What is Consensual Dominance?
The most concise definition of consensual dominance I’ve ever been able to come up with is that it is the exercise of interpersonal power by the mutual agreement of and for the mutual fulfillment of all involved. Consensual interpersonal power is expressed in the hot, complicated space between what someone wants to do on their own and what they want to do for you. That space can extend in a wonderful variety of directions. It can mean taking someone down to where they beg permission to perform degrading acts they would normally find repugnant, but it also encompasses building them up to achieve heights of discipline and accomplishment that they would not have reached without firm encouragement.
Some people are very specific in which directions they prefer to take their dominance: interested only in degradation, or only in receiving service, or only in nurturing and guiding, or some other particular flavor of dominance. Others are more flexible, exploring different sorts of dominance at different times or with different partners. Regardless of the style, the essence of dominance is in the “because I said so” or the “do it for me.” It’s in the influence one person wields over the thoughts and actions of another.
It is a misconception to say that dominance is about making a person do things, though. It’s impossible to really make another person feel, think or do anything, and competent dominants tend to understand that fact better than most. Dominance works by inspiring, seducing and enabling submission, not by forcing it—it’s dominance driven by an engine of consent.
The very core element of any consensual dominance is consent. Consent is the cornerstone of the ethical foundation of what we do—the main distinction between consensual dominance and abuse—and it has three basic components. First, everyone involved has to understand what they are getting into. So no lies or surprises or sneaky manipulation to get someone to agree to something they otherwise wouldn’t. Second, everyone has to have the ability to refuse without consequences. That means no guns to the head, obviously, but also no arm twisting or guilt-tripping or emotional blackmail. And third, everyone has to actively agree to take part.
So it’s more than just not saying no; consent requires some kind of affirmative yes. And not just once at the beginning either—like signing a liability waiver before you go skydiving. For consensual dominance, both partners reaffirm their consent in every moment of their interaction and consent may be withdrawn at any time.
The definition of consent is straightforward and widely agreed upon by BDSM communities around the world. Application of consent in practice can become complicated, however, especially when dominance is involved. Imagine a submissive screaming “No! No! Please stop!” as their dominant punishes them, or fighting tooth and nail in resistance play. Imagine a master and slave couple signing a contract that takes away the slave’s right to end their servitude. Imagine a dominant planning a surprise scene that their submissive will go into knowing nothing about. The substance of dominance is interpersonal power, and it complicates every aspect of consent. It can take a lot of care and expertise to navigate playing on the edges of consent, and we’ll spend a great portion of this book talking about the different skills that support being able to do so successfully.
When it is done successfully, all of the conditions of consent remain true on the very fundamental level of the couple’s interactions, no matter how things may appear on the surface. The submissive in the resistance play scene may be screaming “rape” and fighting tooth and nail, but they have a different way to express a genuine desire for the violation to stop. The slave signing the contract has given away their right to end their servitude only in the context in which the master has assumed responsibility for ensuring the slave’s welfare. The dominant planning a surprise scene is doing so with intimate knowledge of their submissive’s passions and limits, and with confidence in their ability to read their submissive’s emotional state throughout the scene.
It’s common to think of consent as something that is ethically required for dominance, but separate from it. Like if dominance was an amusement park full of thrilling rides and delicious sweets, consent would be the ticket gate that you had to pass through in order to get to the fun. But that’s a tragically limited understanding of consent. Consent isn’t the gate into dominance; it is an integral part of dominance, and understanding dominance requires understanding that consent is more than just an ethical box that must be checked in order to stay on the side of the angels.
Dominance is the inspiration and seduction of consent. Dominance is leading someone to feel safe enough, connected enough, respectful or even worshipful enough to say “yes” to your control. And every new order obeyed, every service rendered, every humiliation eagerly endured is consent all over again. The consent that feeds dominance isn’t mere permission; it’s active collaboration. It is the submissive becoming complicit in their own subjugation. The consent that we’re looking for isn’t a tepid “well I guess you can,” but a breathless “yes, please.” And that enthusiastic, abandoned consent is the source of much of the heat and power of dominance.
Dominance is the exercise of interpersonal power, and the most intimate and real power it is possible to have over another person comes from their not just agreeing, but wanting, craving and needing to do for you what they would not do without your influence.
How Dominance Fits into BDSM
Dominance is often practiced as part of the larger realm of BDSM. That’s a compound initialism that stands for Bondage and Discipline (B&D), Dominance and Submission (D/s), and Sadomasochism (SM). The world of BDSM is wondrously broad and fuzzy around the edges, and it doesn’t really break down into three neatly delineated sections. Instead, think of BDSM as nice big umbrella term for “all that kinky stuff.”
Roughly, we can think of D/s as the aspect of BDSM having to do with power and control, and that’s going to be my focus in this book. I won’t be addressing how to tie knots (Bondage), or how to throw a flogger (Sadism or maybe Discipline). I will focus on the art of seducing control and managing power. Many people who practice dominance weave it together with other aspects of BDSM—like corporal punishment, fetish clothing, or the classic whips and chains—but there are also those who want to wield power in their relationships but have no interest in playing with pain or restraint or dressing up in leather.
There is plenty of diversity even within this more narrowly defined area of interest, from Master/slave relationships to pet play to pick-up scenes. D/s can focus on service of the dominant’s needs and whims, or humiliation of the submissive, or adherence to strict protocol, or any number of other facets. There are even surprisingly deep and subtle differences between a dynamic that focuses on pleasing the dominant versus one that emphasizes obeying the dominant.
Some people see sharp distinctions between these different styles and would say, for example, that Master/slave relationships are completely different from domestic discipline relationships, and that those who practice one have little to learn from the other. I believe that all consensual power dynamics have more in common than not. I have always been fascinated by that core essence of giving and accepting power, regardless of the context or the superficial trappings.
And that’s what this blog is all about.