O&P website and blog,
are where most of my new writing on M/s appears. The IE website will stay
online indefinitely to host the IE Essays and lili's writings.
Yaldahtovh <firstname.lastname@example.org> - May 2000
The essay below was
posted to the newsgroup
and is reproduced here, in the Essays section
In this discussion, I will be talking primarily about the female heterosexual
submissive, because I don't know enough about non-heterosexual female
submissives and Dominants to know whether this analysis is completely
applicable. This focus is not to suggest that lesbian female submissives and
their challenges are less worthy of study, merely that I am not equipped at
this time to do such a study.
So often, women who are newly aware of their submissive needs endure a period
of self doubt around the troubling question: am I sick?
I've seen women read the psychiatric diagnostic manual (DSM-IV) and then ask,
"Do I have borderline personality disorder?"
I am writing here not only about the sexual aspects: "am I sick because I get
turned on by images of being taken, used, forced, swept away by masculine
energy more powerful than my own?"; I am also writing about the nonsexual
aspects of being submissive: "am I sick because I yearn to depend on, and
follow the lead of, a man stronger than myself?"
I will attempt to address both aspects in this essay.
What precisely fuels this kind of question, "am I sick?" Why would a woman
discovering the language of her nature think she has a mental disorder? Or at
the very least, have something very wrong with her?
A submissive discovers, or more properly, realizes and acknowledges that she
functions at her best in relation to another. And the more intimate, holding,
containing that relationship, the better she feels and the better she performs
in cardinal areas of adult life: work, friendships, and parenting. Realizing
she is at her best in such relation makes her wonder why she can't do it for
herself? Why does she need such a relationship to accomplish what she
should be able to do for herself?
In thinking about this, I have come to question the cultural determinants of
what is considered the highest good. Here in Western society, we place highest
value on independence, on "pull yourself up by the bootstraps", on the lone
pioneer, the trailblazer, the less needy and more self sufficient. We value
competition over cooperation, tangible achievement over achievement in
relationship. We pay big bucks to men (and the few women) who run big
corporations, and less to the nursery school teachers, the nurses, the
secretaries, the social workers, the caregivers rather than the producers.
There is something wrong with believing that such independence is the only
good. It is especially wrong for the most relatedness-oriented among us, the
Part of the newly aware submissive's task is to separate out the internalized
voices of her culture: those voices that tell her she is too needy,
dependent, too focused on the others in her life. Once she can articulate
what those voices tell her, she can begin to question not herself,
validity of those internalized values, using her own yardstick to measure her
life, rather than our culture's standard.
We can see how perspective is critical in understanding a phenomenon. For
example, Dr. Robert Coles, in a study of moral development in children,
researched how children decide what is good and right. To do this, he
presented several scenarios describing a moral or ethical dilemma, presented
the scenario to school age children, and analyzed the results. The description
of the study here is to illustrate the nature of cultural bias and it's impact
One of Dr. Cole's scenarios was as follows:
A man has a very, very sick wife, so sick she could die if she doesn't get a
particular, very expensive medicine. The man doesn't have the money for the
medicine, so in desperation he steals it from a pharmacy.
The children are asked questions about this scenario. Coles found that boys
tended to conclude that the man should be punished, because the law is the law,
and nobody should break the law. Coles saw this as a higher order of moral
reasoning, reflecting the statement, "a nation of laws, not of men." That is,
that nobody is above the law, and the rule of law is not situationally defined.
The boys applied an abstract universal principle to a singular instance. Coles
understood this ability to transcend the personal as a "more evolved" form of
The girls were deeply troubled by the scenario, and most of them sought ways to
solve the man's problem within the context of relatedness: they wondered if the
man could ask the pharmacist for the medicine, and offer to work for him to pay
for it, or pay him back later. They wondered if the man had friends who could
help him pay for the medicine, and they believed he shouldn't be punished for
his act of desperation. Their sense of right was situational, and defined
within the context of relatedness. They did not come to articulate an abstract
universal principle, but sought to solve the problem within the context
presented. Coles saw this as a less logical, lower order of moral development
because the girls could not emotionally distance themselves from the central
human drama in the scenario.
