Sunday, October 27, 2013

Subs Don't Need "Training" but Doms Do

A few years ago, I was dating a submissive girl who lived at the other end of the state. She was delightful and adorable and apparently really kinky, but our early visits were rocky; she would express ambivalence and occasional antipathy towards me. Despite this, we kept trying to find a groove over the course of eighteen months. Along the way, she expressed an interest in "slave training"—a topic she'd encountered on BDSM forums, and discussed with other subs. I had not given any sort of training to my previous partners; I tend to develop a romance organically, and teach my partner things, about me or about herself, as needed.

Seeing a training project as an avenue to bring us closer together, I proposed that she visit me for a long weekend of specific lessons. I made a list of kink activities to introduce, a lesson plan for each, and a schedule for each day. Over four days, there would be three 90-minute sessions per day, with breaks in between. Topics included behavior basics, emotions management, kissing, oral service, bondage, pain, protocol, and submissive mindset. I even drafted an agreement for us to sign together, defining the framework of the weekend.

The four days of instruction went well, in fact better than any of our previous meetings. She struggled with a few of the lessons, but didn't become grumpy or withdrawn, a pleasant surprise. The final lesson concluded with the two of us in a calm, connected place. But the exercise did not dispel the greater issues between us; they soon resurfaced. I suspect she had wanted an experience that would suddenly demolish her internal barriers to feeling safe and connected to a lover; that would train her to be... herself. My training schedule was not nearly as intense as it could have been, but in retrospect I don't believe that any dom-imposed training regime could have accomplished what she sought.

In my opinion, all the talk in BDSM circles about "training a submissive" is wrong-headed. No standard training regime is required to be a good submissive partner. (Though many subs I've met could stand a course in how to select a worthy dom! See How to Interview a Dom/Master.) In reality, it is we doms who require the training, and not simply on how to wave a whip safely.

Doms need training, or knowledge and practice, because we assume the authority in the relationship. The ability to retain and wield authority responsibly, and consistently over time, is not innate—there are no "natural dominants". One must acquire and hone these skills, and doing so can take years. Even accurately perceiving your own words and tone as you speak can be challenging, as is choosing an effective mix of substance and style to convey a specific demand.

Although one can find workshops presented by dominant men or women describing their own experiences with D/s, there are no accredited schools for dominant lovers. Most doms therefore educate themselves, hopefully with some mentoring by other wise doms. But for most of us, we are trained by trial and error within our relationships, causing our subs and ourselves suffering when we err.

For subs, the only skills which all must master are emotional and interpersonal best practices, like clear communication, sound boundaries, managing emotions, awareness of triggers, focus in the present—which aren't specific to kinky relationships. Subs who tend to have a strong psychological subspace response should also learn to handle that (see Two Kinds of Subspace). Whatever other abilities that a particular dom desires his love to obtain can be taught at the appropriate moment as their romance unfolds.

And doms do indeed teach their subs many things, especially how to recognize and fulfill their needs & desires, and also life skills beneficial to their partners. Different doms naturally teach different lessons. But to be an effective teacher, a dom must first learn his sub; her strengths and weaknesses, how she absorbs and embraces new ideas or behaviors. Next, he must adapt his ways of instructing and guiding to her. Teaching is a lot easier if you understand how the pupil thinks and learns!

Having a mentor is the closest that most doms and subs get to actual training. The most productive mentoring relationships are dom-to-dom and sub-to-sub, although the other combinations can also work. Mentoring is largely conversational; it happens over coffee, on the phone, via the Internet. While mentoring may occur within a romance, a relationship formed for the purpose of mentoring should not become sexual, as that creates a conflict of interest for the mentor. A mentor's goal must be the growth and success of his protégé.

Some couples like to use "training" as a kinky label for getting-to-know-you activities or early BDSM sessions. These really aren't training per se, but language is a useful romantic lever, so why not "train her" if that feels hot. In the opening stages of a D/s relationship, both partners are best served by simply learning each other. Fitting any two people together, in kinky relationships as much as vanilla ones, is like doing a jigsaw puzzle; it takes time and some trial and error. A dom may need to accommodate a new sub somewhat to win her trust. Over time, she will of course accommodate him extensively as their trust deepens.

A period of immersion in D/s roles—around the clock for a weekend, a week, or even a month—may be hot and bonding for some couples. (For a case study, see Crossing the Line.) However this is not a getting-to-know-you exercise! Only couples with established mutual trust should attempt to dive in such waters.

Some would-be doms like to talk about "breaking a submissive" as a desired outcome of "training". Sadly for them, people are not horses. You cannot expect to magically level your lover's limits by putting her under sustained pressure. For many kinky couples, the practice of BDSM is indeed about finding and transcending boundaries, over time. Someone facing a boundary to be crossed must decide to do so; forcing them across is almost always damaging, to the individual and the pair.

I've heard of doms who offer general "training" for inexperienced subs. They are, from what I could tell, either players looking for easy kink, or polyamorous people seeking short-term relationships with kink newbies. The fact that a dom offering such a "service" fervently believes that it's for the benefit of the sub doesn't make it so. There's nothing inherently wrong with kinky hookups or short-term relationships, but misleading a new sub about the value of the experience is unfair, and all too common.

So my advice to subs is: "Don't seek BDSM training; work on your emotional and interpersonal skills, and seek a capable, sincere dom." And my advice to doms is: "Definitely seek education and mentoring; what you wish to achieve is hard!" A dom's responsibilities—wielding authority wisely, and teaching and guiding his partner—are not easy, and not inborn. Learning these skills takes focus and practice, and wisdom from those with some mastery of them. Becoming that to which you aspire is a long and often arduous journey.

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Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Why Doms & Subs Should Not Date Vanilla People

To be perfectly honest... I often wish I wasn't romantically and sexually dominant. I'm single, and regularly meet attractive, vibrant, vanilla girls who think I'm an awesome dancer and appealing gent and want to get to know me. Alas, I cannot date any of these gals and expect it to go anywhere; I know, because I have tried.

A few weeks ago, a reader posted a comment on this predicament:

... A man I feel deep feelings for recently told me he's been a Dom for over 25 years — which freaked me out a little, to be honest. He is 10 years older and we have a great deal in common. Intellectually he is unlike any man I have ever known, and our connection, interaction, attraction, and compatibility are almost magical. My issue mostly is that I am not what anyone would consider submissive ... Even worse, I cannot imagine anyone thinking I would be submissive in the full sense of the word. Yes, there are few things (I think) I would decline to do with this man because I think he's simply amazing, but on the other hand, I don't think I could allow him to actually hurt me, or humiliate me. I'm definitely not turned on by things like that.

I responded to her that, from my own hard experience, the two of them should go separate ways; that each of them would be far more fulfilled by a partner who would love them they way they need to be loved.

Five years ago I fell in love with... let's call her Amanda. She was a wonderful dancer, tall, thin, curvy, with an expressive face that was stunning when she beamed, which she did constantly. Her romantic nature was giving and devoted, and sexually adventurous. We had delightful chemistry from the first moments, and I fell for her rapidly. The second or third time we got together, I told her I'm a dom, and what that means. She replied that she was open to any mutually fulfilling erotic explorations. And suddenly we were spending as much time together as possible.

But giving and devoted and in-love do not add up to submissive; sexually adventurous is not kinky per se. Love does not, it turns out, conquer anyone or anything; it merely makes you believe passionately that you should try, and damn the consequences. Our relationship was delightfully intense, and we took some remarkable excursions, both within the bedroom and beyond it. But ultimately neither of us could give the other what they needed in romance. She could not embrace, or even comprehend, my need to see her suffer in any sexual situation. During the last half of an eighteen month relationship, we had virtually no sexual contact, just periodic platonic snuggling. Given how much we loved, and wanted, each other, that was heart-breaking, daily.

I'll note that one may draw the line between "vanilla" and "kinky" differently. I would not call it kink when partners include occasional light bondage or barehanded spanking in their sex life. To me, kink implies high, sustained physical and/or psychological intensity, which the partners crave regularly. Such intensity usually demands a recovery period, which may include focused care immediately following the experience.

It's tough being a kinky single, especially if, like me, you seek the deep bond which D/s and S&M engender between committed partners — versus alternative sex with whatever curious creature crosses your path, which is easier to arrange. Searching for someone with whom you share compatibility in both kink and vanilla terms can be disheartening, as there's such a small pool of people who both share your kinks, and would also love your everyday personality. The loneliness that results from this dearth of possibility drives some of us to attempt relationships with vanilla people, simply because they're so much easier to find, and flirt with, and fall for. This is a mistake.

It won't feel like a mistake initially. It's exhilarating to feel deeply connected to someone, to see into another's soul, and feel intimately seen by them. But as in any new coupling, it's essential to recognize the difference between infatuation and mutual understanding. The former flares up immediately, the latter unfolds over time. And what unfolds over time in a kinky-vanilla pairing is misunderstanding, disappointment, frustration.

Some submissive women I've talked to who've dated vanilla guys have said that they've found themselves actually taking the lead in those relationships. I surmise that's because they're keenly aware of the value of authority in partnership, and so attempt to fill that vacuum, even though it makes them uncomfortable or even disdainful of their partner.

