Punishment theory

This article is about actual punishment, not discipline role-play. The intent is to provide some practical "food for thought" on the effective use of punishment; this is not intended to be a strict discussion of classes of reinforcement. For a more abstract discussion of reinforcement see sajah's article, Training Theory.

The purpose of punishment is to influence future behavior. Punishment is not about reprisal; however, separating the two can be difficult. The line between reprisal and behavior modification is blurry because, the fear of reprisal affects how people behave. In a natural sense, reprisal functions as punishment. The difference between the two is intent and planning. With punishment the Dominant is selecting an action that is specifically intended to change the submissive's behavior. With reprisal, the Dominant is allowing instinct to take over and is lashing out. While both are likely to change the submissive's behavior, reprisal has a much less precise effect.

Because reprisal is a reaction rather then a thought out response, it is often accompanied by unwanted side effects. A common example of a side effect is a submissive ceasing to communicate and simply trying to appease. While this may give the desired effect in the short term, it may create problems in the long term. Although the appeasing behavior may be what is desired by the Dominant, a possible downside is the submissive may never communicate needed information. Because the reprisal doesn't follow a set pattern the submissive may not feel safe enough to convey needed information. With a planned response there will be a specific signal that tells the submissive when they should (and should not) attempt to convey information.

The distinction between reprisal and punishment can be difficult to keep in mind when your submissive does something akin to putting your favorite toy into a wood chipper. However, from the Dominant's perspective, punishment is designed to influence the future behavior of the submissive in a specific way. As such, punishment should always be a carefully thought out response.

For punishment to be effective there are few things that need to be considered. First, punishment must be a true disincentive. In other words, the punishment must be something the submissive truly wants to avoid. This does not mean that punishment must be severe, only that the punishment should in no way be desirable from the submissive's perspective.

Care should be taken to ensure that punishments do not involve things that are unpleasant but necessary for the submissive's well being; doing so may form a negative association with the activity. For example, eating healthy food should not be a punishment. Also, be careful not to mix punishment with pleasant actions, such as sexual contact, to avoid sending mixed signals.

To keep punishment from being confused with play there must be a very clear difference between the two. For example, if a Dominant uses light paddling as minor a punishment, they may find their submissive acting up in minor ways in an effort to get the so-called "punishment." It would be better to use a single sharp stroke with a particularly uncomfortable toy as a "minor" punishment. This way the submissive will be less likely to actively seek the punishment. Another way to avoid the confusion between punishment and play is to reserve specific toys for punishment only. Ideally, toys used for punishment should be unlike any used in play.

Next, there must be a direct association with the punishable behavior and the punishment. More importantly, the submissive must believe they are directly related. If there is any doubt about the relationship between the behavior and the punishment, the effectiveness of the punishment is greatly reduced. For instance, if the submissive believes they were punished because the Dominant was in a bad mood, the submissive may try to avoid the Dominant when they feel the Dominant is not in a good mood, rather then focusing on correcting the behavior in question.

The most important tool in creating direct association is communication. Human beings are rational creatures and complex relationships can be conveyed via simple verbal communication. It is possible to explain to a submissive that behavior from the prior week has resulted in a reduction of privileges this week, even if there is no obvious relationship between the two events. A submissive should be given a clear concise statement as to what they did wrong before any punishment. It is also helpful to describe the behavior that was expected under the circumstance. Describing behavior that would have avoided the punishment helps reshape the submissives future actions and increases the effectiveness of the punishment.

Consistency is the next major factor in ensuring effectiveness of punishment. When a specific infraction only intermittently results in punishment, the submissive will often associate the punishment with factors other then the behavior. This is perfectly logical from the submissive's perspective, because if the behavior is acceptable some times, but not at others, then there must be factors other than the behavior involved. If a Dominant wants consistent behavior then they must respond consistently.

A common mistake made by Dominants is attempting to compensate for inconstant punishment with more severe punishment. A submissive should only be punished for the infraction in question; do not punish more severely because you "let it slide" the time before. Instead, make it clear to the submissive that from now on, every time the rule is broken they will be punished. Consistency must come before severity.

Another important factor is proportionality. The severity of an infraction should dictate the severity of the punishment. Proportionality can act as a communication tool by providing the submissive a tangible measure of the significance of the infraction. Understanding the relative importance of various behaviors will help a submissive crystallize a more refined perspective on how they are to behave.

