Why domestic discipline is not domestic violence

Last week (at least it was last week when I started this post) I read Jessica Wakeman's piece over at The Frisky about her first D/s relationship and was going to write about the similarities/differences with my own first spanking relationship. Except that within the essay was a link (that didn't work but I found eventually) to Amanda Marcotte's post at Pandagon about that article Jessica wrote for Bitch Magazine regarding domestic discipline two years ago featuring, among others, yours truly and my dear friends, Mija and Pablo (see this post for my thoughts on that article). Needless to say it rather distracted me from the post I intended to write.

I'm not sure how I missed Marcotte's post as I was reading Pandagon fairly regularly at the time (and would be now if I was awake more), but it was probably a good thing I did miss it as most likely I would have taken it quite personally ("these people are fucked the fuck up")*. Instead I shrugged off it and its comments as sort of like watching and listening to random people in a bar discuss an event they saw on TV in which you actually played an intimate part. Plus the idea of A. (or Pablo) as an ideologically-motivated pater familias or a misogynistic wife beater made me laugh.

At least, initially I shrugged it off. But…it kept bugging me. As it's been two years since her post, it seemed just a bit late to write a post in response.  However the more I continued to think about it, the more I began to feel that a post addressing why domestic discipline is not domestic violence had a great deal of merit.

Definitions: domestic discipline vs. domestic violence

Domestic discipline is planned, contained, sexually-oriented acts of power exchange with regard to real life deeds that may include physical violence between two people who have explicitly consented to those acts, the violence, and the mutually-defined structure of power exchange.

Domestic violence is behavior that seeks power and control through physical and/or psychological coercion over a partner who has not consented to being controlled (staying with the partner is not consent) and frequently includes spontaneous, unrestrained emotionally-mediated outbursts of physical and/or psychological violence.

Domestic violence is about manipulation and focuses exclusively on the desires of the abusive partner, whereas domestic discipline is far more centered on the needs and desires of the submissive partner.

Within domestic discipline, both partners create a construct in which one partner gives authority (in varying degrees) to the other partner in a way that produces sexual arousal for both. Within this construct the dominant partner will speak and act in ways that would be cruel, unfair, and absolutely inappropriate outside of the construct. Nobody ever really, truly requires a partner "take them in hand." When the submissive partner says he or she "deserved" his or her punishment or the dominant partner beats the other with a rattan cane, both are fully aware that they are acting within the construct they have both chosen and actively participated in constructing.

Safe, Sane, and Consensual

I failed to see how it’s much different from domestic violence, except that the women in this situation tend to minimize the conflict through stylizing the violence and submitting to it in a tacit exchange for their partners’ agreeing to have a limit on how much beating and abuse is handed out.

The difference is quite simple and stark: consent.  Just as in any BDSM relationship, the motto remains safe, sane, and consensual. Even in the "consent to non-consent" relationships, it always begins with consent. With discussions of fantasies and limits (hard and soft) and safe words.

Part of the process of breaking a victim down is slowly introducing her to this narrative in bits and pieces while depriving her of her independence…

Except that in domestic discipline, the overwhelming majority of the time it's the submissive (male or female) who is the one who introduces the domestic discipline narrative to his or her partner and pushes him or her to "be stricter." Or the two partners meet because they are both interested in the same narrative and join a spanking-fetish group of one sort or another. This is markedly different from the bullying that occurs in domestic violence where the abuser's narrative is forced onto his or her victim.

Some abusers will indeed use spanking as a form of violence, particularly when one partner is into spanking/DD and the other isn't. Such was the case in this situation I wrote about where the guy was (and may be still, alas) "disciplining" his girlfriend without any consent on her part because he thought "she needed it." No consent = abuse.

I've also seen situations where one partner wants the other to spank him or her and seeks to get him or her to do so by engaging in greater and greater deliberately provocative behavior (aka "bratting for it"). It's one thing to "brat" with someone you know is into spanking and may view it as a form of foreplay (though a lot of spankos are just as likely to find it annoying as hell). But doing so with someone who is not into spanking or DD is also a form of non-consensuality. Do note, however, this does NOT excuse the non-spanko partner from responding with violence (you have agency, asshole). Bratting for it may work in John Wayne movies and spanking stories, but it's not going to turn someone into a spanko anymore than a girl in a bikini will turn a gay guy straight.

