For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a brat. When I was young, toddler-age, it was seen as an adorable quirk. Who knew such a little girl could be so stubborn and strong-willed? As I got older, I noticed a shift in tone when they called me a brat. It was often accompanied by accusations of being bossy, a drama queen, and — as I approached adolescence — a bitch. Over time I learned to read between the lines of these words. I realized that bossy was just another word for assertive, drama queen a sneaky way to repress my emotions, and bitch an attempt to make me feel small. Instead of growing out of my brattiness as my mother had always hoped I would, I decided to own it instead.
That’s not to say that I throw a tantrum when I don’t get my way or am incapable of discussing matters like an adult. I like to think of myself as more mischievous and sassy than outright rude or immature. In my day-to-day life my brattiness shows up as snark and a tendency to play devil’s advocate. It wasn’t until I entered the BDSM scene five years ago that I learned to express it in new and unexpected ways.
I’ve always gravitated to power exchange dynamics in my relationships, even before I had a language for it. My favorite fantasies involved punishment and I enjoyed egging my partner on. I craved that push and pull for control, and the vulnerability of relinquishing to my partner.
I was first introduced to the concept of brattiness in BDSM by my friend Brandon. He was working for a sex therapist and lived in a downtown warehouse with the rest of her crew. On Friday nights she hosted a radio show and he’d often invite me to attend as his guest. I was still too shy to participate at that point, but through observation I was introduced to the limitless options outside of a monogamous, vanilla lifestyle.
I realized that I wanted to be able to express my brattiness more freely in my relationships, and began looking for open-minded partners to safely explore my fantasies with. I wasn’t having much luck meeting people “the old fashioned way” and found that many of the people I did meet either had no interest in kink or saw my inexperience as an invitation to take advantage. It was around that time that I discovered Fetlife.
Fetlife is a social network for people interested or active in kink and BDSM. Membership is free, and members range from folks who live the lifestyle 24/7 to those who are just dipping their toes in. I’d spend hours reading other users’ journal entries and lurking in the various forums. I joined a group for newbies and began taking note of the more persistent advice. I attended local munches, which are basically low-pressure get togethers that are an easy way to get to know people who have similar interests without showing all of your cards right away.
As I made friends in the community, I became aware of the ever-expanding list of identities one could claim. Mary Jane (names have been changed) referred to herself as a babygirl sadist, meaning she indulged her childish side with stuffed animals and brightly colored barrettes, but enjoyed causing pain in her scenes. Pixie identified as a feral lesbian princess. I met a lot of people like them, who proudly touted seemingly contradictory labels.
For Anna, another self-identified brat, this plethora of options allowed her to find her place in BDSM. “I started out identifying as a submissive, but I was always so frustrated in scenes!” she told me. “I started to think that maybe I was a dominant, but I eventually got bored with that, too. It wasn’t until later on that I realized submission doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all.”
I place myself towards the bottom of the power exchange spectrum. Most of the time I prefer to be in the submissive role, but I’ve been known to switch from time to time. While I enjoy a certain amount of protocol in my relationships, I’ve learned that I need a dominant who can anticipate my tendency to bend the rules, and give clear instructions that can’t be misinterpreted. It’s that extra effort that makes it feel safe for me to ultimately submit. If I can find loopholes in their protocol, it makes me feel insecure, like they haven’t thought it through. Bratting allows me to exploit these oversights in a fun and playful way, and challenges my dominant to stay one step ahead.
To some, dealing with a brat is a chore they’d rather avoid. I’ve been told by others in the kink community that I’m not a “true submissive,” and that I’m “topping from the bottom” or overstepping my role in a scene. What they don’t see are the constant behind-the-scenes negotiations between my partner and I to make sure that our scenes honor, and never diminish, our individual roles.
As another bottom-leaning brat named Sabrina told me, “Being a brat doesn’t mean I want to secretly be in control. It means that I want a Dom who can push me into submission. If I can control him just by being bratty, then I question his ability to push me and take care of me. If I can easily have him in the palm of my hand, then I don’t feel like a sub.”
In truth, being a brat makes me feel more in touch with my submission, and wrangling a brat strengthens my partner’s sense of dominance. I know that they’ll signal immediately if my antics cross over from amusing to annoying.
If I’m honest, it’s a fine line and requires a lot of communication on all ends. Dominants are people too, and just like everyone else, their patience has an end. It’s important to establish limits and be aware of any triggering behaviors that should be avoided. Before a scene, my dominant and I discuss our expectations, our moods, and anything else that might be relevant before we get started. I can tell from a look when they are not in the mood for my shenanigans, and they can tell from my tone when I’m legitimately upset versus baiting them. We don’t use spanking as a real punishment in our dynamic, so I know if they give one it’s because they’re participating in the scene, and not out of anger.
I used to think of service-oriented submission as household chores and errands, but lately I’ve begun viewing brattiness as its own kind of service. After all, our “creative disobedience” forces dominants to stay on their toes and is done with the intention of helping them improve their techniques.
In turn, we become better brats. It might not be a straightforward exchange of power, but it’s a dynamic that works for me. It reassures me that it’s okay to exist between labels, to claim contradictions, and exist outside of the box.