Wednesday, 8 August 2007

The word "submissive"

...what does it mean?

"Dominant" I feel like I've got something of a handle on (and I didn't for years) because there's a distinction between "topspace" and "dominance" in a lot of people's minds. Topspace is about the thrill of control or the thrill of seeing someone in pain or both. It's a rush. But dominance is often, when I hear it described, used to talk about something more permanent. A personality trait or a desire to have control in non-sexual arenas too.

"Submissive" I hear in a lot of different contexts. Some people mean "I like subspace; being sexually vulnerable excites and/or otherwise gratifies me." Some people mean a personality trait, whether that's tending to defer to others, being a "people pleaser" generally, not liking to lead groups, having a deep need to serve others, or various other things. (Some of which I think are good and some of which I think are self-deprecating.)

And there is a lot of emphasis on who's "lifestyle/24/7/TPE/Master/slave/whatever word offends you least" and who isn't, and a lot of insistence that one's submission is "real"

and I keep thinking that some of it is the term being so broad.

My old problem with "dominant" is it seemed to specific to apply to me, and "top" seemed too broad and unconnected to power dynamics. I liked "submissive" because it could apply to all kinds of people easily.

But now I find myself actually feeling the opposite. Because with "dominant" -- well, there are similar ambiguities but they don't flummox me quite as much somehow. But with "submissive" I really have no idea whether someone means "I want to bottom, but I also want a power dynamic temporarily that makes me feel vulnerable" or whether sie means "I want to serve."

If someone is a potential partner of mine, this is no huge issue -- dating is about getting to know someone, and once I've done a bit of that I know what their submissiveness is about. That tells me whether I want a D/s dynamic with that person, or if they don't suit me, or if they use "submissive" to describe things I think more of as "bottoming" with, perhaps, a slight twist of surrender.

(Note that I see nothing wrong with that last and have plenty of fun with such people. I don't know that my brain would slot them into "sub", but their labels are their business, and I don't and have never required heavy power exchange from everyone I date, hook up with, or beat for fun. That would be exhausting and limit my pool of friends and lovers for no good reason.)

And recently when I called out one of the guys on here for on the one hand espousing very strict submission to "women" as a gender, but on the other being petty and obnoxious toward the people that his own apparent interpretation of "submission" meant he should have been taking seriously, several people interpreted that as me endorsing a very strict form of submission, rather than my finding this particular person's behavior inconsistent with what he professed to be.

So... submissive people in here: what do you mean by submissive and submission? Is it about sexual play? Personality? How you choose to live? If it's a cordoned-off part of you for sexual thrills "only", does it ever impact your daily life? Is this good or bad? If you see it as a part of your personality, integral to your relationships, etc., how is it?

30 comments:

maymay said...

I see very little point in trying to define a term for the general populous that isn't willing to look it up in the dictionary and use it as the dictionary states.

That said, everyone will bring their own personal interpretations to words, and their definitions, and that can not be avoided. Learning what each person's definitions are should be the centerpoint of this discussion, not specifically defining terms.

And that said, submission to me is (briefly, and probably pretty poorly) defined as emotional vulnerability and masochistic generosity, if that makes any sense…?

EthylBenzene said...

For me, it's all about teh sex. I self-identify as sexually submissive and sexually masochistic (though that does tend to cross over -- witness the piercings, tattoos, and willingness to throw myself and my bicycle off ill-advised rocks). Outside-the-bedroom power exchanges turn me way the fuck off, but I certainly don't give a hoot if anyone else wants to live that way. Because I've had to deal a lot with people making assumptions about my relationship, I tend to be very concious of not judging others, trying to remember at all times that it's impossible to tell what a relationship feels like from the inside by peering in from the outside.

IRL, I'm kind of assertive, bordering on abrasive and bitchy. In the bedroom, totally different. No, really!

Anonymous said...

Regular ol' anonymous here.
I'd be e) all of the above. At least at one point or another, and I suspect/hope that pattern'll continue. Let's see..

