Service nature of dominance and submission

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The nature of dominance and submission is often unclear to the outside observer. Indeed, this is a complex subject and this short article is not intended to address every aspect of it.

One of the difficulties is the lack of transparency in BDSM. To many people, particularly outside observers, it mainly seems to be about physical acts involving restraint, dressing up, and pain. In fact, there are many different reasons why someone might be engaged in a BDSM relationship with another person, or why they might seek out BDSM-type activities.

On top of this, while the range of physical and psychological activities which fall under the BDSM umbrella is relatively small, the actual emotional, spiritual, and psychological results of engaging in them can be quite large and complex.

Given these problems, the limited set of standard role names used in BDSM---master, slave, top, bottom, dominant, and submissive---cannot do this richness justice.

Justice must be done however, and I'd like to start by looking at one aspect of this richness, namely at the service nature of dominance and submission.

Generally, a dominant is the person who does things to a submissive. Exactly what these "things" are depends greatly on circumstances, and on the two people engaged in whatever-it-is.

We could say that a dominant decides on the course, and sets the pace, during a BDSM scene, but in many cases this is inaccurate. Frequently it is the case that the submissive either explicitly or implicitly determines what activities are performed, and the dominant merely provides the hands (or other body parts) to perform the activities.

Figure 1: D&s Type Scale

The upper half of figure 1 represents three different types of dominant, while the lower half of the figure represents three different types of submissive.

As mentioned above, there are many reasons why someone might be engaging in a BDSM relationship, or in BDSM activities. If a nominal submissive is mainly interested in super hot sex or in a cathartic release after a hard day at work, then they are going to be looking for a dominant with a service outlook. In other words, the dominant is there to work for the submissive. This is actually quite common, and is represented on the right-hand side of the figure. Submissives who are looking for a dominant to serve them are sometimes called "do-me" submissives. These service dominants get their directions from the needs of their submissive partners.

At the opposite end of the spectrum (the left-hand side of the figure) is the submissive who is driven to serve the needs of their dominant partner (sometimes called their "master"). In this case it is the dominant whose needs and wants set the direction of the activities in which the two people engage.

In both of the above we see:

  • One partner with a clear desire or need to be of service, or to please their partner
  • One partner with clearly defined and expressed wants or needs to which their partner can attend

Therefore, while we might be able to look at what's going on between two people and say that the one with the flogger, or the one sticking needles into their partner, or the one compelling their partner to parade naked in front of others, is the dominant, we cannot so simply determine who is serving whom.

In between the two types so far described are the reflexive dominants and submissives (in the middle of figure 1). These are people who modify their own wants and needs to express what they think their partner wants or needs.

Rather than directly expressing their own wants and needs, they express what they think they should express. To some extent they play the role of dominant or submissive without experiencing the deep wants or needs to serve or be served which the others experience.

The need for needs

At least one partner needs to have well-defined needs or wants to satisfy within the context of the relationship they have with their partner.

All the better when both have complementary needs.


There are many opportunities for conflict in all of this.

For example, a do-me submissive trying to get it on with a master (as described here) is simply not going to get any of their needs met. And, of course, neither will the master. The master won't be interested in serving her, and she won't be interested in serving him.

Likewise, a service submissive shacking up with a service dominant is going to be eternally frustrated with his inability to express any wants or needs for her to satisfy. And he'll be in the same boat.

And, similarly, where there's a reflexive submissive with a reflexive dominant, neither of them are going to get any clues about what to do. When their partner has no clearly-defined wants or needs (whether to serve or be served), the reflexive is lost.


One interesting thing in all of this is that the range of physical or psychological activities which these various people use with their partners are all going to be the same. They all may use floggers, hypodermic needle tips, ropes, chains, and cages. But the internal motivations they have, and how these drives are satisfied by their activities and relationships will dramatically vary from person to person.

It is easy, then, to understand the confusion which can occur.

The strange inclination to please

This strange inclination of many tops to be guided by what directly pleases their partner (i.e., the bottom), rather than their own desires is not unique to BDSM.

One of my other interests is combining sex with hypnosis. Indeed, if you've poked around this site enough you'll have come across mention of my book about it (Look Into My Eyes). As an enthusiast of this particular activity, I have spent time looking at what others write about it, both in terms of fiction and instruction, and there is a surprisingly large amount of material---particularly videos---which show a hypnotist hypnotising some willing or unwilling person and frequently causing them to have lots of orgasms.

There is a lot of similarity with this idea and what we can often see in BDSM, namely that one person takes charge (top or hypnotist) and uses that position of power or control to inflict pleasure on their partner (bottom or subject), rather than the perhaps more utilitarian approach of taking control of someone and using them as objects which give pleasure (such as taking full advantage of their available orifices, or hypnotically suggesting to them that there's nothing they'd rather do right now than suck cock).