The top or dominant calls the shots and leads their bottom or submissive through a scene. But what the heck does the submissive do?
Do they just lie there? Do they simply take it? Do they blindly follow orders with no agency of their own? Is submission just an excuse for being lazy and complacent in bed?
If you’ve never been part of a D/s dynamic yourself, you might be thinking along those lines. Sure, the dominant is likely to do the more obvious pushing and shoving, but if you believe submission to be a passive act, you’ll have to think again.
Circlusion and penetration
Akin to how penetration is viewed as active while receiving it is inaccurately seen as passive, domination and submission suffers from the same imputation.
In my recent article about circlusion, I discuss this wonderful term proposed by writer Bini Adamczak as an antonym to penetration and argue that absorption; taking in a penis (or a dildo) is, in fact, both powerful and empowering:
Making and holding space, receiving, and accommodating may not appear active from the look of them, especially not if we use synonyms like pushing, forceful, or energetic. But, if we look at other equivalents to the word active, such as purposeful, engaged, rolling, or flowing, they do much better jobs of describing the concept of circlusion.
Apathetic, indifferent, or static, on the contrary, which are synonyms for ‘passive’, are not fit to describe the act.
The last words mentioned are not suited to describe submission either. Instead, the role should be engaged, purposeful, and flowing; much like a dance.
The interplay of dominance and submission is, in fact, often described as such; a dance. According to this metaphor—one I relate to—one partner takes a more noticeable lead. Still, it requires two active participants for a dance to flow smoothly; both must remain closely connected and tuned in to one another. The one being led reads their partner in order to anticipate the next maneuver and move their body accordingly. Their moves and reactions will again inform the leader. On the contrary, if they were to simply stand there like a lifeless puppet, there’d be no dance, to begin with.
We can also compare a D/s dynamic to a conversation: Without the back-and-forth exchange, we’re left with a monologue.
Work, and sometimes lots of it, goes into a scene before it even begins. Negotiating limits, setting expectations, and voicing our wishes is vital to a successful outcome, especially at the beginning of a play-partnership.
Prenegotiaton and preparation
It’s a huge red flag if a submissive or masochist claims to have zero boundaries as these are essential to giving the top an idea of the area in which they’re allowed to play—as well as how far they may push. A lack of boundaries can be a sign of apathy, or that someone isn’t mentally fit to play at all.
While the top will most often plan out the practical parts of a scene, the bottom gets ready both mentally and physically, depending on what they’ve agreed to explore.
The submissive holds the power!
There’s a reason why this truism is repeated, over and over, again in articles about BDSM. Though the submissive might relinquish control for an agreed-upon time, they have the power to stop the action, whenever they wish, with the use of a single word.
Engaging in D/s play without prenegotiation and established safewords can be downright dangerous: On the contrary, it’s this mutual trust and freely given consent that distinguishes BDSM from abuse in the first place. Thus, the requirement for safety is another case for the importance of the bottom as an active participant throughout.
During a scene
Beyond merely allowing or stopping a scene at their will, the submissive does a lot more; they set the pace, trigger, challenge, and instigate reactions during a scene.
Styles of submission
Depending on their style of submission, some are on the bratty side, teasing, poking, and prodding their doms in order to provoke reactions, while others thrive on being obedient pets or even slaves. There are the strong, proud subs who might be confrontational and challenging, the playful, smart-ass masochists who may say no when they mean yes (another thing that must be talked about beforehand), and the sweet littles — all of whom come with their own unique communication styles, and much like a new dance partner have to be learned.
Feedback increases flow
As someone relatively new to shibari and being a rope-bottom, I’ve learned the significance of my active engagement in this environment, even, and especially when I’m unable to move at all. The more I communicate back about how I feel, whether my hands are tingling and starting to go numb, or the rope is pinching the skin, the more chance my rigger has to make the necessary adjustments that allow the scene to flow smoothly — and the more fun is had for all.
Use of body language
Clear communication needn’t be verbal and can take place without using words whatsoever. When submitting, we also speak with our bodies, via movements, facial expressions, moans, cries, laughter, and whichever sounds and gestures are in our vocabularies. We welcome the top in, open up, hold space, and embrace, all of which are active and require intent and presence—regardless of their lack of overt action. Our enthusiasm as bottoms, even when completely still, or when entering a meditative state or subspace, can and should be felt by the dominant partner.
This kind of nonverbal communication requires a high level of empathy, from both parts, but especially from the top.
Mutual involvement and interaction continue immediately after a scene is over and in the days following.
The submissive might require more tender aftercare, especially after a physically and/or mentally demanding session, but this is also a two-way street. Both the top and bottom could experience a drop after the hormone and chemical high that arise from play, and even the toughest dominant might need a head-rub, a warm bath, or an extra squeeze to come down and land comfortably.
Feedback and integration
One of the favorite things I’ve learned from the BDSM community is to talk a lot about sex and everything that goes into it, not only before, but during and after a session. Never before entering the kink-scene did I sit down post-sex to discuss how it went, beyond “that was great!”. Whereas in the BDSM world (and other sex-positive circles) there seems to be an overall yearning to continuously learn, improve, and reach further, for the benefit of all parties involved.
Also here, there’s a need for a dialogue where both share and contribute equally, followed by taking in the feedback and integrating it into future play sessions.
To conclude; while I’ve seen and read articles suggesting submission is the lazy way out, I don’t believe that it is, or should be, this way. Instead, a D/s dynamic is one where, if compared to a work environment, the two simply have different job descriptions: Their roles are equally important yet dependent upon the other.
If, again, compared to a conversation, the two parts may speak in different tones, yet their contributions to the conversation are equally valuable. When we dance, our steps and moves are not identical, yet interdependent.
There’s a reason why the sadist doesn’t simply get off on beating away at a sack of potatoes. The masochist, on the other hand, wouldn't derive the same pleasure from getting spanked by a machine or robot. The active human participation—the acting and reacting—is what makes it interesting.
A mutual and fulfilling D/s dynamic requires a constant push and pull. It’s this tension which creates friction — which again sparks the flame to lights the fire. And, as everyone who has experienced a mutually gainful D/s dynamic will know; the fire was what we came for in the first place.
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