To make things nice and (more) defined, when I say 'I'm a submissive' I simply mean I do not want to be someone's Top or Dom. There's that one person in a million whom I'd be happy to do so for/with, but generally the idea leaves me feeling at the very least very uncomfortable.

Now, 'submission' I don't really use, but when other people use it I leave it up to them as to how they define it. Afaik there's everything from bratty submission/intentionally topping from the bottom for thrills and giggles all the way across to the strictly enforced 24/7 third person speaking deal. In that spectrum submission comes in all kinds of pretty colours.

Going back to me (me me me), I think being submissive is both something I was born with and something that got ingrained into me. One of my earliest memories is wrestling with this boy I had a bit of a crush on (this was around seven years old or so) and letting him pin me down over and over because it felt nice. ;) So there's that.
However, I'm also very much a bottom and a painjunkie. This is definitely something I was born with. Mmm. Good pain.

Currently for various reasons my submissive side is tied up and gagged in the confines of a big ol' trunk in the attic of my mind. I can not let it impact my day to day life, though it's a bit of a struggle at times. I'm a very shy and introvert individual, but I see this as very separate from my status as a sub. If I had my druthers/in my fantasies, I'd like to be somewhere between bedroom only and every day S&M and D/s. I have no desires to be made to feel inferior (and I'll only sub as part of the confines of a romantic relationship between equals!), but I get warm fuzzies at the thought of being 'forced'/protected etc etc.

Trinity said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trinity said...

Masochistic generosity? Now there's something I've never seen in a dictionary!

How do you think people are misusing the word "submissive", Maymay?

earlbecke said...

"Is it about sexual play? Personality? How you choose to live?"

Yes. :)

Seriously, though, it's an integral part of my identity. I am a fairly withdrawn, shy person, who really doesn't go out of my way to challenge myself unless pushed. I need a partner who challenges me and isn't afraid to force me to expand my horizons. (Within limits, of course; this is where it gets tricky. Ze needs to know what my hard limits are and not push me too hard. Negotiation and all. It's hard to define when "force" is actually force and therefore unacceptable, and when "force" is just helping me overcome my own inhibitions. I think my new love interest has been really good about those boundaries, because we communicate really well.) And I can really only be happy in a relationship with major power dynamics going on, it's just what makes me happy.

I have, as long as I remember, wanted a Master/slave sort of relationship. I have always wanted to feel "owned", protected, cherished like a prized possession. Which is funny, since I hate feeling objectified or being treated like an object, mostly. My life is a little bit of a contradiction, but that doesn't bother me. ;)

I guess for me it's sort of a mentor-relationship. I want to be instructed and guided, told what to do and challenged, helped to grow as a person. I also prefer to bottom in sex (anything else doesn't do anything for me) and I'm a tiny bit of a masochist (mmm, biting is sexy). I'm very service-oriented and like to take care of other people. I put their happiness before my own.

I sort of touched on this in a post on my blog today. Tomorrow I'll have a post up that talks a little bit more about what I look for in a partner and find attractive which might answer some of your questions (although definitely doesn't address them all -- I guess I need to write an essay-style "what submission means to me" post sometime soon). If, you know, you want to check it out. :)

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Let's see what I can get coherent:

I suspect that some of the problem is meaning conflation. I can think of three broad categories of thing that I might be pointing at if I were to say "I'm a submissive", depending on context.

1) My sexual fantasy life, when it has been active and extant, has essentially always involved aspects of control, ownership, the stuff that earlbecke described so well. (The primary exception to this appears to be dreams in which I'm male; apparently my inner guy is either vanilla or so rarely gets true expression that his kink doesn't show up.)

So: "Dominance is one of the big hooks into what I find hot."

2) If I am in a sexual relationship, I need to have the opportunity to do scene-based d/s interaction when I feel that is appropriate to the state of the current dynamic. In other words, if I am limited to 'egalitarian' (bad word, can't get a better at the moment) sexuality, I wind up frustrated, resentful, and unsatisfied.

So: "A relationship in which I cannot do power exchange dynamic stuff on at least some occasions is a bad fit for me."

