Much has been written about a type of relationships generally referred to as “D/s”, where “D” stands for “Dominance” and “s” for “submission”. This type also includes BDSM relationships, where the dominant part of the relationship or encounter takes pleasure from causing physical and / or other forms of pain (such as emotional) to the submissive part, and the submissive part, in turn, derives pleasure from surrendering to the dominant part and receiving what the dominant part wants to give to them.
In erotic and romantic literature, whether in the form of essays, diatribes, novels, poems or what have you, engaging in D/s relationships has been both derided and dismissed as a sign of a disturbed soul and, every bit as much, revered, even discreetly and sometimes not without a bit of demure shame in more mainstream writing, as a higher form of emotional and carnal immersion. The concepts of willing submission, consensual slavehood, dominance, discipline, willing acceptance of humiliation and bodily pain – or even need for humiliation and bodily pain – all have contributed to the creation of a mystique around D/s, which enjoys the image of an almost spiritual type of romance, as opposed to the “plain”, “vanilla” relationships, where the participants are equal to one another.
The hierarchical nature of D/s
Try writing “d/s” instead of “D/s” while communicating in written form with a dominant, and they will quickly correct you for your ignorance or disrespect for their chosen form of relationship. There is a logic behind it: The “d” in the words “dominant” and “dominance” is capitalised to show that the dominant in a D/s relationship is superior to the submissive, by merit of either the dominant’s decision to adopt the title, posture, attitude, language, and related regalia and paraphernalia, or the reverence and deference given to them by their submissives, and whatever respect and appreciation they may enjoy from other dominants. Similarly, pronouns are capitalised when one is addressing, or referring to, a dominant, and not capitalised in the case of a submissive. In more “extreme” settings, the submissive does not use a personal pronoun for themselves, but, following practices that seem to be derived from the military, refers to themselves as “this slave”, “this girl”, “this sub” and so forth, being deprived of personhood completely.
Now, it may be true that the linguistic convention of capitalising traces its roots in internet chatrooms, where it is claimed it was first used to make it easier to denote a user’s orientation, but we see a manifestation of hierarchy: The dominant is by definition the one who must be respected at all times, while the submissive is, again by definition, conditioned and expected to defer to their dominant and any other dominants they may encounter, whether within the context of a D/s-related gathering or not. The only contemporary non-D/s social setting I can think of where one is expected to show deference to complete strangers they meet merely by virtue of their title is the military. Clearly, in D/s relationships and D/s social circles, priority is given to the dominants, their views, their wishes, their desires, even their whims, merely because they have adopted that title. As for the submissive… Well, the submissive will have to wait.
In this sense, the D/s world does very little, if anything, to promote equality in the relationship. The submissive must be given permission to speak; the submissive needs to assume certain positions and postures that show their submission and availability (in ritualised settings and scenes); the submissive needs to address a dominant with the “proper” and “expected” respect, otherwise they may be punished. And so on. So, there really is nothing egalitarian about D/s, as it prioritises the dominant, giving them greater importance, over the submissive.
We must not overlook the importance of discipline in D/s: The submissive must adhere to a certain set of behavioural guidelines, otherwise punishment shall be meted out. It is often argued that the submissive may deliberately misbehave in a session, so that they shall receive a punishment they look forward to. While this is true, the concepts of discipline and punishment point to older days, where corporal punishment of children was acceptable, and slaves and servants were regularly beaten (see such references in Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, for instance) by their bosses, and this was – again – considered perfectly acceptable.
In other words, the principles around which D/s is built have nothing to do with love and everything to do with ownership, control, and exploitation. You can romanticise and sugar-coat it all you want, but the core remains the same:
- The dominant owns the submissive;
- The submissive must defer to the dominant;
- The dominant’s image, worth, wishes, and desires are more important than those of the submissive;
- The dominant is given primacy by virtue of their title, and it remains to be seen if they prove unworthy of the respect given to them;
- The submissive is by definition and by virtue of their title of lower importance, and is often depersonalised altogether.
Thus, D/s does seem to create a class system, with two distinct classes of participants, whose roles are discrete and the underlings “know their place,” even though things can be fluid, i.e. a full-time submissive may eventually become a full-time dominant and vice versa; and there are people defined as “switches”, who move between the dominant and submissive roles according to their mood at the time. But still, despite the mobility between the two classes, D/s is still a class-based, hierarchical world.
D/s from a social and political perspective
D/s is often celebrated in certain socially and politically progressive circles as a form of sexual and romantic liberation, because it deviates from the norm that society accepts: in D/s circles, polyamorous relationships are not uncommon, and it is also quite common to see a female being dominant and having a male as a submissive. So, because non-monogamous and polyamorous relationships are not frowned upon within D/s circles (which pleases libertines), and because the role reversal of putting a male in a submissive role, contrary to societal norms, is considered “rebellious” and “radical”, we see D/s as an attraction or even a sub-movement within progressive movements like the movement for LGBTQ rights – do have a look at Pride parades, for instance.
