Digital technologies and the dynamics of Dominance and submission
When we think about technology and sex, we most often think about sexting, cybering, or online pornography. We think about dating apps and websites that can fulfil our sexual fantasies. We think about sex robots and teledildonics, virtual reality porn and web-camming for unnamed audiences.
However, perhaps the greatest impact of digital technologies on people’s sex lives has come from the enabling of global connection with communities that were once secret and hard to find. BDSM (Bondage and discipline, Dominance and submission, Sadism and masochism or sadomasochism), Fetish and/or Kink was once practiced in underground communities that were difficult to tap into. The internet has enabled access to spaces long kept secret.
The establishment of digital spaces such as Fetlife and Collarspace, reddit forums, fanfiction and blogs, and fetish websites have enabled widespread access to the underworld of BDSM, kink and fetish. BDSM is everywhere, from genres of literature, to featuring in music videos and influencing fashion. Technology has enabled engagement with BDSM on a global scale. Indeed, much can be said about BDSM and the digital world. Digital technologies have also enabled access to communities, to allow individuals to find BDSM, find a local kink or fetish event, or find someone who may share their desires. Such communities not only offer sexual play, but skill-sharing on safety, and techniques for engaging in what can be dangerous practices, such as impact play, Shibari (rope play), and needle play among others.
However, digital technology has not just allowed people greater access to kink communities and knowledge, it has become a tool in kink play itself. While there are many ways in which we can think about the entanglements of kink and technology, I want to focus more closely on one area, that is D/s (Dominance and submission) and technology.
What exactly is D/s?
D/s stands for Dominance and submission, in which two individuals (or more, if a Dominant chooses to have multiple submissives) take up agreed-upon roles in which one person has control (the Dominant), and the other submits to that control (the submissive) (Wiseman, 1993).
D/s can be a complex experience. It has many forms in many different kinds of relationships, and is sometimes considered a softer form of M/s (Master/slave), where the submissive may have more power to make conscious choices about what they choose to do or give up. D/s relationships may, or may not, include fetish and kink, impact, or other forms of pain or humiliation play.
The origins of D/s are somewhat difficult to trace, but can be linked all the way back to the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia and the goddess worship of Inanna, in which she would whip her followers into sexual frenzies (O’Nomis, 2013). Elements of D/s can be found across time and cultures, across bodies, sexualities, and genders, and across varying kinds of kink and Fetish practices. D/s is a more recent variation of the BDSM practices of leather communities and others, which have long and transgressive queer histories (Weiss 2011; Damm et al., 2017).
My introduction to BDSM, was through the texts of the Marquis de Sade, sometimes known as the Father of Sadism. His philosophical contributions (Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795), Justine (1791), and 120 Days of Sodomy (1785)) question the nature of humanity, the notion of ‘original sin’, and promote libertarian ideologies embedded in tales of sex, sadistic violence, Dominance and submission, carnality, and the grotesque. Another writer of influence is Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the believed father of Masochism for his work Venus in Furs (1870). Elements of D/s, shrouded in pain as pleasure, can be noted throughout such texts. The Story of O (1954) by Anne Desclos is perhaps more indicative of the emotional and psychological aspects of submission, spurring the contemporary forms we see today. Indeed, films such as The Secretary (2002) provide a visualisation of what these relationships can be. Not only the sexual and the physical, but the emotional, mental, and spiritual elements.
When I talk about D/s, I am talking about how I personally understand, enact and engage it, but this is not necessarily an experience that others who engage in D/s dynamics will relate to. D/s is a personal experience, it holds different sets of meanings for different people. For me, D/s is the psychological, the emotional, the mental aspect of my kink. The things I do, the practices, are acts of submission, but to me, they are not submissive in and of themselves. Rather, it is the psychological and emotional meaning I attribute to such acts that render them a component of D/s.
This distinction, at least for me, is important. I do not see certain sexual acts as inherently dominant or submissive as others might. Being the receiver of anal sex, for example, is neutral to me. It is the meaning we ascribe that renders the act dominant or submissive, and that meaning can change depending on the dynamic of the relationship. Dominants may ask their submissives to service them sexually, and that may include acts of sex that might traditionally be seen as ‘naturally’ submissive—such as penetration. But to me, a Dom (male dominant), for example, is no less of a Dom if he enjoys a good pegging by his submissive. My point here is that submission, and Dominance, are a matter of mental framing They are not the act itself, but the meaning we personally ascribe, and that meaning can be fluid, flexible, and ever-changing.
Many people who practice D/s refer to their practices as ‘In the Bedroom only’ whereby D/s dynamics do not extend beyond a sexual play session and individuals return to ‘vanilla’ life on completion of the play.
