expectations of dominance: picking through the tangle

Lately, I’ve come across a number of instances that have made it really clear to me that people in the BDSM/leather world have a wide range of completely disparate ideas about what a dominant should or shouldn’t be. For all that dominant kinksters are, well, dominant, that doesn’t mean we’re any less affected by other people’s ideas of “should” and “shouldn’t,” so it feels like it’s worth laying out some of the expectations that are projected upon us by others within the kink world if only to show that there’s no possible way any human being could live up to all of them at once.

1. Role-play is where it’s at. All dominance is theatre.

One striking example happened during a facilitated discussion at a kink event I recently attended. We were talking about the nature of power and how that impacts behaviour in public kink space, and a dominant-identified guy spoke up to say that he just assumes everyone’s doing role-play. For him, that means that he can be Lord High Muckety-Muck with the person he’s playing with, but Joe Everyman to the other people in the room, even in the middle of play—as in, “On your knees, slut! … What’s that? Sure, Bob, you can borrow my handcuffs. Now, where was I? … Worship my boots, you lowly wench!” Which, of course, is all fine and good for him, except that he insisted that he would assume that about everyone in the room. When I spoke up and said that for some people, dominance and submission is a way of life, and a paradigm for full-time relationships, he still insisted that he’d assume it was role-play.

I can just imagine the conversations he might get into:

“What do you call her when you’re not in role?”
“We don’t do roles.”
“Okay, but what do you call her when you’re not playing?”
“The same thing I call her when we are playing.”
“You mean you’re role-playing all the time?”
“No, we aren’t role-playing. We live this way.”
“Sure, right, but when you’re at home and hanging out, I mean.”
“Yes. That’s what I mean.”

…and so on, and so forth. For people like Muckety/Joe, there is nothing other than role-play, and therefore anything outside that paradigm simply does not compute, even when they’re faced with clear information that other ways of doing things exist.

Such people hold an opinion that stands polar opposite to…

2. 24/7 power exchange is where it’s at. All dominance is full-time, and full-time is the only real kind.

We all hate the Domly Doms who spread their domliness all over everyone who gets within ten feet of them. I’ve bitched extensively about this in any number of posts (like this one), and others, like the ever-sharp Franklin Veaux, have done excellent writing on the topic. Of course it pisses everyone off (many 24/7ers included) when people who engage in D/s relationships impose their power exchange on people around them who have not consented to it.

But that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. While the evil Domly Doms are definitely all manner of irritating, those particular problem cases actually hold two assumptions: first, that all dominance is full-time, and second, that they don’t need to respect (or even ask about or notice) other people’s boundaries. The second one has most of us spitting tacks because it’s so bloody awful. But the first one can be highly problematic even when it’s not being expressed in the form of outright disrespectful behaviour of the misplaced-entitlement sort. The simple issue of expecting that all dominance is full-time (usually paired with the idea that all dominance is formal in flavour) is a lot subtler. It tends to come out in conversation…

Dominant: “I have my slave mow the lawn twice a week, polish the 200-piece silverware set every second Tuesday, and prepare a formal dinner for all the dominants in our leather family four times a year. How often do you do that for your master?”
Submissive: “Um, my dominant isn’t my master. He’s in charge in the bedroom, but we leave that separate from the rest of our lives.”
Dominant: (sniff) “Oh. I see.”

Similar conversations play out between dominants and between submissives—you get the idea. The problem here is that lots of people who assume 24/7 dynamics often end up creating a world in their heads in which anyone who isn’t doing 24/7 is somehow not really kinky, not really dominant, not really submissive, and most certainly not really worth giving the time of day. They don’t necessarily say so outright, but it comes through in attitude and demeanour, in tone and language, in a way that serves to bolster the impression, on the part of both kinky people and the general public, that 24/7 people are just people with control issues, balance problems and poor social skills.

