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Erotic Domination and Submission
Debunking the Myth of Pathology
copyright 1998 by Lord Colm
The idea of erotic domination is one that both titillates and shocks us. It is the stuff of dark secrets and tabloid exploitation. Few in our culture possess a realistic idea of what erotic domination and submission (D&S) entails. Its mere mention evoke images of sadomasochistic torture, mass murder, and sexual predators. The ground-breaking work of Brame, et al. (1996), however, debunks these myths and portrays them in light of reality. They are people who are "…loving and compassionate individuals who care about their partners’ enjoyment and welfare and who engage in D&S for the pleasure and mutual satisfaction that it affords" (Brame, et al., 1996, p. 6).
A Matter of Semantics

Quantifying D&S is problematic. The first difficulty stems from the fact that "sadomasochism" (SM) is used as a catch-all term for a wide range of practices, including those that do not include purely sadomasochistic acts. This is the case in professional literature, including the DSM-IV (1994) where sadism it is defined as "…behaviors involving acts (real, not simulated) in which the psychological or physical suffering (including humiliation) of the victim is sexually exciting to the person." Masochism is the inverse of sadism, where a person derives pleasure from being the recipient of humiliation, beatings, bondage, or other suffering. In 1994, however, J. Warren advocated clearly distinguishing the various sub-cultures of the SM community, reasoning that, "…while masochists make up a significant part of the D&S community, far from all submissives are masochists and some masochists are far from submissive" (Warren, 1994, p. 13). This idea has been embraced by its practitioners and we now see the broader term BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) in common use.

We also encounter difficulty in defining precisely what each group actually does, since activities often overlap. Bondage enthusiasts, for example, may include flagellation in their repertoire (an SM practice) or the masochist may enjoy strict discipline (a B&D practice). The terms, however, are not interchangeable. A submissive does not necessarily find erotic pain to his or her liking. At best, "BDSMers" can only be described in general terms of primary interest. The sadist derives pleasure in inflicting erotic pain, the masochist from receiving it. Those who prefer B&D find pleasure in restraint and discipline. These two categories, SM and B&D, center around distinctly identifiable acts. D&S, in contrast, is not so readily captured and can only be defined in terms of the dynamics of the relationship of those involved.

The Power Exchange

Fundamentally, domination and submission are predicated upon a consensual power exchange where one of the partners willingly relinquishes some amount of personal power (the submissive) to another (the dominant). The dominant accepts responsibility for those aspects surrendered by the submissive for the couple's mutual fulfillment. The degree of control given to the dominant is something which the participants openly negotiate and can run the gamut from carrying out simple orders to elaborate forms of address, mannerisms, and ritual. It is this exchange of power that brings fulfillment to the dominant and submissive. Brame, et al. (1996) described the benefit of this dynamic: "… the single most important element in the power exchange is the solid emotional bond that develops between dominant and submissive, a bond born of the submissive’s trusting compliance in the moment of submission" (p. 77).

While it may appear to the outsider that the dominant is the one who holds all of the power, such is not necessarily the case. Since this is a relationship rooted in consenuality, a dominant holds only as much power as the submissive has relinquished and the submissive obeys because he or she chooses to, not out of external force. There is nothing compelling obedience other than the submissive’s resolve (Miller & Devon, 1995).

The concept of consensuality is what distinguishes these types of relationships from abuse. The surrender of personal power is a conscious choice, freely offered and received. It is not coerced or imposed. Submissives submit not because they must, but because submission fulfills a legitimate emotional, physical, and spiritual need. This, of course, runs contrary to conventional wisdom, which explains such needs in terms of low self-esteem and co-dependence. Such is not necessarily the case. Submissives are frequently in positions of responsibility and authority in their professional careers, but choose to relinquish power in their personal lives. Brame, et al. (1996) found in their research that "submission is often, paradoxically, an act of liberation and also the realization of a private and profound need" (p. 72). Instead of leading to dysfunctional interpersonal relationships, for the right people it offers a means to self-fulfillment.

Variation or Psychopathology?

Whether or not a relationship based upon domination and submission is "unhealthy" depends upon the yardstick against which you measure it. Many of the major psychologists of the past century have had something to say about it. Adler (1956) attributed masochism to the safeguarding tendency of self-accusation as a means of protecting the power to hurt those people who are emotionally close. Horney (1945) explains dominant and submissive behaviors in terms of the neurotic trends of moving toward people and moving against people. Fromm (1941) wrote that both sadism and masochism were neurotic attempts to escape isolation and that they could never contribute positively to independence.

