And here’s your next instalment in the “Joys of 24/7 Living” series. Okay, so I’m not writing a series, but I’m starting to think maybe I should! Today’s thoughts are about projects, structure and protocol.
I’ve been musing about these ideas for several weeks now. Y’know, it’s kind of funny how in some ways, D/s or M/s relationships are sort of like regular relationships on steroids—added intensity and added consciousness. I’m not trying to do that “our relationships are sooo much more exciting than your paltry vanilla relationships” thing that so many kinksters like to do; I’m just pointing out that the degree of deliberate, explicit and concerted effort that I put into my D/s relationships is way beyond anything else I’ve ever experienced in a non-D/s context. It’s actually an enormous amount of work. The payoff happens to be spectacular and it is to my taste—I wouldn’t be willing to invest this amount of myself if it weren’t, and I can totally see how if the payoff wasn’t your thing, this type of relationship would hold no real allure.
I guess I’m just explaining this because it feels like I spend a lot of time writing about the intricacies of these relationships in a way that’s reflective of my reality but that might appear mildly obsessive. I suppose it is. Healthy obsessive, mind you, but yeah, it takes up a lot of space in my head. I’m an intense person, and I connect with other intense people, and that makes for intense relationships; that translates, for me, into a rather intense degree of reflection on the way those relationships can be structured and maintained so as to function optimally. Ongoing D/s ain’t for everyone, and it ain’t for me unless the people I’m doing it with are an absolutely excellent match (and, like me, are inclined towards D/s). I might liken it to the intense degree of focus and effort that some people put into their hobbies. For some folks, the obsession is painting, or dance, or antique typesetting, or soccer. For me, it’s dominant/submissive dynamics and human sexuality.
So. Insert standard disclaimer here: all of what follows presumes a fully consensual, desired, mutually agreed-upon and discussed relationship framework, and further, presumes that the people doing it are really enjoying themselves in this framework and feel utterly free to state at any time if they are beginning to feel otherwise. If you want to plug today’s post into the appropriate context, feel free to read my recent post about control and ownership if you haven’t already.
Right-o. So my job, as a dominant in two 24/7 relationships, is to govern with my bois’ well-being and fulfillment in mind while enjoying the fuck out of myself; their job, as the submissives, is to be receptive and obedient to that governance, and to fully engage in the process by means of honest communication, feedback, suggestion, questions as needed, and so forth. While enjoying the fuck out of themselves, of course. In case it’s not abundantly clear, I’m not of the mindset that submissives can’t ask questions or challenge my decisions. In the framework of these relationships, it’s understood that I have the final say, and that all discussion must be conducted with respect and in a spirit of trust and goodwill, but that doesn’t mean there’s no possibility for discussion.
I realize it doesn’t work this way for everyone, but for me and for many others, 24/7 D/s—as in, ongoing D/s that extends well beyond the bounds of the sexual—might be seen as two or more people coming together to indulge in a fetish for constant improvement. Note that I said “two or more,” and not “a submissive.” The question of constant improvement applies to the dominant, too—or at least, if the dominant wants to retain any credibility with the submissive, they better be doing something worthwhile that’s congruent with the values they impress upon the submissive, not just sitting around saying “do as I say, not as I do.” This might mean improvement, or it might mean maintenance. Either way the principle remains the same. It’s amazing to note the degree to which managing someone else’s well-being can inspire one to manage one’s own well-being better!
Of course this greatly depends on the nature of the dynamic. If a dominant takes up ownership of or responsibility for various elements of a submissive’s life—say, sexuality, spirituality, intellectual pursuits and appearance—but largely leaves the submissive’s health, fitness and finances up to them, then perhaps the question of maintaining well-being is not so directly important to the dynamic. But in that case, the dominant would probably still lose credibility if he or she were not a sexual explorer in his or her own right, did not have a spiritual practice, didn’t pursue his or her own intellectual projects, and couldn’t be bothered taking care of his or her appearance. It’s difficult to take up the management of someone else’s life if you can’t manage your own, or at the very least, the areas of your own life that match up with the areas of your submissive’s in which you hope to exert an influence.
