While there are no hard statistics about how many experiment with D/s (since it remains such a hidden part of society), the range of books, organizations and trained psychological counselors for the D/s community suggest that interest in it is widespread. To many, the thought of tying someone up and doing all kinds of wicked things to them (or being the one tied up) is deeply exciting - yet very "wrong". Understanding what D/s is - and what it is not - may help clear up the issue.
There are two distinct areas of D/s - the psychological (the dynamic of Domination/submission) and the physical (bondage, the pain/pleasure response, etc.). One of the interesting things about "the lifestyle" (as some adherents call it) is that each area can be approached separately from the other. It follows that each of these areas has more or less appeal to everyone entering D/s - some will experiment only in one and never venture into the other. We will be discussing both in a moment, but first it might be useful to place D/s in a historical background.
A Brief History
In the Western world, D/s will forever and unfortunately be associated with the Marquis de Sade, the man who gave name to the term sadism and who first attempted to write about some aspects of D/s.
I say "unfortunately" because de Sade is the last man that the modern D/s community would wish to be represented by. Entirely self-obsessed, almost certainly a rapist (and at the very least one of brutal sexual temperament), spending a great deal of his life either imprisoned or in various asylums, the Marquis was nonetheless a passionate and literate defender of the individual, and had a keen understanding of the labyrinthine workings of the human mind. To de Sade, sadism and masochism (he enjoyed both) were the deepest explorations of the human self. He believed that only by peeling the psyche down via physical and mental anguish could one discover the core of one's being.
While de Sade might have been the world's most famous and excessive practitioner of this philosophy, he was certainly not alone. The idea of depriving the body and mind to better see the spirit is one central to many religions, seen in as many variant forms as Catholic flagellants, Hindu mystics, and Apache sun-dancers. In turn, these experiences are associated with a kind of ecstasy, in which the physical pain is both a root cause and effect. In some cases the line between this religious ecstasy and that of carnal pleasure is very blurred indeed - in the Western world, the Agony of St. Teresa is probably the best-known example.
The modern movement of D/s can be distinguished from its historical roots by the creed of "safe, sane, and consensual" (none of which could be applied to de Sade) and a humanist view largely separated from religious impulses.
Being such an intimate experience, there are almost as many differing interpretations of what D/s is and is not as there are practitioners. Motivations for experimenting with D/s are very different, and one's judgment of what makes "good" D/s will therefore be entirely subjective. Like any area of human interest, there are differing schools of thought, sub-branches, even schisms within the larger D/s community. With the obvious restriction of length, this essay attempts to give an overview of the modern D/s sub-culture as a whole, with its primary focus on what might be considered the mainstream.
Domination and submission - the psychological dark side
Part of de Sade's dogma was that the individual should take pleasure solely for himself - that this was in fact the central driving force to the human spirit. While typically excessive of de Sade, modern D/s does recognize that there is constant power-play in all human relations between those who are primarily Dominant and those who are submissive.
We can see this Dominant/submissive tendency in everyone around us. There are those that seem to naturally lead, take charge, and command, and there are others who are far more willing to follow. While upbringing, culture and life experiences can certainly shape this nature, to many it is something that one is "born with". To these people, Domination and submission is a part of everyday life - it is simply formalized, heightened and sexualized in D/s.
In the bedroom, many experience a thrill from being more dominant - the instigator, the leader - or submissive (one who is lead, commanded, positioned). Note that this only works if both parties feel comfortable in their respective roles. The rational mind recognizes that there is no fun to be had in sexual play in commanding someone who doesn't wish to be. (Acting at reluctance or resistance is another thing entirely, and can be understood to be part of the play).
In D/s, these roles are given various names. The Dominant partner is often referred to as a Top, Dom (Domme for women), "Master" or "Mistress". (The term "Dominatrix" is rarely used inside the lifestyle - a woman who makes money from her kink is simply a professional Domme.) The submissive partner is usually "bottom", "sub" and (in rare cases) "slave". While many entering the lifestyle will quickly find their niche, others may vary back and forth between one role and the other depending on their mood, partner, and circumstances. They are commonly referred to as "Switches", and are the equivalent of bisexuals in the continuum of D/s.
At this point it is important to note that to some, D/s is a part of their basic sexuality. Most of us identify ourselves as straight, homosexual or bi. A D/s adherent might say that they are "a straight male sub". For others, D/s doesn't run that deep - being submissive is a special treat for Friday nights, and not how they see themselves as a person.
The psych aspect of D/s is am endless subject of discussion within the community, often becoming overburdened with amateur psychology and self-rationalization. Perhaps the most extreme example of this can be found in the "Gor" cycle by John Norman - a series of fantasy works that started out as standard Robert Howard-esque fiction but became increasingly obsessed with promoting the idea that human males were naturally Dominant, and females submissive, with page after page of theory. This in turn spawned a whole sub-sub culture of Gorean D/s adherents, who follow the books as guides to life, much as extreme Tolkien fans might with their canon.
The greatest mis-understanding of the D/s lifestyle is that the sub must do anything s/he is commanded to do. This is simply not the case. A D/s relationship - whether it be for a short "scene" or a life-long commitment - is something that must bring pleasure to and fulfill both partners if it is to work. With new partners, a scene - a period of D/s play - is talked about and negotiated, and it is the sub that leads the negotiation.
