BDSM Contracts: You want me to sign a what?

We can all learn about how to be a better partner by exploring the way BDSM relationships work. I discovered that it is a world of respect and affection, which is not something that is typically associated with the BDSM lifestyle. It is a deep level of commitment and care between two (or more) people that takes a great deal of time to cultivate. Sex is part of it, but a true Dominant/submissive relationship looks at the person as a whole. The mind and mental well-being of both people is as important as all of the sexy bits.

The world of BDSM has a ton of working parts. When the general public thinks of a BDSM relationship, thoughts typically drift to the sex act. The whips, chains, ropes, and punishments. If you take a closer look though, it’s about so much more than that. The relationship between a Dominant and a submissive is complicated and goes far beyond what goes on in the bedroom, or playroom. It is a lifestyle that thrives only trust and communication. It needs boundaries. It requires honesty and openness.

The basics of being in a Dom/sub relationship seems to be fairly straightforward: one person in control of the other, the person giving up control does so for pleasure of both parties, the person in control takes care of the person they have control over. Easy enough, right? My only exposure to the idea of having a contract for this agreement was in the film Fifty Shades of Grey. It was most definitely a poor example; however, it was a way to be introduced to the dynamic. And while it makes sense to have some sort of agreement where this type of arrangement is concerned, the variety of contracts is as wide as the variety of people in the world.

Admittedly, I am a novice and I’ve only dipped my toe in this pool of Doms and subs. I know that I am a submissive. I have a natural tendency to please. When I am serving others, I am at my happiest. I’m in control of so many things all day. I’m thrilled at the thought of someone making some of my decisions and caring for me, not because I can’t, but because they recognize my need to have someone care for me.  

Why Contracts are Important

The cornerstone of the BDSM relationship is trust. The Dominant is given a large amount of responsibility for the care and safety of the submissive and the submissive trusts that the Dominant has their best interests at heart. Non-BDSM relationships can go from vanilla conversations to sex or the other way around easily. BDSM relationships are different. They almost have an old school courtship feel to them. It is not something two people rush into and the variables that are to be considered take a comfort and a familiarity with the other person to discuss them without fear of rejection. In order to establish that trust and to maintain it, communication is key. As a submissive, I need this communication and reassurance. I need to know my fears, likes, needs, and wants are listened to and understood. I have found that to be satisfied, I need to know my Dominant is pleased with me and wants to support me as I become the best version of myself. That he wants me to see myself as he sees me. We both have boundaries and expectations. This is where the contract comes into play.

The BDSM contract sets the parameters and expectations for all of the parties in the relationship. Contracts will contain the basics. For example, who is included and what their role is, where the scenes will happen, and when. A scene is the sexual encounter, which can include intercourse, but doesn’t always have to. The contracts will additionally state more specific details such as safe words and limitations. This communication is critical to avoid misunderstandings and potentially hurt feelings; everyone knows what to expect.

What’s Included in the Fine Print?

  When you think about contracts, you think of some sort agreement that is difficult to break. As I researched for this article, I found a wide variety of contracts to use as samples or templates. Some were extremely formal, full of legalese and spots for initials and signatures. A few of the samples even included spots for a Notary to sign, verifying the identity of the couple. Others were simpler with a list of key points to be discussed by both parties. The major points of all of the samples I found were these:

  1. Parties: Who is going to be involved?
    This outlines who is going to be permitted to play during scenes and in the overall relationship. If one or both people have a desire to include more than the Dominant and submissive, it is listed here. Furthermore, this section outlines who is in which role.
  2. Duration: How long will you be in this agreement with the other person?
    This is the length of the agreement; a week, a month, or longer. Similar to all other parts of the contract, this can be changed at any time. The time period can be lengthened or shortened.
  3. Dominant’s responsibilities: What will the Dominant provide?
    Here is where what the Dominant is going to provide for the submissive is outlined. This should include at a minimum any equipment, safety, and after care. It can include clothing, food, and accommodations. For me, this is important to understand. My Dominant is stating what he will be on the hook for; what I am receiving in exchange for my submission.
  4. Submissive’s responsibilities: What will the submissive provide?
    This is what the submissive is going to do as required by the Dominant. This section can include how the submissive is to behave, both in public and in private. These are his expectations for me in return for his care.

