t1klish started me thinking about this topic the other day, and Conina chimed in with a comment that kept my train of thought circling the track, and eventually I decided to write a post. The topic is “mind games”.
Let’s be honest—mind games have a bad reputation. In the vanilla world, the idea that one should avoid a girlfriend or spouse that plays mind games has become a cliché. “Oh, she was hot, but she kept playing all these mind games,” you might overhear someone say in a bar, and all around the table, the listeners will shake their heads knowingly. More than that, mind games have a connotation of being associated with other negative activities—think brainwashing, Stockholm syndrome and the like. Vanilla society definitely takes a dim view of mind games.
Because of this, when I made my first forays into BDSM, I felt rather uncomfortable with the idea of mind games. In fact, if I stand on my head and look at things sideways, I can still make myself a little uncomfortable. However, when I stand upright and face the idea directly, engaging my logical mind rather than emotional perceptions left over from younger days, I realize that mind games are not only beneficial to a healthy Dominant/submissive relationship, but that they are essential.
In fact, the power exchange within the minds of the participants is the highest and most important part of a D/s relationship. Consider what happens if you remove the mental aspect of things. What remains? The only thing left is physical compulsion—in other words, the use of physical force by the Dominant to compel the submissive to obey them.
That’s no longer consensual BDSM, no longer legal, and no longer desirable by the submissive at least, and very probably by the Dominant either. Consensual BDSM requires a mental aspect for it to exist in the first place.
The consensuality is a key element to this discussion. Both parties, the Dominant and the submissive, want to participate in their D/s relationship. The Dominant wishes to feel their partner submit to them, and the submissive desires to feel Dominated. Actions and ideas that support this dynamic are not just wanted, but are craved, and relished when they are provided.
While physical activities such as bondage can support this dynamic, they provide far more benefit on the mental side of the relationship than they ever do in their physical reality. Even the strongest pair of handcuffs or the most elaborate suspension rig can be escaped within the world of consensual BDSM simply by the bound partner asking to be freed. (Yes, sometimes this might require the use of a safe word, but that’s just a different way of asking.) Therefore, in physical reality the power of these bonds is very limited. But in the mental realm, the idea of being shackled or hanging in the air carries great power—it feeds the illusion of helplessness that the submissive partner desires, giving it greater life. Viewed from this perspective, even highly physical activities such as bondage are a form of mind game.
Once the need for some level of mental Dominance/submission is accepted, it is but a short step to the realization that increasing the mind’s perception of control increases the intensity of the D/s experience. Therefore, techniques that heighten the Dominant’s “feeling” of being powerful or the submissive’s “feeling” of being overpowered become desirable. Once again, these may involve physical props or actions—a spanking using a paddle, for instance. As before, however, the primary power of the actions exists in the mind–the submissive partner can choose to call a halt to the paddling at any time, but instead, they prefer to feel that they must endure, and perhaps even that they are powerless to stop it.
Despite the fact that most of their power lies in the mental sphere, physical activities such as spanking don’t seem to carry quite the same stigma as techniques that have no physicality. Oh, sure, the vanilla world views spanking as kinky, but not positively evil. It is the non-physical types of activities that typically get classified as true mind games, and carry the severe, negative connotation. Nonetheless, these non-physical techniques play an important role in BDSM, and the Dominant/submissive community is replete with examples. Here are three to serve as a quick illustration:
- Repetition of a rule, a coda or a phrase – By frequently repeating a phrase or stating an idea, one reinforces it in one’s mind. Do it often enough (so the story goes) and one will start to believe it. Outside of TTWD, this technique has been used for sinister purposes (think brainwashing) as well as for benevolent ones (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”). It is frequently used within the context of BDSM as well, where it is often employed as a sort of ritual. For instance, during a scene I always ask Joy the question, “Who do you belong to?” She answers, “To you.” This reinforces an idea that we both wish to be true, and to an extent, allows it to become true for us.
- Asking for permission – Requiring the submissive to ask for the Dominant’s permission before performing one of more defined acts supports the hierarchy within the relationship. Essentially it instills the feeling that control belongs to the Dominant partner. Possible examples include such things as, “May I go to the bathroom?”, “May I come to bed?”, and “May I take you in my mouth?” Selection of basic tasks that normally require no permission (such as using the bathroom) strengthens the perception.
- The use of an honorific and/or diminutive – In many D/s relationships, the Dominant requires the submissive to address them with a title—an honorific–rather than by name. At the same time, the submissive is referred to by some sort of nickname—a diminutive. The purpose is once again to reinforce the idea that the Top has a higher place than the bottom, receives respect from the bottom, and controls even the name that the bottom must use. Examples of this are myriad, but include “Master/Mistress” or “Sir/Ma’am” for the Dominant, and “girl/boy” or “slave” for the submissive. In fact, even the convention of using an upper case “D” when typing Dominant and a lower case “s” for submissive is an example of this phenomena.
These are examples in which mind games don’t deserve their bad reputation. Within the bounds of BDSM, they serve a benevolent purpose by increasing the feeling of power/subservience that both members of a D/s relationship desire. In fact, in most cases, both partners recognize exactly what they are doing when they mutually engage in playing mind games such as these, and actively desire the outcome they produce. I can tell you that Joy, who is smart as a whip, knows very well when I use one of these techniques, and while she could call me on it, she chooses not to, because she wants to experience the feelings they create within her.
Just as with any other tool, mind games can be misused for destructive purposes in BDSM–the same knife that dices the garlic in your dinner tonight can just as easily slice your finger if it’s not used properly. It is important for the Dominant, the chief employer of these techniques, to use them constructively and for the betterment of the relationship and their partner. Though these waters can be somewhat tricky to navigate (after all—part of the goal is to help the submissive partner to give up independence and control to the Dominant, and it can be somewhat hard to equate this with traditional definitions of betterment), if one keeps one’s partner’s best interest at heart and acts to nurture and protect them, one should not go too far wrong.
So, in the realm of BDSM anyway, don’t look down on mind games. They are a legitimate tool, play an essential role, and should be celebrated rather than despised.