Any sub will have things that are of interest to him/her, and things that are not. In the "not" category are acts that are psychologically repulsive or physically impossible (some forms of bondage or restraint might be very uncomfortable or dangerous, for example). These are "hard limits" - things the sub will not do. "Soft limits" are areas where the sub feels uncomfortable, but might be willing to venture into. These limits determine the possible activities of any "scene".
The physical aspect - Bondage and the pain/pleasure response
The pain/pleasure response can seem at first glance to be counter-intuitive, even contradictory - how can anyone take pleasure from pain? Some examples from everyday life might help to illustrate the phenomenon.
Many will be familiar with the "high" associated with extreme physical exertion. In reaction to physical stress the body releases natural opiates - primarily endorphin and serotonin - that act to dull the sensation of pain and often supply a feeling of transcendence and well-being. This phenomenon is primarily associated with exercise and sports, but almost any sufficiently stressful activity will do.
This same high is often in effect during sex. Many will be familiar with "hickeys", scratches, and other bruises from "the combat of love". During lovemaking, such effects don't seem particularly painful - in fact they are often arousing, a goad for more. Yet outside that context - if you were standing on a street corner, say, and someone bit you with the same force - it would most definitely hurt.
So context is all-important. What can be painful in one situation can be stimulating in another. Submissives don't have multiple orgasms when they hit their thumb with a hammer - if that were so, there would be no need for Dom/mes, and Home Depot would be a very different place. Context makes the difference. Being with someone that arouses you, or being aroused, can lead to a switching of associations between pleasure and pain.
That degree of association will vary naturally from one person to another, even from one day to the next (a woman's period, for example, can heighten physical sensitivity to an unbearable degree). Within D/s, riotous imagination has made toys of pain and pleasure from almost every conceivable item. Contrary to popular perception, whips are very rarely used in D/s, as they are extremely difficult to control. Floggers (similar to the cat-o'-nine tails, but usually with finer and many more tails), clamps and crops are popular. All have ways of being used safely - an under-appreciated side of D/s is that it requires study to do well. Sex is somewhat instinctive, but safe ways of binding someone to a bed are not.
Problems associated with D/s
Admitting submissive feelings can be extremely torturous. Men (culturally) and women (since the rise of the feminist movement) have been told to be strong, independent, and subservient to no-one. Integrating these cultural currents with the fact that one is turned on at the thought of being led around on a leash can be very difficult.
Professional Dommes skirt the law by the fact that their clients are often very well-heeled (and thus less of a target for a police force that does not wish to embarrass powerful members of society) and that there is no sexual interaction between themselves and their clients (at least not in the sense of direct genital contact.) As a private act between consenting individuals, D/s would appear to be on safe ground - but ongoing cases in Hong Kong, Toronto, Philedelphia and the infamous British "Spanner" case show otherwise. While there are no laws explicitly against D/s, authorities will often use a combination of bawdy house, prostitution and assault laws to charge D/s adherents.
D/s as a cover for abuse
Some men (and far rarer, women) will latch on to D/s as a smokescreen for their abuse. This can be particularly effective when their partners are submissive, and convince themselves that the abuse is "right" because "it's what I want". Central to recognizing abuse in a D/s relationship is the ability to see who is calling the shots - is the submissive stating the terms, or the Dom? Are there "safe words" that can be used by a sub to stop a scene that is no longer pleasurable, and are they respected?
D/s "sugar daddies" and "mommies"
Sexual desire has been a beguiling force down through the ages, since long before Salome. Sugar daddies can be found in the D/s community, leeched by subs through a form of undeclared trade - "I'll do x (submission) in exchange for y (money, goods, etc)". D/s can be such a strongly co-dependent activity that this particular dynamic can go unrecognized for years.
How do I know if my significant other is as interested in D/s as I am?
Approaching someone about D/s - even a life-partner of many years - can be a very awkward and embarrassing prospect. The good news is that someone with an interest in D/s has usually had such an interest for a very long time, even if it is suppressed. D/s adherents are the children who manipulated their childhood friends into tying them up during a game of Cowboys and Indians (or who was the one doing the tying), or who found out that they enjoyed being spanked. Being open and honest about these feelings is another thing entirely. Here are a couple of clues, however:
In conclusion - D/s can be a exciting, fulfilling venture, but it is not without its dangers and traps. Explored through a stable, loving relationship, it can deepen and heal trust issues. Approached with sensitivity and candor, it can vastly expand upon the range of expression available to "vanilla" (i.e. ordinary) sex. Because a D/s scene often requires careful approach and planning, it is not for "quickie" experiences. Often, a D/s scene can be measured in hours, including introduction, tension, climax and denouement, and can thus be a very effective alternative to a sex life that has grown predictable, quick, functional and stale. But because it can wade into deep emotional waters and be extremely physically stressful, D/s must be approached carefully, sanely, and most of all consensually.
- Do they use D/s terms in everyday conversation, in a joking manner? "Yeah, I should be spanked" in association with admitting guilt, for example.
- A copy of the "Beauty" series on their bookshelf. Before she became feverishly popular with her "Vampire Chronicles", Anne Rice wrote erotica, principally under the pseudonyms of "A. N. Roquelaure" and "Anne Rampling". Rice has undeniable skills as a writer, and the "Beauty" series is probably the best fictional exploration of D/s available. ("9 ½ Weeks", after the initial enticements, shows what can go wrong in a D/s relationship.)
- Victorian fly whisks lying around the house. Antique straps and canes. A riding crop, when you know she doesn't ride. Scarves left in curious proximity to the bedposts.