On linguistic prescriptivism, moral standards, and “real doms”

an artsy black-and-white picture of a lightbulb

It’s not a real article on BDSM without an artsy black-and-white photograph.

It’s come up on this blog once already, and I’m sure that won’t be the last I see of it.

When D/s practitioners dare to talk about the subject of abuse in relation to the kink community — which usually turns to pontification on “the difference between BDSM and abuse” — plenty of folks, it seems, reach for appeals to authenticity by making claims about “real doms” or “true doms” and what does or doesn’t apply to them.

“A real dom takes responsibility for their actions.”  “A true dom is not abusive.”  “An actual dom cares about the safety of their sub.”  A dom is only a dom when they don’t make me look bad.

Presumably, the goal of pieces like this is to erect ethical standards for people who take the role of dominant and/or to “defend” so-called “real doms” from being grouped in with abusive “fake doms” and “pretenders,” but going about it this way is completely backwards.

First of all, it’s just bad logic when *cough* “a term is preemptively given a biased definition designed to exclude elements vulnerable to criticism, yet making sure to still include all things praiseworthy… instead of acknowledging that some members of a group do indeed have undesirable characteristics.”

But maybe you don’t care what meets the criteria for a logical fallacy.  Or maybe you’d argue that it’s not being re-defined that way — it’s always been that way (?) to begin with and it should always be that way, and what it actually means has nothing to do with how it’s actually used!

The only reason to make a distinction between which doms are “real” and which aren’t, though, has to be an objection to how the label is being used, so let’s talk about that.

There are people who call themselves dominants and who fail some of the commonly given criteria for “real” doms, such as respecting limits and safewords.  There are people who call themselves dominants and who literally think their subs are inferior to them.  There are people who call themselves dominants and who act cavalier about subs’ physical and emotional safety.  There are people who call themselves dominants and who prioritize their immediate pleasure over other people’s well-being.  There are people who call themselves dominants who are dangerous and abusive.

And you want to stop them, right?

You think what you do (or what your loved ones do) is different from what they do, right?

So when someone is calling themselves a dom and acting in reprehensible ways, clearly, what the D/s community needs to do is…

…tell them to stop calling themselves a dom?

Hold on, what?

Isn’t “acting in reprehensible ways” the sin to focus on here?

Okay, alright, I get where you’re coming from.  I get that this type of response may come from the viewpoint that “they’re going to act like that anyway” (i.e. these people cannot be dissuaded from their behavior) and so you figure the best you can do is beg not to be grouped in with them via linguistic prescriptivism (“those people exist but they are not doms because real doms aren’t like that“).

Let’s talk about how that approach to the problem shoots itself in the foot.

When people use use the label of dom “incorrectly” by calling themselves doms when they “aren’t really,” what is the context they’re saying that in, and what is their motivation?

The concept of a “dominant” as a noun rather than an adjective only makes sense within the subculture of D/s, and typically, self-identification as a dom happens in kinky contexts.  Among practitioners of D/s, the statement “I’m a dominant” positions the speaker to have access (conditional access, you could argue) to a control-oriented social role.  There is also, among practitioners of D/s, a strong and pervasive reactionary impulse to the scrutiny that compares D/s against the anatomy of abuse.

Why would dangerous and abusive people in these contexts call themselves doms?

Allow me to speculate.  D/s is a hierarchical dynamic, and the D/s subculture is heavily invested in establishing D/s as potentially healthy.  Abuse is also a hierarchical dynamic, and when abusers call themselves doms, they can trust that their interest in a hierarchical dynamic won’t necessarily be flagged as abusive (at least, not by most D/s practitioners).  This is a subculture whose slogan might as well be “doms are not abusers!”

So calling oneself a dom, in that context, can be read as a de facto claim that one is not an abuser — and abusers, of course, have an obvious incentive to convince people they’re not abusers.

That is, abusers benefit from the “doms vs. abusers” dichotomy and how heavily it’s pushed in kinky contexts.  Abusers call themselves doms because people are out there insisting that doms cannot be abusers.

And that, dear reader, is how “real dom” rhetoric is hoist by its own petard.


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