“The sub is the one who’s really in control”

[cw: kink talk, D/s talk, consent talk, rape mention, food mention]

I’ve heard this line multiple times now, so it’s getting its own post here for the next time it comes up again.

My gut reaction is always: I don’t believe you.

So here’s some rationale as to why.

Point One: Definitional Hypocrisy.

Being “the one in control” (“really” or otherwise) contradicts the fundamental meaning and goals of putting oneself in a submissive role.  Sometimes, not being in control is kind of the point — as explained by a kinkster who used the “the sub is the one actually in charge” line in the very same breath comment (thanks for the demonstration, totorolight).  The fact that a D/s practitioner can purport an experience of “LACK of control” existing simultaneous to being “actually the one in charge” suggests, to me, that these are not two opposing camps in the politics of kink.  It’s not that we have one group of kinksters saying “the sub is the one really in control” and another group of kinksters fighting to have subs recognized as, well, submissive and control-ceding.  If subs were “really,” actually “the ones” (not on an even plane with, but more so) “in control” (over their doms), then… they wouldn’t be called subs, now would they?

Point Two: Because Safewords.

Safewords can end a scene or halt a given course of action, as a way of communicating “no” or “enough” or “I want to stop now.”

At least, that’s the idea, anyway.  That’s what they’re supposed to do, ideally.  Thing is, safewords aren’t magic.  They don’t literally freeze the scene.

What a safeword is, really, is a request.

A request that a dom has to decide to obey.

That’s why they always say that D/s requires trust, right?  Because the sub places trust in the dom that the dom will respond correctly to a safeword.  The sub relies on the dom to honor their agreement, usually when the sub is in an emotionally or physically precarious position — tied up, for example, or unarmed while the dom is wielding a weapon of some kind, and enmeshed in an interpersonal tide that flows toward continued acquiescence.

A safeword isn’t a form of control.  It’s a form of vulnerability.

Point Three: Bad Reputations.

“If the sub comes forward with a story of a dom behaving badly, their reputation will be ruined and that will guarantee they never play with anyone in the Scene again!  It’s a totally foolproof!”

Don’t be naive.

[edit: see here for the full explanation.]

Point Four: Kinky PR.

I think I’ve established by now why I understand the claim about subs being “the ones really in control” as, generally, unrealistic.

But that raises the question: why would D/s fans contradict their own definitions and ideals of submissiveness to claim that subs are more “in charge” than doms are?

From what I’ve seen, the line seems to function as an ethical rhetorical move.  Onlookers, critics, and greenhorns alike might regard the concept of D/s with categorical concern for subs.  It’s an issue discussed among established kinksters, too.  So a primary response that has emerged is to emphasize the blanket efficacy of safewords-as-commands and configure that as a mechanism to explain how, “actually,” the sub has more control over the scene than the dom does.  It’s a move that’s less about elucidation than about justification.  And in this style of response, instead of affirming that not being in charge is okay and delving into the ethics of hierarchy, the approach is to bizarrely abandon D/s practitioners’ habitual language (in which dramatic power-loss is fine and okay and also sexy) to, suddenly, define the sub as a dom, which makes it okay because it’s understood that being a dom is best.

Oddly enough… if the actual self-identifying dom isn’t the one in charge and isn’t the one in control, no one rushes in to assure listeners that their rights and needs aren’t being trampled on.

Point Five: Boundary Exclusivity.

The “the sub is the one who’s really in control” argument infers a sub’s supposed lion’s share of “control” based on the sub’s right to make a safeword request and hope that the dom will honor it.  Only the submissives’ safewords are acknowledged.

Which would imply either that doms never safeword, or that doms’ safewords are less important.

Given how a safeword is defined, on the surface, there’s no reason for either of those to be true.  Everyone has boundaries.  Doms and tops count, too.

So why are doms’ boundaries less emphasized?

Simply put: because these boundaries are not pushed and targeted in the way that subs’ boundaries are.  Generally speaking.

It’s generally assumed that the sub, more than the dom, is the one facing risk of injury or excessive strain.  It’s generally assumed that the sub, more than the dom, has more reason to feel uncomfortable or want to call it quits.  It’s generally assumed that the sub, more than the dom, is the one being put to a test of endurance.  It’s generally assumed that the sub, more than the dom, may experience their boundaries being pushed or broken or encroached upon by an aggressive partner.

I think, deep down, the people making these types of assertions know that there’s generally more vulnerability to the role of submissive, ceteris paribus.  That’s why they put far less effort into emphasizing doms’ boundaries, comfort, pleasure, and access to control.  Because they don’t need to.  Because those needs, by default, are (generally) already being seen to.

