Updated: Aug 23, 2022
I went to a meeting of submissives this week and an interesting discussion question was posed: What is the difference between discipline, punishment and abuse in an D/s and BDSM relationship.
This is an important question that needs lots of discussion and clarification. Many D-types integrate discipline and punishments into their dynamics with submissives. It is part of the power exchange that occurs in these types of relationships. Many submissives and slaves I know actually approach their D-types with requests for help with various behaviors and include disciplines and punishments to help change what the submissive desires to change.
There are also abusive D/s and BDSM relationships. Just because a submissive enjoys certain behaviors in play (e.g., humiliation or impact) does not meant that outside of play these behaviors are desirable or acceptable. Just as with millions of vanilla relationships, people can be emotionally, sexually and physically abusive to their partners. Simply engaging in D/s and BDSM does not automatically emancipate people from abusive behavior.
Discipline in a D/s or BDSM Relationship
Discipline, in many forms and by definition, involves training. It is also developing habits of mind and behaviors that are beneficial to a person. Most of us, regardless of our sexual proclivities, need some form of discipline in our lives. This can take the shape of dedicating time to work out every week, or to meditate regularly, entering all of our appointments on a calendar, or balancing our checkbook. Each of these behaviors takes time to develop and requires ongoing dedication to continue the practice.
Anyone who has tried to develop a regular workout schedule is familiar with developing discipline. Very few of us wake up one morning and decide to run for an hour a day. Most of us have to make the decision to start running, get the right clothing and shoes, decide we will dedicate certain times of the week to run, and then force ourselves to get out of bed or turn of the television and actually run. For those of us who develop this habit, running eventually becomes its own reward. The time to ourselves, the self care that happens, the feeling of success, and growing strength in our bodies and cardio systems becomes a feedback loop and encourages us to keep going. However, if something derails our practice (e.g., illness, vacation) it can be difficult to get back into our regular running routine. It is self discipline that allows us to return to the routine.
Likewise, there may be negative feedback loops. For instance, I hate going through my mail and responding to stuff. I can let it pile up for more than two weeks before I open anything. I have to discipline myself to get to my mail more than once a week. However, I know if I do not open the stuff that arrives, bills pile up, I miss car registration notices, or I miss RSVP deadlines for weddings and baby showers.
In D/s relationships, many submissives ask for help developing discipline to do things they know they should and that would be a good thing to do but they have problems disciplining themselves to do. I know submissives who have asked their D-types to implement chore lists that they are expected to complete daily. Like a lot of people, a lot of submissives hate cleaning. Having your D-type require that you take out the trash every other day and clean the bathroom once a week can be useful in developing good cleaning habits. I know other submissives whose D-types have helped them take control of their finances by working with them to develop habits of balancing their bank accounts and setting up specific times during the month to make sure bills get paid.
In a power exchange relationship, submissives often give over control to their D-types in areas of their lives they desire help improving. What those areas are depends on the individual relationship. I know more than a dozen submissives who have given their D-types the right to help control their finances. To me, it would be crazy-making and after one marriage, I will never combine finances with anyone again. It is not an area up for negotiation to me. However, being made to respond to mail daily as part of my relationship protocol would probably be a really good thing for me.
Every discipline relationship is different. Some couples use a gold star system. When the submissive does everything they are supposed to do for a day, they get a gold star. They may be rewarded for getting a week or month of gold stars with some reward (e.g., dinner out, spa treatment, massage). Some people use verbal praise. It is really up to the specific couple.
Discipline can also be used to help submissives develop new relationship or sexual habits. I love calling someone Sir or Master. This has always come naturally to me. Many people struggle with this formality. They find it trite or silly or awkward to call their D-type by an honorific. D-types may make using their title a part of a discipline practice.
Some submissives use discipline to develop habits for sexual reasons. They may engage in anal training (wearing butt plugs for a number of hours a day, increasing the size of the plugs they wear) in order to prepare themselves for anal sex. If you have not had a lot of anal sex, it can be very painful or difficult to be penetrated. Anal training is a way to make this act much more pleasurable for the submissive in the long run.
Some submissives engage in position training. They learn the names of the various positions their D-types want them to be able to hold. This may be kneeling for extended periods during a shibari tie, or on all fours to form an ottoman for the D-type, or display positions or whatever. Positions are generally supposed to be held until the submissive is given permission to move or asked to change their position. For people who practice this, position training can be incredibly erotic and an amazing sign of submission to the D-type. It takes practice. I do position work with a couple of D-types I play with. It is very meditative to me. It is one way I can show my dedication, focus on them and desire to please them. I also find it really hot be be told to be naked and in child’s pose when my D-type arrives for a date. However, it took me a while to develop the practice to the point where if my nose itched I didn’t automatically scratch it without asking permission.
Punishment in D/s and BDSM
Often as part of discipline training, D-types will use punishments. If a submissive has asked for help with something like cleaning habits and then fails to meet the requirements for a week, a D-type may implement a punishment. This can come in many forms. Some D-types use impact (e.g., spanking, caning). Some may use deprivation (e.g., enforced periods of chastity or orgasm denial). Some may require writing a journal entry examining why they failed at a behavior.
