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In the context of a subculture commonly known as the BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, sadomasochism) community, the term domination refers to the mental, physical, and/or emotional manipulation by one person (the dominant or top) of another person (the submissive or bottom) to create sexual or erotic pleasure in both parties.

Although domination often is linked to sex, it does not necessarily include sexual activity. The most important aspect of the dominant-submissive relationship is the exchange of power that takes place. Domination is thus a mechanism by which the top focuses on eliciting forbidden or shameful emotions or behaviors from the bottom in a manner that brings pleasure to both parties. The role of the submissive is to express his or her will or desire and then give control to the dominant; the dominant then takes responsibility for the surrender of control by the submissive. In particular, a responsible top will remain constantly aware of and responsive to the bottom's physical and emotional state and ensure the safety of the submissive. In exchange for the surrender of control by the submissive, the dominant is entrusted with the power of eliciting certain reactions from the submissive. Much of the power and pleasure derived by tops stems from the control they wield over the bottoms' physical and emotional state of being.


Because the thrill of domination for both parties is reliant on the stimulation of particular erotic, painful, or shameful emotions, sensations, and associations, domination can be psychologically as well as physically dangerous. BDSM practitioners thus advocate a variety of safety measures to ensure the physical and mental well-being of both parties. A dominant is expected to be constantly aware of the physical and emotional state of the submissive because the endorphins released by a combination of pain and sexual stimulation can cause a bottom to be so unaware of the outside world that he or she is incapable of recognizing significant physical danger. The dominant is thus responsible for ensuring that any physical stimulation of pain falls within limits that are acceptable to both parties.

The pleasure derived from domination and submission is very much dependent on the emotional and mental interchange between the partners. Thus, clear communication, negotiation, and planning beforehand are practiced widely. The participants in a domination scene generally discuss in advance the activities in which they are interested and establish limits on those activities. BDSM advocates recommend that submissives be given a "safety word" that can be invoked to stop the proceedings, and responsible dominants often set up verbal and nonverbal methods for checking on the well-being of the submissive. Dominants also should ensure that all the equipment used is safe and take precautions that will enable the quick release of any restraints in an emergency.

In contrast to the role domination plays in the popular imagination, domination is not about cruelty and most dominants are not particularly cruel or sadistic people. Domination is about the giving of pain in a way that is ultimately acceptable and pleasurable to both parties. Dominants thus are entrusted with the task of working their submissives up to the level of pain (whether physical or mental) that they wish to inflict and doing it in a manner that allows the submissives to revel in and enjoy that pain. The informed consent of both parties involved is perhaps the most important element in the success of a domination scene.


Most relationships include one partner who is more or less dominant than the other. Even in conventional sexual relationships this power differential may be expressed in ways that could be considered domination, such as bondage, role-playing, and rough sex. For members of the BDSM community, however, domination is defined more specifically as an erotic power exchange that is consensual and knowingly undertaken by both parties. The BDSM community places a great deal of emphasis on the need for clear communication and negotiation between partners to establish beforehand the activities and limits that are acceptable to both persons.

The forms of domination vary widely. In some cases the power exchange has little, if anything, to do with sex: A submissive may be ordered to perform household chores or run errands or may choose to do so to please his or her master. In other cases the power exchange centers on sexual activity: Submissives may be ordered to perform fellatio or cunnilingus or otherwise please their dominants; may be tied and gagged, bound to a bed, or suspended from a ceiling; or may be sexually teased or enticed. Some power exchanges center on pain or humiliation: The submissive may be beaten, whipped, tortured, subjected to verbal abuse, or urinated on. This pain and humiliation may or may not involve sexual activities or contact with the genitalia, depending on the preferences of the parties. Domination sometimes also involves the punishment of the submissive for errors in carrying out the dominant's orders or for failing to anticipate his or her needs and desires. Many domination scenes involve fairly extensive props: equipment for binding limbs and genitals, suits designed for sensory deprivation, nipple and genital clamps, hot wax, electrical stimulation, whips, chains, handcuffs, leather, dog collars, cages, costumes, and the like. Some participants set aside a special room, referred to as a dungeon, for BDSM activities and equipment.

