The Inner and Outer Layers of BDSM

I want to talk about one of the most confusing and misunderstood aspects of bdsm, what I call the Outer and Inner Layers of BDSM. This issue lies at the heart of what makes kink paradoxical and confusing to people. Until a novice kinkster starts to understand this issue, they are likely to make a lot of mistakes, harm or upset their partners, and just misunderstand what BDSM is and isn’t.

The Outer Layer is what’s going on externally in a scene, what a spectator would see if they watched it. In this layer, the dom is taking what he or she pleases from the sub, who is forced to endure what the dom chooses to do. The sub is expected to please and pleasure the dom, and the dom may present himself or herself as demanding, cruel, verbally abusive, emotionless, and lacking in compassion for the sub. The sub has little to no power in the interaction.

The Inner Layer, however, is quite different. This is the emotional interaction between the dom and sub, the ‘deeper reality’ of the scene. In this layer, the sub is receiving considerable pleasure from the dom’s actions, physically, emotionally, and perhaps spiritually. The dom is concerned to please and pleasure the sub, so that the dom and sub are reciprocally concerned about the other’s pleasure. The sub in fact has a good deal of power in the interaction, because it is the sub’s consent that allows the dom to do what gives the dom pleasure. Should the sub refuse to continue playing, the dom is morally obligated to stop; in essence, the sub has the ultimate control because he or she can always end the scene. The dom’s cruel, heartless exterior is part of what the sub derives pleasure from, because it enhances the feeling of control, humiliation, and powerlessness.

In other words, what BDSM looks like on the surface is quite different from what is actually going on. This contradiction between the Outer Layer and the Inner Layer is why so many vanilla people don’t understand BDSM–they don’t recognize that what looks harsh and painful is actually profoundly pleasurable for the participants. This is also why so many people who are attracted to kink struggle with their feelings–they don’t want to be cruel assholes or pathetic doormats and fail to realize that the Inner Layer means something quite different from the Outer Layer. A lot of supposed “Alphas”, who brag about not giving a shit about the “faggots” they use, are missing the fact that the Outer Layer is a form of erotic pretense, not an objective fact. The inequality that is so vital to power exchange is really only on the Outer Layer; on the Inner Layer, dom and sub are equals in that both are ideally getting their needs met, even if those needs are being met in radically different ways.

Different doms and subs like different elements of these two layers. Some couples prefer to place the emphasis on the Inner Layer, so that the dom downplays the cruel persona in favor of a more nurturing and tender persona such as the Daddy Dom. Some doms wish to nurture their subs emotionally, mentor them as they grow in a more full adulthood, and otherwise help them mature, while others place more emphasis on the Outer Layer and chiefly look for a sub who will tolerate the degree of control and cruelty that the dom wishes to express. Some subs want a dom who shows little emotional attachment or affection for them, while other subs need a dom who understands that they are both equal even if their needs are contrasting. Each dom and sub has his or her own balance to strike between the Outer and Inner Layers.

So what does this mean for a newcomer? Several things. First, it means that if all you’ve seen of bdsm is the Outer Layer (which is what is typically depicted in film, television, porn, and internet memes), you’ve only seen half the action. Until you start playing, you’re a spectator, and you don’t see the emotional interactions, the respect that good doms have for their subs. Don’t expect real BDSM to be just the Outer Layer.

Second, it means that subs have more power than you think they do. The sub always legally and morally retains the right to withdraw consent, and the dom is obligated to respect that. New subs sometimes talk about meeting a dom who gives them some of their sexual fantasies and then proceeds to make unreasonable demands, ignore them emotionally, and so on. The new sub asks, “Is this how doms really act?” The answer is that doms only act that way if they’re focusing entirely on the Outer Layer. As a sub, you need to decide if you want a dom who wants your relationship to be entirely Outer Layer, or if you want something of the deeper Inner Layer. If all you want is a dom who will ignore your needs, treat you like a plaything, and make unreasonable demands, then by all means play entirely on the Outer Layer. But if you want to feel like your dom respects your submission, treasures you as a possession or plaything, and wants you to enjoy the whole experience, then look for doms who recognize the reality of the Inner Layer. When a dom treats you like crap outside the scene, exercise your power and walk away; you will definitely find another dom who will treat you better on the Inner Layer.

Third, for new doms, it means that while you get to explore your dark fantasies, you need to realize that you don’t actually have total control. The sub can always walk away if you aren’t meeting his or her needs. So you need to pay attention to what the sub wants and needs and include those factors in your own plans for the sub. Ignoring the Inner Layer means that you’re going to have a hard time keeping your subs, because the subs who want complete, permanent, and inflexible slavery are very few in number, and most of those still want to feel respected, listened to, and appreciated. Subs need to trust their doms, and that trust is built on the Inner Layer. Doms do not have an automatic right to be trusted by their subs; the dom must earn that trust through demonstrating a knowledge of safety issues, respecting the sub’s limits, treating the sub with courtesy outside the scene, and so on.

Fourth, the Outer Layer is, for the most part, the level of the scene. Unless the dom and sub are in a relationship, before the scene starts, the dom and sub need to negotiate the rules and limits of play, and once the scene is over, the dom needs to provide aftercare, gently easing the sub out of whatever place he or she has gone. The sub may feel very turbulent and frightening feelings during a scene, and the dom needs to recognize that the sub’s experiences may require help processing. Aftercare may be as simple as a quick hug or kiss and the dom asking “is everything ok?” or it may be as complicated as the dom cuddling the sub for a long time, talking with the sub about the scene, and reassuring the sub that everything is fine. A dom who is cruel and uncaring during aftercare is not a dom you want to play with a second time.

Fifth, the Outer Layer involves a certain amount of role-playing. You’re not really master and slave (since slavery is illegal); you’re pretending to be master and slave (although in 24/7 relationships, the pretending runs very deep). So give some thought to your persona as dom and sub. What parts of your personality will you express as you play? Will you be a cruel, sadistic dom or a gentle, parent-like dom? Will you be an obedient sub or a willful sub that requires a lot of correction to tame? Different scenes may call for different personas, different types of play may call out different aspects of your personality, and different doms want different types of subs (and vice versa).

Finally, the Inner Layer is the level on which dom and sub do their emotional bonding. As the sub learns to trust the dom (and vice versa) over the course of multiple scenes, the sub is more likely to be able to push limits, open up emotionally, and become truly vulnerable to the dom’s desires. This bonding is what allows doms and subs to build lifetime relationships of love, trust, and mutual dependence. If you don’t realize that the Inner Layer exists, you’re less likely to find that deep connection.

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