A Dominant’s Guide to Subtle Protocol

A note on definitions: I’m using “dominant” and “submissive” as the default words here. There are dozens of other words people use to describe their power dynamic / intentional authority exchange relationships, including, but not limited to: Daddy, little, slave, boy, girl, puppy, property, Owner, Master, slave, Mommy, Mistress, Mxtress, Mister, Sir, Liege, Captain, Ma’am, kitten, baby, and dozens more. I’m defaulting to use “submissive” as anything on the right-side-of-the-slash, and “Dominant” as anything on the left-side-of-the-slash, but those words are intended to be broad, overarching categories for all kinds of power dynamic relationships, and not limited to those particular choices of words. Hope that’s clear.

So. It’s the holidays.

And many of us have all kinds of obligations, not the least of which are family, extended and chosen, and work, both ours, our partners, and our industries. We are expected to show up at all kinds of holiday parties, and we are often expected to bring a +1.

For us perverts, who want to have protocol 24/7, or who have protocols which would be obvious and perhaps elicit questions during these events, we might need some adjustment on how we conduct ourselves.

First, A Note About Consensuality

I get wanting to be out about being kinky and about being D/s — there is value to that. “Normalize these hobbies and pursuits and lifestyles! You do know someone who is kinky!” But being a witness to a D/s dynamic, protocol, or scene is, in some ways, actively participating in that scene. There are lots of spaces where we give our implicit consent to see that — at play parties, during kink events, or even out in public. But in community spaces or private parties, there isn’t that kind of consent.

I don’t know about you, but for me, I don’t want that to mean that I can’t be in my power dynamic and protocols …

So what kind of protocol can you have when you’re in spaces that aren’t kinky?

You don’t have to just “turn off” all the D/s — you can adapt it. Here’s some tips and ideas that are hopefully a jumping off place, and you can alter it to fit your needs and situation.

1. Pre-Plan Tasks

Negotiating and pre-assigning tasks for your submissive can be a great way to keep you in the dynamic while still being subtle.

Here’s some examples:

At the work holiday party: a submissive could bring you your favorite drink; keep an eye on your drink and go refill it before you ask (“I was just about to get a little more, want some?”); get you a plate of food (“Want to share my plate?”); keep an eye on the time and remind you when it’s time to go.

At the day-long (or week-long) family gathering: lay out particular outfits for them each day; have them text you dirty things whenever they step away; cook your favorite breakfast at least once; double tap your arm when they want to talk to you, have a check-in, or need to take a break from family (which is always, always an option!).

At friend’s parties: decide what food your submissive is or isn’t going to eat or drink (this can be tricky, considering our complicated relationships to food, so take care in restricting or assigning any food-related protocol); keep track of the time and tell you when it’s a certain time; introduce you to at least five people; bring some talking points for the people you know will be there in order to start conversations with more ease.

2. Eye Contact

A lot can be done with just a quick connected moment of eye contact and a tiny head nod. If you want to have protocols about asking before they use furniture, or asking before using the bathroom, eye contact can be an easy way to replace the verbal question.

As a dominant, you have to remember to look at them when they are hovering near the table waiting to sit down, otherwise they will stand there awkwardly.

3. Take Breaks Together

Step out of the party once or twice. Take a walk around the block at your relative’s house. Take some time for just you two to connect back into your D/s. Your submissive could kneel; you could have a brief check-in about why your dynamic is important; you could use the formal titles for each other; you could read a little poem or inspiring D/s quote or post from Tumblr and talk about it for a minute.

It is always okay to excuse yourself and touch back in, and then go back into the gathering when you’re feeling ready.

4. Redefine Your Endearments

If you have regular terms you use for each other — boy, girl, Sir, Ma’am, etc* — choose a easeful new term that is commonly used and substitute that. Everyone else will just hear “dear” or “honey,” but you will know that when you say “Thanks, honey,” you’re saying, “Good job, little girl.”

You could do this with other phrases, too. If you often say, “You’re mine, puppy,” you might decide that “You’re sweet” or “Hi, sugar,” or another code phrase now has that definition. “You look handsome,” could mean “I’ll do anything to serve you, Sir.”

5. Hand Signals

Some folks go all out with the hand signals — they are often thought of as one of the official training pieces for new submissives, at least in the gay male leather “olde guarde” community. (This may or may not be a real thing; there is much debate about that in the community, too.)

But perhaps your submissive watching for hand signals would be sexy to you. If you’re at a busy party, you could have a subtle signal that means that they should come over to you; if you’re at dinner, you could have a signal that gives permission to sit.

Bonus: Lay it All Out and Make Different Protocol Levels

If you really want to go all out, sit down together and separate your protocol into different containers: high protocol, which might be kink events or being with kinky friends; day to day protocol, which could be generally how you are together; low protocol, for when you are with family, coworkers, or non-kinky friends. Take a look at the protocols that are your favorites and see how you can simplify them so the essence is still there.

It’s always good to officially say to your submissive, “During this event, we’ll be in low protocol mode.” It reminds you, too, that even though there might be some changes in how you interact, it is intentional.

With some practice, switching between these protocols will become second nature.

Keep Experimenting!

Ultimately, it all depends on what it is you want to do with your protocol, and what kinds of actions make you feel connected and strong in your dynamic.

* I really wish the terms we have were less gendered. We have often made lists of the options, and there are some, but the binary gendered ones are so much more common. Sigh.

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queer women" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert.

2 thoughts on “A Dominant’s Guide to Subtle Protocol”

  1. Susannah Clary says:

    These are great suggestions! One other thing we do is take advantage of a crowded space like a holiday gathering. Last night, for example, we went to a solstice party at my coworker’s home. Their parents, kid, neighbors, and friends were all in attendance. There were a dozen kids under 12 running around. Not an appropriate place to be overtly explicit with our protocols.

    My co-worker’s home is lovely but there were so many people there that seating was limited. I found a deep leather chair and claimed it. There was nothing for my submissive partner to do but kneel next to my chair. Boom! Instant reinforcement ofoof dynamic. He brought me food and drink because “I didn’t want to lose my seat”.

    It was easy for him to stay a step behind me because it was too crowded to walk through the house side by side.

    Little things that kept us grounded and connected and that no one batted an eye at.

    I’ve long maintained there are no exclusively “dominant” or “submissive” actions. It’s all about the INTENT and underlying understanding of those intentions by the people in the dynamic.

  2. NeverContrary says:

    Damn. If only I had read this yesterday. My family holiday would have been far more enjoyable.

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