This assumption also leads to deep and sometimes painful misunderstandings between people who are looking for different things. Sometimes such people don’t entirely know how to articulate what they’re after because they assume everyone else wants a full-time dynamic just like they do.

This is especially a problem when someone holding this assumption encounters someone who thinks that…

3. Extra-curricular power exchange is where it’s at. All dominance is part-time.

Then there are the dominants who do ongoing power-based relationships, but who still keep those at a distance from “real life.” I was chatting with someone not long ago who has a slave and a partner, and as the conversation progressed, it became really clear that we were using the same language to talk about very different things. It went something like this:

Him: “But of course, while my partner and I play sometimes, our relationship is fundamentally power-neutral.”
Me: “Oh, neat. I did that for a long time, and it was wonderful, but now that I’m with partners in a full-time power dynamic, I find it seems to be a better fit for me.”
Him (incredulous): “You mean they’re always your bois? And your partners? At the same time?”
Me: “Um, yeah.”
Him: “You mean you never step out of it? Wow, that’s intense! I could never do that! With me, I’m Sir Jack Nasty with my slave, but at home I’m just Jack.”

Until that point, we’d been using the same vocabulary to talk about our relationships—submissive, power, service, collars, training and so forth—but the extent of those relationships is vastly different for each of us. Jack’s power relationships aren’t role-play, in that with a given person the relationship is always the same. But the intensity of D/s partnerships is such that, for him, they can’t become full-time, while for me with my bois, full-time is what makes sense. He feels most fulfilled when he’s got a balance of at-home power-neutral stability and out-of-home power-based dynamics.

Again, there’s no problem inherent in his approach to things. However, if he were to become involved with a submissive who thought Sir Nasty and Jack were one and the same, and who really wanted a full-time dynamic, things would crumble. Eventually Sir Nasty would need a break, Jack would emerge, and the submissive would be dropped and confused. In theory, without careful management, the same thing could happen even in a part-time arrangement unless both partners were well aware that Sir Nasty is not a full-time identity, and therefore the submissive might at some point encounter Jack. They’d want to agree on an appropriate way of interacting in such a situation so that neither of them would wind up feeling weird about it.

A related, but not identical, assumption is that…

4. Playing with power is where it’s at. All dominance is about SM, and all SM is about dominance.

This particular paradigm is oddly one of the most dangerous, in my opinion. It doesn’t have to be, but it certainly can be, because when it comes to play, we often engage in short negotiations for intense experiences, sometimes with people we don’t know too well.

As with anything else, this paradigm isn’t inherently bad if you’re applying it solely to yourself, but the problem is that almost all SM play is done in pairs or groups. So if two or more people enter a situation with completely opposing understandings of what they’re up to in terms of power, no matter how well they negotiate the specific physical activities they plan to engage in, they’re likely to come out with widely divergent degrees of satisfaction with the encounter.

I’ve had experiences on both sides of the coin. It’s happened numerous times that I’ve agreed to top someone, we’ve negotiated what we’ll do, and then something clues me into their unstated expectations. For example, many years ago, a friend and I entered a scene that up until the last possible second—flogger poised for the first strike—I thought was a fun sensation scene, when he said, “Oh, wait! What do you want me to call you while we play?” The flogger dropped, and the negotiation started up all over again. He assumed I’d want to be called me Ma’am or Sir or something to indicate and reinforce a power differential, but I didn’t even realize a power differential was present or desired. All was well, we sorted it out and had a lovely time, but I came awfully close to taking up one end of a dynamic, however temporary, that I hadn’t consented to and wasn’t aware of. Had we not caught it at the last second, I would doubtless have unintentionally dropped that energy and left him feeling nicely beaten but ultimately unfulfilled. In theory, if not specifically with this friend, I might also have felt suckered into a power dynamic that I didn’t want and that I was now stuck with holding up so as not to hurt his feelings or be an irresponsible dominant.

