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Dominance and submission (also called D/s) is a set of behaviours, customs, and rituals involving the submission of one person to another in an erotic episode or lifestyle. It is a subset of BDSM. This form of sexual contact and pleasure has been shown to please a minority of people.
Physical contact is not necessary, and D/s can 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 "submissive"—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. The term dominatrix usually refers to a female sex worker who dominates others for pay.
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.
- 1 History
- 2 Overview
- 3 Terminology
- 4 D/s relationship styles
- 5 LGBTQ power dynamics
- 6 Safety
- 7 Consent and contracts
- 8 Equipment and accessories
- 9 Art and culture
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
The dominant and submissive relationship fits within the overarching term of BDSM and its lifestyle. BDSM stands for bondage and discipline (B&D), Dominant and Submissive (D&S), and sadism and masochism (S&M). Many misconceptions of this relationship and its associated activities come from the fact that early theorists conceptualized that sadomasochists and BDSM behavior was a symptom of psychopathology. It was thought that people who participated in this type of sexual play disregarded safety and consent, which influenced the diagnosis, classification, and perception of this type of relationship. These misconceptions of all participants of BDSM having disordered tendencies have related to the definition and criteria for sadomasochism in the DSM-5. Therefore, many in the BDSM community do not fit the criteria.
It is possible that this community of BDSM participants was formed in the early 18th century and maybe even before. For example, the dominant and submissive partnership has been shown in early versions of the Kamasutra. Not only is it shown in literature but also in the actions of ancient rulers that would participate in sexually sadistic torture, role play, and finally the assertion of their dominance over subjects. Their actions show severe sadomasochism as well as the early onset behaviors of the community.
Currently, the relationship between a dominant and submissive revolves around consent and guidelines. Within the world of BDSM, consent is a core focus and requirement because it is what separates sexual sadism from coercive sexual sadism disorder in the DSM-5. Sexual Sadism Disorder and Sexual Masochism Disorder have been changed in order to show the differentiation of consensual vs. non-consensual partners. As well as showing the new criteria to be classified as one or the other, for example, the person being diagnosed must be experiencing personal distress about their paraphilia rather than distress coming from society's disapproval. The growth of dominant and submissive behavior, sadomasochism, and other BDSM activity are evident through its history coming from ancient times all the way to the separation from disorder to consensual community participant.
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.
Recent research shows that a minority of the population engages or fantasizes about BDSM activity. A national study with 2,800 participants showed that about 14% of men and 11% of women had participated in some sort of BDSM related activity and from those results, it was concluded that approximately 10% of adults have joined in some part of the sexual behavior. A separate study of 1,040 participants discovered 19.2% of men and 27.8% of women express a desire to attempt in masochistic behavior, while 13.9% of the men and 23.7% of the women of the sample reported participating in an act of masochism.
A safeword is usually given to the submissive partner to prevent the dominant from overstepping physical and emotional boundaries. It is usually a code word, series of code words or other signal used to communicate physical or emotional state, typically when approaching, or crossing, a boundary. Safewords can have differing levels of urgency - some may bring a scene to an outright stop, whereas others may indicate that a boundary is being approached. A safeword may be used by the Dominant as well as the Submissive if they feel things have gone too far and are uncomfortable continuing.
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.
Based on gender (of the dominant or submissive), D/s can be divided into the following sub-types:-
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. The dominant and submissive relations pertain to two people who play with psychological, emotional, and/or physical dominance. Most of the time in sexual relationships like this there is some sort of power exchange through their physical interaction. 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.
The term power exchange refers to the empowerment of the dominant by the submissive’s surrender to his/ her control. Power exchange is consensual and in reality, it is the submissive that has the underlying control during the relationship exchange. The dominant is attempting to satisfy the submissive’s kinks and desires.
The terms top and bottom are used as verbs or nouns to describe the physical play of SM but with less of a focus of the "sadist" and "masochist" part of the activity. They can be used as synonyms for dominant and submissive.
The term dungeon is used as a reference to a space/ room designated for sadomasochism play. It can also be used to describe a club where these activities take place. It can also be a place to practice kinks safely and learn how to carry out activities and play.
The term dungeon monitors is used as a description of well-trusted BDSM members that volunteer to monitor dungeons and look out for infractions, distress, or any other form of misconduct or non-consent.
The term flogger is used to describe a tool or whip used in sexual scenes. The action of flogging refers to impact play. Usually made of leather with a hard handle and multiple long flat strands attached. The term can also be used to describe the person holding the specialized whip.
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 "sissy" maid, where an adult male dresses in cartoonish female clothing and performs stereotypical female chores such as housecleaning or serving tea. 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:
- professional - Dominatrix
- Resistance Play- forcing the submissive to do something against their will as an intense form of power play 
- domestic servitude or consensual slavery
- enforced chastity of the submissive
- 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
- humiliation/ dehumanization  (pony or animal roleplay)
- objectification (human furniture): ex. submissive's body used as footstool, or sub's mouth used as spitting bowl and cigarette ashtray
- corporal punishment
- human toilet - golden showers
- bondage (sexual)
- public humiliation
LGBTQ power dynamics
Dominant and submissive partnerships occur in every type of relationship including the people of the LGBTQ community. Just as there are BDSM clubs for cisgender and heterosexual partners, there are similar playgroups in the LGBTQ-BDSM community. D/s relationship are not restricted only occurring between one male and one female. There is a special bond between the partners and their power dynamics. Power is extremely eroticized in these activities, therefore, social power dynamics, as well as structural power inequalities, have an effect on intimacy and touch towards a partner. It can be stated that there is no powerless sex, even when it's vanilla. In LGBTQ D/s relationships look at power as more of a celebration of life, passion, each other, and their identities instead of the typical power dynamics from an individual, within oneself, or overpowering another. It has been said that prejudice and hatred fuel negative power, which can then be metaphorically and physically sexualized. In the LGBTQ community within the D/s relationships, it is common to turn that 'negative power' into 'good' by deflecting its original hatred from gender. Instead, it is shown that the power is turned into an erotic tool that helps intimacy between two people flourish.
