BDSM Rules, Rituals & Protocols (part 1)

When we think of “training” in a D/s relationship, the first image that comes to mind is of a Dominant introducing his/her submissive to a set of rules or rituals and instructing the sub in how he/she wants them performed. We imagine a Dom sitting in chair, riding crop in hand, teaching the sub deferential positions like kneeling, then reaching out to give a stinging flick of the crop if the sub doesn’t get it right. It’s a fun image, one appealing to many a sub, and I’m sure training does sometimes play out like that. But a good D/s relationship is a collaborative effort, and the submissive is just as responsible as the Dominant for determining the rules and rituals that will develop their power exchange and fuel their dynamic.

We imagine a Dom sitting in chair, riding crop in hand, teaching the sub deferential positions like kneeling, then reaching out to give a stinging flick of the crop if the sub doesn’t get it right.

Of course, some couples prefer to confine their D/s to the bedroom and the occasional roleplay scene, so don’t feel the need for elaborate rules, let alone training. Others may feel uneasy at the constraints of rules or threats of punishment or find that kind of disciplinary arrangement to be too triggering. As one bottom I know told me, “I’m hard enough on myself as it is, I don’t need someone else telling me I’ve done something wrong. It stresses me out too much.” It’s true that certain temperaments don’t respond well to the idea of rules, but most subby types do yearn for rules and rituals as a way of feeling controlled by their Doms. Either way, it’s worth asking, why would a D/s couple want to have rules and rituals at all? Can’t a sub just obey his/her Dom in the moment? Are pre-determined rules really that important?

A robust D/s dynamic depends on a number of things: honest communication, confident leadership by the Dom, clear expectations for the sub, and a well-thought-out structure. A carefully negotiated set of rules, rituals and protocols employs all of these, creating the conditions for the dynamic to thrive. Most important, the delineation of rules, and the Dom’s enforcement of them, allow Dominants to exercise their power and better hone it, while allowing their submissive frequent opportunities to practice their surrender. D/s is much like a dance of coordinated moves, and no one would expect a couple to master a dance routine without lots of practice. Rules and rituals give a couple opportunities to practice their power exchange and rewire their brains to Dominance and submission until it becomes second nature.

Yes, a D/s relationship without rules and rituals can work just fine in the bedroom for the length of a kinky scene, but it will not lead to the genuine power exchange that many D/s couples want and crave. It is only through the establishment of rules and discipline, adherence to protocols, and participation in evocative rituals that we authenticate our power exchange and give it real life.

“We’re all just patterns of energy, patterns of practice,” says writer MacKenzie Hall on the power of ritual. “We’re ultimately just a culmination of all the ways we infuse practice into our daily lives … What we practice and where we put our energy and attention is what we become.”  Most of us choose D/s because it feels like an expression of truest selves. D/s rituals and protocols allow us to more fully become, and more fully inhabit, who we see ourselves to be. This is why so many in the BDSM community consider their rituals, no matter how mundane, a highly sacred endeavor.

What’s the Difference Between Protocols and Rituals?

Let’s start with some definitions:

Rule — An explicit requirement or regulation, set by the Dominant, that governs the conduct or actions of the submissive. I have a rule that I must make the bed by 8 am. I have a rule I can’t leave my socks lying around the house. A rule is simple, clear, independent of circumstance, and if the sub fails to follow it, requires “correction” by the Dom.

Protocol — a set of rules or series of actions that apply to a particular circumstance or condition. For example, the Dom can set a protocol for when he/she returns home from work: the sub must be naked in bed, or waiting on her knees by the door, or have a drink ready for him. The sub may then be required to offer certain words or an act of service, such as rubbing the Dom’s shoulders or feet. Protocols can apply to anything and everything the couple decides is worth regulating, from how the submissive sits, walks, speaks or even looks at her Dom (some Masters don’t want their slaves looking up from the floor). Even Doms who don’t want to bother with such micromanagement can establish protocols for things important to them, say cock worship upon waking, or a text good night when away from each other. Protocols weave power exchange into the fabric of everyday life, and help Dom and sub become more anchored in their respective roles.

