Protocol refers to a set of rules of behaviour used between two or more people to indicate rank. In BDSM, protocols are rules for a submissive or slave which apply to their interactions with other people, typically their dominant or master, and other BDSM associates.
Frequently, different levels of protocols are defined for different occasions---such as high protocol, formal or casual---and these determine behaviours such as:
- Ways of addressing others
- Ways of attracting the dominant's or master's attention
- General speech (such as use of the term "master"), speaking about oneself in the third person (e.g., "This girl is thirsty, master")
- General behaviour (such as always standing aside to allow the master to enter or exit a room first, kneeling on entering a room, etc.)
Note that the lowest protocol level (e.g., casual) does not indicate no rules.
An important difference between protocols and structure (e.g., standing orders) is that structure tends to remain constant while protocols switch between levels according to situation (such as at home, at a party, meeting with friends, etc.)
Note that protocols reinforce and make concrete the power disparity experienced by the submissive or slave.
BDSM is often about a disparity of power, and this isn't always expressed by who is on the leash, who is holding the flogger, or who has the key for the padlock.
Frequently, this disparity of power is expressed by how one party behaves towards the other. In the manner of diplomat meeting an head of state, the rules of protocol ensure that this disparity is maintained.
In some BDSM relationships, protocol is mandated by the dominant or master. In others, it is just casually enacted in whatever ways feel good to the participants.
Protocol can include such things as:
- How a submissive addresses their dominant---e.g., using "Sir" or "Master"
- A submissive or slave always kneeling when they enter the room
- A submissive or slave always deferring choices of food or clothing or T.V. show to their partner
But just as much as a submissive or slave needs to respect protocol to ensure the power disparity is expressed or maintain, their dominant or master needs to do the same. For example:
- The dominant might never ask their submissive about choice of movie to see or restaurant to go to
- The master might ensure they always make the choice about what their partner wears
- The master might also always choose from the menu for their partner