3) I am in a relationship-based power exchange relationship. In that relationship, I offer various forms of service and support to my master; I get not only the satisfaction of service and the kink-itch-scratching, but also effectively the reward of regular access to various altered consciousness states (collectively referrable to as 'subspace').

So: "I am in a relationship in which I am collared."


There aren't words to distinguish these readily, so they all get referred to as 'I'm a submissive'. And stuff that I consider related to the same traits often doesn't -- such as my preference to basically be the enforcer or implementor for the person in charge and my constant friction with consensus-based decisionmaking -- I don't explain that in terms of "I'm a submissive", but when I talk about that stuff I'm talking about the same core personality bits that are part of why "I'm a submissive" is mostly a useful statement for me.

Trinity said...

"I have, as long as I remember, wanted a Master/slave sort of relationship. I have always wanted to feel "owned", protected, cherished like a prized possession. Which is funny, since I hate feeling objectified or being treated like an object, mostly. My life is a little bit of a contradiction, but that doesn't bother me. ;)

I guess for me it's sort of a mentor-relationship. I want to be instructed and guided, told what to do and challenged, helped to grow as a person. I also prefer to bottom in sex (anything else doesn't do anything for me) and I'm a tiny bit of a masochist (mmm, biting is sexy). I'm very service-oriented and like to take care of other people. I put their happiness before my own."

That sounds so much like the flip side of me I'm giggling.

Except that I'm into heavy SM, too.

Bitchy Jones said...

I really, really love the word submissive. I don't know what it means (I know you weren't asking me) - but I know it when I see it.

belledame222 said...

hey, welcome, earlbecke!

Camiseta Personalizada said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
EthylBenzene said...

"In that spectrum submission comes in all kinds of pretty colours. "

I think that's the crux of it right there. Since such simple, basic things like "sex" can mean so many different things to so many different people, why would something complicated like a person's kinks be easily defined?

I was thinking about this some more, after I posted yesterday. I also wanted to say that this feels like something I was born with -- if I wasn't born with it, it got ingrained at a very early age. I have NEVER had a sexual fantasy without some form of D/s in it, and even when having "vanilla" sex, I've been thinking real real hard about it...otherwise, no orgasm for me.

It's just all so complicated, and something I've noticed about radicals of all stripes is that they like things simple -- "us" vs "them." I think there's a lot to say about that, actually. It sure seems to me that a lot of "radfems" who criticize BDSM seem to be criticizing some radfem strawperson who doesn't actually exist.

I think I'm going off on a tangent now, and since I've got to head to work, I'll leave it alone now :)

Trinity said...

"I also wanted to say that this feels like something I was born with -- if I wasn't born with it, it got ingrained at a very early age. I have NEVER had a sexual fantasy without some form of D/s in it, and even when having "vanilla" sex, I've been thinking real real hard about it...otherwise, no orgasm for me."

Same here. :) But for me it's about more than sex. It's also about what I want relationships to look like.

That actually sounds a lot more imposing than it is. I more mean I want daily interactions to be tinged/colored/affected by D/s than I mean "totally rigid role structure, on at all times."

EthylBenzene said...

"Same here. :) But for me it's about more than sex. It's also about what I want relationships to look like.

That actually sounds a lot more imposing than it is. I more mean I want daily interactions to be tinged/colored/affected by D/s than I mean "totally rigid role structure, on at all times." "

See, that's where we differ, which is sort of what led me to feeling kind of bad about my kinky for a little while. I felt like, well, I was a bad feminist for wanting to be smacked around in bed, but I also wasn't a Twue Submissive(TM) because I like my relationship how it is and didn't want to be in any kind of 24/7 non-scene delineated situation. But the more I read, the more I'm like, you know, that's ok. Because I'm going to do what gets me off, and what works for me, and fuck all of yinz who say it's wrong. Neener.

ellefromtheeast said...

"with "submissive" I really have no idea whether someone means "I want to bottom, but I also want a power dynamic temporarily that makes me feel vulnerable" or whether sie means "I want to serve.""

To avoid confusion, I personallly would call that first scenario "bottoming," and the other person's role "service topping." That's the kind of play I'll occasionally do with people other than my primary partner, where there's little to no power exchange but a bunch of sensation play. It can be a ton of fun.