In a healthy D/s or BDSM relationship, the submissive will know why they are being punished and the punishment will fit the infraction. For example, one slave I know had an problem with coming into the house and kicking off her shoes and leaving multiple pairs of shoes strewn about the living room. This was unsightly and her Master regularly tripped over them. She was asked to develop a discipline of taking off her shoes and immediately putting them away in her closet. One week, she left several pairs of platforms in the living room for multiple days. Ultimately her Master spanked her with a pair of platforms. The behavior was corrected from that point forward.
Some submissives, like anybody, can have a very biting tongue. They may go out drinking and say things that are hurtful or shame their partners. Most of the time the couple will discuss the behavior several times and look for solutions to solve it. I know at least two submissives who have this issue and they had multiple conversations with their D-types about their behavior but failed to correct it. One D-type uses caning when the submissive says something horrible while drinking. The other uses enforced chastity.
Punishments of these types are not generally delivered immediately after the offense. Rather, the couple will go home, sober up, talk about what happened, then the punishment will be enforced. For one it is a number of strikes with a cane, specifically because the submissive hates caning. The other will be given a number of days she is not allowed to masturbate or have sex.
These types of punishments are not abusive. They are not delivered in anger. They are delivered after an infraction and after a discussion. They fit the infraction. And they are designed to correct bad behavior. They are also agreed upon either at the time of punishment, or more often at the point the relationship was negotiated.
Abuse is different than punishment. The biggest key for me is that punishments are delivered to correct behavior after a cooling period when the D-type is not angry. The D-types I respect and agree with are the ones that never deliver punishments in anger. If a D-type strikes while angry, it crosses a line into abuse. Yes, it may be an agreed upon punishment, but when one is angry, it is difficult to control intensity and other negative behaviors from the D-type may emerge.
I have one friend, a Master, who had a number of behaviors he and his slave were working on improving. He used caning as a punishment. However, when the relationship started to fail, he refused to implement punishments. He had been very hurt by things that occurred in the relationship and was very angry with his slave. While he could have administered punishments for her infractions during this period, he refrained specifically because he will never strike in anger. He went as far as to stop practicing impact play with anyone for a period because he did not want anger to be triggered during play. That boundary of never striking in anger helps keep a line between punishment and abuse.
The other place BDSM and D/s can run into issues with abuse come during periods of distress in a relationship. D-types can start looking for minor infractions to punish as a way of venting the relationship frustration. The motivation moves from caring about the submissive to looking for a reason to hurt or humiliate the submissive. Punishments can become petty and the relationship between the infraction and severity of the punishment become exaggerated. This is abuse.
Finally, I have seen D/s relationships where the D-type will start implementing punishments for behaviors that the submissives have not given them power over or the radically change protocols because the D-type desires some change but is unwilling to discuss and negotiate with the submissive. This can quickly become a form of abuse.
Perceptions of Discipline and Punishment
It is difficult for many vanilla folks to distinguish between discipline, punishment and abuse in a D/s relationship. When 50 Shades was released into theaters, my Facebook feed was flooded by presumably feminist and christian organizations declaring that all D/s and BDSM was abusive. What they saw in D/s and BDSM was the stereotypical image of a man hitting a woman, decontextualized from power exchange, consent and desire.
Yes, many submissives engage in impact play. I am one of them. However, I do so when I have negotiated it and it is delivered in a form I actually enjoy. The D-type engaged in impact with me has discussed my limits, my desires for the impact session, and is concerned with my well-being. He (in my case, it has always been a man), enjoys impact play and he gets something positive out of the exchange as well. I play hard (I am known as a “heavy bottom”) and my impact sessions leave me with bruises, welts, and sometimes cuts or broken skin. However, impact play also allows me to enter a very enjoyable head space, it increases my relaxation and stress release, it triggers endorphins, it allows me to bond with a partner, and it makes me amazingly sexually aroused. I always leave a session happy and relaxed.
[Side note: To make the point of how enjoyable impact play can be, I did a very intense scene last year with a Dom in a dungeon. The session went on for 45 minutes and I was heavily bruised at the end of it and some skin was broken as part of impact. I definitely screamed more than once. The marks and bruises lasted two weeks. When he was done with the scene, he asked if he could take a picture of the results. When he got the camera, I started making stupid faces like duck-lips and sticking out my tongue. I laughing and happy. He had to tell me to at least look a little serious for his picture.]
I understand how someone outside of kink can see these marks or watch a session and think it is abusive. But they fail to understand the much deeper parts of the scene. There is a great amount of care, there is a lot of desire, there is a lot of fun during the scene. It is always consensual and I have the capacity to stop something if I needed too.
Abuse has none of these aspects. Abuse is delivered in anger and hate. There is no care for the abused party. The actions are not desired by the person on the receiving end. The end result is not two happy people who are more bonded and often who have orgasmed from the interaction.
Additionally, abuse is about taking someone’s power away non-consensually. The abuser uses verbal, sexual or physical force to try and impose their will on another person. Dominance and BDSM is exactly the opposite of this. The power exchange is desired and negotiated and consented too. They are polar opposites. Equating the two is like comparing apples and nuclear bombs. They have nothing in common at all.