Dominance and submission (also called D&s, Ds, and D/s) is a set of behaviours, customs and rituals involving the giving by one individual to another individual of control over them in an erotic episode or as a lifestyle.
Physical contact is not a necessity, and it can even be conducted anonymously over the telephone, email or other messaging systems. In other cases, it can be intensely physical, sometimes traversing into sadomasochism. In D/s, both parties take pleasure or erotic enjoyment from either dominating or being dominated. Those who take the superior position are called dominants, doms (male) or dommes (female), while those who take the subordinate position are called submissives or subs (male or female). A switch is an individual who plays in either role. Two switches together may negotiate and exchange roles several times in a session. “Dominatrix” is a term usually reserved for a female professional dominant who dominates others for pay.
Dominance and submission, and the inner conflict and surrender connected with these are enduring themes in human culture and civilization. In human sexuality this has broadened to include mutual exploration of roles, emotions and activities that would be difficult or impossible to do without a willing partner taking an opposing role.
A 1985 study suggests that only about 30% of participants in BDSM activities are females. A 1995 study indicates that 89% of heterosexual females who are active in BDSM expressed a preference for a submissive-recipient role in sexual bondage, suggesting also a preference for a dominant male, and 71% of heterosexual males preferred a dominant-initiator role.
A safe word is usually given to the submissive partner to prevent the dominant from overstepping physical and emotional boundaries. The safe word is especially important when engaging in verbal humiliation or playing ‘mind-games’ because the submissive may not be aware of an emotional boundary until it is crossed. If an emotional boundary is breached and the safe word called, the dominant should cease all play immediately and discuss the emotional breach with the submissive in a tender and understanding manner. Negotiating limits in advance is also an important element in a D/s relationship.
It is important to note that for a safe, sane and consensual environment to be maintained, all participants should have a safe word of which the other is aware; this includes the dominant partner. While it may not seem so from the outside, Dominants will also have limits and boundaries of their own, and should not only have a safe word, but be comfortable calling it if their own limits are exceeded. This includes cases where the dominant may feel things have gone too far, and are uncomfortable continuing. As with a safe word call from any other, it should herald the stopping all play and a recuperative discussion between the participants.
There can be any number of partners in a D/s relationship, in some cases with one dominant sometimes having several submissives, who may in turn dominate others, or a submissive sometimes may have multiple dominants. Relationships may be monogamous or polyamorous. Romantic love is not necessarily a feature in D/s, partners might be very much in love or have no romantic relationship at all.
Variation in D/s is virtually limitless and the activities take many forms. These may include: domestic servitude or consensual slavery, enforced chastity of the submissive, erotic humiliation, sexual slavery, verbal humiliation, fetishes, such as shoe/boot worship, dehumanisation (pony or animal play) or objectification (forniphilia, becoming an ‘inanimate object’ such as a foot stool), cross-dressing, whipping, corporal punishment, trampling, human toilet – golden showers, feminization, cuckold, bondage (sexual), public humiliation.
These may be combined with other forms of BDSM. A classic example of D/s is the sissymaid, where an adult male dresses in cartoonish female clothing and performs stereotypical female chores such as housecleaning or serving tea. It should be noted that cross-dressing in D/s does not always involve a desire to be sissified or made into caricatures of women or to serve; for example, others may desire to be made as beautiful as possible and interact on a “girlfriend-to-girlfriend” non-sexual basis. Consent is a vital element in all psychological play, and consent can be granted in many ways.
Some people maintain a special room or area, called a dungeon, which contains special equipment (shackles, handcuffs, whips, queening stools and spanking benches or a Berkley horse, for example) used for play scenes, or they may visit a BDSM club that maintains such facilities.
Many submissives wear a “collar” to denote their status and commitment. It can be much like a wedding band, except that only the submissive partner wears one. The traditional collar is a neck band in leather or metal, chosen, designed or even crafted by the dominant partner. Some subs wear a “symbolic collar”, often a bracelet or ankle chain, which is more subdued than the traditional collar and can pass in non-BDSM situations. It is not uncommon for a sub to have several collars for special occasions. Dog collars are integral for K9 role-playing—pup-play.