You’re Never Not What You Are

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[1], a bottom, boy, boi, or girl.[2]. 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.”[3]

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.

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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.

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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.

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[1] “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.
[2] 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.
[3] 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.

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Comments

  1. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    I’m pretty much a tantrist, and am trying not to judge (too much.) A postmodernist would say, “this is what it is.” But I’m not one. As a sort of Left-Freudian (like Wilhelm Reich in his early days,) I think that this is really a triumph of the a*nal personality. Please read Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness and respond sometime. Yes, I realize that one can be in an identical ecstasy from this stuff as I might be from ultra-slow sex. But sex is also social, so how one gets to such a state can and should be critiqued.

    • Olivia Davis says:

      Hank, I’m a little bit confused about what you’re trying to say here.

      I’m going to do my best to understand, but I certainly don’t want to put words in your mouth. It seems like you’re concerned that BDSM, as a whole, is kind of worrisome. It’s a triumph of the anal phase, perhaps, and that those of us who are into it should worry about who and what we are because sex is social, and our sex maybe says bad things about us.

      Is that right? I’m going to respond as though that’s what you’ve said. If I’m wrong about what you’re saying, please ignore the rest of this response, correct me, and we’ll keep talking once I understand.

      Sex is social. But who you are and what you like isn’t always. I think some sexuality is inborn, and other sexuality aren’t. Some is fluid, some are rigid. As for folks into BDSM, some people consider their affection for it/interest in it an orientation. Many of us think long and hard about what brought us to the place where we are. What’s more important to me, though, is what we do and how we behave now that we’re here. Are we okay with what we do/like? Do we accept it? Are we happy here? Are our partners happy, too? Do we feel safe and comfortable? etc. I think being genuinely happy where you are can be more important than how you got there.

      As for me, I can’t remember a time when I was both aware that BDSM existed and didn’t absolutely know that I’d participate in it someday. Looking back, I also realize that almost every significant relationship I’ve ever had with non-family members has been with dominant people—even friends. Perhaps as such, perhaps for other reasons, submission now comes pretty naturally to me. I know that I get a lot out of service, I know that I get a lot out of being beaten until I cry, and I know why those things are true for me. So, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m a natural-born submissive, or if my early relationships shaped me, or even if I have some trauma I don’t know about that’s made me what I am now. I’m happy here. I understand what I’m doing. I’m comfortable doing it. There are reasons for it that I understand and think make sense. I’m healthy and safe, and that’s what matters most to me.

  2. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Oliva– I probably am being too judgemental. I think everyone’s sexuality is problematized (troubled) by growing up in this or any other modern society. Repression of the natural body and it’s responses happens to us all big time because that’s part of how we’re socialized to be reasonable (not body-emotional) and to go to school for very long periods or time and to work at rational work– most of us. Some societies didn’t have much of this (Margaret Mead’s Samoa, for example,) but they, none of them, are modern. Also, too, there is the matter of one’s own socialization. If one grew up with a “beater” dad, for example, one might eroticize this, and seek to come to terms with it through repeated experiences of this sort with adult partners. (Right now, the Jungian, James Hillman, is telling me, “not so; not so. People are just different.” The astrologer I am agrees with this, but I guess not the “essentialist” Freudian I am too.) My belief is that one will have problems actually resolving an abuse problem by acting it out over and over again, and I’d counsel therapy, instead. My mother was pretty seductive toward me, and I’ve acted out by being pretty promiscuous, down into my present sixties, actually. Therapy has abated this, but it never goes away, the desire anyway. The idea is that, if a parent is seductive, but doesn’t deliver the goods, the adult goes looking for the “goods” she promised. Fairly unconscious, but it’s pretty close to the surface, and can be duced out pretty easily.

    Another idea is that women are a bit naturally “masochistic.” Don’t everyone hate me at once about this. This can just mean letting the partner service her, while he feels in control, and she floats free, ecstatically. Or it can mean something much more rapid and dynamic where she’s passive. If I were into S&M, I’d be a dom for sure, but I’ve also enjoyed women doing me.

