When I entered the BDSM scene, I had the impression the term ‘dom’ inherently signified something impressive or worthy of respect. These men and women stepped up to embody the leadership role in the power dynamic of their partnerships. The activities they wanted to be responsible for carrying out—impact play, bondage, hypnosis, choking, simulated drowning—all entailed degrees of risk. Surely anyone voluntarily assuming such a position would have to have good intentions and know what they were doing, right? How could the kink scene function with any level of legitimacy otherwise?
Some of you out there who have experience navigating the community are probably chuckling at my naivety. Please understand, though I was not a child at the time, I hadn’t encountered enough corrupt politicians, incompetent bosses, or sketchy alternative ‘healers’ to have formed a sufficiently protective shell of skepticism. I trusted the overall integrity of the kink community and gave most people the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t want to seem rude, boring, or overly paranoid. I wanted to seem fun, brave, and super-duper kewl. I also really, really wanted to play now now now now NOW!!
My newbie impression of ‘doms’ was an illusion, of course. The truth is that the term is a self-given title that inherently signifies nothing more than a desire to be in charge. There’s no requirement that anyone pass any sort of test, read up on safety precautions, take classes, garner personal references, demonstrate awareness of consent, or attain any level of experience before donning the label. This is true of both casual kinksters and many out there who call themselves professionals. After all, who’s going to stop them? The underground kink police who don’t exist? You can certainly find skilled, educated, benevolent doms who possess integrity and are worthy of trust, but they don’t necessarily constitute the majority by any means.
There’s also a good portion of submissive and non-kinky fuckboys who call themselves doms on the internet because they want to get laid and know sexual domination is in high demand. After a few drinks, some will even admit it outright.
To get a job, you have to be qualified and pass an interview. To get elected to public office, people have to vote for you. Becoming a doctor requires schooling. Becoming a ‘dom’ requires zilch. Nothing. Step into the scene, give yourself the title, and voila! It is so. You are ready to choke and bruise people.
One of my first play partners worked as a professional dominatrix. She was revered in the community for the incredible shibari skills she’d picked up from her mentor, which were indeed impressive. In private, however, she’d say things like, “People make way too big a deal about consent,” and “People worry too much about risks in BDSM.” Anyone who got upset with her was allegedly too sensitive and needed to “sort their shit out.” Such statements are big fat billowing red flags, but what the fuck did I know? She had years of experience, multiple paying clients, and a local audience of adoring fans. I kept my concerns locked firmly in my gut and made the choice to believe her. Clearly a 'professional' knew better than I.
It wasn’t until after she’d violated my boundaries that a few people informed me she had an unspoken reputation for such things and had been abandoned by previous submissives as a result. “Why didn’t anyone tell me beforehand?” I wondered, reeling from the grief of the fallout. I now believe the people around me either assumed I could handle myself or felt that getting involved would be none of their business. There’s also a subset of the community that routinely brushes off valid interpersonal concerns as ‘drama’.
That was 7 or 8 years ago. Since then, I’ve had newcomers to kink ask me whether I’d recommend hiring a professional dom(me) so they can explore safely. I think playing with pros can be a lot of fun, but whoever you choose should hold similar qualifications to professionals working in any mainstream field. They should ideally have:
some form of formal training or kink education
loads of real-world experience
science and health-based safety knowledge
consistently positive references from previous play partners
a passionately pro-consent attitude
respect and empathy for others
transparent, client-focused policies written in detail and available to all
It’s also key to connect with someone who sets realistic expectations. I once came across the website of a pro-dom who enthusiastically insisted “Everything we want to do in kink can be done safely.” I adhere to the ethical code of RACK (Risk-Aware Consensual Kink) and find this blanket assertion to be simultaneously ludicrous and irresponsible. Very little of what we do in BDSM is completely ‘safe’ i.e. entirely without risk. There are only varying degrees of ‘safer’ and ‘less safe’, and that goes for psychological risks as well as physical ones.
Kink is meant to be fun, but we’re dealing with deep levels of vulnerability and the potential for actual bodily harm. Not taking this stuff seriously can lead to extremely unpleasant outcomes. Most people are pulled toward the lifestyle by their fantasies rather than exposure to how BDSM functions in reality. Pop-cultural interest has skyrocketed in recent years thanks to lighthearted influences like porn, 50 Shades, memes, etc. (Or, y’know, ~spanking erotica~!) There’s nothing lighthearted, however, about the fact that sexual trauma can happen in the blink of an eye and affect the person who experienced it for the rest of their life. It’s potentially heavy shit and reverence for that fact is a big fat billowing ‘green flag’ I look out for while asking myself, “Am I going to enjoy playing with this person?”
I don’t write this to tarnish all dom-identifying folks or scare anyone away from exploring their kinky desires. There are amazing, empathetic, down-to-earth tops out there who know what’s up. I’ve played with quite a few. I also won’t go off about how to spot a ‘real/fake’ dom because there’s plenty of that online already. And naturally, of course, nobody's perfect. Great doms are human and make mistakes like everyone else.
My point is that none of us should trust anyone based solely on how they label themselves when the title they’ve adopted elicits self-serving benefits like social or financial power, unearned admiration, or sexual opportunity. Such people can have a massive, life-altering impact on those they engage with. I worry for the literal children online exploring their sexuality for the first time who lack the protection of a well-informed perspective as I did, even during my 20s.
“WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!?!!??”
Sounds dramatic, but I do, often. I’ve known I was kink-oriented my entire life, even from my earliest days. Part of me wonders whether things like BDSM should be covered in school sex-education programs for this reason. If I could sit my younger self down for a chat, I’d tell her not to automatically put stock in that alluring three-letter word. Like any other community, the kink scene has its share of charlatans and vetting partners is crucial.
Take care and trust your gut if someone’s setting off your bullshit alarm. If it looks, swims, and quacks like a sketchy-ass duck, well... you know the rest.