Physical contact is not a necessity, and it can even be conducted anonymously over telephone, email or instant messaging services. In other cases it can be intensely physical, sometimes traversing into sadomasochism. In D/s, one takes pleasure or erotic enjoyment out of either dominating or being dominated. Those who take the superior position are called dominants, Doms (male) or Dommes (female), while those who take the subordinate position are called submissives or subs (male or female). A switch is an individual who plays in either role. Two switches together may negotiate and exchange roles several times in a session. "Dominatrix" is a term usually reserved for a female professional dominant who dominates others for pay.
Dominance and submission, and the inner conflict and surrender connected with these are enduring themes in human culture and civilization. In human sexuality this has broadened to include mutual exploration of roles, emotions and activities which would be difficult or impossible to do without a willing partner taking an opposing role.
While D/s can deal with representations of brutality and cruelty, and the emotional responses to them, adherents are quick to point out that D/s is not about acts of brutality and cruelty. It is a consensual power exchange between the two partners and need not involve any brutality (such as corporal punishment) or cruelty (verbal or emotional abuse) at all. It is primarily based upon trust and communication between the partners. It is also based on a deep ethos of mutual respect in which exploration of the emotions brought up by power exchange in a safe, sane and consensual manner.
A safe word is usually given to the submissive partner to prevent the dominant from overstepping physical and emotional boundaries. The safe word is especially important when engaging in verbal humiliation or playing 'mind-games' because the submissive may not be aware of an emotional boundary until it is crossed. If an emotional boundary is breached and the safe word called, the dominant should cease all play immediately and discuss the emotional breach with the submissive in a tender and understanding manner. Negotiating limits in advance is also an important element in an D/s relationship.
D/s may be ritualised or freeform. It is usually a negotiated lifestyle, with people discussing their wishes, limits and needs in order to find commonality. A D/s relationship may be sexual or non-sexual, long or short term, and intimate or anonymous. Most adherents search for the essential intensity, trust and intimacy that are required to make any deep relationship possible.
Main article: List of BDSM terms
D/s participants often refer to their activity as "play", with an individual play session called a "scene". The term "top" is equivalent to dominant while the term "bottom" is equivalent to submissive. Another term that is one the same vein is “switch”, a switch is someone who will change from top to bottom in different scenes or with different partners.
The term "vanilla" refers to normative ("non-kinky") sex and relationships, the vanilla world being mainstream society outside of the BDSM subculture. The term comes from vanilla ice cream being considered the "default" flavour.
There can be any number of partners in a D/s relationship, in some cases with one dominant sometimes having several submissives, who may in turn dominate others, or a submissive sometimes may have multiple dominants. Relationships may be monogamous or polyamorous. Romantic love is not necessarily a feature in D/s, partners might be very much in love or have no romantic relationship at all.
Variation in D/s is virtually limitless and the activities take many forms. These may include:
These may be combined with other forms of BDSM. A classic example of D/s is the sissymaid, where an adult male dresses in cartoonish female clothing and performs stereotypical female chores such as housecleaning or serving tea. It should be noted that cross-dressing in D/s does not always involve a desire to be sissified or made into caricatures of women or to serve; for example, others may desire to be made as beautiful as possible and interact on a "girlfriend-to-girlfriend" non-sexual basis.
Some D/s relationships are sexual, others completely chaste. Fantasy role play can also be a part, with partners taking classic dominant/submissive roles, or classic authority figure roles such as teacher/student, police officer/suspect or parent/child. Animal play, where one partner takes the role of owner/caretaker and the other takes the part of a pet or animal, can also be D/s play.
Main articles: ''Consent (BDSM) and legal consent which discusses when consent can be a defence to criminal liability for any injuries caused and that, for these purposes, non-physical injuries are included in the definition of grievous bodily harm.
Consent is a vital element in all psychological play, and consent can be granted in many ways. Some employ a written form known as a "Dungeon negotiation form", for others a simple verbal commitment is sufficient. Consent can be limited both in duration and content.
Consensual non-consensuality is a mutual agreement to be able to act as if consent has been waived within safe, sane limits. In essence it is an agreement that subject to a safe word or other restrictions, and reasonable care and commonsense, consent (within defined limits) will be given in advance and with the intent of being irrevocable under normal circumstances, at times without foreknowledge of the exact actions planned. As such, it is a show of extreme trust and understanding and usually undertaken only by partners who know each other well, or otherwise agree to set clear safe limits on their activities.
It's not unusual to grant consent only for an hour or for an evening. When a scene lasts for more than a few hours, it's common to draft a "scene contract" that defines what will happen and who is responsible for what. It's a good way to work out what all the parties want, and usually improves the experience. Some "contracts" can become quite detailed and run for many pages, especially if a scene is to last a weekend or more.
For long term consent, a "Slave contract" may be used. BDSM "contracts" are only an agreement between consenting people and are usually not legally binding; in fact, the possession of one may be considered illegal in some areas . Slave contracts are simply a way of defining the nature and limits of the relationship and are not intended to carry legal force.
After a slave contract is drafted, some celebrate the event with a "collaring ceremony", in which the local D/s community is invited to witness the commitment made in the document. Some ceremonies become quite elaborate, and can be as involved as a wedding or any similar ritual.
In some D/s relationships a partner only submits occasionally and with definite short-term goals, perhaps for an evening or the duration of a party.
