So, you want to learn all about Dominant/submissive relationships, but you're not sure where to start. Well, you've come to the right place! In this guide, I cover the basics of BDSM and take a close look at one of the most cherished dynamics in the kink community — the Dominant/submissive relationship.
What Is BDSM?
To understand what it means to be dominant or submissive, we must first understand what BDSM means.
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 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.
Learn more: Guide to BDSM Safety
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 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 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.
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.
Types of Dominant/submissive Relationships
Each D/s dynamic is unique, and cultivated between partners. Some D/s relationships revolve around strict protocol, others favor 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 rule applies across the board: all partners must be consenting adults who are empowered to communicate their wants and needs.
Let's explore some of the most common types of D/s relationships below:
The 24/7 D/s dynamic refers to a relationship that upholds its 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.
The casual D/s relationship is akin to a friends with benefits relationship. The terms are 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 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.
Dominance and submission (and kink, in general) 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.
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 as a foot stool, preparing meals, cleaning, and scheduling appointments.
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.
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 dynamic) by making sure they drink enough water. If they fail to meet the hydration requirement, their Dom might administer a negotiated punishment! If they succeed, they might be rewarded with an orgasm.
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 to incite punishment from their Dom. For example, a brat might stick their tongue out at their Dom in hopes of being chased, captured, and punished!
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.
In these types of D/s relationships, the submissive player wears a chastity device 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 result in punishment.
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.
Learn more about the titles Dominants and submissives use to address each other: What Are Honorifics?
Signs of a Healthy Dominant/submissive Relationship
It's a common misconception that the dominant partner simply tells 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.
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.
Learn more: BDSM Red Flags
Negotiation between play partners doesn't mean that one person tries to convince another person to try something they don't want to do. 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 an activity 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. 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 aftercare is so important.
Aftercare is the perfect 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 which things you'd rather not try again.
If you're looking for aftercare inspiration, here are some suggestions:
- Take a warm bath or shower together
- Take a walk
- Meditate together
- Give each other massages
- Eat together or feed each other a favorite food
If you're finishing a scene that involved corporal punishment or physical pain, icing bruises and tending to wounds can be a important 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 of yourself, you absolutely can. But a partner who refuses to provide aftercare despite your want/need for it is probably not healthy for you.
Always prioritize your own pleasure and wellbeing, no matter which role you assume in a BDSM scene.
Learn more about why aftercare is important: What Is Aftercare?
BDSM Terms to Know
Let's take a look at some commonly used words with definitions that aren't as well-known:
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.
Safe, Sane, Consensual. This acronym points to consent, which must be present at all times. It also assumes that all play partners are fully capable of making decisions, and are not under the influence of anything that could get in the way of enthusiastic consent.
Learn more: What Does Safe, Sane, and Consensual Mean?
A hard limit is a NO. Hard limits are non-negotiable. If your hard limit is tickling, for example, that means no tickling should occur during a scene under any circumstances.
A soft limit is more like a maybe. It's something you might be willing to explore under the right circumstances with the right person, but until you give the green light, a soft limit should also be treated as a NO.
A fetish is something that must be present during playtime to feel arousal. For example, if you have a foot fetish, feet must be involved for you to become truly aroused.
A kink is something that mainstream society considers deviant or outside the norm. A kink isn't necessary for arousal in the same way a fetish is, but can serve to enhance pleasure. For instance, if you have a spanking kink, the act of spanking can supercharge your arousal.
Learn more: Kink Vs. Fetish: What's The Difference?
Good, giving, and game. This term means that all players are having a good time, and everyone feels safe to give and receive as much pleasure as they like.
A kinkster is a blanket term used to refer to someone within the kink community.
Fetlife is an online community for kinksters. Essentially, it's Facebook for kinky people!
Watersports refers to the involvement of urine during a scene.
Scat refers to the involvement of feces during a BDSM scene.
Shibari is a type of Japanese rope bondage that has become popular all over the world.
Best BDSM Sex Toys
We're nearing the end of this guide, so let's look at some of the best BDSM products for all experience levels. Remember that kink and BDSM don't always require toys, but can enhance the experience and add elements of surprise and excitement.
Best for beginners
Spartacus Collar & Leash Using a collar and leash can be a low-pressure way to explore BDSM because it's a form of power play that doesn't require any particular skill (like flogging does, for example). This stunning collar and leash combo is a perfect place to start.
Lelo Indulge Me Pleasure Set Those looking to explore sex toys and new sensations would do very well with this pleasure set, which includes a feather teaser, silk blindfold, and bestselling couple's vibrator.
Quickie Cuffs As its name suggest, this product is perfect for folks in need of handcuffs in a hurry. It's also ideal for beginners who aren't comfortable tying rope, or those looking to avoid wrist restraints with buckles, locks, and links.
Best for bondage
Kinklab Bondage Tape This quick and easy bondage tape is perfect for folks who aren't quite ready for rope, but still want an effective way to restrain their lover. It's budget-friendly, durable, and stylish.
Electra Playthings Wrist Cuffs Wrist restraints don't always have to look like mental handcuffs! This bright green pair of wrist cuffs features an attractive retro style, and a hook that allows them to be linked behind the back, above the head, or right in front.
Everything Bondage Kit If you're looking for the complete package, here it is. This bondage kit includes wrist and ankle cuffs, a collar and leash, ball gag, rope, nipple clamps, and more.
Best for impact
Sei Mio Tyre Paddle This big silicone paddle is sure to leave an impression, literally. It's easy to wield for novices and seasoned players alike, and has a double-sided design that lets you choose between smooth and rugged textures.
Leather Double Slapper with Hearts At once shiver-inducing and romantic, this impact tool delivers a satisfying thwack. Made of smooth, stiched leather, the Double Slapper will leave a smattering of hearts across your lover's skin.
Madame's Lace Flogger It's beautifully crafted, durable, and very effective. Each braided leather fall on this flogger is individually tied and secured by sturdy metal rivets. From top to bottom, this vintage-style flogger is almost 32 seductive inches long.
Best for sensation play
7 Rows Pinwheel This pleasantly prickly pinwheel can be as painful as you want it to be. Lightly drag it over sensitive skin for a teasing sensation, or press down harder for a more intense sensory experience.
Vampire Studded Leather Gloves Take spanking and sensory play to the next level with these studded leather gloves. The leather itself is smooth and soft, while the plated nickel tacks on the fingertips offer a sharper feel that's sure to ignite some good goosebumps.
Sex Kitten Feather Teaser When the scene calls for the light, ticklish caress of a feather, pull this teaser out and watch them squirm. Use it on the backs of knees, behind the ears, between the thighs — any erogenous zone begging to be teased.