But for myself, and for others, D/s is more than just bedroom play. It is a lifestyle, a way of life, often understood as 24/7 D/s or M/s. 24/7 denotes the acceptance of D/s dynamics in a more holistic sense, which can include not only sexual play, but everyday life activities that may, or may not, contain erotic elements. 24/7 D/s is about integrating D/s practice into ‘everydayness’. Activities which may, to an outsider, seem banal or uninteresting become part of the D/s routine. Doing laundry. Cooking dinner. Tidying the house. These everyday activities may hold deeper meaning in D/s relationships.
Many people do not understand this dynamic. In conversations I have had with others, they contend that 24/7 is abusive, and that they would never engage or force their partner to engage in this practice. It can be hard to fully express the complexity of consciously giving up power and submitting to the whims of another, without this being seen as some form of abuse, like the bullshit depiction of D/s we saw in 50 Shades of Grey (James, 2011) which involved manipulation and abuse. Dominance is also often misunderstood as exerting control without care for the consequences of those actions. But this is a misunderstanding. D/s is about the conscious and consensual giving over of control by the submissive, and the conscious taking of responsibility by the Dominant. It is about trust and deliberate power exchange. Those who engage in 24/7 dynamics do so with this understanding. It is complex and deep, and has spiritual, emotional, mental, and sexual elements.
Submission comes to me the more I feel engaged and trust someone, the more we communicate, the more I feel safe, valued, and loved. There is a feeling, or want, or desire, to give up power, rather than this being something that feels forced by someone.
For those of us deeply engaged in D/s dynamics, we recognise that the role of a Dominant is to care for, nurture, and guide a submissive through the exertion of control. That submissives must consent to any and all things done, and that there is love between the Dominant and submissive, what can be romantic, sexual, or platonic.
24/7 D/s is also often much more than a play session. It involves an on-going commitment, in which the submissive may be tasked and present themselves in an agreed upon set of ways for their Dominant. Such tasks may be or may not be sexual in nature, but are designed to stimulate submission. Non-sexual tasks may include domestic servitude, the running of errands, or they may involve longer-term forms of nurturing and development, such as going back to school to get a degree, or starting a new hobby, or engaging in health treatment. In return for their submission, the Dominant provides nurturing, assists the submissive to grow, to challenge themselves, and to push boundaries where appropriate.
Digital Technologies and The Everydayness of D/s
Digital technologies have enabled forms of Dominance and submission in interesting and transformative ways that go way beyond merely sending dirty text messages or videos that feature one showing off a new collar, or butt plug, or flogger. It is also much more than meeting up in chatrooms and forums and dating apps to facilitate D/s connections. Rather, mobile technology offers a range of diverse and creative ways to engage and maintain D/s connections. Some of the more obvious uses of technology for D/s are sexual in nature. The request to take an erotic photo or film an erotic act in a public place. Perhaps uploading photos of playscenes to fetish websites. Teledildonics, blue-tooth vibrators, vibrating cockrings and anal plugs that submissives can secretly wear in public while their Dominant controls the settings. Tech can be part of prolonged edging play, anal sex training, and orgasm control and denial.
But what about the less-talked about apps, the ones that enable D/s dynamics in ways that are not necessarily tied directly to sex, eroticism and pleasure? The ones that enable D/s play to become part of the everyday—the 24/7.
Digital technologies now allow someone to monitor and track multiple aspects of another person’s life. Before I talk about the potential these technologies bring to D/s practices, it has to be noted that these technologies can also used to abuse and violate others. When I speak about the use of technology in D/s play, I am talking about deliberate, consensual use of technology within the context of a mutually trusting relationship. This is the essence of D/s. Trust is what enables one to relinquish power.
In the first instance, the simplicity of instant messaging, whether it’s through a mobile app or social media platform, or just SMS, allows for the presence of D/s even if Dominants and submissives do not live together. Text makes it easy for a Dominant to send a quick message to a submissive to task them, for a submissive to request permission to do a certain activity, or uphold certain practices of communication. With my current Dom, we always text good morning and good night, regardless of where we are in the world. This might mean He receives a good morning text at some odd time if I’m travelling overseas for work. This seems ordinary, and simple, yet this practice is one that maintains a strong presence of D/s even though we live apart, and with different primary partners.
[A cautionary tale. I have made the embarrassing mistake of sending a request for permission text to not a former Dominant, but to two work colleagues! Fortunately, they were understanding].
