10 principles for healthy 24/7 D/s and M/s

Thursday, July 08, 2010

I recently taught a workshop called “Doing it 24/7: The Basics of Everyday Dominance and Submission.” It was an interesting experience—essentially it showed me that there’s a strong interest in the topic that goes way beyond what can fit into a 90-minute time slot. I’m seriously thinking of developing a workshop series on the topic and offering it on a weekly basis in Toronto somewhere. In the meantime, I figured I’d post some of the basic stuff I started with.

First, let me frame this. I’m not drawing a distinction between 24/7 D/s and M/s, because I find that different people use the terms in overlapping ways. So rather than say what I think each one is, I’ll just say that I’m talking about relationships that involve a full-time power hierarchy. For me, that means relationships in which the two (or more) people involved always relate to one another from a power-based dynamic, and that this dynamic extends outside the time that the people spend in one another’s presence. Certainly a lot of what I’m writing about will also apply to people who are in a consistent power dynamic that’s more time-bound—in which control on the dominant’s part does not extend past the time the two people are physically together or in direct communication—but my premise in writing this is to address the needs of D/s and M/s relationships that are in place and actively operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

With that in mind, here are the ten principles I’ve distilled for healthy 24/7 relationships.

1. Consent and strong desire.

This is the basic foundation for any relationship, but it becomes especially relevant in D/s. You are choosing because you want this, and you want it enough to make it an everyday thing rather than an occasional one. You are at choice at every point; if you are building trust, there is no need for shackles. And I’m serious about the idea of strong desire. It is possible to convince someone to dominate you or submit to you temporarily when they aren’t really into it. It’s not a great idea, but it happens, and it can work out okay in limited circumstances. Now, it’s also possible to convince someone to do that 24/7. But that is a very, very shaky foundation for a long-term relationship, and it won’t really give you the meat of what you’re looking for anyway; it will just give you the shell of it. Speaking as a dominant, I’ve realized that if I’m not 110% interested, I simply cannot sustain the kind of focus and effort required to maintain a 24/7 relationship, and that does not serve anyone well—myself or the submissive.

Also, on the topic of consent, there’s a persistent fantasy that in D/s or M/s, you give consent once and then it’s assumed forever. On the surface it may look like that, but believe me, it’s not that simple. Some relationships, after an extensive period (read: many years) of solidly established trust, will reach a point where the two people are so symbiotic that what we’d normally think of as “consent” doesn’t really matter anymore—but that’s not because it’s disappeared. Rather, it’s become an intrinsic part of the fabric of things. The partners know each other so well that they want the same things and move together seamlessly. You don’t get there overnight, or even in a few months. And depending on your personalities and how they interact, it may not happen at all, and that’s okay. So don’t see this as a goal or an ideal.

2. Distinction between fantasy and reality.

You are not extending your wank fantasies into your everyday reality; you will not be aroused at all times. 24/7 happens when you’re doing it for reasons beyond orgasm (even if arousal and orgasm are a big, or even essential, part of the draw). This is not a huge ongoing role-play scenario. It’s an intensification of the power-based parameters in which you live your everyday life. If you simply try to extend a role-play scenario into your entire relationship, you’ll find that the narrow parameters of a persona or character are simply not big enough to encompass who you are, and need to be, every hour of every day. 24/7 is not about restricting yourself to a specific set of characteristics the way you can for an hour or two in a scene; it’s about bringing all of who you are to the table and offering it within a full-spectrum relationship. That means you’re doing it regardless of what you’re wearing (leather, work drag, bunny slippers…) and where you are (bedroom, dungeon, airport, family dinner) and what you’re doing (fucking, working, eating breakfast, hanging out with friends). Yes, this means you may need to find ways to scale up and down the overt visibility of your D/s; no, it does not mean you’re turning t on or off at will. A lot of the classic “it’s just play” concepts that you might hear in a BDSM 101 workshop are going to go right out the window here because what you are doing is not a scene. It comes with a whole different – related, but different – psychology.

3. Clean motivation.

You are choosing from a place of strength. You do not need this, you just want it a lot. In other words, you’re not doing D/s because you’re dependent on a D/s dynamic to be able to function in life. You are not making up for dysfunction, and if you should discover dysfunction along the way, you have a…

4. Commitment to work on your own shit.

Intense power relationships will bring you face to face with whatever issues you need to work on; your ability to sustain your D/s relationship depends on your willingness to deal with them, and your partner’s willingness, and your mutual willingness to deal with theirs. Independently of the relationship you’re in now, if applicable, your progress in D/s and the success of future relationships also depends on your willingness to deal with your own shit—being eternally single or simply repeating the patterns you had trouble with in the last relationship will not help. Hint: if the same thing keeps going wrong in every relationship, you don’t just need to find the right person; you need to change yourself.

At the same time as you both need to commit to working on your shit, you also need to find a way to balance this with a commitment to taking each other as you are. While you can work on specific things, and while major change does take place sometimes, you cannot fundamentally change a person into something they are not, and you certainly can’t expect major change to happen quickly or exactly as you’d like it to. So don’t enter 24/7 if your happiness is going to be dependent on a radical or immediate personality shift on the others’ part.

5. Acknowledgement of equality.

You are choosing a relationship form that suits you because of your individual chemistry and fit, NOT because one of you is inherently superior, and certainly not because of gender, sex, race, age, financial situation, ability, community standing, etc.

