Monday, May 10, 2010

Monday 10

Dominance and Submission in Sexual Behaviors and Relationships

Psych200 Human Sexuality

May 2010

The dyad of dominance and submission has an extremely powerful meaning in our society. It is central to the hierarchies that define social structure within every institution—from workplaces to social groups to personal relationships. With regard to personal relationships, those words have an additional controversial meaning. Relationships in which this dyad still exists are looked down upon by society; promoting inequality in power appears to go directly against the grain of equal-rights movements that shaped the U.S. Stopping abuse and protecting victims are clear priorities, but despite its treatment by much of society, Dominance/submission (D/s) as a sexual practice has nothing to do with rights or abuse. D/s and other practices broadly classified as BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadomasochism) are distinguished from abuse and sexual violence by the requirement of safe, sane, and consensual conditions. There are a good number of reasons behind society’s negative image of D/s. Some reasons are merely a matter of preference, others are anecdotal not broadly applicable, and many are rooted in fictitious representation. The primary example of misunderstanding regards the distinction between D/s and abuse by safe, sane, consensual practice. Probably just as important is the assumption that such practices indicate or cause unhealthy relationships. This remains a widely held interpretation of D/s relationships. And yet, cultural acceptance of BDSM overall is on the rise due to the fact that most reasons for rejecting its practice simply aren’t true. The D/s relationship dynamic in particular is highly misunderstood, but as research sheds light onto the real experiences of D/s couples, the evidence for pathologizing their behaviors falls away.

Dominance/submission is a large component in most BDSM. D/s revolves around the consensual exchange of power between dominant and submissive; the submissive relinquishes power and is “played with” by the dominant in the form of verbal and/or tactile stimulation. Giving or receiving punishment or pain in the practice of bondage and discipline or sadomasochism mostly involves a D/s-type exchange of power. D/s without the use of restraints or infliction of pain is also practiced and can involve role-play, sexual aggression, and non-painful physicality. D/s is a broad theme that is often a component of B&D and SM play. Bondage and discipline is characterized by role-playing punishment for misbehavior. B&D tends to evoke the most striking image of BDSM, likely due to the frequent use of accessories for physical binding and infliction of pain. Sex accessories are foreign to many people, even without association with alternative sexuality, so it is unsurprising that the adornment of bizarre costumes for the purpose of bizarre sex play overwhelms the public image. Sadomasochism is probably the most difficult of the three themes for non-practitioners to understand, in that it specifically links physical pain with sexual pleasure. Especially shocking is the notion that SM, if done irresponsibly, could lead to injury. It probably doesn’t reduce the shock value to note that this risk is central to gratification derived from SM play. The word “play” in reference to BDSM activities emphasizes the safe, sane, consensual rules that prevent abuse of either role.

The conservative view of D/s is of sickness and perversion, leaning towards violent crime. Non-traditional sexual behaviors and desires may be pathologized by partners, therapists, and mainstream societies. Outside perspectives generalize that BDSM tendencies are a predictor of destructive intimate relationships on the basis of desiring sexual violence. Between partners, unshared sexual desire can translate to infidelity. However, many are likening the stigmatization of BDSM to that of homosexuality, bisexuality, masturbation, swinging, pornography, erotic fantasies, age gaps between partners, and non-traditional gender roles. Where these sexual alternatives were previously seen as sickness, they are now largely accepted as a matter of individual preference. Psychotherapists with na├»ve, uneducated, or otherwise negative attitudes toward D/s are not just behind the times, they also foster an untrusting environment, sabotaging all aspects of treatment. On a greater scale, the lack of understanding of mental health professionals amplifies their clients’ feelings of stigmatization and hinders the progression toward cultural acceptance of alternate sexuality.

What is not known to much of society are the ways in which D/s is actively and consciously distinguished from sexual violence. D/s practitioners adhere to the rules of safe, sane, consensual practice because they are necessary for pleasure. Safety precautions are taken, particularly where pain is involved. The dominant must be able to skillfully and safely administer pain in response to the needs of the submissive. Safety words are used to communicate what participants are comfortable with and when to stop. D/s is only practiced by responsible, sober, sane individuals. Practitioners must be able to follow rules and be responsive to their partners’ needs. Dominants cannot be so dominant that they hurt their partner, and submissives cannot be so submissive that they will not let their partner know they are being hurt. All aspects of D/s play are negotiated beforehand and mutually consented upon. Needs and boundaries are respected and both partners are sensitive to changes that arise during play. A person who derives pleasure from BDSM-like practices in violation of those rules is indeed abusive, and is rejected by BDSM communities as well as by society as a whole. D/s behaviors are more complex than stereotyped. The reasons for pursuing interest in D/s are far beyond the outside assumption that it allows mimicry of sexual violence and violent crime. There is an overriding theme of personal empowerment for both roles that permits escape from the expectations of daily life.

