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Him: You’re going to get tired of making me ask permission to drink water. You don’t know how much I drink.
Me: Oh, trust me, I know. And I’m not going to get tired of it.
I have a confession to make: I find most 24/7 d/s relationships to be really boring. When I ask people what they do in them, they mostly tell me things like, “I take care of her,” “I get water for her,” and “Everything I do is for her.” When I ask them if they get anything sexual out of doing things for their partners, most of them say “no.” I don’t fucking get it.
But it’s not that I’m not into 24/7 d/s dynamics—I totally am. I just like the really fucked up shit, and it’s mostly sexual for me. I’d cheerfully keep a sub locked up and chained to a piece of furniture for… well, as long as I guess I reasonably could. I literally jerk off thinking about my sub asking permission to use the bathroom and telling them “no.” My ideal version of a sub is basically a sex toy who does whatever the fuck I want them to for my entertainment and pleasure. Their humanity is only really meaningful to me in this arrangement in as much as I find consent (as well as the blurry world of consensual non-consent) hot. (Despite appearances, I’m not actually much of a sadist, and a lot of the awful things I love to do I don’t even find hot—I just find it hot that someone will let me do them).
I generally divide up these two worlds of d/s into “affirmative d/s” and “the dark side of d/s.” In affirmative d/s dynamics, the idea is basically that the sub has been uplifted by being owned by the dominant; doms do things like tell their subs that the subs aren’t allowed to refer to themselves as “fat” or suggest that they’re in any way unworthy. There’s kind of a glowy look that subs in these dynamics get. Dark d/s subs, on the other hand, have generally been consensually downgraded through their submission. They and their dominants are happiest in the places where the sub’s humanity seems questionable, and you get comments like a friend of mine’s in reference to his sub that “sometimes she forgets and thinks she’s people.”
It shouldn’t escape any observant kinksters’ notice that the vast majority of long-term d/s relationships, whether primary or even fairly serious non-primary relationships, are affirmative d/s dynamics. People in those dynamics sometimes play in the territory of humiliation and degradation, but it’s not the core of the d/s arrangement. It turns out that it’s really hard to have a spouse who you treat as degraded property all the time (more plausible to do it on weekend retreats or just when you close the bedroom door, but still tricky).
Dark 24/7 d/s dynamics, which in their most extreme versions are just immersing yourself in a fucked up kinky fantasy life, are relatively rare because they’re wildly incompatible with the basic demands of real life and most people’s actual emotional needs–and ironically require a pretty serious dose of trust, compassion, honesty, and just generally knowing someone well. From observation and experience, I’m pretty convinced that if you’re addicted to this kind of intense hyper-kinked (and often hyper-sexed) fantasy, you’re unlikely to get it outside of the context of vacationships .
Staying cognizant of the emotional limitations of these vacationship “24/7 dynamics” is a perpetual challenge, since most of the people who are into them are really into them and tend to get kind of swept up in them. Moreover, if you find one, it’s hard to escape the sense that you’ve stumbled upon something precious because it’s so hard to find people who are into this fucked up shit, good at it, and don’t have questionable motivations for doing it, and who have good chemistry with you personally. Once you find your golden needle in a haystack, it’s hard not to want to metaphorically clutch it and cuddle it, but the reality is that it’s about as emotionally satisfying as cuddling that metaphorical needle: it’s sharp and not well-designed for that. …And yet… You journey into the dark parts of your self with someone else and you create a powerful intimacy and trust on that trip. And if you’re on the left side of the slash and you have an ounce of sense, you know that the end of that trip leaves you in a profoundly vulnerable place.
I think most of us in kinkland spend most of our time worried about the mental health, stability, relationship satisfaction, and general well-being of the subs in these dark d/s dynamics, but little to no time concerned about these things for the doms. I get why that is: we’re worried that the subs are being abused, or that they’ve only agreed to do these things because they have abysmal self-esteem—and these concerns are very valid. But in relationships that are completely consensual and voluntary (those are some big and important caveats), there’s a weird emotional/relationship imbalance that ends up accruing in these dynamics against the doms, which I think is the reason that most longish-term dark d/s dynamics I’ve ever heard of got broken off by the sub.
One of the most fucked up aspects of these relationships is that, to some (and sometimes to a great) extent, they’re built on the sub being afraid of the dom and hating many of the things the dom does to them. On some level, this tends to generalize to the sub also hating the dom a little bit too, but in some twisted way, just as they love hating the things the dom does to them, they love hating the dom. That’s a convoluted emotional labyrinth for most people to navigate, and it’s only made weirder and more twisted by the fact that terror, degradation, and humiliation are often the deepest core of intimacy in these relationships.
