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On capitalisation conventions

Posted at 22:44 on 19 Jun 2011 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: dominance and submission, Gender politics, making a scene, meta-analysis, other pictures, those crazy kinksters

I found myself nodding as I read this post by Not Just Bitchy, on the reasons why she dislikes the BDSM convention of capitalising the start of names, pronouns and nouns relating to tops, and using lower case for names, pronouns and nouns relating to bottoms. Her case rests on three points: it's hard to read, it drags others into a scene space without their consent (if used in public - people doing this in private emails to each other is their own business), and:

It puts all dominant identified people above all submissive identified people, which Im really uncomfortable with. Dominant people as a group are absolutely not better, more worthy of respect, than submissive people as a group. Outside of silly capitalization rules, pronouns in English are only capitalized when referring to God. Equating dominant people to a supreme being like that is ridiculous.

I first started reading about BDSM online at the age of 15, and I was very attracted to the formal structures and protocol which people used. My first relationship with Tom employed a lot of protocol, which aligned neatly with the verbal conventions I encountered online. I've always got annoyed by people capitalising My, Your, His, Her - I find it disrupts the flow of a sentence and always comes across as pretentious and arrogant, particularly when tops use it to refer to themselves. But in blogging about my relationships I got into the habit of capitalising Sir, my Lord/s, Dominant. Even once I started thinking more critically about sexual politics, some of these habits persisted.

Some of that thinking has crystallised recently with various things I've read online. A note on terminology at the start of this excellent article on sexism and intersectionality in the San Francisco BDSM scene really clarified something for me:

Some people use dominant and submissive to include top and bottom because theyre more intuitive for new readers, which is a choice I understand but bristle at. Some people use dominant and submissive to include or replace top and bottom because they think that dominance and submission are better or more real, and what I really think is that these ideas should die in a fire and be buried under a headstone that reads Total Power Exchange. These prejudices towards power exchange are part of the problematic dynamics Im describing, but since Im talking about belief systems that operate around dominance and submission and prefer to ignore or devalue mere topping and bottoming, Ill frequently use dominant and submissive as my operative terms below. Ill add that for myself, I dont use the term submissive as a noun, but sometimes as an adjective to describe my bottoming style.

I have always gone along with the convention of describing myself as "a submissive", but actually, I've known that it wasn't accurate phraseology for some time. A sentence I tend to use in online profiles puts it succinctly: "I'm submissive to my dominant partners, but rarely to anyone else". It's been an understood part of my self-identity for some time now that I am not submissive by nature, socially submissive, or submissive by default. Since I grew out of my adolescent insecurities and into my adult self I've realised that I am, in fact, hyper-responsible, a bit of a control freak, fiercely territorial, proud, loud, independent and disinclined to take any shit from anyone. And yet these facts don't compromise the truth or power of what takes place when I surrender control to my lover.

I like the idea of "top" and "bottom" describing behaviour, rather than identity. I like the idea that it might be considered normal for a person to top in one situation and bottom in another without having to rethink their self-identity. I certainly believe that sexuality is fluid and inclined to change over time, and I include kinks and preferred power orientation in that as well as gender. It was no great wrench to stop thinking of myself as "a submissive" - it hadn't felt right for a while anyway. Claiming "bottom" as an identity was a bit more of a stretch. I suspect it's prejudice on my part, but I've always thought of "bottoming" as the sort of playful engagement in a scene that doesn't involve any power exchange; and power exchange is still very important to my ability to enjoy play (although it's no longer the only way I can enjoy it). Still. If I'm not a submissive, then I'm a kinky person who submits to my romantic partners, and bottoms to nearly everyone else I play with. I'm comfortable with that, and I'm coming around to the idea that that "bottom" might be a convenient shorthand in kinky social spaces.

When talking to Tom and D about this, though, I realised that one thing was still very important to me (and it clearly was to them, as well); I may not be a submissive, but I am still theirs. Hearing one of them call me "my sub" makes me feel glowy and loved, rather than twitchy and uncomfortable. I'm happy to think of that as being short for "my submissive partner", just as they are my dominant partners. Which is useful, because I do still think of them jointly as my doms. I'm just training myself out of the habit of capitalising it.

Submissive and dominant are, in fact, the two greatest hangovers of those pretentious BDSM conventions I picked up all those years ago. It wasn't until reading that Not Just Bitchy post today, and nodding vigorously, that it occurred to me that I still had a blog category titled "D/s". Old habits die hard. So hard, in fact, that I had to consult Twitter before having it pointed out to me that the acronym still means the same thing spelled d/s or D/S. (I'm still not quite sure which I prefer. All-caps is standard for acronyms, I guess, but the lowercase one feels a little more familiar.)