In other relationships, there may be an ongoing (not scene- or play-specific) power exchange between or among partners in a committed relationship, often involving love and servitude and enacted in ways throughout the relationship. Some D/s relationships may be compared to the idealized marriages portrayed in older television programs, in which one partner is domestic and service-oriented and the other partner is the provider, protector, and household authority. BDSM may otherwise be deliberately and consciously incorporated into the relationship, or it may focus wholly on power exchange.
Some people may opt for the master or mistress/slave model, in which consent is negotiated once for a long period and the consent given is generally broader. Slave contracts may be used. Where the contract is in effect continuously, the relationship is referred to as "24/7". The limits of the slave contract can vary widely and extend into other areas of BDSM. Some people opt to be purely "sex slaves", while others who prefer domestic service identify as "service slaves". Some slaves allow their masters or mistresses complete latitude as to the demands that can be placed on them. Such a relationship is known as total power exchange or TPE.
People usually only enter into a master/slave contract after they have known and played with each other for some time, often several years. It can be one of the most difficult relationships in the BDSM world to maintain, and requires special skills and experience.
Some people maintain a special room or area, called a dungeon, which contains special equipment (shackles, handcuffs, whips, queening stools and spanking benches or a Berkley horse, for example) used for play scenes, or they may visit a BDSM club that maintains such facilities.
Many submissives wear a "collar" to denote their status and commitment. It can be much like a wedding band, except that only the submissive partner wears one. The traditional collar is a neck band in leather or metal, chosen, designed or even crafted by the dominant partner. Some subs wear a "symbolic collar", often a bracelet or ankle chain, which is more subdued than the traditional collar and can pass in vanilla (non-BDSM) situations. It is not uncommon for a sub to have several collars for special occasions. Dog collars are integral for K-9 roleplaying—pup-play.
There was once a tradition that wearing a collar with an open padlock indicated that one was seeking a partner, a closed lock indicated that one was in a relationship. This symbolism became less common after 1995 or so.
Many people, for example some of those in the punk rock and goth subcultures, wear collars for other reasons such as fashion, so one cannot assume that all people wearing collars are involved in BDSM. Members of the furry fandom may also wear collars as a part of costuming or as a fashion. Use of collars in the sexual aspects of furry lifestyle may or may not be connected to BDSM depending on the individual's preferences.
There are some risks commonly associated with D/s. Because it is mostly a mental activity, many of the risks associated with D/s involve mental health. Others involve abuses of the trust inherent in a D/s relationship. Some examples are:
Local and regional BDSM organizations typically provide community-based counseling and assistance to dominants or submissives who are in a troubled relationship.
There are many writings from the ancient age through the modern that would clearly indicate a willingness to submit for purely romantic reasons.
Another medieval example is the literary convention of courtly love, an ideal which usually required a knight to serve his courtly lady (in "love service") with the same obedience and loyalty which he owed to his liege lord. This convention was submissive and sometimes fetishistic, with the knight performing acts of cross-dressing and self-flagellation. However, the relationship between the literary conventions and actual practices is unknown.
There are also accounts of prostitutes in most major cities that catered to male submissives, as well as masochists. In a male dominated world it was all too easy for a submissive woman to find a strict male dominant, but some women still found ways to leave husbands who were "too soft".
One of the most famous works in this area is Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus im Pelz (Venus in Furs, 1869), in which the protagonist Severin persuades a woman, Wanda, to take him on as her slave, serves her and allows her to degrade him. The book has elements of both social and physical submission, and is the genesis of the term masochism coined by the 19th century psychiatrist Krafft-Ebing.
The Rolling Stones song "Under my Thumb" (M. Jagger, 1966) is supposedly about a D/s relationship. The Green Day song "All By Myself/Dominated Love Slave" (Frank Edwin Wright III or Tre Cool) describes F.E. Wright III's feelings for female dominance.
Common myths about D/s:
There is little or no factual evidence to support any of these concepts; submissives and dominants come from a broad spectrum of society and most people into BDSM are very selective about who they play with. Considering the risks, this is not surprising. The idea that submissive women are sexually indiscriminate likely stems from pornographic fiction and the appeal of an insatiable partner who will do anything one commands. In real life this is rarely the case.
Dr. Michael J. Bader, author of Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, writes: "It is quite common that children who were abused grow up and develop sexual fantasies loosely based on their abuse. ... The adult indulging in a fantasy of sexual surrender or abasement is actually saying to her or himself: 'I'm recreating a terrifying or traumatic scene, but this time I'm in control because I'm scripting the scene ...'"
The "role-reversal" myth likely stems from studies done in the 1950's which found that most of the clients in houses of domination were wealthy, powerful men. This is probably more due to the high fees charged in such houses (often $200-$5,000 a session) than a dearth of impoverished submissives. There are many poor submissives and wealthy dominants.
Some people in the D/s world capitalize words and names that refer to dominants, and not to capitalize those that refer to submissives, hence the capitalization of D/s; others do not. It was popularized on internet chatrooms, to make it easier to identify the orientation of the writer or the person being written about.
Also, some submissives eschew personal pronouns, instead referring to themselves as "this slave" or "Master Bob's girl". This is sometimes considered an expression of modesty, but it is an entirely optional method of depersonalizing a submissive during "play". It may have roots in the military, where new soldiers are required to refer to themselves as "this recruit" rather than "I" or "me".