If the core of intimacy in affirmative d/s relationships is sort of a perpetual trust fall into loving arms, the core of intimacy in dark d/s relationships is the dom pushing the sub into a dark hole and then maybe eventually throwing them a rope ladder to climb out.
There are a few bleak inevitable emotional inequalities in this arrangement. First of all, unless they’re deep switches, doms tend to be pretty bewildered by what the subs are getting out of it. Doms in these dynamics live in a state of (aroused) cognitive dissonance and discomfort surrounded by the fact that their sub keeps telling them they hate something, but they’re obviously turned on by it and apparently keep doing it willingly. Yet the doms don’t really understand why.
The second problem is that even the most cheerfully degraded subs still usually have at least a few things that are genuinely “too much,” but neither they nor their doms are often terribly clear about where those lines are. Once ideas like “I hate that,” “that’s too much,” “I can’t do that,” and “please don’t do that” become so blurry that they’re sort-of meaningless, doms end up in this odd limbo where they’re worried about accidentally going too far and worried about not going far enough and boring their subs. Instead of meaning “stop,” all those phrases of dislike just become a means to emotional intimacy and kinky pleasure on both sides… right up until the moment when they don’t.
Every dom in these relationships inevitably crosses a line, and they don’t really know where the line is until they get to it. Sure, the subs have safewords, but not using them tends to be a matter of perverse pride for them, and in my experience, instead of safewording, all of them just get mad and yell at me if I hurt them too much. It’s pretty hard to know what “too much” is until you get there, especially because it often varies wildly by the day. Relatedly, guessing how the subs are going to react when stressed is often just a crap shoot: half the time, do something terrible to them when they’re in a bad mood, and they’re so much happier and relaxed than they were before, while the other half they’re furious with you. How do they feel about you after you cross those lines? At what point do you do something that’s unforgivable? Do you do cumulative damage to the dynamic every time you mess up, or is it basically okay as long as you don’t do it too often? Even more torturous is wondering if maybe you’re actually creating more of this fucked up intimacy by occasionally going too far, but if now it’s kind of the wrong kind of intimacy? No matter how much you pretend they aren’t people, the subs here still are, and they have actual feelings. About you.
Which brings me to the third and biggest problem. While you’re building this perverse intimacy with someone, it just doesn’t look the same on both sides. Subs are getting slowly lost in this twisted labyrinth of simultaneously fearing, hating, being attracted to, and possibly loving their doms, and all the while the doms just kind of adore the subs for letting them do this shit to them. Sure, there may be a fucked up part of the dom’s brain that actually, genuinely, truly believes that they own this piece of property formerly known as a person, but any reasonably healthy person knows that that piece of property is actually a rare fucking miracle of a person for letting them do (and seemingly enjoying) the things the dom always thought they were a terrible person for fantasizing about.
Thus you end up with this twisted relationship dynamic where, for a variety of reasons–including the fact that it’s what turns them on–the subs get increasingly ambivalent feelings about their doms, but the doms unambivalently like their subs. That doesn’t exactly put the two of you on equal emotional footing in terms of the relationship.
I wrote an erotica years ago that ended with the sub telling her dom, “I hate you,” and him telling her, “shhh, you’re trying not to cum.” I find that fucked up emotional place to be incredibly sexy, but it ultimately makes the doms weirdly emotionally vulnerable. If you’re genuinely emotionally invested in your sub (and, perversely, you can’t cultivate hatred without emotional investment), wondering if they actually hate you will keep you up at night even if the memory of them saying that in bed is pure wank fodder. And that inequality is just exacerbated by the fact that even in the most degraded of dark d/s dynamics, it’s very hard to imagine a dom telling their sub, “I hate you,” because that’s just not the way this usually plays out. When you build a dynamic around one person’s eroticized hatred and the other’s eroticized malevolent sense of ownership, any smart person knows they’re going to end up with some warped interpersonal dynamics. But contrary to what you might expect, in a real world of genuine consent, I don’t think the warp favors the dom. Even though both people have the power to walk away from this, we all know who’s a lot more likely to do the walking; despite being tied down, chained up, and leashed, I’m pretty sure it’s mostly the subs.
