By now, I hope it’s quite clear that Christian Grey—star of E.L. James’s 100-million-selling Fifty Shades of Grey series and his own, new eponymous novel—is a fictional, and famously fucked-up kinky man. But what’s captivated me since the first time I heard about the trilogy wasn’t so much the love story of Ana and Christian so much as the true stories that have emerged in its wake of women discovering and reaffirming their own interest in BDSM. To my mind, what they share with Ana is how profound a change embracing dominance and submission, specifically, has brought to their lives. I asked women who identify as submissive about how they discovered this aspect of themselves, and how it’s played out in their lives. What follows isn’t, of course, a definitive How To Have a Successful Kinky Relationship guide, but does offer insight into the ways BDSM has helped women improve their lives, both in and out of the bedroom.
For D*, 53, before she discovered her interest in submission a decade ago, “Sex was okay, but for years I had craved something that I couldn't define.” Through a dominant male friend who introduced her to Anne Rice’s kinky Sleeping Beauty trilogy, which clued her in to what she’d been missing out on, she studied BDSM and eventually attended her first local kinky events. But, she says, her fantasies, which were about spontaneous D/s (Dominant/submissive) play and sex, were just that—fantasy. In her mind, “my Dominant instinctively knew everything He needed to know in order to bring the type of pain I craved, the type of play that would arouse me, the level of stimulation required to bring me to subspace. It magically happened. Reality is far different, but far better in my opinion. There is a lot of groundwork that needs to go into developing a satisfying D/s relationship.”
In other words, unlike Christian Grey, you don’t just thrust a detailed contract at someone and expect them to sign it or end the relationship. BDSM isn’t a one size fits all proposition; it can be as varied and malleable as the people engaging in it. Discussion, asking questions, and trial and error are par for the course. One tool that many kinky people use is a Yes-No-Maybe list, such as this one, which details various activities and props, from blindfolds to hot wax to being recorded on video, and each party can mark off whether it’s something they’re definitely interested in (yes), definitely not interested in (no), or might want to try (maybe).
For D, that negotiation doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a process of building a level of trust with a partner. “Negotiation doesn't appear that it would be very erotic or interesting, but it is; that is where He finds out what I will and will not allow, and what I am willing to allow a bit of His discretion with. It is where I show where I want to explore, what my secret desires might be. It is how I negotiate clues to say ‘more,’ ‘entering the danger zone,’ and ‘enough.’ Sometimes the line between the second and third is whisper thin.”
"Communication" is one of those buzzwords that gets tossed around as a relationship panacea, but especially within BDSM relationships, it’s even more vital, because elements of physical and emotional safety are more at stake. Sometimes, figuring out exactly how each party will convey information can be woven into the power dynamic, which can have an effect beyond the boundaries of the relationship. For instance, in M’s relationship with her husband and dominant, they’ve formalized the specifics of how she speaks to him with an aim at reducing her anxiety issues.
“I have a habit of getting pushy when I'm worried about something, which gets my husband's back up and makes him prone to dig his heels in,” M explained. “As a solution, my husband and I have developed some specific ways that I can speak to him when I'm telling him about a concern, and some breathing exercises that I can do before talking to him. I also need to watch my voice tone, and make sure not to simply repeat my assertion as if I hadn't heard his points. For a difficult conversation I will often kneel on the ground in front of where he's sitting, and we will talk while holding hands or otherwise gently keeping contact with each other.” The rules they’ve agreed on are ones that M has had an equal hand in negotiating, which is essential to making them work.
Another important factor is giving yourself time and space to figure out what works for you, regardless of what you’ve been told about “how things are done.” For Jen, who’s in a live-in open relationship with a dominant genderqueer person she calls Sir, recognizing when she had to change the rules was vital to continuing to be whole in her relationship. “I have a ‘should’ in my head that a good submissive should always be fine going along with anything the dominant wants outside of something that would harm the submissive. I tried doing that for a while. Being completely agreeable and without opinions is really only sustainable for me for about 23 hours, then I'm reduced to a whiny, angry, tearful ball of stress. I have opinions, and I need to express them. It's not even that I need to make the decisions. I'm fine with Sir having the final decision-making authority, but I need to feel that I've expressed my wants and opinions and been heard and taken into account.”
Being submissive doesn’t mean simply waiting for someone dominant to appear and tell you what to do; for many, it’s a very active process, with the submissive as the instigator. In her misguided look at feminism and submission in Newsweek in 2012, Katie Roiphe asked, “But why, for women especially, would free will be a burden? Why is it appealing to think of what happens in the passive tense? Why is it so interesting to surrender, or to play at surrendering?” Part of what she missed was that submissives are not surrendering in a vacuum; they are often actively seeking out the specific type of submission that best suits their personality and lifestyle.
For instance, Kelly*, a 39-year-old professor, is currently in what she calls a “consideration phase” with a potential dominant. She’s been hesitant to jump fully into a relationship because he isn’t as experienced a dom as she’s used to. “He hasn’t developed the skills to rein in my slightly bratty streak,” she said. “He’s asked me to do a few things, minor really, but with no explanation or reason to do so that could be seen. I did them for a few days but haven’t kept them up. And he isn’t as good at reading my moods or pushing buttons in the right way to make me submit to a request.” Rather than her submission being in any way passive, she is actively working to show her new potential partner what she wants from him, and being choosy and careful about how fast their relationship progresses.