Only in situations of stronger service and power exchange would I call myself "submssive" and my partner "dominant."

In that context, I definitely mean that "I like subspace; being sexually vulnerable excites and/or otherwise gratifies me." I also (if it's not too self-referential) mean that I enjoy those things that I commneted on about getting out of Daddy-girl dynamic in response to a previous post.

I am somewhat of a masochist, despite being a delicate little flower, but for me that's separate.

subversive_sub said...

I'm pretty much on the same page as ethylbenzene, I think, right down to the "Am I not a good feminist? Dammit, I'm apparently not a good submissive, either!" thoughts. I have a hard time distinguishing between what people call "bottoming" and "submissiveness," but either way, it's something that's strictly bedroom for me; I would never be happy in a "mentor relationship," nor would I consider myself a "service-oriented person" outside of a sexual situation. I don't really see submission as being part of my everyday personality, so to speak -- shy and self-conscious, at times, but not submissive.

I think one of the problems with labels like "submissive" and "bottom," for me, is that there are so many points on that wide spectrum that I've been at, depending on the situation. Sometimes I can get really into obedience and servitude; other times I'm more into being "forced" than willingly giving up agency; other times I just want pain (which often doesn't feel like submission at all). I'm not really sure where one ends and the other begins, and so I *like* the broadness of terms like "submissive." Honestly, I'm kind of flummoxed by the idea that a person would want a category any more rigid than that, because I don't really see how it could be useful. I feel like relying on one or two terms to explain all the nuances of one's sexuality, one's desires and limits and fetishes and particular interests, can only lead to confusion and misunderstandings.

...but then, I've never had to try to sum up my entire sexual identity in a few sentences, as I guess you have to do if you're just looking for a short-term play partner -- which I've never had. I bet there's a world of difference in how I'm looking at this, because of that...

Trinity said...

"To avoid confusion, I personallly would call that first scenario "bottoming," and the other person's role "service topping." That's the kind of play I'll occasionally do with people other than my primary partner, where there's little to no power exchange but a bunch of sensation play. It can be a ton of fun."

Oh, yeah. The "service topping" concept can be very useful indeed.

Trinity said...

"Honestly, I'm kind of flummoxed by the idea that a person would want a category any more rigid than that, because I don't really see how it could be useful."

It's not, really. Like I said in the comment to your post, when I called a certain fellow "bottom" rather than "submissive" it was based on a whole bunch of interactions here, reading his blog, etc. It was also an attempt to shock him into seeing that what he seemed to think of as obedience and service -- which DO have more specific meanings than some of these general identity terms -- looked an awful lot, to me and several dominant women here, like his fantasy and not like actual attempts to defer to anyone at all.

subversive_sub said...

"It's not, really. Like I said in the comment to your post, when I called a certain fellow "bottom" rather than "submissive" it was based on a whole bunch of interactions here, reading his blog, etc."

I guess that's what makes me so confused about this "submissive vs. bottom" thing. If it was such a specific case, based on a slew of interactions, then why generalize about these categories at all? Why say "don't present yourself as a submissive when you're really a bottom," rather than "don't say that you want to unconditionally serve and obey me when you really have a helluva lot of conditions to place on the scene"?

Again, as someone who only plays (currently) within a monogamous relationship, I'm wondering -- is there any sort of established terminology in place for the nuances of labels like "submissive," "bottom," "service," "obedience," and the like? And how does one learn that? Do you think that if I presented myself as a submissive, and said that I like to follow orders, but then made specific requests about what I wanted (i.e. "may I lick your boots; will you spank me?"), a self-described dominant would think, "oh, this is a bottom, not a submissive," and get annoyed? Or is it only when a person says, specifically, that they want to serve and please and *nothing more*, and then brings out their long list of dos and donts, that it becomes a problem? (And if THAT'S the case, then, again -- why make it an issue of submissive/bottom rather than an issue of being honest and clear about what you want and don't want before beginning to play with someone?)

