The issue of limits is one of those things that tends to separate BDSM fantasies from the practical realities of submitting to another human being. However hot the idea of sinking to one’s knees and murmuring “do anything to me” might be in principle, we submissives generally have at least some minimal sense of self-preservation. Taken literally, anything could extend to cosmetic amputations, literal starvation diets, or worse (24 hours of high-volume Justin Bieber?). Hence, the need to set some boundaries. One widely recommended way to do this is to come up with a list of hard and soft limits.
“There are two types of limits – hard limits and soft limits. A hard limit is something you will not do under any circumstance. For me that would include scat play, age play, or being turned upside down or spun when tied. Many limits are established by the submissive due to a value objection – either something that you feel is against your moral code or that you are squicked by (“ewwwwww”). Other limits are due to health objectives – spin me around and I will barf. I promise to aim for my Dom’s shoes if He makes me.
“A soft limit is something that at this time you do not think you want to do, but perhaps your Dom/me can convince you. Or it may be something you will only do with a specific Dom/me, or in a specific play situation. For me that might be interrogation. Interrogation squicked me from the beginning, but I have since done a private scene with my Master. It is extreme edge play for me, and not only takes a lot out of me but it has lasting effects, and so it remains a soft limit.”
One of the nice things about being under the thumb of a woman I know and trust is that I don’t feel the need to spell things out quite so explicitly. The only limit in my relationship with her is a mutual understanding that she won’t use her authority to wreck my life. She’s not going to kill me, mutilate me, infect me with horrible diseases, destroy my career, or shatter my relationships with my loved ones. Cosmetic amputations and starvation diets should be off the table, although to my chagrin I’m not so sure about prolonged Justin Bieber sessions. Within those broad margins, she’s more than welcome to make me suffer, even in ways that “squick” me or make me genuinely miserable. That’s part of what I signed up for, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If I were single and in the habit of submitting to near-strangers, I probably would have a list of hard limits, but I’m not sure I’d go in for soft limits – or at least, I’m not I’d use that phrase. Soft limits are just things that a submissive finds difficult to endure, and I’d probably describe them in exactly those terms. A dominant could steer clear of them if she wanted to go easy on me, or make use of them if she was feeling especially cruel. I suppose there might be activities that I would be willing to accept from some pairs of hands but not from others, but I’d think of those less as soft limits than as hard ones that happened to be selectively applied.
I’m even more dubious about what seems to be a widespread opinion that dominants, as well as submissives, should have limits.
“What some submissives do not realize is that Dominants have limits too. They aren’t as formally laid out like a submissives limits should be, but they still have them. I have things I will not do. I find that these things are universal to me. As a Dominant there are places I do not wish to go and when I am a submissive, those limits hold true, as well.”
In my opinion, using the word “limits” for boundaries set by dominants as opposed to submissives has the disadvantage of blurring an important distinction based on power. I’m sure all dominants have places they “do not wish to go”, but that’s not exactly the same thing as submissives having places they are unwilling to be taken. My Lady probably has at least a vague list of things she would never consider doing to a submissive, but I don’t worry too much about what activities might be on that list or whether My Lady finds them repugnant, impractical or merely uninteresting. She’s the one who sets the agenda in our relationship, so it goes without saying that anything she prefers to avoid won’t be happening on her watch. For my part, I can and do talk to her about the contours of my erotic landscape, the peaks of longing and valleys of revulsion and wide dusty plains of indifference, but I’m under no illusions that she’ll necessarily head for the peaks or stay out of the plains and valleys. Conversely, she can steer clear of even the most treacherous valleys in her own landscape without declaring them to be limits, because she’s the one who decides where we’re going in the first place.
Every relationship and casual BDSM fling is different, and I can certainly see how some dominants might feel emotional pressure from their submissives to engage in activities they’d prefer to avoid. In the case of professionals who need to satisfy their clients, of course, the pressure is financial. But to the extent that a dominant’s power over a submissive is genuine, the distinction between her limits and her preferences is surely academic at best.