Which leaves the question - what about the convention 'M/m', 'F/f', etc to describe the orientation of players in a scene? (This in itself is fairly old-fashioned, and seems conspicuously binary to a modern eye. I haven't encountered a similar shorthand suited to people of other genders, but I'd be interested in discovering one). In a two person scene, capitalisation doesn't matter as long it is understood that the top is always named first. But in a scene with three or more players, the capitalisation provides a visual aid to help convey sense. I find, say, FM/m - to describe a scene with one male top, one female top and one male bottom - more instantly legible than fm/m or FM/M, but it's not like the latter is incomprehensible. And putting all letters in the same case would remove the ambiguity of trying to describe a switch role. In a scene with, say, one top, one bottom and one person who plays both a top and bottom role, would the S/slashy convention use F/F/f or M/m/m? Both are misleading.

A convention in which letters before the slash describe players topping, letters after the slash describe players bottoming, and any letters between two slashes describe players switching seems like a perfectly comprehensible system. This is me stating my intention to use it unless you can convince me there's a better one, and to root out any other residual, unwanted capitalisation habits while I'm at it.

Oh, but there's one exception. If I'm in a scene and I call someone Sir, it'll always have a mental capital letter (or Miss, Ma'am, Milord or whatever else my top prefers to be called); and it'll keep that capital if I'm quoting what I said in text. In English, a capital on Sir is a gesture accorded to rank. I don't extend the same to all tops, or even my tops in all contexts, but if I'm addressing them directly in a scene space, the capitalised honorific seems appropriate. I don't know if that means my approach is inconsistent, but right now it feels like it makes sense to me.


Like Paul, I come from the soc.sexuality.spanking school of capitalisation code for stories, wherein a capital means an adult, and lower-case signifies a minor.

Completely irrelevant for r/l play, of course, but when describing a story I would write "f/f" for a teenage prefect spanking a schoolgirl, but "M/FM" for an adult man spanking his girlfriend and boyfriend, etc.

Most of the spankosphere has never been on Usenet, so you hardly see this convention in use any more, but it's sort of ingrained in me. When I see lower-case used for adult players, I get a bit twitchy.

Tom made this point when I was chatting to him about this in person, and it's a valid one. As you so rightly point out, a convention by which minors are referred to with lower case letters makes using the same convention for adults playing a bottom or submissive role even more icky.

This also means that the uppercase/lowercase convention shouldn't really ever apply to films or photosets, because even if there's an illusion that the characters are underage, the models definitely aren't. Which would answer the question of which format to use for content categories on my site.

This is all made more confusing by the fact that there are clearly multiple competing conventions, so whichever one you use, people might misread if they assume you're using one of the others!

I, too, capitalize all letters when describing a scene or a story to denote that they are all adults.

The issue of capitalization is still an uncomfortable one for me. I am torn between being respectful of others' methods, and my hesitation at capitalizing common pronouns. As a compromise, when I see someone using lower cases to sign their name, I address them as such (although this is still uncomfortable as my own beliefs contradict that tradition). I will not capitalize common pronouns, with the exception of 'Dom', which I see as an extension of 'Sir'.

When people email me, they will often address me in lowercase. I quickly tell them that it's Pink with a capital P. Always. Even in correspondence with my Dom. I am submissive to one man, but even in that partnership I am his significant other -- not his insignificant other. Thus, my name, like all proper nouns, should be capitalized.

I think it's obvious that the oDd cAPitaLiZaTIoN thing escaped from a particular type of on-line milieu where it was eminently reasonable. As our host herself indicates, a lot of people's entree into BDSM-themed interaction with actual other people is through on-line venues, where conventions in address and spelling are integral. And in that sort of context, the local rules are whatever they happen to be and clearly not anyone else's business.

But those local rules escaped, and now we see them being used in places where they have no purpose and actually serve as a detriment to communication.

[ A similar "escapee" is the fervent belief that safewords are an essential part of any BDSM encounter. They are essential, obviously, if you play with "consensual non-consent" or engage in resistance play, where the "victim" wants to be able to accurately play the part of a victim, but elsewhere their utility is far less obvious, and in at least some situations the use of safewords is actively counter-productive -- it's almost stereotypical to have a clueless top claiming it was ok to batter their partner beyond any reasonable point simply because the bottom didn't say the magic word. ]

Moving along... I think one of the issues that leads to a lot of trouble is the apparently fairly wide presumption that "top" and "dom" are synonymous, as are "bottom" and "sub". With a few exceptions, I think those who write/talk/teach about BDSM understand and agree (to some extent) on the differentiation between the terms, but for many consumers or "casual" players the words are interchangeable -- at least, that's my observation.