It is impossible to accurately estimate the prevalence of DsPs given obvious sensitivity around the subject. While well-developed BDSM communities are relatively easy to find and survey, there remain private, individual DsPs, who likely represent the uncounted majority. Underreporting occurs for a number of reasons, including privacy about sexual behaviors, recruiting bias (some practitioners may be open to surveying, but don’t visit clubs), and risk of prejudice. On the shallow end of the scale, Kinsey (1953) reported that 26% of males and females responded pleasurably to biting and scratching during intercourse. Still far shy of a negotiated sex script, these small expressions of sexual aggression are an accepted, even eroticized, sexual behavior. Dominant and submissive themes in mainstream sexuality and media are another accepted form of expression. A study in 1982 of 1760 erotica magazine covers found that almost 20% presented BDSM themes (Hoff, 2003). It is unsurprising that fantasies are more common than practice, given widespread exposure to D/s-like depictions of sex and power. Exposure to sexual themes in media and elsewhere introduces people to ideas that they may not think up on their own. Greater exposure in the media increases the likelihood that both partners in a sexual encounter or relationship will be open to experimenting. Moving toward the deeper end of sexual power play, patterns start to appear. Sexual variation in general (novel positions, oral/anal sex, etc.) is higher among people who have completed college versus those with only a high school degree (Hyde). The comedic depiction of professionals engaging in erotic role-play in the 1985 film, “Porky’s Revenge” reinforces a stereotype that actually reflects known demographics. Dominance/submission behaviors in educated, upper-class, white-collar professionals promote the interpretation that D/s permits the sexual relinquishment of power that bears heavily on other aspects of life (Baumeister, 1988; Ernulf & Innala, 1995).

Probably the biggest question surrounding the subject is just why the exchange of power in D/s play is so appealing to its practitioners. A number of theoretical approaches have been made toward understanding and defining BDSM sexuality. Freud considered sadomasochistic practices pathological, but that destructive tendencies were a part of human nature. He noted that sex is related to aggression, even in heterosexual intercourse. By societal standards, masochism is normal in women and abnormal in men; this reflects the emergence of BDSM types of roles from established gender roles. Brothers (1997) and Celenza (2000) believed that BDSM tendencies arise from practitioners eroticizing childhood sexual abuse or re-enacting the traumatic scenario as a means of regaining control. In contrast, Santilla, et al., (2000) reported that BDSM practitioners did not experience childhood sexual abuse at significantly higher rates than the general population. The literary works of de Sade (1966) and Sacher-Masoch (1996) are the origins of sadism and masochism; Butcher’s analysis (1999) suggests that a minority who were disturbed that they identified with the texts drove cultural rejection of BDSM sexuality. Radical feminist theory states that sadomasochism is a pathological perpetuation of patriarchal oppression and violence against women. Social learning theory looks at parental interactions that may enforce underlying tendencies. For example, a child who is misbehaving may be punished, and then comforted or rewarded with a hug. For some children, this may register as more loving a relationship than is experienced without punishment/reward behaviors. Finally, stress reduction theory looks solely at the adult experience, although existing tendencies must co-occur to explain the exact direction of response. By this theory, BDSM activities are used to escape the burden of societal demands. This is a compelling explanation, particularly given the prevailing upperclass, well-educated demographic that dominates the population of BDSM practitioners (Weinberg, 1984, 1987; Hoff, 2003).

Dominance/submission is a multi-faceted term that applies to a variety of relationships and behaviors. The popular image that comes to mind is the leather-bound, stiletto-ed dominatrix teasing and punishing her slave with a whip while he begs to lick her shoes. First of all, this image contains all aspects of BDSM—bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism—not just D/s. The only strictly D/s aspect of this scene is the submissive begging to lick the dominant’s shoes. The other aspects build off of the power exchange and extend into binding and administration of pain; but power and control, or the relinquishment of, are central to this image. Secondly, this is only one example of the dynamic between practitioners. Different people have different preferences and boundaries within the wide world of BDSM possibilities. Not all female DsPs are dominatrices and not all male DsPs want to be dominated.

