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This Is Your Brain On Dominance (And Submission)

With the increased exposure of people to BDSM through pop culture, many start their exploration of this lifestyle by thinking of themselves in terms of “dominant” or “submissive.” What do these terms really mean, what draws us to certain points on the power spectrum and why does it feel so good?

Dominance and Submission are Social Behaviours

Dominance is a characteristic of highly social animals, such as us humans. It is present where individuals of the same species compete intensely with each other for food, mates and other resources. Social creatures interact repeatedly over time, remembering their past interactions and developing expectations about their future ones.

Close and repeated interactions like this inevitably lead to interests clashing (eg is toilet paper rolled from the front vs from the back?) and these clashes need to be settled.

Enter dominance, mother nature’s solution to the problem of disagreements in social settings.

 It is a long-term strategy that makes relationships stable and predictable, and it ensures that everyone gets their needs met. When someone takes a dominant position in a relationship, the result is no fighting and no negotiation, and each individual enjoys a net benefit.

The thing about dominance is that one cannot exist without it’s opposite, submission. Unlike dominance, submission or subordination is a short-term strategy – it gives the individual time to build up strength in order to challenge the dominant member of the group. The costs of being subordinate in a social group build up (eg there are only so many times that the group leader can take us to the same place for coffee and it not be a problem), and balance needs to be restored.

The Pleasure of Dominance and Submission

This basis helps us think about dominance and submission play as a source of sexual pleasure.

Both submission and dominance trigger psychological pleasure, which makes sense, as getting our needs met inevitably feels really good.

Humans have brain circuitry for sexual dominance and submission and both of these circuits are connected to the brains pleasure centre. We are biologically equipped to shift from one role to another, because this is important for us highly social creatures to survive. Although we may have a preference for one role or another, both have their own rewards, depending on the circumstances.

For people that occupy socially dominant positions (think of a CEO of a company), giving up these positions and assuming a submissive position in the bedroom can provide psychological relief. By bypassing the well-used pathway to the pleasure centre (through either dominant or submissive behaviours), pleasure is experienced in novel ways. In healthy BDSM play, the fantasy material, the scene, the script is chosen by those involved, therefore control has not been given up in a way that could produce anxiety. Control is relinquished in a highly scripted and heavily communicated way.

Is Dominance Just For Men?

It has been argued that men are more dominant because of higher testosterone levels. Testosterone has been consistently correlated with dominant behaviours (those aimed at achieving or maintaining power), however, this is only in naturally occurring individuals. Studies have shown that giving someone a boost of testosterone will not necessarily make them more dominant. This suggests that there is a more complex relationship between drives for dominance and resultant behaviours. The contemporary thinking is that referring to only drives, instinct and biology when talking about human behaviour disregards our highly social nature and the impact that the development of consciousness has had on our behaviour. This includes personality traits, life experience and cultural values.

Master holding leather whip while his slave waits for him in bed

The short answer is no, dominance is not just for men. But like everything to do with our high powered brains and complex social lives, it isn’t that straightforward. Women experience a complex relationship with power-play, but this is a discussion we will need to park for another time.

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