Words Of Power: BDSM Definitions For Pagans

Scene: This term usually refers to a single interaction of BDSM, be it a fifteen-minute flogging or a week-long staged psychodrama. It is also, confusingly, used in the BDSM community to mean the entire community and its activities, as in "So, are you into the Scene?" (The latter definition is sometimes, but not always, capitalized.) In this book, it will be used only to refer to its first definition, in order to avoid confusion. A scene, like a ritual, generally has a beginning where the atmosphere is set, and an ending where people are brought back to "normal" space, or whatever is normal for them. It's important to work out these boundaries so that both parties know what they are, and will be able to respond appropriately. If putting a collar around the bottom's neck is a sign of changing over to an active D/s headspace for a dominant, and the submissive they're playing with thinks that it's just a fun fashion accessory, some wires can get crossed.

Please also keep in mind that closure is just as important as clear openings, assuming that the people in question are not in a full-time 24/7 relationship. Just as you wouldn't walk away from a cast circle without bothering to take it down, dismiss elements, close doors, thank deities, or whatever else you do in your tradition, you shouldn't leave a ritual scene to trail off uncertainly. If nothing else, you can firmly say that the rite is over and then go do some mundane thing, separately or together. I find that taking care of bodily needs and eating ice cream is my favorite sort of scene closure.

Top/bottom: These are catchall terms referring to who is in charge of any given BDSM interaction. Simply put, the top makes the rules and does the active directing of the encounter; the bottom sets the limits and responds to the top's direction. These terms are job-oriented, in that they refer only to who is doing what for a specific encounter. That encounter could last for half an hour, or years, depending on the individuals in question.

Often, the power dynamics of who is topping and who's bottoming are more subtle than obvious. For example, one person could be flat on their back receiving sensation, and the other one could be on top of them, actively working to give them that sensation. Who's the top or the bottom? It depends on who is actually leading and controlling the action. It might be the active partner, while the passive partner just lays back and enjoys it....or the passive partner might be directly or indirectly giving the active partner orders as to what would please him/her, while the active partner is just doing what they are told. It's best not to assume that all topping is active, or all bottoming is passive.

Among non-BDSM gay men, the terms top and bottom refer to anal sex -- the top is traditionally the one penetrating, and the bottom the one receiving penetration. I always found this to be a bit awkward as a definition, and not just because it can make for confusion when people from different communities try to negotiate. It's also that fucking isn't so easily divided in this way....when one person is laying passively while the other one has pounced on them and is vigorously humping their cock and using them as a live dildo, the assumption that the top is the inserter and the bottom is the insertee doesn't quite hold up. But be warned that you may run into these clashing definitions on your travels.

In terms of ritual sex, it's more often the bottom who sets the main goal and theme for the scene. This is because more often than not, the bottom's journey to and from whatever dark place in their psyche they are visiting is the point of the exercise. The majority of ritual sex scenes, although both top and bottom should agree and collude on the goal and methods used, generally have the psychodrama structured around getting the bottom to where they need to go, and getting them back safely. Tops often end up as a sort of sacred stage director and production manager. This can be a very fulfilling role, or it can feel restrictive, especially if the symbols used are ones that are meaningful only to the bottom, and feel empty to the top. However, structuring a ritual scene for the top's spiritual needs requires a very experienced and trusting bottom, and a lot of negotiation. A top can "surprise" a bottom during a ritual scene (and there may be times when this is necessary for the proper psychological effect), but a bottom has to be very careful with adding unscripted elements into a scene staged for their top, unless they know them very well.

Dominant/submissive: This refers to psychological states of mind, and activities that stem from those states. The dominant is the person who is psychologically in charge of the scene, and the submissive is the person who is psychologically submitting in the scene. A scene need not have a dominant and and submissive to work; for example, in some scenes, the top is merely a technician and does not claim any psychological power over the bottom.

Dominance is the act of gaining emotional pleasure by being in control of another human being, for however long and to whatever extent. Domination can be nurturing, or strictly disciplined, or even cruel if that is what both parties agree is desirable. In most cases, it is not about being "bossy" or "all-powerful"; rather it is receiving the gift of loyalty, love, and complete trust and faith in your ability to "use" the submissive partner in a way that is satisfying to both parties. A long-term D/s relationship requires a dominant to take responsibility for the submissive's well-being and growth as a person.

Submission is the act of gaining emotional pleasure and satisfaction from turning one's will over to another person. It is an act of deep trust, whether it is for an hour, a weekend, or a lifetime. It is not about being a "doormat" or "codependent"; ideally, a submissive is a strong person who carefully chooses a trustworthy partner to submit to, and uses good judgment and a great deal of negotiation in order to ensure their safety before jumping in.

There are many different contexts and roles used in dominant/submissive pairings, limited only to the imagination of the couple in question. Some of these are listed in the chapter on D/s archetypes; there are enough of them that people ought to be able to figure out what suits them best without having to resort to ill-fitting stereotypes.