In addition to the terms “dominant” and submissive, a number of others are used—Dom/sub and top/bottom are the most common and applicable. Many role-dyads correspond to BDSM practices in general; the nature of activities—whether or not accessories are involved, the administration or avoidance of pain—are defined circumstantially. Master/slave is used and associated with D/s, but does not apply broadly; many DsPs are adverse to the allusions of force and cruelty, especially with regard to race. Where it is used, it depicts a dynamic of ownership—the submissive is the master’s possession and plaything, and either role can be assumed by either gender. Dyadic themes range from stereotypical to quite creative. Some are gender-specific, some are interchangeable, and some interchangeable themes are more gender-specific in practice. For example: teacher/student, cop/criminal, daddy/little girl, CEO/secretary, health inspector/restaurant owner, doctor/patient, nanny/baby, interrogator/suspect, boss/maid, etc. D/s play can be elaborate, involving pre-negotiated scripts, costumes, props, even a setting, like a classroom or dungeon. Or, they can be simple, constructed by verbal exchange and manual administration of control and pain.

Solely D/s behaviors are relatively fewer than those involved with bondage or infliction of pain. Verbal role play, rough sex, spanking, and humiliation (like licking boots or tasting one’s own sex fluids) are dominant/submissive activities that don’t necessarily fall within the limits of sadomasochism and bondage/discipline. Some additions to these basic themes are the affliction of pain without sex accessories (i.e. biting, scratching, slapping, pinching, choking, hair-pulling, others) and with accessories (i.e. whips, canes, clamps, needles, hot wax, others), and physical binding (with ropes, handcuffs, gags, chains, scarves, neckties, others); (Ernulf & Innala, 1995).

Descriptions of these activities are bound to evoke an image of a particular setting—such as a leather club or a back room in Amsterdam’s red-light district. For those who haven’t experimented personally, the mental image that D/s sex is visually different from normal sex may help to distance themselves from the idea of D/s sexuality. In reality, there is less difference than similarity between D/s and non-D/s sex and more variation within groups than between groups. The biggest practical difference between outside perception and reality of D/s is the existence of healthy, long-term, committed relationships. Degrees of preference for D/s occur across a wide spectrum, and as with any other sexual preferences, healthy relationships are built on a foundation of complementary needs. There is no good way of quantifying with any reliability the range and breakdown of BDSM relationships. Recruiting for studies is often biased toward those involved in BDSM communities or online forums and people who are particularly open about sharing their sexuality. Whether or not this group forms the majority, it is important to shed some light onto the wide spectrum of behaviors and lifestyles of practitioners.

Hoff (2003) did a study on the role of sadomasochism in the relationships of four long-term committed heterosexual couples, impacts of others regarding sexuality, and effects on experience with psychotherapy. The couples were interviewed on the basis of eight themes: 1) length of relationship; 2) commitment in relationship; 3) history of SM orientation; 4) meaning and importance of SM; 5) impact of attitudes from others; 6) experiences with psychotherapy; 7) attitude of mental health professionals (MHPs) toward sadomasochism; and 8) recommendations to MHPs. The four couples had vastly different experiences with regard to those eight categories, but each had found a way to embrace their shared sexual proclivity, which then served higher purposes in the relationships as tools for emotional healing and communication.

In couple 1, Sandra is dominant and Bill submissive. They met when Sandra bought Bill at a Halloween auction, and at the time of the study were married 18 years and had no children. Their lifelong slave/mistress relationship was central to their marriage vows and is a prominent and open aspect of their lives. Sandra is free to experience other slaves than Bill, but the marital relationship is strongest and most passionate. In previous relationships, but felt uncomfortable about disclosing their sexual interests. Sandra was highly interested in pursuing dominance, but her partner viewed the behavior as extremely perverse and problematic, and needed to be fixed. Bill had been able to disclose his desires as a submissive, but had found prior experiences to Sandra unfulfilling. He could not find a partner who was sufficiently dominant; in many cases he had to direct the scene, which could cause obvious difficulties with submitting completely. As a couple, Sandra and Bill are deeply involved in the BDSM community and rarely interact with potentially judgmental demographics. Sandra had been seeing a psychotherapist regularly about general issues, but upon disclosing her sexuality, she was abandoned without a referral. She lost trust in therapy altogether and relied on Bill for support, but could not re-create the same objective, but sensitive, environment. Ultimately, it was a traumatic experience for Sandra that could have been avoided by greater understanding on the part of her therapist. Mental health professionals should be open to non-destructive unconventional behaviors and not pathologize others based on their personal discomfort. Comparable to the treatment of homosexuality, aversion therapy of SM sexual orientation is ineffective and harmful. SM practitioners should not have to bemonster their sexuality in seeking therapy; they have many of the same reasons as non-SM practitioners for counseling, which may or may not involve sexuality.