  5. Availability of the submissive to the Dominant
    Easy enough, this means when and how often the submissive will be available to the Dominant.
  6. Communication
    How will the Dominant and submissive communicate? When will they communicate outside of scenes? Are we talking by phone? Email? Text? Journal? Ways will vary based on the type of couple. Married Doms and subs will communicate differently than those in long distance or internet relationships.  
  7. Limits and Activities
    Nuts and bolts of scenes are discussed and agreed upon here. The Dominant and submissive also discuss their wants, needs, and limits. Here is where things like bondage types, spanking, how corporal punishment (if any) is incorporated. Will there be role playing? Will humiliation be allowed and if so, what types? How much and what type of edge play will be permitted? There are many types of scene/play time questionnaires that can be used to talk through all of these working pieces. This section is the one the general public thinks of when they hear of BDSM relationships.
  8. Submissive’s right to say no
    BDSM contracts aren’t finite and absolute. Understanding this fact is critical. A reminder that at the end of the day, the submissive can say no when they are concerned for their safety.

  9. Exclusivity of the parties involved
    Is this only between the two parties signing the contract? Are they able to have sexual and/or romantic relationships with others? People that are new to the lifestyle or maybe are involved with someone that isn’t interested being in a BDSM relationship, may look for a Dominant or a submissive to explore with. Others may not be in a committed romantic/traditional relationship and are still seeking one out. Discussing these things will avoid hurt feelings or unrealistic expectations.
  10. Safe Words
    These can be actual words for the submissive to use to indicate when they are close to what they can handle or when they have to stop because of overstimulation. In addition to verbal safety nets, they can and should have gestures to use in case words fail to come out of their mouth. When a sub is in subspace, words get lost. Again, this is another instance where the attentive Dom will learn what signals to look for so that things do not get out of hand. It is a way to help the sub feel safe and secure at the hands of their Dom.
  11. Punishments
    With this type of commitment, inability to follow through with the terms laid out and agreed upon will result in consequences for not complying and/or bratty behavior. What are the punishments and the tools used to carry out the punishment? Will the sub be required to count strikes or thank the Dominant after each strike? How this is handled is part of establishing trust and expectations to prevent punishments from being excessive. By discussing punishments, the submissive will realize that it will help them be better. It also will give peace of mind to the submissive that punishments are not carried out to be cruel or malicious.
  12. Names
    Daddy? Sir? Baby Girl? Slut? Whore? Not every name turns everyone on. I can’t wrap my head around being called Mommy during a sex scene. Creeps me out. I would also hate to call my Dominant a name that he finds offensive. It’s crucial to discuss and agree on what you will call each other. You take the time to explain and clarify the reasons as to why certain names are a no go. In knowing what names to call each other, it can help avoid hurt feelings and potential punishments. It can avoid the submissive from being called something that can trigger shame or other negative feelings.

  13. Confidentiality
    This is another area vital to trust. As an agreement between two (or more) people, there are certain things that stay private because they are intimate things.  Can you talk about the arrangement with anyone? Is it private between the two parties? Also, if photos or videos are taken or exchanged, what will be done with them? What will happen to them should the relationship end? These are all elements of trust in this world of online relationships and the ease of sharing images.
  14. Renegotiating
    How can terms be changed if needed?
  15. Termination of the agreement
    How can the agreement be ended? Who can end it? If it is ended, can it be renewed ever?

  16. Planning
    Who is responsible for planning playtime? Will the basics be planned together, or will the Dominant have total control? I’m a planner, so knowing my Dominant would want to handle all of the plans or give me control of what we do and where we do it would ease my mind of worry.
  17. Disclosure of fears, medical issues, STD’s
    This seems self-explanatory, but it is vital. In order to ensure proper care of the submissive, it is important for the Dominant to know of any possible fears, trauma triggers, etc. to maintain the submissive’s well-being. The submissive should be aware of any of the same things to properly serve their Dominant and their needs. Also, because this will involve sex and body fluids, sexual history and health of the parties must be shared. Safety is paramount.

I get it, the list is long and the obvious things you’d expect to be in the contract are included. However, as I went down the rabbit hole, I quickly realized why. Each of the seventeen points I listed above can be broken down even further (and that’s not even the most comprehensive list I found). A Dominant may prefer their submissive is polite, always uses proper manners, and follows proper etiquette (that goes under submissive’s responsibilities). What is the submissive giving up control of? How much control are they giving up?

Is the contract finite and unchangeable? No. The people in the relationship should check in and discuss after playtime what worked and what didn’t. It should always be open for negotiation and discussion to ensure both people are satisfied. What I find to be the best part about the contract in general is that it requires constant communication and checking in. As a submissive, I need to know I am pleasing my Dominant. A contract eliminates the guess work and enables me to please and serve.

