Dominant and submissive relationships

Dominant and submissive relationships

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Why do people sometimes prefer Dom/sub relationships?

D/s is one aspect of the wider category of BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadomasochism), sometimes also known as kink. Some people are into all of the things listed under BDSM, and some only some of them. D/s is generally distinguished from SM because it is more about power than about physical sensation (although some use these terms more interchangeably).

In D/s activities one person generally dominates the other, or has power over them, therefore people tend to prefer D/s if they find a power dynamic to be exciting in some way. Of course it is pretty common for sex and power to be mixed together in our culture. For example, a lot of romance fiction involves people being rescued from peril or being swept away by somebody more powerful, and a lot of people fantasise about having the power of being utterly desirable to their partner.

What is involved in a Dom/sub relationship?

If somebody identifies as being into D/s, or having a D/s relationship, then they probably include power play in their sex life, and perhaps in other aspects of their relationship. People can identify as dominant, submissive, or switch (which means that they are sometimes dominant and sometimes submissive). It might be that people stick to the same roles each time they play together, or that they take different roles on different occasions.

For most people, being D/s will be something that they only do some of the time (for example, just in pre-arranged scenes – often, but not always, involving sex). Such scenes could involve any kind of exchange of power. For example, the submissive person might serve the dominant one food, or give them a massage; the dominant person might order the submissive one around or restrain them or punish them in some way; people might act out particular power-based role-plays such as teacher and student, cop and robber, or pirate and captive.

Some people who are into D/s might have longer periods, such as a holiday, where they maintain their power dynamic. And a few have lifestyle or 24/7 arrangements, where one person always takes the dominant, and the other the submissive, role. However, even in such cases much of their everyday life will probably not seem that different to anybody else’s.

How does it differ to the traditional ‘vanilla’ relationship?

This depends very much on how important it is in the lives of those involved. Some D/s relationships would look very much like a vanilla relationship but just with a bit more power-play involved when people have sex. Others would have something of the D/s dynamic in other parts of the relationship. However, it should be remembered that most vanilla relationships have specific roles (e.g. one person takes more responsibility for the finances, one person is more outgoing socially, one person does more of the looking after, one person takes the lead in sex). In D/s relationships those things tend to be more explicit, but perhaps not hugely different.

So perhaps the main difference is in the amount of communication. Most people involved in BDSM stress the importance of everything being ‘consensual‘ so there will probably be much negotiation at the start about the things people do and do not enjoy, and the ways in which the relationship will be D/s. Checklists and contracts can be useful ways of clarifying this. So, for example, there may be limits about the kinds of activities and sensations people like, whether they enjoy role-play or not, and which aspects of the relationship will have a D/s element.

Why do so many people have misconceptions of this type of relationship?

The media portrayal of BDSM has tended to be very negative, often associating it with violence, danger, abuse, madness and criminality. Research has shown that actually people who are into BDSM are no different from others in terms of emotional well-being or upbringing, and that they are no more likely to get serious injuries from their sex lives, or to be criminal, than anybody else.

Often the media also focuses on the most extreme examples, such as very heavy and/or 24/7 D/s arrangements, rather than the more common relationships where there are elements of D/s. For these reasons people may well have misconceptions about D/s relationships. This is why it is useful to get a range of experiences out there in the media – so people can have more awareness of the diversity of things involved and the continuum (e.g. from light bondage and love bites to more scripted scenes and specifically designed toys).

How do couples go about beginning a relationship like this?

A good idea for all people in relationships, whether or not they are interested in D/s, is to communicate about what they like sexually early on, and more broadly about what roles they like to take in the relationship. Often people just assume what they other person will enjoy or how they would like the relationship to be.

For example, one good activity from sex therapy and from the BDSM community is to create a list as a couple of all of the sexual practices that either of you is aware of, and then to go down it writing ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘maybe’ about whether it is something that interests you, and sharing your thoughts. It can also be good to share sexual fantasies or favourite images/stories and to talk about whether (and, if so, how) they might be incorporated into your sex life (the Nancy Friday and Emily Dubberley collections of sexual fantasies can be helpful with this). It is very important that people only do things that they really want to try (rather than feeling coerced into certain activities) and that it is accepted that there will likely to be areas which aren’t compatible as well as those that are.

BDSM communities and websites are a great place to look for more information from those who have been involved in these kinds of practices and relationships. Also local fetish fairs and kink events often include demonstrations and workshops. There is more in my books Enjoy Sex and Rewriting the Rules about communicating about sex and relationships.

Some people have a BDSM relationship outside of an existing ‘vanilla’ relationship. What effect can this have on a marriage or couple relationship?

Again this varies. Although it isn’t always out in the open, many couples have arrangements where they are open to some extent (e.g. monogamish couples, the ‘new monogamy’, open relationships, swinging, polyamory, and ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ agreements).

Having different sexual desires is one reason why some couples open up their relationship to one or both of them being sexual with another person. If this is communicated about clearly, kindly and thoughtfully, it can work perfectly well. The important thing again is kindness and communication.

In regards to the hit book 50 Shades of Grey, many husbands have bought this for their wives and girlfriends. What does this say to them, and how would you help a couple who want to get more involved in this sort of lifestyle but don’t know how, or they are too shy to approach it?

The kinds of conversations and activities mentioned above are a great idea. One of the good things about 50 Shades of Grey is that it has opened up this kind of conversation for many people. However, it is important not to assume that the only form of BDSM is the one described in the book. In a heterosexual couple it may well be that the woman is more dominant, for example, or that both people switch roles, and the things that they enjoy may well be different to the ones which Ana and Christian engage in in the book.

If you want to read more about different practices and how to do them, then there are lots of good books available about BDSM. Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s books The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book are great places to start, as is Tristan Taormino’s The Ultimate Guide to Kink.

For couples who are really struggling to communicate about sex, or who have very different desires and are finding it hard to reconcile this, it might well be useful to see a sex and relationship therapist for a few sessions. The Pink Therapy website includes many kink-friendly therapists.

Find out more:

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Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).