Couple 2 comprises Hela (submissive) and Steven (dominant), who had been intimate for about five years but are unmarried and do not cohabit. Owing to a hysterectomy, Hela experiences low sex drive, so it is part of their relationship that Steven has outside playmates. Both had experienced violent environments prior to engaging in SM sexuality. Steven witnessed his father abuse his mother as a child and first noticed his SM sexuality as a young adult; Hela is a survivor of domestic abuse and was introduced to SM by Steven. Hela actually felt empowered by her submissive role because the submissive has ultimate control over the scene. She was able to invite what had once been perceived as harm, reminding her of her deep emotions about her abuse, but in play with Steven, she could direct every aspect of what was being done to her: harder, softer, faster, slower, more, less. This couple used SM play as therapy for overcoming emotional issues, such as Hela’s experience with abuse, their double marginalization as people of color who also practiced SM, issues about body image, and other very sensitive subjects. SM play helps them to address complex and sometimes painful emotions and enhances communication throughout their relationship. The two are both very discreet about their sexuality, keeping their interests from even their closest friends. Hela understood that revealing her sexuality might be uncomfortable for others, but remaining secretive made her feel like a fake, having a split personality where no one could know her completely. Exceptions likely include Steven and a particular psychotherapist with whom she had a positive experience. This therapist focused on communication and the relationship dynamic without pathologizing sexual behaviors. He even acknowledged that in the absence of destructive consequences, SM play was a good tool for addressing relationship issues. MHPs in general are best open to the possibility that BDSM play can be therapeutic, and should be able to distinguish safe, sane, consensual SM from violence.

In couple 3, Lynn is primarily dominant and Brian primarily submissive, but they often switch to allow Brian to enjoy dominance. They both hold high-paying high-pressure jobs. They were married 13 years at the time of the study and sexually exclusive, though each had a teenage son from previous marriage. Brian declares that his interest in SM developed as early as his sexuality, that he “came this way”. Lynn didn’t know about BDSM at all until Brian began to share his desires within their relationship; her acceptance and understanding led her to develop a great interest in participating. Lynn’s embrace of Brian’s sexuality was crucial for their relationship and even catalyzed their individual growth. This aspect of the relationship was revolutionary in Brian’s life, having grown up with dyslexia at a time when it was not understood. He received continuous therapy starting as a teenager but suffered severe relationship issues with his family. His dad in particular would not acknowledge that he was not simply stupid. Openness and understanding were thus very important to Brian, and so he made a point of sharing his sexual orientation very early on in relationships. He did not want to invest his time and emotion in a relationship that would make him live a double-life, and so faced difficulties in finding the exact type of partner that he needed. This need was eventually satisfied when he found Lynn, but due to their social surroundings, both are very careful about who they disclose their sexuality to. They have approached therapy individually and as a couple, but were at best disappointed by their MHPs complete unfamiliarity with the subject and at worst pathologized. Brian emphasized that MHPs should learn about the client and provide what is needed to encourage self growth, instead of looking at the client as an assortment of diagnoses that need fixing. Adequate education about alternative sexuality should be an essential component of psychotherapeutic training; it’s entirely unacceptable for an MHP to begin learning the basics of an entire sexual subculture from clients, who do not pay to teach. One of these crucial basics is being able to distinguish between destructive and constructive SM behaviors. Ultimately psychotherapy should focus on the issues that are important to the client.

