What do we mean when we talk about “D/s”?
D/s stands for Dominance and submission, or Dominant/submissive. These terms are used in various ways inside and outside the kink community. Here are three ways you may hear people use the terms dominant and submissive.
The terms dominant and submissive can refer to personality types and their associated traits and behaviors. This is probably the most common usage of the terms in non-kink contexts and can be tied up with significant value judgments. Dominant and submissive personalities can express themselves in more or less healthy ways. A leader who is comfortable taking charge without running roughshod over others is expressing their natural dominance in a healthy and productive way; indeed, such people command great respect in contemporary America and are likely to be socially and financially successful. Dominance expressed in an unhealthy way might range from boorishness to bullying and outright abuse. A person who is able to follow direction gracefully and can easily place the good of others ahead of their own shows the healthy submissive type. Such people are highly valued in a wide range of support positions and service industries. An unhealthy submissive personality may be weak, passive or passive-aggressive, or lacking in self-esteem. Personality types do not necessarily equate with preferred roles in BDSM scenes or in consensual Dominant/submissive relationships.
Dominance and submission can refer to specific aspects of BDSM play that have been negotiated and consented to in advance by the participants. (The letters DS in the middle of the BDSM acronym stand for dominance and submission.) In this context, dominant and submissive are time-bound roles that BDSM players assume for the duration of an encounter, usually called a scene or session. Such roles may have an erotic fantasy element as well, e.g., “Sexy Nurse”/patient, Drill Sergeant/recruit, or Handler/pup. The dominant/submissive role assumed in a play scenario may or may not have any connection to the participants’ personality types or to their chosen relationship style.
Finally, D/s can refer to a relationship paradigm, that is, a structure for an ongoing relationship. In a D/s relationship, one adult — the submissive or s-type — consents to a transfer of personal authority over certain areas of their life to another adult — the Dominant or D-type — who consents to receive that authority. Those areas may be limited by time, location, life aspect, or some combination of these. (Where authority transfer is total, the relationship may be referred to as Master/slave or Owner/property.) D/s relationships display a deliberate, agreed-upon authority imbalance; they are, by design, non-egalitarian. In other words, for a relationship to qualify as D/s, three criteria must be met: the participants must be (1) competent adults who have (2) negotiated and consented to a (3) deliberately non-egalitarian structure for their relationship.
This last usage, D/s as a relationship paradigm, is the subject of this site and my books.