After Coles' work was published a woman named Carol Gilligan reviewed the
studies that Cole had done and reanalyzed them, in a book called, "In a
Different Voice." Rather than seeing the boys' responses as evidence of
"higher" development and the girls' as "lower" she redefined them as
And she pointed out that the girls responses, so firmly rooted in
human context and relatedness were devalued by a society in which the typically
masculine is of more cultural worth than the typically feminine. She asked,
"Why is it considered a 'higher' order of moral development to value universal
principle over human context?" and in so doing highlighted the sexism inherent
in the analysis.
As we can see, this type of analysis is extremely useful in understanding
typical submissive conflicts. We tend to ask the wrong questions: "am I bad,
sick, weak?", when we should be asking, "is there something missing from the
yardstick I use to measure myself?"
If one looks at capacity for relatedness as a strength, as a good, then it
becomes clear that the submissive has a talent for this, for relatedness. And
that seeking a partner who can meet her need for this relatedness is a
good thing, a healthy thing.
If we begin our analysis without the cultural assumptions about what is of
"higher" value, we can begin to understand that it is possible for a woman to
be submissive, and to be healthy. And we can try to imagine what a healthy
submissive functions like, and how she developed her adult personality. Let's
start backwards, and ask ourselves, what might a healthy adult submissive woman
"look" like, psychologically speaking:
1. The healthy submissive is capable of, and thrives on, intense, intimate,
emotionally open relationships. This is often evident in the number of
nourishing, sustaining, and life affirming friendships she makes over the
2. The healthy submissive is a giver. She often needs help to ration herself
because her impulses nearly always lead her to want to do good for others.
3. The healthy submissive is capable of intense joy, especially in the context
of a sustaining relationship.
4. The healthy submissive finds significant relaxation when properly related.
She is at ease in that place.
5. The healthy submissive has finely tuned interpersonal sensitivity. She is
reactive to subtle shifts in the emotional tone of others.
6. The healthy submissive has a fluidity of self, a flexibility that enables
her to adapt to changing circumstances.
7. The healthy submissive is playful.
8. The healthy submissive has no more than the usual cultural conflicts about
her body, and its goodness and beauty.
9. The healthy submissive takes pride in her accomplishments.
10. The healthy submissive accepts herself as she is, knowing that while her
culture values independence and self sufficiency, she has strong dependency
needs and that there is no inherent "wrongness" about those needs.
11. The healthy submissive seeks nourishing relationships.
12. The healthy submissive, in accepting herself "as is" is tolerant of others.
But neither will she allow anyone to tell her what her truth should be.
13. The healthy submissive has a reasonable self concept, aware of her
difficulties as well as her strengths.
14. The healthy submissive hungers to be the object of an intense and
penetrating understanding. When her nature is understood and she is held in a
loving and firm frame, her devotion is almost limitless. The healthy submissive
has an enormous capacity for devotion, from which springs her service.
What makes a woman a submissive?
As with all conjectures about human development, the answer is likely twofold:
a combination of nature and nurture, biology and environment.
There is a whole body of literature that makes observations about temperament.
This literature talks about the variations in behavior in infancy as a
manifestation of temperament: the expression of regularity, responsiveness, and
reactivity. In the area of regularity, some infants are regular and
predictable from the get-go: they sleep regularly, wake at predictable
intervals to nurse, and have predictable periods of alertness in which they
begin the earliest socialization. Some infants are irregular: they will one day
sleep for an 8 hour stretch, then be awake all night, the next day they will
sleep for one hour intervals through a 24 hour period. In the area of
responsiveness, some infants will find novelty and intense stimulation
aversive, and will withdraw or become irritable when presented with those; some
infants are stimulated to engage and explore novelty and intense stimulation.
Some infants have high thresholds for sensation, requiring a relatively intense
stimulus to become aversive, some have low thresholds, and respond to mild
stimulation. Some infants will for example, be intensely distressed by a wet
diaper; some will not register discomfort until diaper rash sets in.
The sum total of these innate, biologically founded responses make up
temperament. It is easy to see what people mean by an "easy" baby: one who
sleeps, eats, and eliminates regularly and predictably; one who has a moderate
response to stimulation, neither withdrawing nor reacting intensely; one who is
drawn easily into social exchanges, and provides pleasurable reinforcement of
socialization with their caregivers, one who is easily "read" and easily
comforted, one who accepts change without undue distress.