 I usually define vacationships as “real” relationships where people see each other intensely, but only occasionally. One of the signals of a vacationship is that you clean the house, get dressed up, and clear your schedule because the partner is coming over. You don’t have to try to schedule a “date night” with a vacationship partner, because any time you spend with them is basically by definition date night. You can’t really get the kind of trust you need for super intense dark d/s dynamics out of a casual encounter, but you run into the aforementioned pragmatic day-to-day + emotional problems if you try to do it in the context of more serious long-term relationships. (I’m sure everyone reading this will have one exception to the claim that dark d/s dynamics mostly only work in the context of vacationships over the long haul. Cool. But I’ve watched a lottttt of kinky relationships over the years, and those people stand out because they’re exceptions… And even most of the ones I thought seemed okay later ended in acrimonious messes).
Good friend: “Welllll… You guys are ‘European married.’ It’s not really what other people think being married means.
I’ve been asked the question before: “If you’re going to fall in love with and sleep with other people, why did you bother to get married?” The answer for me personally remains pretty straightforward—because I wanted my now-husband to be the person who decided what happens to my broken body if I get in a car wreck, not my parents. While that was the most pressing point, there are a whole host of other social and economic benefits that come from being married, including tax breaks and insurance… Although I am personally very much opposed to the legal institution of marriage, trying to live up to that particular principle is a pain in the ass, and my now-husband and I were both quite poor and financially desperate when we got married, so we weren’t really in a position to do a complex dance to try to take advantage of the legal parts of being married that we liked while sidestepping the social bullshit we didn’t. And so we wrote monogamy out of our wedding vows and moved on with our lives.
Did I surprise you with how unromantic that explanation sounded? Oh… sorry. To my way of thinking, a legal marriage is a business contract. It’s the relationshipthat is loving and romantic, not the marriage.
I could rant for hours about all the reasons that I hate the social institution of marriage. I hate the trappings of marriage and the way that people take the label “husband” so much more seriously than that of “partner” or “boyfriend.” And despite the teasing of one of our dear friends, who has pointed out repeatedly that our idea of being “married” and most people’s idea of being “married” have little to do with one another, the label does fit pretty well. My husband and I started dating at my 18th birthday party, and we never even did that teenage make-up/break-up thing. We’ve been together for very close to half our lives at this point. We’ve been together longer than many people a decade older than us. Our relationship is a huge part of who I am as a person, and I think that’s a big part of what people think “spouse” means.
And for all that I grumble about the social institution of marriage, I think I understand pretty well at this point what commitment looks like to me and my husband. Other people may be confused by it, but unless they’re emotionally involved with us, I don’t really give a fuck what they think about it. For us it’s about spending an agreed upon amount of fun-time (including sex and cuddles and lounging-doing-nothing) and responsible grown-up adulting time together, loving each other and our cats, building and maintaining a home together, keeping each other physically and emotionally safe, sharing a bank account, planning to retire together, planning everything from tomorrow night to future retirement together, and–most importantly–planning to continue doing all of these things together indefinitely. I’ve been doing this whole committed-to-my-husband for a long time now, and I think I’ve got this one figured out (knock on wood).
But goddamn am I confused about what commitment should look like in my other (real/wistful/hypothetical) relationships.
I don’t think it’s just the fact that I’m married and trying to be in relationships with other people that creates the confusion. I think that if I were “single” and poly, I’d be every bit as confused (and there’s just no world in which I can imagine being monogamous, so don’t even ask me to try. It’s like telling a gay person to imagine their life as a straight person). I think some of that confusion is personal; I think some of it is the particular confusion of a very kinky, hypersexual, polysexual, polyamorous cis-femme; and I think a lot of it is because dating norms in America in general are in a state of mad flux.
I don’t really struggle with the “relationship escalator”—the idea that people just automatically expect a relationship to take a very specific trajectory of increasing seriousness that eventually leads to marriage, childbearing, and a white picket fence. I never expected to get on that escalator in the first place, since I grew up planning to live a communal poly existence, not a normal marriage. I don’t sit around biting my nails, thinking that if I don’t share a bank account and a mortgage with someone and hyphenate our last names, it means we can’t have a “real” relationship. But I do sit around a lot wondering what the fuck commitment means in these non-standard relationships, what it looks like, what its value is, and why—in spite or because of my very kinky, hypersexual, polysexual, polyamorous nature—I still crave it like whoa. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
- Commitment is the security blanket that supports my feeling that I can safely trust you. It doesn’t have to be a relationship title, but commitment is an implicit promise that you value our relationship enough that I can believe you won’t break your word to me; not just because you’re a good person, but because you value our relationship and don’t want to damage it. It means that you really don’t want to do things that would hurt our relationship because you want the relationship to stay strong and healthy.