There are many forms of power but some include power as a contract, as setting parameters, as control, and as denying rights or privileges. Power as a contract is all completely voluntary while setting parameters is more about establishing guidelines, control is all about dominance, and finally, denial of rights contains the factor of delayed gratification.
In consenting LGBTQ D/s relationships, the “power-with” rather than the “power-over” dynamic views the partnership as the Bottom giving the Top the power. Instead of the Top claiming dominance over the Bottom, it's more realistic to see it as the Bottom having some power in the activity because their partner is doing all they can to really turn them on. The Bottom doesn't give up all their power they have this underlying control in the scene and for that reason its a “power-with” relationship. This is proven more common through interviews done with LGBTQ and D/s participants.
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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. There are many versions of consent but mainly it is the knowledge between the partnership of who plays the dominant role and who plays the submissive. The commitment of knowing who afflicts and receives the pain, bondage, torture, and/or humiliation. As well as the fact that all erotic experiences are performed in a safe, legal, and consensual practice as well as benefiting both parties. The consensual practice is what helps distinguish BDSM participants from a psychiatric diagnosis of a sexual disorder. The community of BDSM has adopted the saying “Safe, Sane, Consensual” (SSC) and “Risk-Aware Consensual Kink” (RACK) and a new addition “Caring, Communication, Consent, and Caution” (4Cs). Consent has also been categorized into three groups: surface, scene, and deep consent. Surface consent has been defined as a simple yes or no. Scene consent has been described as including parameters of a top/ bottom negotiation and agreement of a play scene. While deep consent involves the mental capacity of the bottom (submissive) and the awareness of the top that the bottom is able to use a safeword. The BDSM community have a simple code of conduct concerning the boundaries of safety and negotiation to ensure consensual BDSM.
Negotiation in terms of the sexual scenes is required to ensure that the BDSM play is enjoyable and safe for both parties involved. The discussion of what activities are available and the mutual definition of the play is the only way both the dominant and submissive will be able to comfortably perform. There is a complexity to negotiation depending on the trust and emotional attachment the partners have towards each other, the more familiarity between the two the less negotiation needed. The extent of negotiation depends on the partner's involvement, for example, less risk behavior the less negotiation needed.
Safewords are verbal codes both partners can recognize as the end or altering of activities done in a BDSM scene. It is an important asset to continue the consent through the relationship and scene itself. The use of a safeword at any time, regardless of the intensity of the scene, usually signifies the end to a scene, or activity and possible withdrawal of consent completely. Within the community of BDSM, there are universal safewords used according to traffic lights and known as “house safewords”. Red means stop everything, yellow means slow down and to not go any further, and green meaning go and continue with more intensity. There are also possibilities where speaking isn't an option and so there are “silent safewords” that are simple gestures that represent stopping an activity, for example, clapping hands, snapping fingers, or any action showing the scene must end. The use of safewords and the abode of them go hand and hand with consent and negotiation. All of it ensures a safe space where both participants are able to enjoy the sexual play.
The BDSM community takes consent very seriously and promotes safe play. They provide many resources so people may learn how to respect consent, such as education, information, and safety. They also provide public playrooms with dungeon monitors to make sure the rules are kept and followed. They have consequences for people who break the built trust and disobey the rule of consent and boundaries. Some punishments include being blacklisted from the community and labeled as a “predator.” Being blacklisted includes being personally ridiculed by individual members, as well as exclusion from play parties, clubs, and organizations held by the community.
Although they take all the precautions to the events, coercion and sexual assault still occur inside and outside the community. There are many forms to this that include, knowingly violating consent, accidental violations, and misunderstandings from the lack of communication towards definitions and agreed-upon activities. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) is an educational organization that is driven to propose positive and safe sex that was founded in 1997. They conducted a survey with 4,598 participants in BDSM and 1,307 of them reported being touched without consent. Out of the participants, 26% reported they were attacked by a predator and 33% said they were coerced. 81% of the sample said that during the activity they wanted it to stop. It's important to include that participants of BDSM are not more likely to be coerced or sexually assaulted, there is no significant relationship between the two. That being said just because someone participates in a dominant and submissive relationship does not mean they will eventually be sexually assaulted or coerced.
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 is not unusual to grant consent only for an hour or for an evening. When a scene lasts for more than a few hours, it is common to draft a "scene contract" that defines what will happen and who is responsible for what. It is 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.
Art and culture
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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.
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.
Dwele's "Obey" is a neo-soul song based on the mind of a Dominant in a D/s relationship.
The DNCE song "Be Mean" is written about the artist's desire to be dominated.
- Venus in Furs - (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 - (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.
- 9½ Weeks (1986) Directed by Adrian Lyne. Based on a book by the same name. Popular for its "You Can Leave Your Hat On" scene.
- Preaching to the Perverted (1997) Directed by Stuart Urban. A female dominant/Dominatrix movie depicting the London S&M scene.
- Secretary (2002) Directed by Steven Shainberg. Widely regarded as the first mainstream film to depict D/s relationship issues.
- The Duke of Burgundy - (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) - (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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