But suppose you don't discover that you're kinky until... after you're married. I've talked with a few women in this situation. Being married doesn't predispose your partner to being dominant or submissive with you any more than being in love does, even though this seems like the most natural thing in the world, at least for the kinky party. But you do have options here, besides shelving your D/s desires or separating. A surprising number of folks I've spoken with have kink partners alongside a vanilla marriage, with the consent of their spouse. Obviously this requires the spouse to be open-minded and flexible! Another angle is finding some kinky practices which the vanilla partner enjoys. It's not hard to create that sustained physical and psychological intensity I've referred to with someone you know well. And of course some choose to indulge their desires outside the marriage without telling, although this entails significant risk to the relationship.

Based on the conversations I've had with innumerable kinky people over the past seven years, I'm prepared to assert that appetites for dominance, submission, or sadomasochism are innate, not acquired. Many of my sources report becoming aware of deviant desires in childhood, before attaining any education on sex. Vanilla folks simply don't experience a thrill in wielding control over a partner, or yielding it; the roles feel awkward. True, you can awaken latent desires in someone who is kinky but hasn't had partners to explore it with. (Although in our era of diverse and abundant kink porn and erotica, where a D/s romance trilogy became a runaway best seller, the number of people harboring quiet cravings for D/s is dwindling.) But you can't teach someone you love to become dominant or submissive; you need someone who was born this way.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What I Look For in a Submissive Partner

This article sat in the drafts folder for weeks; I found it hard to finish. It forced me to reflect on some things... I'm single, and dislike being so — I'm a better, more effective man when I have a committed partner. I don't do kink casually, so being single means my dom side gets almost no love. Pondering my search is dispiriting, as it's a process that has no clear calendar. And it troubles me to wonder, after talking with a lot of kinky girls over the past few years, whether the girl I'm seeking even exists. I'm a tall order to fill, no question, but if I don't admire a girl in multiple ways, I wouldn't want to acquire her.

But here it is at last, written for myself as much as for you. I've tried to highlight generally valuable qualities in a submissive partner, and deemphasize things which are singular to me.

Possesses a strong will. As a friend of mine who's the master half of a master/slave pair likes to say, "A good sub has a spine of steel." Ultimately, it is inner strength that lets a sub give of herself in profound and intense ways, and carry on this way year in and year out.

Wants kink for the way it makes her feel. Doing it "for his sake" may seem like a submissive attitude, but activities which are not rewarding to her, either during or afterwards, are ultimately depleting and unsustainable.

Shares a few significant, non-kinky passions with her partner. D/s partners must have vanilla chemistry; they can't spend every minute of the relationship in a kinky fog. (For example, I go partner dancing twice a week, and if my girl wasn't into that, I'd feel like she didn't really know me.)

Attentive and curious. These are essential for a submissive partner, since she has to learn to read her dom, and to respond to his needs or goals in any situation where they've agreed she will submit.

Desires and acts on feedback. A dom may wish his girl to adjust her behavior in ways small and large over time. When I offer input, I want to hear, "Got it, thanks for telling me!" However, she may not effect big changes overnight, those usually require practice.

Grateful. I, for one, need to hear that my partner appreciates me, believes in me, feels blessed by my company and all it entails. Such offerings can help assuage occasional "dom's guilt".

Strong emotional boundaries. She's not easily offended or triggered or manipulated. What others may say to her won't knock her off-kilter or lodge in her self-perception. It's important to hold boundaries with family, colleagues, friends, and one's lover. One of the goals of D/s is to dismantle boundaries between dom and sub, but even so a sub needs to recognize it when her dom says something to her that's due to stress or confusion. (See also Emotional Issues in Dom/Sub Relationships.)

Self-esteem. This has been a challenge for many of the women I've dated, both vanilla and kinky, and thus something I've come to expect to help a partner with. But an emotionally healthy girl will have some inkling of her abilities and gifts, even if she has doubts about them in some contexts.

Communicates rationally when under stress. The ability to hold oneself together when stressed out or upset is invaluable. Of course, there are limits to how much duress anyone can withstand before they shut down or lash out.

Loves learning and is addicted to it. A big mind is a huge asset; I'd be bored by a girl who didn't devour new knowledge and share parts of it with me. In doing so, she enriches my understanding of her, the world, and myself.

Enjoys some kind of challenging physical activity. Moving keeps her in touch with her body — a big part of the brain is devoted to the body after all. The practice could be dance, hiking, running, a gym circuit, ultimate frisbee, yoga, tai chi, gardening; the list is endless. It needn't be mindless exercise for its own sake. Also flexibility and strength are particularly helpful for more intense S&M work. :-)

Awareness of nutrition. This is essential in today's food market, because competition has steadily driven vendors to offer huge portions of addictive foods at bargain prices. A healthy diet is high in lean protein and very low in sweets.

Not preoccupied with consumptive activities. I find that undertaking challenging, creative projects together, whether out in the world or at home, is more bonding than ordinary entertainments like shopping, dining out, traveling, and the theater.

Willing to push back when wise. Any dom needs a reality check from time to time. If he suggests something foolish, or is about to dive into some chasm, he'll benefit if she pipes up.

Doesn't set arbitrary limits. Claiming some kinky thing is a "limit" without reason — other than "ew!" — isn't a sign of an open mind. That's not to say that a sub should say yes to something out-there early in the relationship. Intense activities need a strong container, which takes time to build.

Aligned ambitions. Some subs have big life goals for themselves, and so may not be well-matched to doms that wish to be the sub's focus whenever she's awake. Some doms enjoy it when a sub has responsibility and authority at work; they may not be compatible with a sub who's less invested in career progress.

Chemistry. Note that the above characteristics do not create rapport with someone, in and of themselves. Chemistry counts for a lot — although having it cannot compensate for the lack of must-have features.

What's Irrelevant

Intro/extroversion. I'm somewhat introverted, and have had both introverted and extroverted partners. Both have enriched me. I would only suggest that a personality that hates crowds should not be paired with one that only thrives as a social butterfly.

Enjoys pain or humiliation. Many subs don't enjoy pain for its own sake, yet still gladly endure it, and eventually come to crave it, as a service to the dom. Others do relish certain kinds of pain, however there's always methods a sadistic dom can apply to cause distress in a sub who usually gets off on pain.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Assuaging a Sub's Fear of Abandonment

I took a break from regular blogging recently because work demands (I'm a computing entrepreneur) had consumed my attention. Then a few days ago, a reader sent me this touching request:
My little girl depends on me for a great deal, which I know is normal. But often she expresses that she is terrified if I were to ever leave her (she sees that other doms leave their subs). She says that her life would fall apart, and she couldn't survive without me. I have no intention of leaving but her thoughts really concern me. Any advice? 

I could almost taste her fear through his words. Imagining the loss of a partner can be a huge impediment to a trusting and deep relationship. Yet her fear is not unfounded; losing a beloved dom can be shattering to a sub. 

D/s practices can create a closeness which vanilla relationship gurus would label "unhealthy" or "co-dependent" (The latter term comes from the substance abuse recovery community, where the wife of an alcoholic, for example, is thought to be as dependent on the abuse of alcohol as her husband is on the substance itself. It's a poor term outside that context; how could two people simply depending on each other be a bad thing?) It seems to me that the consensus of self-appointed experts about what constitutes healthy closeness in a romantic relationship is that which you find between two nations which share a border. Visitors may cross the frontier into the other country, but necessarily return to their native land, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of which must be defended to the last. And we wonder why so many marriages end in divorce!

The fact is, some people are suited to extremely close, merging relationships, and others to more distant engagements. Attempting to pair yourself with someone of the other tendency is a recipe for failure. Naturally, kinky people span this spectrum as much as vanillas. However, couples which identify themselves as master/slave, daddy/girl, owner/property, or even simply monogamous dom/sub, tend to be expressing an intent to create their own world together, instead of a merely open border between separate lands. I myself find this notion to be immensely appealing, and deeply romantic.

So it can't be categorically unhealthy to aspire to create a new world with your lover. Yet doing so presents the possibility that such a world might crumble, casting its denizens into cold, black space. What then, can one do to allay the fear of such a disaster, or at least make its aftermath survivable?

Assuming a healthy relationship, the most common reason to fear losing one's partner has nothing to do with the partnership, it has to do with the past. Many people, men and women, vanilla and kinky, have abandonment fears, due to previous experiences with parents, close friends, or lovers. Abandonment issues that form in childhood due to neglectful parenting are particularly tenacious. Painful experiences at that age create lasting impressions about how the world treats you. So there may be no quick way to quiet internal voices warning of impending loss. But it is often healing to identify sources of grief from your history, and tell one's partner about how they formed. Recounting such stories from your life is bonding, and when a story taps into a well of pent-up grief, it's cathartic.

When listening to a loved one tell a difficult story from their past, you can help by focusing on its events and urging them to return to them if they head off on a tangent. If they pause when the story becomes hard to tell, gently urge them to keep going, when they're ready. If they fight back tears, or break down sobbing, or show other signs of emotional release (e.g. laughing, trembling) simply smile at them fondly and offer a warm witness to their process. There's nothing in particular you need to say, beyond, "OK" or "I hear you" or "You're doing great". If the teller needs to hear something specific from you, they'll usually ask.

If your loved one's grief makes you at all uncomfortable, keep in mind that that's about whatever their emotions trigger in your own psyche, not a reaction they're causing you to have. Remember that you can't fix whatever is broken in them, you can only hold the space for them while they go through their healing process. The art of holding space for a grieving partner takes patience and practice; you'll get better at it with time. You can also get feedback on your space-holding from your partner later on.

