Young self-identified masters and dominants often have to fight for their identities BDSM spaces. Olivia Davis looks at why that’s wrong.
In some ways, BDSM is a subculture of title and tradition. The rigid backbone of many kink organizations is Leather—regimented, highly organized Leather. Dating back to WWII vets desperately seeking military structure in their day-to-day lives and to biker culture, Leather is the oldest form of a BDSM community in this country. Even today, Leather sects remain influential. Without Leather, BDSM communities would mostly be parties at peoples’ houses, not massive conferences and pride weeks. It tends to have the best-organized and longest-established BDSM groups in a given community.
Leather folks are also big on education, which is fantastic. However, Leather also places a heavy emphasis on earning things—be they your leathers (literally, the items of leather you wear, boots, vests, etc) or your titles. The Old Guard style, which is rarer today, has a militaristic feel to it: every person starts out a s-type, a bottom, boy, boi, or girl.. Old Guard s-types could, with time and training, graduate to the status of d-type, becoming a top, daddy, or master. Originally, there was not particularly room for people who wanted neither to be a d- or s-type consistently—switches. Much like bisexuals, switches were told to make up their minds.
Now, not everyone who practices kink as part of a community is Leather—not even remotely so. Many people don’t even like Leather, finding its methods antiquated, its queerness unappealing, or its structure frustrating. I, myself, am not Leather, though sometimes the power of its history calls to me. There are, however, certain Leather ideas that permeate non-Leather BDSM. One of these is the emphasis on earning titles. Many folks hold the opinion that young people cannot rightfully claim, and therefore should not identify as, certain things. Interestingly, I see this exclusively with “master/mistress” and “dominant.”
And, frankly, I object. I object because I find the notion of earned dominance inherently weird, because I think the arguments in support of it lack substance, and because I think its existence points to some nasty trends that crop up in BDSM communities.
This Leather hangover ideology has a deep, ingrained problem: people have sexuality because they have it, not because they’ve earned it. A young lesbian gets to call herself a lesbian, even if she’s never kissed another girl. Even if she’s only kissed, or had sex, with boys. A trans* man gets to call himself a man, no matter how he looks, or what kind of surgery he does or doesn’t have. And a master gets to call zirself a master—even if zie’s never had a slave.
Even if we imagine a world in which there are easy-to-access, reputable people and places to earn the right to dominance from, the notion that dominance is to be earned remains absurd. For some people, dominance is less a role and more an orientation. Others find themselves in relationships where dominance is called for, where suddenly it is good and makes sense to be that way. And to deny these people a label merely because they lack age and experience—and often times both age and experience are called for by young dom detractors—strikes me as not merely absurd, but downright cruel. No one should have to earn their sexuality.
An astute reader may, at this point, bring up certain safety considerations: “But, Olivia, doesn’t preventing inexperienced people from having certain labels increase safety? After all, an 18-year-old who is new to BDSM probably doesn’t have very many skills and BDSM can be a pretty skill-intensive hobby/orientation/activity? Anyway, shouldn’t the label ‘master’ mean you’ve mastered something?”
Let’s look closely at the content of this argument. To my understanding, it’s an expression of the worry that an inexperienced person will hurt someone. And that’s a valid worry. There are just a bunch of ways in which this particular expression of a totally acceptable worry renders itself pretty unacceptable.
First of all, a difficulty I have with the folks who tend to complain about inexperienced masters and dominants is that, by “inexperienced” they almost always seem to mean “young.” It doesn’t seem to matter to them how long someone has been “in the lifestyle,” it primarily matters how old they are. An eighteen-year-old could reasonably have been practicing BDSM and power dynamics for years before showing up in BDSM spaces—which are almost always 18+ while a 37-year-old may have had vanilla engagements for all of their life before finally arriving in the community. I’m not saying that the 37-year-old’s general age and life experiences should be discounted, nor do I suggest that all newcomers to BDSM have their dominance questioned. What I am saying is that the prevailing opinion seems to be that young people, regardless of their level of experience, can’t or shouldn’t be dominant-identifying. And that’s neither fair, nor does it make sense.
Second, no: imposing rules probably won’t increase safety. Preventing people from taking labels, or mocking them for having done so before they have had a certain amount of training will only prevent untrained people from doing dangerous things if they want your sanction. If your imprimatur is important that they’d be willing to undergo training in order to call themselves something. Otherwise, these untrained people are going to just absorb the mockery and continue calling themselves masters or, leave the community, having found it to be an environment that doesn’t respect them (and maybe continue to call themselves masters).
And again, even if someone does want the sanction they might get from you, it’s still necessary for education programs to exist such that people could actually earn titles. Some places have great education opportunities for new kinksters. Many do not. And, regardless, in order for “earning dominance” to be an ingrained system unified standards for “mastery” or “dom-hood” would be required. Such standards do not exist. Even if they could be invented, they shouldn’t be.
“Mastery” means a lot of things. It can mean that you’ve mastered skills, or a person. It can also mean that you like the way it feels to be called ‘master,’ or you like to call your partner ‘slave,’ or ‘pet.’ It can even mean that you’re single, have never been in a power exchange relationship before, but are looking for someone to try it out with.
