what are we doing, here, exactly? or, conceptual frameworks for d/s relationships

The theme of D/s and power relationships has been at the forefront of my mind of late. Not too long ago, I put out a post about what I call This Thing—a particular sort of ownership-based D/s dynamic that some people call M/s (Master/slave). I realized, after writing it, that I haven’t ever attempted to lay out the other types of D/s relationships or dynamics that exist out there. But recently I’ve been having some thought-provoking conversations that have made it clear I need to develop a broader model in which to insert This Thing, so that’s what I’m attempting to do here.

I want to make a couple of disclaimers before diving in. In fact, there are five, but I’ve placed the last three at the end of the post in order to avoid weighing down this intro too much. Scroll to the bottom if you want ‘em now, or just read them at the end!

First, I’ve laid this post out in the form of a list, which necessarily ends up looking like some kind of hierarchy. But creating hierarchy is not my purpose. For starters, I’ve personally engaged in relationships at pretty much every point on this list, sometimes simultaneously with different people, so I’m hardly one to argue that any point is better than any other. I’m much more interested in engaging with people in precisely the way that best suits a given pairing than in trying to judge what kind is best. I hope you read this list with the same philosophy in mind. But also—and I discuss this more later—different kinds of pleasure can be taken at different points on the list.

Second, for all that I realize I have no control over what you do with this once you read it, I want to add a caution as to how I’d like to see this list to be used. I see it primarily as a way of describing what exists between two people—not as a way of either setting goals (“I’d like us to get to number 7”) or setting limits (“I can’t really handle much more than a 2, so let’s stop there”). As I discuss in more detail later, I don’t think we can really decide what kind of power dynamic exists in any given relationship; we can simply decide whether or not to act on it, and how. Being more conscious about what these different points might look like can help us to make wise decisions about whether to deliberately take action to deepen a dynamic or choose to avoid taking action in order to keep it lighter, but I don’t think you can will a dynamic to be 24/7 if it doesn’t truly suit the pairing of people involved, and I don’t think you can carve down a broad dynamic fit into a scene or two if it’s meant to be much more.

Okay, on with the show!

***

1. Vanilla. There are plenty of power dynamics in vanilla relationships, they just aren’t articulated or engaged with in quite the same way, or using the same vocabulary, as I’m about to do here. So I’ll just pick one of many examples of how power dynamics might work in a vanilla relationship, just to have a point of departure for comparison purposes: Person A likes Person B’s shirt and says so; Person B starts to wear it more often.

2. Scene-based D/s. The people engage in a power dynamic that starts when they say it does or when the SM play begins, and ends when the SM play or a prescribed amount of time comes to an end. Person A tells Person B what shirt to wear or what shirts not to wear, or Person B asks; but once they’re done, Person B can change back into the shirt Person A hates.

3. Temporary or short-term D/s connection. General parameters are set that apply between the people even if no SM play is taking place. Person A tells Person B what shirts to wear all weekend, say. This has no particular bearing on what next weekend will look like between them. You might consider it an extended scene, in which the players aren’t necessarily engaged in full SM acts at all times but in which the power dynamic is in place the whole time.

4. Occasional regular D/s connection. General parameters can be set; the power dynamic is in effect any time the people are together. Sort of like Point 3, only repeated on some sort of regular basis such that it can be assumed that the dynamic will happen this way whenever they spend time together, until someone calls it off. They may have contact in between times that is not framed in D/s terms, and they may, in some instances, see one another without engaging in D/s, for instance if they run into each other at a grocery store. But their primary purpose in spending time together is for D/s. Person A tells Person B what kind of shirts to wear and not to wear whenever they’re together as a general rule, rather than negotiating it each time.

5. Regular but not ongoing D/s connection. Basically, Point 4 with the addition that the “together time” during which the people engage in their power dynamic includes types of contact outside physically being in one another’s presence. So the dynamic extends to telephone calls, e-mails, essentially any interaction between the two people. Person A tells Person B what kind of shirts to wear whenever they’re in contact. Still, it has no bearing on what Person B does when not in contact with Person A.

6. Limited ongoing D/s dynamic. General parameters apply even when the people are not together. So Person A tells Person B what kind of shirts to buy, and Person B never wears shirts that Person A doesn’t like. The power dynamic is always in effect, but its territory may be limited—for example, Person A has full control of Person B’s wardrobe, but has no say over Person B’s job decisions or workout routine.

