This article is being written as a primer, not an authoritative end all encyclopedia, in response to the immense discussion of dominance and submission.
People are continually using dominant or submissive, passive or aggressive, sadistic or masochistic to describe themselves as if the terms are mutually exclusive. In my opinion, these traits are not "either/or" qualities. They are all points along a line. The general population of those interested in 'kinky sex' is distributed across this line in a standard deviation, bell shaped curve. There are very few people on either end of this line; the majority of the population falls around the center of the line (fortunately the people at the extreme ends of these lines have medical and psychiatric help available.).
Another part of the equation is that none of us are fixed permanently in one spot. Imagine a tall step ladder of, say, one hundred rungs where each is an incremental step describing dominance or submission. We are very comfortable at one particular rung, with the majority of the population living on the middle rung. Most of us are also comfortable moving up or down a few rungs, but we are not comfortable moving from end to end on the ladder. A person may say they are only dominant, or only submissive, and should be believed. I remember a particular dominant male who swore that he would never, under any conditions, be submissive. He had a terribly strong infatuation with a particularly beautiful blond movie star. When I asked him if an aforementioned starlet were to arrive in his home, dressed in leather boots and carrying a whip, and order him to kneel, would he spend the night as her slave. He answered in the affirmative with a very stuttering voice and with such speed, that I thought that he was having a stroke. This only shows that we will do almost anything with the right person, at the right time, and under the right conditions. We have all heard of people, under wrongful or negative influence, performing almost unspeakable acts to insure survival of ourselves or are loved ones. Again, we will do almost anything given a particular set of the circumstances.
This article, however, is pointed at safe, sane, consensual (and erotic) people interested in BDSM and not the fields of psychiatry, psychology, or other fields of therapy.
Here at BackDrop, I have used a mathematical model to demonstrate what I see as a valid description. Imagine, if you will, a Rubik's Cube. It is a three dimensional model and not simply six planes. One dimension (for the sake of this discussion I use a horizontal line from front to back) is used to demonstrate aggressive and passive behavior. These traits describe how we act when no one else is around. Aggressive people will create their own environment, while passive people allow their environment to control them. The vertical dimension is used to demonstrate dominant and submissive behavior. These traits are how we as individuals act when there are other people around. Dominant people tend to take control while submissive people tend to follow orders. The third dimension, in this case a horizontal line from right to left, is used in two demonstrate sadistic and masochistic behavior.
Using this model, the majority of the population exists in the relative center of the cube and, hopefully, no one exists in the absolute corners or edges of the cube. Using the cube model, we can (using X, Y and Z values) describe ourselves to other people. I could say, for example, "I am a +4, +5, +3 male" (whatever that means) and people using this model would know how I describe myself, at this point in time, right now. Depending on a lot of factors, I might say, "I am a +5, +4, +5 male" or "I am a +1, +1, 2 male" because I am feeling different about myself and my environment. We need to remember that each of these values describes a particular moment in time and not my permanent life values: they are transient.
While this method would seem to work well, we need to remember that this is a subjective, and not objective, identification. There are many factors that might alter ones perception of themselves or the people that they interact with. As an old country music song goes; "No one is ugly when it is time for the bar to close." This method of identification would also make it very easy to place ads in the local and adult newspapers but I am afraid that it would have a very serious financial impact. So much so that I would be tempted to sell any or all stock that I might hold in any newspapers accepting personal ads!
When BackDrop was in Hayward, I developed a staff membership application for people interested in doing professional sessions. There were three lines (dominant/submissive, aggressive/passive, sadistic/masochistic) numbered from plus ten to minus ten. I would ask each candidate to describe themselves, using the lines, to show their comfort range. No one circled a particular number; they all had a range of about four to six numbers. After a week or two, I would ask them to describe themselves, using the same scale. Amazingly, almost all suddenly had a range of six to twelve numbers. I also found interesting to have other members of the staff to describe the candidate. The "submissive female" who was, to herself, a very obedient slave girl found that she really enjoyed whipping men because she could place herself in his role. She knew what SHE wanted and was more than willing to give it to him a big way. When she was asked if she was sadistic, she always responded in the negative. The whipping he was receiving was something that he had requested and she was, therefore, acting in a submissive manner. She was, to her way of reasoning, following an order to whip him and, therefore, there was no conflict to her way of thinking.