But sadly, relationships do fail, so there is a risk that fears of abandonment will be realized. And from discussions with subs who've lost cherished doms, I do know that it can be a heart-rending experience, though none of them had been permanently damaged by it. Fortunately there is a way to make the possibility of a breakup less daunting: create community around yourselves.

For sure, you should each have a confidant or two—kink-involved friends with whom you speak regularly about your D/s journey. (Note: it's wise for partners to choose different confidants.) Also, seek other D/s couples with whom you click to spend friendly time with as a couple. Practicing D/s means flying in the face of conventional wisdom about healthy relationships. That can be subtly draining. Even though, as kinksters, we like to think of ourselves as free-thinking seekers, humans are still social beings who draw peace of mind from the approval our communities.

If a romance becomes troubled, confidants offer a place to turn for solace and solutions. And if the partnership crumbles, they provide a safety net, a place to bring your grief. They can even provide a guestroom in the case where spending nights completely alone in the aftermath of a separation is too much to bear.

Creating community around your partnership, and considering and dealing with any latent grief the partners bring to it, are, to my mind, essential processes for most D/s relationships. They foster trust and intimacy, and in time will assuage fears of losing your partner.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Emotional Issues in Dom/Sub Relationships

A few years ago, I met a girl online who lived in Southern California. After some days of chatting online, she lobbied me for a phone call. We spoke for five hours. That began what you might call long-distance dating, a daily mix of friendly and sexy IM exchanges and phone conversations. This gal was unusually smart, charming, talented, and apparently really kinky. And she had some challenging, though not uncommon, emotional issues, which I didn't recognize right away. Or perhaps I was willfully blind to them. At that time, both my social and professional lives were, well, a bit comatose. I saw her as a lifeline.

A pattern developed between us. I felt that we belonged together, so I would try to pull her in closer. She had her doubts, and would become grumpy or withdrawn. I would feel rejected and protest her resistance. She would dig in further. We liked each other, and we had lovely moments on occasion, so somehow we kept recovering enough from these spirals that we continued to perform them for a year and a half. I could see our dysfunctional dance, but I couldn't find a pathway out of it. That was maddening, as I like to imagine that if you can see it, you can solve it.

Over time, as my professional prospects revived, I regained some faith in myself. I began to see our inevitable entanglements as absurd. Her grumpy refusals at my offerings of intimacy were comical. I started laughing at them, out loud, sincerely. And voilà, that broke the spell; once I was laughing, she couldn't help but laugh too. I also stopped insisting that she was the perfect girl for me. I'm happy to say that we remain good friends.

Everyone has emotional vulnerabilities, weaknesses. Almost any time an event provokes a sudden, strong emotional response in you — anger, sadness, withdrawal, self-loathing, confusion, helplessness — the most likely culprit is one of these cracks in your psyche. The present situation or conversation has simply driven you into that fissure, triggering a response that's disproportionate to the moment.

But suppose an acquaintance insults you? Wouldn't anger or withdrawal be an appropriate response? No, a non-triggered response to that kind of random offense is bemusement or skepticism. He's probably having a hard day; it's him that's off, not you.

Emotional weaknesses and the responses that accompany them are typically formed in childhood, when we're all naturally vulnerable because our boundaries and understanding of people are still forming. But they can develop later in life, given repeated hard experiences. Digging into the past to discover the roots of your emotional issues may be helpful, or it may not. The key to managing them is gaining self-awareness and learning good coping behaviors. Once you stop rehearsing them, they will naturally become less poignant with time.

Emotional issues can do serious damage to otherwise healthy relationships. When triggered, you stop thinking clearly, and may assign the current situation or loved one full blame for the strength of your hard feelings. Most lovers don't take this too well; disproportionate reactions are rattling, and being blamed for them is frustrating. The damage is even worse when one partner's reaction triggers an issue within the other, whose subsequent emotional response then re-triggers the first one. Such interlocking issues cause a kind of death spiral that's difficult to escape. Issue interlock is, in my view, the single most common killer of good relationships.

As I recounted above, it is possible to break through issue interlock. The key skill, which anyone can learn, but is surprisingly rare, is strong emotional boundaries — knowing where your own psyche stops and another's begins. You should assume that anyone's reactions, especially strong reactions, are about what's going on in their own head, not between the two of you. If you can remember that when your partner falls down, they're less likely to pull you over as well.

D/s relationships thrive on the exceptional, magical connection that forms between dom and sub, and the altered states that this bond allows them to venture into. When emotional issues are triggered for one or both of them, it can impinge on their D/s dynamic. If their leader and follower roles desert them, suddenly they're facing each other like egalitarian acquaintances, just when one most needs the other's support. The simplest means to stop a damaging interaction is for either partner to speak their safeword (or simply say "safeword"). Then stop talking; focus on your breathing. Then ask yourself what you have been doing to contribute to the discord. Then admit that to your partner, and ask their forgiveness. It's wise to wait a while before attempting to discuss that particular emotional vulnerability with them.

It is essential that you develop self-awareness of your issues—what triggers them and how you react. Know that it will take time and determination to do so. It's also important that as you gain awareness, you brief your partner on your vulnerabilities. An observant partner will tend to figure them out ahead of you, and can try to steer you around or out of them, which helps in developing your own awareness. And it's crucial to learn to notice when you've fallen into one of your emotional fissures, and to remind yourself that you're not thinking clearly, and that whoever is in front of you at that moment is not the cause of your pain.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The BDSM Scene Is Not Everyone's Kink

I'm sitting in a packed auditorium, in the conference wing of a Silicon Valley hotel. Representatives of BDSM clubs from the northern half of the West Coast parade across the stage, displaying their colors—designs printed on the backs of leather vests—to enthusiastic cheers from the assembled kinksters. The crowd is dressed for the occasion: leather pants, gothic dresses, snug tops and bare abs, corsets, stilettos, knee-high boots. This is the Northwest Leather Celebration conference, with seminars, a bazaar of gear vendors, play parties, and a contest to anoint a master/slave couple to represent the region at the next International Master/slave Contest in Dallas. I've been here all day, attending seminars and taking a tour of the bazaar, and I'm emotionally exhausted. I'm not one of these folks, although I'm at least as kinky as the great majority of them.

It was a great disappointment to me to discover that the "BDSM scene"—or publicly accessible BDSM community—is not representative of the average kinky person. In addition to celebrating the kinks of consensual bondage, sadomasochism, and dominance & submission, the scene also emphasizes polyamory (maintaining multiple kinky relationships) and public play (exhibiting your kinks in a semi-public venue). While there's nothing all that strange about the latter two, they have nothing to do with BDSM per se. And the portion of the population which is inspired by BDSM and polyamory and exhibitionism is, well, vanishingly small.

Some scene members will insist that the scene is the best way, or the only safe way, to get involved in BDSM. This isn't the case at all. Indeed, the vast majority of folks who experiment with or adopt kinky sexuality do so in private and one-on-one.

The scene has many gems and kink savants, and I've met a few of them. (And from friends, I understand that the gay "leather" scene draws a more cohesive crowd than its heterosexual counterpart.) But subcultures tend to attract a disproportionate share of people who feel ill at ease in mainstream society, and so attach themselves to a group which confers an identity and encourages acting different. Such people come in many flavors: insufferable, unstable, manipulative, etc. If you explore the scene, don't put up with any behavior towards you that you wouldn't tolerate in a vanilla social setting. In other words, maintain solid boundaries!

As you've gathered by this point, I'm not active in the BDSM scene. It's not my cup of tea. But here, from an outsider's perspective, is a summary of scene activities:

The central events of the scene are "dungeon" play parties, where people practice their preferred perversions at a venue offering a plethora of stations equipped with SM-oriented furniture. The stations are typically in full view of whomever happens to be there, friends and strangers alike. Attending simply to watch, fully dressed, is totally acceptable. Photography is strictly forbidden, however. Dungeons usually designate a staff member as monitor, and place a few restrictions on players. (Even so, a top performing in an unsafe manner will not necessarily prompt intervention by others, it's up to the bottom to safeword or otherwise flag the problem.) Dungeon parties are the kinky exhibitionist's garden of earthly delights. But they may not be as delightful to the kinky voyeur, as most do not attract a cast of models and fitness buffs!

An aspect of the scene that's accessible to more—ahem—conservative kinksters is the classes which are taught in most dungeon spaces. There, one can learn the basics of rope bondage, flogging, caning, suspension, and numerous other skills. Some teachers are much better than others, so do a little research before picking a class. I attended a BDSM 101 class in the Boston area years ago, and concluded that I'd have done a better job than the instructor, as all he did was go through his S&M toy bag, describing each item.

Local scene groups organize kink-free meetups called "munches" which gather at restaurants or bars. Attire is street clothing—no exhibitionism is asked or offered! Munches are hit or miss affairs; you can't tell if you'll have anything in common with those attending other than BDSM. The first few times you go, try to recruit a friend to accompany you, especially if you're female.

Structured or facilitated BDSM discussion groups such as MAST (Masters and Slaves Together) enable both meeting other kinky people and raising issues that arise from kinky relationships. Some are by invitation, though meeting a facilitator for coffee is often all you need to be invited. Others advertise the time and place they meet and allow drop-in attendance.