I think one of the traits in this biologically grounded array that makes up
temperament is common to all submissives. And that is social responsiveness. I
would suggest that the baby who is temperamentally "set" to register and
respond selectively and sensitively to social cues has the seeds of
submissiveness in her nature. This is the baby that will search the environment
for a human face; who will be attuned to, and very responsive to the human
voice; who will preferentially and selectively attend to, and process, human
This baby, as she grows into childhood, will be easy to control, to shape,
especially if she is temperamentally on the "easy" side. This little girl will
be exquisitely sensitive to criticism and correction, to disapproval, to
praise. Rather than requiring a raised voice to correct, a raised eyebrow will
Even further, this little girl will be exquisitely sensitive to nuance: she
will know when others are angry, hurt, sad, bewildered even when they are not
spoken about. She has a "sixth sense" about people.
As children do, she requires the adults in her life to validate her perceptions
when appropriate. Let's say her parents are troubled by a financial stress, and
like good, responsible parents seek to shield her from their stress. The child
will pick up on the unspoken tension, sensitive as she is to subtleties of body
language, voice pitch, facial expression. She might inquire of her parents what
is wrong, and be told "nothing is wrong, honey... go and play." This leaves the
child confused: she knows in that way that she knows, that something is
wrong. But her perceptions are not validated. She is told nothing is wrong. But
her parents, who are not at their best, may be a little short with her, and
picking THAT up too, she goes off to play concluding that she must have done
something wrong, to be sent away. Part of this is the megalomania of childhood,
part of this is a reasonable and logical synthesis of resolving the child's
felt sense of things with what she is told.
This kind of interaction, repeated over the years, in the best and most
of families, leads to an adult personality in which there is some anxiety
associated with relatedness. The submissive female learns to scan the social
environment for signs of trouble, seeks to "fix" the trouble, and all too
often, believes herself to be the cause of the trouble. If someone important is
tired, the submissive has exhausted them. If someone important is angry, the
submissive must have angered them. If someone important is disappointed, the
submissive must have failed them.
This trait, this interpersonal sensitivity in its highest expression is when
the submissive accurately registers interpersonal nuance, and responds
with a minimum of self-referral, recognizing that other's emotional states may
have nothing to do with the submissive herself. This is how it works for the
healthy submissive, who as an adult, often finds great fulfillment working in
fields such as social work, nursing, medicine, counseling, teaching.
There are certain vulnerabilities a child constituted with a submissive nature
Because of her intense awareness of interpersonal nuance, she is highly
sensitive to both criticism and praise. When criticized, she is likely to feel
intense shame; when praised, intense pleasure. Since the shame feels so bad,
and the praise so pleasurable, she becomes a people-pleaser. This tends to lead
to the development of what psychologists call "an external locus of control."
Meaning that child bases her self assessment (am I good or bad?) on factors
outside herself. The female submissive defines herself based on what others
tell her she is.
Parents have enormous responsibility with such an influenceable child. Nascent
talents can either be nurtured or aborted with just a word. This child will
likely live up, or down to, whatever is expected of her. Expect more than she
can constitutionally do (like academic, athletic, or social success) and she
will develop an intense sense of inferiority. Praise her out of proportion to
her talents (this is the best drawing any child ever did) and she
an inflated sense of self. Accurately and sensitively validate her real
abilities and talents, and she will seek goals appropriate to her ability, and
take pleasure in achieving them.
When the environment is reality based, sensitive, and balanced, the child grows
up embracing her special ability to be "related" to others, to be sensitive,
and has a sense of self in reasonable tune with her true abilities and
vulnerabilities, neither excessively self effacing or self aggrandizing.
But if development should go awry, as it too often does for this child, the
personality traits she has develop in a distorted manner, and cause her
In dysfunctional families, this child suffers more than others with tougher
hides, less reactive temperaments. She is often the one singled out for
physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Her very nature makes her available for
use: for the parent's angers, frustrations, sexual impulses, or narcissistic
gratification. When a submissive child is misused in this fashion, she is
unable to utilize her interpersonal talents in a constructive way. Around the
core of her submissive nature, psychological pathology develops, and distorts
her submissive development.
Women who emerge from childhood with these traits will be more or less
consciously submissive in that they are moldable, controllable by others
whether or not they call themselves "submissive." Those who don't consciously
seek a Dominant partner will naturally gravitate to a man who influences and
controls her in a benevolent manner, who accepts her, loves her, nurtures her,
and values her sensitivity.