It's all about sex

DD is not BDSM, which is a sexual game, though some DD couples do also enjoy incorporating BDSM elements into their relationships

This is absolutely false and indeed Jessica made a point of linking domestic discipline to sex in her article ("each and every one considers herself a 'spanko' whose fantasies have long revolved around being spanked."). DD is a sub-fetish of BDSM.  It is why you find DD groups at places like FetLife or SpankoLife. Or why DD groups on Yahoo are considered "adult." It is true that those in the "Christian Domestic Discipline" community are probably markedly uncomfortable admitting that what they do is connected to gay leathermen. It is also true that there are some Christian DDers who have a difficult time acknowledging DD is about sex. But even evangelicals who believe in the "headship" of husbands look down on domestic discipline as a sexual fetish.
At the end of the day they are simply using a traditional, religious, patriarchal narrative to make palatable what is very much sexual. And we feminists who practice DD are pretty shameless in declaring that what we do is directly related to our clitorises.

…It seems that domestic discipline is a way of thwarting conflict in your relationship by assuming that every conflict or problem in the heterosexual relationship is the woman’s fault (because she’s childish, scattered, rebellious, whatever) and that it’s up to her man to discipline her.

This sentence requires unpacking, and I'll just start at the beginning.
Her point about thwarting conflict in relationship is an important one that deserves far more discussion in the domestic discipline community than it gets. I am always disturbed when I hear couples say they are using DD to avoid arguments. Conflict is a part of ANY relationship, healthy or not. Spanking (or sex, job, exercise, etc.) should never be used as a substitute for good inter-personal communication skills. Ever.

That said, once the conflict is resolved, DD couples will use spanking in the same way that non-kinky people use intercourse to make up. It may not be the way you have sex, but it includes all the aspects of love, intimacy, and affection that one associates with sex.

It's not about gender 

And I use the androgynous term partner because it could just as well be a woman as a man. Marcotte insists that one, domestic discipline only exists within hetero couples, and that two, the man is always dominant. Now based on reading Jessica's article, I can see why she thinks this. While I thought Jessica's description of domestic discipline was very perceptive on a number of levels, she made a crucial mistake in stating that female-dominant or same-sex domestic discipline is merely "theoretical." There are plenty of couples in which the wife is the one disciplining the guy (I really could have linked to a bazillion places for F/M couples). And there are also women disciplining women (if I ever find my Nanny Bea, I can add my name to that list) and men disciplining men. One very astute commenter at Pandagon pointed out that

it’s actually my impression that there’s long been more female-D/male-s than visa verse. My assumption has been that that’s because male-D/female-s overlaps with traditional gender roles, so people who like that sort of thing don’t need to go to a subculture to find it.

Indeed that's exactly been my experience as I've started switching. It took me a little while, but once I found the F/M community, I found more blogs and websites than I could ever possibly visit even if I was healthy and had all the time in the world. And I think Jessica's own male-D/female-s interest kept her from looking for that subculture, leaving the reader to falsely assume that DD is about male superiority by default.

That is not to say misogyny is lacking within the DD community, as well as in the larger BDSM community. Yes, there are men (and women) who engage in domestic discipline (and D/s)** because they believe all women are meant to submit to men (we all know that guy[s] who thinks all dominant women are just waiting for the right dominant man to submit to — who would be him, of course!). There are men (and women) who are disturbed by feminism and find domestic discipline to be sexually, and yes, politically and religiously attractive. Add thousands of years of patriarchy and a society which is still rife with sexism, and it can make the distinction between ideology and wank fodder difficult.

My first draft of this post was snarky, sarcastic, and downright indignant. Marcotte and her commenters come across as condescending and distinctly uninterested in DD as a form of sexuality. However after more reflection, I had to acknowledge my own lingering discomfort with the language of domestic discipline — so much so that I don't even like calling what I do "domestic discipline" because of its 1950s "Father-Knows-Best" connotation, preferring to use "punishment fetish/kink" or "What It Is We Do" instead — even if the fantasies that make me orgasm most often involve domestic discipline. It's because of that discomfort that I almost never read fiction that includes domestic discipline, and when I do, it usually features female-dominant or same-sex couples. Or it's real-life accounts from couples where I know sexism is not the motivation. It's hard for me to not take a "sexist-until-proven-innocent" approach so I can imagine how hard it must be for people outside of our community to hear that my boyfriend spanks me when I go to bed late and not think something terribly sexist is occurring even though it really is true that gender has little to do with the disciplinary arrangement I have with A. 

