The Problem With Labels

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I have noticed a tendency within the community as a whole to be rather label oriented, and yet to confuse what said labels actually mean.  Luckily there is also the tendency for the community to acknowledge that labels alone are not enough, and relying on them leads to huge mistakes.  Mutual understanding is required in order for there to be mutual Consent and to have an experience which is Satisfying for all involved.


Label Problems

Soup Can Label
Soup Can Label

Relying upon the use of labels can lead to making huge mistakes based on incorrect assumptions. Many think that by using a label we can cut to the quick of things and instantly understand another’s needs or perspective. That would require that everyone shares a common understanding, which is rarely the case.  Labels are better suited to soup cans and pickle jars, not people since we are not made with a standard recipe and results vary (widely).

When we expect labels to be self-explanatory we commonly make several mistakes. These often include, but are not limited to:

Role Assumptions

People define their roles or “types” in very different ways and with a huge degree of variety.   For example, the way you see yourself is invariably different from what another might expect, no matter how you identify or define yourself (Top/bottom; Dominant/submissive; Master or Mistress/slave; Owner/pet; Big/little; etc.).  Similarly, the role/type you are looking for is only what you imagine, not necessarily how the other sees themselves.  I know plenty of slaves & submissives (collectively s-types) that have a strong sense of self-respect and strength, and D-types who are very loving and protective.  We cannot assume that all D-types are strict face-slapping sadists, or that all s-types are weak masochistic doormats.  Someone using a label doesn’t tell you all about who they are or what that label means to them.  A label does not explain an individual as a whole, and at best it only begins to describe a facet of their personality or Being.  For that you need to talk about why they identify that way to better understand them.

Activity Assumptions

Just because someone ascribes to a certain label does not mean they have the tastes or preferences you might imagine.  Labels have no direct relationship to desired activities or methods of treatment. While there may be tendencies, a role/type is not a complete reflection of their unique wants, needs or limits.  These are things that only are discovered by discussing what someone is looking for and taking the time to understand them.  Even if someone is very new, and therefore much is unknown, you can still discuss fantasies and fears to start the exploration process.  Even when discussing fantasies there are those that live in imagination/theory only, and those willing to be tried at some point.

Individual choices and preferences in activity and relationship dynamic are likely to be quite different from one person to another.  Even in instances where much can be found in common, there may still be delineations or limits that one might not expect, such as no pain-play, no sex, no cohabitation, etc. As such, one should avoid expecting certain interests or tendencies based strictly on role.  For example, not all submissives will like pain or humiliation; pets may not necessarily like being caged or animal transformations (pet play vs animal play); babygirls/boys may not want any element of age play; etc.  Another example is the difference between a sub that likes strictness and rules with severe consequences and discipline, versus those that like to act out a little to receive a spanking (AKA “Funishment”).

Consent Assumptions

Someone’s use of a label does not give any sort of consent. I’ve seen and heard of many serious problems when equating someone’s role/type with permission & consent. Let’s be clear, obtaining consent requires explicit voluntary agreement after thorough dialog/communication, a process we call negotiation. For example, someone identifying as a submissive is not blanket permission to any Dom to touch them, issue orders/commands, treat with disrespect, etc.  Consent is derived from taking the time to know the person, understand them, and frame activity for a relationship that would be mutually satisfying (albeit in different ways).

The ONLY exception (and I hesitate to even mention this) is when involved parties have built enough significant trust and safety mechanisms over time to enter into a Consensually Non-Consensual (CNC) dynamic. A CNC dynamic is when one is given absolute authority over the other despite protestations or refusals. This is normally done because there is mutual desire to do certain things or obtain certain fantasies that requires pushing boundaries and challenging them emotionally or physically.  Even then there should be a very special safe-word in place which is only invoked in the most urgent or dire of circumstances.  CNC dynamics really are THE exception and are not for beginners or early relationships.


Pickled Everything

Expect no Substitutes

I have known and seen plenty of folks who assume labels can substitute or otherwise eliminate the need for reaching any common understanding. We often make grave errors when we try to use labels instead of taking the time to discuss and learn about the other person.  Often this takes place in conjunction with assumptions about another’s role/type, activity preferences, wants & needs, etc.  Many seem to have the expectation that the label explains it all, but this could not be further from the truth.

