Updated: Aug 22, 2022
I love it when I come across people writing about submission in a deep and thoughtful way! If you have not discovered The Pleasure Coach, check out this post to get you started: The Sovereignty of Submission.
Reading this post brought me back to the subject of power and submission (see here here and here for examples). I come from the viewpoint that both partners in a D/s style relationship have power and responsibility. Even in a 24/7 Master/slave dynamic both parties have some power and responsibility. I want to explore the responsibility of a submissive type in this post.
Agency, Efficacy and Responsibility
Agency is a sense of control. When we have agency, we understand we have the ability to respond to the world and move through our world in a given way. We have an awareness of what we have the power to control and change. A person’s perception of their agency is both changeable and situation dependent.
Personal efficacy is the belief you have the capacity to meet challenging goals. When tasked with a challenge, you have enough confidence if yourself and your abilities to believe you can take on and complete whatever the challenge is. It is critical for people to have some personal efficacy to function in the world.
Personal responsibility has several definitions. In this post, I specifically mean that we accept our own actions have power and consequences and we accept that we may be held to a moral or social standard for our actions.
Agency, Efficacy and Responsibility work together to shape how we move through the world. They are involved in everything from our classroom performance, to how we choose to interact with others, to how we conduct our sex lives. These three phenomena determine if we feel in control of ourselves, how we tackle a challenge and what consequences we believe are fair.
“Real” Submissives are Simply “Vessels” of the Dominant’s Will
All of the above (agency, efficacy, responsibility) come into play when we decide to enter into power exchange relationships. Regardless of the length of power exchange, be it a single scene or a lifetime, we have to decide how we will transform our agency, efficacy, and responsibility into a submissive relationship.
A problem has arisen in the past decade or so as kink and BDSM became popular as a form of entertainment, be it books, online, and movies. The submissive in many of the more popular portrayals reaches a status of “real” submissive once they have completely abandoned their agency, efficacy, and responsibility.
This concept of submission, which under scores the Fifty Shades series and similar accounts of BDSM, is that the “real” or “true” submissive is simply a vessel for the dominant’s will and desire. This portrayal of submission for literary purposes has little link to how submissives who entered the kink community prior to the ten years ago approached submission. Unfortunately, too many folks have been led astray by this fantasy of submission and have rejected personal responsibility, efficacy, and agency in pursuit of becoming a “real” submissive.
“The Submissive Has All the ‘Real’ Power”
This statement has become the drumbeat of many folks discussing BDSM with people outside the scene or new to the scene. The idea is that the submissive holds all the power cards and that any power exchange is simply a playful approach to relationships and sex. At any point they can withdraw their submission and end the power exchange relationship; therefore a Dominant has no real power.
This concept of power exchange and submission is popular because it reassures people who do not – or do not often – engage in submission a feeling it is “safe.” If you never really give over power, if you can always stop everything at the drop of a single word, then there is no real power exchange. Its just a game.
Yes, a submissive can stop something or change the power dynamic at any time, this comes with consequences. Submission and power exchange is consensual. In that sense, a submissive’s decision to change the dynamic is always a possibility. If the submission is not consensual but forced on someone, this is not kink, it is abuse.
The idea that the submissive can change the power dynamic in a relationship at will without significantly changing the relationship is where this narrative becomes false. Choosing to take power back can stop a scene, can permanently alter the form of a relationship, or it can be relationship-ending depending on the couple. Additionally, some submissives lose the belief that they have the power to take back their control and therefore the idea they would stop when uncomfortable is not a legitimate understanding of their agency.
The reality for most people engaging in BDSM relationships is that they negotiate a form power exchange with each relationship. There are nearly as many different approaches to changing your agency/efficacy/responsibility in a relationship as there are power exchange relationships.
Some people see submission as a “game” or part of the role play for a scene. They pause their agency and efficacy momentarily. It is more fantasy than altering their psychological orientations to these concepts. You may enjoy giving over personal agency in some areas but retain control in many. You may enjoy playing that you have no moral or social responsibility in a scene, but it returns upon engaging with the rest of the world.
Others (including me) understand submission as more of a foundation for a relationship which cannot be simply discarded when it stops working. In these types of relationships, the submissive actively works on altering their relationship with personal agency and responsibility when it comes to the areas of power exchange negotiated with the Dominant. For example, if power exchange over what one wears is a negotiated area of power exchange, a submissive in this instance will actively work to alter their psychology to feel less or no power over the choice of clothing. This type of psychological alteration can be quite profound and long lasting.