Domination is practiced by both men and women, whether gay, straight, or transgendered. Whether someone is sexually dominant appears to have little relation to that person's relative dominance or submission in the rest of his or her day-to-day activities. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more submissives than dominants participate in BDSM activities. Some people, known as "switches," enjoy taking on both the dominant and submissive roles, but generally even those who identify as dominant occasionally take on the submissive role.


The importance and centrality of domination in people's lives vary considerably. For some people domination is only an occasional recreational activity, whereas others may identify primarily as dominants, considering other categories of identity (such as sexual orientation) to be less central to their identities.

Some dominants are open about their sexual preferences, and others are closeted. Some engage in domination purely within the confines of a monogamous relationship, whereas for others participation in domination activities may occur with multiple partners or relative strangers. Some dominants have only a single submissive, and others have ongoing relationships with several. For some couples domination and submission are simply one of many ways of relating to one another; other couples (a fairly small minority) live full-time in a dominant-submissive or master-slave relationship.

Certain dominants earn a living through professional domination; their clients pay them to enact particular scenes or fantasies. Although those scenes may be sexual in nature, most professional dominants do not have sex with their clients and do not regard themselves as prostitutes. Because the clientele for such services tends to consist of heterosexual males, professional female dominants, who are known as dominatrices or pro dommes, are much more common than male dominants.

In many cities informal BDSM communities have arisen, establishing a loose network of people interested in BDSM activities and involved in BDSM education, events, clubs, businesses, or activism. There is also a significant BDSM community on the Internet that provides opportunities for education, matchmaking, information sharing, and even cyberdomination. The degree of participation in these communities varies considerably. Some people who engage in domination do not consider themselves part of the BDSM community, whereas others are involved in the community full-time or in multiple capacities.

Cities with active BDSM communities often have BDSM clubs. Those clubs may offer little more than a venue for like-minded people to meet and converse, but many also provide an opportunity for people to join an assortment of domination and submission "scenes." Those scenes may range from fantasy enactment and role-playing to slave auctions to sexual encounters.


Like much sexual behavior, domination has tended to be pathologized in scientific studies. The earliest scientific work in this area was undertaken by the psychologists Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud, both of whom believed that sadomasochism is based in a love of cruelty and asserted the abnormality of sadomasochism while acknowledging its roots in so-called normal sexual behavior. Havelock Ellis, a contemporary of Freud and Krafft-Ebing, was the first scientist to treat sadomasochism as a normal aspect of human sexuality; he was also the first to distinguish between pain and cruelty, arguing that pain is both inflicted and felt as a manifestation of love.

Although the BDSM community often argues strenuously for the normality and the fundamentally caring nature of the activities in which it engages, popular perception and popular depictions of domination tend to view it as a freakish activity that is founded in cruelty and lack of respect for the submissive participant. Until the American Psychiatric Association's 1994 publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) sexual domination and submission were considered sexual disorders. New diagnostic guidelines require that to be considered sexually deviant, the subject must have an ongoing obsession with sexual sadomasochism that causes interference with his or her daily life and/or other relationships.


American Psychiatric Association. 1994. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 2nd edition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Brame, Gloria S.; William D. Brame; and Jon Jacobs. 1993. Different Loving: An Exploration of the World of Sexual Dominance and Submission. New York: Villard.

Califia, Pat. 1993. Sensuous Magic: A Guide for Adventurous Couples. New York: Masquerade Books.

Califia, Pat. 2000. Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Weinberg, Thomas S. 1995. S & M: Studies in Dominance & Submission. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Wiseman, Jay. 1998. SM 101: A Realistic Introduction. Oakland, CA: Greenery Press.

                                             Maureen Lauder