For example, the number of D-types that automatically assume any submissive is a pain slut and will submit to them instantly.  You know the type I mean:


Sounds absurd yet SO many show me emails and chat logs to the same effect.  On the other side of the slash, there are many s-types who find communicating difficult or don’t want the responsibility of being a mutually accountable participant in a relationship.  Rather they rely on the labels to remove the responsibility of life.  You know the type:


How much of either of the above is just, well to put it bluntly, sheer stupidity versus a misunderstanding can be up to some debate. One could say that both stupidity and misunderstandings go hand in hand when we don’t bother or want to make the effort.  A label tells you nothing, and assuming much of anything based on those labels leaves much to be understood or appreciated.

The one thing I like about the community is that most of its leaders and speakers reiterate the need for strong communication skills. Communication is a point which is frequently repeated as being critical as the solution for many of our woes, and is something that requires ongoing and regular practice.  It’s refreshing to hear a strong value of communication and dialog in order to avoid assumptions and misunderstandings and is one of the lifestyles biggest benefits over vanilla relationships.


Tin Can Phone
Tin Can Phone


Let’s take a step back for a moment.  A hard reality to sometimes face, is that we all are very much alone.  Meaning, you only know what is going on inside you… if that… maybe.  There’s no way you know what is going on inside another with absolutely certainty.  One can infer, read signs, look at patterns and indicators, but that’s still a lot of educated guess work.  The only way for each of us to meet outside of our very individual inner world is through communication.

The general definition of communication is defined as:  a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, behavior, or functions;   a technique for expressing ideas & feelings effectively (as in speech, writing, etc.); a system for transmitting or exchanging information.  However I find this to be a limited definition as it does not take into account key aspects of communication, such as development of rapport, engagement, and the nature of information processing (theory).

Now a label is not communication – rather it’s more like a symbol.  A good definition of a symbol is:

…a word, phrase, or image having a complex of associated meanings and perceived as having inherent value separable from that which is symbolized, as being part of that which is symbolized, and as performing its normal function of standing for or representing that which is symbolized: usually conceived as deriving its meaning chiefly from the structure in which it appears, and generally distinguished from a sign.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit complex so let’s parse that out a little into bite-size pieces as: (1) word, phrase, or image with interconnected and related meanings, (2) stands for or represents something, (3) acts as an effective substitute with an association of ideas or understandings.  So the label as a symbol gives us an idea, but it’s not really effective because it cannot effectively substitute conversation as it does not provide the whole understanding.

I believe that communication is perhaps better stated as Engaging & Connecting.  This view is more closely aligned to that of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, who defines communication as:

Communication is the essence of human interaction and learning.  The nature of communication is dependent on interaction between two or more individuals and understanding is constructed through that interaction…  As human beings, we use communication to: relate to others, socially connect, greet, call attention, share feelings, express an opinion, agree, disagree, explain, share information, question, answer, tease, bargain, negotiate, argue, manipulate, compliment, comment, protest, complain, describe, encourage, instruct, provide feedback, show humor, discuss interests, be polite, make friends, express interest or disinterest, etc.

Of course with both the development of AI and our growing understanding of animal behaviors, I would take out “human” from their definition when applying to a broader definition.

That’s not to say communication is just “speaking” or delivering information.   Plenty of people speak but don’t actually communicate, say most politicians for example, as has been observed throughout history.  However, we also live in a time where the tendency to “express yourself” has overridden any measure of delivering a message of meaning, purpose, intent, or substance.  Many are speaking, but rarely is anything worthwhile actually said. In other words, there must be some value to the information. There should be an obvious difference between a bull-horn or megaphone versus that of two cans on a string.  One only requires a speaker, and may or may not have any listeners; whereas the other requires both active listeners and speakers for it to work.

Communication is neither spewing what’s on your mind nor an information dump. Rather communication conveys the broad spectrum of information that is one’s experience or condition.  Its purpose is to help us understand the inner-world of the other – their feelings, ideas, perspectives, memories, and so much more.  It doesn’t matter that the “other” is someone in an intimate relationship, a play partner, a friend or stranger, a pet (your dog/cat) or wildlife.  Yes, even wildlife can communicate from species to species – I can show you tons of stories about requests for help; experiencing joy, sorrow, and contentment; finding or creating humor; etc.



Labels are not an effective shortcut to communication, they are only the very first step and should be looked at as an invitation for conversation.  Communication is the attempt (no guarantee) to engage with another, to connect from inner-world experiences, and to share in moments as they unfold.  This is a huge step towards resolving the mistakes inherent in using labels, and in avoiding making gross assumptions, and mismatched partners goals.  There is no short cut to getting to know another person, no pill to swallow that makes life easy, no magic wand to relationships just working out.  It takes Time, Effort, Intention, and lots of Communication.

Another way to look at it is to say that a label is just an invitation to know the other through communication.


-Sir Vice
© Limits Unleashed 2017