For the submissives in the second category, choosing to take back power requires both a change in their relationship to their Dominant as well as a change in their personal efficacy. Reclaiming power over an area where power was previously exchanged results in a permanent change in the relationship dynamic. Additionally, it can mean the individual has to regain a sense of self efficacy in an area of their lives.
These changes, which do happen, have profound meaning for submissives and their relationships. It may be compared to a non-kinky couple who decides to open their relationship to other partners. The decision to consensually open the relationship will have profound psychological, emotional, and relationship effects. Changing a monogamous to nonmonogamous relationship is not done without consideration, discussion, and a recognition that the partnership will be altered. The same is true when a submissive decided to alter the power exchange agreement.
The Submissive as a Vessel for a Dominant’s Power
This is another narrative which has emerged in regard to power exchange. The concept is that when someone is a “true” submissive they relinquish all agency and all decision-making power and become an extension of their Dominant. This is neither common or healthy. More often, this is a fantasy created by authors for storytelling purposes.
There is no such thing as a “true” submissive or a “real” submissive which can be determined by behaviors. Power exchange and submission is negotiated and continually negotiated by people. There are decisions around areas of power exchange, the limits of power exchange, and the desires of the people involved. In 99.9 percent of these relationships, the submissive partner makes a conscious decision to let go of certain types of power. Regardless of how much power they let go of, they retain their own ego, thought process, and decision making process. They are never fully a “vessel for the dominant’s will.” At least this is how it goes in relatively healthy relationships. Abuse is another issue all together.
This style of submission is often promoted by “white knights.” White knights are people who’s personal efficacy and agency is bolstered by controlling others. Prior to BDSM and power exchange becoming popular in with the predominant culture, people wishing to control other’s behaviors were labeled, “control freaks,” “abusive,” or “domineering personalities,” and the behavior was seen (rightly) as an unhealthy way to maintain a relationship.
Unfortunately, many popular narratives of BDSM conflate this type of abusive behavior with being a dominant. Additionally, it conflates accepting this behavior as being a “real” submissive’s approach to power exchange. As a result, we have seen an increasing number of people using BDSM as an excuse for abusive relationships (e.g., Marilyn Manson)
A Submissive’s Responsibility
Submissives are responsible for their own health, welfare, and personal behavior. At no time in a healthy relationship will a submissive give over all power and decision-making when it comes to their personal health and welfare. This is partly because no one else can inhabit our bodies and minds and therefore we cannot understand what another person experiences fully in terms of health. We can communicate our health needs and bodily experiences, but another person cannot fully know what we experience. The act of communicating our experience and needs is in itself a form of responsibility.
Any person entering into a submissive/power exchange relationship for any duration of time has certain responsibilities. The parameters of these change as the relationships but the submissive will always have some responsibilities.
Communicate About Health and Welfare
Weather you are entering into a single scene or a lifetime commitment, a submissive is responsible for disclosing pertinent health and welfare information to a partner. Full consent is based on knowing pertinent risks of engaging with someone.
This does not mean you have to provide a full health history to your pick-up play partner. It does mean you should let them know about health issues which may change how you have to interact. For example, I have had several partners who had asthma. I need to know this before we play so that I can keep an eye out for signs of wheezing and breathing issues. Decisions about the types of play we engage in can be altered by understanding this medical condition. For example, I may choose to not engage in breath play with an asthmatic because of the increased chance of harm. Additionally, I will want to know where to locate a rescue inhaler in case I need to access it during a scene.
I understand some heath issues may be hard to discuss. I live with Bipolar I disorder and a history of cutting. For a quick pick-up play scene I don’t feel a need to get into the details of this with a partner. However, when I have done pick-up play for knife play, disclosing I engaged in self-harm is part of making sure my partner can consent to play. Your health conditions and how well they are managed will determine what you need to disclose for consensual play.
You are also responsible for making decisions about your financial welfare. I recognize some couples negotiate financial power agreements. I am not saying those are bad. In many cases, having one partner control the finances will work for long-term couples. Many, many non-kinky couples have such arrangements after marriage.
What I am talking about here is your responsibility for understanding the agreements you enter into and do it willingly. Finance can be something as small as deciding which events to attend as a couple and who pays. For example, for years as a researcher and Executive Director, I often made significantly more than my partners. I did not want to pay for every kink event, however. We had to negotiate what I was comfortable paying for what what control I would keep over my funds.
Plenty of you have been in this position. You and your partner want to attend a kink convention but only one of you can afford it. Every partnership will have a different level of comfort with a single partner paying for an event. Just because you are a submissive, a partner should not command you to pay for what they want without discussing finances with you.
