In the kinky world we use a lot of labels. Queer, kinky, top, bottom, Master, slave, Domme, submissive, baby girl, pet, Daddy, switch, demisexual, bisexual, heterosexual, homosexual, cis, trans, agender, nonbinary, it goes on. While labels have a purpose, they are also problematic.
Labels are great in that they provide a shorthand for us to identify something about ourselves and connect with others using this shorthand. For example, if I am talking to another person who has the same understanding of the language as I do and I tell that person I am a queer, agender, service submissive that means something to both of us. We can then have a conversation with the basic understanding of where I am coming from and where they might be coming from if they also have labels.
Labels also help us ground ourselves internally and feel “less crazy” and less alone. When I was trying to put words to my gender orientation 25 years ago in undergrad, there were no terms for nonbinary or agender folks. I saw therapists and would describe feeling “not right” or “alienated” from my body and they would suggest I might be transgender and should consider if I wanted to become a man. At the time there was only cis and trans folks in language and those of us who didn’t feel one fit were either counseled to try and make us believe we were cis or possibly allowed to explore the idea of being trans but only in relation to trans as a binary (male-to-female, female-to-male). For someone like me it was literally crazy-making.
About four years ago the term agender started popping up in the media. I had used it in my own writing for a while before that simply applying the rules of Latin grammar (a- meaning without) to “gender.” When I finally saw an article in the Washington Post about a tiny group of younger folks talking about being agender as this “new” identity I was shocked (shocked!!!) that there was anyone else out there similar to me. After 20+ years of trying to explain to folks how I experienced gender and others shaking their heads in confusion, there was finally a word that other people used as well to describe what I felt.
Labels, however, also can be problematic. One issue that arises is the “labeling” versus “becoming” issue. For anyone who has searched to figure out who they are, finding a word (a label) which fits their experience of the world and themselves it becomes an “a-ha!” moment. There is a joy and relief to know that someone before you found a way to capture an important aspect of your identity. Finding out there is a word to describe part of your experience allows you to relax just a bit and feel a little more connected and normal.
A problem arises when we allow that label to circumscribe who we are and what we can be. That is when the labeling starts constricting who we are. This happens a lot in the kink community.
Many kinky folks can recall moments in their childhood or adolescence of exploring a nascent sexuality and feeling “different.” They may have gotten really excited while tying up their friends during a game of “cops and robbers.” They might have really enjoyed the hair pulling on the playground. They might have felt “at home” when a partner started telling them what to do. Because these actions are considered deviant they might have felt different or ashamed of their emotional reactions.
When we finally find out there are words to describe these feelings (e.g., submissive, dominant, Master, slave) there is an excitement that comes with finally figuring out we are not crazy and that there is a whole group of people who feel the same way we do.
Often, this initial discovery leads us down the rabbit hole into the kink community. We start looking up stuff online about kink, BDSM, submission, bondage and so forth. We read articles and books and erotica describing what a submissive or a dominant is. We look up definitions and try and force ourselves to fit these definition.
What starts as a journey of exploring who we are eventually circumscribes our own identity. I see so many kinksters read just a few pieces and most of that is erotica, describing a D/s or M/s relationship. They then use the practices and definitions to determine who they will be in the kink world. This is a dangerous shift. When external information and descriptions begins determining who you are instead of you determining who you are you stop becoming and just start living to the label.
No single description or small number of descriptions describe the vast world of kink or even any one vein of it. Submissives come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and sexual orientations. Some of us love service, some hate it. Some love pain, others avoid it. Some love our puppy masks and leashes, others balk at such things. I have been reading BDSM writings since I was 15 — 29 years of reading, and I am still finding new ways people talk about submission!
Limiting your expressions of submission to try and fit a given model or the things you read can be painful. I have watched person after person struggle to find their identity as a submissive and fight with the “but such-and-such says a submissive is THIS! I am not that but I am as submissive so I have to become what I read about.” This often leads to feelings of failure as a sub or that somehow the label doesn’t fit.
We need to work on continually becoming and relegate labels to what they are good for- a short-hand identification of a complex identity. You have to create your own version of submission or dominance. This is a lifelong journey. You are not a character in a book or a definition on some website. Don’t let those things limit who you can become.