Maybe the objection remains that we need to police the use of the words “master” and “dominant” because, while mastery means different things to different people, it’s still necessary to be concerned about inexperienced people doing skill-intensive, possibly even life-threatening things.
So, let’s talk about BDSM skills. If you’re a d-type, there are two kinds of skills you might need, depending on who you are and what you want to do. Simply put, these are physical and mental skills.
Most of the physical skills that a d-type needs have guides on the internet. You can learn and practice them at home. I think you can even self-teach some tricky things; rope suspension for example—provided you have a hard point in your ceiling and a very heavy bag. There’s a lot of information in the world about how to do BDSM. Dedicated students can learn a lot all by themselves. So, you don’t actually need a mentor, or the BDSM community to teach you much of what you need to know.
All this is assuming those are even skills you want to learn. Dominance does not necessarily include pain. Any kinkster will tell you that BDSM is a triune acronym, BD, DS, SM: bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. It’s split into three like that for a reason: BD, DS, and SM can very much be separate things. Someone interested solely in dominance may not want or need to know anything about flogging or rope, or any other physical skill. They may just want to know the best way to get their partner to submit.
So, what about those mental skills? Can’t the argument still be made that you shouldn’t be able to call yourself a dominant until you’ve picked those skills up?
Well, no. And for a lot of reasons, actually. First, this presents a catch-22. You can really only learn to dominate someone if you’ve got someone to dominate—it has to be done from inside of a relationship. But, if you can’t say “I’m a dominant,” it seems like the only way you’ll be able to find an s-type partner is to luck into one.
Another issue is that most folks will jump to tell you that each relationship and each power dynamic is different. Unless someone you know has been the dominant of your s-type partner, the chances that that person will be able to tell you what will make your relationship run better are slim to none. And even if you do have a mentor in that exact situation, your relationship with their ex may still be different enough that they can’t help you with it. The only things a mentor can help you with within the context of your relationship actually end up being the same kind of basic stuff the internet is happy to teach you: talk to your partner, respect their limits, know about sub-drop, negotiate well, etc.
Admittedly, as you get older and as you’re a d-type to more people, you’ll probably learn how to be a better d-type. In the same way that, over the years, I’ve learned how to be a better girlfriend. However, even though I’m a better girlfriend now than I was to my first partner, you’d never say that I wasn’t her girlfriend. And I’d never say you weren’t a master to your first slave, no matter how old you were. You were never not what you were.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of “isms.” Sexism, racism, cissexism, ageism, the list goes on. In BDSM we an ism of our very own: “roleism.” Roleism is any time you tell someone that they can’t do something because of their role. “You’re a dominant, so you can’t teach this class on submission,” etc. A lot of the time, it ends up negatively affecting s-types. More d-types teach classes than s-types, s-types are sometimes ordered around by d-types they don’t have relationships with, submission and slavery are viewed as weak or repulsive, even by other people in the scene. This notion that an 18-year-old can’t be a master or dominant is also roleist.
It suggests that submission is not something that requires skill. Dominance is an acquired trait that one has to work at, while submission appears natural and perhaps even easy. Dominance is a thing to be earned, submission is merely a thing that you have. Neither of those statements is true.
And behaving as though they were elides the challenges of submission and, even being an s-type generally. For one thing, being the recipient of bondage and pain can be frightening, and even traumatizing. But until you’ve done it, you can’t know what to expect. BDSM communities ask dominants to be trained so that they don’t hurt people, but they don’t have any such requirements for s-types, who can only know how something affects them once it’s already happened. D-types can learn how to throw a flogger at home. S-types have no such luxury, but concern about safety and training is still thrust upon new dominants, not their counterparts.
The fact that so many community members rush to strip young dominant-identified people of their chosen labels would be nothing more than an oddity if it hurt no one. However, that’s just not true. It hurts the young, dominant-identified people it keeps out ot the scene, denying them the chance to be part of a community of like-minded people, and denying them the social, romantic, and play opportunities that the scene provides everyone else. It also prevents these young people from getting the training and experience that the community so badly wants them to have. It perpetuates roleist notions that devalue s-types and help enable their mistreatment. Frankly, it also makes BDSM communities look bad. It makes them seem self-obsessed, interested only in their own rules, and in the people already involved in them. It reflects badly on the BDSM community that it’s willing to deride people for their chosen labels, especially because almost no kinkster in this country can be out without fear.
 “S-type” is a catchall term for roles like bottom, masochist, submissive, slave, boy/boi/girl, etc. The s-type is generally going to be the recipient of actions or will have less power in a power exchange. The opposite is a d-type.
 Nowadays, all genders and sexualities are theoretically welcome in Leather, though its historically very male and very gay roots remain important. Initially, Leather girls were uncommon. Lesbians later became important pillars of Leather and, even today, Leather remains predominantly queer. Trans* men, especially, still have to fight for their place in Leather.
 As distinct from “sadist” or “top.” Sadists and tops generally perform painful actions, but do not always engage in power exchange, or any kind of dominance. Almost all sadism is topping, but tying someone up—usually a topping behavior—is not necessarily sadistic. Dominants and masters, by contrast engage in power exchange—though they may top and perform sadism, as well.