“The only discipline that lasts is self-discipline.”
— Bum Phillips
“Discipline” is a very popular, very sexy concept for those of us who love power exchange, but what is discipline, really, and how does it work?
Discipline is responding with a crisp “Yes, Sir!” every time we receive an order. Discipline is noticing and correcting every time our partner slips up and meets our eyes after we’ve told them that is not allowed. Discipline is immediate, unhesitating obedience. Discipline is kneeling and waiting for permission to enter the bed every night, even when we’re tired or cranky. Discipline is both partners treating the rules like they’re important because they are the rules.
For a definition: discipline is the art of maintaining a high standard of behavior or achieving strict obedience to a set of rules. The word can refer to both the process of establishing and enforcing that kind of high standard, and also to the end result–a state of smoothly flowing, habitual obedience to an established structure.
Discipline has other meanings, of course. Some of us use it to mean the same thing as punishment. Some of us use it to refer to painful play that isn’t intended as punishment. For the kind of discipline I’m talking about, the smacking of butts (or thighs, or chests, or have you tried the soles of the feet?) is only one possible method of enforcing discipline.
For some of us, the process of creating discipline is inherently a pleasure. It provides an excuse for both partners to pay close attention to one another–to watch for both cues to obey and lapses in need of correction–which can be a connecting and intimate experience. We also might eroticize the concept of correction itself.
For others, discipline is a means to an end. We value the practiced obedience and structured way of interacting that good discipline can provide. Discipline can create a sense of formality and pageantry in our dynamics, and that in turn can nurture a greater sense of meaning. Discipline can also create habits of command and obedience that make it easier to assume our power exchange roles and go deeper into them.
Often our payoff from discipline isn’t attached to any one moment or any one instance of obedience, but from the gestalt of getting to be in a disciplined dynamic. We may not enjoy the uncomfortable, tedious time we spend kneeling next to the bed waiting for our partner’s permission to enter, but feel comfortable, happy and turned on to be in the kind of dynamic where that sort of thing is expected of us.
It’s also worth saying that some among us have no interest in discipline at all.
This is one of those things that many people mistakenly believe must always be part of every power exchange dynamic. The image of the submissive kneeling at rigid attention, or the dominant laying out detailed and consistent rules that must be followed at all times, is so prevalent in our fiction and fantasy that it’s easy to get the impression that that’s how it’s always supposed to be. But there are many of us who love playing with other kinds and flavors of power while having no interest in consistent expectations or standards of behavior. Dominance doesn’t necessarily have to be consistent, to be fair, or to even make sense. Submission doesn’t necessarily have to be consistent either, or precise like an oiled machine. Dynamics that mimic the roles of owner and kitten are famously lax in their discipline. Some conquest dynamics may value and enjoy the opposite of discipline!
If we do want to create discipline in our power dynamic, there are three essential components to making it a success: clear and stable expectations, mutual investment, and consistent enforcement.
Setting Clear and Stable Expectations
To achieve strict obedience to a set of rules, those rules need to be clearly explained and they need to stay the same long enough for the submitting partner to get used to them.
Clarity has two parts. The first part happens in the dominating partner’s head (or through a conversation between the partners) where they work out a very clear picture of exactly how they really want their submissive to behave. This can be trickier than it first appears. Things like “behave respectfully” require clarification as to what behaviors we’d find respectful. Things like “kneel when I snap my fingers” require clarification about where and how they ought to kneel.
Very general expectations, like “obey any command I give you immediately,” are easier to make clear. Highly detailed rules, or long lists of rules, can quickly become muddled or internally contradictory.
On the other hand, there’s also a great beauty to seeing disciplined obedience to a set of detailed rules. Many of us love the feeling of knowing exactly what to do when our partner snaps their fingers in a particular way, or get tremendous satisfaction from seeing our partner obey with the precise movements that we prefer.
So there’s a balance for us to look for: as much complexity as feeds our passion, without creating so many detailed rules that the mass of them becomes a chore or a confusing mess. If our system of discipline is going to involve more than a handful of rules, it can be wise to impose a few rules at a time, rather than trying to put them all into place at once.
The second part of clarity is communicating the expectations to the submitting partner. To set them up for success, we need to make it clear when we’re giving them a serious expectation that they will need to meet going forward, versus a passing fancy or a one-time order. It’s also an excellent practice to explain our expectations to our partner more than once. Ideally we give it to them in more than one form, like telling them their rules verbally, and also give them the rules in writing. That’s how people tend to learn best: through repetition and getting the same information presented in different forms.
It’s good practice to quiz our partner occasionally, or to have them repeat the rules back to us a few times, to make sure they’ve retained our expectations correctly. And while it can be hot and fun to give our partners rules in the middle of a scene, if we really want them to remember all the details it’s a good idea to also teach them the rules before the scene begins, or go over them again later at a less distracting time.
To create discipline, the expectations also need to be stable. If a dominating partner wants to change their mind about what they want from one minute to the next, that’s their prerogative. But it doesn’t work well for creating discipline.
Discipline grows in effectiveness over time. We can create discipline over the course of a single evening scene, but it’ll be fairly shallow and unpracticed, and it’d probably be a good idea for us to keep the expectations relatively simple. The effect of discipline grows more pronounced over a series of scenes, or an ongoing power relationship, as following the patterns of the expectations develop into habits for both partners. And that works best if discipline is consistently maintained in every scene or throughout the relationship. If we have kinds of discipline that we want to have in force at some times but not others, we can clearly signal when those times begin and end, we can work to have them happen often enough that we remember our rules and our practice. Every couple of weeks or so, in my experience.
