What Is BDSM?
To understand what it means to be dominant or submissive, we must first understand what BDSM means. For a deeper dive into the world of kink, I heartily recommend reading my complete guide to BDSM safety, but for now, let's get acquainted with the basics.
BDSM is an acronym that stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. In this guide, we focus on the dominance and submission part, which refers to an emotionally and/or sexually satisfying exchange of power and control between partners.
No two D/s relationships look exactly the same. Partners can express kinks, fetishes, and other intimate desires in ways that are unique to their specific needs. There are many different ways to explore dominance and submission, some of which do not involve physical intimacy.
BDSM dynamics require consistent communication and negotiation to ensure safety and enthusiastic consent between partners. With D/s relationships in particular, there is a great emphasis on power exchange, which often involves protocol, rules, punishments, and rewards. But before we get into that juicy stuff, let's take a closer look at the ins and outs of Dom/sub dynamics.
What Is a Dominant/Submissive Relationship?
A Dominant/submissive relationship, also known as a Dom/sub or D/s relationship, is a dynamic wherein power is exchanged in ways that fulfill sexual and/or emotional desires. A D/s relationship can be polyamorous or monogamous, and involve one or several of each role.
The precise terms of your D/s relationship style can be entirely designed by you and your partners. For example, maybe you are the sole dominant player and your three partners assume submissive roles. Or maybe you're submissive to your two dominant partners, but are dominant with your submissive partner.
In monogamous D/s relationships, one person assumes the dominant role while the other is submissive. This can apply to every single play session you have, or can alternate, which is called switching. In dynamics where one person is Dominant and the other person is submissive 100% of the time, it's common for each player to identify with a certain type of dominance/submission.
Before we explore the different types of Dominant/submissive relationships, let's recap:
- Dominant. Dominant refers to the role within BDSM that centers around power play, a dynamic wherein all control is surrendered to the dominant player. Typically, the dominant controls the scene/activities while the submissive surrenders control. Play between dominants and submissives can involve many people, or be exclusive between two people.
- Submissive. On the other side of the power play spectrum is the submissive. Just like with dominance, submission involves an exchange of power wherein control is surrendered for sexual and/or emotional satisfaction. The relationship between the dominant and submissive is referred to as a Dom/sub dynamic, or D/s for short.
Now that we have a general idea of what it means to be dominant and submissive, let's dive deeper into the details! Keep reading to learn about different kinds of Dominant/submissive relationships and what makes each one unique.
Types of Dominant/Submissive Relationships
Each D/s dynamic is unique, and is cultivated and negotiated between partners. Some D/s relationships revolve around strict protocol, others have more relaxed rules. Some D/s relationships honor dominant and submissive dynamics in and outside of a scene, while others practice dominance and submission only during sex.
There is no one-size-fits-all D/s relationship, but one rules applies across the board: all partners must be consenting adults who feel empowered to communicate their wants and needs. Let's explore some of the most common types of D/s relationships so you can get a better sense of which might appeal most to you.
- 24/7. The 24/7 D/s dynamic refers to a relationship that upholds the agreed upon terms of power exchange at all times. When you're grocery shopping, watching a movie, playing tennis — the D/s roles are respected every hour of every day. This is often referred to as a Master/slave relationship, or M/s for short, and can involve collaring ceremonies, which is essentially a wedding that solidifies the union between Dom and sub.
- Casual. The casual D/s relationship is akin to a friends with benefits relationship. The terms are still thoroughly and consistently negotiated like with every other dynamic, but are usually based in short-term goals. For example, casual D/s partners might schedule their scenes and not interact beyond those encounters. It's common for casual partners to have primary romantic partners outside of their D/s dynamic.
- Bedroom only. Bedroom-only D/s dynamics are relationships that exclusively explore dominance and submission during sex. Outside of the bedroom, the roles and expectations of the dominant and submissive are disregarded.
- Non-sexual. Kink scenes and acts of dominance and submission do not always involve sexual or physical intimacy. In non-sexual D/s dynamics, players establish the ways in which they want to exchange power without involving sex. For example, the dominant player might task their sub with polishing their boots, or demand a detailed account of everything they eat in a day.
- Service-based. Many subs like to express their submission through acts of service. That's why they're called service subs! Service-based D/s relationships can involve sex, or not. The common thread within this dynamic is gaining purpose through servitude. Common examples of service related submission include serving a foot stool, preparing meals, cleaning, and scheduling appointments.
- Rope/bondage-based. Some D/s relationships revolve around rope play and/or other forms of bondage. In these dynamics, the person being bound typically assumes the submissive role, but not always! These relationships can involve sex, or not, and always include bondage of some kind. It's common for the rigger (a person who practices rope tying/bondage) to tie their rope bottom (the person being tied) without practicing any other forms of power exchange.
- Caregiver/little. Caregivers, often referred to as Daddy Doms, assume the role of a nurturing disciplinarian. Again, these dynamics can involve sexual intimacy, or revolve solely around emotional and mental play. They also typically rely on a punishment/reward system. For example, a caregiver might exert dominance over their sub (often referred to as a little in this type of dynamic) by making sure they drink enough water. If they fail to meet the hydration requirement, their Dom might punish them with a spanking. If they succeed, they might be rewarded with an orgasm.
- Brats/tamers.The brat/brat-tamer relationship can look similar to the caregiver/little dynamic in that age play is frequently present, and a punishment/reward system is often in place. What's unique to this dynamic, though, is the way the brat (who acts as the submissive) "misbehaves" on purpose in order to enjoy punishment from their Dom. For example, a brat might stick their tongue out at their Dom before gleefully running away in hopes of being chased, captured, and punished!