And, as described above, there are conferences all over the U.S. throughout the year. Most of these offer workshops, vendor exhibits, and play parties. These events are great places to learn from talented teachers on a broader range of topics than is available in your local scene. A master/slave couple, the master of which is a friend of mine, presented at two workshops during the conference I attended, and I'm glad I made the effort to go for their sessions alone.

So given that the BDSM scene caters to a small fraction of doms and subs, tops and bottoms, where do the rest of us go for knowing friends and partner prospects? Online. Fetlife has a healthy contingent of closeted kinksters among its members. I've recently discovered that the blogging service Tumblr has a thriving BDSM community. OKCupid, a mainstream dating site, is notably kink-friendly, and has a large number of dominant and submissive peeps, many of whom omit mention of it in their profile text, but are identifiable by their questionnaire answers. Just because the local "BDSM community" doesn't hold a place for you doesn't mean your type of kinkster isn't out there looking for you. Indeed, there may be dozens of them within a short ride.

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Monday, February 04, 2013

How to Interview a Dom/Master Prospect

Your prince is out there, seeking you, hungering for you, wondering where you are. But crouching between you and him are dozens of frogs and trolls. A few of these are even handsome and well-spoken. And you must wade through them, trying not to get slimed or bitten, before reaching your eventual partner.

Just how are you to discern a poser from a dependable, balanced dominant gentleman? A man with the qualities described in What to Look For ...? You can't see into the past, or read minds, so you have one method of discrimination before you take the risk of investing trust in a prospect: inquisition—you ask him a ton of questions.

It's one of the hardest chores for many submissive women. After encountering a gent she feels intrigued by, she must—although her sub side may already desire his direction—play detective.

Many single subs overlook this phase, and expose themselves to unsavory characters claiming BDSM expertise after a brief online correspondence or phone conversation. Single sub friends of mine have had bad experiences that they might have avoided had they vetted dom candidates more carefully. One was physically mistreated on a first date, another was stalked and had her car ransacked. Thankfully I don't hear such stories that often.

Here then are some tips on the art of investigation...

Be sweet but skeptical. There are relatively few quality, single, monogamous doms in the world. An awful lot of the so-called doms you're likely to turn up (especially on kink sites) are insincere and/or unsafe. Don't give a stranger the benefit of the doubt! Don't grant him more trust than he's earned.

Present your questions as expressions of interest. Your objective is information, but let him see that you're intrigued by him and want to know all about him. And proceed at a relaxed pace, making space for him to query you about things.

Start with instant messaging, from an anonymous webmail account. I like Gmail, as it keeps chat logs. IM is interactive, and you can tell something about the guy from the speed and clarity of his answers. However, plain email may work better than IM via phone, since typing on a tiny screen is slow and error-prone.

Make phone calls without caller-ID. When ready to continue the discussion by phone, make a talk appointment, and place the call yourself, so you can hide your number. From the United States, dial *67 (*mp, think "my privacy") and then his number. Or use Google Talk, Skype, etc.

Re-ask important questions a few times, over time. Many people feel comfortable lying to strangers. Liars frequently don't remember exactly how they answered questions previously, so you'll hear inconsistent responses.

Watch out for B.S. Politely disengage if the guy says any of:
Address me as sir/master/daddy/etc. [that comes later]
You ask too many questions to be a genuine sub.
I'm the dom; I'll decide what to reveal and when.
That question has no bearing on my relationship with you.
Well I really don't blah blah blah... [evasiveness]

Ask about relationships. The most important material you can unearth is his relationship history. Does he say good things about the girls, or does he blame them for things? Some of the topics:
What have been your most significant relationships?
For each one:
 - how did you meet?
 - when did it end?
 - how long did it last?
 - why did it end?
 - are you still friendly, if not why?
 - what did you love about that relationship?
 - what about it didn't work for you?
 - what are the three most valuable things you learned from it?
 - what were the three hardest moments during it?
 - what were the three best moments?
 - how did you wish she was different?
 - how did she wish you were different?
 - what were your biggest mistakes of that relationship?
Have you ever met another girl without your partner knowing?
What are your expectations of a partner?
What behavior by a partner most pleases or thrills you?
What behavior by a partner most upsets or frustrates you?
What are your biggest issues/vulnerabilities in life?
 - how have those surfaced in recent relationships?

Ask about kinks. You need to know if you have kink-compatibility. Topics:
What are your most important kinks?
 - how often do you need them?
Do you enjoy vanilla sex?
What are the five most intense kinky things you've done?
 - how did you do aftercare in those cases?
When have you pushed a partner too far?
 - how did you deal with those times?
What are your thoughts on safewords?
What are your hard limits?
Have you seen a partner subdrop?
 - how did you deal with it?
Have you made rules for a sub?
 - what are some examples?
 - how have you punished a sub for breaking rules?
Have you read how-to books or taken classes on BDSM?

Ask about deal-breakers. Most people have relationship needs they're unwilling to compromise on. Find out what his are. And discover whether he's compatible with yours! Also don't entertain the fantasy that either of you can change the other to solve deal-breaker issues.

Ask about friends and family. His relationships with people other than ex-partners may be telling.
Who are your closest friends?
 - how often do you see them?
 - how do you spend time with them?
If you have siblings, are you close with them?
 - how do you spend time with them?
 - do you have nieces or nephews?
Are you close with your parents?
 - what do you like/dislike about them?

Reconfirm the basics. You may think you already know the answers to these, but verify what you know.
How old are you?
What are your height & weight?
Are you married/separated/divorced/single?
Are you seeing anyone?
Are you polyamorous?
Do you have any children?
Are you employed, and in what field?
Do you live alone?
Do you have pets?
How often and how much do you drink?
Do you smoke or do any drugs?
Do you have any history with the law/courts?
Do you own any firearms?

Make up your own questions. There's zillions of other things you'll want to know about a prospective partner, for your own reasons. Ask away!

Be patient. Take the time and care necessary to get to know someone, on many facets of his personality, before you put your well-being in his hands. Avoid being sucked in by D/s Gravity. Don't be afraid to back up or walk away if it doesn't feel right to you. And be persistent; don't let the frogs get you down.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Crossing the Line: Where Kink Becomes Abuse

In my second D/s relationship, my sub and I had different agendas. And we lived in different states. Our second long visit was difficult. I felt badgered, not served. It wasn't malicious on her part; she was making known her sense of insecurity about the relationship without stating it. I withheld my frustration, until her last night with me. We were browsing bondage erotica online. Stirred, my top self suddenly leapt to the fore and offered a conduit for my anger. I pulled her down on the bed by the hair and pinned her on her back, then slapped her face hard and repeatedly, though carefully. I chose to stop before marks appeared. But I wasn't done. She would know my fury. I commenced a wicked tongue-lashing. I told her nothing untrue, but I sharpened the edges of truth before striking her with it. And it felt so satisfying—a rich mix of dominance and anger! She submitted to the torrent of barbs.

But I'd lost track of her. She was triggered, miserable. Eventually she managed to say meekly, "I need a safeword." It hadn't even occurred to me that she might not be able to take my verbal assault. I didn't think she deserved my care in that moment, but I knew to stop. In silence, I tugged her by the hair off the bed, onto the floor and to her knees. I sat on the bed and tried to locate my composure. I had given free reign to my fury, and crossed the line in the process.

There is no hard, bright boundary between consensual kink and abusive treatment. No, it's a foggy, broad gray-zone. Where the zone lies, and how wide it is, varies from day to day for each of us. Venturing out to your limits in a D/s context may lead somewhere transcendent, or terrible. And it's not only the bottom who's at risk. When a top is drawn into territory where he's conflicted, but presses on because the bottom apparently craves it, he will be hurt as well.

Simply defined, BDSM is sexualized power, sexualized punishment. Power corrupts. It's cliché, but true. Impulses like anger and greed compete with rational notions like care and fairness. Males' abuse of their power in vanilla relationships (e.g. date rape and domestic violence) is sadly common. It can't be a surprise that an intentional power imbalance within a romance, even if just during sex, leads to abuse at times. Indeed, "power exchange" carries you there, eventually. Incidents of abuse are a rarely-discussed cost of regular kink.

If straying into abuse—whether intentional or not, acknowledged or not—becomes a pattern, you have an abusive relationship; the right choice is to leave it. But what sort of relationship is it when abusive events are infrequent, and discussed afterwards, and cause the partners to adjust course, yet remain inevitable? Can this be considered healthy? Can it be considered... sexy?

A slave-identified woman whom I corresponded with for a while had been introduced to the master-slave dynamic by a much older gent who was her first serious partner. She had moved in with him in her early 20s. He had introduced kink to her gradually at first, and found her receptive. One day he announced that she had a choice: begin a 30-day training period to become his slave, or leave the relationship. If the training did not suit her, she could opt to leave after it was complete. He was a former military man, and believed in the principle of boot camp: break the civilian to reach the soldier within. Applied to his girlfriend, that became: break the independent girl to reach the slave within. She agreed to try. His kinks then became her entire experience, 24 hours a day. She described his treatment to me; none of it was terribly unusual, but it was brutal in its intensity. She was overwhelmed. She was miserable. She begged him to stop. He continued. Then in a particular moment, she told me, something awoke in her. A light came into her eyes, which he recognized. He'd found the slave within her.

