A dom-sub relationship is a common way people who are interested in BDSM and kink may choose to engage with each other. Dom is short for dominant, while sub is short for submissive. These terms describe the two roles that partners may choose to take on within a sexual (or romantic) relationship.
The best way to think of a dom-sub relationship is as “a consensual, eroticized exchange of power,” a definition that was introduced by Cynthia Slater, an early leader in the SF Bay Area BDSM community, according to sexologist Carol Queen, Ph.D.
Dom and sub relationships are represented by the “DS” in the acronym BDSM, which stands for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. The power differential between the dom and sub is sometimes memorialized with capital and small-case letters: You will often see the acronym written D/s, Queen notes.
“BDSM can be complicated. But all those terms imply two things in particular: a person who acts on another and/or does things to them, and power exchange,” Queen says.
So, a dom acts upon or does things to a sub. This is consensual and negotiated, such that the acts performed are within the sub’s boundaries of what they would like to experience and within the boundaries of what the dom wishes to do. The notion of power exchange implies relative equality between the two (or more) partners, not a permanent state of inequality since you cannot exchange power if you don’t have some to start with.
“Dom-sub play can involve much more than genital sex (and need not include that kind of sex at all). It can involve service, exhibitionism, the other elements of the BDSM acronym (bondage, discipline aka spanking or impact play, sadism and masochism aka eroticizing intense sensation),” Queen explains. “It can involve pretty much anything, as long as the participants want to do it and it can be contextualized in a dom-sub framework.”