This post is about how Morality and Responsibility fit into healthy D/s relationships in the BDSM lifestyle. Many of the ideas explored below are applicable across much variety of relationship dynamics, sexual orientation and gender identification, there will be differences which you need to judge best for yourself and your lifestyle. I am writing from a perspective as an alternative lifestyle coach, a kink consultant to counseling professionals, and my own personal experience
What’s Morality Got to Do With It?
Morality is a framework by which we, as Individuals, identify or judge what behaviors are acceptable or not. Morals are not ethics, or social conventions, and though similar tend to come from others (i.e. from trends in general society or socioeconomic class). Ethics influence your places of worship or work, how you proceed in your profession and financially, etc. The words themselves, morals and ethics, are also heavily debated, contested, and often emotionally charged.
So then, if it makes it easier, let’s address these as your Core Values or Principles. Essentially they are the same thing – beliefs and views which are your own. Some remain steadfast, while others change and evolve as you experience learning moments through life. It is not unusual for many of your Principles to follow the ethics of the time. After all, the ethics of society will influence your parents, and thus how you are raised and learn to develop your initial set of views and beliefs. However, there are times when your moral sensibilities will diverge from society as a whole. When too many people have principles that disagree with societal ethics, there is a drive to change – like the women’s suffrage movement at the turn of the last century, or the fight for gay marriage today.
The point is that your principles or morals, as your personal philosophy or system of values, acts as a compass – providing you guidance and direction for choices, conduct, and dealing with actions of consequence.
The Moral Dominant
For example, when “John” the Dominant engages with a submissive, the sub “Sara” may feel compelled to obey him as a result of their roles. However, if Sara’s nature includes the tendency to submit too wholly too quickly, John will pull back. Why??
John will pull back because his morals include fostering healthy levels of trust and the ability to discern what is healthy for the submissive. Sara may be placing trust where it may not be appropriate or warranted – such as dealing with her own struggle with sub frenzy. Of course John wants her submission, of course he wants to play on edgier ground – but doing so now would not be cultivating a healthy submissive, one of his principles.
Obedience is defined simply as compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority. Consider that submission to a Dominant both as (A) the individual persona, and also (B) submission to the role.
Is Sara submitting to John the person, or John the Dominant, or are the two indistinguishable..?
A submissive may be obedient to John’s command, as her Dominant, but to her nature as a submissive and the dynamic in these roles. If she is submitting to her nature’s drive, is it fair to assume she is actually and mindfully consenting?
The Moral submissive
A capable Dominant should be able to look within their submissive to see if there is a sense of Morality that supersedes Obedience. Put another way, I believe that responsible obedience (like responsible Dominance) derives its legitimacy from a broader moral framework and relationship.
If John asks Sara to submit without having established fair trust and proof of His responsibility over time, couldn’t that be harmful or involve unnecessary risk to her well being? If Sara’s drive to submit is so strong she effectively has little ability to refuse – is she even capable of making a healthy choice? What are the morals guiding HER behavior?
The question becomes this: do both the Dominant and the submissive have a well defined moral framework to navigate their sense of values, principles, and authority? AND, are they able to articulate it well enough to be discussed and shared with potential partners??
Typically, I find that many people would rather forego this exercise because of desire, impatience, or entering into uncomfortable mental spaces. Usually, that’s a sign that MORE reflection on these topics is required, not less.
Let’s say John gives Sara a command that is pretty risky to her health or emotional well-being early on. There is little history, and therefore little to establish trust. Yet, she feels compelled to obey because he is, after all, the Dominant. So she complies silently, without perceptible hesitation….
Did you say “good girl” or “oh no”??
Its one thing if there is a good track record, where trust and reliability have been built and proven over time. However, demanding or entertaining a submissive’s immediate obedience, when the risks aren’t disclosed or known and there is little personal history together, may indicate that the submissive has not fully defined their own moral framework or personal identity… and that can be VERY dangerous to all involved.
A submissive that does not have self worth enough to protect themselves can be a danger to themselves and to their Dominant because there is NO concern for potential consequences.
Reflection & Introspection
Let’s assume the same scenario as above – but this time Sara pauses, looks within, and finds in a particular instance that the drive to obey actually might defy her morals. Such an experience would give rise to significant distress – its a message from within, telling her that the course of action to just obey is “not right”… Now what??
Well, first she needs to understand what this means. This discord tends to occur when there is a contradiction between Morals and (A) the sense of required compliance/obedience, or (B) the sense to oblige social expectation/ethics. Taken in a political context, this can result in something akin to “conscientious objection” or civil disobedience.