Types of Contracts

 When I set out on this quest, I took to my Twitter friends and did a poll. I asked, “For those who have had a BDSM relationship, did you have a contract?” Much to my surprise, nearly 78% did not feel the need to have a formal contract written up. In the comments section, those who responded no agreed for the need of some sort of verbal agreement to be made. All of the expectations must be discussed and agreed upon before any playtime can happen. This protects everyone involved.

Verbal vs. Written

Verbal contracts tend to be the most common. The most popular reason for a verbal contract is that they are easily modified and don’t feel as restrictive. This type of contract is the result of conversations and discussions of the basics of the agreement. The specifics can vary as the couple deems fit. Written contracts are far more detailed. Everything is spelled out. They are more formal and for some people, like me, the written contract is comforting because I can go and read it over at any time. I know what is expected and what is not.

The depth of the contract can be included into other aspects of life. Some contracts are limited to the scene; what will actually be permitted to happen during the sexual encounter. Others go as far as into everyday life. The 24-7 contract goes into detail about the minutiae of daily life. It details everything the sub will be expected to do. Some call this typical 1950’s behavior. In the 24-7 contract, the Dominant will dictate most everything for the submissive, including but not limited to what they wear, how often they bathe, how often they shave, how much they shave, chores, childcare, etc.

A friend of mine has this type of contract with her husband. We had always joked about how she’s a 1950’s housewife, complete with asking her husband’s permission for most everything. After I came to her to ask about the BDSM lifestyle, she told me about their contract. They haven’t looked at it in a long time. She actually had to dig it out to talk to me about it, but she knows that she can tear it up at any time ending the BDSM part of their relationship. Some people may see this arrangement as a hindrance, but my sweet friend is flourishing. She’s happy and well cared for. Her independence is encouraged. She is responsible for the normal domestic chores and he dotes on her. He provides for her every want and every need. She enjoys being his. It’s extraordinarily sweet and is what works for them.

Some BDSM couples have contracts for playtime only. They could outline what will happen before, during, and after a scene. Again, the type of contract will depend on the couple.

What Does it Mean?

A BDSM contract is not a legal document. It is not enforceable in court. It represents the commitment between two (or more) people and, at its very core, it’s agreement to be committed to having discussions about needs, wants, fears, and expectations without judgement. As I searched out this information, I spoke with a Dominant and he told me there is a ceremony involved sometimes too, and that the contract can be a part of it. The idea of ceremony was something hadn’t come to my mind at all.

This type of relationship isn’t a one-night stand or something that is haphazardly rushed into. It’s a relationship built over time. After getting to know each other, the Dom takes their time building up the sub; their confidence, their trust. They take their time building a safe place for the sub. The sub must decide if the Dom is the right Dom for them and vice-versa.

The contract can be part of a collaring, where the Dom and Sub commit to each other, kind of like a wedding ceremony. There are various stages of collaring from collars of consideration to a slave collar. The collar is a physical representation of the contract between the couple. Some even make the comparison of the collar to a promise ring, then engagement ring, and finally a wedding ring.

Do You Need One or Not?

Relationships are unique and the only people that can make the determination if any sort of contract is needed are the people involved. They are the only ones who know the ins and outs of the relationship. They are the ones who decide what can and should happen between them and what they are comfortable with.

To me, the contract is akin to more detailed marriage vows. Marriage is a serious commitment that should not be entered into without serious consideration. The same rings true for a BDSM relationship. In my opinion, the stakes are just as high, if not higher because the emotional and mental well-being of the submissive is in the hands of the Dominant. It is a sacred trust and if trust is broken, the long-term emotional health side effects can take years to recover from. A Dominant will care for and be affectionate towards their submissive, not just be domineering over them. The contrast of the sweet care and bossiness appeals to me.

Personally, I thought this would be a relatively simple piece to research and write about. But what I found instead was a plethora of information that helped guide me to be a better sub, to help me better understand what this level of commitment means, and what a Dominant needs. Reading about all the different types of things that a Dominant and submissive have to agree on and discuss was eye opening. I realized sex isn’t the only purpose, which opened my eyes to what a BDSM relationship is. This isn’t simply some kinky out on the edge of society thing; a BDSM relationship is a solid relationship built on trust and communication. It’s about caring and listening. It’s what every couple should strive for.