This post originally appeared October 7, 2011 on BDSM Book Reviews.
Included in Chapter Three of Connecting to Kink
“How do you identify?” is a loaded question, no matter who’s asking. The query can refer to your gender, sexual orientation, or role in the BDSM lifestyle. In all cases, binary or even ternary systems leave many people out and can create a great deal of confusion, especially online.
With one exception (to my knowledge) every BDSM networking site offers only three or four labels from which to choose: dominant, submissive, switch, and possibly slave. This has made it difficult for those interested in learning more about kink to figure out their place in the spectrum because they have no clue what identities are possible. I know of one exception. Fetlife currently offers a more realistic 15 choices for BDSM role (and 12 each for gender and sexual orientation).
What follows is my opinion of what some labels mean. I don’t hold myself out as an authority. But, I am a FemDom (and a top) and I own a submissive who lives in my home, serving me 24/7. I have spent a fair amount of time at various community events and also communicated with way too many online players. So for what it’s worth …
Domme: This term created controversy (and also confusion about how it’s pronounced). When I first signed onto Fetlife a few months after it went live, if you selected “female” and “dominant” you were automatically identified as a “Domme.” This did not sit well with many. In general, the term refers to a female dominant as does
FemDom: Personally, I prefer FemDom because being a dominant female does present significant challenges in a patriarchal society and the dynamic of a F/m or F/f relationship tends (but isn’t always) to be different than that of a M/f or M/m. Which brings us to:
Dominatrix is a professional who gets paid to top someone (usually male) in a BDSM scene. Often they’re not dominants. They deliver what their client want when it’s wanted. Although their clients may profess to be submissive, in reality, they’re usually a
Bottom, someone who is a masochist or has other fetishes that puts them on the receiving end during a BDSM scene. Bottoms get bound, hurt, and/or humiliated, but they choose with whom they want to play and whatever form of play their scenes involve. They negotiate the level of restraint, pain, and degradation their scenes will include. Bottoms can use safewords to reduce the intensity level or stop the scene all together. The bottom’s role ends when the scenes does, unlike a
Submissive: Online you can find endless lists of profiles in which the writers try to convince the reader how submissive they are using words like “well trained” and “obedient.” Then they go on to describe how much they enjoy pain, bondage, and “punishment.” A submissive is someone who serves, who cedes control of themselves and some or all aspects of their lives to their dominant in a relationship. Whereas bottoms ask tops to perform certain tasks for the bottoms’ (and presumably the tops’) pleasure, submissives enjoy serving their dominants’ needs, even when that means performing tasks they would otherwise find onerous. The ultimate example is the submissive who is not a masochist, but who takes pain from their sadistic dominant only because the dominant enjoys hurting them. Depending on the relationship, submissives may not have safewords. One can demonstrate submission during a scene. But, if one wants to be submissive in a Dominant/submissive (aka D/s) relationship, it works best if your partner(s) is a
Dominant: The key to domination is control. In D/s relationships, dominants make decisions about everything from what their submissive will wear and eat to whether and where they will work and play. How much control a dominant has can vary greatly and defines the relationship. The parties involved negotiate the level of control and type of relationship, but for months and years, not the few hours or days that a scene might last. If you’re negotiating a scene, you’re probably doing so with a
Top: In a BDSM scene, the top administers restraint, pain, and humiliation. But tops only deliver what the bottoms have requested and agreed to.
None of the definitions above are exclusive. One can be, for example, a dominant top (common), a dominant masochist (not so common), a submissive bottom, or a submissive top. A submissive who tops a masochistic dominant, delivering pain in exactly the way it’s requested during a scene, may or may not be a
Switch, someone who can assume either role: top/bottom or dominant/submissive. Usually, the latter folks do not switch with the same person. They might be submissive to one person and dominant of another. Sadistic and masochistic (aka S&M) switches are more likely to change roles with the same person, although again some may only top different people than those they bottom to. Because switch can refer to either dominant/submissive or top/bottom, the term can become confusing so some folks prefer, in the latter case,
Sadomasochist, someone who enjoys both sadism and masochism. A
Sadist is often defined as someone who obtains pleasure from inflicting pain on others. However, that definition is missing a term. The word is derived from reference to stories about cruel sexual practices written by Count Donatien A.F. de Sade (who, despite modern references, was not a marquis). Paper dictionaries and psychiatric texts almost always include “sexual” in the definition. But online references often leave it out and many people claim not to find sexual gratification in certain S&M activities. Consensual sadism usually involves, on the receiving end, a
Masochist, referring to someone who gets sexual pleasure from being hurt or abused. The word derives from references to writing about bottoming sexually by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (born more than two decades after de Sade died). Again, online references may omit the word “sexual” from the definition.
I’m not going to try to define Master or Mistress (which requires diving into gender politics). Many folks believe the terms can refer only those who own property. Others will claim they are such, regardless of their relationship status. Controversy around the term “slave” starts with how one differentiates between a slave and a submissive and includes disagreement over whether someone can claim to be a slave if they are not owned property.
Labels can confuse anyone, especially someone new to the lifestyle. One advantage of in-person over online interaction is that you’re less likely to get trapped by a label that doesn’t accurately define you, preventing you from wasting too much time corresponding with a dominant looking for a service submissive when you really just want a top who will blister your bottom.