Oxytocin — the “Love” Hormone — and Dominance and Submission

Recently during a conversation, I compared the swinging lifestyle and that of polyamory as being analogous to bondage and discipline (B&D) or sadomasochism (S&M) players on the one hand and those in dominance and submission (D&S) types of relationships on the other. (For a deeper explanation of these topics, see my article, “BDSM – An Acronym of Acronyms” and other articles elsewhere in this section.) In swinging, B&D and S&M, there typically is a whole lot of fun going on, but none of these involvements are dependent upon the existence of a strong bond between the participants—of love, loyalty, trust and devotion—as are the lifestyles of polyamory and D&S.

In a Dominant and submissive relationship, there is a strong bond that is developed that strengthens daily. The submissive’s relationship to the Dominant is one of near worship, so strong are their feelings of devotion, loyalty and dependence. Similarly, the loyalty felt by the Dominant, and their appreciation of the focus and devotion of their submissive – reciprocated in a protective and nurturing manner – grows stronger and stronger with time.

Though such an experience can be experienced by players in B&D and/or S&M, such players tend to grow in this direction through the natural process of simply getting to like each other more and more, just as in a vanilla relationship. The play itself and its rewards in those relationships are not so dependent upon the “bond” as it is in D&S. After-play cravings aren’t as deep; break-ups aren’t as hurtful. In fact, no emotional entanglement need ever occur in B&D or S&M. In D&S, however, these are prominent features.

There is a neurochemical that is held responsible for this. Called “the Love Hormone” by some, the hormone/neurotransmitter oxytocin is the culprit that causes the feeling of strong bonding to take place between lovers, parents and their children, close friends, and yes, between Dominants and Submissives! Whereas other neurochemicals play a strong role in other forms of play, such as endorphins, adrenaline/enkalphines, dopamine and seratonin to name a few, the bonding effect between Dominants and submissives can be directly tied to oxytocin. The almost religious devotion of the submissive—bringing on “floating” and an intense experience of oxytocin at work—and the heady experience of “Dom-space” come about through powerful amounts of oxytocin being present in their systems.

This is why many people coming into “real-life” D&S play from the online world of chat rooms and instant messaging oftentimes do things that lead to hurt. The distancing that sometimes seems to be a natural part of Internet relationships (at least at first) can make it easy for participants to feel like on-line rejection isn’t as hurtful as it can be in an in-person experience. Participants might think that reproachful comments are part of mere “role-play,” rather than being actually hurtful. This emotional distancing can create a situation where displays of devotion and loyalty would be less genuine than similar displays might be in a relationship between two people in actual close proximity.

The online D&S experience does not generally lead to natural increases in the oxytocin levels for those involved … that is, they do not bond as strongly as they might in-person, in a real relationship-building situation. Frankly, it is this factor that keeps me, personally, from feeling very trustful of those whose only experience in BDSM – and particularly in D&S – has been limited to online exchanges. I suppose oxytocin can be triggered through fantasy relationships, but I have a hard time being very trustful of that.

The implicit distancing of the Internet opens up too many opportunities for misunderstandings and manipulative behaviors (and manipulation degrades any kind of relationship), leading to hurt feelings and angry responses. And all this based upon a fantasy experience? Sounds a little bit tentative to me! Hopefully, those indulging in such fantasy play will keep things in perspective and keep their oxytocin levels under rational and mindful control. But the real question is, can an online D&S relationship ever lead to the depth of experience available in a real-life D&S relationship? The short answer to that is, no. The longer answer to that is, it depends!

A genuine relationship is needed to develop between players in D&S, which brings up the question: are these individuals merely “players”? I think not. The D&S world conjures up those oxytocin effects as surely as we are all mammals! Strong bonds develop, and those become the basis upon which the entire experience grows. I’ve never heard it said this way but I’m going to say it: Dominants and submissives are lovers. And I really like the sound of that! But that said, that implies a level of responsibility that might be important to look at when considering forming such a relationship, as would similarly be true between any lovers.

This is ancient science here – there is a chemical reaction that comes from being in the same room as another person, and that is the way things work at this point. That we have plunged into a modern-day opportunity for instant long-distance relationships via the Internet over the last twenty years does not change how we are basically set up. This bonding effect of oxytocin is triggered by proximity — and by smells and “vibes” and looks, and a host of other very physical things. And there is no getting around that! Perhaps an “imagined” proximity, and “imagined” smells, vibes, looks, and sets of “imagined” otherwise-physical things can conjure up these bonding oxytocin effects, even very strongly, but those relationships should likely be entered with the same levels of caution, consideration and concern as any real-life, physical world relationship would be.



[Thanks to Julia for helping me with this article!]