7. 24/7 power dynamic. Parameters always apply, with a view to all-encompassing or very minimally limited authority. It’s not just about shirts anymore; it’s not just about shirts, pants and workouts. Person A and Person B both want Person A to have authority in most of Person B’s life. Component by component, Person A and Person B work to extend Person A’s authority and Person B’s submission. Still, for any number of reasons, there may still remain areas in which Person A does not have authority—family visits, say, or jurisdiction over Person B’s job decisions.

8. This Thing. Some people call it M/s. I laid out how I see this type of relationship as different from others in a recent post, which describes seven key features. Here, areas of authority are no longer seen individually, as components to be added as appropriate. Rather, the baseline framework is that Person A owns Person B, and therefore has authority over everything; the particulars are then navigated and discussed from that standpoint.

***

Bleed between one of these types into the next, or a jump from one to another, can happen either on purpose or by accident. For instance, a temporary or short-term D/s arrangement can turn into a regular one by default, simply by the people doing it more than once. It’s a lot clearer and healthier if they discuss this—“I realize we’ve done this twice now and I really like it. If you feel the same, is it safe to assume we plan to continue doing it until one of us says otherwise?”—but it certainly can happen with no discussion. As another example, Person A puts a collar on Person B in a scene but then leaves it on once the scene is done. If the collar retains its meaning or symbolism and continues to support or induce a submissive headspace in Person B even after she goes home, then they’ve effectively jumped into a limited ongoing power dynamic, whether or not that’s what Person A was trying to accomplish.

Bleeding and jumping can be regulated to some extent. Partly this is about carefully thinking about what you’re doing, making decisions that recognize what might cause you to move around on the list, and doing so only when that kind of movement is precisely what you want. Partly this is about discussion—in this respect, it is always a better idea to lay something on the table than to leave it unsaid. For instance, if Person B thinks they’re doing a temporary or short-term D/s thing but Person A thinks they’re doing an occasional regular D/s dynamic and therefore starts assuming that anytime she and Person B are together they’re going to be behaving as dominant and submissive, they’re both likely to be offended at how the other behaves. Person B will wonder why Person A is being so pushy, and Person A will wonder why Person B is being so disobedient. This can easily move into non-consensual territory, so this is me making yet one more push in the direction of clear, direct conversation.

Influence, however, is harder to regulate than behaviour. So if Person B realizes that she’s only wearing blue shirts ever since Person A said she liked them, then it’s Person B’s responsibility to tell Person A that, otherwise they can’t discuss the meaning of it. Person A also shares the responsibility for noticing the areas of her influence and asking Person B questions about the meaning of that influence. Clearly, the more observant, self-aware and communicative you are, as a pair or group, the more likely this is to all go smoothly.

Once it’s on the table, Person A can then decide if that’s comfortable to hold, and if so, how best she wants to do so. (Weekly shirt guidelines that change seasonally? A wardrobe evaluation and a twice-yearly shopping trip? A basic “no yellow” or “all shirts must have some blue in them” rule?) When I talk about Person A “holding,” I mean holding up her end of the bargain as the dominant—remembering the rule or parameter, sustaining the expectation that it will be met, providing appropriate support in making sure that this is possible, consistently enforcing clear and appropriate consequences if it is not met, and following up on some sort of regular basis to be sure that the parameters are still working and feeling good for all involved. This is a dynamic process, not a one-time decision; it requires investment to sustain.

If Person A decides she doesn’t want to hold that, that’s a different story. Person B can change her behaviour by wearing other colours of shirts. Sometimes, a simple change in behaviour effectively short-circuits the power dynamic in a given area. But there’s no guarantee that will work. Behaviour change or no, it is very difficult to “make” Person B stop wanting to wear only blue shirts if she deeply desires to please Person A and knows this is a way to do so. It’s also very difficult, if Person B’s inclined to submit to Person A, for Person B to see wearing other colours of shirts as anything other than obeying Person A’s wishes that she no longer wear only blue shirts. In short, a behaviour change should not be confused with a change in power dynamic; it can be purely cosmetic.