In a service-oriented relationship, the focus is on how the submissive can contribute resources to the dominant partner, provide for some of their needs or advance their goals. These relationships may or may not also include romantic feelings. Some service-oriented submissives need their service to be ensconced in a romantic relationship; others are fine with being the houseboy or maid of a dominant with whom they are neither partnered nor emotionally involved, and sometimes not even sexually involved. In these cases, the relationship is a vehicle for them to perfect their path of service. In a non-service-oriented relationship, the dominant tends to do more for the submissive than the reverse, while gaining satisfaction from controlling them.

Most D/s situations are short-term, and/or highly restricted. A small number of folks settle into full-time dominant-submissive relationships, but these are rare and not easy to maintain. Some go even further and become master/slave relationships, where one partner has consensually agreed to be fully owned and controlled by the other. Unlike the frequency of this dynamic in BDSM pornography, however, these are rare cases and most of the people in any given BDSM community keep their D/s play much more limited. Many, if not most, of the "slaves" in any BDSM demographic are being "slaves" for the night, or the weekend.

Dominance and submission are controversial subjects in the Pagan community, with its emphasis on freedom. Some people are troubled by the very idea of it, even if it is completely negotiated and consensual on the part of each person. If you know little about it, it can be easy to cast the dominant as a selfish, controlling, abusive individual (or even a crazed psychopath), and the submissive as a brainwashed, codependent victim being blindly used for harmful purposes. This has led to a great deal of argument from people who object to the concept that anyone could freely and intelligently agree to such a thing. D/s practitioners who defend their choices are often dismissed as deluded, especially when they are the submissive partner.

The argument seems to go like this: "I find the idea of being in such a relationship to be horrifying. Therefore, I can't imagine why any sane person would do it. Therefore, anyone who does it must be insane by definition. Therefore, anything they say to explain or defend it must be a product of delusion and cannot be trusted." It's a circular, and rather insulting, argument that intelligent and open-minded people shouldn't be tempted into embracing through their own subjective biases. After all, real freedom ought to mean the right and ability to choose any sort of consensual lifestyle, whether it is the sort of thing that most people might want or not.

Another issue that some folk have with D/s is the fear that justifying such a relationship between people who have consented to it might eventually be used as ammunition to justify forcing nonconsenting people into such relationships as well. This is especially worrisome to women, who fear that it may be used to make them second-class citizens. While I can't assuage anyone's subjective fears, I can point out that the activities of a small minority of perverts is unlikely to ever be reflected in widespread legislation. I might also point out that nearly all active BDSM community members are fiercely in favor of any individual's right to choose their own sexual and romantic activities, and are not the sort to push for forcing any one path on innocent bystanders.

Switch: Someone who enjoys both sides of any of the top/bottom, or dominant/submissive, or sadist/masochist pairings. An individual could switch between scenes, or between lovers, or even do both at once within a multiple-person scene with a hierarchical power structure.

Safeword: This is any out-of-context word used to stop a scene. It might be anything from "dishwasher" to "vanilla" to "mercy". Some people use a series of three safewords -- "red", "yellow", and "green" -- for levels of discomfort ranging from "slow up on that sensation" to "stop everything right now". There are good reasons for having specific words for making the action stop; the traditional one cited, of course, is that the bottom may want to play with being able to yell "No!" or "Stop!" as part of the drama of the scene, without actually meaning it, and so there needs to be a separate word to stop things for real. Another good point about safewords is that the bottom actually has to think about them in order to say them, so stopping the scene is more likely to be a conscious act and less likely to be accidental and reflexive.

Using a safeword is sometimes spoken of in verb form, as in "She safed when I did that" or "I had to safe". At some public scene parties, the house rules may state that the default safeword is "safeword" or "safe". Tops also have (or ought to have) safewords; I don't know how many tops I've known who threw out their back or cut themselves in the middle of a scene, and needed to stop everything. Although they don't like to admit it, things can get psychologically intense for a top as well, and they need to learn to be all right with their own need to slow down.

Sadist/Masochist: This pairing is about the giving and taking of pain. The sadist is someone who enjoys inflicting pain on someone. Usually, the word is used specifically about someone who becomes sexually aroused from inflicting physical pain and (sometimes) emotional suffering on another human being. The opposing term, masochist, is about someone who has the ability and desire to get pleasure -- ideally but not necessarily sexual arousal -- from having pain applied to their body.

There is a lot of talk among SM players about endorphins and their role in SM practice, but endorphins are by no means the only explanation for why masochists find intense sensation to be desirable. While we deal with this more thoroughly in the chapter on Sacred Pain, let it be said that there are many different kinds of pain, and many different places to go with it. Some want the endorphin rush that sweeps them away. Some want pain that shocks them, keeps them awake, makes them feel alive and inhabiting their bodies. Some want pain because they've eroticized certain kinds and it makes them hard or wet, from a bite on the neck to a thorough spanking. The idea is that after your senses have been on overload for a while, strong sensations blend together, and pleasure and pain intermix. But it's really something that has to be experienced properly; we can talk all day until we're blue in the face and it still can't be understood through words.