In the context of BDSM, this should result in communication that the Sara “needs to respectfully refuse”. What follows should be a careful and level headed discussion about why the refusal is need. Okay, we have a moment where the submissive refuses – now the Dominant, John, needs to understand something… that very likely HE is the one that made an error somewhere.
Right of Refusal
Morality and Obedience are not opposites, but rather both are mechanisms which serve to guide a decision-making process while holding us accountable as individuals for “doing our part”. At times these decisions are strictly personal, very often they go beyond our personal interests to that of our partner, our families, even as broad as for the betterment of the species or society.
Is it always easy to align these two things? No. It can be a struggle to see how they are linked and if they fit together properly. This is especially true when what would be better for a community contradicts personal gain, or the safety of your own family. When a demand of us as individuals are made, we need to ask ourselves if this what we stand for in our best of moments. If we look within and say “no” – I cannot in all honesty support this or obey as demanded – then you should have the Right of Refusal available and communicate why this is so.
Yes – you need to Discuss it. Discussing a refusal to a demand is to understand what happened. Perhaps the Dominant has asked too much too soon and made a poor assumption about the state of their submissive. Perhaps the submissive has experienced some setback or trigger that requires time to feel secure with compliance. As I have written before, its good practice to assume that no one in a relationship is another’s enemy. So leave the accusation and paranoia behind, and open yourself to challenging erroneous presumptions.
Refusal means there is a gap in understanding – the fact that there is a gap means Something needs to be addressed. Either that’s coming to a new appreciation about the others position or needs, reaching an understanding about actions and decisions, or learning there are still foundational needs that have yet to be met for there to be Trust and Security.
A Dominant does NOT have the right to criticize the submissive for refusing with reason. Do not put them on trial, or demean/diminish their needs or feelings. If you can’t step up or handle the reason and see it through, then consider your choices as a Dominant and the types of partners you are selecting.
A submissive does NOT have the right to pull the refusal card capriciously, as a way to emotionally blackmail or seek revenge, or otherwise provoke their Dominant. Doing so shouldn’t get you anything other than being released from your owner and sent packing.
Responsibility & Consensuality
Many people in the BDSM lifestyle hold the very simple mantra of “Safe, Sane, and Consensual”. In the end, if it is not safe or sane, you do NOT have to give consent. Saying no is always a valid choice, even if there are possible consequences such as ending the relationship. BDSM “enslavement” is emotional or internal, a state some desire and strive for. However, in most of the civilized world slavery is illegal.
Non-consensual enslavement is not valid, not legal, and cannot be maintained without force and compliance. This SHOULD be obvious, but inadequate appreciation for consent leads to emotional abuse and manipulation within society at large and sometimes within the BDSM arena. There is a difference between a healthy D/s relationship and abuse, and if you think its abuse, then for you it is.
Dominants bear the responsibility of culturing that sensibility in our submissives and our households. It would be irresponsible were a Dominant to demand obedience which would do harm to their submissives or their responsibilities (children, parents, job, etc). It is a line that must be walked between the responsibilities of lives touched and desires – its striking and maintaining a Balance. It is also cause and effect, since what you do or command has a consequence that you ARE responsible for. Impulse control, self restraint, and “the long view” are marks of responsible ownership. Such responsibility cannot be “passed down” to your submissive in order to absolve the Dominant of responsibility.
Submissives bear similar responsibilities. While many beginner submissive feel that submission or surrender alleviates them of responsibility, it doesn’t. A command that will harm you, your family, or others is something that should go against personal healthy morals. Though you are submissive, you are a Consenting Adult – and as such are responsible for understanding and upholding decisions as a “hard limits”. You have a right to hard limits, and they can be based on moral grounds just as much as physical or emotional ones.
This article should provide you with some thought about BDSM and morals, limits, and responsibility.
We are thinking beings, able to see causality of actions. We can choose to ignore them, but that does not excuse us from our decisions and choices. It is ultimately the consequences of the choices that matter – not the intent. Not the letter of the law, but the spirit, and how that impacts others lives. Obeying strictly the letter of the law and bending it to your benefit is the essence of Rationalization. This is where a well defined set and shared personal morals come into play – exposing the beliefs and values which guides us, versus rationalizing our behavior or working the system of rules, policy, and protocols.
If morals and responsible nature are in alignment, then exploration (and boundary-pushing) can be quite successful. If these things are not in alignment, I recommend having a very frank and honest discussion about the ability to honor limits without expectation or effort to change them. Hard limits are at the core of our innermost identity, and rarely overcome without significant challenge, struggle, and emotional duress.
Both Dominants and submissives are responsible for doing all they can to foster a healthy relationship. The responsibility is shared – no one is excused.
Copyright (C) 2015, Limits Unleashed LLC