ASK GLORIA: A Guide to Defining BDSM Power Roles and Labels

An advice column for adults
coping with sex, gender or relationship issues.

 


Dear Gloria, 

Can you explain the difference between a Dom and a Top, and who would care?

signed,

Topdown

 

Dear Topdown,

Thank you. I’d love to. So first, a brief summary of how people approach BDSM altogether to help demystify the many different labels people apply to their choices of relationship dynamics.

There are two basic philosophies on how BDSM dynamics work. One asserts that BDSM is primarily role-playing — you enjoy a role and you step into it, or play it, for the duration of an encounter. Once the BDSM experience is over, you go back to your “normal,” which could be anything from “see ya sometime” to an ongoing platonic friendship, cuddling, hot sex or a permanent partnership. The encounter itself may be limited to a clothes-on experience that doesn’t include any direct erotic simulation, most popular at clubs, public venues or in a professional dom’s dungeon. Or it may be a precursor to full-on sex, or at least include elements of sexual intimacy (direct stimulation and/or orgasm), which is what most private players and partners lean towards.

The other philosophy, one I’ve been partial to in my own life, is that the power dynamic, whatever form it takes, doesn’t begin or end with the physical elements of BDSM. The power dynamic is a real thread that runs through the fabric of your relationship(s) whether or not you use toys and whether or not you have sex. The agreed-upon power dynamic is a permanent fixture of the way you and your partner(s) relate to each other, and while it may be totally opaque to outsiders (family, friends, etc.) you and your partner are fully aware of that thread that binds you and may have your private ways of communicating and acting on the underlying power dynamic. In other words, the power dynamic is your norm, not a role you play for a limited amount of time.

So, to summarize: one group sees the BDSM connection as something they do for temporary enjoyment, mentally or physically, but not a full-on power relationship they want to sustain once they’ve achieved their main goal, whether that’s orgasms or the emotional relief of playing that role. The other group sees the power dynamic as a permanent structure (sometimes called TPE, or total power exchange) that continues whether or not there are explicit BDSM acts. I’ll also note that some people have one type of relationship with some people in their lives and another dynamic with another person. For example, you might play a role for a night of fun yet commit to a total power exchange with someone else, or — far more common — you might have an egalitarian relationship with your permanent partner but engage in a power dynamic with a BDSMer outside your primary relationship.

There is only one way to find satisfaction through BDSM, and that is by acting on your authentic needs and feeling happy about your BDSM life.

It’s important to understand this philosophical difference in order to fully understand the reasons why different people choose different labels to describe their relationship dynamics. In the past, people would get lost in trying to argue which one was more real or more legitimate. This made it seem like there was one right way to do BDSM and people who didn’t do it that way were doing it wrong. In the Scene, it’s called “one-true-way” thinking and is usually promoted by con artists and narcissists trying to find converts instead of play-partners.

In practice, there is only one way to find satisfaction through BDSM, and that is by acting on your authentic needs and feeling happy about your BDSM life. Whether that means you do it as role-play or as a 24/7 TPE it’s your business and not open to criticism from people who are not you. All consenting, compassionate, and pleasurable BDSM is good BDSM.

Topdown, you also asked who cares about definitions. Quick answer: people who like to affiliate with terms and labels, people who like the formality of having a specific designation for their place in BDSM, and those who find it’s useful both to analyze their own or other people’s style of BDSM.

There are roughly 6 basic categories people use to label themselves, some of which correlate to a specific BDSM philosophy, some of which overlap greatly, and some which express a more nuanced and precise label to distinguish the types of pleasures and responsibilities they seek out in their relationships. These are Top, Dominant/Domme, Master/Mistress, Daddy/Mommy, Sadist, and Switch. Think of these labels as archetypes, meaning they are the most typical examples of dominant identities.

 

Top

A top can be a category or it can be a label.

When used as a category, it is a generic, umbrella term for being the person in control. So all Masters and Dominants are Tops, even though not all tops are Masters or Dominants. Some Daddies are Tops while Sadists and Switches are usually neither. Confused yet? Good. Stick with the guiding principle that labels are fluid, that different people use them to mean different things, but that if you follow the general descriptions (which I’m outlining for you), there are some distinct differences among them.

