January/February 2002
Understanding Punishment

by FineArt

Few terms have more widely varying meanings in BDSM and D/s than the term PUNISHMENT. The term is applied to everything ranging from intense physical or psychological play to the need to eliminate or correct extremes in undesirable behavior. When administering punishments, no matter what the meaning or intent, the Dominant or Top and the submissive or bottom must have a clear and mutual understanding of what is to be achieved!

Punishment as a form of Play:

Punishment is often used to indicate a wide variety of what are actually play related activities, intended only for the mutual pleasures of the parties involved. Specific activities can range from humiliation or bondage to a wide range of physical tortures. Indeed, one of the definitions of punishment is to inflict pain, to hurt or treat severely! We often see a submissive or bottom speak of the need for "punishment" accompanied by laughs or giggles. In these situations they are normally talking about a desire to play, not to engage in activities to correct or change behavior. In this context, "punishment" can be great fun!!!

Punishment to change or eliminate undesired behavior:

In this context, the meaning and methods of punishment are quite different! "Punishment" here is intended to eliminate undesired behaviors. It is different from discipline, which is intended to help the submissive in learning new behaviors or to exercise a greater level of self-control in some area.

To be effective, punishment for this purpose should meet a number of criteria:

  • Both the Dominant and the submissive should recognize the "offending behavior" as having broken some agreement or rule. This only makes sense when the goal is to change or eliminate the behavior! It's hard to stop or change doing something if one does not know what they have done wrong to begin with.
  • The "consequence" (punishment) must be something that the submissive does not enjoy or want. This can take a widely varied range of things, from strong expressions of disappointment, withholding of something the submissive does want and enjoy, having the submissive engage in some unpleasant activity (i.e.: standing in a corner), or even some intense physical punishment (perhaps a whipping).
  • The activities of punishment should be separate and distinct from activities intended for pleasure. Ultimately, punishment is effective because of its emotional/psychological components. Since the goal is to change or eliminate undesired behavior, it is much less likely to be effective if the same activity (i.e.: a spanking) is sometimes used for punishment, other times for pleasure. In addition, implements of punishment... a specific belt, crop or whip, a chair in a designated corner or similar things... should be used and therefore psychologically associated only with punishment!
  • Punishments should be administered ONLY when the submissive knows, or reasonably should have known, that she was breaking a rule or otherwise engaging in an unacceptable behavior. Punishing for things the submissive does not understand is wrong or unacceptable may well eliminate the specific behavior... but it is even more likely to make the submissive tentative, afraid to do things. The goal should be growth of the submissive and the relationship... not breaking the submissive's will!
  • Punishments should not involve things that are simply something the submissive does not LIKE to do, but that are otherwise good for them! (A parallel would be punishing a child by making them eat their veggies... the result would be as much a lasting hatred of veggies as a change in behavior!)
  • Punishments should be proportional to the offense. Just like we do not imprison people for a single parking violation, severe punishments should not be administered for minor rules violations (unless done quite intentionally or repeatedly after the situation has been discussed).

In a serious and solid relationship, punishment in this context should seldom and perhaps never need to be used! In most cases, discussion or further training should be sufficient to achieve the goals... assuming that the expectations are well set and the submissive truly seeks to please the Master! If a situation should arise where punishment is appropriate, the means should be carefully selected and the purpose clearly communicated!

One thing is certain... if the submissive SEEKS punishment in this context, either the means is not effective or there is a fundamental problem in the relationship!!!

Punishment as a Cleansing

There are times when physical punishment serves as a cleansing mechanism for the submissive. When it is accompanied by a clear understanding of situations that brought punishment about, the physical punishment can allow the submissive to feel "this is over, I have been forgiven".

An Eye For an Eye!

Finally, there are, occasionally, Dominants who simply seek their "pound of flesh" through punishment. They may feel that they are righting some wrong, or, in some cases, simply feel they are "demonstrating their dominance" by punishing without concern for any change in the submissive's behavior. Their only goal is to demonstrate their "strength or status" by being firm. More often than not, the result will be uncertainty or even fear on the part of the submissive IF this is not a part of the couple's play.

Dominants who rely on fear should seriously reassess both their methods... and their true status of Dominant instead of abuser!