I don’t believe ethical domination is possible. But if I had to give a dominant who absolutely refuses to quit the game one bit of advice about how to make domination less unethical, that one piece of advice would be:


Seriously, submissives are people who are willingly vulnerable, who face the world without armour and who have just been taught by the BDSM scene that:

  • their partners are supposed to push their boundaries
  • expressing their needs and desires during play is ‘topping from the bottom’ and therefore wrong.
  • submission is a package deal and enduring things they don’t like it part of being submissive
  • their every thought about being worthless needs to be allowed to be fed and grow stronger because it’s ‘only in the bedroom‘ and that’s totally hot.
  • more shit like this

And their ‘safety net in the scene’ is likely to consist of people who believe the same bullshit, who have a very narrow definition of what constitutes a consent violation and who are very unlikely to openly condemn a rapist.


You might as well embark on a journey to make less triggering horror movies and recruit your audience from a PTSD clinic. BAD IDEA.

So, ya know. Don’t date submissives.

If you simply must continue to play the game, date a dominant. You’ll still run into a world of trouble but at least you’re dating someone who is used to having power and agency in a relationship, who is likely to give and good and as bad as they get and who is more likely to be believed by their social scene if you do rape them. Not a perfect arrangement but a better one by far.

Sorry if that isn’t the answer you wanted to hear. Sorry if that isn’t going to help you get laid this weekend, but that’t what I’ve got.

maymay said: Have you been getting requests from Dominants who refuse to “quit the game” (who don’t want to drop the Dominant identifier or spend time questioning why they want to dominate people) about this issue? I’m so curious what those questions sound like….

I haven’t. 

I have had a surprising lot of ‘but is it okay if I dominate my partner if…’, questions which sounds a lot like people who really want to ask for permission to uncritically be a dominant. (I guess they know there’s something wrong with that, why else would they go looking for a strangers’ permission?) 

So this is a pattern worth calling out:

  • But is it okay to buy the plastic plates if I also buy the free-range eggs and use a paper shopping bag?
  • But is it okay to fill my car with gas if I also donate to the Wildlife Foundation?
  • But is it okay to eat meat if I also volunteer at a kitten shelter?

Or, closer to home, “is it okay to be a Dominant if I’m a woman, and he’s a man?” And so on.

What holds these beliefs together is the misunderstanding that oppression is a zero-sum game, that a “good” act will “cancel out” a bad act. Sorry, but that’s not how ethics, or power imbalances work. unquietpirate has a great quote about this:

This is the actual, meaningful reason for trying to avoid Oppression Olympics and “Highest Total Oppression Score” calculus. Not because the Arcane Rules of Pop-Social Justice Etiquette require it but because, often, we’re in situations where people have power over us in some ways and we have power over them in others. Those experiences of privilege and oppression interact in complex ways, but they don’t cancel each other out.

If you step on my foot, it is always appropriate for me to respond by saying, “OW. YOU’RE ON MY FOOT.” Especially if my foot has been getting stepped on all day! It’s appropriate for me to expect you to get off my foot and even to apologize. It’s not okay for me to respond by stomping on YOUR foot to make my point. In other words, if you do something misogynistic to me, it’s not cool for me to respond by doing something racist or ableist back.

One thing I’ve observed in the discussions around rolequeer kinks is that a lot of people who previously thought of themselves as Dominant have been rethinking their use of the label, and what all of them seem to have in common is a kind of reluctance in which taking on a Dominant role made them feel safe. As cool-yubari recently observed, abuse culture intentionally confuses people about the differences between things.

For a long time, I’ve asserted that the abuse inherent in BDSM intentionally confuses Submissives about the difference between gratitude and care; I felt grateful for being subjected to the abusive aspects of prior relationships, and I thought that this gratitude I felt towards my Dominant meant that I was being cared for by them. Moreover, if you look closely at the way many other Submissives speak about their Dominants, you’ll see this pattern there, too.

I interpreted Dominant acts as caring acts of a loving partner—it was called “aftercare” so how could it be anything harsh?—and I was grateful for the hurt and harm they caused. But that’s because I was taught, like rolequeer describes, that “submission is a package deal and enduring things they don’t like is part of being submissive,” among other things. That’s a big part of why Dominants Are Rapists.

Similarly, when you hear Dominants say things like “submission is a gift,” what they’re doing is setting people up to think that they (Doms) are grateful to us (Submissives) for allowing them to dominate us. They are creating a situation in which, later on, they literally say, “But you asked for it,” or “Why didn’t you use your safeword?” The framing of “gift” is also pernicious: it turns submission into a thing we’ve “given” to them, a thing that is now theirs, andthis feeds directly into the idea of submitting itself as the act of “consenting.” The idea that “submission is a gift,” one D-types are “grateful” to receive, is a literal metaphorical formalization of treating consent as a permission-acquisition scheme.

That’s messed up.

