entitlement again: this time, correction and punishment

A budding kinkster asked me recently how I see the idea of entitlement working with the concepts of correction and punishment in a D/s scenario or relationship. I’ve written in the past about the difference between play and punishment, but I didn’t really touch on the difference between correction and punishment, or the whys and wherefores of punishment itself, so this was a good opportunity for me to get some thoughts on paper.

There are two senses in which entitlement is relevant here. Let’s start out by assuming we’re talking about a D/s relationship or scenario in which there is a real-life power dynamics, as in either an ongoing D/s-based relationship or a one-time interaction that’s explicitly understood to be a time-bound version of such a relationship.

First, assuming a relationship or interaction has been negotiated within these parameters, as a dominant I hold the entitlement to beat, torture (etc.) a submissive purely because I wish to do so, and I need no excuse. In this framework, beating and torture are not the same thing as punishment, although dominants who don’t truly feel their entitlement will often use imagined or real transgressions as excuses for pleasurable play and frame it as punishment. Play is fun, and not at all an indication of displeasure, even if it is challenging for the bottom at times. (Again, feel free to read my post “Pain, Play, Pleasure, Punishment” if you want more on this idea.)

Some people call this first idea “discipline,” as in, the arbitrary use of physical experience (pain among other things) to reinforce the dominant/submissive nature of a relationship. Whatever floats yer boat, I guess, but I often find that use of the term to be misleading. Webster’s defines discipline as follows:

1: PUNISHMENT. 2: obs: INSTRUCTION. 3: a field of study. 4: training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character. 5a: control gained by enforcing obedience or order b: orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behaviour c: SELF-CONTROL 6: a rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity.

I’m not necessarily one to subscribe to dictionary definitions at all times, especially in the realm of kink and sexuality where we so often assign different meanings to commonly used words. But let’s face it: all six of these meanings are pretty useful both within and outside of kink, and they overlap with one another quite considerably. So the concept of defining discipline as narrowly as “randomly applied torture to reinforce a D/s dynamic” just doesn’t work for me. Torture is not always discipline, discipline is not always torture, and the conceptual overlap just gets too confusing for the word, in my humble opinion, to be all that useful when used in such a limited way.

The second place where entitlement is relevant, in that same scenario or relationship, is that I am also entitled to correct and shape the submissive’s behaviour and to punish the submissive in ways that are real, meaningful and clearly felt when an actual transgression is committed.

There is, of course, a major difference between correction and punishment. Correction I do all the time within my D/s relationships, with varying degrees of style and emphasis. A polite request for something to be done differently, a slap on the wrist for overstepping, a raised eyebrow, a suggestion that they rephrase a question, the tailoring of service or behaviour to my preferences, the adjustment of physical posture or manner, and so forth. That’s just practical and has to do with my own requirements, and the process of shaping the specifics of someone’s tone and behaviour to my liking. It’s not about transgression or displeasure or anything problematic at all; it’s just part of the ongoing process of aligning a submissive’s actions with my will, which we both want to see happen.

I think punishment, on the other hand, is to be used when a message needs to be reinforced very strongly because it has clearly not yet gotten through and is causing problems. For example, if the submissive directly disobeys my orders, deliberately conceals a transgression from me, exhibits gross disrespect or neglect, and so forth, these may be occasions for punishment.

But even in such scenarios, punishment is only one possible response. If every time someone made a massive error, my only response was to be to mete out a nasty caning, that doesn’t necessarily go very far towards understanding the reason for the fuck-up in the first place, or addressing the underlying issues that may have caused it. For example, have I not made my requirements clear enough? Are those requirements unreasonable? Is there a doubt on the submissive’s part as to the appropriateness of what I have asked for that caused them to act on their own judgment of a situation instead of on my orders? Was there a deterring circumstance? Are they upset about something within our relationship and acting out rather than communicating directly about it? All of these questions need to be asked, and satisfactory answers obtained, before I can decide whether a punishment is the right response. I’m a dominant, but I’m not infallible; and a submissive may wish to serve and please, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own doubts or misgivings that need to be dealt with. We’re complex human beings, and that means there’s no strict one-size-fits-all solution when their actions don’t match my expectations.

Sometimes even if there are underlying issues, a punishment is still an appropriate response. For example, we may resolve a communication issue, and I may still punish the submissive for neglecting to address it in due course when it came up, thus creating a situation where an avoidable fuck-up occurred. Or I may apply a punishment that simply re-balances a wrong that was committed.

For example, a submissive once ruined a couple of my shirts when ironing. The underlying issue was lack of knowledge about how to complete the task properly, so that was solved by explaining appropriate temperature settings and ironing speeds and talking about fabric. The punishment is that he’s required to purchase new shirts for me to replace the ruined ones, paid out of his pocket. There’s no anger or upset there, simply a desire to have my shirts back and a placement of responsibility on him to make that happen.