    I’m really glad you’re happy. Your post made me realize that we all have “distorted” sexualities, or at least interesting ones. Stay safe. Hank

    • Olivia Davis says:

      I’m familiar with the Freudian theories that claim women as masochistic. I’m no Freudian, but I do think there may be societal factors in play that make women more likely to be submissive than men. I don’t know if I’ve fallen prey to them, myself, but I don’t worry about it too much.

      I’ve heard that experiencing things that frightened or traumatized you in a controlled setting can be very good for you. I would never say that someone should do such things if a therapist had advised them not to, and I would always suggest that victims of rape and abuse should get therapy. But I do think the theory is that “face your fears,” is actually a pretty good maxim for dealing with trauma. I seen people do this with BDSM and I’ve seen it go well for them.

      Also, I would qualify neither masochism nor submission as passive, at least not in my experience. For me, masochism is a willful, deliberate experience. It requires a lot of self-control, and a lot of desire. Being hit hurts. A lot, as it turns out. Being able to stop it at any time, knowing you can, and choosing not to, is anything but a passive experience. It’s a battle, every second. Submission is difficult, too. Just this morning, my partner told me to do this dishes. I really didn’t want to. I was angry that he was interrupting what I was doing, what I wanted to be doing, with demands that I do a chore. But I chose to do them. I stood up, and I washed the dishes. It wasn’t passive: it was a choice, and a war. True, I chose to submit, to do what he said, but it was not easy and it was an act of will.

      And, incidentally, the only abuse I’ve suffered has been emotional, and all of it was in my adult life, after BDSM first piqued my interest.

  3. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Well, I’d have clocked him, and rolled his unconscious self out on the balcony to cool off, at least. Or, if I were smaller, I’d have left long ago. Funny, when my wife and I moved in together, she told me to move some of her papers from the kitchen table to another table, preemptorily. I threw them on the floor, instead. It was like that a little bit for a while. We’re about evenly matched.

    • Olivia Davis says:

      Goodness, your response to being told what to do is fairly extreme. I hope that it hasn’t cause you problems. I can see how that might easily slip into situations that are much worse than you want them to. For my part, I can only advocate consensual violence.

      It’s also the case that I wouldn’t have done the dishes—and he probably wouldn’t have told me to—if we didn’t have an agreement about who does the household chores. We’ve talked about these things a lot. I like to feel like I’m working in a relationship. I like to feel like I’m making progress and doing well. So doing things I don’t want to do is actually pretty important to me. It’s something that I do want to do, in fact. Not to mention that, if I’d hit him, it would have been a pretty serious violation of an agreement we have, in addition to being an aggressive and inappropriate reaction.

  4. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Yes. Pretty much people can’t tell me what to do. And I rarely tell others what to do. And crazy people really can’t tell me what to do (my family background, you see) And no reflection. My brother said we grew up in kind of an Andre Dubus neighborhood, and I agree. At least I don’t hit my wife, or any other women. I haven’t hit a guy since 1984.

  5. I think this was a great post that makes a lot of really valid points — though you should take that with a grain of salt, because I’m a young, dominant-identified person. I think the idea of “roleism” is really thought-provoking and really true, and I’ve run into it over and over again — not just because of my age in conjunction with my role, but also my gender (what, a dominant girl? not a sub-leaning switch? doesn’t happen) and my overall personality type. It seems like for a young dominant, there is a way to be taken at least moderately seriously: be a huge asshole.

    If you’re young but constantly express your dominance and/or act… well, either really butch or really bitch, people will at least believe you. For someone like me who’s both polite and quite laid-back in day-to-day life, it’s been an uphill battle to even convince people that yes, I am actually a dominant. I recently had someone (someone who knows that I do rope suspension demos at a local club) ask me if I was a submissive; when I asked him why, he said “Because I see you submit a lot”. The incident that prompted this discussion was that we were at a restaurant and I didn’t make a fuss when the waitress brought me the wrong drink.

    I guess where I’m going with this is that there are ways to gain at least some respect as a young dominant, but they basically all involve being a huge asshat and acting like the whole world should be your submissive. And I hate that.