She told me they later discussed the training period, and he admitted he had become too harsh too quickly. He had been, in my view, abusive. She was, I believe, damaged somewhat by that experience. But it was also her gateway into a relationship and lifestyle that she was passionately devoted to. From her recollections I gathered that abuse was not a pattern after the training days. When I met her she was seeking a new master, as her original master had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He'd directed her to seek a new partner. Clearly she still felt owned by him, but was dutifully seeking what he thought best for her.

The strange truth is that along with power and punishment, abuse, too, can be sexualized. Coping with mistreatment this way doesn't mean it's not damaging; any incident of abuse will require the attention of both partners, and time, to heal. But I suspect that sexualizing abuse committed in a kink context blunts its edge; isolated transgressions can be interpreted as moments of extreme weather, rather than crises that might precipitate a breakup.

We are interdependent creatures, yet we are selfish. We are resilient beings, yet we have long memories. When drawn to the flickering heat of D/s and S&M we have to know that we are working with psychological fire; although we manipulate it artfully on our best days, we will be burned, or burn our lovers, on our worst. Some such accidents may seem tenable, even fantastic, in the moment—until the wound appears. Given care, wounds heal, and scars fade, though not entirely.

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Discovering, Embracing, Revealing the Self

I simply stumbled into my first D/s romance. At that time in my life, I knew I loved kink—bondage erotica was far more compelling than pretty girls undressed—but I had no clue how to seek a kinky partner. I began dating a gal I met dancing, and several dates in I tried pinching her nipple, sharply, and suddenly we both knew who we were. In that moment, my sadistic or "top" self sprang into the real world for the first time. Her sub self surfaced to meet him. A hidden door into a different world blew open, and we tumbled through it.

During our romance, she was conflicted about our S&M play. One event in particular rattled her badly. In retrospect it wasn't serious, a bare-handed breast spanking in which I went hard too quickly. A good top ramps up pain in sensitive areas gradually. But the pain wasn't what alarmed her, it was the dime-sized purple bruises on her chest that resulted. Looking in the mirror afterwards, she said she saw a battered woman. Most subs I've spoken with subsequently don't mind such bruising; they even relish it. I, too, love to see evidence of my handiwork on my lover.

After that relationship ended, I fell into internal conflict. My vanilla persona, which was taught from an early age at home and school of the evils of domestic violence and the virtues of egalitarian partnership, could not accept my dark side! Or specifically, could not imagine that a smart, secure woman would want to be as submissive as I knew that my top-self would demand. Meanwhile my top continued to surface in any sexual context, hoping some unsuspecting vanilla girl, who had liked an apparently vanilla guy, would turn out to be kinked! I now assure anyone who asks that attempting to "turn" vanilla girls towards kink is a recipe for disappointment and possibly disaster. (Introducing kink to gals with a latent kinky streak is another matter entirely.)

I often wonder whether other educated men have this same conundrum, and choose to dismiss dominant or sadistic instincts as unhealthy due to their upbringing. Men as a whole aren't as aware of their internal lives and needs as women are.

My own internal strife stretched out for years. During that period, I repeatedly fantasized about asking my first sub to return to me as my slave. It wasn't until I discovered a BDSM dating site (where one could browse profiles without first joining) and found seemingly smart, attractive women identifying themselves as submissive, that I finally gathered the wherewithal to reach out to other kinky singles. There began a long process of interpreting my seemingly dark fantasies as a roadmap to fulfilling romance.

When I finally had the opportunity to practice D/s with a gal whom I knew from the get-go was submissive, I discovered another facet of my romantic persona, the dom. Alongside the playful, collaborative vanilla gentleman, and the ferocious top with its taste for cruelty, my dom aspect is fatherly; he's protective but demanding, directive and particular, possessive and nurturing. This then became my predominant style with a submissive partner. Ironically, I believe I learned much of this pattern from the way my mother was with my sister and myself as young children.

I'm often asked where the top side stems from; is it due to childhood events? I really couldn't say. I had dark fantasies that I recall as far back as adolescence, but I can only describe the experience and satisfaction of embodying the top, not where he was born. I have no trauma or abuse in my past.

Unearthing three distinct, and strikingly different, patterns of relating to a lover taught me that embracing all aspects of the self is essential, yet not always natural. And I've met other kinky people who've reported challenges in accepting their own radically different aspects. Probably the most effective method I found to integrate my trio of romantic personae was describing them to others, revealing them. Also I needed a new metaphor by which to understand personality. The myth that an individual makes choices—based on the situation at hand and his skills and preferences and his spirit/karma—didn't make sense any more.

So here is a new metaphor. Your personality is a globe. Its geography is formed by your ways of thinking/feeling, your modes of interaction, all your implicit and explicit behaviors. Each region of your globe is always there; many are inter-connected. Some places lead to others; you can't necessarily travel to a certain spot on the globe from any other locale. There are places on your globe that are comfortable, or beautiful, or dangerous. And there are places that you've not yet seen! And places you will never go. Your globe has no center—or not one you can visit; merely zones where your attention lingers, mostly due to habit. Your terrain has well-worn trails, which you seldom venture away from; you carve new ones by investing the necessary effort. But new paths won't always take you where you meant to go! Exploring your globe, embracing as your own what you find upon it, revealing your discoveries to others who are exploring theirs—that is a path to fulfillment.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Essential Rights for a Submissive Partner

I once came across a post on a BDSM discussion forum where a dominant man asserted that his "slave" had a single "right" within their relationship: she could leave. I have no idea whether this was true, or if the writer even had a partner. Online forums are a kind of stage where actors issue proclamations. But the statement got me thinking about what rights, or perhaps promises of protection, are essential to give the submissive partner in a D/s context, no matter how radically the partners inhabit their dominant & submissive roles. Initially, I came up with three:

The Right to Health. The sub must not come to lasting, much less permanent, harm, in a physical or psychological or social sense. By "social harm" I mean damaging the person's reputation with family, friends, or colleagues. Health in all these senses is subjective, so this right confers a great deal of protection. It may seem worrisome to have to discuss a right to health at all, but honestly BDSM relationships commonly involve pursuits which, if taken far enough, or done often enough, can be injurious. But then, vanilla relationships frequently compromise these same areas!

The Right to Language. The sub must regularly have the chance to be heard and understood by her dom. It needn't be a license to speak whenever and however the mood strikes her. This confers broad protection as well, as it allows the sub to convey needs. Needs which go chronically unmet would eventually force the sub to resort to...

The Right to Leave. The sub must, indeed, be allowed to leave the relationship, and without notice if she feels threatened. This could also be called The Right to Choose a Dom. One threat to this right is financial dependence, where the sub has relinquished control over finances. In such cases the dom must create a trust or other emergency account to assure her financial security in the event he is incapacitated or unable to fulfill his duty to her.

Those are the protections which I feel are must-haves for a healthy, sustainable D/s relationship. Any given couple may identify further rights which they deem necessary. A dom also has obligations to his sub, e.g. making his preferences clear, or testing her submission constructively. Such obligations approach the necessity of rights. Finally, a dom typically extends to his sub numerous privileges. However, privileges can be revoked or amended, either as punishment, or at bends in the relationship.

Many couples document with a "contract" the rights, obligations, and privileges of both partners. While not legally binding, a contract nonetheless imparts a sense of formality and specific intention to the relationship which vanilla pairings typically lack—even among marriage partners, who are in fact bound by a legal contract.

Since most partnerships eventually dissolve, it's worth emphasizing that a sub's rights are just as essential when a pair is coming apart. This is so even if the partners are no longer willing to fulfill their obligations to each other. A sub's loss of a beloved dom can be shattering and disorienting, even if the couple hadn't been together for years. A wise dom will do what he can to make the separation more bearable for her, even if he is bitterly disappointed himself.

Sanity check: No person can waive the rights granted her by the laws of the land. She can merely decide not to exercise them. However, deciding so doesn't mean she can't later claim that she was deprived of rights against her will. So when undertaking activities where your partner has agreed to forgo legal rights, you'd better be sure she'll be OK with having done so far into the future!

What about connections to others? Certainly friends and family outside the D/s partnership are essential for most people. But how much contact any individual needs with others is a subjective thing; some hermits are quite content. Note that requiring a sub to permanently cut healthy ties to family or close friends generally constitutes a violation of the right to social health.

What about love? What about pleasure, companionship, happiness, fulfillment? These are the original purpose of romance, after all. But love, while indispensable, is undefinable. Or rather, it is defined uniquely for each couple. And where does love occur? It stems from a feeling in your soul, but is shown to your lover in a thousand changing ways. Love rarely shown, or shown in ways your lover cannot see, amounts to none at all. I know only too well that your lover has to be able and eager to interpret all the ways in which you show love. In the relationships which taught me that, love was neither absent nor present.

I encourage you to comment here, or email, or tweet, with your own beliefs and experiences on the subject of rights in D/s...

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Dangers of Dom/Sub Gravity

There is a phenomenon of compelling—or irresistible—but groundless attraction that may occur between a dom & sub early-on in their interactions. I call this D/s Gravity. It must be resisted, as it will probably pull one or both of you into a crash landing in unknown terrain.

A dom friend of mine once described one of his first D/s relationships: After meeting, he and this sub fell promptly into master and slave roles, and disappeared into her apartment in Manhattan, sustaining their kinky dynamic around the clock. After a few weeks (neither had a 9-5 job) they somehow surfaced back to their respective vanilla modes, and promptly discovered that they had nothing in common! There the relationship ended, as abruptly as it began.