As for another example, a submissive once went against my orders to stop lifting heavy objects while we were packing my belongings into a moving truck. I told him to stop because I could see that he was exhausted and I didn’t want to drain his energy as I needed him to be in shape for more work the next day; also, we had other friends helping out who could pick up the slack. He continued to lift things, but only when I was out of the room and couldn’t see it happening. It came to my attention that he’d done this, and so once the move was over, we took some time one evening to talk about it. The transgression merited a stern talking-to with a clear explanation of my principles on the matter, and some pointed physical punishment. The rationale is that if he is my property, and I have decided how that property is best cared for, he has no business deciding otherwise, no matter how heroic his intentions. I was even less impressed that he hid it from me, because that cuts to the core of trust on which the entire relationship rests, which is just not something to fuck around with. It has never happened again since.

Punishment is only helpful when it comes from a place of fierce love and strong expectation for change that is in fact acheivable, not from a place of revenge or spite or hurt or anger or frustration. I do it rarely and carefully, as it is rarely needed (and should be) and must be done just right to have the intended effect. Punishment is very real, and sends very real messages that have very real consequences.

From this perspective it’s easy to see why I don’t like the idea of play punishment framed as the real thing. If it’s play, then sure, come up with whatever naughty little scenario really works for you, and go for it, but don’t pretend it’s real. Make it really clear that you’re doing some fun exciting role play and that it has nothing to do with anyone’s actual transgressions or actual displeasure. This particular sort of play isn’t my thing because I don’t like role play much – can’t really get into it, it feels too false – but if that’s your thing, more power to ya.

When it comes to my own relationships, I’m way too reality-based to enjoy the “play” aspect of taking on a role. In fact I think role-play could even be damaging to my D/s relationships unless it were framed very tightly indeed; when power is real, then entering a space where it’s reimagined as something pretend could just mess with the boundaries and confuse what’s actually going on. Perhaps if I had a fetish for role-playing, this area of potential risk would merit more time and attention, and in that case I’m sure I’d figure out some way to make it work, but as it stands I just don’t get off on the whole idea. Perhaps it would be less risky if role-play were actually completely not reflective of real-life power dynamics – then the “pretend” aspect could really be just fun, with no chance for confusion. But as it stands, numerous people have told me about scenes and relationships where the boundary between what’s real and what’s play has been unclear, and that sort of blurring really messes with people’s heads and creates many opportunities for hurt, betrayal, uncertainty and miscommunication.

My reaction is always, what’s so wrong with power and power-based actions (correction and punishment being only two, albeit two significant ones) that you need the protection of a role in order to do them? Why do you need to shield yourself that way? When I torture someone, or correct them or punish them, I’m doing it as Andrea Zanin, and that, to me, is a far safer thing than if I were pretending to be a monster to distance myself from the reality of my topping or dominance. I know that may sound judgmental, and I know not everyone does role-play with this rationale, but all too often I see people who confuse let’s-pretend with reality, or do things in play that they’d never do in “real life” but that still have real-life consequences, and it makes me distinctly uncomfortable. Role-play is not a get-out-of-jail-free card that allows you to mess with someone and pretend it never happened, so anytime I hear someone talk about their role-play in ways that sound like, “Well, in real life I’d never do that awful thing, but in role-play I can do whatever I want!” it gives me the willies.

Now, on the flip side, if punishment is real, then don’t fuck around and send mixed messages. Punishment is not an opportunity to beat someone for mutual satisfaction. If I am a person’s dominant, whether for a night or in an ongoing dynamic or whatever, then I am perfectly entitled to use their person in whatever manner I see fit (assuming we have negotiated as such), including torturing them if that’s my pleasure. I don’t need to come up with an imagined fault on their part to justify my desire to hurt them. I also don’t need to jump on a real fault and use that as an excuse to hurt them. I can just hurt them. There is no need for it to be about punishment at all. I can torture someone just because it amuses me, or pleasure them for the same reason, and either one is a good thing because it reinforces the existence of the dynamic that gives me that entitlement, which feels good to all concerned.

If they actually have committed a real fault, and I do wish to punish them, then meting out a punishment that in fact provides mutual pleasure messes up the whole equation. Real punishment is an indication of genuine displeasure, its form is carefully considered to ensure maximum effectiveness (i.e. the disapproval is clearly understood and the behaviour is not repeated, on pain of more dire consequences up to and including the suspension or termination of the relationship), and it is damn sure not exciting or enjoyable for the recipient, nor is it for the provider. It’s not erotic, it’s not fun, and it’s not something desired by anyone involved. It’s part of a D/s framework so in that sense it may bring positive feelings – reinforcement of the dynamic, clarity of purpose and expectation, confidence in the dominant’s entitlement, recognition that calling someone on bad behaviour is a form of love, confidence that the submissive is capable of doing a good job in the future, etc. – but those are secondary to the experience of “oh shit, I did something really wrong, I better not do it again.” Ideally punishment, or communication surrounding that punishment, leaves no question about what the specific transgression has been, and provides a clear path for how the submissive is to deal with a similar situation in the future – otherwise the submissive will surely repeat the bad behaviour because they do not clearly understand what needs to change and have not been equipped to do otherwise.

