View From The Top: It’s Protocol

Some want their power-dynamic play to be pretty much scene-only, with a beginning, middle and end; and some want it to extend into day-to-day life. For me, wanting the latter is just how I’m wired. When so much of the world is beyond my control and I spend so much energy wishing so many things were different, I crave this little arena with another enthusiastically consenting person in which I get to have my way. It lets me accept everywhere I don’t.

For me, these power dynamics are essential to my kink life. That’s not to say that questions or guilt don’t sometimes come up, but I understand the trust that flows between me and my submissive, and in playing these all-encompassing games we feel alive and true. When rife asks permission to sit on the furniture, or waits to start eating until I do — two examples of our protocols — I feel a thrill every time. I know he is voluntarily and with fully informed consent handing the authority he has over himself to me, to our mutual benefit and boners. I get a flash of desire to be the kind of person my submissive sees me as: worthy of his trust and vulnerability, and deserving of his admiration.

Not everybody wants to be in this kind of relationship configuration. Not everyone is interested in the psychological elements of dominance and submission. But whenever I encounter those who are, protocol — a particular thing that should be done, and a particular way to do it — is one of the first pieces that comes up.

For me, protocols are an important scaffolding around which to build my D/s relationship, so I spend a whole lot of time on them. They’re also a great tool for folks who want to take their D/s from scene-only play into their day-to-day lives. Maybe they want to be lifestyle dominants and submissives who see the D/s as the foundation of their relationship. Or maybe they want to ease into it gradually, add a few more areas of control, then a few more, until they find the place that feels good and sexy and fun for them.

Whatever the goal, the kink worlds have lots of ideas about the protocols in which dominants and submissives “should” engage. And when I was first learning, it was hard to disentangle those ideas from ones I actually liked. Sometimes it was hard for me to figure out how to let go of the protocol that was “required” to be a legitimate, recognized D/s relationship by the leather and kink communities, which are full of handouts and books and guiding dirty looks. There are protocols like a submissive never making eye contact, not speaking unless spoken to, or walking two steps behind the dominant and to the left. Some of these protocols are fun, but most of them didn’t fit me or my style. Still, it took me a while to let go of others’ expectations.

What helped was getting clear about the areas of control my submissive wanted to concede. In the beginning, and especially since we were then long-distance, it was easier to define which areas I could have control over rather than which areas I couldn’t. As our relationship progressed, we started experimenting with more. Can I control my boy’s sleep schedule, what time he goes to bed and gets up? What clothes or underwear he wears? How he keeps his hair — both his hairstyles and cuts, and his body hair? I made lists of all these areas, then more lists of everything related to them. We started with one and, as we found the sweet spots of surrender and authority, taking and giving, grew from there.

Finding more folks whose philosophies and perspectives better matched mine helped, too, as I explored amping up my protocol. Raven Kaldera, one of my favorite theorists on power, wants his protocol to be incredibly practical. He doesn’t like silly displays of submission; instead, he likes things like keeping the car full of gas, or doing household chores. In Dear Raven and Joshua, he writes that whenever he feels annoyed or something goes wrong, he asks himself, “How could my submissive have helped me prevent this?” Then he creates protocol from those situations.

I am maybe not quite so practical — I still like the somewhat showy but nonetheless very boner-inducing protocols, such as having my submissive sit on the floor while I sit in a chair, or having him ask permission to go to the bathroom. One of the ways we thrive is on these everyday tiny moments where we both get to be reminded of our agreed-upon power differential — after lots of trial and error, I’ve figured out that’s just how it works for me, and grateful I found someone else it works for, too.

It took me a while to figure out that building a relationship’s protocol, rules, service and tasks involves more than just assigning chores. (Which can sometimes just feel tedious.) There might be sex protocols, or beauty protocols, or protocols for how often to be in contact, or what kinds of things to say. What really gets your engine revving? What gets you swooning and inspired? What brings you joy and pleasure and makes you feel close to each other? Go after those things relentlessly. Lean into those areas and experiment by building protocol around what already works incredibly well.

That’s the way I want my dominance and submission to work: to mutually create gifts for each other, to inspire each other, and to engage deeply in this process of come alive.


Editor’s note: Kinkshaming will not be tolerated in the comments. If your comment is deemed unproductive to the conversation, it will be deleted.