Absence is its own form of communication.

Consequently, we end up with a line of argument that claims subs have the “real” control over doms… thanks to their access to a mechanism that doms, themselves, also have access to.

Point Six: Comparable Contexts.

As I said, this form of rhetoric is presumably meant to provide reassurance.

But you want to know why that’s funny to me?

Nobody says “the person with allergies is the one REALLY in control” about a group of people ordering pizza together.

Nobody should be saying that “not harming or violating you” amounts to you “controlling” them.  Asking people to accommodate you, and to keep you safe, and to work around your limits, is grasping for basic decency, not “control.”

If anything, the ones being called upon to provide situational accommodations are, all too often, the ones with the relative power.  And I daresay there are ableist overtones to claiming the reverse.

The notion that subs “actually” control the scene also strikes me as very similar to the notion that women, categorically, are the ones “in charge” of sex: a woman-as-gatekeeper framework in which men approach women for sex, and women, conceived as the site-where-sex-happens, are the ones who “decide” whether sex will “happen” or not — as if men choosing to rape is not a thing that happens, and as if women’s consent being treated as relevant amounts to unilateral “control.”

What I’m saying is, the peculiar sub definition-reversal for pure rhetorical use might just seem ill-thought-out and lazy, but I’m inclined to think it’s more insidious than merely incoherent.  Under closer examination, it looks a lot more like a tool of misdirection — or rather, of twisting things into their opposites, in precisely the way that’s useful to some people more than others.

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16 responses to ““The sub is the one who’s really in control”

  • epochryphal

    point five and whose boundaries are targeted and pushed (and whose are unstated default) is v good.

    i also like that link on domism for the analysis on, not just “dom is better,” but doms being surprised that “you don’t want to make me happy??”

    that is, it’s assumed the dom’s desires/needs are being met and are the purpose(/center, dare we say?) of the scene. and that they have the power to stop and redirect and protect themselves at any time, and that this is rarely-to-never necessary because it’s set up ahead of time.

    yep. bottom = submissive = focused on pleasing dom and losing sense of self, and that’s the entire pleasure of submitting.

    that sheds a lot of light on how service tops are betraying domness by making it about the sub’s/bottom’s experience of…their desires being centered, even when those aren’t desires to “serve”

    • Coyote

      ^^

      sidenote: I always thought service tops were traditionally s-types who, when service topping, took on a more “active/giving of sensation” role, with kinda the mindset of submission without the physical role of bottoming? …Agh, top/bottom language is confusing.

  • doubleinvert

    My experience has been that D/s relationships are based in role-playing, and power exchange is part of that. It might be more accurate to say whomever uses the safeword is in control. And to the issue of safewords, in the settings I’ve been in they aren’t regarded as requests. They are commands, and anyone who will be in scenes with me will respect that just as I do. When I hear the safeword, I do not take it as a request. It is my partner’s command to stop. In fact, if anyone at SF Citadel uses the dungeon safeword, which is “safeword,” ALL scenes stop immediately. My experience hasn’t been that this contradicts anything so much as it is part of the play and role play.

    Your observation about the vocabulary of control is interesting. But again, it has been my experience that these things are role plays that are negotiated beforehand. Is the person with allergies in control? Whether or not that’s the intention, it’s the result. Negotiation has happened with regards to the hypothetical pizza order just like in kink scenes.

    But, these are only my experiences.

    • Coyote

      “Whether or not that’s the intention, it’s the result.”

      You have an operating definition of control I do not understand.

      • doubleinvert

        In my experience — and I have to stress that this is only my experience — “control” is negotiated prior to beginning a kink scene. The safeword is to be a command that stops the scene, and either the Dom or the sub can use it. The control, therefore, would lie with either party even though for the role play it would seem that the Dom has the control. The sub can take this control away by issuing the safeword command. This is how I feel it should work, though I acknowledge that this is not always the case.

        • Coyote

          Okay. So that’s how things should work. That’s the ideal.

          This post was about how just because something should be that way doesn’t mean it necessarily is.

          Just because all doms are *supposed* to treat a safeword as a command doesn’t mean they always do. There’s a choice, there. A right choice and a wrong choice.

          Does that make sense?

  • elainexe

    Perhaps some might say the sub has control because….hmm. You can say the sub is the planner/director, and the dom is the executor? If someone was to be a planner or director of an event, many would say they were in charge. This does not take into account all the things you talk about above, but I’m just thinking of how one might construct the argument that the sub is in control. A construction based on the sub having some kind of authority over the situation, which doesn’t come automatically.