Those who consciously seek a Dominant partner are those who are perhaps,
sensitive that they require not only benevolence, but someone who understands
precisely how moldable and influenceable they are, and is capable of
power to mold her and influence her deliberately and consciously, for her good
and the good of the relationship. Or she may have been fortunate enough to be
exposed to a conscious Dominant, who fulfills her and reveals her nature to
her. Or, increasingly evident, are those who recognize themselves in the
explosion of information available via the Internet, and proliferation of
In relationship with an appropriate partner, the submissive is freed to be all
of herself. She is safe enough to feel her exquisitely sensitive reactions to
others, to play like a child, to give care and to take care, to be angry, to
Part of what she is relates to her sexuality, what she finds erotic. To
understand what makes a healthy submissive, we need to examine the nature of a
healthy submissive's sexuality. We start by looking at the relation of her
overall temperament and development to the particulars of her sexual core. It
is in childhood, that we learn how to love, how to be loved, and how love feels
in some existential way. A blueprint is laid down in childhood that influences
adult love relationships in ways often not evident to the adult.
Let's remember what we've proposed about the core of a submissive child's
nature: an intense, preferential attention and sensitivity to social cues that
develops into a special sensitivity to the influence of others, and an eventual
"external locus of control." This child, in a reasonably suitable environment
free of excessive trauma will develop as follows: when she senses her parents
having even a small degree of distress from the normal tensions of life, she
will try very hard to "be good" for them. She will try not to irritate them,
make demands on them, she will try to be helpful, while at the same time
putting her needs to the side. Because she is still a child, she will while
wholeheartedly trying to "be real good" feel some resentment and anxiety for
having (in response to her own internal demands) to be good. Now even good and
loving parents will encourage this, praise this response: "Honey, thank you for
being such a good girl while Mommy has to take care of your baby sister. You
are so good to your little sister, and to me." So the submissive child
experiences first, the impulse to take care of others, to soothe them, to not
be difficult, leading her to put aside her needs, and also the resentment for
not having her needs recognized and met. She suffers on some level, to some
degree, from the putting aside of her needs, and from stuffing the angers and
resentments. She suffers.
Yet at the same time that she suffers, she is being praised, and that feels
exceptionally good, exceptionally meaningful to the submissive child. She
learns that to suffer in service to another brings pleasure.
If we look at the core of submissive sexuality, we see that the essence is a
mirror, a concrete embodiment of her entire personality as formed by early
interpersonal relations. To express love, one serves. To feel loved, one
serves. When she is an adult this imperative is expressed in her sexuality. Her
fantasies are nearly universal amongst submissives: sexual pleasure in
suffering as the captured slave, the harem girl, the maiden stolen by the
pirates, the whore for use by a roomful of men under the watchful eye of her
Her adult sexuality is elaborated upon this psychic core: she is receptive,
she is open, she is giving, and what touches her most powerfully in sexual
intimacy is to be commanded, taken, used, even forced to suffer because even in
suffering she is loved. She learns the equation of suffering = pleasure in
those very early interchanges in which she experienced the flush of pleasure in
being of service to her family. The more she had to suffer, the more she had
to put aside her own needs in order to "be good", the greater perhaps
connection, and the more overtly masochistic the submissive may be. This
construct may account for the spectrum of masochism amongst submissives: the
more challenging or difficult or overtly painful her early experiences are, the
more likely she may be to learn that loving for her, involves some degree of
suffering. Pure service without physical masochism defines one end of this
spectrum, and intense masochistic needs in a submissive woman defines the
Please note that we are still talking about the healthy submissive here. Such a
woman will have minimal conflicts about being constituted the way she is,
whether or not she is intensely masochistic. It just is the way she loves,
different loving, so to speak. It never stops feeling loving to her, as long as
she is in service to, and "suffering" for, a loving Dominant. Once she has
unraveled the knots of her culture's values, she will not be seriously
conflicted about her sexual nature or desires. She will have an intense,
expressive, emotionally intimate and meaningful sex life within the safety of
the hold of her keeper.
Let us not then mistake the submissive need to follow for weakness. Let us not
mistake the submissive's capacity for relatedness to inability to be alone. Let
us not mistake the submissive's vital, joyous sexuality for self-destructive
masochistic equivalents: self-mutilation undertaken out of rage or despair.
Last updated 5 February 2001.