Sinclair Sexsmith is a feminist dominant, poet and strap-on expert who writes the award-winning sex blog Sugarbutch Chronicles.

Sinclair has written 36 articles for us.

29 Comments

    • People have varying gender identities and use varying pronouns. You’d know more about this if you read the bio of the author and read previous entries. This is a trans and nonbinary friendly site and column, please respect that.

    • Yeah, in addition to what Rey said: queer women and nonbinary people are often in relationships with men or nonbinary people. Personally I love when Autostraddle includes relationships with men (every so often) because it makes me feel like my whole queer identity is valid.
      As far as I know the author identifies as butch, genderqueer, and queer. So regardless of who their partners are, they belong on Autostraddle and so do their relationships.

    • If you read it, none of the protocols suggested are about being male or female I think – although the comments about them being boner-inducing were off-putting for me.

      But as a female submissive I’m (theoretically) capable of kneeling while my Mistress sits in a chair (in practise I have bad knees and can’t), I’m certainly capable of asking permission before sitting down to the table and before I start eating, asking permission before I go to the bathroom (although given I usually wake up 2-3 hours earlier than Mistress and she’s really not keen on being woken up there might need to be some exceptions) and so on.

      Keeping body hair is probably really the only “male” thing there, although a dominant might well have ideas about whether you keep or lose your pubic hair or have it in a particular shape. I’ve never met anyone who thinks you should have armpit hair and stop shaving your legs, but I would say that is part of submission too.

      As an essay about finding out what works for you rather than thinking “Oh, it’s in this book, I must do it that way” I found it brilliant I must say. Too often we, the kink community, tend to think “Oh, they do that, I must copy it” but actually kink is about the relationship between the sub and Domme and what makes them wet (or hard) and pushes their buttons. That’s just as idiosyncratic as any other relationship, and probably harder to get right because it’s more uncommon.

          • Thank you, Eloise! Facial hair affects plenty of cis women too for a variety of reasons, be it hormones, medication, race, and ethnicity. The sooner we stop stereotyping things as “male” the sooner we stop misogyny, because trans misogyny IS misogyny and no one, cis or trans, should be victimized or denigrated for how their body is.

      • Re: “boner-inducing,” please see this comic on homunculus genitalia on Oh Joy Sex Toy: http://www.ohjoysextoy.com/genitals/

        Basically, both clits and cocks get boners, so I tend to think of and use “boner” as gender neutral. however I know culture tends to think of it as a cis-guy thing, so perhaps I should’ve been more careful with my language. OTOH, being the gender fucker that I am, I guess I assumed the queer readers would appreciate gender fuckery in the piece too.

      • Yep, I’m the submissive described and while I use he and they pronouns, I am definitely genderqueer or nonbinary transgender and not strictly ftm or a trans man.

        The body hair protocols are like when Sinclair tells me to shave my public area which I would not otherwise do.

          • I love that you responded here too! I don’t mean to sound like a total dummy but have you thought about writing about this from your viewpoint? View from the bottom? I would love to know about it.

  1. If some members of this community–as is evident from the comments, many of which would not constitute trolling–feels uncomfortable with the way kink is at times presented in the column, can we have a conversation around that? This anti-free speech business feels very Trumpian*. Maybe this column isn’t the best place to do it, but there should be some kind of forum.

    *And yes, I know, the First Amendment has to do with government suppression of free speech and not a website’s, but any oppression of the opposition feels off to me. And the kink community, unlike POC, for example, don’t fall into the category of traditionally oppressed minority group (though I’m sure someone somewhere would argue that they are).

    • At their best, the people who comment on AS are absolute paragons of honesty and clarity, coupled with kindness and generosity of spirit, and I love the open debates we have. But a few people have been coming to View from the Top specifically within the past few months to troll the heck out of Sinclair (at least one of whom followed them over from their website with a personal vendetta) and kinkshame over and over and over in ways that they haven’t done on Alaina’s corresponding sub column.

      Since they started writing for AS, Sinclair (and sometimes their sub Rife) has always seemed very open to an actual dialogue engaged in good faith.

    • I think we’ve managed to have open and honest dialog in comment sections around ppl’s personal discomfort with certain aspects of kink in recent columns, without engaging in wholesale kink-shaming which would be condemnation without dialogue found in comments of earlier columns. So, it’s maybe not as anti-free speech as you may be perceiving.

