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What Is a Dom/sub Relationship? Here’s Everything to Know About D/s Dynamics.

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Whether you’re playing with bondage, spanking, punishments, or some other kinky activity, there’s a key dynamic that forms the base of BDSM play: the Dominant/submissive relationship, also known as Dom/sub or D/s.

BDSM is an umbrella term that stands for Bondage/Discipline, Domination/submission, and sadomasochism. “It describes the practice of intentionally playing with deliberately unbalanced power dynamics (who is in control) and/or giving or receiving intense sensation,” explains Dr. Celina Criss, a certified sex coach who specializes in BDSM. “Simply put, it’s fun and games with rules, roles, vibrators, and spanking.”

In the Dom/sub dynamic, the Dom is the leader and the submissive follows. It’s all about power play; even the capital “D” in Dom and lowercase “s” in sub denote this power dynamic.

These titles are explicit, meaning the Dom and sub have clearly defined their roles and have both enthusiastically consented to engage with the dynamic. In D/s relationships, “nothing occurs without open communication to create trust that, in turn, fosters explicit consent,” says professional kinkster Mistress Kye.

If Dom/sub relationships strike your fancy, look no further. We’ve pulled together everything you need to know about the Dom/sub dynamic, including how to engage in it safely and different types of D/s roles to explore.

The role of the Dom:

The Dom (Dominant) is the boss, so it seems only fitting to start there.

The Dom has been given the power by the submissive, meaning the submissive has surrendered to the Dom’s control. The Dom is the manager of the scene. They are often a “Top” or “Active Dom,” but not always; how a person acts as a Dom will depend on the play they’re engaging in. In a Caregiver/little scene, for instance, the Dom may take on a gentle, nurturing role.

The role of the Dom usually exists within a sexual scenario, but D/s dynamics can also be part of a full-on D/s lifestyle, depending how how immersive the Dom and sub wish to be in their roles. As far as Dom behavior goes, it “can be doing a variety of things to the sub in a sexual nature during a scene; it can be making decisions for them when [they’re] together (like what to pick at a restaurant); it can even be doling out punishment when the sub misbehaves or breaks rules previously agreed upon,” explains Javay Frye-Nekrasova, sex educator and pleasure expert at Lovehoney.

The Dom is responsible for the sub, and their job is to keep them safe throughout any kind of play. For instance, if they’re playing with rope, the Dom has the responsibility to be sure the knots are tied correctly and safely. If the scene is more of a Caregiver/little scenario, the Dom might have the responsibility of making sure the little is fed and tucked into bed. “They hold their sub in safety throughout the scene: tuning in to responses, making sure that boundaries are respected, and accepting the submission as an addition that increases their own power,” Criss says.

The role of the sub:

The sub (submissive) is the “bottom.” Again, the ways in which these roles play out is dependent on the specific type of scene the participants are exploring. The thing that is always true: The sub gives their power to the Dom, and this power is a precious gift. It is given freely and with full consent.

The sub’s role is to follow, please, or serve the Dom. This could look like “taking pain” (such as with flogging or spanking), doing tasks around the house, or being “good” and following the Dom’s various rules.

“However, the sub is not powerless,” says Dr. Justin Lehmiller, Kinsey Institute research fellow, host of the Sex and Psychology Podcast, and member of the Men’s Health Advisory Panel. “They establish their boundaries and limits at the outset and have the ability to end the scene at any time by invoking a safeword.”

midsection of woman with handcuffs

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How to set boundaries within the Dom/sub dynamic:

Understand your responsibilities.

    When engaging with BDSM, everyone is responsible for themselves before the play begins. “It is the responsibility of all parties (Dom and sub) to communicate boundaries, hard limits, and means of communication to be used during a scene (safewords and safe signals) before play begins,” Criss says. This means having open and clear communication before play starts to establish what is and what is not on the table.

    Have a safeword.

      Safewords are typically non-sexual words (or gestures) that are used for partners to let each other know that a limit has been reached. When the safeword is invoked, play stops. Using “No” or “Stop” often doesn’t work in BDSM, as a sub may be saying “No” or “Stop” as a part of their consensual role. Instead, choose something random and non-sexual like “sailboat,” “flamingo,” or “umbrella.” You can also use a traffic light system: “Red” means “STOP” and “Yellow” means “PAUSE.”

