“Am I still a submissive if I only act that way in the bedroom?” “Am I still doing BDSM if I’m not doing it 24/7?” The answer is “of course!” but it’s no wonder that questions like these abound given the amount of conflicting information about BDSM that’s available and how much of it seems to ignore or belittle non-24/7 dynamics. If what you’ve read elsewhere makes you feel like an imposter, we’re here to set the record straight.
The fact is, most kinky people don’t extend their play outside the bedroom and, beyond combating the stereotypical “true dom” in search of a no-limits sub, most of the kink community isn’t interested in policing how you define your role. There is a small, yet vocal, minority of 24/7 lifestylers, however, who believe that the terms “dominant” and “submissive” are reserved for 24/7 practitioners and frequently make their views known in online forums, BDSM blogs, and nonfiction books.
In her 2010 book Conquer Me: Girl-to-Girl Wisdom about Fulfilling Your Submissive Desires, Kacie Cunningham begins by saying that “A bottom, to me, is someone who likes the way that BDSM feels physically. . . . She does not live the lifestyle 24/7 . . . Even if she is submissive during scenes, it is a method of play and not the way she typically lives her daily life.” She also notes that most submissives are collared and have contracts and “may” retain a safeword. In a post called “What’s the difference between a ‘bottom’ and a ‘sub’?” on the popular kink website Kinkly, blogger Molly Moore writes that, “a ‘bottom’ is usually someone who only takes on the submissive role within a play session or scene for a limited and previously negotiated time period.” She goes on to say that “unlike a bottom, who mainly plays a receiving role in sexual interactions and scenes, a submissive may approach their label as signifying a more psychologically complex, 24/7 commitment.” Confusingly, the definition of “submissive” in Kinkly’s glossary allows for a much broader interpretation of the word than Moore’s post, which highlights the lack of agreement on the terminology within the kink community.
When I first found my way to BDSM, I wasn’t quite sure I fit in because my mental image of it mostly involved people in latex wielding whips, which wasn’t what I was interested in. My primary drive was something invisible: the desire to give up control. D/s was what I craved; for me, the rest of the letters in the abbreviation were only in service of that. The idea of bottoming for sensation without a D/s component was completely foreign to me. Once I started researching BDSM more, I realized that the idea of power exchange was right up my alley, but I was confused by the plethora of information—especially online—about people in 24/7 dynamics. I knew without a doubt that I was submissive, but I was equally certain that I had no interest in extending D/s play beyond the bedroom. Was it not possible to have one without the other?
Interestingly, the linguistic gatekeeping surrounding concepts like bottom/submissive and what constitutes D/s seems to be a newer phenomenon. Guides and information about BDSM from the 1990s or early 2000s consistently emphasize that dynamics and roles can take any number of forms, but that 24/7 is the exception, not the rule. In the chapter devoted to D/s in his classic book SM 101, Jay Wiseman acknowledges that some couples live a D/s lifestyle, but for the most part, the dynamic takes places within finite scenes. Even the portions of the book on training and collars are predicated on the idea that these things are used within scenes, not all the time. In the chapter about 24/7, he goes even further and says that “few people can maintain a dominant or submissive role all the time. These are consciously assumed roles, much like those assumed by actors, and require efforts to maintain.”
Similarly, in Different Loving, a book based on extensive research and interviews with people who engage in BDSM, authors Gloria and William Brame note that most of the doms they interviewed “stressed that they seek equals as partners, people who are in control of their daily lives, but taking such an individual and reducing him to a condition of erotic helplessness is electrifying . . .” In The New Bottoming Book, Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy state that D/s can last anywhere from an hour to a lifetime, depending on what’s been negotiated. They also drill down further to specify that the difference between a bottom and a submissive isn’t as clear-cut as some people make it out to be and that supporting “such binary or even hierarchical thinking” isn’t doing anyone any good. They see a “continuum, with some scenes getting more of their heat from control and power, and others depending more on sensation—but with virtually all scenes containing at least some aspects of each.”
The notion of a power exchange continuum allows room for a range of dynamics and roles that don’t necessarily fit into compartmentalized paradigms of top/bottom, dom/sub, or master/slave. Anyone who engages in D/s can see themselves in this continuum—people who play once in a while in bed; people who live it all day, every day; and everyone in between. Power exchange is about one person (the submissive) giving up control to another (the dominant). The amount of control that’s exchanged when and for how long is up to each couple to negotiate, but the timeframe of the exchange doesn’t alter the roles that are involved.
While there’s nothing at all wrong with living out a 24/7 dynamic if it’s what makes you happy, it should not be viewed as the highest rung in a ladder that everyone involved in BDSM must climb. Vagabond and I started our relationship knowing that we were interested in a bedroom-only dynamic. For us, BDSM is a place we go together—an erotic space that serves as a mini vacation every time we enter it. We cherish that space as an escape from the daily grind and our vanilla selves. Our hope is that everyone has the freedom to create that space for themselves in a way that fits their desires.