Ritual — A ritual is similar to a protocol in that applies to a particular circumstance, but it’s less about mandatory rules and more about routines that encourage and formalize the exchange of power. For example, a ritual can be built around how one begins a scene (the Dom having the sub kneel to accept his/her collar perhaps). Even something as mundane as making coffee for the Dom can be ritualized if it is required to be done and served in a certain way, and will be especially effective if more overt D/s elements are part of it (say, if the sub is required to serve the coffee while naked). A good ritual, repeated often, will emphasize the power differential in stark ways and will transform the way Dom and sub look at themselves as well as how they look at each other. In the first six months of our D/s, my Daddy Dom would put me over his lap every night after dinner and pull my pants down for a spanking and ‘anal training’ with fingers and butt plugs, requiring daily face-down helplessness from me and acceptance of his “invasion” of the most intimate part of me. From this one ritual I learned in the most literal way how to surrender and open to him, while he internalized that he had the right to do whatever he wanted to my body. Nearly seven years into our dynamic, we still practice this ritual, not every night anymore (we have many other rituals going these days), but at least once or twice a week. And it remains remarkably effective at putting me into a submissive-to-him mindset.

All of the above — rules, protocols and rituals — provide structure for the power exchange dynamic to grow from, helping to shape and refine it. Ideally, some level of protocol or ritual will be included in every D/s couple’s day. Leaning into them is especially helpful in the “transition” between our roles in the vanilla world and the role Dom and sub serve for each other, or for otherwise helping them reconnect after being apart for a time. Of course, it’s not always easy to stick to our chosen rituals, life throws up obstacles, such as demanding work schedules, or having children in the home, but a little creativity and flexibility can help. Commitment and perseverance are key. In the end, the investment of effort will make all the difference between a dynamic that thrives, and one that drifts away from lack of attention.

How Sex and Pain Enhance BDSM Rituals

BDSM is widely considered to be a form of kinky sex, even though power exchange is not explicitly about sex. At its core, D/s is about exercising control on the Dom side, and surrendering control on the sub side, making it a psychological journey more than a sexual journey. Plenty of BDSM play partners never have sex at all, preferring to engage in scenes that include pain, humiliation or other forms of mental manipulation. Still, many of the rules and rituals most commonly presented in BDSM how-to manuals have a sexual element to them.

One reason sex figures so predominantly in “training” for D/s is that so many of us discover the dynamic through roleplay meant to “spice up” our sex lives. For me and my Dom it was a Stepdaddy roleplay in which he “caught” me watching porn and gave me a spanking that thrilled me in unexpected ways. One couple I met at a dungeon told me their D/s journey was triggered when the husband felt an impulse to shove his wife’s head forcefully down on his cock during a blowjob and they felt their excitement explode. It is through such experimentation that we learn that with even the briefest dip into power exchange we can tap into the force of sexual polarity and release huge amounts of sexual energy. For these people, D/s is inextricably bound up with sex, and sexual elements will always be an essential part of their dynamic.

Beyond that, offering up one’s naked body for the unfettered sexual use of one’s partner is inarguably the ultimate form of surrender. The more invasive or controlling the Dominant becomes over the sub’s body, the more profound the sub’s experience of submission. The same can be said for the giving and receiving of pain. A sub who offers up their body to their Dom to be treated roughly enough to cause pain experiences surrender in the most visceral way. Bending over to accept a beating is the very essence of submitting to a greater power, and many subs feel that the more pain they can “take” for their Dom, the deeper their submission. These demonstrations of power exchange are not only highly symbolic, speaking to the subconscious mind in its preferred language, but also quite literal, speaking to the physical body in its own chemical language. Both sex and pain release a flood of hormones and endorphins in the body that hit the brain like feel-drugs, and help keep a submissive enthralled with her Dom and excited to submit. Meanwhile, Dominants who take whatever sexual gratification they please and/or dole out pain get a rush of chemical rewards (hello adrenaline!) that reinforce the desire to dominate.

Neither sex nor pain are necessary for power exchange, but there is a good reason why most D/s couples put sadomasochistic sex at the heart of their dynamic, and why they build their training regimen of rules and rituals around it. Certainly, my Dom and I have learned that if he takes most any ritual (such as his after-shower inspections), and adds a swirl of his finger in my pussy or a tweak of pain to my nipple, then the entire ritual becomes much more charged, and much more effective at putting me into a submissive headspace. There is no doubt that rituals which incorporate sex and/or pain work like nothing else to help create a life-changing D/s dynamic.

Which Rules and Rituals? How to Choose

When Dom and sub sit down to negotiate the terms of their relationship, they often show up with a list of possible rules and protocols taken from books, or printed off from the Internet. But how do they decide what rules should apply? And how can they come up with non-generic rules and rituals that fit their own unique relationship? As BDSM writer Jolynn Edwards says on her blog, “How do we add touches, be they positions, words, or deeds, that make your D/s relationship more than the cookie cutter rituals I read about in a book on how to do this?”