      • I think you’re right. I guess I knew what “kinkshaming” meant, though. It feels discouraging. There’s a difference between sort of stalking and taunting someone (uncool) and seriously questioning the nature of kink (cool depending on how it’s worded).

        • I agree, I think there’s demonstrated interest in having this convo around ppl’s issues/discomfort with kink, and ideally there would be some kind of article or at least open thread to hash it out, rather than tacking it on to Sinclair’s column every week, heh. I think it would be beneficial to have that thread / artical, but also v challenging.

          • The thing is, I don’t think it’s actually about kink, or as has been repeatedly pointed out people would also be arguing on Alaina’s columns. Even if Sinclair was writing about sweet vanilla lovemaking or board games or houseplants, people would still be furious, because it’s Sinclair’s voice that they object to. And we’ve seen this before.

            The particular brand of passive-aggressive concern-trolling that crops up here looks very, very, similar to the relentless negativity from comments on Kate/Kade’s now defunct Butch Please column. It looks a lot like some people just really hate masculinity, whatever form it takes, despite the fact that butch/gnc women and genderqueer people incontrovertibly exist.

    • Personally, I absolutely welcome all sorts of comments. People don’t have to love kink in order to engage or grapple with the ideas in these columns. What’s the hardest for me is when non-kinky people – or non-D/s people who are kinky in other ways – are judging the psychological authority exchange I’m trying to describe, which I think is what sometimes comes across as kinkshaming. It’s different to say “whoa, I don’t get this, I’m not into this,” than it is to say “this is wrong, nobody should do this, you’re damaged/damaging someone else.”

      Sometimes I wonder, too, if the comments of a very personal, very vulnerable piece of writing is where someone should try to work out their thoughts of their personal relationship to D/s. Someone who is the former (“I’m not into this”) might go through lots of stages as they’re working to understand how this psychological authority exchange works, and what is healthy or unhealthy about it, before they can come to the place of deciding that other people’s adult consensual kink is ok (YKIOK), even if they don’t want to take part.

      I wish more commenters would come from that perspective – that fundamentally, adult consensual kink practices are just fine, and don’t harm others, to trust kinky people’s agency and ability to figure out what works or doesn’t work for them. That, to me, is fundamentally what sex positivity is. Doesn’t work for you? No problem! But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for other folks to do. But the moral and psychological judgments that come in are really challenging to navigate.

      • I’m also noticing a lot of people commenting who have some history of abuse within a BDSM relationship, and who are trying to point at the things I’m describing as abuse. That’s so challenging, because what looks like abuse in one situation could be completely consensual and wanted in another. I can feel how those folks are hurting and still have some pain about their abuse, but my relationship isn’t about that – it’s a deeply consensual and loving agreement.

        Kind of a different issue. But it’s on my mind, as we’re talking about kinkshaming and commenting.

  2. I really enjoy this column! While I haven’t experimented with kink in my everyday life, so much of this discussion seems incredibly applicable to any relationship (of course, with modifications). My wife and I regularly discuss the ways we would prefer each other confront/handle/react in different situations (e.g. If I’m feeling stressed out by something there are certain responses I want from my partner, etc.). Of course this column is fantastic without being applicable to everyone’s relationship dynamics and it doesn’t need to be — I just really appreciate the way Sinclair writes and approaches these topics and I take away so many great things from these articles. Thank you!!

  3. Sinclair, do you ever take a “break” from protocols or has guilt ever stopped them entirely, even with your sub’s consent? I know it’s a 24/7 thing for you both, but are there ever any times either of you need “off” for any reasons?

    • Yes. We have different kinds of protocols depending on the situation we’re in, because we don’t necessarily think that we have consent from others to be part of our scene, and sometimes that’s how we feel it comes across. Family/work protocol, home protocol, out in public protocol, out at kink spaces protocol – they’re all a little different.

      Not quite your question, but relevant I think.

      We change the protocol all the time. It’s more like we decide to just wipe the slate clean and start again, with just the ones we really like. Usually I choose, because rife cares most about whether I like the protocols. We’ve only stopped them completely once or twice and then resumed, but we have eliminated some (or all) and replaced them with others often.

  4. It is strange how you might have protocols without realising it. I follow certain rules and so does my wife. We didn’t associate it with kink since we just spank each other but never anything more. Very interesting.

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