What I mean when I say “D/S” (and “S/M”)

In the past few weeks, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on FetLife, wandering around and reading various group posts and discussion threads. A fair amount of what I read was about D/S. And I was struck – and put off – by the amount of times that people seemed to automatically frame D/S as a full-time thing. And as a thing between an unquestioningly obedient submissive (usually assumed to be female) and a strict – and, if necessary, punishing – dominant (usually assumed to be male).

Perhaps this is mostly a case of cultural differences between the majority of FetLife users (who seem to be heterosexual/ heteroflexible/ bisexual-in-a-heteronormative-BDSM-subculture – at least the assumptions in those posts seem to confirm that) and the dyke-/trans*-centered BDSM culture I feel at home in. Perhaps I just read a very non-representative selection of opinions. Or perhaps I just remember the posts and comments that didn’t sit right with me with much more than any others.

At any rate, as I was reading, I kept thinking “wait, that’s not what *I* mean when I say D/S.” So I thought it would make sense to write down some fundamentals about what I do think of when I say D/S here, if only to be able to reference this post in future writings about other aspects of BDSM in general and D/S in particular. (This is still thinking in progress, so my language may be a bit provisional at times until I find more accurate words for what I want to say.)


First of all, a word about spelling. Most people spell it “D/s” to express the hierarchy of control between the capital-D dominant and the small-s submissive. Too often, however, there seems to be a notion of superiority and inferiority in terms of value attached to that, and I don’t want to perpetuate that in any way, shape, or form.

Because for me, dominance and submission need each other to work. Both are equally important and valuable. Without a submissive who is submitting to them, a dominant simply can’t be dominant (at least not in a framework of consent, and that’s the only framework I’m discussing here). Both are equally powerful. If the submissive has no initial power of their own to give to the dominant for the duration of whatever time period they have negotiated, there’s no play, no dynamic. There’s also no meaningful consent.

To express this, I have recently started to spell D/S with two capital letters, just as I spell S/M (for sadism/masochism) with two capital letters, and just as I sometimes abbreviate butch/femme as B/F. Because all of these denote dynamics between two ‘roles’ that can be quite different and very polarized, but wherein each participant still has equal value.

While I’m at it, another word about language: I use “top” and “bottom” as neutral terms for the dominant and/or sadist and/or giving part and the submissive and/or masochist and/or receptive part of the dynamic. (Yes, I know there also are dominant masochists and submissive sadists and service tops and tops who get fucked/beaten by their bottoms… So please don’t assume you’re not included in my thoughts, and please do adjust my shorthand terms in your head so they best suit your reality.)


So, what do I mean when I say D/S? For me, D/S is at its core about playing with a power dynamic. I mostly use the term to differentiate that kind of play from S/M, which to me is fundamentally about playing with pain/sensation.

Since power is mostly a thing that happens in our minds, D/S is mostly mental/psychological/emotional play for me. It doesn’t need a physical component to function, and some people play in a D/S framework without ever using any kind physical pain. However, most D/S players often makes use of body language and touch (or lack of touch) to express dominance and submission. And non-masochist submissives may endure pain as an act of submission, even if the pain as such is not enjoyable to them. Non-enjoyable pain may also be utilized as a form of punishment if that has been negotiated as part of a given D/S dynamic.

Compared to that, S/M is mostly physical/body-centered play for me. It doesn’t need a power hierarchy to function, although S/M players often use at least some light D/S dynamics to frame the infliction of pain or other strong sensations. And even without a trace of D/S, the experience of pain always also has a mental/psychological/emotional component. Still, there are people who exclusively play with S/M and don’t use/enjoy D/S power dynamics at all.

(That said, even though I’m separating the two concepts for thinking purposes here, I myself and most people I’ve met seem to combine elements from both D/S and S/M in their play, with varying amounts of either. Which also means: Please don’t get hung up on these labels unless they actually help you, too, in thinking about this.)


I don’t approach D/S play with the idea that I’m supposed to just do whatever my dominant wants me to do (within the frame of my clearly-stated hard limits), without any input or questions or resistance from me.

I refrain from that default assumption because I can access very different kinds of headspaces within a D/S framework (and I know that’s also true for other bottoms). Not all of these headspaces and dynamics center on immediate obedience, not all of them allow the top far-reaching control over the bottom’s mind and body, and not all of them are possible or even desirable with anyone/at anytime.

Need examples?

Playing as a resistant, bratty bottom who needs to be forced to finally submit is not the same as playing as a perfectionist, obedient bottom whose main interest is to please their top by fulfilling their expectations to the best of the bottom’s ability.

Playing as a bottom who is asked to endure a lot of pain for their top could end with the bottom feeling physically strong and successful in taking whatever their top wanted to dish out and being praised for that. Or it could end with the bottom “failing” miserably and being able to experiencenot being abandoned/ridiculed by their top despite that “failure.” These are obviously not the same, either.

Playing as a bottom who wants to be scared shitless, brutally taken down, and forcefully taken apart until they are a sobbing mess of catharsis is not the same as playing as a bottom who wants to very consciously choose to do something that carries a huge emotional risk for them and whose top has asked them to do this thing and has then given them the space to take that step all on their own (and perhaps still end up as a sobbing mess of catharsis).

Doing an impromptu negotiate-as-we-go-along role-play with a friend for ten minutes with a lot of cracking up mixed in is not the same as doing a three-hour collaring ceremony within the framework of living in a full-time D/S relationship with your romantic partner.

All of those are D/S dynamics, though. And all of those are beautiful and worthwhile and “real.”


TL;DR: If I say “D/S,” all I mean is “playing with (a focus on) some kind of power dynamic.” Everything else still needs to be negotiated/specified further.

So that’s the only assumption about D/S everyone should make around here.


2 thoughts on “What I mean when I say “D/S” (and “S/M”)

  1. Hi, thanks for writing that out! I feel the same way about d/s (I started using small letters for both. It seems less dramatic :D). It’s interesting to me that some people aren’t aware of the possible difference between s/m and d/s. And how some cannot feel it. I used to assume that anyone can feel when a scene or encounter tilts towards d/s. I was wrong. I’ve added this conversation to my negotiations and it’s important to me to know what I’m playing with! Nice to find your thoughts here. Thanks again. L.


  2. @Luvs: Thanks for the comment – glad to see the post resonated with you!

    Well, if we (as a culture/community) keep lumping together top/dominant/sadist and bottom/submissive/masochist without explaining (often enough) that a) these are not the same and that b) they don’t always come packaged together, I’m not surprised that people have a hard time telling or even understanding the difference. In fact, I myself have only begun to separate S/M and D/S like this and explicitly talk about them as separate dynamics in my negotiations fairly recently (that is, about two years ago) – and I’ve found that it enables me to be a lot clearer about the kind of play I’m looking for, and to find out more easily what my play partners are looking for and whether we are compatible (enough). Less unspoken assumptions = less misunderstandings = better plays for everyone involved!

    Coincindentally, I just read a useful article by Midori (part 1, part 2) on this subject that tries to disentangle all those labels from each other and use them to describe practices/desires instead of identities. (You need to have a FetLife account to be able to read it, but here’s an openly available image of the matrix she provides along with the text that should give you an idea what she’s talking about even when you can’t access the text.)


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