I agree with Marcotte that feminism is being defined too much these days as choice and not enough as empowerment, especially given the growing climate of dis-empowering women regarding their reproductive rights or equal pay. And I'm not going to suggest — as I often see women in the BDSM community doing — that embracing my choice to engage in DD is some grand feminist act, anymore than my eating Cheerios for breakfast is. Domestic discipline is sex and sex is…sex with all of the love, intimacy, transcendence/spirituality, and personal fulfillment that it involves. It's not feminist or misogynist. It's certainly not a movement to return male-female relationships back to the 1950s (even if it may mean that for some who practice it). It's sex.***

But I will say that making women feel bad about the kind of sex they have contributes to their disempowerment. And that is most definitely NOT a feminist act. 

*It is also quite possible that I knew about it at the time but deliberately chose not to read it because I suspected this sort of response and now, two years later, forgot that I wasn't going to read it. As you might imagine, my illness-induced poor short-term memory makes reruns far more interesting. ::grin::

**The line between DD and D/s is a murky one. The best way I would differentiate between the two off the top of my head is to say that DD includes a sort of parent-child dynamic while D/s has more of an adult master/slave dynamic – PG vs. R-rated, if you will (or perhaps Freud vs. Hegel). But, of course, there is enormous overlap between the two. Indeed in Jessica's article in Bitch, as well as in The Frisky post that originally sparked this post, she uses the terms interchangeably. But I'll save that question for a whole other post.

***I am fully aware that sex is political and among the many ways the patriarchy has traditionally sought to control women. In this case, it's other women — not the patriarchy — trying to control women and so while yes, DD may be political, engaging in it is not an act of sticking it to the Man. Unless, perhaps, it's a female-dominant relationship.

(Cross-posted at Natty's Spanking Blog)

21 thoughts on “Why domestic discipline is not domestic violence

  1. Mija

    How is WIIWD (DD for those who call it that) different from domestic violence? It’s the same as what makes sex difference from rape — it’s all about consent.
    Like you, I’d missed the article on Pandagon, mostly because I wasn’t reading much at the time. But I’m glad you pointed it out to me. I suppose, from the other side, this is the danger of the CDD movement and their denial that what they do is BDSM — because if it isn’t consensual and isn’t kink, then it is domestic violence.
    That said, and I can’t speak beyond my own relationship and the relationships I know (which includes the ones here) I’m not sure how anyone could look at our various and differing relationships and see domestic violence. Having worked with rape and domestic violence survivors for 6 years, that much I’m pretty clear about.
    (Just deleted 4 paragraphs of ways in which Paul caning/thrashing/punishing me isn’t domestic violence. But seriously, I didn’t know any domestic violence survivors who made vacation plans in order to spend time at conventions with other people into domestic violence. )
    Let me just state this once again clearly and completely — I don’t believe DD or WIIWD is somehow “natural.” Rather, for me, I find trusting my partner with power over me hot– I find him having the power to punish me a huge turn on. Therefore I give him that power. Both of us are very clear and happy with the idea that at any time I can take that power back OR he can give it back. I do other BDSM activities with other people — my punishment kink is edgy enough for me that it’s something I only trust my partner to do with me.
    In my opinion, DD or WIIWD isn’t an expression of feminism anymore than a trip to the spa is a feminist act. Feminism is putting my body between an anti-abortion nutjob and a woman who’s trying to access to Planned Parenthood. But as a feminist, I believe that how I construct and conduct my personal and sexual life is my choice and my choice alone. Part of my owning my body is being able to consent to having it fucked or beaten in a way that works best for me by whomever I want.

  2. Natty

    Mija: But seriously, I didn’t know any domestic violence survivors who made vacation plans in order to spend time at conventions with other people into domestic violence.
    LOL that pretty much says it all! I laugh only because I’m imagining a sort of SNL-like skit about a conference on the best ways to abuse your partner. Which probably sounds funnier in my darkly-humored imagination…
    But yep, my body, my choice — to be whipped and fucked how I like.

