Finally getting round to completing the triumvirate in my musings on play and edges. I want to bring it all to a close by talking about dominance and submission as an experience, from within and without. Specifically I want to talk about what is and what isn't D/s. Now, there are entire shelf-loads of books devoted to YKIOK as well as the usual liberal (and geek social rules) around how you aren't allowed to say that someone is doing something wrong. So for those of you who ascribe to that principle one hundred percent, I would avoid reading further.
I like to think that for the most part I'm pretty cool with people doing what they want to each other as long as consent is acknowledged and it doesn't fuck up what I want to do. But I'm going to take a bit of a stand here. Sometimes things happen, in life and on the scene, that are just wrong. There are no ifs or buts or grey areas. They are shit things that shouldn't have happened. Now, why they happened is a different story, and we've all made mistakes - I know I have - but that doesn't change the fact that bad things happen.
In the past two articles I wrote about how we can create a moral code for ourselves as kinksters, and how we can use that in our negotiations with others, which touched a little on issues of abuse. Now I'm going to touch a little more firmly.
In a nutshell, my opinion is this: dominance is not the same thing as being domineering. Similarly, submission is not the same thing as being a doormat. In both instances, the former is good, healthy BDSM, the latter is not. Let's think about some definitions. A dominant person is behaving to generate an effect upon the submissive - I've always maintained that dominants (or submissives) don't exist in isolation, they need each other. You are dominant towards someone, you are submissive towards someone: that's the power exchange. A domineering person "naturally" has to be in control (or seen to be in control), regardless of who this is directed towards, regardless of whether they want it or not and regardless of what has been said or agreed. They are just "like that". Similarly a doormat cannot stand responsibility, regardless of the context, regardless of whether other people want to take control. You'll notice that when it comes down to it, these two poles are actually quite similar.
It's all about control and perception of control. It's also about confidence, fear, self-awareness and personal responsibility - all the things that make us people. So it's big stuff and cuts to the heart of who we think we are.
Having the confidence of your own convictions makes you a better dominant and a better submissive. Fear, is the opposite of confidence and it is the enemy. Fear is fun to play with, but it's not fun to live with. It makes you weak and generates reactions that are animalistic fight or flight selfish self-preservation with no thought for others. Domineering types seize control and strangle the life out of things as they take them too hard. Doormat types hand themselves over without a word and close their eyes, hoping for the best.
Knowing when you move from dominance to domineering, or from submission to being a doormat is a personal thing. It requires brutal honesty about how you really feel, and it's about being self-aware. Are you comfortable with yourself and you are brave enough to make decisions and to talk about things that you want. Don't mistake it for bravado or thrill seeking - those are domineering/doormat traits. Pretend bravery that hides gaping holes which will cause problems in your D/s.
It's very easy to look at these examples and think "abuser" and "victim" but what I'm talking about here is deeper and more muddled than that. There's a great post here on how rapists are supposed by parts of society to be obvious which cuts through a lot of our challenges when thinking about nice people who do bad things.
When our BDSM works we are people who try to do bad things in good ways. Which is to say we give and take pain for pleasure, we push people down to build them up. We abuse, humiliate, hurt and harm in order to adore, love, lust and come really, really hard. We're a contrary, contradictory bunch. We're complicated. And complication breeds complexity so sometimes we can't see the wood for the trees. Things become "difficult". What you see isn't always what you get. There's a lot of "you wouldn't understand" going on within our lives. This post is, in part, about trying to understand. It's about breaking down some assumptions and about trying to tackle ideas about "right" and "wrong" within BDSM.
That's the easy bit done. The nice, wipe clean, seen from the outside told-you-so bit. The hard bit is telling the two apart when you are in the thick of it (either giving or receiving) and how to turn the bad into good.
I cannot answer that question for you. I'm not trained to do that and I don't know you well enough (well, most of you). I suspect, because I remember what it felt like myself, that we know, deep down, when we have crossed the line. But when we are in a D/s relationship, with a partner who is providing scenes and scenarios that support, encourage and even excuse our bad behaviour we often lack the impetus to change. This is not to blame them. At all times, what we do is our responsibility. Even if we, as submissives, have handed control to our dominants, event if we call ourselves "slave" or "animal", we are still responsible. I don't care that this might make me less of a dominant or less of a submissive or less of a full throttle pervert in the eyes of some people because those people are wrong and their attitudes are sociopathic. Submission is given. Dominance is given. They are gifts. Someone else makes the decision to take them.
Now here's another tactical conundrum. What do we - as responsible social kinksters - do when we see these behaviours and we aren't involved. From the outside, domineering behaviours can look like, feel like and sound like dominance. And doormat behaviours can look like, feel like and sound like submission. Certainly at first, but in true "boiling a frog" principles we can end up in a difficult place by degrees. How do we know, when we look at a scene, or what we think is a scene, what is really going on? That blow to the face was not part of the scene. That one was.
We can't be guaranteed to be right, I'm afraid. We just can't. Like a jury, we will never completely know the real answer. But we also must be aware, and we must be prepared to act, to say something, if needs be. It's better to say something and be wrong, to be embarrassed, than to say nothing and allow someone to be hurt. Really hurt. Similarly, we must accept that others might want to say something to us, about how we are perceived, about how we act. And we must accept that with grace. Which means giving and taking criticism. And it means talking to people and listening to them. It also means talking about ourselves, letting people know what looks right and feels right for us. The more we do it ourselves, the more others are encouraged to do so. We can make friends with each other and be aware of what works for our friends.
There is a social contract to look out, and look after one another. As a group we must understand and act upon what is and isn't acceptable. We must also make these rules clear. As individuals and as groups. Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups, and given the risks we play with we cannot take those risks. Not for ourselves, not for others. The challenge I'm issuing, here and now, is to start thinking about good and bad dominance and submission. Start to decide for yourselves what is right and what is wrong. And tell people. Then act on it.
How far can we go?
Over to you.