How can I better understand dominance and submission in a committed relationship?

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Answered by: Rachel, An Expert in the Intimacy Facts Category
Ever since Leopold von Sacher Masoch and the Marquis de Sade lent their names to the two ever-controversial, often-villianized, and immortally combined terms masochism and sadism, they’ve been a dynamic duo; used to describe relationships, appetites, and proclivities that modern Western society still deems paraphilic. Sadomasochism, sometimes referred to as dominance and submission, extends beyond the bedroom, boudoir, and bosom and into even the most vanilla of relationships. At its heart, sadomasochism simply involves the willful subjugation of one party to another for pleasure’s sake. A few of its more arcane and detailed motives, as discussed further here, will be rooted in deeply psychological loci, but generally speaking, BDSM involves a deceptively simple role-play.

For the purpose of clarity I will be most closely examining “Lifestylers,” individuals in 24/7 Dom/sub relationships. As defined in Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission by Gloria and William Brame and Jon Jacobs, “lifestyle D&S is used to describe permanent partners for whom the power dynamic is an ever-present reality in all areas of their relationship” (165). While kink is often doled out in this modern American culture that is simultaneously clinging to and pulling from its Puritanical roots, BDSM as a lifestyle is best examined when chosen long-term. Besides, the basic tenets of sensory deprivation, aggression, and light role-play are ubiquitous in both media and pornography. Dominance and submission within this dissertation, however, is more akin to homosexuality or gender choice as it is considered “an integral aspect of identity (Brame 164).”      Practitioners of S&M go by many names—Doms and subs, kinksters, sadists and masochists, Tops and bottoms, Masters and Mistresses, fetishists—but Victor Turner would call them liminal personae, or “threshold people” (95). "They are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. As such, their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions. Thus, liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibililty, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon" (Turner 95).

While he uses the term liminal to describe religious rites and interim states of being, such an argument could be made for the strange time spent during a “scene” a Dom and sub undergo; their behavior becomes a microcosm that cannot be held to society’s judgment and the bond derived from the sometimes-intense activity has been described as “meditative” (Brame 204). The very fact that many of them go unnoticed in “normal” society highlights the “inbetweenness” of their personalities. What better definition of liminal personae than this sexual subculture that plays at that which they cannot be in public? Who flirts with danger and death within the bounds of a trusting bond? Who fetishizes the dark impulses we are taught to repress so that it can exorcise them safely and consensually?

S&M play is inherently performance-based, its lingo steeped in theatricality. Two (or more) kinksters “play” out a fantasy, or “scene,” while fulfilling “roles.” To some, the verbal element of control is the most important one. Some subs cannot participate with a silent partner and must be encouraged or, conversely, scolded throughout. Many Doms require certain titles from their partners—most often Master, Sir, Sire, or Daddy. There are often key words that need to be employed for a scene even to get off the ground.

Most important of all is undoubtedly the “safe word,” which establishes a boundary that means "stop right now!!" because “no” does not always fill this capacity. Some players keep the same word or change it for the scene; I have never changed “discoball,” because I’ve never needed to use it—call it lucky. Before a scene begins, in all but the most established relationships boundaries are set.

The haphazard anonymous sexual encounters portrayed in the media are few and far between; actual practitioners of BDSM thrive on their mantra: “Safe, Sane, and Consensual." A Dom and sub will discuss thoroughly the planned arc of the scene and what may transpire, be it corporal punishment, humiliation, service, a head trip, sensory deprivation, bondage, or stimulation play. Of course, improvisation can occur within these boundaries, but it is the submissive who lays the bottom line.

Role-playing is an easily identifiable trait in BDSM, though it extends to vanilla play—teacher/student, priest/nun, cop/hooker—and they all have their requisite dialogue. Sadomasochistic role-playing tends to be more stringent in the “script” given out to its players. The Dominant has a set list of expectations from his or her submissive, and deviation (I use the term sardonically, concerning “deviants”) is rarely tolerated.