This leads to some strange practices, such as labeling the recipient in a school scene as "the sub", when the whole point of a story might be that the miscreant is neither repentant nor deterred ("They won't catch me next time...").

So... (and there was a point to all that, I promise): there are purposes to using mixed case AND a slash in tags like "F/m". One is simply a rebuttal to PaulAtNorthGare: Claude Shannon would be quite happy without any extra meaning, simply observing that a form of error correction had been employed (hah!), while the other is actually relevant...

Consider a school scene: you might have a head teacher, a prefect, and a culprit. For some reason, suppose that the head delegates the actual swinging of the cane to the prefect, but is in all other respects in control of the punishment. In this case, the head is being dominant, the prefect is topping, and the victim is bottoming (and maybe submitting to the head, but also quite possibly not). How to convey this?

Simple: Ff/f or Mf/m or some such: the capitalization indicates dominance, the slash denotes who is topping and who is bottoming. Two switches having at each other? Well, that's two scenes, say f/m and then m/f. I personally would interpret capitalization as being meaningful only if there is mixed cases, so F/M and f/m are identical but F/m is different, and f/M is possible but rare! ("Hit me harder, no down a bit, that's right!"; it's the "dominant bottom" in action!)

OK, so any such scheme quickly breaks down because people are complicated, and relationships doubly so (err... literally). But there is value in distinguishing between dominance and the actions. Whether the value is worth effort is another question. And let's not get started on trying to qualify dominance, although Teramis did a nice job with "Regimence" and "Electance" if you've seen that work?

Yay! I'm really happy to see that my ranting was useful to someone. I just wanted to express my frustration, I wasn't expecting all of this interesting discussion.

In my experience CP enthusiasts are totally geeky about language, categorisation and social conventions. I knew people would have good points to make :)

I'm still a bit torn on whether I object to people using these conventions on their personal blogs. On the one hand, it's annoying and creates an atmopshere which I find objectionable, and sets a precedent which results in pro-tops scattering uppercase words across their websites like gravel. On the other, it's their own damn blog and I don't have to read it if I don't want to. Doing it on forums and in comments on other people's blogs is different though!

I think the use of capitalisation to signify orientation is something akin to a secret handshake between members of an organisation, in the sense that it doesn't really matter what the handshake is, simply that using it identifies the in-crowd. That's especially seductive to newbies, of course, because more than anything they want to belong. It follows that one of the areas of conflict is between the group of people for whom it is just a symbol, and the group of people for whom it matters - for all sorts of reasons - that language is being screwed around with.

To throw another complicating angle into your discussion of scene identifiers, I'm most used to the ASS/SSS Usenet convention of using case to identify the ages of characters in a story (where lower case = minor), rather than the roles of participants in a scene. That convention repurposes the redundancy you mention to add extra information, which would please Claude Shannon. (Obviously that doesn't apply to real-life play.)

I couldn't agree more with the urge to self-identify orientation with respect to specific partners, not generally. I wrote a little bit about that here: http://northgare.net/blog/2005/05/kink_response_t/. I've wanted for a long time to write a story involving a group of friends, in which Person A is submissive to Person B, Person B is submissive to Person C, Person C is submissive to Person N (as it were), and, as it turns out, Person N is submissive to Person A. It's a bit like Schnitzler's La Ronde.

To me, "top" and "bottom" have always been simply about which side of the equation one is on at the time, and say nothing more. "Dominant" and "submissive" are more about the nature of the relationship. So "top" is a more general class of descriptor, which subsumes "dominant", and "bottom" is more general than, and subsumes, "submissive". So it's possible to top without being dominant, but it's not possible to be dominant without topping.

This is a great post.

I completely agree with this “I’m submissive to my dominant partners, but rarely to anyone else”. I am His submissive but no one elses. Did you spot it, the capital H?

I admit to using a capital H when refering to my partner in that manner and the main reason for that is because in much of my writing the word He or Him is often where I would write His name (and don't for privacy reasons) and so in that context his or him becomes his name....*sigh, this is starting to sound complicated but it works for me...LOL.

Having said that the over capitalisation of words in BDSM is a pet hate of mine and the other one that wrinkles my nose is people refering to themselves in the 3rd person as if being submissive means that they don't have a full indentiy of their own.

I am Molly, a fully functioning person in my own right, with independant thoughts, belief and opinions. I chose to submit to Him but that doesn't mean I am less of a person in anyone elses eyes and certainly doesn't mean that I should be refered to in the 3rd person or with a lower case to my name.


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