The Four Spheres of BDSM

As I see it, BDSM is divided into four spheres or categories of activity, and understanding which of them you’re interested in is helpful in understanding and communicating your desires to your partner. The four spheres are:

1) Control: the dom gives instructions, makes demands, and calls the shots. This can be limited to the bedroom, for example the dom deciding what sexual activities and positions will be used, the dom demanding sexual service without reciprocation, and the dom setting up a fantasy that the sub must play out (pirate and captive, master and slave, rapist and victim, etc). But control can also extend outside the bedroom, up to and including 24/7 dominance, for example the dom expects the sub to do domestic chores, dress in a certain fashion, keep a dildo or butt plug inserted while out in public, use certain titles and rituals when speaking with the dom, and so on. In a 24/7 relationship, this might even extend to the dom making career and financial decisions that the sub must accept. This last is only for very advanced relationships, and isn’t something that a novice dom or sub should jump into.

2) Bondage: The dom restrains the sub in some fashion. This usually involves physically tying the sub with ropes, leather straps, chains, cuffs and the like, but in more advanced play it can include straight jackets, sleep sacks, mummification with duct tape or plastic wrap, cages, and so on. Sensory deprivation tools include blindfolds, headphones, and hoods. Other, more advanced aspects of this sphere include suspension bondage (where the sub is suspended from hooks, pulleys, or frames), breath control (where the sub’s ability to breath is restricted in some way or where smoke is blown into the sub’s face), long-term bondage (where the sub is tied up and left for long periods of time), and chastity (where a sub is fitted with a device that makes masturbation or intercourse impossible).

Be advised that while extremely pleasurable, many forms of bondage is also physically dangerous. The safety basics are not difficult to learn, but if you’re interested in bondage (particularly as a dom, but also as a sub), you have an OBLIGATION to learn the safe way to do this before you start. Failing to learn the safety basics can result in the dom accidentally harming the sub with injuries ranging from the minor (small cuts, rope burns) to the major (dislocated joints, broken bones, nerve damage) to the severe (heart attacks, asphyxiation, choking on vomit, and death). This is not intended to scare anyone; with some common sense and a little reading, the real risks of bondage diminish sharply, but they never disappear entirely.

3) Pain play: The dom inflicts erotic pain on the sub. This includes spanking, face slapping, using paddles, crops, whips, and other impact toys, pinching the nipples and other sensitive parts with fingers, clothespins and clamps, slapping the cock and balls, and more. Sensation play involves inflicting intense, unexpected, or contrasting sensations that may be either painful or pleasurable, including hot wax, pinwheels, vampire gloves, ice cubes, silk, feathers, tickling, and so on. Electro play falls into this sphere. Cutting, blood-letting, branding and so on also fall into this sphere, but are obviously more risky and not for the novice.

Pain play is also physically risky, so the dom has an obligation to learn the safety basics here as well. It is also important to understand that the purpose here is to inflict erotic pain, not just any pain. There is a tremendous difference between regular pain such as stubbing your toe or cutting yourself, and erotic pain, which is pain that floats on the pleasure/pain threshold. The fact that this is erotic pain is what keeps pain play from being simple physical abuse. Genuine sadists seek to inflict hurt (temporary pain), but not harm (significant injury).

4) Humiliation and verbal abuse: The dom degrades the sub in some fashion, including insulting the sub, talking dirty to the sub, forcing the sub into humiliating poses or activities, requiring the sub to be naked or wear excessively revealing, ugly, or baggy clothes, requiring a male sub to wear women’s clothes (forced feminization or sissyfication), requiring the sub to dress in diapers or children’s clothes (infantilization), requiring the sub to act like a dog, cat, pig, horse (sometimes complete with costume elements, cage, drinking bowls, food bowls, butt plug tails, masks, etc), pissing, shitting or vomiting on the sub (the last two being more extreme forms of play that are fairly uncommon), giving the sub an enema, and more.

This area of play is less physically dangerous (although some activities such as enemas and piss play do have a few potential health risks), but can be risky psychologically. Humiliation play is emotional sadism, the mental equivalent of pain play. A dom who enjoys humiliation needs to learn what kinds of abuse the sub can and can’t handle.

These four spheres overlap a good deal. Bondage and humiliation both have elements of control involved, and things like puppy play cross over into bondage when the dom puts the sub into a cage or puts on paw-style gloves. Animal play straddles the line between control and humiliation–male subs (at least within the gay community) sometimes view it as humiliation, but both male and female subs tend to view it as control (surrendering adult responsibilities to a handler). Costume play can fall under control (dressing up like a pirate wench or a Roman gladiator slave) or humiliation (dressing as a baby or a pig) or bondage (leather, rubber, and the like have a restricting quality that I see as being a variation on bondage) or even pain play (having to wear extremely high heels, tight corsets, and so on). Hypnosis easily touches on both control and bondage and can also involve humiliation and even pain play in some cases.

But recognizing that there are different types of bdsm play will help you figure out what you like and don’t like. Enjoying one sphere of activity doesn’t necessarily mean that you will enjoy any of the others. A sub might enjoy bondage but not pain play, for example, in which case the sub likes the feeling of being restricted for its own sake. Male subs typically seem to enjoy humiliation more than female subs, but this is not a hard rule. And a dom or sub might enjoy mild play or one specific form of play within a sphere, but not others. Liking control in the bedroom does not necessarily mean that the dom or sub will enjoy control outside the bedroom or a 24/7 relationship.

For example, as a gay dom, I enjoy bondage primarily because I find that it facilitates my real interest, which is pain play. So I like to tie my subs up primarily because I like watching them squirm as I torture their tits and balls. Simply tying someone up and leaving them there for a while bores me. I also enjoy verbally abusing and humiliating my subs. I like control, but I’m often a little overly cautious in that area until I know that my sub really enjoys being controlled.

So do a little thinking about what appeals to you in bdsm. Break down your fantasies into their moving parts and ask yourself what arouses you about them. Recognizing the four spheres will give you a language to talk about your desires with your prospective partner and will help you avoid mismatches (I turn down subs who won’t engage in pain play at all, for example, because I won’t have fun playing within their limits). It will also help you realize that if one type of play appeals to you, other types of play in that same sphere might appeal to you as well. For example, if you enjoy the idea of being forced to act like a dog, you might enjoy other forms of humiliation or control as well.

Also, it’s important to realize that doms and subs have limits, and those limits have to be respected and negotiated. A dom may enjoy inflicting intense pain, but if the sub only enjoys mild pain, the dom needs to respect that. Humiliation can touch on very intense emotional issues and the dom needs to respect any limits the sub has there, including limits the sub might not recognize. And doms do not have to do everything the sub wishes. Some subs desire brutal, uncaring doms, but some doms want room to express affection toward their subs. A sub may wish for aggressive whipping or strict bondage, but a wise dom knows when to tell a sub that what the sub wants is outside the dom’s current skill set. The more complex levels of bondage and pain play require the dom to have received training from a mentor, to have practiced and read about the activity involved, and to have learned how to do it safely, and no dom should engage in things like suspension bondage, whipping, blood-letting, or branding without receiving some training first, no matter how much the sub wishes for such play.

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