Essay

“Dominant” is Not a Species

“Mallard” is a species.

A mallard is born a mallard and will be a mallard until it dies, and nothing that was not born a mallard can ever become one. Being a mallard entails a cluster of traits that all mallards share. All mallards have bills, wings and two webbed feet. All mallards swim and hatch from eggs. If you’re a mallard with fewer than two feet you’re a deformed or mutilated mallard, and you can’t be a mallard with four feet or with fur⁠⁠—those things simply aren’t in mallard nature.

You definitely can’t be both a mallard and a dog. Even if you learned to bark and ate dog food and slept in a dog bed you wouldn’t be a dog. You’d just be a weird mallard.


One of the most pervasive misconceptions around kink is the tendency to treat kink roles as though they were species.

People often talk about being a dominant (or a submissive or a top or a Daddy or whatever) as though it’s like being a mallard. You’re either born to be one or you aren’t. If you are one you’ll be one forever and that’s all you’ll ever be. You can’t be a submissive and a little and a dominant⁠—you have to figure out which one you really are.

They have in their minds a kind of Field Guide to Kinky Wildlife, with one entry that tells them everything they need to know about dominants, another that tells them what to expect from a top, and yet another that lists the identifying markings of the wild submissive. Their own primary identifying trait is their intense need to classify everyone else into species, so that they can look you up in their Field Guide and think they understand you.

They spend a lot of time being confused about wildlife that fails to match the descriptions in their Field Guide. You’ll hear a lot of “I thought he was a dominant, but he lied to me! Dominants don’t lie, so he must not be a real dominant.”

If you are a member of the species “dominant,” then they know that you are confident, dependable, and that you never submit. A dominant who also submits would be like a dog with wings!

In reality, lots of people take on different kinky roles all the time, in tons of different ways. Some will exclusively want to dominate when they start out in kink, but at some point discover a craving to submit and shift over to almost exclusively submitting. Some find that different partners inspire them to want to connect in different ways. Some like to trade roles minute by minute. Some enjoy simultaneously topping one partner while bottoming to another. Some find that whether they feel like daddy or a sadist or a brat depends on their mood.

In order to preserve their zoological model of kink, people who think of roles as species lump all of that variety under the species “switch.” In the Field Guide to Kinky Wildlife, a switch is a chimerical beast with the head and shoulders of a top, and the hindquarters of a bottom. Being half top and half bottom, they are often thought of as never being fully either. They are imagined to have only half the dominance of a full dominant, and half the submissiveness of a full submissive.

The root problem with this way of thinking is that it’s just plain wrong.

Kink roles are not actually like species. 


Being a dominant is less like being a mallard, and more like being a pianist.

Someone might be born with long, nimble fingers and an ear for melody that makes them well suited to playing the piano, but they’d still have to have a desire to play and put in the time and effort to learn before you’d call them a pianist. Also, people who aren’t born with any particular natural advantages can still learn to play the piano, and can call themselves pianists if they do.

Someone might choose to take up the piano at any time in life, becoming a pianist when they weren’t one before. Someone might get tired of playing the piano and stop, and eventually cease thinking of themselves as a pianist.

Being a pianist in no way prevents you from learning to play the oboe. In fact there’s a common foundation of musical skills and knowledge shared between the two, so being a pianist would give you a head start on learning to make other kinds of music.

Finally, being a pianist doesn’t define a person. There are patient pianists and crabby ones, quiet ones and stingy ones, and all other kinds.

If someone really, really loved playing the piano and it was the biggest thing in their life they might reasonably say “I was born to be a pianist,” but we’d still understand that that means something different from the way a mallard is born to be a mallard.

Similarly, dominance is something you can choose to do if you wish to, and if you choose to do it you might like to identify yourself as “a dominant,” but that isn’t your species.

Dominating doesn’t mean you’re a particular kind of person, other than one who wants to dominate some people in some way and in some situations. Wanting to dominate in one way doesn’t mean that you have to want to dominate in others. Wanting to dominate one person doesn’t mean that you have to want to dominate others. Enjoying dominance now doesn’t mean that you have to want to keep dominating forever.

Dominating also does not detract from your ability to play other kinds of kink role. If you dominate you and also submit, you are not half a dominant grafted onto half a submissive. You are a full human being, who is capable of doing both.

Treating kink roles like species is so pervasive that it’s easy for the Field Guide to Kinky Wildlife to creep into your mind without your even realizing it, just from hearing so many people talk about “dominants are like this,” and “this is how you recognize a real daddy.” But if you make the effort to recognize it and weed it out of your thinking, I guarantee the world of kink will get a lot less confusing.

You can stop worrying about what kind of wildlife you are, and focus more on paying attention to what you really want. You can be less afraid to change and explore different ways of being and relating. You can stop struggling to understand why you keep meeting people who don’t fit into any of the species you were told about, and accept that you’re just meeting people who are people. You can stop giving too much trust and deference to “dominants” and “masters” just because their Field Guide entry says they deserve it. You can enjoy the relaxing feeling of giving zero fucks whether someone is a “real dominant” or “just a top.”

It does mean you have to accept that there is no clear and simple taxonomy that’ll explain all of kink for you, but that was true whether you accepted it or not.