  3. Iris

    [wild applause]
    Thank you for this thoughtful and well-written post, Natty. I admit that when I read crap written by people who have only a superficial knowledge of WIIWD/DD/DS/BDSM, it makes me want to throw my computer out the window rather than respond calmly and thoughtfully.
    Like you, I have a hard time with finding an exact term that fits what I like. “Domestic Discipline” has the same “Father Knows Best” connotation for me, and to be honest, it sounds too close to “domestic violence” for my liking. And WIIWD is only useful as long as I’m talking to other WIIWDers–it’s not descriptive in and of itself. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I don’t have a handy term to sum it up: it forces me to be clear in describing what I like and want without pigeonholing me. I’m getting sick of people using descriptors to dismiss others instead of engaging them (e.g., Progressive/Conservative, Evangelical, Red/Blue Stater, etc).
    Thanks for putting this up–I appreciate your definitions and your discourse.

  4. Zille Defeu

    I myself am finally just getting around to replying, when I wanted to do so days ago!
    I very much agree with your point that the people who generally initiate and then try to keep increasing the intensity of DD and D/s relationships are the subs/disciplinees. Many a Top/discipliner has been happy to let things slide into an easier, more equal relationship, letting infractions go unpunished, etc., and the people whom you’d think would rejoice in this (if it were unconsensual violence) get all upset and complain!
    The “this has nothing whatsoever to do with sex” people bemuse me. I once found a guy who earnestly explained that the blowjobs the woman had to give after the spanking was not actually about sex at all. I wish I’d saved that link — it was a brilliant example “the gentleman doth protest too much”!
    Thanks for this post.
    And yes, Sparkle, we totally should use Mija’s brilliant observation as our theme!

  5. Natty

    You’re most welcome, and thank you for your kind words.
    While I may use “punishment fetish/kink” instead of “domestic discipline,” at the end of the day I still have to admit that what I do doesn’t really differ all that much from what the CDD people are doing, even if the narrative is different. So, I suppose I might as well acknowledge the DD label and explain what it really is even as I may continue using — and preferring — the label “punishment fetish.”

  6. Natty

    I was just saying in a comment on my blog how, in the first draft of this post I prefaced the part about submissives (aka abused) pushing the “narrative” onto the top/dominant (aka abuser) with a disclaimer about there not really being any data or research to back me up. But then thought what the hell am I talking about? Everybody knows it’s the submissive partner pushing this!,. I think it’s fair to say the research would simply acknowledge what we all (aside from those outside the kink) already know. 😉
    Regarding sex, yes, we’ve been having this discussion over in the comments at my blog about this, with two people saying that they aren’t sure if it’s all about sex. A few years ago I probably would have agreed with them, but the more I think about why people have sex, the reasons are pretty much the same as why people practice DD — feel cared about, feel centered, to absolve guilt, etc. I think it comes down to how we define sex and that WWIWD is just another form of having sex.
    And when blowjobs are involved, well, I think that’s pretty obvious! LOL — he protesteth too much indeed!
    Welcome to the PB, btw. I haven’t really had a chance to say hi and that it’s nice to have you aboard!

  7. M

    New to this blog, and maybe I have a unique relationship, but WOW! My husband and I both work. I do volunteer work quite a bit, and he does almost all the housework, the laundry, etc. Women envy the fact that I have a husband who does all this and, maybe in the back of their minds, they think I dominate. But they’re wrong, in the bedroom, he’s the dominant and I gladly submit to that. I love to be spanked on occasion, and I love to submit when we’re both inclined. I really wish do gooder’s would stay out of my bedroom.

  8. Natty

    I think what bothered the writer in question is the fact that domestic discipline technically goes beyond the bedroom. My partner disciplines me for things that are not related to sex. However, it’s that disciplining outside of the bedroom that turns me on, thus returning it to the bedroom, if you will.
    At the very least, I think “do gooders” should at least know what they are talking about before they judge. 😉

  9. All Knowing Man

    I am in a D/s relationship and I am the Dominant. Until you have lived in such a relationship it is hard to truly know the binding affect of strict discipline. It creates a world where both live in complete certainty and truthfulness. The sub knows that she is adored by the fact she is held so tightly. For her she has a man in her life that really cares how she behaves and really wants to see her shine. He pays very close attention to her as he keeps her firmly under his control. This is a very safe place for her, this is why a sub loves the certainty of accountability.
    The Dom knows his sub is devoted to him through her consent to punishment. The Dom is completely captivated by the purity of her love and life as she sets about pleasing him. He grows to worship her and does all within his power to give her a life of secure certainty. His heart overflows with love as he knows the precious jewel he has been sent to care for.
    Life in the D/s realm is intense and both are required to live strictly disciplined lives, it is a level of bliss that those on the outside cannot begin to grasp.