So there it is: my take on punishment, correction, and their relationship to entitlement. Is this take necessarily right for everyone? Hardly. I’m sure there are numerous people out there who’d disagree with me on any number of these points. With that in mind, I welcome respectful challenges – like anyone else, I’m always learning.

9 Responses

  1. I enjoyed reading this immensely, and what you describe here is kind of my starting point for the idea of punishment. What I found in reality, though, was that taking it quite so seriously was causing too much stress. As a result, we do punishment more often than “rarely” and we do it for some really minor infractions and with a light heart. (We do sort of “focusing attention” punishments, among more serious kinds.) It still makes Joscelin want to be somewhere else (sometimes badly) and, while it is in fact always erotic for me, I’m not usually aware of it while it’s happening, because I’m rather focused and somber-feeling.

    I don’t like when people use the idea of punishment as an excuse to play, because we can play anytime, and I also hate when people assume that’s what everyone is doing.

  2. “. . . boundary between what’s real and what’s play has been unclear, and that sort of blurring really messes with people’s heads and creates many opportunities for hurt, betrayal, uncertainty and miscommunication.”

    Yep, play is powerful. but it can also be an opportunity for healing, growth, clarity and new tools to communicate. When I play with kids, if I only played as myself, the power dynamic would not change. As children (as all people) grow and change, the dynamics in a relationship change too. If I don’t let kids “try out” what it may be like to have more power in our relationship, how will they learn? Right now, I am the parent, and I make the rules. It is dangerous and unsettling for everyone in real life if kids are in charge. But in a few years, that will no longer be the case. I hope that our play will give children the practice that is needed to handle the power that comes with age wisely. I let my kid try out caring for me, or cooking for me, or sending me for “time outs” to learn what those things might feel like, to practice empathy, and to try out some strategies. But I sure as hell don’t let him really do any of those things “as himself”. At least not yet.

    And I know that it is not the same as relationships between consenting adults who are both free to leave at any time. But I learn a lot about power from reading your posts, much of which is useful in lots of relationships in my life (with kids, with my boss, with my parents, with my patients). I continue to be fascinated by the ways the truths of your particular experiences reflect on some pretty broad themes. And I’m also more than a little intrigued by your hate-on for the role play ;)

  3. “My reaction is always, what’s so wrong with power and power-based actions (correction and punishment being only two, albeit two significant ones) that you need the protection of a role in order to do them? Why do you need to shield yourself that way?”

    For myself, I am *far* from interested in having ongoing power dynamics in my relationships. Therefore, role play is a way to express things that I want to express on occasion. It’s not about sheilding myself, it’s about focusing on *one* aspect of myself at that particular time that I don’t particularly want to express in my daily life.

    When I play a role, in intimate play or on stage, I do not become someone else. I focus on one aspect of who I am because that aspect needs an outlet. It may be an aspect of myself that I find useful to have in healthy doses but that I do not want overshadowing my daily life. Letting it out in a bigger, measured dose through role play gives it the space it needs.

    For example, I have an extreme submissive streak. I like to enjoy it through role play with people that I trust but I have no desire to let it out in my daily life. In my home and work life, I like to have complete control over what I do and when I do it. If I had no outlet for my submissive streak, though, it would seep into my life in unwanted areas.

    On the flip side, I also have a very dominant streak. Same story: I don’t want to control others in my daily life so doing it through role play is an outlet that keeps that drive satisfied while allowing me to run my life the way I want to.

    I’m sure everyone has their own reasons and those are mine. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a very healthy way of doing it for me.

  4. Thanks so much for the intelligent comments, everyone. :)

    I think I should clarify that I don’t have a hate-on for role play. I have a hate-on for role play that’s done for the wrong reasons and/or in irresponsible ways. While I realize that’s a subjective judgement to make, I also can’t *not* notice how prevalent unhealthy (by my definition) role play is in the kink community. Of course there’s no hard and fast way to judge health, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon all efforts to judge what’s healthy and nourishing (vs unhealthy and destructive) for us and around us, so here we are in the land of discussion and debate, as we should be.

    The way Jacky explains his approach to role play makes a lot of sense to me and doesn’t feel unhealthy at all, for example – but I can’t divorce that from my knowledge of Jacky as a sane and balanced person. Lots of people are great at explaining away what they do when in truth it’s coming from a really unhealthy place.

