Dominance and submission
Dominance and submission (also called D/s) is a set of behaviors, customs, and rituals involving the submission of one person to another in an erotic episode or lifestyle.
Physical contact is not a necessity, and D/s can even be conducted anonymously over the telephone, email, or other messaging systems. In other cases, it can be intensely physical, sometimes crossing into sadomasochism. In D/s, both parties take pleasure or erotic enjoyment from either dominating or being dominated. Those who take the superior position are called dominants—Doms (male) or Dommes (female)—while those who take the subordinate position are called submissives—or subs (male or female). A switch is an individual who plays either role. Two switches together may negotiate and exchange roles several times in a session. "Dominatrix" is a term usually reserved for a female professional dominant who dominates others for pay.
Note, it is common for writers to capitalise the "D" in Dominant but leave the "s" in lowercase for the submissive. Many extend this to His/Hers, Him/Her, He/She, etc., to make it clear when they are referring to a Dominant.
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The inner conflict and surrender connected with dominance and submission are enduring themes in human culture and civilization. In human sexuality, this has broadened to include mutual exploration of roles, emotions, and activities that would be difficult or impossible to act out without a willing partner taking an opposing role.
A 1985 study suggests that only about 30 percent of participants in BDSM activities are females. A 1995 study indicates that 89% of heterosexual females who are active in BDSM expressed a preference for the submissive-recipient role in sexual bondage, expressing also a preference for a dominant male, and that 71% of heterosexual males preferred a dominant-initiator role.
A safeword is usually given to the submissive partner to prevent the dominant from overstepping physical and emotional boundaries. The safeword is especially important when engaging in verbal humiliation or playing "mind-games", because the submissive may not be aware of an emotional boundary until it is crossed. If an emotional boundary is breached and the safeword spoken, the dominant should cease all play immediately and discuss the emotional breach with the submissive in a tender and understanding manner. Negotiating limits in advance is also an important element in a D/s relationship.
It is important to note that for a safe, sane, and consensual environment to be maintained, all participants should have a safeword of which the other is aware; this includes the Dominant partner. While it may not seem so from the outside, Dominants will also have limits and boundaries of their own, and should not only have a safeword but also be comfortable calling it if their own limits are exceeded. This includes cases where the dominant may feel things have gone too far and is uncomfortable continuing. As with any other participant, the dominant's safeword call should herald the stopping of all play and the start of a recuperative discussion between the participants.
D/s may be ritualized or freeform. It is usually a negotiated lifestyle, with people discussing their wishes, limits, and needs in order to find commonality. A D/s relationship may be sexual or non-sexual, long- or short-term, and intimate or anonymous. Most adherents search for the essential intensity, trust, and intimacy that are required to make any deep relationship possible.
D/s participants often refer to their activity as "play", with an individual play session being called a "scene". In addition to "dominant" and "submissive", a "switch" is a person who can take either role. A scene between two switches can involve trading off the dominant and submissive roles, possibly several times. In contrast, the terms "top" and "bottom" refer to the active (agent) and passive (patient) roles, respectively. In a given scene, there is no requirement that the dominant also be the top, or that the submissive be the bottom, although this is often the case.
The term "vanilla" refers to normative ("non-kinky") sex and relationships, the vanilla world being mainstream society outside of the BDSM subculture. The term comes from vanilla ice cream being considered the "default" flavor.
Some people in the D/s world capitalize words and names that refer to dominants, and do not capitalize those that refer to submissives, hence the capitalization of D/s; others do not. It was popularized in internet chatrooms, to make it easier to identify the orientation of the writer or the person being written about.
Also, some submissives eschew personal pronouns, instead referring to themselves as "this slave" or "Master Bob's girl". This is sometimes considered an expression of modesty, but it is an entirely optional method of depersonalizing a submissive during "play". It may have roots in the military, where new recruits are required to refer to themselves as "this recruit", rather than "I" or "me".
D/s relationship styles
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There can be any number of partners in a D/s relationship: one dominant may have several submissives, who may in turn dominate others, or a submissive may have multiple dominants. Relationships may be monogamous or polyamorous. Romantic love is not necessarily a feature in D/s: partners might be very much in love or have no romantic relationship at all. Some D/s relationships are sexual, others completely chaste.
Fantasy role play can be an element, with partners taking classic dominant or submissive roles, or classic authority-figure roles such as teacher and student, police officer and suspect, or parent and child. Animal play, where one partner takes the role of owner or caretaker and the other takes the part of a pet or animal, can also be D/s play.
A classic example of a D/s role is the sissymaid, where an adult male dresses in cartoonish female clothing and performs stereotypical female chores such as housecleaning or serving tea. It should be noted that cross-dressing in D/s does not always involve a desire to be sissified or made into caricatures of women or to serve: for example, others may desire to be made as beautiful as possible and interact on a "girlfriend-to-girlfriend" non-sexual basis.
Variation in D/s is virtually limitless and the activities take many forms, and may be combined with other forms of BDSM. These variations may include:
- domestic servitude or consensual slavery
- enforced chastity of the submissive
- erotic humiliation
- sexual slavery
- verbal humiliation
- fetishes—such as shoe or boot worship, uniforms, smoking, latex, and heavy rubber—are, among other activities, considered part of BDSM
- dehumanization (pony or animal play) or objectification (forniphilia, becoming an "inanimate object" such as a foot stool)
- corporal punishment
- human furniture
- human toilet - golden showers
- bondage (sexual)
- public humiliation
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There are some risks commonly associated with D/s. Because it is mostly a mental activity, many of the risks associated with D/s involve mental health. Others involve abuses of the trust inherent in a D/s relationship. Some examples are:
- Physically or mentally abusive dominant partner
- Self-hating subs
- Dominant partners who violate the trust relationship by attempting to isolate the sub from society or monetarily exploit the sub
Consent and contracts
Consent is a vital element in all psychological play, and consent can be granted in many ways. Some employ a written form known as a "Dungeon negotiation form", for others a simple verbal commitment is sufficient. Consent can be limited both in duration and content.