Just because you have kinky click with someone doesn't mean they're a match for you in any other way. And you absolutely need general chemistry and compatibility to sustain a relationship. It's therefore essential that you verify these before you get kinky with a stranger! OK, that seems obvious reading it here, but it won't be when you meet some attractive devil who proposes to sink his pearly-white teeth into you, or the other way round.

D/s Gravity can emerge before the pair meet face-to-face, by phone or even instant-messaging. (It may, of course, evaporate in the first meeting if real-life chemistry is missing.) Gravity is a risk for both newbies and experienced folks alike; the more hunger you feel for the rich texture of a D/s romance, of giving/taking control, the more susceptible you are to a Gravity event. On the sub's part, falling into psychological subspace (see Subspace article) makes Gravity more intense, for both parties. It may seem to her as if this particular dom is inducing her altered state, when in fact he's merely a catalyst for a process native to her own mind. It may seem to him as if she's inspired to submit by his mere presence, and he may respond to that apparent wish that he take control.

Those doms who are not seeking a relationship (aka players) will take advantage of D/s Gravity to have their way with a sub, and then move along to the next girl. Players are more readily encountered than sincere romantic gentlemen. A bit of healthy, initial skepticism will help a sub recognize when she's being played.

You should avoid or at least resist Gravity events. Firstly, don't play D/s games by phone or text before you meet in-person. A bit of flirting is fine and fun, but giving/taking orders is inappropriate. After meeting, if you're inclined to build a lasting relationship, start off doing activities that you're both into, outside the bedroom. I like to get familiar with a girl by going out dancing. Partner dance affords opportunities for small D/s gestures — how I lead, how I touch her — without providing a setting for serious control or kink.

A responsible dom will realize that Gravity is a risk, and deliberately guide discussion and interaction towards establishing vanilla chemistry and compatibility. He may flirt in kinky terms, but he won't pull the girl into fantasies. He will guide her out of subspace if she falls into it. A responsible single sub realizes her first duty is to herself and her future "owner", and not some intriguing but largely unknown gent who labels himself dominant. She should never take orders or requests from some dude just "because I'm the dom and you're the sub". The formal term for such claims is "B.S."

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Who Is Will and Why Is He an Expert?

I've been asked how I know all these Things You Need to Know; whether they're from my own experiences, or other sources.

Since the autumn of 2006, when I embraced my dom/top side and began seeking a D/s partner, I've discussed BDSM with almost 200 kinky people. Some of those conversations have unfolded over months, or even years, and some have been brief. Most have been online, but a decent chunk have been face-to-face. Most have been submissive women whom I met on dating sites (OKCupid is a good place to find them) and a majority had experience with kink when we connected. In many of these connections I became a source of support and counsel, listening to stories and struggles, and offering insights or advice where I was able.

A few years ago I befriended two doms in San Francisco, one of whom is a leader in the local gay leather community. (He and his slave are a pair of gems!) Our doms' circle has met regularly for dinners ever since, specifically to talk about our romantic paths.

I've learned most of what I know from the above connections, and I've had three D/s relationships myself. The first I happened into when I found myself dancing with a woman in an unusually connected way at a contact improv event, over ten years ago. We began dating, and eventually I discovered she loved pain, and also hated it. It's quite special when kink emerges organically within a duet. My other significant D/s romance was with a woman who was more adventurous than kinky, but with whom I had amazing click very quickly. She agreed to try being my sub, and although it was hard for her often (which was hard on me), we discovered some remarkable places together.

I've also read published and online sources. Different Loving (Brame et al) is an excellent and diverse collection of case studies of kink practices, and still in print after twenty years. The Fetlife discussion forums are occasionally fascinating.

Outside of kink, I've devoted time steadily since my early twenties to personal growth and understanding how the psyche works, especially for relationships. I've participated in men's groups; I've done structured peer counseling; I've read cognitive science. I've wrestled with my own issues, and those that arose in vanilla and kinky relationships. I've made a lot of mistakes, and examined them at length.

I've also done a lot of partner dancing, and found that to lead, I have to listen to my follower with my body and eyes, and that how I lead and what springs from it varies a lot with each partner and the moment. The very same concept applies to leading a lover in a more encompassing way.

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Sunday, January 06, 2013

Why Safewords Are Not Safe

In intense or stressful situations, humans don't think clearly, and often don't act rationally. People who regularly face high-stress events train to handle them correctly, so they don't need to think, they simply execute the conditioned responses. An S&M scene where the bottom has reached the point of needing to stop usually qualifies as a stressful situation!

Among S&M practitioners, the conventional wisdom for this scenario is the "safeword" — a single word (or a pair like yellow/red) that the top and bottom agree will be the signal to stop the scene immediately. Either partner can use the safeword, but generally it falls on the bottom. When given, the top frees her from any bondage, finds out (or describes) what's wrong, and provides any necessary care. In general, the top's intention in a scene is not to push her all the way to needing a safeword.

Unfortunately, this method is prone to failure in many cases. Unless the top and bottom are both experienced in the sort of activity they're attempting, and have actually used that safeword before, they're facing a stressful situation without training.

Here are some reasons why safewords fail:

The bottom can't form words. Many bottoms are rendered non-verbal by S&M experiences, even mild bondage or light spanking. This is part of the appeal of being a bottom; your mind shifts out of its normal patterns. And most bottoms are non-verbal in physiological subspace, which is an altered state. (See Two Kinds of Subspace.)

The bottom can't remember the safeword. If she's never had to use it in distress, it probably won't come naturally to her.

The bottom doesn't want to displease her top. If the bottom is submissive towards her top in a more general way, she may be more focused on "being good" than her own safety, even if the latter is his highest priority. Calling out the special word that short-circuits her lover's authority may be anathema to her.

The bottom doesn't know she's in trouble. Her judgment is clouded, and her sensations are all different. She might realize that something's not right, but think it's really not all that bad.

The top doesn't recognize the safeword. If he hasn't heard the bottom yell or whisper or groan the word before, it might not register with him when uttered that way during a scene. He might even mistake it for an expression of ecstasy!

The top is in a groove at that moment. Maybe she's screaming in just the way he wants to hear. Maybe what he's doing feels really good to him. Maybe he's in topspace. (Tops get into altered states, too! More in a future article.) He needs to hear something that will jar him out of his groove.

So what to do? Don't specify a safeword. Agree that any request to help or halt is the signal to stop:
No. Wait. Help. Stop. Hold on. Let me go. Cut it out. I can't take this.
Even an unusual or unexpected response to pain can be a signal, e.g. crying out "Ow!" after a period of moaning.

Note that a designated safeword is essential if you play verbal games during a scene, where the bottom gets to say, "No! Stop!" and the top gets to keep right on going. This deepens the sense of taboo, without crossing the line. If you wish to play such games, I suggest doing so only with an S&M partner you're very familiar with, and selecting an obvious word like "safeword" or just "safe", and finding ways to practice it together before turning up the heat.

As the top, it's my responsibility to be aware of my partner's state, regardless of what she says or doesn't say. If it's not clear to me, I've got to find out immediately. Even if I think I know, I'll pause from time to time and check in with her.

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

What to Look For in a Dom/Master

The skill set required of a dom in a lifestyle D/s relationship is rather different than that for a top in an S&M scene, although there's overlap. The focus of this article is lifestyle doms. (See Relationship Variations article.) Most of these traits are straight out of the best-practices manual for vanilla relationships!

Note: I run the risk of simply summarizing my own style as a dom here. I've tried to look beyond that, and solicited feedback from sub friends.

Honesty and transparency. He answers any question you pose, shares things you should know unprompted, and hides nothing about his life. He's willing to discuss previous relationships in detail, and doesn't blame breakups mostly on the ex-partners.

Has tried kink and craves more. He wants kink for how it makes him feel, not just because you want it. He's not conflicted about it. He enjoys educating himself on the topic, and has kinky friends and/or mentors. (Because it's easier to meet appealing men in ordinary social situations, many sub gals make the mistake of falling for vanilla guys who seem to have dominant attributes. Vanilla boys cannot be converted to doms!)

Vanilla chemistry. You like each other as people, not just as kink providers! He likes you as much as you like him. He doesn't pull you into D/s dynamics until you get familiar with each other. (This can be hard to resist! See D/s Gravity article.)

Compatible life patterns and goals. Some subs, and doms, are more adaptable than others. But in general, chemistry is not enough; you need basic alignment in schedules, habits, needs for solitude & attention/affection & kink/sex, and social patterns (e.g. a social butterfly may not be well-matched to a homebody). Career and family needs and dreams also need to line up, or be adjustable!

Vision and clarity. He has a picture or plan for the future of the relationship. He sees possible paths from the present to that place, and makes the current path clear to his sub. The journey may well alter his vision of the destination, or the route to it.

Emotional sophistication. He's aware of his own feelings and issues, and able to discover and understand yours. He can ask for help when he needs it and lend help when you ask. He's not easily angered or hurt, but will promptly and calmly tell you when he is. He'll call you on your stuff, and allows you to call him on his.

Dedication to self-development. He's constantly working on himself — especially emotional and social skills. He's at peace with who he is, but isn't complacent. He learns from his mistakes. (This trait can fill a lot of gaps if he learns quickly, but it's not a substitute for missing abilities.)