...sorry if any of this seems caustic, I really don't mean to be -- honestly just trying to figure all this stuff out, and sensitive to anything resembling the "you're not REALLY a submissive/feminist/whatever," because I've been there so many times before.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Which raises the question of what "bottom" means, too, of course.

Understanding of top/bottom dynamic for me tends to come out as something that I can only ineptly frame as "doer"/"doneto", with an acknowledgement that the real world is not always entirely that clear-cut. (In a d/s situation in which the sub is, say, directed to perform oral sex, can it be meaningfully said that someone is the top? The sub is the doer ...)

Which means that I tend to frame things in terms of top/bottom when actions are the relevant distinction, and dominant/submissive when (for lack of a better word) authority is the critical thing. (And sometimes it's both, and sometimes it's not clear-cut, and so on.)

So, for example, I'm a rope switch, but mostly submissive. Which means that I'm doing a lot of negotiation with my liege about the circumstances and framework around me having an opportunity to rope top, because I need to have the thing constructed in such a manner that the fact of topping does not undercut his authority and my dedication to it. And there making the 'top/bottom' and 'dominant/submissive' distinction is pretty essential to working out something that will actually function for us -- if I didn't have the terminology to break it down, I'd be doing a lot more flailing. (I'm still doing a godawful amount of flailing, but at least I have language to get a grip on it with.)

I don't know how congruent my usage is with how mainstream kinksters use it, mind. But that's the thing I point at when I say.

ellefromtheeast said...

Do you think that if I presented myself as a submissive, and said that I like to follow orders, but then made specific requests about what I wanted (i.e. "may I lick your boots; will you spank me?"), a self-described dominant would think, "oh, this is a bottom, not a submissive," and get annoyed?"

IMHO, most tops/dominants wouldn't get annoyed by this right away. This sounds like the classic way for a more experienced submissive to play with a novice dominant, for example. If - usually, when - the dominant tells you to stop asking questions, that sie has a plan you're not to interrupt anymore, then the rubber hits the road. If you're interested in playing the submissive role, then you accept hir authority for that scene; if you really only wanted to bottom to specific sensations, you should back up and renegotiate.

"Or is it only when a person says, specifically, that they want to serve and please and *nothing more*, and then brings out their long list of dos and donts, that it becomes a problem? (And if THAT'S the case, then, again -- why make it an issue of submissive/bottom rather than an issue of being honest and clear about what you want and don't want before beginning to play with someone?)"

I think the difference between "submissive" and "bottom" is clearly established enough in the community that these issues are essentially the same thing. If the submissive/bottom is brand new to the kink world, then the dominant has to cut them some slack in understanding the vocabulary. But I think dw3t-hthr's understanding is pretty widespread.

Trinity said...

elle:

Thank you. I was trying to think of how to say, well, all that, in a non-threatening manner and couldn't. Thanks.

"If - usually, when - the dominant tells you to stop asking questions, that sie has a plan you're not to interrupt anymore, then the rubber hits the road. If you're interested in playing the submissive role, then you accept hir authority for that scene; if you really only wanted to bottom to specific sensations, you should back up and renegotiate."

Yes, yes, YES. And note that neither of these is WRONG or BAD. Both can be excellent, wonderful fun.

But if someone presents hirself as someone who wants to be the "stop asking questions" sort and I'm in a headspace that wants that, THEN for the person to turn out to want to renegotiate CAN POTENTIALLY be annoying

IF AND ONLY IF ze's been, up to that point, tooting hir "I'm here to serve and do your will" horn.

That's like "I've got some chocolate for you. It's your favorite kind" going on and on about how you know my preferences and were careful to get it right

and then handing me white chocolate, which I don't like much at all, instead of dark.

I wouldn't have any problem with a chocolatey gift of any sort whatsoever -- but for someone to wax rhapsodic about precisely how much cocoa is in the thing, and *then*

yeah, not so appreciated.

Anonymous said...

"elle:

Thank you. I was trying to think of how to say, well, all that, in a non-threatening manner and couldn't. Thanks."

:)

Now I'm all blushing and happy that you liked that.

ellefromtheeast said...

Whoops, sorry, that last anon was me. Compliments go to my head.

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