The first criteria is to know what kind of Dominant and submissive you want to be. What is the tone and flavor of the dynamic you desire? Is the Dom going to be a casual and occasional Sir with an informal sub, or a strict Master who demands 24/7 control of a slave? Perhaps the Dom sees himself as a loving Daddy who is caring for his adoring little girl, or the owner of a precious pet. The answer to the question of what you want your dynamic to look and feel like sets the criteria for what rules and rituals will fit that dynamic, and will help you sift through the possibilities. For instance, we have a Dom friend who sees himself as “Lord of the Manor” (think Downton Abbey), and requires his sub to be in “service” to him. He boasts that he had not washed his own hair in years, his sub does it for him in one of their more tender and cherished rituals. But in the dynamic I share with my Daddy Dom, well, daughters typically don’t wash their Daddy’s hair so that is not a service he requires of me. But Daddies do wash their babygirls’ hair, and on occasion I will get to enjoy the pleasures of having my hair washed by my Dom. The type of dynamic that feels right to you will inform the type of rituals that will feel right to you, and so will the length of time you have been developing that dynamic. Basic rituals that serve you well in the early stages of a D/s relationship may eventually feel too tame and need be replaced by rituals that help you push past boundaries and amp up the intensity of your power exchange.

The next set of criteria is, of course, what pleases the Dom. Are there things the Dom would like to change about his sub or have her do for him? It used to irritate my Daddy that I never made the bed; I hated making a bed, had never really made my bed in my entire adult life. As my husband, there wasn’t much he could do about it except complain, but as my Dom he could make it a rule. Because the rule fit our Daddy/daughter dynamic, I now make the bed every day by 8 am, to our great mutual pleasure. (I love feeling controlled by him, while he loves feeling he is molding me to his desires.) A Dom can make rules out of any kind of activity he enjoys, sexually, sadistically, or otherwise. My Lord of the Manor friend has zero sadistic tendencies, so doesn’t inflict any pain on his sub, but he does love to decorate her in rope, and will have her sit still for regular rope bondage sessions. My Daddy Dom loves oral attention of all kinds, and so, many of our rituals include “worship,” or my mouth and tongue on various parts of his body, often with his forceful hand on my head setting the rhythm. He also finds it makes him feel more powerful to see me squirm in embarrassment, and so tends to favor protocols and rituals that have me blushing and feeling the burn of humiliation.

So the Dom needs to be pleased, but what about the sub? Does it matter if the rules and rituals please the submissive? Well, yes and no. It doesn’t matter if any one particular rule pleases the sub, a submissive serves at the Dom’s pleasure. But what gives most Doms pleasure, and what makes them feel most powerful, is knowing they have rocked their sub’s world. They also want their subs to adore them, and it is a lot easier to win the adoration of a sub who gets off on the things he/she does for their Dom, or the things their Doms do to their bodies. A Dominant is far more likely to gain an obedient and contented submissive by offering many carrots of reward along with their sticks of punishment.

So here we have a final set of criteria, and that is what is most effective at making the Dom feel more empowered and the sub feel more submissive. Every rule and ritual should increase the sub’s respect and awe of her Dom and his power, and create a hunger to go deeper into the dynamic. If the burn of humiliation didn’t make me feel more subby, or if it outright turned me off to submission, then a ritual that includes humiliating elements wouldn’t be right for us. But it so happens that a little bit of humiliation — as much as I hate it in the moment — can make me feel deliciously powerless and put in my place for hours afterward. We learned this the first time he marched me toward a public restroom with a forceful hand at the back of my neck, me tripping and struggling to keep up. Such embarrassing treatment in front of others was a rude shock to my system, but it also made him feel in control and me feel acquiescent to him in a way I never had before. For me, a dose of humiliation makes any ritual drastically more potent and will melt me into a submissive puddle faster than anything else. That is now a protocol for us, especially in public parking lots, on the way to and from the car, my Daddy will march me along with a strong hand at the back of my neck, moving just a little too fast and making it difficult for me to keep my balance. It still gives me a sweet submissive burn.

I have yet to see “being marched around by the neck in public” in any BDSM protocol and rituals book. It was drawn from our own discovery of what made him feel powerful and me feel submissive. By paying attention when those feelings rise spontaneously, and experimenting with ways to repeat the process, you can create rituals and protocols that are unique to you, and probably far more effective at strengthening your dynamic than anything you might find in a book. Being alert for such signals from the submissive in you is important, and so is being willing to set aside preconceptions of you what you think you know about yourself. Especially if you are a new Dom or sub, the things that appealed to you — or didn’t appeal to you — in your vanilla past are not necessarily the things that will interest you now.