So here’s my attempt at a corollary for Dominants. But first I want to point out that this may be wrong, given I’ve never self-ID’d Dominant. It’s also not particularly interesting to me given I personally prioritize discussion for Submissives, but it may be helpful/useful/interesting to those of you who are having the “rolequeer topping” conversation, so I’ll toss it out here anyway.

The abuse inherent in BDSM intentionally confuses Dominants about the difference between safety and power. I’m guessing that D-types are taught to believe that having power over others is a way to make themselves feel safer in interactions with them. And I don’t doubt that there’s probably some tiny kernel of truth in that, somewhere. At the very least, it’s arguably “safer” to have sex in which you’re not physically bound than to have sex in which you are. But I think that’s a very narrow definition of “safety,” and I don’t think it’s one that’s particularly useful.

So, two conclusions.

First conclusion: power-over in narrow contexts hurts everyone who lacks power-over in institutional contexts.

What I mean here is that mixing institutional powerlessness with an individual situation of having power over someone is not an uncommon dynamic. In fact, that exact interplay of competing forces in crossed contexts is exactly what created the much-reviled “femdom” stereotype. I’ll quote Amanda Gannon quoting me in her 2011 article, “Femdom and Intimacy and Porn” to make this point:

MayMay’s post about “The BDSM community ghetto, and other cultural problems” is not a new post, but I love it.  Here’s why:

As a result of this cultural influence, most BDSM communities became ghettos for the small group of people who enjoyed the single, narrow interpretation of F/m relationships that are available there, drawing more of the same into the community, and repeating the cycle of exclusion. Meanwhile, dominant women who, for instance, prefer to play tenderly and in hoodies and submissive men who, for instance, enjoy feeling cared for instead of being called names, are left out in the cold.


While it may be reasonable to expect someone for whom most erotic imagery does not offer fulfillment to stop viewing it, it is downright cruel to expect that person to simply live unfulfilled. With few options for satisfying sexual expression, erotic art is a literal lifeline for many people, offering sexual fulfillment at least in fantasy for the things they can not, or feel they should not, actually have in reality.

Reading that makes me want to cry in gratitude and punch something.  I DO want to play tenderly and care for my partners.  Part of my desire to hurt someone is a desire to be close to them.  Part of my interest in inflicting pain is the contrast between pain and gentleness.  To me it’s even more intimate than pleasure.

There is very little pornographic or erotic imagery out there that speaks to that particular desire, that intimacy.  I have to make my own, by writing it for myself, by myself; or by roleplaying and hoping that the other person understands well enough to help me get it right.

I don’t get much real-life experience with it, which makes the lack of porn/erotica that is meaningful to me personally really, really agonizing.  People whose tastes are indulged by images of female dominance as opposed to male submission, or of male dominance, or of female submission, tend to have it easier.

Back on Tumblr, this spawned several relevant conversations.

The takeaway here is that this stereotype doesn’t serve many Dominant women, nor does it serve many Submissive men. The people it primarily serves are, surprise surprise, DOMINANT MEN. They’re the ones making the money off this stereotype. They’re the ones who see masculinity reflected in dominance. Again.

Second conclusion: individual situations of power, in the context of institutional powerlessness, can be more dangerous, not safer, for individuals lacking institutional power.

With respect to “definitions of safety,” I think it’s clear that if you’re having sex with someone you fear, you’re not actually that safe, really.

Sure, maybe you have one kind of power in one tiny, narrow, subsection of your interactions with them. But if the person you’re interacting with has a lot of institutional power over you in other areas—such as, for example, if you are a disabled POC queer trans young woman dominating an older able-bodied white cishet man, just to take this to a logical identity politic extreme—then the small sliver of explicitly sexualized interactions you have with someone like that does not make you safer. It makes you even more unsafe. And that’s even more obvious if you don’t actually know them, or if you don’t actually trust them, if you’re generally afraid of them to such an extent that the only way you can possibly imagine interacting with them sexually is in the bedroom, while they’re bound, without making yourself in any way vulnerable, with the door closed.

That doesn’t look like intimacy to me. That looks like terror. Perhaps the best example of this? Pro-dommes; BDSM sex workers.

This is what I think people are pointing to when they talk about Doms being abused by submissives, and it’s a conversation I’ve hesitated to get too far into because, lacking a whoooole bunch of context, it’s way too much like a conversation about women raping men. Does it happen? YES. But I’m not going to center that conversation unless that is what the conversation is explicitly and intentionally about. I do think that is an important conversation to have, so here’s a start. If anyone wants to spin this off into its own thread, I wanna have that conversation, too.

Anyway, back to the original point: if you’re asking “would it be okay to be dominant if,” and you’re trying to find a way to keep doing what you’re doing without being judged for it, then you’re not going to be welcomed here. Go away.

But if you’re asking things like, “what are some ways I can make use of a Dominant role to help myself understand my relationship to power, to get a grip on why I feel sexually drawn to exert control over people, and to more deeply explore the ways desiring control over people harms my relationships with the people I love?” then I think you will have a lot to talk about with rolequeers like me.