Dominance and submission: a guide to Dom/sub dynamics

If you’ve been wanting to try kink but aren’t sure where to start, you’ve come to the right place. 

There are hundreds (probably thousands) of guides out there to kink, but they often don’t focus on the building blocks of healthy kink relationships. 

We need to walk before we can run, you know?

Enter the foundational layer of kink: The Dom/sub dynamic, or D/s. “Dominance and submission is the general container for almost all kinks,” explains Julieta Chiaramonte(Opens in a new window), a kink instructor, writer, and sex expert.

Understanding what the Dom/sub dynamic is, how it functions, and how to negotiate around it in your own relationship(s) is key to creating the kinky sex life of your dreams. It is the base layer. It is the fundamental configuration of role play.

Once you have a solid grasp on D/s, the rest — the whips, chains, blindfolds, sitting in Jell-O, using fake blood, etc. — can be built on top. We’re not here to yuck anyone else’s yum when it comes to your kinks, but we do want you to be confident in how to act on them.

Here’s everything you need to know.

What the Dom/sub dynamic actually is.

While Dom/sub dynamics are primarily found in kink, they actually play out in most forms of sex. One person is usually the more submissive partner, while the other is more dominant. But within the context of BDSM, these dynamics become even more explicit. BDSM stands for bondage, Dominance/Dominant, submissive/submission, and sadomasochism. This is when two or more people engage in consensual power exchange. The sub willingly hands over the power within the scene to the Dominant.

The key word here is “consent.”

“BDSM provides a framework for individuals to engage in [this] consensual power exchange,” says Dr. Nazanin Moali(Opens in a new window), a sex therapist and the host of the Sexology podcast. 


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The key word here is “consent.” Kink is all about giving and taking power in an empowered way. “Since consent is the cornerstone of these practices, it provides an opportunity to ensure [that] the person surrendering control and the person in charge stay within the sexual boundaries they’ve set,” Moali adds.

How D/s can play out in BDSM scenes.

D/s dynamics will play out in every kinky scenario, because it is the core of the practice. But how it shows up is another story. This is one of the things that makes kink so appealing. You can completely customize an experience to cater to your specific interests. 

Some examples of Dom/sub relationships:

  • A classic D/s bondage scene: The Dom acts as a master over the submissive. This usually entails punishment, sensory play, etc. Think: 50 Shades of Gray, but not shit.

  • A caretaking scene: The Dom “takes care” of the sub. The sub is called a Little in this dynamic. 

  • A Dom/brat scene: The sub is a “brat” and purposely “disobeys” the Dom in order to receive punishments.

  • A Master/pet: The Dom is a pet-owner and the sub is the pet.

There is a common misconception that Dom/sub dynamics are inherently pain-focused or violent. This just isn’t true. 

Chiaramonte explains that the paddles, crops, and ropes are about deepening the bond between the Dom and their sub. “A Dom may consensually practice bondage with their submissive to deepen their power practice,” she explains. “Bondage in this scenario can be used as a punishment, a reward, or a sensory experience to show who’s boss in a safe way.”

There is a common misconception that Dom/sub dynamics are inherently pain-focused or violent. This just isn’t true. 

But nurturing a Dom/sub dynamics is not entirely relegated to the sphere of pain play. Kink can involve sensory play, elaborate pain-free role play, and much more. These scenes are made by the two or more people playing them out. It is a unique and fully bespoke experience.

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Negotiating boundaries within a Dom/sub dynamic. 

The sub is not under the Dominant’s coercive control. They are an equal member in the power exchange. That means that BDSM and kink and are all about negotiation. “The discussion you have before play is the place to express boundaries you both have, your expectations, and to set the stage for consent,” Chiaramonte says. “This helps create healthy boundaries before entering a dynamic.”

Moali says that while you should be “sure you have a ‘safe word’ that you may use during the scene to immediately halt any actions, it is [also] important to have periodic conversations about your boundaries.” When you’re new to BDSM, you may not be entirely sure of every boundary you have. Feeling like you’re safe to explore edges with the ability to say “no” when something isn’t right is key.

Do not go forward in a situation without having a conversation first.

While all boundaries and scenes are negotiated, the Dom takes on a lot of responsibility within this dynamic. They are responsible for the sub’s safety — both mentally and physically. If you’re taking on a Dom role, you need to be extra-aware of the care you need to take to ensure the sub’s boundaries are respected. As a Dom, you have been given the reins to control the scene. And this shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Do not go forward in a situation without having a conversation first, Chiaramonte says. “If someone asks to play before setting any sort of negotiation and boundaries, [that’s a] red flag,” she explains.


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This does not mean that the sub does not have power. Everything is highly negotiated and supplemented by the use of a safe word. A safe word is a non-sexual agreed upon word or phrase that indicates the sub has reached their limit. Once a safe word is invoked, the play stops – either entirely or for a break.

The importance of aftercare post-kink play.

BDSM and kink scenes come with the need for a great deal of concentration, a lot of emotional intensity, and physical requirements (such as dealing with pain, tying knots, etc.). “When we get deep into sub-space or dom-space, we experience a high nearly identical to that of drugs: We’re stimulated, [have] heightened emotions, and can feel in another dimension,” Chiaramonte tells us.

Subspace has been described as similar to a deep meditative state — which research shows(Opens in a new window) can feel incredibly therapeutic and has lots of psychological benefits. But because this meditative state in kink can be highly emotive, we need to take post-play into consideration. You need to take some time to “come down” from the scene. 

This is where aftercare comes in. 


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Aftercare is when the Dom and sub have some connection time. This can look like cuddling, bringing the sub a glass of water, talking through the scene, and much more. As with boundary negotiation, you’ll need to take time to figure out what kind of aftercare you and your partner(s) need.

Aftercare is crucial when doing BDSM because it allows us to return to a state of equilibrium and calm after particularly intense scenes. “Engaging in aftercare fosters a sense of trust as well as providing a sense of connection,” Moali says. 

Aftercare isn’t always just the Dom taking care of the sub. Sometimes the Dom has big post-scene emotions as well. We all need care after emotionally complex experiences; having empathy for that can make your kink experiences so much better.

Learning new dynamics is rewarding.

The D/s dynamics in kink (and all sex) can be incredibly rewarding and offer an enriching way to view your sexuality and sexual experiences. Taking time to fully grasp the complexity and nuance associated with the roles we play in sex offers us greater insight into who we are as humans.

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