    • Coyote

      Arguing that the sub has control is a different thing from arguing that the sub is “the” one in control. Still some issues with that, but not as many.

      Well, that description would be true only when the sub is the one who comes up with the entire idea for a scene. Subs aren’t the only ones who do that.

  • grooming & power talk | The Ace Theist

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  • CHRIS

    Safe word – While its a form of control for the submissive, it is more based on a form of manipulation for the dom.

    The question is, would a sub try a new scene or multiple scenes if a safeword wasn’t offered?

    Therefore a safeword is an attempt to make the sub feel more comfortable and safe in things that she would otherwise not try.

    Let’s take flogging for an example, a dom wants to flog a sub, the sub agree’s because there is a safeword, the sub doesn’t know how much she can take but if it gets to much for her, she can always say the safeword.

    Hence the sub is manipulated into the scene through the safeword. The dom doesn’t care if she says the safeword in fact, he knows she will, it will give the dom an indication of where her limits are.

    Each tike the dom flogs her, he gets a little further, does a little more before the sub says the safeword. Therefore the sub is growing and learning how to deal with it.

    Safewords aren’t a form of control but a form of manipulation,a way for a dom to push a sub, to get her to try new things while the sub still feels safe.

    • Coyote

      This comment doesn’t make any sense.

      “The question is, would a sub try a new scene or multiple scenes if a safeword wasn’t offered?”

      Why are you declaring “the question is” when that question is a person-specific question that has nothing to do with the argument of this post?

      “Therefore a safeword is an attempt to–”

      You just went from saying “the question is” to “therefore.” Do you not know what “therefore” means? It means you’re reaching the conclusion of the points you’ve presented. But you didn’t present any points, you just raised a question. A question that can’t be answered by theorizing, btw, because it’s a question about what someone would do in a given situation, and the answer to that depends on the person and the details of the situation. You’ve jumped into conclusionspeak prematurely.

      “make the sub feel more comfortable and safe in things that she would otherwise not try.”

      Why are you calling a hypothetical sub “she”? Are you talking about a specific person or something?

      “Let’s take flogging for an example, a dom wants to flog a sub, the sub agree’s because there is a safeword,”

      This example raises questions already. How does the sub feel about being flogged? Do they *like* being flogged? A sub might agree for that reason. Do they have a preexisting arrangement or relationship with the dom? A sub might agree for that reason. Do they feel like it would be rude to turn the dom down or feel pressured to try it? A sub might agree for that reason. But the reason “because there is a safeword”? That doesn’t make any sense. Even as a “bad” reason (like how being pressured or believing something false is a bad reason), it doesn’t make any sense. People don’t agree to start every single thing asked of them just because someone says “we’ll stop if you say to.” You’d have to elaborate on this example and say more about the sub’s motivations to even make it psychologically coherent.

      “Hence the sub is manipulated into the scene through the safeword.”

      Saying the sub is “manipulated” implies there would have been some resistance that they were tricked out of, or that they were somehow coerced against their will. But you didn’t mention any negative feelings or reluctance to contend with in the first place.

      “The dom doesn’t care if she says the safeword”

      Are you using “doesn’t care” to mean “isn’t bothered by it” or to mean “ignores it, doesn’t stop, and violates the sub”?

      “he knows she will,”

      Why are you calling your hypothetical dom “he”? What’s with the gendering again?

      “Therefore the sub is growing and learning how to deal with it.”

      So this is the conclusion of your example? Is this… What *is* this? I can’t even tell if you’re presenting this as a good thing or a bad thing or what. Is this how you think all scenes with safewords go? Is this how you think all scenes with safewords are *supposed* to go?

      “Safewords aren’t a form of control but a form of manipulation,a way for a dom to push a sub, to get her to try new things while the sub still feels safe.”

      Allow me to summarize for you the chain of logic you just presented to me in this entire comment, paraphrased: “safewords make people try things because people try things when there are safewords.” That’s called circular logic. If it was supposed to persuade me of anything… I find myself in the unfortunate position of having to tell you: it didn’t.

  • elizaloveless

    At what actual point is a safeword a “request?” Safewords are there for… uh… safety reasons to keep the sub mentally and physically safe. Ignoring the safeword is ignoring the safety of the sub, and ain’t no body want to do anything with a Dom like that.

    • Coyote

      “Ignoring the safeword is ignoring the safety of the sub”

      Yes. It is. That’s the point. That’s literally the point. Doms aren’t automatons, they’re people with the capacity to make moral choices and immoral choices, such as ignoring a safeword. There’s such a thing as doms who behave badly.

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