In the context of an ongoing D/s or M/s relationship, or at least, within my own, I’ve observed that there are three different mechanisms for governing the submissive person’s behaviour while indulging in the constant-improvement / ongoing-maintenance fetish. Those three mechanisms are projects, structure and protocol. I’ve noticed that when one of those things is lacking, the relationship tends to feel out of whack, slightly off, not quite right. The “bad” news is that it takes a fairly constant degree of vigilance to keep everything in balance. The good news is that things are fairly easy to fix if you pay attention to them, or at least they have been for me. The following is my attempt to break down those three mechanisms and explain them.
Projects are finite endeavours with a defined goal in mind. Much like in the corporate world (don’t laugh!), projects should be created and managed according to SMART criteria: they should be Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic and Time-bound. Here are some questions to ask for a project you might want to take on…
- Specific: Is it specific? Can you define its goals? Can you define the precise methods and steps you’ll use to reach them?
- Measurable: Is your project measurable? Is there a concrete way for you to know whether or not you’ve achieved your goals? Is there a concrete time frame in which that measurement will take place? What are the consequences if the results don’t measure up to your expectations?
- Action-oriented: Can you break down your project into actions and make a list of those actions such that, if followed, the goal is sure (barring major disaster) to be attained?
- Realistic: Do you have the resources you need (advice, information, cash, time, energy, health, knowledge…) available to you? If not, can you find them? Are you able to prioritize your project such that you actually meet your deadlines?
- Time-bound: Have you a set deadline by which your project should be finished? Can you plan your work back from that deadline and integrate the project’s steps into your life so that you meet that deadline?
For example, a project I plan to assign to Boi M when he hits a lull in his work is to have him take a ten-week Thai cooking class to learn how to make at least four new dishes that are pleasing to me. This project is…
- Specific: He will research available classes, register for a class, take the class, learn how to make a number of new dishes, and then together we’ll figure out which ones please me, with the goal being to find four that are to my liking.
- Measurable: Once he’s done, he’ll actually have the skills and knowledge to make those four dishes and can then do so at my request. I will ask for one dish on our weekly date night for the following two or three months to select the four I like.
- Action-oriented: The project can be broken down into concrete steps such as researching the available local classes, registration, acquisition of supplies, transportation to the class, attendance at the class, and so forth.
- Realistic: The reason I’m not asking him to do this right now is that his schedule’s so darn packed there’s no way he could fit it in without adding considerable stress; he’s also working on a couple of other projects for me already. One must account for the limitations of real life (no matter how much one likes yummy Thai food). So it’ll wait for a time when it can realistically be worked into his life. We’ll also need to select a class that we can afford, that’s within easy travelling distance, and so forth.
- Time-bound: The class will have a distinct start and end date, followed by a set number of once-weekly meals. Ta-daaa!
Projects are about the future. If projects are lacking, the relationship has no forward motion, no growth. The submissive may begin to feel neglected, as though there is nothing new for them to learn, no fresh ways to serve, no tangible improvement, no sense of significant accomplishment. They might also begin to feel undervalued or unappreciated—as though the dominant didn’t really feel it worth bothering to shape or direct them into new areas of development. Dominant/submissive dynamics are all about development; stagnation will kill a D/s relationship much like it will kill any other sort of relationship, only potentially faster and more painfully. D/s is not just about spending time together and enjoying one another’s company. It’s about a very particular form of relating that’s powerful, intense and unusual. It’s full of energy that needs to be channeled somewhere for the benefit of both the submissive and the dominant and in many (though not all) cases, also for that of the family, tribe, community or world at large.
If we use the metaphor of a painting, “projects” are like the finishing touches, the depth and texture, the flourishes that turn a picture on a canvas into a true work of art. If we took the metaphor of dance, projects would be the study of refined technique and the perfecting of specialized moves—or perhaps, the careful and repetitive practice of a move that’s particularly challenging until it can be done with ease. Projects are the above-and-beyond, the quest for excellence rather than simply existence.
