when his patience is being stretched thin, giving the sub/slave fair warning before she crosses the line into serious disobedience.
Like any relationship, a D/s one will have its share of disagreements and conflicts. If the relationship is not yet to the total power exchange state, then a simple withdrawal of some form of consent by the sub should be sufficient for her to make her wishes known. From that point on, until she gives her consent again, the conflict must be negotiated in a vanilla fashion. Hopefully, by the time the power exchange has become total and metaconsent/submission has been given, the two have spent enough time building the relationship so that they know they will be able to resolve even the most serious issues. Once that line is crossed, the slave simply cannot put her foot down; she cannot demand anything, though she is ALWAYS free to leave. Slavery is a state of mind, not a binding legal contract. For her to make demands is tantamount to her indicating that she wants the relationship terminated. Certainly, she should be able to voice an objection and know that it will be heard; and after she has done so, if her Master doesn't change his mind, she either carries through or risks disobeying him.
If the transgression is only of a mild severity, things may be set right simply by an apology/explanation on the part of the slave. The same may be true of the more moderate ones; however, in some cases the slave may wish to ask her Master for (real) punishment. This sounds odd, but if you have ever wronged someone, had them accept your apologies, and yet still felt like shit for it and continued to berate yourself for some time afterwards, you may be able to understand why such a request might be made. No sense in beating yourself over the head for weeks if you can just go to your Master and say "I still feel horrible for doing that; could you please punish me so I can feel as if I've made up for it?"
Real punishment might be better termed corrective punishment. It is rarely, if ever, found anywhere except a lifestyle D/s relationship. It is generally used like positive punishment and negative punishment in operant conditioning, but in order to function properly in this role, it has to be something that the slave really doesn't like. If the slave is a masochist, whipping them isn't going to do any good, they'll just enjoy it. If she's an exhibitionist, trying to humiliate her (assuming she doesn't enjoy public humiliation in the first place) by ordering her to take off her shirt in public isn't going to work.
It is imperative that the Master make it absolutely clear that he is in fact displeased, that he is truly punishing the slave instead of playing with her, and he should also elucidate exactly why she is being punished. The punishment must be something aversive enough so that in the future it will make the slave think twice before exhibiting whatever behavior elicited the punishment, but it should also fit the transgression and the slave herself. A Master who punishes a slave for accidentally calling him "Sir" when he wants to be called "my Lord", by confining her in a small cage for an hour when she happens to be claustrophobic, has no right to call himself 'Master'.
It can be used as a means of conflict resolution. If a slave violates her Master's trust by disobeying him, he might assign a punishment to her as a means of reaffirming her obedience - "You will complete this task as proof that you are willing to obey, else why should I continue to believe that you will ever do anything that I ask of you?" But once that task is completed, the slave is forgiven, the sin expiated, and both people put it behind them.
I should point out that Doms or Masters, being human and therefore not perfect, are not immune from needing to apologize. Due to the fact that the good ones generally possess large amounts of self-control, and to the nature of the relationship, it doesn't happen frequently; when it does, the slave knows it, and it increases her respect for him. Slaves don't have the right to demand an apology - they can't make demands, period. But the Master who has so much pride that he cannot allow himself to apologize even when he has obviously made a mistake is not worthy of anyone's submission. A Master need not apologize for directing his slave along a course of action which she dislikes - in a TPE, she has, after all, given him consent to do this. He might apologize to her if outside stresses got the better of him, and his anger leaked out when he snapped at her for no reason at all (part of that total trust given by the slave is the trust that her Master has enough self-control to not take external emotions out on her).
In any BDSM activity, the uttered safeword is a way for someone to bring everything to a halt if they fear for their safety, are being seriously injured, are having a phobia triggered, are having their limits pushed too far, etc. Some people will talk about doing away with the safeword in a M/s relationship - the slave has given up the right to say "I refuse to go on with this." For some M/s relationships, this may be correct. But there is no reason why a safeword cannot still be used in a total power exchange as a way for the slave to indicate that she feels *extremely* uncomfortable with what's going on. It's a red flashing danger light, not just an "I don't particularly like this." It is especially useful in any physical activity which might result in injury or asphyxiation; if a slave is experiencing an undesirable level of pain or an obstruction to her breathing, she should point this out - and if the Master continues and the pain becomes excruciating or she can't get enough air, then she should by all means use the safeword. Any Master who doesn't heed it in a case like this is, quite frankly, dangerous.
One definition of a scene is a period of time in which BDSM activities take place. In S/M relationships, scenes have discreet start and end times; in D/s lifestyle relationships, it should be fairly obvious by now that the relationship has exceeded the boundaries of anything that might be called a scene. A total power exchange is not limited by scene time any more than it is limited to the bedroom. I elucidate this because one of the more common "warning signs" of an abusive BDSM relationship goes something along the lines of "If you're not sure when a scene starts and stops." This can be misleading in the case of M/s; a total power exchange Master/slave relationship goes on all the time mentally, even if there are no overt physical signs of it.
It is not uncommon for subs and slaves to like being objectified; such feeling can mesh quite nicely with the power exchange. It is difficult to describe objectification that is purely mental. I hesitate to say "imagine being treated like a piece of property rather than a person", because this carries an implication of mentally unhealthy activities - and yet, within the larger tapestry of D/s, it works. An example of physical objectification would be wearing a leash and collar, something usually reserved for pets in this society, thus it carries connotations of ownership.
Humiliation and objectification are often closely entwined, and they make a neat menege-trois with the power exchange: the basic idea being "If I own you, then I can do whatever I please with you." Being humiliated, even mildly, acts as a reinforcement of the slave's position. Some subs and slaves have a taste for it, whether they realize it or not. It can range from mild to a severity which the onlooker is likely to mistake for verbal abuse. An example of something mild would be for the Dom to physically bind the sub's feet in some way, and then tell her to fetch him something from the kitchen. She's either going to be taking annoyingly small steps, if she can move her feet at all, or be hopping around. To combine this with play punishment, the Dom might alter the task such that the sub can't properly carry it out successfully- have her bring a beverage or something, which she is likely to spill while hopping, and then spanking her for doing so.
Oddly enough, properly-applied humiliation and objectification don't make a slave feel bad about herself. As already stated, they reinforce the power exchange - they make the slave realize just how much power she has surrendered, they make her feel helpless; and yet, at the same time, she is helpless in the hands of her Master, and there is a trust in him to not take things too far and actually damage her ego. It is a facet of the idea "I will do anything for this person, and let them do anything to me, because I trust them not to abuse that power."
2.11 Social and Psychological Issues
Slavery, as practiced in D/s, does not break down a person and make them into an emotional wreck who is dependent on their Master/Mistress for all of their self-esteem (if it did so, D/s'ers would classify that as an abusive relationship). Indeed, it does quite the opposite. Masters generally like to have a very good idea of what's going on inside the heads of their slaves; Masters with enough experience and knowledge of psychology tend to sniff out problems and then guide the slave, whether she realizes it or not, into dealing with them. Commonly-addressed problems include phobias and various kinds of low-self-esteem (a loving D/s relationship will tend to build self-esteem that a sub will carry with her for the rest of her life, even if the relationship ends).