Couple 4 are Simone (submissive) and Tim (dominant) who were married for 4 years at the time of the study. They are polyamorous, having multiple transient partnerships, but the committed marital relationship is most important in the long run. Both Simone and Tip were interested in SM from an early age, but had many negative relationships until they met. Together they found compatibility and an environment where their shared alternative sexuality could be embraced. For them, fantasy enactments are a helpful and therapeutic tool. Simone was adopted, and as a teenager she idolized her biological father who probably didn’t know she existed. Tim lost much of his relationship with his daughters following his service in the military, during which time he and their mother divorced. Their “daddy/sweet little girl” power relationship fulfils the needs of both by acting out their wishes in life through a sexual context. They also switch roles to allow Simone to enjoy the top role. Further, evoking the incest taboo makes their sex kinky, exciting, and gratifying without any actual incest or sexual abuse. They found that their SM sexuality made effective relationships with psychotherapists hard to come by. MHPs may ask unhelpful or irrelevant questions about their sexuality as a means of figuring out the situation. However it’s the therapist’s job to learn about and understand aspects of the human experience objectively before coming to conclusions about normalcy or abnormality. It is unhelpful to jump into analyzing some behavior that seems unfamiliar without considering the client’s perspective. The cause of attraction to SM behaviors may be identifiable, but the behaviors are not intrinsically wrong, and identity is separate from behavior. The purpose of therapy is to address clients’ needs, not pathologize their sexuality. Tim suggests that MHPs view BDSM as another of the very many subcultures that exist in the world, that display esoteric customs and have variations in what behaviors are socially accepted. The therapist must therefore address their own cultural biases and be sensitive toward differences without seeing them as wrong.

There is no way to extrapolate broadly over the population how widespread these relationships are that defy cultural stereotypes. But given just a few examples, it is clear that there are innumerable ways that couples with interests in D/s or other BDSM play can safely and beneficially incorporate their sexuality into their relationships and lives. Furthermore, these couples demonstrate a remarkable positive effect of their BDSM play. These effects range from enhanced trust and communication, to expression of bottled-up kinkiness without fear of judgment, to addressing and overcoming deep emotional issues.

We generally accept that sexuality is a personal and private issue. However, we are less accepting of personal variation. D/s activities are distinct from sexual violence due to the requisite rule of safe, sane, and consensual play. If these unconventional sexual desires do not cause physical harm but actually enhance arousal for some people, it’s no one’s business to pathologize their safe, sane, consensual enactment. D’s can be viewed merely as a novel variation to sex, a sexual preference, sexual orientation, or as broad as the subculture community. It is further not well known that D/s play can be therapeutic, helping couples overcome emotional issues and enhancing communication ability. Engaging in or fantasizing about D/s play is increasingly considered a normal form of sexual exploration. It therefore becomes increasingly important that a harmless preference not preclude stigmatization. This point is crucial in the field of mental health, where the therapeutic relationship can be fatally disrupted by negativity toward alternative sexuality.

The web is home to some wonderful resources for D/s and BDSM in general. The subject’s history of negative societal regard makes the internet an invaluable trove of ideas that ultimately increases acceptance of D/s. A person who may be curious about D/s has the option to pursue the curiosity or to shut it out. It is extremely easy to pursue curiosity through knowledge based forums or through pornography, which are accessible and anonymous. Exposure to the community of D/s practitioners reveals the reality that all sorts of perfectly normal people express all degrees of preference for this culturally taboo sexual idea.

Devus Community is an online BDSM/fetish community that promotes free and unrestricted expression, meeting, and chatting. In addition to facilitating interaction, Devus is home to an extensive BDSM library. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of articles are available here on topics like bit gags, plastic wrap, cobbing-boards, dental dams, edgeplay (dangerous! Not advised!), figging, genitorture safety, human animal roleplay, informed consent, Japanese rope bondage, kinkfest…etc. It’s quite extensive, and being an online community, there is endless opportunity to seek the advice of experts. is a resource for relationships with a D/s lifestyle. The pages of FAQs address controversial issues that arise in relationships. It’s an invaluable resource because D/s relationships revolve around behaviors and interactions that most people do not grow up with a model for. Above all, it emphasizes that the needs of the individuals in the relationship determine its rules. Compatibility of needs is crucial for the relationship to be both consensual and satisfying. This site supports openness, honesty, and being true to one’s own needs and boundaries, as well as respecting those of their partners.


Baumeister, R.F. (1988). Gender Differences in Masochistic Scripts. The Journal of Sex Research, 25, 478-499.

Ernulf, K.E., Innala, S.M. (1995). Sexual Bondage: A Review and Unobtrusive Investigation. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 24, 631-654.

Hoff, G. (2006). Power and Love: Sadomasochistic Practices in Long-Term Committed Relationships. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 9.

Weinberg, M.S., Williams, C.J., Moser, C. (1984). The Social Constituents of Sadomasochism. Society for the Study of Social Problems, University of California Press, 31, 379-389.

Weinberg, T.S. (1987). Sadomasochism in the United States: A Review of Recent Sociological Literature. The Journal of Sex Research, 23, 50-69.

Web Resources

Devus community.

Dominance and submission for the real world. <>


  1. I hope all you had to do was load this and not retype! very interesting stuff!