    • Olivia Davis says:

      Hey, thanks! The sexism that gets wrapped up in roleism is really nasty bullcrap. There’s some extent to which I wish I had experienced more of it so that I could write about it from a perspective of personal experience. Luckily (maybe?) I have had really good luck, by and large, with not being treated crappily because I happen to be a woman in the scene, submissive-identified, or otherwise.

      I hear people saying things like “your behavior suggests to me that you’re not a real x” more often with submissives than with dominants. There’s a lot of expectation for s-types to be in s-mode all of the goddamn time. It doesn’t surprise me to know that it happens to d-types, too. But it’s still absolutely bullshit. It’s just as absurd to suggest that an s-type should be “on” all of the time as to suggest that a d-type ought to be. There are plenty of people who seem to think that a twu d-type is a d-type in all areas of life and vise versa, but being dominant over one person doesn’t make you not dominant.

      I really dislike the notion that dominance = asshattery. It should probably stop, but I dunno if it will.

  6. You know I actually once had a guy tell me that someone couldn’t be gay until they had sex with someone of their own gender. Until then you were at best bi curious. There were more than a few occasions when I wanted to just tape him up and leave him on a conveyor belt at UPS.

    • Olivia Davis says:

      Yep. It’s pretty stupid when people police the identities of others, as though they know better.

      Also, you’re bi curious until you’ve had sex with someone of the same sex? So, you’re default hetero+? Gross.

  7. ALadysServant says:

    As a young switch, I have nothing against the roleism of BDSM. Anyone is free to call themselves a top and I wouldn’t object. The role of Top to me is not just a physical one; it is the person giving a sensation, even when that sensation is the mental sense of submission.

    My trouble comes from when people, of any age, automatically are dominants just because they say so. You said it yourself; you don’t know what the s-type is going through unless you have been through it. Therefore a d-type is never really informed of what they are doing unless they have stood in the boot of the s-type. That knowledge to me is essential to that role.

    As for the word Master, I believe that it should mean that they have mastered something. Isn’t the point of language to convey a message? There will always be verbal slippage that distorts the meaning between the sender and receiver, but I think it is best if we try to reduce this ambiguity to create clear meaning.

    So, maybe I am old fashioned, or maybe I have a little Leather in me but I disagree that limiting who can call themselves a dominant or master is detrimental to new players. I will agree that it occurs more to younger people which is ageist, but I believe it should happen to all new players.

    • Olivia Davis says:

      You use the word “top” differently from how I’ve ever seen it. I’ve always seen it used to denote a primarily physical role with little to no power dynamic involved. You can be both top and dominant in a scene, because you are both inhabiting the role of giving physical sensation and you are dominating. They’re not mutually exclusive, but they’re different.

      I don’t think anybody should have to earn their sexuality. Period. You’ve never been stuck with a needle, but you want to stick me with one? That’s fine, as long as you know how to stick folks with needles and respect my needs. You don’t have to have experienced what I’m experiencing to help me enjoy myself, or to adequately be my dominant. Especially because a d-type can never fully understand an s-type, partially because I react differently to being hit than probably anybody in the world simply because I am different than anyone in the world. Aside from that, does the d-type experience subspace? Are they actually submitting? Is what’s being done to them being done at a similar emotional level to the level at which they will do it to me later? Probably not. I encourage d-types to have experiences of the physical sensations they’re causing others, but I find the notion that understanding those physical sensations will actually give them a worthwhile picture of what I’ll go through to be pretty far-out. If a d-type wants to know what I’m going through—and I hope they do!—they will have to ask me.

      Languages conveys a message, yes. But I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist. “Master” in this context means something, always. But it does not necessarily mean “I have mastered something.” Plus, the “mastery” I think we tend to hark back to when we use the word is something like “master of the house,” or “slave owner,” and those people, historically, were not necessarily masters of anything. “Master” was simply their position in life. There will always be verbal slipping when we’re talking about identities. When I say “I’m a master,” hopefully, I also say “and this is what that means to me.” If I don’t, maybe you ask me “What does that mean to you?” Identities are not stable, rules-based constructions. Ambiguity is a fact of life. We reduce confusion where identities are concerned not by making labels ever smaller boxes, but but explaining ourselves.

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