On the other side of the coin, I’ve often negotiated with tops for sensation scenes—I am a greedy masochist—and then noticed that despite all assurances to the contrary, the top in question was unable to separate pain play from power play. For me, giving or taking a beating (or other intense physical experience) is not inherently about power exchange at all. Just as I don’t assume others want my dominance, I don’t generally want power exchange with a top when I grab the bottom spot. I just want to go on an intensity trip that’s about physical contact, sensation, breathing, connection, and enjoying an endorphin high (ideally shared). But it’s amazing how a person—myself, yes, but others too—can clearly state what they’re after and still have a top misunderstand and pull out the Domly Dominant attitude in the middle of what might otherwise have been a very enjoyable scene. There’s no buzzkill quite like it. Having had this experience with a few too many people, I’ve become really selective about who I bottom to. Even if I might personally like to get the beats more often, the grouchiness that I feel following inappropriate power-plays isn’t worth the price of admission.

Sure, it’s entirely possible to order a submissive to beat me, but then there’s still power exchange going on, I’m just on the other side of it. The point is that sometimes I just wanna fly, and neither be responsible for someone else’s well-being when I come down nor be expected to kiss someone’s whip handle.

Tons of people hold kinky desires that have nothing to do with power exchange, and for which an exchange between equals works best… but that can be oddly hard to find.

And now, in a completely mirror version of assumption number 4, we have…

5. Intense sensation is where it’s at. All SM is about sensation; dominance is disturbing.

Here we have the flip-side paradigm of the last one. In this one, people assume that nobody plays with power, or at least, that nobody should; that dominance and submission are freaky and strange and potentially dangerous (except maybe for role play, because that’s not really real). Folks who operate under this paradigm tend to see power exchange as that thing those weird people do over there. Or, even if they’re not uncomfortable with it or hostile to it, they certainly don’t engage in it themselves. For them, it’s all about the sensation trip; anything else feels irrelevant. Protocols are a waste of time, collars are just jewellery, and titles are pretentious.

Again, when you’re applying this paradigm only to yourself, there’s nothing wrong with it. The problem lies in the potentially judgmental aspects that come into play when you’re filtering what everyone else does through that paradigm. The additional problem is that when whole sub-communities or social networks are created around this paradigm, people who do want power exchange, whether momentary or ongoing, can end up feeling like they have to be extremely careful—sometimes even more so than among vanilla folk—about disclosing or displaying their power-based relationships. To a sensation-only crowd, those relationships and interactions can be read as abusive (at worst), or off-putting (at best), even when they’re fully consensual and desired. Thus we wind up with kinky people who are alienated from their local scenes because nobody there really gets them, and instead of support and affirmation, or even just curiosity, they get a lot of funny looks and potentially even accusations.

And now we come to my favourite of all…

6. Dominance is where it’s at, and dominance is a public commodity. If you’re a dominant, you should take all comers.

Not long ago, I took part in a discussion on FetLife in which someone asked if people agreed that dominants should take on submissives (I presume he meant those who gravitate toward 24/7 dynamics) who seemed to be lacking a master, simply because they might otherwise fall into the wrong hands.

Needless to say, I strongly disagreed. One of the things I realized a few years ago was that no matter how compatible I might be with someone on paper, and no matter how much I enjoy the dance of power exchange, the right chemistry has to be present or my heart just isn’t in it. And when my heart isn’t in it, when my desire is not active and vibrant and strong, I can’t possibly do my job well. Earlier in my learning curve, I made the mistake of saying yes to people who wanted to serve me when I should have said no. Not only did I feel frustrated, disappointed or otherwise dissatisfied with the ensuing relationships, I hurt the people I was involved with along the way. Now that I’ve learned my lesson, that is a mistake I will not make again.