Sadism is more tricky, and less savory to most people. It seems to be basically a fetish, in the sense of something that you have become conditioned to find sexually arousing. Despite popular ideas, sadism does not make you evil or crazy. If you've got it in you, though, you have hard choices to make about what it is ethical to allow yourself. A sane, reasonable, conscious sadist will simply go look for a consenting (and ideally enthusiastic) partner, and otherwise control themselves. The sadist who lets loose in nonconsensual ways on random people is not being reasonable and conscious, to say the least. However, as any masochist will tell you, it's far more satisfying to receive pain from someone who is honestly enjoying it than from someone who is merely indulging you. Sadists are necessary and vital, to some people's practices, anyway.

Play: Some folks in the BDSM community will refer to what they do with each other as "play", regardless of how serious it is. Some will refer to it as "work", no matter how much fun it is. Some will differentiate between purely recreational BDSM and serious ritual or emotionally cathartic scenes by referring to the first as "play" and the second as "work". As of this moment, it's impossible to discern immediately which sort of individual you've got, so asking further questions is probably a good idea for better communication.

Ritual: This word varies depending on what community uses it. For Pagans, it's a (sometimes repetitive) set of symbolic actions that are done with deliberate and conscious spiritual purpose. For people in the BDSM community, it usually means some sexual or fetishistic act that is done over and over again the same way. For those in the body modification community, a "ritual" cutting or piercing or other bodily change is something done for the purpose of experiencing the process of doing it, not permanently modifying the body. For those who straddle communities, it can have any combination of these meanings. For purposes of this book, I use the first meaning.

Fetish, Fetishism: In anthropology, a fetish is an object to which magical powers are attributed; when the term is extended to sexuality, it indicates any object besides a complete human body that causes sexual arousal for some people. The best known object fetishes are for items of clothing, especially those made out of particular materials like fur, leather and rubber, boots and shoes, or specific parts of the body such as breasts or feet. One can also have a fetish for certain kinds of activities.

From an animistic Pagan point of view, it's useful to compare the original meaning of the word "fetish" to its current sexual meaning. The truth is that a sexual fetish can indeed be used as a magical practice, and a sexually fetishized item can be imbued with specific energy from regular usage. For instance, imagine a female-bodied but male-identified individual who continually wears and frequently uses a favorite strap-on dildo for solo and partnered sex, and who uses that cock as a way to "shapeshift" and envision hirself as male-bodied. In this case, a sexual fetish has become a magical fetish, an object that, when carried or used, bestows magical powers on the bearer.

Fisting, Fistfucking, Handballing: A form of advanced sexual yoga in which the whole hand is carefully worked into the vagina or anus. This technique requires experience, patience, and a lot of care and lubricant. Usually the participants work up to it over a period of time which can take as long as several months. This is an advanced "opening" technique that can be used as an ordeal, or as a magical working to psychically "open" someone. See the chapter on Sacred Penetration for more information.

Bondage: The use of confinement or restrictive movement to control a bottom/sub with the intent of heightening awareness and receptivity to pleasure, or to make them feel more psychologically "captured" or "trapped". Can be done with ropes, chains, straps, or all sorts of other things. For good books on how to do bondage properly, see the appendix.

SSC: Acronym for Safe, Sane, and Consensual, which is the current social credo of the mainstream BDSM community. The idea of SSC is that all responsible adults participating in any form of BDSM ensure that the encounters are physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe, that they stay within the limits of what is reasonable/sane activity, and that all parties involved have given their full consent to the activities.

Some individuals in the BDSM community feel that there are problems with the credo of SSC. Their objections lie around the concepts that it nothing is entirely safe and that those who choose to engage in risky activities together have the right to do so; that what is "sane" and "insane" is sometimes judged subjectively and unfairly by a viewer with biases, and that consensually agreeing to give up consent for a period of time is not tantamount to forced abuse. "Risk-Aware Consensual Kink", or RACK, is a term that was coined in reaction to this dissatisfaction regarding the political issues surrounding the SSC ethos. Specifically, RACK is intended to embrace edgeplay and play that is engaged in without safewords.

Edgeplay: Play that is seen as more unusually risky than the majority of BDSM play in the scene community. It can refer to emotionally volatile play as well as physically dangerous activities. The problem with this word is that what is edgeplay to one person is every Tuesday night's fun activity to another; it can be (and unfortunately tends to be) used very subjectively, as in "if I don't like it, and the idea of doing it makes me uncomfortable, it's edgeplay".

24/7: A term for people who live in full-time D/s relationships.

Squick: A slang term for a reaction of disgust, distaste, or distress, as in, "That squicked me! Ick!" when something goes beyond the borders of someone's comfort.

Protocol: The system of formal, structured responses that a submissive learns in order to know what is appropriate for them to do in any given circumstance. Protocol can range from high ("Sir, do you have any orders for this slave, Sir?") to low ("Umm, Mistress, honey, your skirt is tucked into your waistband; let me get that for you...") and it can also range from fetishy and blatantly sexual (such as having a submissive stand or move or speak always in a way that reinforces the sexual servitude of their position) to completely reserved and asexual (such as might be required of a high-class valet or waiter).

Protocols vary from couple to couple, and from local subgroup to local subgroup. There is really no general agreement on a single sort of protocol for dominants and submissives, and many wars have been fought over that fact. The best protocol, of course, is the one that works most comfortably for the individuals in question.