Curiosity and fascination. He's profoundly interested in you, and your dynamics together, and the aspects of himself that you enable him to explore.

Intuition and empathy. He's good at reading you, and eventually predicting your likely responses in key moments. He communicates his insights about you. He has a sense of how you feel, which impacts his own mind-state.

Humility and confidence. He knows his weaknesses and vulnerabilities. He knows his strengths. He takes risks wisely. He doesn't mistake authority for knowledge and understanding. He owns it when he's at fault or has failed.

Sets limits and pushes limits. One point of D/s is redefining both partners' boundaries, emotionally and physically. A dom guides this process, both by setting beneficial restrictions on his partner, and working to dismantle barriers she may have towards him.

Patience and flexibility. He's willing to invest the time and care necessary for a deep relationship. He knows you're not superhuman. He can take "no" for an answer when necessary. He can devise or embrace alternate routes to his objectives.

Appreciation and encouragement. He conveys to you how good he feels with you. He celebrates your talents and accomplishments. He doesn't criticize you unfairly or needlessly. He urges you to pursue your interests, to hone your strengths, to address your weaknesses. (Appreciation can be overdone. A sub should draw greater meaning from acts fulfilling her partner's needs than from praise for performing them.)

Knowledge of the body. He can touch you in an observant way, or a directive one. He learns how to play your body like an instrument. He is aware of his own body. He can sense when either of you needs rest.

Financial stability. He has his own living space. His debt to income ratio is manageable. (Disposable income to spend on fetish gear is nice, but do-it-yourself projects can replicate much of it. Wealth is not essential to happiness, in fact it can get in the way.)

Cares for himself. He's sensible about nutrition, sleep, exercise, grooming, clothes, car, etc.

If you find a gent with all of the above qualities, and he's into you, be willing to bend over backwards and forwards for him daily. He's a rare find!

What's Irrelevant

Looks. How someone feels to you in person — through eyes, voice, energy — is far more important than how statuesque or photogenic he is.

Need for control. Some doms like to supervise a sub closely and often, others do so far less. How dominated a sub feels is not a matter of how often her dom barks orders. Most control freaks don't qualify as doms.

Social and workplace dominance. Romance novels describe heroes who somehow control every situation they encounter. No one does that. Almost all kinky gents are employees of some kind. And anybody is comfortable in certain social situations and less sure of themselves in others.

D/s experience. If a guy hasn't "owned" a sub before, it doesn't mean he's not qualified. Talent and dedication to honing it are more crucial than experience.

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Monday, December 31, 2012

Online BDSM Dating Tips

On dating sites, submissive women are often inundated with junk messages, many from apparently crazy men. Here's how to cope:

Set mail filters, if available. This shunts messages from undesirable correspondents into a bulk folder. Do mention your filter settings in your profile text, so someone who troubles to read it will know if he fits your criteria.

Delete your picture, or post a non-provocative one. Gals with pics, especially slutty ones, are far more inundated with junk messages. You can often attach a pic to a message, or mark certain photos friends-only, so you need not be faceless to everyone. Don't post a pic of a fetish model, unless it's you.

Be descriptive in your profile text. Don't be that girl who either has nothing to say, or lacks the courage to say it. Try to answer three questions: What are you like, as a person and a partner? What would your ideal match be like, as a person and a partner? How do you envision your ideal relationship? Keep adding to and adjusting your profile text over time; it can take a while before you're pleased with how it reads.

Seem savvy, even if you're not. Presenting yourself as a newbie seeking teachers is a sure way to attract carnivores hunting for easy prey. It's safer to disguise your lack of experience (e.g. "I'm not new to kink") in your profile. You can share your actual background later with folks you establish a rapport with.

Request a message keyword. Append a request like this to your profile text: "When messaging me, please start your note with the phrase 'dancing bear' so I'll know you read my whole profile."

Browse your competition. A LOT of the subgirl profiles on some kinky dating sites are fakes — scammers, bored teens, who knows? Make sure your profile doesn't look like one of them!

Immediately block anyone who's rude, without responding. When a dom contacts you, you're a stranger to him. Genuine doms are respectful to strangers, and especially respectful to kinky strangers. Don't feel bad about blocking a jerk; it's best for you both. And don't get into arguments with jerks!

Read profiles and reach out. In my experience, the gals who initiate contact turn out to be much more interesting than those who wait for guys to make the first move. And doms like to be approached — it makes us feel attractive and powerful! Don't take it personally if you don't hear back; you can't tell what's going on in the gent's life at that moment.

Use an anonymous account for email correspondence. I've found many gals give out their primary email address after a short dating-site exchange. It's safer to give someone you haven't met an anonymous email which you only use for dating or kink purposes.

Don't video call until you've met in person. I've heard a few stories of subs agreeing to a video call (e.g. Skype or GTalk) only to discover that the other party could be heard but not seen, due to "some problem". Make voice calls and share photos that protect your privacy until you've met face-to-face.

Be inquisitive and skeptical. Many so-called doms online are bullies or nuts hiding behind BDSM. Even guys who seem nice enough in person in public may be unfeeling jerks behind closed doors. Your best defense against these types is asking numerous questions — about previous relationships, other gals they're seeing, friendships with other kinky people, successes and failures in romance and life, how they build relationships, etc. (See How to Interview a Dom...)

Let a prospect earn your trust over time. Genuine doms are patient and sensitive and concerned about their partners. They're not in a hurry to be addressed as "Sir", give you orders, punish you, or "own" you. They recognize that you wish to put yourself in an extremely vulnerable position in a romance, and that you need to get there gradually.

Be very patient! If you're looking for people to play/scene with occasionally, that's not so hard to find. But if you're seeking a long term partner, you're looking for a needle in a haystack; it will take time.

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

BDSM Relationship Variations

BDSM glossaries aren't hard to find, but what you need to know when getting started is the most-common styles of kinky relationships.

First it's important to note: There is no correct way to practice BDSM. Any pair of partners does what works for them. Some kinky people will assert that there is One True Way to be kinky; they're wrong. That's not to say that your views shouldn't expand when you meet a thoughtful person with different ideas; if you're open-minded, no doubt they will evolve organically.

The two major themes in BDSM relationships are "dominance & submission", which implies psychology and interactions, and "sadism & masochism" or "sadomasochism", which implies activities and effects. To oversimplify, the former is more in your head and abstract, the latter in your body and concrete. Kinky relationships often contain both dynamics, but not always.

The most common variety of BDSM is as a purely sexual pursuit, e.g. both partners find it hot when the "sadist" ties up the "masochist" and then does "whatever he pleases" to her. In fact, it's whatever pleases them both; the transfer of control in this situation is a game with agreed or implicit rules. The fact that he doesn't really have sole control doesn't mean that "she's really in control" (a common misconception) — rather, it means control remains shared. The balance of control may actually shift back and forth during the game. Greater intensity, i.e. doing things that "hurt" more, does not necessarily mean that the doer has greater control!

Some jargon: The top and the bottom did a light scene. Top/bottom commonly refer to sadist/masochist roles in a sexual context. Scene refers to a session of S&M, aka kinky sex (although intercourse and orgasms are optional). Most kinky folks, but by no means all, also enjoy non-kinky sex, often termed "vanilla" sex. Some identify as a "switch" and alternate between top & bottom roles, either with the same partner, or different ones.

Perhaps the next most common style is a variation of the above where the top does take more control, and uses that power to do things to the bottom that she both does and doesn't enjoy, or even really dislikes. But she accepts such treatment because she sees her partner aroused and delighted by witnessing her in distress and submitting nonetheless. Doing this kind of scene requires more familiarity and trust between the two, because the bottom is making a sacrifice, and without meaning and purpose, sacrifice can be damaging. In a close relationship, the bottom's dislike for what she was subjected to during the scene will usually transform into satisfaction or pride after the fact. This kind of scene can be scary to both partners, but that fear can be intoxicating.

For some tops, myself included, having tasted power during sex, we begin craving more; then kink starts creeping out from under the bedroom door...

This brings us to another common relationship pattern: where a transfer of control, or dominance & submission, occurs in certain non-sexual contexts. In such relationships, a "dom" seeks influence or authority over his "sub" in small or not-so-small ways, e.g. the way she speaks to him, behaves towards him, dresses around him, even her diet, her exercise regime, her schedule planning. Typically a dom proposes specific rules, and his sub agrees or negotiates an alternative. This is called "lifestyle D/s" and the possibilities here are very broad; there are no areas which a sub should necessarily surrender or retain control over.

Some more jargon: A dom feels ownership of his sub. Here "dom" and "sub" are common shorthand for "dominant person" and "submissive person". Some like to emphasize the roles with capitalization: Dom/sub, Top/bottom, and even pronouns like He/i. (I feel this makes writing harder to read, though I do write "D/s" instead of "D/S".)

A common motivation for a lifestyle D/s partnership is creating a sense of service to the dom by the sub during everyday life, which reflects the more intense service she performs during their sexual scenes. (Note that not all lifestyle D/s relationships incorporate S&M.) Another motivation is mentoring of the sub by the dom, regarding her skills as a sub and/or general personal growth. Some D/s couples codify their intentions and obligations to each other in a written "contract" (although such a document is not legally binding).

Humans, diverse beasts that we are, contrive variations on the D/s theme: master/slave, daddy/girl, owner/pet, teacher/student. These entail rituals and/or role play — sometimes quite elaborate — in both sexual and other contexts.

