In weighing the frequently-asked question whether a Dominant can be considered “good” or “bad,” a submissive can find numerous articles all over the Internet that list desirable characteristics in a Dom, characteristics such as confidence, creativity, consistency, maturity, self-awareness, etc. Certainly, naturally dominant traits are advantages when assessing the quality of a Dominant. But I am going to take a different approach and say that that it is not necessarily a Dom’s character traits that are most important, but his or her motivation. Why does he or she want to control the sub? Or to be more precise, from what stage of development is the Dominant operating from, and does it correspond with the submissive’s stage?
I am going to take a different approach and say that that it is not necessarily a Dom’s character traits that are most important, but his or her motivation.
One helpful model in evaluating relationship dynamics is the three-stage model described by Tantric philosopher David Deida, which neatly corresponds to three different types of domination in a BDSM relationship. Deida explains that energy resonates with similar energy, so if an individual operates from the mindset of a certain stage, that person is likely to attract a partner in the same stage. A good Dom for a particular sub is a Dom that operates from the same understanding of how partners should relate to each other.
A Stage One Dominant could best be described as the Caveman Dom. This domineering guy (because it’s usually a guy), practices old-school man-in-charge dominance, which is very co-dependent, very needy, and often insecure. This kind of Dominant is more bluster than confidence, and may try to feel powerful by using fear, blunt force, or more subtle means like intimidation or bullying. Now, if it sounds like I am saying this kind of Dom is “bad,” well, it depends on who he is paired with. The Stage One Dominant can always find a counterpart in a Stage One submissive who also feels dependent or needy, or is perhaps drawn to macho talk and displays of power. A Stage One sub might even feel more at ease with a Dom who “speaks her language” of traditional roles and tight control, or has been swayed by the biblical trope that men are superior and women inferior. Any hint of equality can be anathema to a Stage One sub, meaning plenty of slaves can thrive under this type of domination. But subs beware, because this is the type of domination that abusers are made of, both kinky and vanilla. The Stage One Dom may not always take the submissive’s needs or feelings into account because the sub is basically an object to prop up the Dom rather than a person in her own right. Of course, a big part of the submissive fantasy is denial of self in deference to a Dom’s desires, which is another reason why this kind of Dom may not be experienced negatively by a sub, even if his domination borders on what others would call abuse.
A Stage Two Dominant could be called the Egalitarian Dom, and he or she will be much more sensitive to the needs of the submissive. This kind of Dominant views relationships through a lens of 50/50 equality, and will welcome the collaborative input of a sub. This is the type of Dom that BDSM communities endeavor to cultivate because this is a Dom who will carefully attend to the rules of consent, confirm safewords, and negotiate boundaries. Roleplay BDSM and sensation-seeking are popular at this stage. Switching between top and bottom is also prevalent, while the genuine power exchange of D/s is perhaps less so, unless it’s in the bedroom only. Empathetic and responsive, this kind of Dom is prized by subs who also see the world through a 50/50 lens, and understand themselves to be conditionally surrendering power to a Top. A sub/bottom in this stage will have firm boundaries, and believe plenty of off-ramps from BDSM interactions are appropriate and necessary. However, a Stage One submissive might consider an Egalitarian Dom as “too nice” or even weak, and frankly, so might a Stage Three sub who craves deeper power exchange.
In the third stage of development, we encounter the Ravishing Dom, who despite loving and caring for his or her sub quite fiercely, is not so much under the sway of the rules established by the BDSM community. This Dom answers to a higher power, the power of love, and takes seriously a responsibility to fulfill the sub’s desire to be controlled and taken. A Stage Three sub craves to let go into true surrender more than he/she worries about safety and policing boundaries. A deep trust in each other becomes the foundation of a Stage Three dynamic far more than negotiations, contracts or safewords. Consensual non-consent may come up at this stage, while roleplay fades, as neither side can bear the thought of artifice in their power exchange. A Stage Three D/s couple lives the ultimate in BDSM romance and true power exchange; yet, a Stage Two sub would likely find the actions of a Ravishing Dom alarming, unsafe, and may even confuse that Dom for a self-centered Stage One brute. But this type of Dom ravishes not out of insecure neediness, but out of confident love and a deep understanding of his sub’s needs. Because both partners offer themselves to the power exchange dynamic so openly and so fully, the sexual polarity between third-stage Dom and sub is extreme, and the passion between this couple becomes transcendent.
This three-stage model has helped me better understand the relationship dynamics in my own life, as well as many others I have observed in the BDSM community. However, while we may resonate best with a Dom in our own stage, that doesn’t mean relationship between a couple who see things from different stages can’t be successful. As Deida notes, the stages are not encased in rigid lines. We all evolve at different rates, and we may sometimes find ourselves operating from different stages depending on circumstances. Yes, a submissive tends to conform to the level of the Dominant, but the energy of each partner exerts a pull on the other. Just as the directional energy of the Dom can pull a sub back into an earlier stage, the yielding energy of a sub can spur the growth of the Dominant into a more evolved stage. One might even say that navigating D/s and power exchange provides an intense laboratory for relationship dynamics that helps kinky people evolve faster than their vanilla counterparts. Perhaps that’s one reason why recent studies show that people who practice BDSM tend to be healthier and happier!
Terra Bloom is a happy submissive and a former journalist turned screenwriter who is now focused on positive sexuality through bdsm advocacy. (And yes, Terra Bloom is a pseudonym).