So with that in mind—do I feel responsible for taking on every person who wants to serve me? Hell no. I feel it would actually be irresponsible for me to do so. Besides, what submissive would want to be the one taken on just because a dominant felt obliged to? Icky icky. Not to mention the sheer impracticality of such a project. One only has so much time and energy to go around, and M/s or D/s relationships are intense. No matter how poly, there comes a point where you just can’t keep saying yes and still have anything of quality to offer. As well, I’m sure many dominants have encountered lots of people who petition for service relationships but who really just want to live out an extended sexual fantasy. It certainly isn’t my job to take them on one after another until they each figure out this isn’t what they were expecting based on all those erotic fiction novels they read.

The original question is one of the many instances in which I’ve seen the desires and limits of a dominant seen as being of secondary importance, even sometimes among dominants themselves. It never ceases to puzzle me when people place a huge amount of importance on the consent of a submissive, but pooh-pooh the idea that a dominant should hold their own consent to a similar standard.

In an interesting related point, a commenter on a fellow blogger’s site recently likened me to a rapist. The blogger’s post referred to my post entitled “the dominant’s consent” in which I talk about the many facets of meaning, both spoken and unspoken, that can be present in a negotiation. In it, I outlined a number of the questions that have come up for me in past encounters when people have wanted me to take up power beyond my own comfort level, and in which I have refused to do so because something didn’t feel quite right and I wasn’t willing to enter into a power-exchange situation that I felt wasn’t entirely healthy.

The blogger who reacted to my post felt that I was being overly analytical and taking the fun out of things, and that somehow that approach was creepy and paternalistic. I don’t entirely get why analysis is creepy, or why wishing to play with emotionally healthy people is paternalistic, but they’re entitled to their opinion, of course—and I’m still not going to consent to play with people if I think their expectations (especially the unstated ones) are a poor match for what I have to offer. What really shocked me, though, was the commenter, who took it a step further, saying that my approach, in negative image, would be much like a rapist’s approach to a victim – as in, deciding on that person’s consent on their behalf.

Wow. It amazes me to see the degree of expectation such a viewpoint places on a dominant to take all comers, even against their better judgment. But I gotta say, it doesn’t surprise me. If a dominant says “no” because they don’t feel competent to perform the sort of scene a submissive has in mind or hold up their end of the sort of relationship a submissive wants, that’s supposed to be good. Most of the time. But if a dominant says “no” because the submissive creeps them out, the chemistry is wrong, the submissive’s emotional health or communication skills are questionable, and so forth, apparently that’s… like rape? If you flip the power dynamics, nobody (or at least nobody the least bit progressive) would dare to argue, but when a dominant is uncomfortable with what’s being asked—all the more so when the reason for discomfort is a clear sense of unspoken expectations—refusal is suspect and resented. Double standard, anyone? Yikes.

I can’t help but recall a vivid example of this double standard. I was at a fetish event in Montreal many years ago, and was wearing a pair of knee-high PVC boots. I was talking with a friend and I shifted my foot a bit and it felt like it was catching on the floor, so I looked down, and I saw a guy lying on the ground licking my boot. I yanked my foot away and said, “Excuse me, but if you want to lick my boot, you have to ask first!” He looked up at me and said, “No, I don’t. You know you want it.” I was so grossed out I almost gagged.

Granted, most consent-ignoring submissives aren’t quite so obvious about it, but you get the point: dominants are often objectified, seen as fantasy-fulfilling machines, shat upon when we don’t come through as desired, and told we’re supposed to do our thing for anyone who wants it, except when it doesn’t work out right and then we’re supposed to take all the blame because we’re dominants so we’re expected to magically know everything and have flawless judgment, except of course when that judgment contradicts a submissive’s judgment, in which case we’re jerks for exercising it and erring on the side of caution. Gah.

And just to finish off…

There are many more contradictory assumptions and expectations that I won’t write out in detail. For starters, check out these pairs:

7a. Dominants should cultivate entitlement in their relationships
7b. What gives a dominant the right to behave with entitlement? That’s offensive!

8a. Dominants should learn to push boundaries, because otherwise the submissive is actually in charge and in any case, submissives will never grow and develop unless they are stretched.
8b. Dominants should never push boundaries, otherwise they may push too far and step over the line of consent and do deep damage.