Some projects may transition into long-term, ongoing work, or the results of a project may then need to be maintained, in which case a project may morph into an element of the next mechanism: structure. For example, I started Boi L out with a project to increase her ability to stay in a kneeling position without pain or complaint when necessary in my presence. I assigned her 10 minutes each day of kneeling on a hard floor to get her legs accustomed to the position, and required her to report to me and let me know when pain or discomfort set in. She started at about 7 minutes of comfort before her feet would fall asleep or her knees begin to ache. We’ve gradually scaled this up, and her flexibility and stamina has increased to the point where she can hold the position for nearly 15 minutes before feeling any discomfort. The original goal—to have her stamina improve so that she would remain pain-free during her everyday instances of kneeling for me—has been achieved, but the routine has remained part of her everyday. It has become a) an opportunity to maintain her increased stamina on an ongoing basis, and b) a moment of time each day where she experiences and expresses her submission to me regardless of how far apart we are, geographically speaking. These are very different from the original goal of the project, which was purely practical in nature.
Structure is a set of daily, weekly or otherwise ongoing and regular routines designed to reinforce the D/s dynamic by creating and maintaining a certain focus or headspace, to provide regular opportunity for concrete expectation and the simple mutual pleasure of its fulfilment, and (in some cases) to get everyday tasks accomplished to the dominant’s satisfaction. Structure can include elements of the basic maintenance of the submissive’s health and well-being; by holding the submissive to those sorts of structure-based requirements, the dominant indicates his or her care for the submissive and shows expectation for the submissive’s self-care. My bois and I see this sort of thing as one element of “protecting the property,” a handy phrase we found in the book Slavecraft by a grateful slave and Guy Baldwin. Structure can also serve as a barometer for the relationship: if regular, simple expectations are not being met on the part of the submissive, something’s probably going wrong and needs to be checked on. Same goes for if the dominant is finding it difficult to enforce structure. These “failures” may indicate exhaustion, underlying relationship tension, miscommunication about expectations, or any number of other challenges that need to be dealt with via honest communication and sincere efforts toward repair.
For example, every night I lay out clothing for Boi M to dress in the next morning so that I have the pleasure of picking his clothes; the process is definitely enjoyable to me, especially since he’s such a hottie when wearing them, and he has the pleasure of wearing something that reinforces my ownership of him and leaves my mark on him all day long. For his part, every morning he lays out my breakfast dishes, and each time we first greet at home in the evenings he brings me his collar. He’s also in charge of a number of regular domestic tasks, such as doing groceries (ensuring that my preferred staples never run out), taking out the garbage, making at least one healthful dinnertime meal per week for us to share, folding and putting away my clothing, and so forth. I also require that he devote a certain amount of time each week to specific self-care activities, and with some well-chosen exceptions (heh heh) I enforce a bedtime that ensures he’ll get enough sleep in order to function well at his day job, for which he gets up at an ungodly hour of the morning.
For Boi L, who doesn’t live in the same city as me, I have a fairly extensive list of daily structure elements in place, and I switch them up depending on our respective contexts. For example, she does a full cardiovascular and muscular workout every day (minus regular breaks for recovery), flosses her teeth before bed each night, and texts me goodnight every night. In addition, she sends me a weekly report every Tuesday that provides me with updated information on a set list of her activities; currently, the report includes information on her state of health, her progress on and responses to the current reading assignments I have her working on, her kneeling, and a few other items. In response to that report, within 24 hours I send her instructions for the week detailing how frequently and in what manner she’s permitted to jerk off for the week; if she’s late on her report, she’s not allowed to masturbate until she sends it in (barring technical difficulties over which she has no control).
Structure is about the present, in a general sense. If structure is lacking, the relationship feels formless; there’s nothing in particular that would cause the partners to experience that relationship as a power-based one. In a sense, without structure, the D/s can’t really be ongoing. You can enjoy D/s on an occasional basis with someone, of course, but the feature that takes D/s from a “let’s do this on Saturday night” thing to a “this is who we are to each other all the time” thing is that the dominant begins to reach into the submissive’s life even when the submissive is not present, and she or he holds a regular presence there in the form of requirements the submissive is expected to meet all the time. Boi L shared her concept of “default values” early in our relationship, and while it applies in various places, I’ve found it particularly valuable in the realm of creating routines as part of structure—as in, creating rules that state that she or Boi M are expected to do certain things unless told or given permission otherwise.