Of these, master/slave bears closer inspection, as a surprising number of D/s couples identify this way. Due to the history of slavery in the Americas, this terminology is appalling to many, yet M/s couples seem to embrace the drama of that language. Despite the implication of literal ownership, M/s relationships are just as consensual as any other. Common to these relationships is a sense of continuous service by the slave to her master, and an agreement that the slave will not refuse any demand made by her master. What "continuous" means is distinct in every pairing; some slaves have demanding careers, some tend the home fires diligently, others serve as employees in the master's business.

Yet more jargon: That M/s couple has a 24/7 TPE relationship. Some kinky people present their kink roles towards their partners at all times, or 24/7. Total power exchange, TPE, is one name for a slave's agreement to fulfill any request made by her master.

A common concern of individuals new to BDSM concepts is the potential for abuse presented by an imbalance of power within a couple. Indeed, just reading profiles on kinky dating sites, it's evident that many so-called doms are in fact abusers or manipulators who've discovered that BDSM offers them camouflage. But given a partner with whom you have chemistry, communication, intimacy, trust, and aligned intentions, abusive patterns aren't a serious risk. Any D/s couple will face and work through issues in the relationship; D/s dynamics may be useful in some such circumstances, and in others not!

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Two Kinds of Subspace

Subspace is a widespread experience among BDSM subs, and from my own interactions with partners and discussions with friends, it manifests in two distinct forms. I have only seen one of these discussed in published materials and online forums.

What I call physiological subspace, which is the variant most commonly described, is induced through sustained pain play, especially from impact toys, e.g. a bare hand, flogger, paddle, cane, etc. It is apparently caused by endorphins, adrenaline, or other body chemistry. The actual sensation varies among individuals. The way it was described to me by a partner experiencing it is a strong whole-body buzzing sensation coupled with an inability to focus her eyes. Others I've spoken with have described it as a warm, floaty, spacey, serene feeling which is less bothered by pain. Some people attach spiritual significance to the experience. For some it is the point of kinky play.

Physiological subspace is not inevitable during S&M play. I know of one top who would monitor his partner and pause when she felt subspace coming on, until the feeling passed, so that she would remain wholly present, and fully sensitive to pain, during their sessions.

What I call psychological subspace, which I had never seen discussed in writing before I witnessed it first hand, occurs far more commonly than the physiological kind. It is apparently induced by feeling drawn to a dom. I have no idea what causes this phenomenon, but it is widespread among subs I have met. It is not the same as sexual arousal, though may be accompanied by that. The sensation is very much an altered state, where the person becomes inarticulate or non-verbal, suggestible, and feels floaty and warm, possibly with mild tingling throughout the body. It is an inviting feeling, and hard to resist.

Problematically, a sub can drop into psychological subspace around a dom she hardly knows! I've experienced this very situation, during a first conversation with a girl, on two occasions — once on the phone, and once sitting together at a cafe. In both cases my companion was caught off guard by the sudden, intense feelings, and somewhat overwhelmed. Fortunately this state can be managed or suppressed, and it's very important for subs to learn to do so, as subspace leaves a sub vulnerable to a dom who's motives she isn't certain of. Simply breathing and bringing your attention back to what's going on around you will help lift you out of subspace, but you'll need to sustain that effort once you come back to the surface.

Although I have no experience of hypnosis, in either therapeutic or erotic situations, I suspect that psychological subspace is sometimes mistaken for a hypnotic trance. While it's conceivable that they're related states of mind, psychological subspace is not caused by a dom, merely catalyzed by him. I have to wonder whether doms who claim to practice hypnosis are merely triggering subspace responses in their subjects!

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Why Dominant/Submissive Romance Is Hard

Building and sustaining a D/s romance is hard, sometimes really hard — especially if the dom/sub dynamic is desired outside the bedroom. Here are some reasons why...

For the purpose of this discussion, I'll define dominance & submission this way: a relationship where the partners agree that one has greater authority and/or privilege within the relationship than the other, at least some of the time, or in certain contexts, e.g. during sexual activity, when at home together.

There is a common misconception that dominant or submissive behavior comes naturally to kinky people. But no complex behavior comes naturally to anyone; virtually everything we do in life is learned, either from others or by experimentation. Dominant and submissive inclinations or fantasies may arise natively, but turning these notions into behaviors that work for a duet is far more than a matter of finding the right partner. We've grown up around egalitarian relationships and therefore developed an understanding of how they work and what nurtures or damages them. There are abundant self-help books on creating and sustaining happy vanilla partnerships. There is no best-practices manual for D/s relationships. Kink role models and mentors are not to be found walking around in vanilla society. And some kinksters in the public BDSM scene promote their own narrow ideas on D/s as some sort of gospel; these are not useful mentors.

Holding authority over a partner means walking a narrow path. Authority that goes unexercised is illusory. Not only must a dom give his sub rules and requests, he must direct her to do things she would not otherwise choose, but which she is capable of! And the effect of a dom's demands must be ultimately beneficial or bonding. This responsibility to wield one's authority broadly yet judiciously can become a burden. Privilege is easily abused; yet the boundary between pushing and abusing someone is not clearly defined, and likely varies with time. Finally, authority has to be accountable; an order given without a rationale behind it, or power exerted for its own sake, is destructive. Balancing all these elements is difficult, and more so if the partnership demands it of him constantly. A wise dom recognizes when he needs to rest his psyche.

Ceding power to one's partner also entails tremendous responsibility. It's not a process of simply obeying and enduring. A sub must tune into her dom, learn to interpret his subtle as well as overt signals, and discover how he desires her to behave in every context where he holds authority over her. Some subs may learn this skill readily, but for most, the petty and serious mistreatments that girls suffer in growing up and dating lead them to a protective self-interest which must be unlearned in order to serve a dom well. The challenge of dismantling internal boundaries while developing a specific set of behaviors for a new partner is daunting. A wise dom also recognizes when his sub needs rest.

The obligations of dominant and submissive roles demand steady attention, focus, commitment. Yet humans are not inherently rational creatures; rather, we are essentially emotional actors. There's a neurological reason for this — the part of the brain that reasons carefully and forms new behaviors is slow. The rest of the brain, which executes established patterns, is quick and efficient. So our minds prefer established patterns versus creating ideal responses, even in situations where thought before action would yield a far better outcome. Hence it's sadly easy for either partner to behave badly when they could have known better! It's wise to forgive your partner for such slips, and just as wise to acknowledge and apologize after making them yourself.

Being a capable dom requires empathy and humility. Men are somewhat poorer at these skills than women. Being a capable sub requires a strong will and mastery of your own emotions. Women are less adept at these skills than men. Both partners in a D/s romance must learn from each other, though they occupy dramatically different roles.

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Embarking on a New Journey

When I began writing this blog in the Autumn of 2006, I was newly pursuing D/s romance. I was seeking to understand myself, and to meet others making similar journeys. Back then I documented my own experiences, my philosophy, and some fantasies. Now, six years later, I have gained some knowledge of this path. Over the past couple years, I've found myself repeatedly sharing those insights with others informally. They seem to be valuable insights, some of which are not widely discussed among kinky people.

So I'm re-kindling this blog to be a source of "Things You Need to Know" about BDSM. In other words, how to do this crazy, socially not-so-acceptable "stuff" gracefully and growthfully; and what can happen along the way. I intend to emphasize thinking and behavior, more than the execution of specific kinks. Though I'm sure kinks will creep into it, little devils ;-)

The focus here is male doms and female subs, since that's the terrain I travel. A lot of the writing is applicable to any pairing however.

Planned Articles

BDSM Relationship Variations
Is this D/s Thing Really... Practical? Achievable?
How Do You Know You're Kinky?
Kinky People Were Not Damaged in Childhood
Discovering, Embracing, Revealing the Self
Subs Don't Need "Training" but Doms Do
Who's Really In Control?
The BDSM Scene Is Not Everyone's Kink
Make Some Kinky Friends (sans Benefits)
Do Your Homework! Recommended Resources
Who Is Will and Why Is He an Expert?

Seeking a BDSM Partner
What to Look For in a Dom/Master
What I Look For in a Submissive Partner
Online BDSM Dating Tips
How to Interview a Dom/Master Prospect
BDSM Dating Etiquette
Polyamory
Integration: Resolving Your Vanilla/Kink Dichotomy
The Dangers of Dom/Sub Gravity
Two Kinds of Subspace
The Challenge of Finding a Long-Term D/s Partner
Why Doms & Subs Should Not Date Vanilla People
Abusive Men Are Not Kinky
Some Kinky People Don't Have Distinct Kinks
"True Submissives" and Other Lies

Why Dominant/Submissive Romance Is Hard
Letting Kink Out of the Bedroom
Emotional Issues in Dom/Sub Relationships
Why Safewords Are Not Safe
Understanding Limits and "No Limits"
Essential Rights for a Submissive Partner
Assuaging a Sub's Fear of Abandonment
The Dom's Role as Mentor
Playing Your Sub Like an Instrument
Crossing the Line: Where Kink Becomes Abuse
The Top, the Dom, and the Master
The Bottom, the Sub, and the Slave
Generosity, Ferocity, Cruelty, Misogyny
Subdrop Symptoms and Treatment
Coming Out to Friends and Family
The Aftermath: Recovery from a Failed D/s Romance

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