Another Installment in the D/s Lighthouse Lecture Series

Punishment - Must it always be so physical?©

by
Lord Colm


Few topics in the BDSM world generate as much debate as does the issue of punishment. Whatever form it takes, it is an integral part of every D/s relationship, and is the source of much misunderstanding.

What is Punishment?

Before I continue, I need to clarify. It's important to understand one fundamental thing about punishment. By it's nature, it is something that is not enjoyable. It is unwelcome, to be avoided, and acts as negative motivation ("I'll not do this because if I do, something I don't like will happen to me.")

Many novices confuse "punishment" for something that is erotic and enjoyable: A spanking, a flogging--something desirable. I'll state this categorically: It is not. I am speaking about punishment for actual misbehavior outside the erotic context, not that wonderful "naughty school-girl/Head master" scene we love so much. Punishment is not play.

Punishment is meant for one reason only: To alter behavior. It is a useful and necessary tool, and exists in some form in every close relationship we have. With it, dominants can teach submissives how to behave and help submissives modify their behavior to better please.

There is only one fundamental offense: displeasing the dominant. Failing to do so or intentionally displeasing the dominant is grounds for punishment, and it is the dominant alone who makes the decision as to whether or not the submissive has been pleasing.

Punishment can take many forms--from a disapproving look to a beating--and is limited only by your imagination and how well you know your submissive. From my interactions with those in the scene, though, physical (corporal) punishment seems to be the most pervasive.

So What's Wrong With That?

Is there too much corporal punishment in the scene? I believe so. It is the easy way out for many dominants. Often it is a reaction, rather than something that is considered. It takes much more effort to come up with a non-physical method of correction. Many of us were brought up with corporal punishment, learning that misbehavior should lead to physical pain. Those social influences can be very powerful. In the long run, however, physical punishment is usually the least effective way to alter behavior.

Jay Wiseman writes in SM101, A Realistic Introduction:

"I firmly believe that the dominant should not slap, spank, paddle, bind, confine, or otherwise perform any common BDSM act on a sub as punishment. We are trying to create positive, erotic connections with these activities. Let's reserve them for that area alone and not cloud the connections. I also firmly believe that a dominant should never slap, punch, kick, or otherwise touch a submissive in anger.

"Punishment often involves pain and many submissives enjoy pain. Indeed, some will manipulate deliberately so they can be "punished." This is why I strongly recommend that pain not be used as punishment."

(SM101, A Realistic Introduction, p. 274)

So let's work backwards one step. Ultimately, the goal is never to have to punish the submissive. Given their 'druthers, most subs would really rather not disappoint or disobey. Most dominants would prefer that they didn't, as well. From that premise, you can prevent a great deal of misbehavior by positively reinforcing the things you desire, rewarding the types of behaviors that you wish your submissive to repeat. This sends a clear message: I like this! Do it more!

We all know, however, that submissives are not perfect and the time will come when she or he displeases you. In these cases, the dominant must take action. Failing to do so teaches a submissive that he or she can get away with unacceptable behavior--that you are not serious about your limits or rules. As unpleasant as it is for us to punish the ones we love, it is part and parcel to being a dominant. What we often fail to do, however, is to consider intent. An honest mistake should generally be treated more lightly than outright disobedience. And just how fair would it be to punish for something a submissive does when you had not taken the time beforehand to properly instruct him or her on how to act properly?

Alternatives

If not corporal punishment, then what? First, whatever the punishment, it must fit the offense. Being too hard or too lenient are equally counter-productive. Use only the degree of punishment needed to achieve the desired results: behavior change. Something you should know is that merely learning that they've displeased is all the punishment many submissives are likely to need. Often, you need only point out how to please you and your submissive will make the desired change. The emotional pain your submissive may feel as a result of disappointing you is very often much harsher and more effective than anything you could reasonably come up with.