An inherently hierarchical approach to romance and sex, informed by the – bolstered by millennia of patriarchy and primacy of the landowner over his slaves and serfs – idea that it is acceptable for a person to own other persons, is accepted by progressives, whereas one would expect them to frown upon it. This would initially seems strange, but the libertine element, with the fact that it embraces taboo forms of relationships (same-sex relationships, non-monogamous relationships), taboo sexual practices (such as anal sex, bondage, etc), along with the role reversal in female dominant / male submissive relationships and in practices and sessions where the male receives oral and anal penetration from a woman, have made it easy for D/s to be viewed as a perfectly acceptable form of relationship for a socially and politically progressive individual.
But this brings us to the adage that everything begins at home. How progressive can a lifestyle dominant be in their politics when they see their lover as an inferior person, who must be given permission to address them, and only using the “proper” pronouns and honorifics? Similarly, how progressive can someone be when they want to be treated as a superior by their romantic partner? How progressive can someone be when they view their partner as their property? How progressive can someone be when they take pleasure from humiliating their partner? I will get to that in a bit, but first…
Women are “meant” to be submissive
This is a myth that keeps coming up every now and then. It is based on the findings of a 1995 study, according to which “[p]reference for the dominant-initiator role was expressed in 71% of the messages by male heterosexuals, 11% of the messages by heterosexual females, and 12% of the messages by homosexual males” and “[p]reference for the submissive-recipient role was expressed in 29% of the messages by heterosexual males, 89% by heterosexual females, and 88% by homosexual males.”
What this really reflects is a manifestation of conditioning of the individual through centuries of indoctrination regarding gender roles. We are taught by our parents, our grandparents, our social surroundings, even by the toys we use as children, to accept certain, very discrete, roles based on the genitals we are born with: Girls are meant to be doting and docile, incapable of doing anything technical, and their place is at home, taking care of the kids and housework. It is merely a more subtle and palatable packaging of “barefoot and pregnant“-grade sexism. On the other hand, boys are taught that they are the hunters, the breadwinners, the dynamic, strong part of the equation, which deserves to be waited on hand and foot, by a submissive, eager-to-please, obedient, Stepford-like wife. So, in a nutshell, these findings are a manifestation of a way of thinking that is instilled in us by the conditioning we have received as children.
Still, such findings are used by misogynist groups to justify their claim that women are genetically inferior to men; I have even encountered an MRA (Men’s Rights “Activist”) troll in Second Life who used to go on about how women are genetically made to be “less rational” by men due to the “fact” that they have a “reptile brain” and, because of that, are more inclined to be submissive. There is, however, no real, scientific evidence of that. Instead, we have every reason to understand that the different responses to D/s-related roles across the genders are the result of our upbringing, with the stereotypes about the “acceptable” and “expectable” roles of each gender and / or sexual identity.
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Humiliation, depersonalisation, and dehumanisation
We need to be blunt here: The mere concept of putting someone in an inherently inferior position to someone else in a relationship contains the element of humiliation. All the sweet talk about how “precious” the slave, sub, pet (or however else the dominant calls the submissive) is to the dom(me) cannot hide it. One might claim that the roles and titles have more to do with who initiates a scene, but the requirement that a submissive (especially in a lifestyle D/s relationship) adheres to a protocol dictating their behaviour says otherwise.
Then we have the “this slave” or “this slave” linguistic convention, where the submissive is depersonalised; here, the submissive does not say, for example, “I would like to…”, but, instead, “this sub would like to…” or “this slave would like to…” Even if the submissive has a natural submissive streak, even if this submissive streak has been further reinforced by their upbringing, no one in their right mind would encourage someone to act as if they were not a person. The very moment someone loses their personhood is the very moment they lose their rights as a human being – and it goes downhill from here, because there are more extreme forms of depersonalisation, even dehumanisation, in D/s – try having a look at Simon Benson’s themes, for instance. None of these stories treat the submissive as a cherished, loved person. Instead, they glorify rape and every kind of physical, emotional, and mental abuse imaginable.
You not me
By definition, D/s places far greater emphasis on the needs and desires of the dominant, not those of the submissive, as it was clearly conceived by dominants for dominants. This is evident in the vast majority of essays written by D/s practitioners: They instruct the dominant on how to maintain the loyalty, respect, and devotion of their submissive(s); they instruct the submissive on how to be a good, obedient, dedicated, subordinate. Of course, there are treatises that explain to the dominant how to ensure that the submissive will not feel ashamed as they exit “subspace” (which is merely a pre-orgasmic state that can be evoked and prolonged with suitable play), but even those articles that seem to be written in order to promote the mental, emotional, and physical welfare of the submissive are actually written as an owner’s manual, advising the dominant on how to extract more time of good, loyal, enthusiastic service from the sub; even the articles that present themselves as “balanced” w.r.t. the importance of each participant’s wants, fears, needs, desires, worries, problems, emotional baggage, still manage to inject a few words here and there that make it evident that primacy is given to the dominant.