Financial harm can be long-term and significant. A bankruptcy, plummeting credit score, or a drained bank account may have impacts long after a relationship is terminated. Finances also control where you can live, what transportation you have access to, your ability to feed, clothe and care for yourself. Regardless of your power exchange style, submissives remain responsible for assuring they can meet their basic financial needs.
As a kinky player, you are always responsible for learning about they fetish play you engage with. This does not mean you have to be an expert before trying something out with someone. However, you are responsible for understanding the basics and the risks before agreeing to it. This is especially important these days with so many “dominants” claiming expertise in an given play and lacking even basic understanding of safety concerns.
No play is 100 percent safe. Even kissing involves the risk of passing along herpes simplex (those painful cold sores!) and other diseases such as the common cold. When you decide to engage in a type of play, be it role play, bondage, impact play or something else, there are a set of risks which come with it. Familiarize yourself with the basic safety issues of what you and partner are going to do. Your dominant or pick up play partner is not responsible for educating you about every risk of the play before you agree too is. (For great places to learn, check out my BDSM Resource Page).
Safety concerns are not just about potential physical injury. Yes, suspension, impact play, blood play and more come with obvious physical risks. However, your personal health and your mental health also determine the risk level of play.
For example, if you have been under significant stress without much reprieve (say, stuck at home with your teen during a pandemic) the build up of cortisol in your system can make your skin thinner than normal. This presents added dangers for rope bondage and impact play. You need to be aware enough of your own health to determine how much of a risk you are taking with the type of play you like.
Mental health is also important to evaluate. Even with pick-up play there can be significant emotional involvement or catharsis. This may be what you are seeking. It may not. You should be familiar enough with the play and what you are planning to engage in to make an informed decision about your own actions.
Submissives Legal Responsibility
The idea the submissive is a vessel for the dominant’s can have major legal implications. Laws in many countries consider anyone over the age of majority responsible for their own actions. Saying your partner told you to steal something or assault someone will not absolve you of responsibility. There are plenty of women in prison who were in abusive relationships, did something for their partner that was illegal, and are now serving time.
If your partner is asking you or directing you to engage in illegal behavior, your actions are – under law- your own choice. You have to decide if YOU (not your dominant) wants to engage in illegal behaviors. Partners pressuring you into doing something you are uncomfortable with or something illegal is a sign of abuse.
The longer you play, the higher the probability you will end up having a bad play session or relationship. It is the nature of human relationships that they are not 100 percent satisfying. Submissives have to own their own role in the relationship or play when it goes awry.
It can be hard to admit to yourself when your behavior contributed to a debacle. No play is completely controlled by a single individual. When you feel bad or have had a traumatic session, you need to allow yourself space to figure out what went wrong.
There are times when sexual assault or rape happens under the guise of BDSM. If this is the case, it is important to acknowledge what happened. If someone clearly violated the consensual boundaries of play, did not stop when you used the agreed upon language to stop, or initiated sex after you were impaired and could not consent, this is rape and not your fault.
Much more often, we have a bad break-up, or a fight, or someone is a dick we didn’t expect to be a dick and we regret being with them (in whatever capacity). Its unfortunate but not a reason to melt down on Fetlife or at a munch or demand they are barred from all events.
Because many situations are unclear to outsiders, being willing to answer questions about your situation is normal and should be expected. Answering them honestly is part of a submissive’s responsibility. I say this as someone who has been both sexually assaulted as well as drugged and raped. If you have approached a dungeon owner or an event organizer to report someone who has violated your consent, they will have some questions. They are not trying to invalidate your experience and they are not “on the side of the rapist” simply because they ask you to clarify what happened. Too often I have seen subs with player’s remorse try and get a prior partner banned from a space. When asked to clarify what happened, they put the organizer or owner on blast.
Everyone in the community is responsible for identifying abusive people and dangerous players. We need to have some facts about a situation which will allow us to do this effectively. As a submissive, you are responsible for being honest when asked questions about someone you had a negative expereince with.
Choosing to enter a power relationship as a submissive or a play scene as a submissive does not absolve you of your responsibilities. People in every scene identity are responsible for providing partners with enough information to engage in consensual play.
Anyone engaging in BDSM and kink is also responsible for learning about the risks involved in the activities they are engaging with. At no point in a power exchange relationship is the submissive absolved of all responsibility.
We retain agency even as we negotiate the parameters in which we will exercise that agency. My subby folks, own up to your part in making informed, consensual decisions.