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Linguistically submissive


Frequently I am perplexed by the suggestion that a submissive person is, somehow, a lesser person, or a weaker person, or a person who is less than fully developed in their personality. Exactly how this idea came about I have no idea but I wonder if perhaps there was some moment in the tortured history of the vernacular that a simple minded person couldn't distinguish between submissive, subservient, subordinate, and substandard and muddled up their adjectives. Another possibility is that many people have got into the habit of applying one-word labels to themselves and to other people and since we are all complex creatures it is inevitable that those labels are going diminish in usefulness as more people employ them. All of this might be of no importance except that it also seems to me that as the result of this linguistic confusion no small number of people who find so-called submissive inclinations within themselves and express them, are then accosted because they don't conform to some standard of aspiration or behaviour that has unknown origins and very little authority beyond being fashionable. Others seem to be lambasted with accusations of inferiority and are then tormented by assorted self doubts about their own motives, worth and mental stability. On a slightly different track I've encountered several discussions that, to me, seemed to be proceeding completely awry because the participating persons were using the same word to mean quite different things. This article is principally about words.

My take on submit, submissive and submission

Before I get any further I'd like to apologise in advance for any of the following that sounds like a lecture from somebody who thinks they've got the definitive opinion on a subject; one day I might learn to write in a more relaxed style but, in the meantime, my attempts at unambiguous and meaningful correspondence do tend to come across rather like the classroom notes from a patronising and bumbling professor of the old school. I'd especially like to apologise to any linguists, grammarians, etymologists or other skilled wordsmiths for whom my clumsy and imprecise attempts to clarify the use of language will possibly be experienced as a form of verbal torture. When I finally get to heaven I will no doubt be made aware of all of my errors and have the rest of eternity in which to find them funny but, for now and for whatever it is worth, here is my take on submit, submissive and submission. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

Complete description of the process

Although there is nothing grammatically wrong with the statement “I submit”, it isn't a complete description of the process and rather invites the questions “What do you submit, and to what (or to whom) are you submitting it?” In linguistic terms, we could contrast running, eating and submitting to see that they are slightly different: Linguistically running is an action that can be wholly self-contained and thus the statement “I run” is essentially complete. Eating is an action that you apply to something else and hence the statement “I eat” is not essentially complete because the object of the action is missing. The statement “I eat chocolate” is essentially complete because it includes the object (chocolate) of the action (eating) as well as the subject (I) that is performing the action. Submitting is an action that requires two objects which are known, if I understood properly, as the direct object and the indirect object. So, for example, the statement “I submit the report to my client” is a complete because it has the action (submitting) that is being performed, the subject (I) which is performing the action, the direct object (the report) which is being submitted and the indirect object (the client) to which the report is being submitted. If you leave out any of the components then the statement diminishes in meaning. Now since relationships is not, as far as I have seen, very concerned about reports or clients, let me try and make this relevant to those who are likely to be reading, namely men and women who are contemplating relationships in which the man takes a leadership role.

Submissive person

The first point that I think needs to be recognized is that within this context, submission is an action initiated by the submissive person and not something imposed upon them. Within this context one cannot ordinarily and meaningfully say, “I am being submitted” in the same way that one can say “I am being squashed” because submission is a state of activity not passivity, it is something you do, not something that is done to you. In the context of romantic relationships, submission originates from within while squashing originates from without. In general terms we might say that the woman in a male-led relationship is submitting herself to her man but while this statement is meaningful to, and usefully understood by, some of the contributors to Taken In Hand, it isn't perhaps understood by those aforementioned simple souls who muddled up their adjectives and think that the submissive woman is somehow degraded by her submission so let us analyse it in more depth.

What is it that the woman is submitting to the man?

Remember that the act of submission requires three components, namely that which is performing the submission, that which is being submitted and that to which it is being submitted. Within the context of the submissive relationship the subject is easy to define; it is the woman. The indirect object is also easy to define and it is the man in the relationship. The direct object is where things get more interesting ... what is it that the woman is submitting to the man? The first way to answer to this question is to respond that she submits whatever she chooses to submit. This is important to grasp. Submission, remember, is a state of activity, not of passivity and hence is the result of a choice that the submissive person made. Submission is therefore totally unlike oppression: A submissive person gives something of their own volition while the oppressed person has something extracted from them contrary to their own desire. My submission is something I choose to give or withhold but oppression is something that somebody else does to me regardless of my preference or choice and that I would avoid if I could.

Make life better.

The second way to answer the question is to respond with another question, namely, what is it that the submissive woman has to offer? This also is extremely important to grasp because a woman cannot submit that which she does not herself possess because nobody can give what they haven't got. A woman in a male-led relationship can, if she chooses, submit to her man her talents, her energy, her material resources, and her body. I'll come back to what this means in a moment but, for now, we only need to see that if she has no energy and no talents and no resources then she cannot offer those things to her man which means she can only offer her body. Also, “talents”, in this context, does not just mean things like the ability to prepare a meal dinner, repair a broken window, organise an event, wash clothes, manage a household or children, or run a transnational corporation; it also includes talents such as patience, selflessness, kindness, tact, charm, a smile, empathy, the ability to hold an intelligent conversation and all the other dozens of personal qualities that can be used to make life better.

A male-led romantic relationship

So, what does it mean to submit your resources, talents or energy to another person? In very simple terms it means that you allow the use of those resources, talents and energies to be directed or guided by the person to whom they are submitted. This might involve explicit direction in the sense of an instruction being given and then obeyed or it might involve implicit direction, in the sense that the offeror uses their own understanding and prior knowledge to attempt to anticipate the needs or requirements of the receiver and to meet those needs and requirements without any explicit instruction being given. Neither approach is right or wrong, better or worse because they are just two different methods each being more or less suitable for different situations. A parent, for example, will submit themselves to the needs of their young child and an employee will submit themselves to the requirements of their vocation and workplace, and, in each case, there could be both implicit and explicit direction from the child and from colleagues. In the case of a male-led romantic relationship, the submissive woman will sometimes receive explicit directions from her man but far more often, she will work with the directions implied by the circumstances of their relationship and surroundings. In some relationships and situations the man and woman might feel more contented with a higher degree of explicit direction and in other relationships and situations the man and the woman might get along very nicely with only the directions implied by their shared circumstances. Since both circumstances and needs can and do change it follows that the methods will also have to adapt.


Because submission is something that I do (rather than something that is done to me) it can be easier or harder according to my talents and character and mood. It is relatively easy to submit to somebody who is appreciative and encouraging and when I give something that I enjoy giving but it is more difficult to submit to somebody who is negatively critical, harsh, unappreciative or selfish or when when I do not enjoy giving whatever it is that I give. However, “difficult” is not the same as “impossible”. It is entirely possible for a woman to submit to a man who is a selfish and ignorant brute but few women could do so and even fewer would enjoy it. This leads us to another very important point, namely that in the most difficult situations only the strongest can submit and only the most noble of the strongest can take humble satisfaction in doing so. By now it should, if I haven't waffled too much, be becoming clear to the simple-minded and adjectively challenged detractor, that submission, far from being a sign of weak character and mental deficiency, is actually a sign of strength and possibly even of virtue. The person who is most able to be submissive is, by definition, a highly competent, talented, person with a lot to give and the strength of character to do the giving even when circumstances are less than ideal. Most people simply are not capable of being very submissive either because they haven't bothered to develop any worthwhile talents or attributes of character, or because they are too full of their own pride and selfishness and egotism to be able to consistently give anything of value to anybody else.