One alternative to corporal punishment is withdrawal. In this case, when faced with displeasing behavior the dominant stops the activity, points out the error, and by some means deprives the submissive of the dominant's presence. It is critically important, however, that the lenght of that time should be clearly stated. Without doing so, the submissive may be left wondering if you will ever return, if you have abandoned them. It risks, at the least, an erosion of trust and possibly worse: emotional trauma. Such physical separation can have a tremendous impact on a submissive, so use it very carefully.

Another alternative, and the one I most often use, is introspection. I make known to my submissive that she has failed to please me, encourage her to discover what she did, and then provide her the tools to overcome that behavior. It is vital that the submissive, if at all possible, search for and find the behavior that was displeasing. This can be very effective in helping the sub take the lesson to heart; much more so than a smack from the crop.

Physical pain doesn't encourage. It only sets up an association between a particular behavior and a painful consequence. The tools I provide are something that she can carry with her, physically or mentally, and apply to a variety of situations when needed. The old adage of "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime" comes to mind. Corporal punishment is the fish, introspection is the teaching to fish.

As an example, we have posted a page on our website called "The Shoe Box, A Master's Gift." It demonstrates from real-life circumstances how alternatives to physical punishment can be constructively used. This article is one of an infinite number of alternatives to corporal punishment.

Is Physical Punishment Ever Acceptable?

In limited situations, yes. If the submissive raises the issue on his or her own, expresses a need to be physically punished as part of the healing process, then, perhaps, it would be acceptable. It is often true that the sub would rather endure physical pain than the emotional pain of your disapproval or withdrawal. If this is the case, use it wisely. Ultimately, what form the punishment takes is your choice to make as the dominant.

Combining elements of correction from several methods can also be effective. For example, if the submissive violates a term of your contract, you could have the submissive kneel (physical discomfort) while reading the contract (introspection) while you move to another room (withdrawal) for a specified period of time.

Warning!

One common error you must avoid is intimate sexual contact immediately following physical punishment. No sex. Why? Because it teaches submissives that if they misbehave, they will get what exactly what they want: Pleasure.

For most dominants who are emotionally involved with a submissive, punishment is a difficult task. You may understand that it is needed, but hate to cause your beloved one pain other than in an erotic context. You may feel guilty afterwards or fear that your submissive will think you no longer care for her or him. These internal conflicts can lead you to move directly into erotic stimulation from punishment in hopes of reassuring. At first blush, that seems good, because it is important to reassure our loved ones that we don't punish because they are "bad," but because we love them enough to correct misbehavior. There must be, however, a significant pause between the two events. If in one breath you are punishing your submissive harshly with a crop and then in the next, before the sting of the last stroke subsides, you are caressing him or her erotically, what are you really teaching? You are teaching your sub that if she or he can only endure this harsh, non-erotic pain for a few minutes, pleasure will be the reward. If you continue that behavior long enough, and you may well give birth to a pain slut (which is good, if that is what you both want, but isn't good if you don't). If you find that you are sexually aroused from administering punishment, you will need to exert considerable control over yourself so that you do not unwittingly reinforce the wrong behavior.

Know, too, that the submissive will probably feel remorse for displeasing you and will want to get back on your "good side" as soon as possible. One very obvious way of pleasing you is with sex. Once again, however, you need to ensure a significant pause between punishment and gratification--yours or your submissive's. This will take tact and understanding, since most of us do not take well the refusal of our sexual advances. In addition, following punishment, the sub will likely be particularly emotionally vulnerable.

And Lastly

Ending a relationship as a form of punishment can cause severe emotional trauma to both parties, particularly the submissive. In only the most extreme cases should the relationship be terminated as a form of punishment. There may be some actions which are unforgivable. Those things should be clearly discussed early on. Don't invoke it or the threat of it casually.

Whatever method you use, remember that correction is an opportunity for you to grow closer, to try to resolve disputes and preserve the relationship. Out of it, the submissive should grow, not have his or her self-esteem destroyed. Being cruel doesn't make you a better dom, but it could very well erode the foundation of trust upon which D/s relationships must be built. Punishment is a tool of last resort. Use it carefully.

Copyright© 1997, 2003 Lord Colm
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May not be reproduced in whole or in part without express written consent of the author