Each of these theories, however, arise from a culturally biased assumption that submission and domination are destructive; therefore, a reason and a cure must be found. None of their conclusions were drawn from a study of people who engage in consensual power exchanges. Such "expert opinions" were, however, in line with the popular beliefs of the era. They all fail to address the real issue of whether or not such relationships are truly detrimental to the participants. Fortunately, the modern DSM-IV (1994) has a more enlightened approach for clinicians. The diagnostic criteria for both sexual sadism and sexual masochism contain the requirement that "The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning." This implies that, so long as the participants are content with their lifestyle and limit their activities to consenting adult partners, it is not a matter of clinical concern for the therapist. Herein lies the crux of the issue. When the motivation of the activity is rooted in the desire to cause real physical or emotional harm rather than mutual pleasure, then we may have reason for alarm. Surprisingly, Freud (1905/1953) seems to have come closest to the mark when he wrote that sadism and masochism are present to some degree in all sexual relationships, but that it is perverted when the sexual aim of erotic pleasure becomes secondary to the destructive aim.

Marmor and associates (1977) suggest a different model for contrasting normal, healthy relationship behavior with abnormal, pathological behavior. Instead of assuming that all sexual behaviors that deviate from the cultural norm are evidence of illness, they propose that normal sexual behavior is motivated primarily by feelings of affection and tenderness, seeks to give and receive pleasure, tends to be discriminating as to partner choice, and is motivated by recurring erotic sexual tensions in the context of physical attraction and affection. This is opposed to abnormal sexual behavior, which is used as a means of discharging anxiety, hostility, and guilt; tends primarily to seek to receive sexual pleasure; tends to be nondiscriminating as to partner choice; and is triggered by nonerotic sexual tensions that are often compulsive (Marmor et al., 1977).

In this light, we move from traditional beliefs of what is culturally acceptable based on majority participation to the idea that any relationship between two people, conventional or not, can be fulfilling or destructive. Against this litmus test, we can see that D&S, SM, and B&D relationships are not inherently destructive. So long as they meet these above-mentioned criteria and so long as the participants are happy and fulfilled in their lifestyle, their choice of erotic activity is no more neurotic than conventional sex.


A relationship based on domination and submission is, for some, a viable alternative to conventional intimacy. It acknowledges what is already present to some degree in all relationships, rather than struggling against it. It is not always abusive or exploitative—to be so would violate the fundamental rule of consent. Within the context of a consensual, loving, mutually-fulfilling union, dominants and submissives find their experience to be liberating. They are finally able to be who they feel they are, rather than what society tells them they should be. Long-term D&S unions are typified by the coming together of emotionally healthy, self-assured, confident, and equal people who willingly exchange some of their personal power for the sake of the intense emotional, physical and even spiritual fulfillment they derive from it (Brame, et al., 1996).


Adler, A. (1956). The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A systematic presentation in selections from his writings (H. L. Ansbacher & R. R. Ansbacher, Eds.). New York: Basic Books.

American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.) (DSM-IV.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Brame, G. G., Brame, W. D., & Jacobs, J. (1996). Different Loving. New York: Villard Books

Freud, S. (1905/1953). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. In Standard edition (Vol. 7).

Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Horney, K. (1945). Our inner conflicts: A constructive theory of neurosis. New York: Norton.

Marmor, J., et al. (1977). What Distinguishes "Healthy" from "Sick" Sexual Behavior. Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, October, 67-77.

Miller, P. & Devon, M. (1995). Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns (5th ed.). Fairfield, CT: Mystic Rose Books

Warren, J. (1994). The Loving Dominant. New York: Masquerade Book, Inc.

Suggested Readings

Abernathy, Christina (1996). Miss Abernathy’s Concise Slave Training Manual. San Francisco: Greenery Press

Bannon, Race (1992). Learning the Ropes. A Basic Guide To Safe And Fun S/M Lovemaking. San Francisco: Daedalus Publishing Company

Brame, G. G., Brame, W. D., & Jacobs, J. (1996). Different Loving. New York: Villard Books

Easton, E. & Liszt, C. A. (1995). The Bottoming Book or, How To Get Terrible Things Done To You by Wonderful People. San Francisco: Greenery Press

Easton, E. & Liszt, C. A. (1995). The Topping Book or, Getting Good At Being Bad. San Francisco: Greenery Press

Miller, P. & Devon, M. (1995). Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns (5th ed.). Fairfield, CT: Mystic Rose Books

Rinella, Jack (1994). The Master’s Manual A Handbook of Erotic Dominance. San Francisco, CA: Daedalus Publishing Company

Warren, J. (1994). The Loving Dominant. New York: Masquerade Book, Inc.

Wiseman, J. (1996). SM101 A Realistic Introduction (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Greenery Press

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