If all infractions result in the same punishment, the submissive tends to associate the punishment with the Dominant rather than with the behavior. The reason for this is because the submissive will instinctively match the most consistent factors together. If {all bad behaviors} result in the {same punishment} from the {same Dominant} then the consistent factors are the {Dominant} and the {punishment}. If however, {each bad behavior} results in a {different level of punishment} from the same {Dominant}, then the greater consistency is between the {behavior} and the {punishment}.

However, this can be carried too far. A Dominant doesn't really need different punishments for every type of infraction, generally 5 to 10 levels of punishment is adequate. When there are more then 10, it becomes a matter of 'splitting hairs' and starts to confuse the submissive rather then providing clear communication. Another way to achieve different levels of punishment is to have a list of minor punishments and use 1 punishment for level one, 2 punishments for level two and so on.

One factor in determining the severity of punishment should be the submissive's intent when the rule was broken. If a submissive has shown honest effort, but still not quite lived up to expectations, then the Dominant should tell the submissive that the effort is recognized and reduce the punishment by one or two levels. It is important that the Dominant be very clear that the reduction in punishment is a result of the effort the submissive has already shown. Conversely, punishment should be increased a level (or two) if the submissive blatantly and intentionally broke their rules.

Punishment must not seem inevitable. This is a common problem when a Dominant expects too much, too fast. Punishment works by creating an association between specific behavior and a negative event. If all behaviors result in negative events, there is no incentive to behave well and the submissive ends up feeling that no matter how hard they try, they will still be punished. This is another reason the submissive must be able to avoid or at least mitigate the level of punishment by making an honest effort at good behavior.

The issue of timing between the misbehavior and the punishment is a matter of some debate. On one hand punishing bad behavior as soon as possible is helpful in creating a strong association between the behavior and the punishment. On the other hand, some say that it is better to wait a substantial length of time in order to allow anger to subside before deciding on and administering a punishment. The real issue here is the Dominant must know themselves well enough and be disciplined enough, to not act until they are in full control of their anger.

Another aspect of creating a strong association between an action and a punishment is the duration of the punishment. The duration should be related to the severity of the infraction; however, the duration should be short enough to allow a sense of closure when the punishment is over. Ideally, punishments should be designed so the sense of loss associated with them ends at the same time the punishment does. Otherwise, the duration of the punishment effectively becomes infinite. If a punishment drags on for too long, the submissive will cease to focus on why they are being punished and only focus on the punishment. This can create a negative atmosphere that tends to foster resentment rather than good behavior.

In the case of relationship damaging infractions, such as breaches of trust, it is sometimes useful to semi-permanently reduce certain privileges. This allows a gradual rebuilding of the relationship with a symbolic restoration of privileges as time progresses.

Also, the Dominant must be accurate in their assessment of behavior. If the Dominant misjudges conduct and punishes when the submissive has been well behaved, good behavior is discouraged. Punishing good behavior also leads to the feeling that punishment is inevitable. A Dominant must also be careful about the inverse, if they do not recognize bad behavior then such behavior cannot be responded to consistently.

There are a few other points that should be brought up when discussing the subject of punishment. The first: submissives usually want to behave. Certainly many submissives get a thrill from testing a Dom, and pushing limits, but in general, a submissive wants to comply. When a submissive is habitually disobedient or aggressively defiant it is a wise idea to look for less obvious factors that might be contributing to the problem.

Also, a fair number of submissives are inclined to view criticism and/or expression of anger as an indication that the Dominant does not care about them. This can create a great deal of stress, particularly when the Dominant has high standards. In these cases, it is important for the Dominant to take things more slowly and build up the expectations over time. Sometimes Dominants worry that being too gentle in the beginning will give the submissive a false sense of what is expected. However, as long as the Dominant explains that more will be expected over time, most problems can be avoided. Allow time for the submissive to grow into their role.

Punishment is a complex issue. Every Dominant has their own style and every submissive responds in their own way. What works well for one D/s relationship may not work in another. Hopefully, this article has at least provided a general framework that can be built upon. Lastly, please remember that maintaining an effective system of punishment requires constant re-evaluation and refinement. Both Dominants and submissives grow and change with time, as such, the system they operate under should grow with them

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