9a. Dominants should hold authority with an iron fist. If they don’t, how can they consider themselves dominant?
9b. Dominants should be flexible and gentle, as the slightest disapproval they show can cause deep self-doubt and self-chastisement in a submissive.

10a. Dominants should expect their submissives to tend to their every need.
10b. Dominants shouldn’t become dependent on their submissives.

11a. Dominants should exercise shrewd judgment and take enormous care of their submissives.
11b. Dominants should stop thinking so much and just go with the flow. Risk is hot and that’s what we’re here for after all!

12a. Dominants should own their kink, be proud of it, and refuse to apologize for it or explain it to anyone. When you’re right, you’re right, and what you do is nobody’s business but your own.
12b. Dominants have a responsibility to the community to act as honourable representatives of the kink world, to be as outwardly “normal” as possible and to justify their relationship and play choices by all means available.

Really, the only solution I’ve found to extricating myself from all the tangles these 12 sets of assumptions present is to say, fuck ‘em. I’m going to do this as best I can, based on my own values and my own judgment, and that’s all I can hold myself accountable to at the end of the day. It can get to be a bit tiring to act as a screen upon which others project their expectations, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. But regardless of whether other people think I’m the “right” kind of dominant, that doesn’t make me any less committed to exploring my own path in the way that suits me best.

8 thoughts on “expectations of dominance: picking through the tangle

  1. Lots to learn from and think about here. For me the main message is to be absolutely clear about what you mean–don’t rely on slippery labels–and never assume what others mean by those same labels. The only version of this I’ve encountered are the Domly doms who want to be called by some title by all submissives, whether or not there’s been an agreement or even a discussion. Anyway, thanks for writing this.

  2. Once again, you’ve helped me better articulate what I want and better ask others what they want. For me it’s more that just “Do you want dominance with that?” Many times I want a top to project power but not to expect a submissive attitude from me. I want a powerful top playing with a powerful bottom. There can be some power exchange. Part of pain play for me can be letting someone else have control of my body, letting somebody else drive — I like symbolic bondage during pain play for the same reason. But unless you’re my partner, I won’t be calling you ma’am or sir, and I may fight back some if I’m feeling feisty (and I sense that that’s OK).

    Similarly, if I’m topping, I like to project my power, but I’m not disappointed if you don’t want my dominance.

    Thoughtful post.

  3. “He looked up at me and said, ‘No, I don’t. You know you want it.’ ”

    That is creepy as hell. Seriously, just reading about that makes me feel really uncomfortable. Yech.

    …brilliant post, though. It’s amazing how many people fall into the trap of “I identify as a dominant/submissive and I like X, therefore anyone who’s a *real* dominant/submissive likes X.”

  4. I was thinking about the conflation of SM and power play and something occurred to me. Whenever I’m doing any kind of topping (in the strictest sense of being the one to provide sensation, even if it’s through the most vanilla of means), I get a certain power rush from my ability to make the other person react and respond, or even just knowing that I’m making them feel a certain way. I am absolutely and firmly not a dominant and don’t want to be, but it’s an inescapable fact that when you’re giving someone sensation you have the de facto power to keep doing what you’re doing (thereby giving them certain sensations and eliciting certain responses) or you can stop, and take those sensations away.

    For me, because I have very little interest in dominance I never mistake my power to make someone cum with my power to tell them what to do. If I’m supposed to be giving orders as well as fucking (or whatever) I’m generally a lot less into it (although I’m sometimes willing if it will make the other person happy). But I can see how if I was into the more D/s kind of power it would be really easy to conflate those two kinds, and to fall into a headspace of dominance just from topping despite my best intentions.

    I don’t know, I just thought maybe if this situation of de facto power of topping was mentioned and made explicit and talked about then, when someone who likes to dominate was trying to do a topping-only scene they might recognize what was happening and be in a better position to quell their dominating instincts.

    Was that coherent at all? I can’t really tell.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s