      “Think of using ‘Yellow’ as an opportunity to ask for a glass of water, let your partner know you can’t feel your fingertips, or whatever else is going on, without ending the scene,” Criss says. “Safewords can be used by either the Dom [or] sub when a scene gets too intense or an adjustment is needed.”

      Advocate for yourself.

        Before you start playing, it’s important to know exactly what you want and to be able to vocalize that. Criss suggests asking yourself the following questions: What is pleasurable to you? What do you want? What are you willing to give and/or receive? Who are you willing to be in this scene? Yes, even as a submissive. Everyone is entitled to the play they wish to engage in, no matter their role.

        An example of how this might go: “I find taking pain very fun and would like to do some spanking. I would like my Dom to use their hands, a flogger, and a horsewhip. But I’m not OK with caning. I am willing to serve my Dom and be a ‘Good boy’ for them.”

        Mistress Kye says that if face-to-face with your Dom is nerve-wracking, you can write a “kinky diary. “It’s an effective tool to allow submissives the space they need to organize their thoughts, knowing the Dominant will read through loving eyes to better understand them,” she explains. “Then, they plan a special time to discuss the diary entries by making a ‘connection-date.’” This is a calm, intimate time to chat openly.

        Educate yourself.

          Before hopping into a Dom/sub dynamic and engaging with BDSM, it’s important to know your stuff. This means actually doing some research—and no, that doesn’t include binging Fifty Shades, as that is a horrible example of healthy kink. Because you can’t get what you want out of BDSM if you don’t have a clue what you even want, you know?

          Frye-Nekrasova suggests following kinky educators on IG like @TheKinkEducator, @JetSetJasmine, @TheRealKingNoir, and @MillennialSexpert.

          Practice aftercare.

            Aftercare is a hugely important component of BDSM. It’s a time for emotional reset and a chance to connect with your partner after the scene. Because BDSM can be so intense, it’s important to take care after it ends. “It’s a chance to make sure you and your partner are on the same page, but also to identify things that you might want to do differently next time and to adjust your rules and boundaries accordingly,” Lehmiller says.

            In aftercare, “partners reassure each other that, no matter what wild experience they shared, they are still decent, civilized human beings who respect themselves and each other,” Criss adds.

            Aftercare will look differently to everyone. It may be that the Dom holds or cuddles the sub, or they simply talk through what happened, or one massages the other. Whatever it is, each person needs to feel grounded and safe.

            Types of D/s dynamics for your personal exploration:

            All Dom/sub relationships are uniquely designed by the people in them. It’s not all whips and chains (though that can be very fun). For the Dom/sub relationship to exist, it simply needs to manifest as an exchange of power. “Bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism might be components of the play that enhance the Dominant’s power by encouraging the submissive to cooperate or endure to please their Dom, or because it is pleasurable for both,” Criss adds.

            Here are five common D/s dynamics to consider trying.

            Master/servant

            The Dom is the Master and has the sub do “tasks” for them. The sub carries out these tasks in order to please the Dom. This could mean cleaning, laying out their clothes for a date, giving them a foot rub, etc. There may also be punishments, such as spanking or flogging, if the submissive doesn’t perform their tasks correctly.

            D/s Bondage

            This is where the ropes come in, folx. A Dom uses rope (or other forms of restraints) to tie the sub up in various ways. There is a lot of trust involved in this kind of play and it’s best to take a class and learn how to tie knots before going right in. You may not use ropes at all, choosing instead to use collars, restraints, or handcuffs.

            Caregiver/little

            This dynamic entails a Dom taking on a caregiver (or parental) role. The sub is their “little girl/boy/baby” and is cared for and treated like a little human. Also known as “Ageplay,” the activities involved can include brushing hair, spanking when the little is “naughty,” being fed with a spoon, etc.

            24/7 D/s

            This is when the Dom and sub are in their roles 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The sub may wear a collar or other form of “mark” to show that they are the “property” of their Dom. This one may sound like “a lot,” but it works really well for those who enjoy it.

            Female-Led Relationships (FLR)

            The female Dom makes the lion’s share of decisions in her relationship with her sub. She chooses where they eat, when they have sex, and what the sub wears. The sub does the household tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, and waits on his Dom hand and foot.


            Whatever dynamic you choose, it’s all normal and great, as long as everyone is getting what they want out of it. Kink can be a very sexy way to play with power dynamics in sex (and even in life). If you’re interested in bringing kink into the bedroom and exploring these roles further, check out our 30 day guide to kink.

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