Limits and Keeping an Open Mind

Most BDSM manuals talk about the importance of making one’s limits clear at the beginning of any negotiation. We are told to point out which are “soft limits,” (you peeing on me doesn’t sound great to me, but I’m willing to endure it if you want to), and “hard limits” (no way will I ever be okay with you dragging a knife over my skin). However, one of the most compelling things about D/s is how it can surprise you about yourself. Switching from an equal 50/50 way of relating to very unequal power exchange challenges just about every assumption we have about ourselves and about each other. The very idea of BDSM was a joke to me when we started, and if I’d been forced to choose which side of the D/s spectrum I belonged, I would have said the Dominant end, not the submissive. Never in a million years would have thought I’d be content draping myself over my husband’s lap each night for a spanking. But I quickly learned not only am I content doing that, I get cranky if I don’t get to do it often enough.

Likewise, in the beginning I was sure I was “not really into pain” beyond a playful spanking, and I was reluctant to try new implements of torture. Even as I learned to love the painful thwap of a flogger, I was still afraid of a cane and its vicious reputation, calling it a “pretty hard limit.” Wouldn’t you know, when my Daddy Dom finally brought one home, I quickly became infatuated with the cane’s hot whizzy sting. My erroneous assumptions about myself stopped me from recognizing myself as a masochist despite mounting evidence to the contrary, and for years that stood in the way of the deeper satisfaction I now enjoy as an enthusiastic painslut. Of course, it could be true that I wouldn’t have been able to take a cane stroke in the beginning; my pain tolerance has certainly evolved over time. But then, everything about D/s evolves. As trust builds and intimacy deepens, more walls come tumbling down and more BDSM practices become appealing. That is why when an experienced Dom friend I know scandalized a group of kinksters by saying, “There is no such thing as a hard limit,” I was vigorously nodding my head in agreement. Very few of my perceived hard limits have stood up over time.

So, it’s important to keep an open mind and not reject ideas for rules and rituals without at least giving them a try. Then again, it’s also important to go slowly, and not overwhelm each other with too much. In the early days of D/s discovery, the excitement one feels to try everything as fast as possible is so common it actually has a name: “submissive frenzy.” (I assume there is Dominant frenzy as well, but I don’t hear that phrase as often.) Creating a fully developed dynamic takes a lot of trial and error over time. It’s helpful to move along gradually, adding a one or two protocols or rituals at a time, see how they work for you before adding more. We have to learn to walk before we can run. We also have to learn that just as things that sound scary might actually feel good, so things that sound good in fantasy might fall flat.

Fantasy vs. Reality 

Most of the time, our fantasies are excellent pointers toward what will turn us on and make us feel good. If imagining a doctor doing invasive things to your genitals is a fantasy that puts you over the edge while masturbating, then it’s a good bet that medical play will do it for you in real life. But fantasies are also … well, fantastical. They are charged with an allure that feels excruciatingly exciting while unfolding in our minds, but might feel less than comfortable when unfolding in reality.

In the early days of our D/s, I had intense fantasies of my Daddy Dom tying me in rope so that I couldn’t move, my legs restrained in a wide-open position, pussy exposed. This is how I thought I wanted to be made to watch TV every night, splayed open, immobile. It didn’t matter to me if my Dom used the opportunity to play with my pussy or not, just the idea of the exposure turned me on, and I believed it would make a fabulous ritual. But in reality, the first several times Daddy tied me up to immobility, I would panic, then beg to be untied. That was hard to accept; first, because it made me feel like I’d failed at submission, and second, because the fantasy still loomed large in my mind. We decided it was important enough to both of us to keep trying, and today I no longer panic when being tied. I enjoy whatever moments of immobility I am granted now. But it has never achieved the status of ritual for us, the reality simply has never quite matched up to fantasy: Daddy isn’t in the mood for rope in the evening more often than not (tying rope is labor intensive), and if he is, the rope sometimes hits my flesh the wrong way and pinches my skin, or I might get a muscle cramp a few minutes into it. On those nights, we either power through, or we give up with a laugh. Then again, there are other nights it goes exactly as my fantasy, and even exceeds it because of some new clever twist my inventive Dom tries, and I feel myself sliding deep into a submissive trance …

So yes, be willing to try anything, and be open to the possibility that it could offer unexpected pleasures. But be just as open to unexpected failures, and don’t take disappointments too hard. Sometimes it will be necessary to discard a cherished fantasy; other times we might be able to adapt it to something that works in an unexpected way. As in life, few things in a D/s journey unfold perfectly, but the journey itself can be perfect, full of love and joy and incredibly hot sex. And if you are willing to laugh at yourselves, then there is no better fun two people can have than indulging their fantasies and coming up with new D/s rituals or protocols to try on for size.

Part 2 coming soon, with specifics on rules/rituals/protocols …

One thought on “BDSM Rules, Rituals & Protocols (part 1)

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