Some people use Top as a label because it designates which side of a power dynamic they are on without specifying a specific role. In practice, they play the same way is masters and dominants, but may not see themselves as a Master or a Dominant, or want the power dynamic to last longer than the BDSM experience itself.

 

Dominant, Domme, FemDom, ProDom

Being Dominant implies that the person’s interests lie in consensual BDSM power relationships. The relationship with the submissive ranges from a formally ritualized power exchange (looks like Master/slave on the surface but they don’t define it that way or reject the M/s paradigm), to something private and exclusively for erotic pleasure (i.e., a private exchange limited to a bedroom or private dungeon). Some doms are asexual with their partners (particularly if they don’t share the same orientation or fetishes) and put the focus on service, sensation play, mental domination and other non-sexual BDSM dynamics. Safe-words, negotiations, establishing limits, and other BDSM communication tools are frequently employed to ensure that everyone has a good time.

Next to Top, Dominant has the least specificity because some of them love giving and getting lots of sex and orgasms while others have asexual relationships based on power exchange. For People of Color, the Master/slave construct may ring sour notes and while their relationships may have a strict formal structure, they find their own more respectful constructs to describe them. In terms of power dynamics, again there is huge variety. As a continually negotiated relationship, subs may be submissive at all times or only submissive in the bedroom and aggressive or proactive independently.

Labeling-wise, most dominant people stick with the ungendered “dominant,” while feminine women (cis and transgender) may emphasize their gender or feminine approach to domination by calling themselves Dommes or Femdoms. And, of course, a lot of dominant women are automatically gendered by men and thought of as femdoms regardless how the women themselves identify. That’s a political discussion for another time.

Within this broad category is a very small but highly visible minority: folks who do domination for money. They are generally called Prodoms. Some are kinky people who mix fun and pleasure with a career. Others are non-BDSMers who enjoy it as a job but not in their private relationships. Male prodoms are rarer than female ones. So far, mainstream culture hasn’t cued into the differences between a dominatrix (who does it for her own pleasure) and a professional dominatrix (who creates fantasies for pay). People in the Scene do. People who are actually into BDSM/leather/fetish and attend BDSM events get a higher social status in the Scene than counterparts clearly just doing it for the money.

 

Master/Mistress

A Master/slave or Mistress/slave relationship is a traditional and formal approach to BDSM and the one which has the longest history in the Scene. It predates the concept of BDSM, which only came to be sometime around 1989-90 as a political middle ground to unite people with different ideas about BDSM relationship structures, types of play, and consent issues. Contrary to popular opinion, M/s is not structured on historic nonconsensual slavery. It is conditioned on fully consensual power exchange between two adults of legal age. It is something like a marriage but also, in some ways, deeper than a marriage because the slave person makes a choice to serve and be fully owned by the other, while the master person chooses to lead and take responsibility for all the important life choices for both parties.

The M/s relationship usually has a contract, either verbal or written, that both parties negotiate and consent to. Some people build towards M/s over a period of time, growing it organically into a total power exchange. Others negotiate a formal contract down to the letter and agree to renegotiate if and when changes to it are required. The degree of documentation depends on your personal style and emotional comfort zone. Either way, the precursor to a lifetime M/s commitment is a probationary period of months or even years, intense negotiations and analyses to perfect the dynamics, surviving the storms, redefining the terms and finally entering this very deep and meaningful emotional contract. Some people call this period “slave training,” particularly when Masters and Mistresses educate their slaves about how to serve them in their preferred ways. For example, how they they take their coffee or how to serve their tea, and other such finer points of slave service. Once the commitment is made to enter an M/s relationship, the slave gives blanket consent to the M’s will. Unlike a dom/sub dynamic, which is more fluid by nature,

Once the commitment is made to enter an M/s relationship, the slave gives blanket consent to the M’s will. Unlike a dom/sub dynamic, which is more fluid by nature, negotiation and renogotiation from that point on is generally reserved for major crises or life-changes (health problem, elder care, etc.).

In case you ever wondered: a lot of people call themselves or others masters or mistresses because they are dominant. The real meaning of the word is someone who has a verifiable history of knowing what he or she is doing and accepts the responsibilities that go with it. Master/slave is a super popular fantasy but feeling like a master or wearing the right outfit doesn’t make you one. It’s something you become through a slow, deliberate, and continually evolving journey, usually with some type of mentoring from other experienced people, either at educational retreats or direct one-on-one mentoring.