One could say that the Dominant is the performer and the submissive the audience, waiting to be affected by the Dominant’s behavior or to follow their orders—be it silence, stillness, obedience, or worship. Either way it is an alternating current of performance, never hinging on one side for too long. A Mistress warns, “Try not pleasing your submissive one time, and find out who’s actually in control. They won’t be around very long!” (Brame 79).

The delicate framework of role-playing within an S&M context means that even if a couple is not a naughty schoolboy and a strict headmistress, there is an inherent “script” where a submissive is challenged and pushed emotionally or physically (or metaphysically, for those for whom “S/M means ‘Sexual Magic’” [Brame 77]), and a Dominant is responsible for honoring the limits and safety of their charge. Some scenes are more flexible than others. Some couples may begin a playful over-the-knee spanking session that quickly dissolves into lovemaking, while others may adhere to a stringent interrogation-style scenario complete with electrocution and water-boarding, where sex does not even enter the picture.

Victor Turner also resurrected the term communitas in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, using it to refer to a moment where we feel, “however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol if not always in language) or a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties” (96). This phenomenon, while contemporarily referenced in regards to Evangelical church services, raves, rock concerts and the like, is also experienced in the BDSM community in two distinct ways.

As a whole, a fetish event creates a mass camaraderie in the way that only a sectarian (I use this term loosely) gathering can. Within a scene, that connection to the sexual energy, that which has been and always will be, brings a practitioner closer to an universal truth because, underneath cuffs and welts and safe words, a Dom and sub are the closest thing to two equals that society can offer. A certain self-possession and awareness is required to tread the path of power exchange, and this same awareness gives weight to the respect and rights of both parties. "The outside world things that submission is a place of low or no esteem and no personal power: that [submissives] are wimps.In fact it is an exchange, an alternate way of looking at power. It’s also a way of exploring what your power is. You know, the more power you give away, the more power you must have! You can’t give away what you don’t have." –M. Cybele (Brame 73)

As children, we play cops-and-robbers, cowboys-and-Indians; role-playing and performance, even with “good guys” and “bad guys,” is a childhood staple not at all considered out of the ordinary. Why is it that as soon as some eroticism is added to this sport, it becomes something dirty and depraved? This is generally the complaint in S&M-related activities; there is something not quite right about it. My argument, however, is that the not quite right is what makes it quite gratifying. Naturally, an individual has the potential to be put off, even frightened, by the dynamic of father and daughter placed within the dangerous and arcane context of a sexual encounter.

Daddy-daughter play is a very common aspect of S&M, frightening to outsiders because of its incestual implications. However, in almost all cases the participants do not have incestual fantasies—but even if they did, they are exorcising them within a safe and consensual surrogate. Daddy-daughter play is so much more about safety, trust, and a desire to nurture and be nurtured. But it is the "not quite right" in the back of our head that sets the alarm that, ironically, should be quelled at the possibility of an outlet for the impulses that are universal, and almost universally reviled.

S&M gives the practitioner the ability to live out the dark half, the side of sex that echoes back to something primordial. In that way they are sexual thespians allowed to reenact childhood fantasies of abduction and idolatry. Discipline and corporal punishment, things that we leave behind with grammar school, are resurrected and used to arouse. A partner can be turned into a footstool or a groveling dog, depersonalized. In Different Loving, Max says of his relationship: "When I’m engaged in sex [Lindsay], I merge and lose myself in the experience of sex and orgasm. But in S&M, I can sit back and play with her. It becomes very erotic, very charged. I can watch her come without losing myself in the experience. I’ll bind her into a form where she isn’t my love: she’s an object of sexual desire. I can focus my eroticism on her, which I find is different from love."(Brame 163) The practice of BDSM in whatever form it takes can be a wholly revolutionizing expereience for a couple's intimacy.

In addition to learning more about oneself and each other through a very trusting experience, communication is of the utmost importance and a new level of understanding can be reached. Those who play together, stay together.

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