- Commitment is the security blanket that helps prevent jealousy and insecurity. If you make a commitment to me and honor it, I don’t have to worry that just because you hooked up with that pretty young thing last week that you’re just going to meander away from what we have together in a fit of twitterpated distraction. Of course, I might still worry anyway, or you might still meander anyway, but that’s why it’s a security blanket–not a guarantee (ditto with the trust thing above).
- Commitment is the thing that makes me feel like I can plan my life with you. Not necessarily in that “let’s build a house together and plant a garden of hopes and dreams together” way, but in that “I want to know you’ll make it worth my while to not date other people” way. I know planning makes some people twitchy, but NOT planning is the thing that makes me twitchy. I’m enough of a relationship anarchist at this point that I don’t see the symbolic representation of a relationship in a title; I see the symbolic representation of the relationship in its cumulative presence in my google calendar. But “commitment” isn’t about the past there: it’s about the future, and about the times we expect and plan to spend together. It’s the promise to make time and energy for each other in the foreseeable and unforeseeable future. I see commitment in all the marked and unmarked places we make time for each other in the future.
- Meanwhile, without commitment, it feels like any declaration of my own needs or an objection to the way the “relationship” is going is practically an ultimatum. We haven’t agreed to try to improve our “relationship” at any point because we haven’t agreed we have one. So if I/you don’t like the way things are going, do we just give up and stop seeing each other? Relationship processing is an inevitable and necessary part of having a healthy relationship, but how can we have a serious conversation about the state of the relationship and how things are going when we haven’t agreed to HAVE a relationship? The idea of trying to fit needs, wants, and desires together without commitment just feels like a confusing and hopeless proposition to me.
- Without commitment… it feels like the “relationship” only exists as long as things are going well. If my mom is dying in the hospital, and I’m crying all the time, and emotionally messy, I feel like you’re not going to want me anymore because all I’ve really signed up for is to be your sexy entertainment. If your mom is dying in the hospital, and you’re crying all the time, and emotionally messy, I don’t know how to support you because that’s not really the role of an entertainer either. You can’t hold me up in crisis, and I can’t hold you up in crisis, if the most we’ve agreed to be to one another is a party date next week.
- And so… If you feel like you can’t ask me for help, and if I feel like I can’t ask you for help, our relationship dynamic is doomed to superficiality. One of the most important ways that humans connect and build intimacy between each other is by asking for help when they need it. But if we feel like we’re not allowed to ask each other for help, or if we’ve just made the unfortunate decision to be fiercely independent, we’re basically guaranteed to hit a terrible ceiling on intimacy that has nothing to do with the relationship escalator.
Through all of those positives and negatives, the best definition I’ve come up with for commitment in the context of relationships (romantic and otherwise) is simply the mutual promise to share and maintain things of value for that relationship. That might be the promise of time, energy, affection, shared information, shared activities, and/or a relationship title. Without those things, it feels like what you’re left with is an easily disposable fragile semblance of a relationship. As long as you’re having fun and things look shiny and pretty, it’s fine; but as soon as challenges arise—as they inevitably do—what then?
Both intellectually and emotionally, I want to believe that my partners (including my husband) are with me just because they want to be. I don’t want to believe that they stay with me because they feel obliged to by legal, social, or economic necessity. I want regular affirmation that people are in relationships with me because they want to be. But for those “relationships” to mean more than just “we hang out and have a good time together,” I think there has to be something that looks like… commitment.
Our culture has a terrible habit of thinking that a relationship is only successful if the couple stays together until they die. You and I have said that we think we’re entitled to one successful relationship at least every 5 good years. That means we’ve had 3 good relationships together so far, with 1 of them as a pair of kids dating, 1 as a pretty normally married young adult couple, and 1 of them as a zanily married not-very-grown-up couple. I love the life we have built together, and I thank the gods constantly for the blessing you have been in my life. I hope that I am fortunate enough to have a lot more successful relationships with you; I certainly intend to. I don’t really like the idea of being old, but I hope with all my heart that if the gods are kind enough to let me grow old with you, we’ll be the crotchety old people shocking everyone else with the indecent amounts of fun we have. I am a better person because of who you are and what you bring to my life. I know of no better way to say “I love you” than that.
I didn’t believe in marriage when I met you, and I still have a lot of doubts about the institution as a whole. But I believe in the life we have made together, eccentric as it is.
Happy 10th anniversary, husband. May our very different gods continue to compromise and bless our peculiar union.
I love you.