Is it impossible then for a healthy person to engage in D/s?
I am not going to adopt narratives like those of Steven Shainberg’s “Secretary” or the horrendously badly-filmed “Fifty Shades of Grey“, the adaptation of E.L. James’ already abysmal book. In both cases, the protagonists were screwed up. In “Secretary”, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character (the submissive) suffered from borderline personality disorder: She was the very sensitive youngest daughter of a dysfunctional family who sought relief from her anxieties and fears in self-harm. And in “Fifty Shades”, Christian Grey is a person who had been abused in his youth and employs abusive practices to derive sexual pleasure and the thrill of power and control. In fact, there are scenes where his behaviour justifies a restraining order – at least.
I have to be blunt: It is not healthy to want to rule over, and own, someone else, especially in a “total power exchange” or “lifestyle” setting. It is not healthy to want to own someone else. It is not healthy to want to punish someone for stupid stuff like not addressing you properly before other self-styled dominants, or for “topping from the bottom” (i.e. directing you as to how they want to be fucked, as they would in a balanced sex session). Yes, I am pretty sure that most lifestyle dominants should own up and start dealing with their desire to control others. That said, I can understand how someone would want to dabble in a little dominant kinky play every once in a while to unwind; letting go in sex helps someone regain their balance. But wanting to have somebody else assume, on a permanent basis, the role of your slave, your possession, your property? Sorry, that is simply medieval, and I am being undeservedly kind here.
What about the submissives, then? Well, like I said earlier about domination, willingly surrendering to your lover in order to unwind is perfectly understandable and acceptable. But seriously, the notion that, by relinquishing your freedom and your control over your life, you gain actual freedom is pure bullshit. Freedom is having power and control over your life – and yes, it comes with its own responsibilities. Of course, this notion is also used to explain the desire of sexually repressed people (mostly women) to submit: They were taught that having a libido, sexual desires, fantasies, and a sex life is a sin; so, by submitting to someone else, they feel they can tell themselves (and others) that what was done was against their will, so they cannot be held to account for their “sinful” acts. But do we liberate these repressed – and most certainly abused – people by making them the property of a dominant? I do not believe this addresses the problem, as it merely offers them an excuse. These people need to be brought to the point where they can finally feel strong and confident enough to say “I am my own person; I have my fantasies, my desires, my needs, and I need no excuses for what I am, what I want, and what I do, since I am not harming or hurting anyone.”
But weren’t you part of a D/s relationship yourself?
I knew this question would come, so I shall be upfront about it: Yes. I was part of a D/s relationship myself, even though the other party constantly denied that this was a relationship, probably because of my lower national status (I happen to be a “lazy, profligant, corrupt Greek who lives in a permanent siesta and mooches off the hard-working Germans and Britons and corrupts the paragon of honesty and decency known as the European Union” in RL), as well as a significantly lower financial and social status, as I was born into a working-class family and uneducated parents who would much rather I were born with the “right” set of genitals, and I had never married a banker or gone on a paid-by-others joyride on the Concorde. Also, I never had the chance to be particularly well-read, as I had been doing odd jobs to supplement my allowance and, later, support myself, since I was a teenager. And I had been dealing on my own with depression since I was fourteen, after a cousin favoured by my family tried to rape me. There you have it.
Regarding my current stance on D/s: I used to see myself as a submissive, because of my own emotional and other needs. I saw in it a way to rehabilitate myself sexually, as a way to get rid of any sense of guilt and, therefore, stop seeing sex as a sin after I was sexually assaulted. I readily admit that various aspects of D/s and BDSM intrigued me, and some still do, and I do incorporate some kinky stuff into my sexual encounters in RL every now and then. I will also admit, without hesitation, that I like adding a fetishistic touch to my SL and RL attire whenever I can get away with it. But this is where the line is now drawn.
As for the fact that I was a submissive, I felt the need to surrender myself to someone who would care for me, in order to feel safe, cherished and protected, not least because I grew up as a lonely, unwanted child whose presence was merely tolerated and whose constant attempts to attract attention through good grades at school went unnoticed. You see, I believed that I would be loved if I could prove that I was “good enough,” that I could “earn my keep,” with being doting, eager (or, rather, over-eager) to please, always there to lend a willing ear… And I saw the thinly-veiled contempt with which my efforts were viewed, and I received all this from someone whose writings on D/s still inform many SL fetishists. So, after realising that much of what was happening to me was not only because of the other person’s character, but also because of the highly hierarchical and, like it or not, patriarchal (even in femdom relationships), nature of D/s, a nature that appeals to characters with certain traits, I decided I had to speak. Enough with the pampering and the coddling to dom(me)s, and enough with submissive writers sucking up to dom(me)s in the echo chambers we know as fetish blogs and websites.