Punishment vs Discipline

There is a lot of confusion about the concept of ‘punishment’ in BDSM. I see it a lot in kink porn, in gay erotica and its older brother M/M romance, and on sites like Twitter and BDSMLR. I’ve talked to many subs online who’ve asked me to punish them as if that’s the main point of kink. And the concept gets tangled up with the idea of ‘discipline’ as well, which is right there in the BDSM acronym.

Some kinksters use these two terms interchangeably, while others distinguish the two concepts, and I fall into the latter category. As I see it, discipline is positive training, intended to reinforce desirable behaviors, while punishment is negative training, intended to discourage undesirable behaviors.

The two concepts are really quite different, but get muddled together because of the upside-down logic of kink, in which pleasure and pain are confused and kinksters crave harsh treatment that should objectively be unpleasant. So it’s not surprising that these two ideas cause a lot of confusion.

Discipline or “play punishment” may be presented by the dom as harsh treatment or as a reprimand for the sub’s failure to perform up to expectations, but it is intended as a form of pleasurable play, something that the sub enjoys. It may well be the whole point of the interaction, or it may be a lead-up to penetrative sex.

For example, let’s say you’re doing a teacher/student scene and you want to incorporate spanking into it, because you and your sub like spanking. You might stage the scene in such a way that you spank the ‘student’ because she was “disruptive in class” or “didn’t do her homework”. In this case you’re presenting the spanking as a punishment, but in reality, it’s a form of play that’s supposed to be pleasurable for you and the sub. Over the course of several scenes, you might gradually increase the amount of spanking or the force of the blows, to train the sub to tolerate more pain than she could at the beginning. You are giving her positive training toward a goal of pleasure and increased endurance.

Punishment is the opposite of discipline. In a casual dom/sub relationship, punishment may not be appropriate. If the sub hasn’t agreed to give the dom some degree of authority outside the bedroom, you probably shouldn’t try to do punishment, because it involves the dom imposing unpleasant consequences on the sub. The purpose of punishment is to discourage the sub from engaging in behavior the dom deems inappropriate or unwanted.

For example, let’s say that you as the dom have a rule that the sub must always call you ‘Master’. But the sub is being careless about using the title regularly, so you decide that punishment is necessary. The sub dislikes being spanked, so you decide to spank the sub every time the sub forgets to use the proper form of address; you decide that you will give five blows at the end of the evening for each time the sub forgot to use the right title. The idea here is that the sub dislikes being spanked and therefore will work hard to remember to use the right title in order to avoid being spanked.

Choosing discipline is fairly easy; it can be almost any activity that the dom likes that the sub likes or is willing to tolerate. The whole point of discipline is for it to be pleasurable in some way. Choosing punishments are trickier. First, it needs to be something the sub dislikes, because that’s what provides the incentive for the sub to try harder; the sub wants to avoid receiving the punishment. Choosing a punishment that the sub enjoys will be counter-productive, because the sub may start misbehaving in order to get the desired activity. In the previous example, if the sub likes being spanked, spanking will not work as a punishment. Second, it needs to be something that the dom doesn’t really enjoy. In the previous example, if the dom really likes spanking, he might be tempted to look for excuses to spank the sub to get the activity he enjoys. Third, you shouldn’t use the same activity for both discipline and punishment; that will probably confuse the sub. Fourth, punishment activity should probably not be explicitly sexual. The point of punishment is to discourage the sub’s bad behavior, and making sex a form of punishment may well encourage the sub to dislike sex with the dom. Finally, because communication is very important in BDSM, the silent treatment is generally not a good punishment. (In general, a dom who punishes by refusing contact with the sub is probably doing a lot of other things wrong as well. So I regard that behavior as a red flag, or at least a signal to look a lot closer at the dom and his way of doing things.)

When I punish, I have a fairly set pattern I follow. When punishment is necessary, the dom should explain why the sub is being punished and should explain the punishment. Then he should apply the punishment. After the punishment is over, the dom should ask the sub to explain why she was punished and should correct her if she misunderstands. Then the dom should explain that the matter is closed and will not be brought up again, unless the sub commits the same offense again. (This is an important point–if a disagreement arises, do not throw a sub’s previous failures at them. A lot of subs tend to obsess over their failures, and making them feel like their failures will get brought up years later can be extremely discouraging.) Punishment should probably end with a hug or some other gesture intended to affirm the dom’s affection for the sub. 

So what sorts of activities work for punishment? One strategy is to adapt punishments for children: sitting in a corner, being spanked, loss of a desired privilege such as watching tv or performing a favorite service for the dom, doing an unpleasant chore, or not being allowed to have sex for a while (unless the sub really enjoys chastity and orgasm denial, as a lot of male subs do). Humiliation may provide a good avenue for punishments, unless the sub really enjoys being humiliated. Tailor the humiliation to the sub’s personality. For example, if the sub really takes pride in her appearance, you might forbid her to wear make-up for a week, or require her to wear dowdy or baggy clothes. Or you might require the sub to write an essay acknowledging the mistake and apologizing for it. One punishment I like the idea of but haven’t actually tried is to require the sub to hold a quarter to the wall with her nose for a set period of time (increase the time for each offense). One punishment I’ve used is to make the sub kneel naked, forehead on the floor and ass in the air, and chant something appropriate (such as “I will never forget to kiss my master’s boots when I greet him; his boots are the symbol of his authority”) for a set period of time.

Another important point is that punishment must be applied consistently. The sub needs to learn that bad behavior always merits a consistent punishment. Inconsistent punishment will tend to confuse the sub. Since many subs have issues with insecurity, inconsistent punishment may make a sub feel neglected or that they are a failure. (“Why isn’t Master punishing me? Has he just given up because I’m such a lousy sub?”)

However, having said all of that, many doms don’t employ punishment at all, or only for very severe misbehavior. There is a strong argument to be made that a dom should seek to motivate submission through positive rewards, such as praise for desired behavior, rather than through imposing negative consequences. Because many subs have low self-esteem, punishment can reinforce their own negative thoughts about themselves. Many subs respond extremely well to praise and work hard to earn such verbal rewards (as long as the praise feels genuine).

Because punishment and discipline are easily confused, using both can be very difficult. I’ve seen a lot of doms online talk about setting impossible goals for subs or being extremely picky, simply to justify doing things like impact play. My feeling on that is as a dom, if I want to spank my boy, I’m just going to spank him. I don’t need any more excuse than the fact that I enjoy spanking. Setting impossible tasks for the sub and then punishing them for failure can be very demotivating for a sub, unless it’s clear that it’s a game the sub is supposed to lose in order to get to the fun stuff.

Obviously, play punishment can be a lot of fun, and there are lots of scenes that can be built around the dom tormenting the sub as a faux-punishment for pretended misbehavior. But don’t confuse that sort of pleasurable play with genuine punishment as part of a kinky relationship, because it’s likely to go wrong.

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