Maria, 49, has identified as a submissive for two years, though she had glimmerings of interest in her early thirties. “I had big fears both of personal safety and of not being ‘kinky enough’ to be seen as legit in the scene,” she says of what stopped her from exploring this interest earlier. But after two failed marriages, she decided to get over her fears, and propositioned a longtime male friend two years ago, who she’s been engaging in bedroom-only dominant/submissive play with ever since. Even though he’s far more experienced in BDSM, she’s been an equal and vocal part of their explorations. When she wanted to try being spanked, “I gave him a list of stuff I wanted to try and we worked through it pretty quickly.”
Part of her pro-active approach is knowing when to let him take the lead. “There have been so many things I liked that I didn't think I'd like. I've tried to get rid of preconceived ideas of what works for me.” Based on their long-term friendship and the degree of trust they’ve built, she’s found that she is willing to allow him to try things in the bedroom, because “he trusts me to tell him if something is not okay.”
For instance, he once slapped her in the midst of sex. Even though they’d never discussed it before, he took a chance, not because he’s a sadistic pig, but because he knew her well enough to suspect she would like it. “If you'd asked if I wanted to I'd have said no because I didn't think it would do anything for me,” Maria said. ”He closely watched my reaction. It was fabulous and we do it regularly now, and we definitely talked about it afterward. This is how we work out most all of our boundaries sexually.” I was hesitant to include this detail, lest it seem like BDSM is simply about going on instinct or a dominant “knowing what’s best for” a submissive. Rather, in their specific relationship, they’ve reached a point where trust is a two-way street; he trusts her to speak up about what she doesn’t like, and she trusts him to guide her to activities she might not have thought she’d enjoy.
Similarly, Barbara, who’s been involved in BDSM for 18 years, is currently working with a professional domme in order to gain closure from a past relationship that ended when her dominant ghosted, leaving profound confusion in his wake (some not-so-gentle advice to potential dominants out there: don’t do this!). “I initially sought out the pro I'm playing with because when I was involved with a male dominant who abruptly dropped out of active contact with me, leaving me feeling like I still belonged to him because I hadn't known the last time we played might be the end of our D/s connection,” said Barbara. “He wasn't emotionally or physically available to help me close the dynamic and release me from that sense of being owned by him.” To help her address this, Barbara engages in two-hour sessions with the domme which “include my calling her Ma'am, being collared by her, and performing service for her in the form of rubbing her feet.” That process has given her the strength to pursue another D/s relationship with a firmer grasp of what her essential needs, such as having a closing ritual at the end of each scene, are, and advocating for them. Anyone who still thinks “submissive” is at all synonymous with “doormat,” take note.
If you’re curious about submission, what should you look for in a potential dominant, and what should you steer clear of? For Kelly, confidence is a vital trait of dominants because “it’s hard to defer to someone who is constantly second guessing themselves.” According to Barbara, “a good dominant is open to honest feedback about their topping, is a strong communicator, compassionate, creative, has a sense of humor, and demonstrates appreciation for the submission they receive.” D’s biggest red flags are moving quickly from simple talking and asking each other questions to wanting to have sex, not being part of a social community, and not wanting to meet in public places (these are also probably good qualities to avoid in a non-kinky partner).
Kelly recommends exploring sites like FetLife, a kinky social-networking site, and The Submissive Guide, which offers articles about assorted aspects of BDSM. Kelly warns that you shouldn’t “give in to your frenzy of excitement. It’s very intoxicating to be able to discuss your desires with someone who doesn’t judge you. However, even in those safer spaces, there are still predators. Take your time and find the right connection who is willing to adhere to both your need for safety and for patience as you learn your way.”
She also advises patience in figuring out what you want from your kinky relationships. “Don’t be in a rush to define yourself as a submissive,” advises Kelly. “There are several different kinds of submissive women and slaves. Identifying who you are isn’t an immediate requirement to know that you are someone who is more likely to be a follower in the D/s dynamic. Be safe, be sane, and don’t agree to things that make you feel uncomfortable because you fear that your potential partner will leave. There will be another one, I promise.”
Maria’s advice? “Don't dismiss or minimize a gut feeling, no matter how hard it is to explain or how silly it might seem. I think women do this too much in all facets of life. The vast majority of the time that feeling is there for a good reason. Your safety is more important than some guy's hurt feelings. Anyone who argues or guilts you and who doesn't immediately respect your limits is someone to avoid. If you say ‘that's uncomfortable and I need you to stop’ and he says ‘but it's not fun for me unless I can do that,’ then stop and move on. Don't make excuses for selfish, inconsiderate, and potentially abusive partners.”
Jen offers an important reminder that doms shouldn’t be able to get away with acting shady just because they’re doms. “Remember that just because it's kinky doesn't mean that you throw out all the knowledge and common sense you have from living and dating this long. If you wouldn't accept a behavior from a vanilla significant other, think long and hard before you accept it from a dominant. Just because they are kinky doesn't mean it's now a ‘rule’ that you send nude pics before you meet for the first time in person, or that you must have sex on the first date if you don't want to, or whatever other fool thing the person who told you they are dominant says is a rule.”
*Names have been changed or shortened.