On the Use of Labels in the BDSM World

This has become more and more of a pet peeve for me over the past several years.

No one fits neatly into any of these little boxes, in my experience. Even those who most seem to always have elements that don’t fit what someone else sees as “the definition”, once you get right down to it.

The older I get, the more I realize this – and the crankier it makes me to see everyone else and their cousin still wanting to stuff everyone into the same little boxes, and to make those boxes and labels mean the same thing to everyone – or more precisely, the same as it means to them. I’ve ranted about this publically for years in a variety of locations, but I’m crankier than ever about it.

We are much too complex to be reduced to one or two word definitions as labels to fully describe who we are, whatever those labels may be – at least any of us with more than a few functioning neurons who aren’t so completely damaged that we let anyone kick us around any way they want. The more neurons, the more complex, and the less well these labels generally function as definitions or descriptions.

Even doormats have limits and issues that may often belie whatever simple label anyone might hang on them. And God knows that even the most fully M/s-identified people certainly do. It’s never, ever as simple or clear-cut as it may look from the outside.

These labels are, at best, starting points for a discussion. Shorthand, if you will.

And that really doesn’t work very well in the end, because most people project their own definitions onto others without bothering to find out what the other person means by a given term.

I’ve come to realize that these labels and concepts basically stop discussion, exploration, and even negotiation, instead of encouraging all of these.

You know what you mean by any of these terms, and I know what I mean. Those definitions virtually never fully match, and are often way off even in the most important elements. Sometimes, they don’t even match at all, even when the same terms are used. Only a frank discussion with a whole lot of “I like this and don’t want that; how about you?” back-and-forth sharing has even a prayer of fully outlining whatever it is that each party has in mind.

I’ve thought in the last few years that I’ve become really disillusioned with “BDSM” as a relationship construct, yet I know I can’t go back to “vanilla”, whatever the hell any of these terms mean. I guess the reality is that my disillusionment lives right here in the attempts to define the undefinable in ways that don’t honor who the actual person in front of us is, but tries to hold them up in comparison to some idealized concept (usually scripted by someone else, no less!) with some narrow label – and then finds them wanting or a failure or even completely unworthy of our attention if they don’t match our own definitions in every way.

And what’s more, then people put value judgments on these definitions, and then rank them according to what’s “better” or “worse”. Some people actually think of certain activities or even thoughts as “submissive” or “dominant”, and heaven forbid if they actually like to do things that don’t fit their definition of their role, they think the whole game is up. They don’t like to admit these “unseemly” preferences, thinking that somehow it diminishes them. And they think that others would think less of them as well if they knew. Sad, isn’t it?

And even more sadly, I think I’ve actually been expecting the same thing of my own self – to try to define myself by one or two words, when the reality is that I’m much, much more complex.

I’m actually not sure where the greater disservice is – in trying to define others with such narrow labels, or in trying to define our own selves that way. Perhaps the latter.

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3 thoughts on “On the Use of Labels in the BDSM World

  1. I agree that labels are restrictive. But they do serve a purpose for identification. Makes life a little easier. But I think it is a mistake to ever think as a person being identical to a label. As for what is dominant behaviour and what is submissive behaviour. I think that too depends on a person/the couple a great deal.

    But don’t you think it’s core is a lack of imagination combined with a deep need to be part of a like minded group. I have often seen these currents in the BDSM groups and I sorta see them as similar to the good ol’ high school cliques on occasion. I never quite fitted the popular ones there either.

    • Oh, yes, certainly they do serve a purpose, exactly as you say – I kind of think of them as shorthand. The problem, IMO, is that people tend to substitute them for the description, and then problems result when their ideas of what they mean conflict and they haven’t discussed it in greater detail.

      I don’t know about lack of imagination, but that could well be. It’s certainly limiting, to say the least.

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