Mobile geo-tracking apps can be used to ensure submissives are where they should be. There is an underlying eroticism knowing that your Dominant can see where you are, the honesty demanded of you. Some may even use this as forms of permission, ‘Sir/Mistress, may I leave to go for a walk?’ and so forth. As the nights grow darker in winter, my Dom can follow my walk to ensure I get safely home. While I was introduced to this form of control in a D/s capacity, I have adapted this with non-D/s polyamorous partners to ensure safety when meeting new people.
For Dominants who enjoy dressing, choosing, or approving clothing choices, clothing organisation apps allow submissives to create outfits and send photos for approval. Indeed, some apps allow multiple logins, meaning that Dominants can choose outfits for their submissives, and suggest items for purchase. Submissives may be tasked to take photos of their outfits each day to prove they are wearing what has been approved, or even just when meeting up with Dominants.
For submissives who have requested support in fitness, health, and nutrition regimes, apps such as fitness trackers and watches, can be used to monitor their progress, and check-in if progress falters. Some of these also allow for multiple logins, meaning that Dominants can login to provide support and encouragement. This may extend to mental health apps that support the tracking of mental health, so Dominants can support submissives on days when they are experiencing poorer mental health, or remind them to engage in mindfulness and self-coping activities. I myself have a long-standing habit of not drinking enough water, and often being dehydrated as a result. A water-tracking app has been useful to ‘prove’ a change of habit to my Dom by tracking my water consumption. This has enabled a shift in habit where I actively work to ensure I drink enough water.
For submissives who menstruate, period-tracking apps may also be useful for planning sexual activities if blood play is a limit, or in some cases, desired. For submissives whose Dominants are more involved in the daily management of their health, medication tracking apps may also be utilised to support health and medical treatment.
Online project management tools, or list-type apps, can be a space in which Dominants can organise tasks for their submissives to be completed within a timeframe, and to help both the Dominant and the submissive keep track of what has been agreed. My Dom and I have even used these tools to quickly note topics of conversation if there are any concerns that need to be addressed the next time we see each other in person. This ensures our conversations remain on point, and has enabled a deeper form of trust and communication.
Diary writing or journal entries are important ways in which submissives and Dominants can connect. Submissives may be tasked with writing a journal that can assist the Dominant in having a better understanding of their wants, needs, and desires, as well as if things are not working for them. Blogging tools such as WordPress or Tumblr, set to private, can be spaces in which submissives can share inner thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Of course, shared calendars may be vital between Dominants and submissives, particularly those with multiple partners or play-dates, and those who live apart and maintain busy working lives.
My point here is that digital technologies enable an everydayness of D/s that is vital for ongoing 24/7 dynamics. Activities that are ordinary and banal, hold an entirely different set of meanings for those participating in D/s. Yet as Lefebreve and Levich (1987) would contend, the everyday is extraordinary in its own right.
Banality? Why should the study of the banal itself be banal? Are not the surreal, the extraordinary, the surprising, even the magical, also part of the real? Why wouldn’t the concept of everydayness reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary?
Many of the practices I describe may seem uninteresting, and yet for me, and others, they hold significant meaning, and are indicative of trust and the conscious decision of giving and taking power in a D/s dynamic. The use of such technologies for practices that for many are dark, mysterious, and taboo, reveal the extraordinary in the banality of our lives.
Damm, Cassandra., Dentato, Michael P., & Busch, Nikki. (2018). Unravelling intersecting identities: understanding the lives of people who practice BDSM, Psychology & Sexuality, 9:1, 21-37.
Desclos, Anne. (1954). The Story of O. London, UK: Penguin (Classics) Publishers.
De Sade, Marquis. (1785). 120 Days of Sodomy. London, UK: Penguin (Classics) Publishers.
De Sade, Marquis. (1791). Justine. London, UK: Penguin (Classics) Publishers.
De Sade, Marquis. (1795). Philosophy in the Bedroom. London, UK: Penguin (Classics) Publishers.
James, E.L. (2011). Fifty Shades of Grey. New York, UK: Vintage Books.
Lefebvre, H., & Levich, C. (1987). The Everyday and Everydayness. Yale French Studies, (73), 7-11.
O’Nomis, Anne. (2013). The History & Arts of the Dominatrix. Melbourne, AU: Ebook Partnership.
von Sacher-Masoch, Leopold. (1870). Venus in Furs. London, UK: Penguin (Classics) Publishers.
Weiss, Margot. (2011). Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Wiseman, Jay. (1993). S&M 101: A Realistic Introduction. Emeryville, CA: Greenery Press.
Rainicorn works in research, focusing on bodies, sexuality and gender, sexual practices, and health and well-being. She identifies as a bisexual, cisgender, polyamorous plus-size Anglo-Celtic woman, and is sex positive, kink/fetish positive, and fat positive. In her spare time, she enjoys painting and composing music, and the delectable delights of the carnal underworld.