Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I promised you discipline this week, so here we go. Discipline. At face value, it seems pretty self-explanatory: discipline in BDSM is when the Dominant sets rules for the submissive that they are expected to follow. These rules can be anything, and if they’re broken, the submissive faces punishment. Simple enough, right?
Now, you may be wondering what place rules have in a relationship. Rules can do a lot of things for a couple. In BDSM, rules can simply be in place as a reminder of who has the power. This can include about how a submissive dresses or what they eat: they are meant to remind the submissive of their place. Rules can also have the purpose of ensuring that a submissive comes across to others the way a Dominant wants them to: speaking a certain way or being extremely polite, for instance, creates a very specific impression about the submissive that a Dominant may be looking for. Some rules have a sexual purpose: banning self-pleasure, for instance, is something from which a Dominant can derive pleasure at the expense of a submissive. Imagine if you have a toy that you love using, that you really enjoy pleasing yourself with, that you may lie back and let violate you over and over again. Your Dom may arrive informing you that you’re banned from using it again. Depending on the dynamic, your Dom may put the toy on a high shelf, conceal it, or, if they were especially sadistic, they may leave it right in front of you, teasing you with it. This may seem like an experience purely for the purpose of deriving you of pleasure, until they inform you that they will be taking the place of your toy, making sure that your virtue stays nice and tidy and claimed only for them. There are infinite reasons for and examples of these rules, but universally, if these rules are broken, the submissive will be punished.
Punishment can mean a few different things. It can be actual physical punishment, humiliation, or loss of privilege. Imagine this: You were told to stand in a corner with your eyes closed, and not to move. After a few minutes, you’re beginning to get antsy. You open your eyes and sneak a look over your shoulder, but your Dominant is standing there waiting. “I told you not to move,” he says. You try apologizing, but it doesn’t work. He pulls you over his lap and pushes down your pants and underwear before delivering hard smacks to your bare ass until you both know you won’t do it again. Punishment is negative reinforcement – using something bad to discourage unwanted behavior. Imagine being in bed with somebody who never does what you don’t want them to.
Positive reinforcement also has a place in discipline. Rewards can be extremely effective when trying to elicit certain types of behavior: for me, personally, a simple “good girl” after I’ve done something good can cause me to repeat that behavior over and over. I crave approval. More tangible rewards can also be offered as positive reinforcement. The most common tangible reward is orgasm. Orgasm restriction is a very common rule in BDSM – the Dom can restrict when (or if) the submissive can reach completion. This is often an extremely difficult rule to obey, made all the more hard by the Dom. If the submissive comes when they are not permitted to do so, they are punished. But if they are good, oftentimes the reward is orgasm.
This all may seem like it’s bordering on sadomasochism. In fact, though, discipline is extremely different. Discipline has a specific purpose: the Dominant wants the submissive to act in a certain way. Punishments aren’t typically enjoyed; they are simply necessary. Sadomasochism, however, is all about enjoying pain. And while discipline often has a place in sadomasochism, sadomasochism rarely finds its way into pure discipline. We’ll get to s&m next time, though – I, for one, can’t wait.