What direction this goes in is dependent on a host of factors—personalities, circumstances, the nature of the dynamic, and so forth. I am of the opinion that the two people involved in a power dynamic are only minimally in control of their desires; those desires organically create a power dynamic between them, whether it’s discussed or not. They are much more in control of whether, and how, they act on those desires. Even then, though, I caution that when one or more people discipline their behaviour to make it look as though they aren’t doing D/s, they’re essentially investing a lot of energy in denial rather than in simply trying to do the power dynamic in a healthy way. Any relationship that spends a lot of energy avoiding talking about things or trying to make them not happen strikes me as inherently not so healthy. At the very least, if they have the discussion, Person A, knowing how her influence seems to affect Person B, can then decide whether or not to say anything about shoes, pants, cars, or Person B’s job; she can also make it clear (if applicable) that she will not be holding up her end of the deal no matter how much Person B would like her to, so that there is no cause for a break in trust or the development of resentment.

The good news is, you get to decide what to do at every step. The bad news is, that statement is only sort of true. You can choose to act in ways that deepen a power dynamic, that extend its realm, or not. But it is extremely hard to go back to a less intense power dynamic once you’ve already gone deep, unless you break it—as in, drop the person and break their trust (from either end of the dynamic). This is true even when you’ve gone deep by accident. If ever there were a reason to get really good at noticing shit and talking about it, this is it!

On the up side, when you have decided you want to go somewhere deeper, the deliberate cultivation of the dynamic is the fun part. The process of noticing, discussing and deliberately extending the spread of the dominant’s influence is how a 24/7 dynamic is built, and how ownership is articulated into meaning.

Note that all of this is awfully hard to do when you’re just starting out. You don’t know what to look for, or what to ask about; you don’t necessarily understand and can’t necessarily predict the impact of an action or statement. You don’t know what will feel good to give over or to hold, or what will make you feel overextended. You will fuck up. For that matter, you will fuck up even if you’ve been doing this for a really long time. So it goes. We are human. (My five steps for fixing a fuck-up might come in handy here.) And there is no road map for this kind of relationship, or only the most minimally useful ones (hey, I have no illusions; this post is not going to make everyone’s D/s happier and healthier). Some stuff you have to learn on your own and make your own. Everything I’ve figured out about this shit has come at the expense of my own pain and the pain of the people I’ve hurt. My best promise is to try not to make the same mistake twice, and to fix my fuck-ups as best I can. I would wish the same for you.

Let me be clear that I’m not trying to lay out a hierarchy of validity in relationship here. Different items in this list involve different kinds of intensity—not necessarily different degrees. The further away from the real, everyday “you” your dynamic takes you, the better it is suited to a short-term scene. Most people can’t, and don’t want to, inhabit a “not-me” or “very narrow facet of me” persona at all times. Similarly, the intensity of activity / play / protocol that you can have in a two-hour scene is usually not sustainable 24/7. A scene can be a break from real life, but the longer the time you spend in your dynamic, the more likely that real life will happen, and you need to deal with it as such. If you ignore real life for too long in order to engage in D/s, you will end up with some version of emotional burnout, or facing other, more practical consequences.

As such, if you do want to sustain your dynamic 24/7, the more you can imbue your everyday activities—sleeping, eating, washing, dressing, working, and so forth—with qualities that reinforce the D/s dynamic, the more solidly and soundly it can be lived. It’s much harder to try and create a 24/7 situation that requires a person to leave aside the everyday in order to do the dynamic. Thus: “My Mistress chooses all my clothes for me because she wants me to be pleasing to her eye when she sees me and to reflect her good taste everywhere I go” is much easier to sustain in a healthy, integrated fashion than “My Mistress requires me to be naked at all times, so I had to quit my job.”

Of course, this kind of dynamic does not have the same type of intensity as a scene does; there is no arc of warm-up and release and cool-down, no catharsis, no aftercare. It is a different beast. On the flip side, a 24/7 dynamic allows both people to always be in the kind of headspace they thrive in—if, indeed, they do thrive there—and the all-the-time character of it is its own kind of intensity.