- Training/mentoring. A more experienced dominant or submissive player might take a less experienced partner under their wing in what's known as a training or mentoring D/s dynamic. Keep in mind: the dominant partner is not the only one who can train or mentor; these dynamics are about experience level, not roles. For example, an experienced submissive might mentor their dominant partner on proper flogging techniques, or show them how to maintain punishment/reward consistency.
- Chastity-based. In these types of D/s relationships, the submissive player is kept in chastity, which is controlled by their Dominant, often known as the keyholder. This doesn't always have to involve a tangible chastity device, but does revolve around controlling the submissive's sexual pleasure. For example, a keyholder might control and make record of every orgasm their submissive has. Any arousal or orgasms experienced without the keyholder's permission can be a punishable offense!
Now that you have a firmer grip on what dominance and submission can look like for different people, let's talk about the one thing that ALL D/s relationships must have in common: consent.
Signs of a Healthy Dominant/Submissive Relationship
It's a common misconception that the dominant partner can just tell their submissive partner to do whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want. This is an oversimplification — and a potentially dangerous one.
All activity between partners, sexual or not, must be negotiated and consented to beforehand and throughout a scene. That means even if someone consents to something once, consent must be re-established during play to ensure safety and satisfaction.
Remember: the submissive partner derives pleasure from being submissive. Forcing someone into submission against their will is not a part of BDSM — it's predatory and abusive. During a kink scene (and every kind of sexual relationship), all parties involved should be enjoying themselves. If not, it's time to stop the scene and regroup.
Negotiation between play partners doesn't mean that one person tries to convince another person to try something they aren't interested in. With D/s dynamics and all BDSM play, negotiation is not to be confused with compromise. No one should ever engage in sexual and/or kink activities that make them feel uncomfortable, forced, or coerced in any way.
On the contrary, negotiation between play partners is about establishing clear boundaries, wants, and needs. A Dom and sub should discuss hard and soft limits before playing together. A hard limit is something that's completely off the table, while a soft limit is something a person might be willing to explore under the right circumstances.
Another example of something to negotiate ahead of time is punishment versus reward. If you're incorporating any act of BDSM into a scene, take time to discuss the kinds of activities you'd like to enjoy when the person being disciplined is "bad," and how to reward them when they're good.
Remember that Dominant/submissive play is theatrical! That's partly why kink-centered play is often called a scene. That said, most actions played out during a scene are completely choreographed ahead of time to ensure safety and consent are always present.
Again: consent must always be present before, during, and after all BDSM and sex related activity. Period.
Once you've effectively communicated with your partner(s), worked out which kinds of scenes and activities you'd like to try, and thoroughly enjoyed yourselves, it's time for aftercare!
Aftercare refers to the time spent caring for each other after a scene has ended. BDSM activities can be both physically and emotionally exhausting (in a good way), which is just one of the reasons why aftercare is so important.
Aftercare is a great time to reconnect with your partner and revel in the warmth of the afterglow. It's also a good time to talk about what worked, what you'd like to change, and things you don't want to try again.
If you're looking for aftercare inspiration, here are some suggestions:
- Taking a warm bath or shower together
- Soft kissing
- Meditating together
- Eating together or being fed a favorite food
If you're finishing a scene in which corporal punishment or physical pain was present, icing bruises and tending to wounds can be a great part of aftercare as well.
No one is obligated to take part in aftercare. If you prefer to go home immediately after a scene and care for your own self, you absolutely can. But a partner who refuses to provide aftercare despite your want/need for it may not be ideal for you. Always prioritize your own pleasure and wellbeing, no matter which role you assume in a BDSM scene.
BDSM Terms to Know
Let's take a quick look at some commonly used words with definitions that aren't so well-known:
- RACK. This acronym stands for Risk Aware Consensual Kink. This means all parties involved are consenting adults who are fully aware of the risks involved in a scene.
- SSC. Safe, Sane, Consenting. This acronym also points to consent, which must be present at all times. It also implies that all play partners are fully capable of making decisions, and are not under the influence of something that could get in the way of total consent.
- Hard Limit. A hard limit is a NO. Hard limits are non-negotiable. If someone's hard limit is tickling, for example, that means no tickling should be present in a scene under any circumstances.
- Soft limit. A soft limit is like a maybe. It's something that someone might be willing to explore under the right circumstances with the right person. But until the green light is given, soft limits should also be treated as a NO.
- Fetish. A fetish is something that must be present during playtime in order to feel arousal. For example, if someone has a foot fetish, feet must be involved in order for that person to truly become aroused.
- Kink. A kink is usually something that mainstream society considers deviant or outside the norm. Someone's kink serves to enhance their pleasure or arousal. For example, if someone has a spanking kink, the act of spanking can supercharge their arousal!
- GGG. Good, giving, and game. This one is pretty self-explanatory!
- Kinkster. A kinkster is a term used to refer to someone within the kink community.
- Fetlife. Fetlife is an online community for kinksters. Essentially, it's like Facebook... for kinky people!
- Watersports. I know this sounds like it involves a jet-ski or water skis, but watersports actually refers to the involvement of urine within a BDSM scene.
- Scat. The refers to the involvement of feces within a BDSM scene.
- Shibari. Shibari is a type of Japanese rope bondage that has become popular all over the world.
Play safe, everybody!