    I think I’ve just seen way too many BDSM people dive into deep psychological waters via role-play without taking any responsibility for the damage they cause or allow to happen to themselves – because, well, it was all “play,” it wasn’t real! Except that it can have enormous real consequences, which can go from mildly unfortunate to dire.

    The language and concepts we commonly employ in BDSM don’t do the greatest job of making a clear separation between the two things – “punishment” being just one example. It also doesn’t equip us to talk about the (very common) places where there can be bleed-through from “play” to “real life,” or deal with that when it (often somewhat predictably) happens.

    Lothyn, it might surprise you to hear how much I do enjoy, or at least appreciate, role-play in a lot of contexts that aren’t about BDSM or power relations. I’ve acted in plays, I love doing creative play with kids, I love theatre and film, I continued trick-or-treating until well into my teens for the sheer joy of donning an elaborate costume and taking on a different identity for a night, my best friend is a drama therapist and I see the healing power in her work… none of this bothers me at all. I don’t have a strong draw to those things the way some do, but I’m no stranger to the fun of dressing up as someone else to see what it feels like for a time.

    That last one – drama therapy – is probably the riskiest of the bunch, psychologically speaking, but the whole structure of that type of therapeutic practice is designed to hold really clear boundaries between role and reality, and to use role play for specific purposes according to careful techniques and with strict sets of responsibilities for all concerned.

    I think the crux of this is responsibility. Just about anything can be healthy, or at least un-damaging, when done responsibly – and just about anything can do damage when that responsibility is shirked. I guess I just see way more shirking than I’d like in the community I call home, and as someone who seems hardwired to call bullshit on things, I can’t ignore this one.

  5. Sane and balanced? Moi?!? Wow, that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me :D Just kidding.

    Seriously though, I agree that role play, when done in irresponsible fashion, has the potential for some serious damage. For this reason, I’m very careful about negotiating role play. I negotiate ALL the details from what physical acts are OK to what names can be used for name calling. I also insist on safe words and establish whether words like “No” and “stop” really mean “no” and “stop”. As a top or dominant person in a role play, I tend to suggest that the person call out my “real” name as a safe word because that is something that would stop me in my tracks and bring me back to “reality”. I also like to talk about crying. I was in a rape play one time and, because we hadn’t talked about it, my “rapist” stopped when I started crying and pouding her chest. Had she known that this is what I wanted, she wouldn’t have stopped.

    Of course, a lot of this applies to other types of play. Maybe the seemingly (note that *seemingly* is a key word here) “childish” or “pretend” nature of role play leads some people to take it less seriously and to neglect some of these negotiations and considerations.

  6. I think it’s important to add that, no matter what the agreement or understanding that you go into something with, it’s important to see all along and afterwards what the effects were and deal with it. If my lover and I agree that I’m going to call him a worthless piece of shit because it’ll be fun and we’re just roleplaying, and I do and he gets his feelings hurt, there’s no room to argue anything like “but you knew we were just roleplaying – what the hell is wrong with you!”

    We basically don’t roleplay, though, at least so far, so…yeah.

  7. Of course… that’s exactly what I mean when I talk about responsibility. Pre-negotiating is the easy part, relatively speaking. What’s really challenging, or perhaps more accurately, the place where responsibility is most seriously tested, is dealing with what happens if things go wrong, regardless of what sort of play or relationship you engage in – role-based or otherwise.

    I often mistrust excessively planned scenes and relationships precisely because they don’t acknowledge that we simply can’t always know where our play will take us, and that often means there’s a failure to take into account the ways in which real life needs to be dealt with after the fun is done.

    What do you do when someone’s feelings are hurt? When their body is hurt? When play takes you deeper than you expected, or brings up emotions that were unplanned for? When new desires are discovered, or new vulnerabilities? When relationships take a turn in a surprising direction? How both parties deal with that sort of thing says a lot about how well-prepared they are to handle the real-life impacts of what they’re doing. Each instance of unplanned consequence (positive, negative or mixed) is an opportunity to either build trust or erode it.

  8. No, I don’t like excessively planning either in terms of how exactly things are going to run. But I like there to be parameters within which I know I can play (as do most people who play, I imagine).

    As for unplanned things, that’s where trust comes in. The reason I don’t play nearly as much as I would like is that al the things I’m into can only safely be done with someone I trust. That takes time and, in an urban setting with a busy work life and parenting, etc., it’s so hard to establish deep and trusting relationships. On top of that, I don’t meet *that* many people who are both compatible in general and who are into what I’m into. *sigh*

    But one of the things I like *is* that possibility of unplanned things happening and seeing what happens with them. If the basic things are negotiated and handled well, and if there is trust, then I think there is a good foundation for being able to handle those exposed vulnerabilities and emotions.

  9. [...] to think that pain and punishment had to be somehow linked together. After reading this a post by Andreain her amazing Sex Geek blog, we came to realize that we should not put the two [...]

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