I can’t tell you how grouchy it makes me when people blather about the “natural” superiority of a given group and therefore that group’s suitability for dominance, or the “natural” inferiority of another group and therefore their suitability for submission. (This mostly comes up with sex, by which I mean male and female—because there are only two options in this line of thought. And that often looks like “all women are goddesses” or the more classically sexist “all men are dominant.” But it also comes up with race, age and any number of other features.) For starters, don’t even start me on how riddled with fallacies the whole idea of “natural” is, and how easily any argument based on an idea of “natural” can get flipped to support its exact opposite, no matter what group you’re talking about. But most importantly, D/s is not about inferiority and superiority—it’s about the voluntary polarization of power roles, not a difference in quality between two human beings.

6. Acknowledgement of your humanity.

You will each make mistakes because you are human; neither of you is immune to fucking up. Build that understanding into your relationship, along with ways to deal with fuck-ups on either part. Hint: dominants can and do apologize when they fuck up. A powerful, dignified apology, when needed, is a building block for a solid relationship, and the very epitome of trustworthy dominance. But beyond the question of specific time-bound fuck-ups, even at the best of times, the intensity and polarity of D/s and M/s can place great pressure on each person involved. And we all have limits, even if those limits do well to be challenged at times. So if there’s something that doesn’t fit or isn’t working, that needs to be on the table and dealt with as it comes up, or the relationship’s structural integrity will crumble. Hint: remove the word “should” from your mental vocabulary and you will get a lot farther. For example, instead of “Dominants should always be stoic,” or “Submissives should anticipate a dominant’s every need,” you might say “I feel like my emotional expression is going to damage your trust in my stability,” or “I want to be able to better anticipate your needs.” Now you have the beginning of a real conversation.

7. Strong communication.

Double standards around communication are not a sign of dominance, they’re a sign of hypocrisy. Frame it however you will, but communication is essential—and that does not mean the submissive baring their soul while the dominant remains impassive. Communication works both ways. So regardless of your place in the D/s relationship, take a look at your communication patterns as they are, identify the places you need to improve, and work on them. Improving your communication skills is a lifelong project for most of us, and it is wise to see that as a good thing rather than as a chore. Then, do the same for the way your communication patterns intersect with your partner’s, and work on those too. Yes, it will be hard. Do it anyway. Learn to love it. Results will follow.

8. Restriction of D/s to the relationship.

Or at most, restriction to within a specifically agreed-upon community or an extended relational context—as in, ten people are all members of a group or leather family and explicitly agree that all submissives will behave a certain way toward all dominants, and vice versa; or, you are my submissive, Valerie is my fellow dominant, and we all agree that when she’s around you will serve her needs in the same way you serve mine. Failing an explicit agreement otherwise, this is a power hierarchy between you and your partner, not between you and your community, or you and every dominant or submissive you meet, or you and everyone in the world. Keep your D/s within its bounds. Otherwise you will turn into one of those nightmare dominants or submissives that everyone kinky wants to avoid (hello, consent!) and everyone else thinks is messed up in the head (which doesn’t do much to improve our image as perverts). Not to mention you’ll be exhausted.

9. Support.

D/s relationships are intense. Have I mentioned that? Intense, soul-searching relationships that affect every moment of every day do not exist in a vacuum. The kind of exploration and self-revelation that so often comes with D/s can make you go a bit nuts if you have no outside support. That support can take many forms:

  • Participation in a kink community can be incredibly helpful—it can provide relationship models for you to look at and learn from or discard as needed. Even if everyone around you does their kink differently than you do, that can help you better understand who you are (and are not) and what you’re doing (and not doing).
  • Reading (check out my annotated reading list here), workshops, discussion groups, and any number of other educational resources can similarly give you ideas to chew on, frameworks that may or may not work for you, and language to help you understand and express what you’re getting up to.
  • And last but not least, friends you can talk to about D/s. Non-kinky (but kink-friendly) friends are a great start, because the kind of challenges that come up in D/s are often similar to those in any other relationship. But frequently enough, D/s relationship issues will also have a character all their own, and even the most open-minded or well-intentioned vanilla friend may have a hard time truly getting it. It can be extremely helpful to build friendships with fellow D/s practitioners so you can offer each other a supportive shoulder when needed. Hint: Don’t wait until you need help… start building those friendships right away, and make sure you offer your own listening ear.

A brief caution: a classic warning sign that a D/s relationship is not so healthy is when one of the partners tells the other not to talk about it with anyone else, or not to participate in community. Of course you want to maintain basic respect for each other and your relationship – airing your dirty laundry for all to see, or trashing your partner loudly at a play party, is just not classy. But having one or two trusted friends to turn to in times of trouble can be essential, and a wise dominant will encourage the submissive to seek out support rather than discouraging it.

10. Patience.

This stuff takes a long time to build into great depth, and often a dominant’s job is to hold back, not to rush forward. Taking on responsibility for another human being in a polarized power situation is simply not something that’s wise to do quickly or carelessly. Take your time. Learn what you need to learn—about yourself, about them, about how to do this well and feel good about it. Don’t extend past your own limits because you feel pressure to do it all right-now-tout-de-suite. I do say that it’s often the dominant’s job to hold back, because I often see it happen that a submissive is totally gung-ho and champing at the bit while their dominant is feeling overwhelmed and struggling to hold tight. I liken it to the image of an enthusiastic dog who’s pulling on a leash so hard that their owner ends up running to keep up. Sure, it’s still technically D/s, but at some point you have to ask who’s actually in charge of it. And if you both want the dominant to be in charge, then the dominant sets the pace and the submissive heels. So in that sense, patience needs to come from the submissive too—metaphorically speaking (because no, I don’t think all submissives are like dogs), don’t yank on the leash. D/s does not come with a deadline, so don’t impose one unnecessarily.


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