I realize that I’m discussing 24/7 here as though it were different from ownership—two separate points on my list. I do think this is true, or at least that, regardless of the specific vocabulary you use to discuss these topics, that there does exist a type of relationship that I call This Thing, which is focused on ownership and as such is different from any number of other types of otherwise full-time power dynamics. Some people do 24/7 relationships that they don’t articulate as being about ownership. I’m not necessarily the best person to discuss them as I am very ownership-oriented and I don’t think I am likely to ever do 24/7 that didn’t turn into ownership. But others do. I’d actually be curious to learn more about how they work—it’s not like we have a ton of resources laying this stuff out. One form I can think of is the Daddy/boy relationship and its related types, where the dynamic is to varying degrees a parental one. Jack Rinella describes a few other power relationship types in his book Partners in Power. But there isn’t much to refer to.

The one thing that’s true of both This Thing and other types of 24/7 relationships is that they are emphatically not just a super-long-term scene. It is in fact entirely possible to have such a relationship in which no SM play or sex ever take place at all. That said, in the context of 24/7 and This Thing, SM play may happen, and when it does, it may look a whole lot like a regular scene between any other people. The difference is that when these players go back to their everyday lives, those lives are infused with D/s.

The two key lines I see here, within my list, are between 5 and 6—when the dominant’s influence extends beyond the time of actual interaction between the partners—and between 7 and 8—when we shift into an ownership-based model rather than one of two independent entities. These are both key conceptual shifts, and they are the places where things most often get sticky. I think a lot of people engage in D/s that fits somewhere in the 2 to 5 range without ever laying out clearly what they’re trying to do. Two people in the same relationship can be on slightly different points in that range for weeks, months, even years and while it will certainly cause misunderstanding and friction, it’s not necessarily going to break a relationship. But it’s much harder to be at differing points when one of you thinks you’re at a 5 and the other at a 6. And the leap in mindset between 7 and 8 can also take a lot of mental and emotional work to make, with attendant possibilities for difficulty.

I could probably go on musing about this list for quite some time, but I’ll rein myself in for now. I hope it provokes your own musings, and perhaps helps you articulate what the hell it is you’re actually doing (or what you want to be doing, or what you don’t want to be doing!). Above all, if you’re doing D/s at all, I sure as hell hope you’re having a good time with it. Joy is, after all, the whole bloody point. So while I believe we need to take power seriously and discuss it clearly, I also think we need to make sure we don’t forget how to have fun with it along the way.

***

And here are those last three disclaimers:

Third, you might notice that I don’t say much about switches in this post. This isn’t for any lack of respect for switches and the beautiful, complex ways in which they manage D/s dynamics. It’s for the simple reason that I’ve never been in a relationship with someone in which the power dynamic switched, so I am really poorly placed to say anything about how that might work. That said, while I know that some switches like to switch with the same person, I also know that some switches like power dynamics to be constant with each person in their lives but to engage in D/s dynamics with more than one person at once, such that they get to be submissive to one person while dominant to another, for instance. This latter type of switching is perfectly compatible with the list I’m putting out here. For switch dynamics within a given relationship, I will leave the floor to more competent thinkers than myself.

Fourth, you might also notice that I don’t say much about groupings, or poly, or multiples. This is again not an attempt to slight anyone. Rather, I would argue that the points here should simply be multiplied to account for larger groupings. A D/s triad is still made up of three dyads, for example, and each dyad can be located at a point in this list.

Fifth and last—and this is especially relevant in points 2 and those nearby—I’m in no way aiming to imply that all SM play involves D/s. It doesn’t. This list applies only to pairings in which a power dynamic is present and makes no assumptions about any other kind of pervy enjoyment you might like to take outside that framework.

4 Responses

  1. Oooh, what riches of thought & analysis. Thanks for writing it!

  2. [...] exchange is, itself, a really heady form of intimacy (particularly when the plan is to have it be more than a one-time-thing) that pretty-much requires one’s personal boundaries to loosen up, both on the part of the [...]

  3. Having entered into a relationship that started out somewhere between 2 and 3 and is now working on achieving a 6, i can see how this is a sliding scale. Very well described and certainly helpful for people who want to find some sort of definition to fit their lifestyle into. There are times when that helps. Thank you for sharing!

  4. [...] or discipline. Dominants like to give orders that are dutifully followed by a submissive or slave. This can occur from a scene-by-scene basis (which can be for just a few minutes or several hours) to…. Orders can consist of anything from, “Take off my shoes!” to “Hold this ball [...]

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