Again, let me be clear that this is not a hierarchy of validity—weekend forays into D/s or entire relationships that play out only in specific time frames (a week-long visit two or three times a year, say) are perfect for the chemistry that exists between many folks. 24/7 is not for everyone. In 24/7, though, structure is the fabric of the relationship, the baseline, and the relationship itself is ongoing. A submissive who’s oriented toward 24/7 but lacking a structure provided by a dominant will, oddly enough, often gravitate towards either creating their own structure in order to maintain the emotional connection and charge of the dominant’s influence (“every night before bed, I’ll kneel and think of you”), or they will fall away from structure such that they only really “feel” the relationship when the two people are together. In these circumstances, and particularly with the latter, the submissive doesn’t experience the dominant as being particularly relevant to their everyday lives or present in an ongoing way; for someone oriented to 24/7 dynamics this can be distressing. Single submissives sometimes create structure for themselves, framing it in ways that sound like “I work out daily to stay in shape so that I can be pleasing to and capable of serving a potential future dominant.” To continue with the painting metaphor, structure is the stretcher, the canvas, the gesso, the base coats of paint, the outline of an image—the stuff without which the painting simply couldn’t happen. In dance, it’s the basic steps and rhythm.
Some elements of structure, particularly the more detail-oriented and interactive ones, may begin to overlap with or morph into the next mechanism: protocol.
Protocols are the “how” of what’s done, rather than the “what.” Anyone can do something nice for someone else; the difference between an egalitarian act and an act of service shaped by D/s is the protocol that lends that act a flavour of deliberateness, consciousness, respect and formality (the latter to varying degrees depending on circumstance). Protocols are specific, and at times elaborate or nitpicky, ways of interacting that make it impossible to forget the context in which a given act is being carried out.
For example, let’s take the idea of making and serving up dinner. On its own, that act is a “what.” Anyone can make dinner for a friend or lover and serve it to them. The “how” is what makes it different when my bois make dinner. For them, serving dinner involves setting the table according to my preference (including appropriate cutlery and candles), giving me a five-minute warning before dinner is served (in a respectful tone and using specific forms of language), escorting me to the table, pulling out my chair, laying my napkin on my lap, waiting for permission to sit, eating only after I’ve taken the first bite, employing specific table manners, requesting permission to leave the table as needed, standing if I stand to leave the table, and so forth. I happen to be a slow eater, so their protocols also involve them matching their eating pace to mine so that we enjoy our meal together and they don’t finish half an hour before me. These things are protocols.
Protocol is about the immediate moment. If protocol is lacking, then when the two people are together, the relationship looks and feels no different from a vanilla one. Protocol is a moment-by-moment shaping of behaviour and “flavouring” of interaction that keeps the power relations concrete and tangible at all times. It is a fine-tuned manner of expressing respect for each person’s role in the relationship. They may involve details of behaviour, language use, body posture, dress, greeting, and many other areas. Protocol is not simply about the way the submissive approaches or interacts with the dominant; it’s also, though perhaps more subtly, about the way the dominant receives or responds to the submissive, including the enforcement of protocol (i.e. creating it in the first place, correcting it when it’s faulty or sloppy, and so forth). Protocol takes everday interactions and elevates them to a level of consciousness that holds the participants in a specific headspace that is pleasurable to all concerned.
Again, the painting metaphor: protocol has nothing to do with the size or style of the art created. It’s about the care taken in choosing each brush and tool, maintaining them with carefully tailored cleaning rituals, using practiced and refined techniques to achieve specific results, taking joy in every last deliberate detail involved in making the work one of quality, and extending that approach of care and quality to the equipment, the studio and the supplies that are used. In dance, protocol would be the small but highly studied bodily movements that make a dance flow perfectly, the exact turn of a wrist or placement of a foot, the tiny details that make all the difference.
When each of these mechanisms is used consistently, successful 24/7 is guaranteed. Hah! No, I’m kidding of course… tons of other factors come into play there. But in my experience I’d say that these relationship management strategies, which in many ways borrow from strategies employed in other areas of human society that have nothing to do with sex or intimate relationships, do create a framework that can lend clarity to a dominant/submissive dynamic. That can provide both a language with which to troubleshoot when things start feeling like they’re going off track and a structure into which new ideas and experiences can be plugged for maximum benefit.
There it is, folks. The result of much percolation. As always, I’m interested in your comments… don’t be shy!