This post began as a reply to a post on FetLife. The question had to do with terms Sensual or Romantic Dominant or Sadist, but the response certainly can be applied to all terms used within a BDSM context, perhaps within a broader context.
There is no book, no rules, and certainly no “REAL” way of doing things. Those that tell you so may be trying more to convince you that they have some level of authority and deserve more respect. (Watch out for that one, even with me.) Each person tends to use terms that are familiar and comfortable to them. That does not mean there is any more “truth” to those terms than any other. Always ask if you are confused.
Through many discussions I have had about sadism, the definitions tend to group into two differing areas, the sadists who enjoy doing things that their partners do NOT enjoy doing, but will do for their sadist; and the sadists like me who look for a masochistic partner who accepts pain and can convert it into sexual stimulation and passion.
While I definitely identify as a Dominant as well as a sadist, I would also use labels such as “sensual”, because I emphasize sexual stimulation at all levels of my play, and “romantic” because I look for a compatible partner with whom I can have a long term, deeply loving relationship. But I use these words only because they have particular meaning for me, and communicate a general idea to others who listen, not because they have any form of rigorous meaning within a BDSM context.
For instance, I do not believe that my being a sensual Dominant Sadist has anything to do with the absence of pain even rather severe pain. I tend to enjoy a heavy mix of the two. I do not think being a sadist has to do with an absence of romance as well, for I believe the best scenes are infused with connection and personal closeness and bonding.
The most important aspect of all of this is that while I use the terms that are meaningful to me, I encourage questions from my partner so she will eventually understand those meanings. The TERMS, are vague and general until those meanings are understood. So even within the deepest Dominant and submissive relationship where there is a wide difference in roles chosen, open honest communication between the partners, where each side speaks and listens in the most transparent way, is profoundly important. I can not emphasize enough the listening part of that.
Transparent communication should not be considered purely on a factual basis. Being honest and complete in what you say is important, but equally important is emotional transparency. Telling your partner that hearing something makes you feel a certain way is very valuable, even if you do not understand the “why” of it. These emotions should be heard in the same accepting way, even if you do not know the “why” of it. Perhaps if you listen more, the “why” will come clear.
There are times when I would wish we had a far more complete emotional vocabulary than we do. Emotions travel through our systems all the time, but we often assume that the areas we can point to, where we can show cause and effect have far more relevance. “Just the Facts, Ma’am.” I tend to think that often these feelings and emotions come first, and the words, the stories are created to fit the emotions we feel. I have seen that in times of great depression.
So accept the questions and make time for them. Open yourself to hearing the emotions without explanations. Listen first, perhaps waiting to respond. What words mean to you is not necessarily what they mean to your partner. It can take time to build that language you share, but it is time well spent.