Breaking Chains: Defining BDSM & Reimagining Roles

Double-locking handcuffs and keys on a red sequin background

Fifty Shades of Grey. Secretary. Chains and whips in Rihanna's 2010 dance-​pop hit, S&M.

When the main­stream thinks of BDSM, they think of a neat bina­ry of:

  • A mas­cu­line, sadis­tic, Dominant top
  • A fem­i­nine, masochis­tic, sub­mis­sive bottom

But BDSM is far more faceted and nuanced — with far more shades of gray than that:

  • You can be Dominant and submissive.
  • You can be a Dominant bot­tom — and you can be a sub­mis­sive top.
  • You can be Dominant and feminine.

None of the above are dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed; they can be like dif­fer­ent ratios of sug­ar, spice, and any­thing nice! When you add the chem­i­cal XXX, you're build­ing sce­nar­ios and char­ac­ters with sev­er­al sep­a­rate slid­ers for traits to be layered.

To tease apart these less-​conventional com­bi­na­tions, though, we first need to define what each axis of BDSM means.

What does BDSM stand for?

BDSM is a sub­set of kink—sexual activ­i­ties out­side of the “vanil­la” norm. The let­ters stand for:

  • Bondage and discipline
  • Dominance and submission
  • Sadism and masochism

What entails a kink is some­what sub­jec­tive, as peo­ple in dif­fer­ent cul­tures and sub­cul­tures have dif­fer­ent ideas of nor­mal­cy and taboo. Creampies, for exam­ple, may or may not be a kink, depend­ing on the con­text; it's all rel­a­tive. “Vanilla” and “kinky” aren't cut-and-dry.

Let's break down the B&D, D/​s, and S&M further.

  • Bondage refers to restric­tion, includ­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal (e.g., dol­li­fi­ca­tion hyp­no­sis) and phys­i­cal (e.g., bondage restraints)
  • Discipline refers to the con­di­tion­ing of desired behav­iors, includ­ing pos­i­tive (e.g., "good boy") and neg­a­tive rein­force­ment (what peo­ple usu­al­ly think of as punishment).
  • Dominance and sub­mis­sion are about the exchange of pow­er and control.
  • Sadism and masochism refer to the enjoy­ment of giv­ing or receiv­ing pain, respectively.

Different ele­ments can be incor­po­rat­ed into a sex ses­sion. In oth­er words, you can have BDSM with­out pain — a Dom who tor­ments with plea­sure is a great example!

There are a mul­ti­tude of oth­er ways to play with BDSM that don't fit the main­stream bina­ries. Here are just three of them.

You can be Dominant and submissive

There's a term for that: a per­son who both dom­i­nates and sub­mits is called a switch. How might some­one switch Dominant and sub­mis­sive roles?

  • Dominating some part­ners and sub­mit­ting to others
  • Dominating dur­ing some play ses­sions and sub­mit­ting dur­ing oth­ers, even when play­ing with the same partner
  • Roleplaying a sce­nario with a built-​in pow­er game that shifts as the “sto­ry­line” progresses

You can also be a Dominant bottom

And you can be a sub­mis­sive top. There are terms for that type of dynam­ic, too.

Topping and bot­tom­ing refer to who inflicts the action upon the oth­er. Topping, dom­i­na­tion, and sadism are NOT syn­ony­mous; they refer to dif­fer­ent facets of BDSM.

  • A ser­vice top does the action while fol­low­ing a partner's orders. They sub­mit while topping.
  • A pil­low princess lies back and lets her part­ner do the work. Pillow princess­es are bot­toms and can dom­i­nate and com­mand what they'd like a ser­vice top to do.
  • "Switch" refers to some­one who both dom­i­nates and submits.
  • "Vers" (ver­sa­tile) refers to some­one who both tops and bottoms.

I've been asked, “How can you be a Pillow princess and a Domme?”

It's actu­al­ly quite sim­ple: I can make demands and taunt and tell my sub whether they're pleas­ing or dis­pleas­ing me and rub it in that they're incred­i­bly for­tu­nate to be in my presence.

Domination can fuse seam­less­ly with recep­tiv­i­ty to phys­i­cal plea­sure. It's about psy­cho­log­i­cal pow­er just as much as (if not more than) the activity.

You can be Dominant and feminine

Let's say we're going by the cur­rent con­ven­tions of mas­culin­i­ty and fem­i­nin­i­ty — active and pas­sive in the bed­room, respectfully.

A woman who enjoys trib­utes and wor­ship from her partner(s) could be con­sid­ered a dom­i­nant bot­tom while being tra­di­tion­al­ly fem­i­nine since mag­net­ic attrac­tion and recep­tiv­i­ty to a suitor's affec­tion are often regard­ed as fem­i­nine traits.

On the flip side, a man who loves hav­ing his back clawed dur­ing mis­sion­ary could count as a dom­i­nant masochis­tic top while also being tra­di­tion­al­ly masculine.

Note the nuance: the top­ping par­ty for pen­e­tra­tive sex can still be the masochis­tic bot­tom for their partner's sadism. Enjoyment of pain is a dif­fer­ent axis than pow­er exchange, and the two can syn­er­gize if the pain is framed as a sign of active con­trol over someone's pleasure.

Closing thoughts on BDSM roles

BDSM is so much more than a dichoto­mous box, a two-​sided coin, or even a single-​axis gra­di­ent from mild to wild. Think of it as a mir­rored D20 — or a dis­co ball with end­less ways to reflect the human psy­che and zeitgeist.

This post was spon­sored. The writ­ing and opin­ions expressed are my own.

1 Response

  1. sexworkersearch says:

    This was a fas­ci­nat­ing read. Thank you for shar­ing your thoughts. I'd love to see more rep­re­sen­ta­tion of more nuanced roles with­in BDSM in main­stream media since the types of char­ac­ters I see and read about usu­al­ly do seem to fit the bina­ry you men­tioned. As a pro dom, I can hap­pi­ly play the role of mas­cu­line, sadis­tic, Dominant top but real­is­ti­cal­ly, my clients are often inex­pe­ri­enced and ner­vous so I'm more of a sooth­ing, reas­sur­ing pres­ence hold­ing space for them to project and imag­ine their ide­al dom. A ser­vice top, strict to the extent that I have bound­aries and can act as scary as my client needs for their sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief for an hour. Not that I'm com­plain­ing mind. My clients are a fun and imag­i­na­tive bunch on the whole and I get to take part in all sorts of kinky scenes but myself and my clients almost nev­er fit neat­ly into the box­es of what rigid­ly defined BDSM might ascribe us to.

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