  10. Natty

    Ah, AKM, this was great satire of exactly the sort of abusive asshole who uses the ruse of domestic discipline for what is really domestic violence. Made me laugh my ass off. I mean, that nick alone had me in stitches. That’s sooo what wankers who believe this sort of bullshit really think of themselves!
    It’s hard to pick a favorite line here, I mean there were so many silly cliches that I see spouted by wannabe doms in our community (god, if I hear one more mention of “precious jewel” I think I will vomit). But I may have to go with It creates a world where both live in complete certainty and truthfulness. Only the most unhappy, insecure person would want to live in such a world. Yet at some point this troubled soul will have to move out of his imagination (and parents’ basement) and face the world that actually exists.
    Then again, there’s also He pays very close attention to her as he keeps her firmly under his control. Boy did that one give me a Buffulo Bill (“it puts the lotion in the basket or else it gets the hose again”) vibe! Very clever.
    So, you were joking, right?

  11. Chimelicious

    Wow. Thank you so much for this blog. Being new to the world of D/D and D/s it was important for me to make sure to be able to explain, if the need arises, what the differences are. Also, helped me fully understand them as well.
    In my relationship I can be punished for NOT having my own opinions, missing school, and not taking time for myself/ my hobbies. Yes, this must be done with respect for Him, and his needs. But never have I had someone more invested or caring in me reaching my goals as He is.
    Thank you for shedding light on this for me.

  12. Allknowingman

    My Dearest natty
    Where do I begin with you? your disrespect for a Master and your attempt to think you are my equal shows me that you really do not get it or have lived it.
    My sub consents to punishment because she gains inner peace from my love and training of her. she knows that I delight in the perfect behavior and this gives a wonderful good-girl feeling inside.
    As for you dear natty after you apologize to me I may consider showing you the light. you have so far to go…

  13. Indy

    OMG, I wasn’t completely convinced that Allknowingman was a parody before, but this last comment makes me believe. Excellent act, AKM, but please, fess up before I get really worried.

  14. Deeanna

    I’m an ex submissive and domestic violence survivor. One thing I find terribly sad is how people seem to keen to say that there’s no link between the two and there never could be. That kind of rhetoric means that women who are submissive AND in domestically violent relationships are going to find it that much harder to leave.
    It’s always worth considering that pretty much every domestic abuse survivor thinks they aren’t experience domestic abuse, at the time. You can never look at any relationship from the outside and think ‘oh that can’t be abuse because she did x’.
    I don’t think I could ever be submissive again because it all got mixed up with domestic violence in my mind . I don’t know how many people have experienced both, but to me they’re too much like each other for submission to be fun any more. Despite how much I enjoyed submission, domestic violence is such a horrific thing that I’d give up pretty much everything I love in live to avoid going through it again.

  15. Natty

    Thank you for making an excellent point. While I was trying to say that it’s wrong for people to assume that domestic discipline is always domestic violence, it is equally wrong to assume that it is never domestic violence. Your own experience as well as the example I pointed to in this post are important reminders that abusive partners can too easily use the construct of domestic discipline in horrifying ways.
    As a survivor of child abuse, there are times I seriously struggle with my sexuality because of the terror I experienced as a child. It’s hard. And I can only imagine how much harder it must be when there aren’t years of distance and the form of the abuse is so intertwined with what should be a chosen and titillating expression of sexuality. While I’m so sorry it’s impinging on your current sexuality, I’m glad you’re doing whatever you need to do to be safe — physically and emotionally.
    Thanks again for sharing your valuable perspective.

  16. Camila

    I think every relationship is different. Yes, some people take domestic discipline to different level that we are all not so comfortable accepting it as a healthy domestic discipline lifestyle. In my house I have the right to decide everything from decoration, to plans, to the kids. For us domestic discipline is all about controlling my negative reactions. My first instinct of making “drama”.
    Domestic Discipline in our home is not about putting my energy and my spirit down is only about having my hormones and silly emotions under control.
    Thank you very much for your post, sometimes free spirits women that practice Domestic Discipline like me feel like we are not doing it 100% right.


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