That doesn’t mean that the rules should never change at all, just that they need to be changed deliberately, explicitly, and not too frequently. If a rule or expectation isn’t working for us anymore, or we have a new idea that we like better, it would be silly to stick with it just for consistency’s sake. To maintain discipline we should think through the new rule as carefully as the original, make sure that both partners understand what is changing, and practice the new rule to retrain our habits.
One of the worst things we can do for discipline is to let rules we don’t really care about fade away by just not enforcing them anymore. If a rule is no longer worth our attention, we should explicitly remove it.
It’s truly said that all discipline is self-discipline. Sometimes our fantasy of discipline is that it’s a thing that a dominating partner imposes upon their submissive and the submitting partner just kind of lies back and takes it. In reality, receiving discipline is as least as much of an act of will as enforcing it. The submitting partner needs to care sincerely about meeting their dominant’s expectations, take pride in performing well, and be disappointed in themselves when they fall short.
If I think my partner’s rule that I always wait for them to begin eating first is a silly triviality, I might still obey, but I won’t do it with grace and commitment. I won’t get the associated benefits of greater connection with my partner and developing a submissive habit of mind. And correction is just going to make me feel sulky and annoyed.
If we are submitting to discipline, we need to accept meeting that discipline as our own responsibility. Our partner’s attention and corrections help us to fulfill our responsibility, and for that help we ought to be grateful. But the ultimate responsibility is ours. If we fail to meet the standard or follow the rules, we need to treat that as our own failure, and a significant one. If that isn’t how we feel–if we’re blaming our partner for not disciplining us well enough, or internally rolling our eyes and going along with their silly rules–we ought to bring it up with them in whatever constructive way is appropriate for our dynamic.
When dominating, we can work to get our partner invested in their discipline by consistently demonstrating that we take the rules seriously ourselves, by explaining why they are important to us, and by not settling for lackluster attempts at obedience. A partner who we believe is making a genuine effort to meet our expectations should be corrected within the container of our power exchange when they slip up.
A partner who doesn’t seem to be really trying we should not correct like a submissive but rather talk to like a person.
Find out where they’re at. If there’s something going on that’s getting in the way of their full, devoted obedience, figure out what that is and see if we can remove the roadblock. If they’re thinking that making them obey well is our job rather than theirs, disabuse them of that notion. If they just plain don’t want to take this particular expectation of ours seriously, then maybe we have to change it.
This may seem obvious, but the dominating partner needs to be invested in discipline as well. That means being motivated to pay consistent attention to our partner’s behavior, and correcting them even when we are tired or distracted or feeling lenient or for whatever other reason not in the mood.
If we love the idea of discipline in the moments when we’re super excited and near the climax of our scene, but we don’t actually get that much out of maintaining it consistently, that’s perfectly okay so long as both partners are on the same page. We can roleplay discipline–demand better behavior, apologize for our failures, dispense corrections–in the moments when we’re into it, get what we wanted out of it, and have a generally awesome time. It’s only a problem if one or the other partner is expecting that discipline to actually continue after everyone comes down from the climax.
The final piece of discipline is for the dominating partner to consistently notice and correct when their submissive fails to meet expectations.
Corrections don’t necessarily need to be painful or angry or even a big deal. The major part of the effectiveness comes from simply letting our partner know that (1) we noticed and (2) we care. Remember that ultimately we aren’t forcing obedience; we’re providing accountability.
The most effective form for correction to take will vary with different partners. Some partners “hear” discipline best when it comes in the form of corporal punishment. Others find being spanked for misbehavior absurd, but will snap into shape immediately when they hear “I’m disappointed in you.” Some respond best to encouraging corrections (“I know you can do better”) rather than rebuking corrections. Many of my own partners have required nothing more than a stern glance that communicates “I saw that.”
With discipline that extends for a long time it may become impractical to notice every single slip in behavior. We can be realistic about this with our partners. I acknowledge to my submitting partners that I’m not omniscient, and tell them that their job is to fail at their rules rarely enough that I don’t notice it. We can also encourage our partners to self-report when they notice a slip that we didn’t, and reward them when they do. We still ought to correct them, just as we usually would! But after the correction, praise and reward them for coming clean.
From the submitting side, being corrected by our partner can feel devastating and can provoke a strong urge to defend ourselves–to explain, excuse or argue. If it’s important to us to be in a disciplined relationship, the best thing we can do is accept the correction graciously. Try to think of it as a gift our partner is giving us to help us improve. If we believe that the correction is unfair or somehow inappropriate, we can support our dynamic by first graciously accepting the correction, acknowledging our partner’s authority to correct us and affirming our dedication to disciplined obedience, and then respectfully raising our concerns.
When both expectations are clear and both partners are fully invested in the dynamic, high and inflexible standards for discipline can be a beautiful thing. If the submitting partner was ordered to arrive at 5:00 and they appear at 5:01, they have failed and correction is required. No excuse changes that fact. If they are late because they were in a car accident, we’ll make sure that they’re okay and take care of getting their car to a shop or any other fallout that needs taking care of. But after the emergency is manage… they still failed, still need to acknowledge their failure, and still require correction.
That kind of high standard is a powerful tool for creating a shared reality in which both partners can feel like their dynamic is real and important, and for those of us who crave discipline that is a secure and wonderful feeling to have.