Consensual non-consensuality is a mutual agreement to act as if consent has been waived within safe, sane limits. It is an agreement that consent is given in advance, sometimes without foreknowledge of the exact actions planned, though within defined limits subject to a safeword, reasonable care, common sense, or other restrictions. The consent is given with the intent of its being irrevocable under normal circumstances. As such, it is a show of extreme trust and understanding and is usually undertaken only by partners who know each other well, or otherwise agree to set clear, safe limits on their activities.
It's not unusual to grant consent only for an hour or for an evening. When a scene lasts for more than a few hours, it's common to draft a "scene contract" that defines what will happen and who is responsible for what. It's a good way to work out what all the parties want, and usually improves the experience. Some contracts can become quite detailed and run for many pages, especially if a scene is to last a weekend or more.
For long term consent, a "slave contract" may be drawn up. BDSM "contracts" are only an agreement between consenting people and are usually not legally binding; in fact, the possession of one may be considered illegal in some areas. Slave contracts are simply a way of defining the nature and limits of the relationship and are not intended to carry legal force.
After a slave contract is drafted, some celebrate the event with a "collaring ceremony", in which the local D/s community is invited to witness the commitment made in the document. Some ceremonies become quite elaborate, and can be as involved as a wedding or any similar ritual.
Equipment and accessories
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Some people maintain a special room or area, called a dungeon, which contains special equipment (shackles, handcuffs, whips, queening stools, and spanking benches or a Berkley horse, for example) used for play scenes, or they may visit a BDSM club that maintains such facilities.
Many submissives wear a collar to denote their status and commitment. It can be much like a wedding band, except that only the submissive partner wears one. The traditional collar is a neck band in leather or metal, chosen, designed, and even crafted by the dominant partner. Some subs wear a "symbolic collar", often a bracelet or ankle chain, which is more subdued than the traditional collar and can pass in non-BDSM situations. It is not uncommon for a sub to have several collars for special occasions. Dog collars are integral for K-9 roleplaying—pup-play.
Many people—for example, some in the punk rock and goth subcultures—wear collars for other reasons, such as fashion. So, one cannot assume that all people wearing collars are involved in BDSM. Members of the furry fandom may also wear collars as a part of costuming or as fashion. Use of collars in the sexual aspects of furry lifestyle may or may not be connected to BDSM, depending on the individual's preferences.
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One of the most famous works in this area is Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus im Pelz (Venus in Furs, 1869), in which the protagonist, Severin, persuades a woman, Wanda, to take him on as her slave, serves her, and allows her to degrade him. The book has elements of both social and physical submission, and is the genesis of the term "masochism" coined by the 19th century psychiatrist Krafft-Ebing.
- Arthur Adamov
- Laura Antoniou
- Jacqueline Carey
- E.L. James
- Elfriede Jelinek
- John Norman
- Pauline Réage
- Anne Rice
- Cecilia Tan
- Larry Townsend
The Velvet Underground's song "Venus In Furs" is based on Sacher-Masoch's novel and discusses sadomasochism, the character Severin, and common bondage practices in a detached, objective, and non-judgmental manner.
The Rolling Stones song "Under my Thumb" (M. Jagger, 1966) is supposedly about a D/s relationship.
The Green Day song "All By Myself/Dominated Love Slave" (Frank Edwin Wright III or Tre Cool) describes F. E. Wright III's feelings for female dominance.
Dwele's "Obey" is a Neo-Soul song based on the mind of a Dominant in a D/s relationship.
- Venus in Furs - (imdb link) (1967) Directed by Joseph Marzano (written by Joseph Marzano, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch). A submissive (masochist) discovers (or creates) a reluctant Sadist. Long, examining scenes depicting what is for the submissive to wait in solitude or in transitory. Sadist gives the masochist the "ultimate gift" in the end.
- The Night Porter - (imdb link) (1974) Directed by Liliana Cavani. Thirteen years after WWII a concentration camp survivor and her tormentor, currently the night porter at a Vienna hotel, meet again and fall back into their sado-masochistic relationship.
- Histoire d'O (imdb link) (1975) Directed by Just Jaeckin. Based on the novel Story of O by Pauline Réage
- 9½ Weeks (imdb link) (1986) Directed by Adrian Lyne. Based on a book by the same name. Popular for its "You Can Leave Your Hat On" scene.
- Secretary (imdb link) (2002) Directed by Steven Shainberg. Widely regarded as the first mainstream film to depict D/s relationship issues.
- Liberty in Restraint - behind the eyes of a fetish photographer (film)|documentary (imdb link) (2005) Directed by Michael Ney. Contains real life D&S scenes and discussion.
- The Duke of Burgundy - (imdb link) (2014) Directed by Peter Strickland. A woman who studies butterflies and moths tests the limits of her relationship with her lover.
- Fifty Shades of Grey (film) - (imdb link) (2015) Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson with a screenplay by Kelly Marcel, based on the novel of the same name by E. L. James.
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- 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
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