Once an M and s make a formal, permanent commitment to each other, most such relationships operate on certain basic assumptions. The s is the property of the M and requires permission to make big changes or start up new things in many if not all areas of their lives; the s lives to serve the M’s will, whether or not it is convenient to them, as part of the compact to surrender unconditionally; the M owns the s’s sexuality, and has the ultimate authority on when, where, with whom, how and if they have sex; the M is the s’s leader, guardian, disciplinarian, and caretaker, in addition to being a BDSM partner in the bedroom.

Finally, and most importantly, a Master or a Mistress is the Owner of their slave and thereby also responsible for the health and welfare of that person. Actual slavery is forbidden by U.S. law and Master/slave contracts are illegal and unenforceable. So M/s in BDSM is more like Master and slave of heart, mind and body. It’s people who live the total power exchange in their relationships, experience it as a real and constant dynamic with permanent rights and privileges over the one(s) who serves them.

It is also worth noting that some people opt for Owner/Pet relationships. This may be because the submissive person has a fetish for acting like a pet (horse, dog, cat, usually) or simply because the people prefer viewing their total power relationship as intrinsically more romantic, more doting, and more pleasure-based than traditional Master/slave.

Being a Master/Mistress ideally brings the highest level of responsibility and ethical behavior since it is the BDSM role which carries the greatest burden of responsibility.

 

Daddy/Mommy

Some people get off on being in control without wanting a BDSM dynamic per se. They enjoy the softer, more generous side of domination, which includes being a caretaker, mentor, and indulgent parental figure. In a gay context, a Daddy may be an older man who forms a power relationship with a younger one or men of varying ages who enact the dynamic, regardless of age. The relationship may or may not be sexual and may or may not include BDSM. In a lesbian context, Daddy may be a butch or transman who is in control, with or without BDSM sex.

If the BDSMers are age-players, the Daddy or Mommy roles take on different meanings. In Adult Baby fetishes and school-age fetishes, the Daddy or Mommy may step into full-time parenting roles, including dressing and disciplining their adult partner. Some fetishists also have BDSM interests, so the range of play expands into age-appropriate punishments, like spankings, enemas and coercion scenarios (i.e., forcing someone into baby clothes). Again, BDSM and/or sexual contact are matters of personal preferences and couple dynamics.

While most Daddies identify as tops or dominants, there are some who identify as Submissive Daddies, because they get their pleasure from indulging their partner, pampering them, and having their partner completely dependent on them while they do most if not all of the work.

 

Sadist

Simply put, a sadist is a giver of pain. They are not usually interested in a relationship beyond giving intense sensation to masochists. It’s fairly common for dominants, masters, etc. to include sadist in their self-label to be clear that they enjoy giving pain. But people who identify uniquely as sadists are not interested in total power exchange or master/slave dynamics as much as the hedonistic intensity of dispensing pain.

 

Switch

As changing social attitudes towards genders are shifting, more and more men with submissive fantasies are allowing themselves to explore those fantasies. This includes many men who may once have considered themselves dominant only. Indeed, more and more people, in general, are evolving to consider more flexibility in the things they will try with a trusted partner.

So this means a lot of dominants today are identifying as Switch. They may consider themselves still the dominant or top in a primary relationship but allow for the choice to play other roles at other times and are happy to admit it.

 

Cheat Sheet: If Power Roles Were Personality Archetypes

A quick and dirty way to break down the roles

Top: Decider

Dominant: Controller

Master: Owner

Daddy: Caretaker

Sadist: Hurter

Switch: Shape Shifter

———————————————————–

Because everyone learns to define labels and their meanings for themselves, the above is not gospel. Some of you may disagree. Some of you may violently disagree. And some of you I hope will think I kinda nailed it. So just use this as a basic guide and a springboard to expand your own understandings of your place in the wide BDSM spectrum of identities. If you’d like to discuss, question, criticize or expand on my commentary, I provide a space for dialogue on my FaceBook fan page. Find the link and attach your comments. I’ll read you there.