Higher Protocol Levels: The More Natural-Seeming the Dance, the More Thought-Out the Choreography

Here’s the thing I see about the higher levels of protocol.

I think it’s a fairly common fantasy. Bits of it show in kink-associated things that are so common they’re practically a stereotype—kneeling, honorifics. It is featured in many of the works of fiction credited with drawing people into the real BDSM world. Assorted protocol questions abound on any power exchange forum.

Enjoying the idea of it is something I rarely see called odd in the kink world.

On the flip side…

When someone talks about wanting to actually live it in real life, they tend to get heavily questioned, warned “but reality is different” and “how can you just hang out with your partner that way” and phrases like “sub frenzy” tend to get thrown around, especially if they have already begun to pursue this desire. People who have already been living it for a long time are pointed to as special exceptions.

And granted, I think that a lot of people who talk about wanting higher protocol in real life do tend to balk when they’re actually exposed to it. Frankly though, I think that’s true about a lot things in power exchange. The classic example looks more like wanting to explore masochism and realizing “oh, whips really hurt in real life” and calling it quits on that idea after one testing stroke. But honestly, I see that less often than I see the same principle applied to things associated more with power exchange. I’ve seen more people do a 180 after real life exposure to washing dishes or actually being unequal than I have after their back meets a bullwhip.

In any case, one meets a lot of various forms of pushback when they say they want higher protocol (and protocol levels are admittedly extremely subjective).

A version of this that I’ve experienced (and it’s not unique to protocol necessarily) is mentioning a part of it in my relationship, and the first question back is very often, “And how long have you been doing this?”

There’s generally a lot of surprise at my answers.

This leads me to believe that sticking to higher levels of protocol is viewed with skepticism. No one is surprised when I say it’s something we’ve done, but they are surprised when it’s something that’s stuck over time. They expect it’ll be a short-lived venture. Something a lot of people try, few keep doing. The way many view New Year’s diets. Nothing surprising on January 1st, a lot more surprising on February 1st.

I think what helped us stick with things was keeping realism in mind without letting realism turn into cynicism. We were willing to problem solve, and unwilling to instantly drop big ideas.

An example: two of our longer-standing protocols were about my responses to things. Orders were answered with “Yes, Mistress” and granted permissions were answered with “Thank you, Mistress”.

We realized that some practicality problems with this actually happening that often were ongoing. So it was brought up at our weekly check-in recently, along with one thing that may have been impacting it.

Mistress says things that are, as far as intention goes, orders, but are phrased like permissions. “You may get me coffee,” as she hands me her coffee cup, is an order. But the sentence starts with “you may”. So the question—should I respond based on her phrasing, or her intention? In some examples, answering “Yes, Mistress” to something that starts with “you may” seems not quite right, but she’s definitely giving an order.

She told me to respond based on her intention, and we kind of pondered times with more rapid-fire orders, pointed out that some permissions were for things that didn’t take very long to complete, either. Sometimes responding was just impractical on the level that in the time for me to respond, I could have already done the task.

The new idea: if I can in some way complete the order or thing I’ve been given permission to do faster than I can respond, I don’t have to respond. This eliminated a lot of impracticality issues, as responding to more time-significant orders or permissions flowed more smoothly.

As an example, a different protocol is that when I’m in Mistress’ presence and not standing for some reason, I kneel on the floor next to her with my knees apart and my hands behind my back, and I need permission if I want to sit on the furniture or, more commonly, assume a more comfortable position on the floor. This means that most of the time I’m conscious and in the same room as her for longer than my leg circulation lasts while kneeling, I ask her if I can shift positions on the floor. I can shift my weight faster than I can say, “Thank you, Mistress” and it disrupts the conversation for a shorter period of time. Similarly, if I respond “Yes, Mistress” every time she tells me to shift position during an impact scene, there are times I probably can’t do it fast enough.

I was thinking about choreography at one point in relation to theater, and how in some cases, the more you want it to look like the characters are authentically improvising, the more careful the choreography has to be. And in writing—sometimes, the better the script, the less the lines sound like they’re from a script.

I think the same goes for protocol sometimes: the more natural you want it to feel or seem, the more thoroughly it has to be thought out.

And how you want it to feel can be an important consideration.

There are different types, not just levels, of protocol—leather, Gor, pets, etc. How does the Master want to feel, how do they want the slave to feel? Should the slave feel lovingly valued, humbly degraded, cheerfully useful? How do they both react to styles, levels, and specifics of protocol? One person’s source of humiliation is another’s source of pride, and vice versa. I would say our M/s protocol style is mostly based around my feeling deferential and subservient, her feeling respected and important.

The examples I gave above, for instance, indicate those feelings through my kneeling on the floor (physically below her, a classic posture of submission), honorifics (a typical gesture of respect and indication of status), thanking her for permissions (rather than anything implying an assumption of them being granted), etc. Another example would be that I need to obtain her permission before I leave her presence—an acknowledgement that my time is not my own.

Protocol needs to be carefully crafted to create the right emotions—like choreography. I do think that “realism without cynicism” is key. Continuous problem solving and dedication to improvement rarely hurt in any department—but in protocol they are truly essential.

Learning in Anticipatory Service, and Some Advice

There’s a lot of learning involved in service, and especially in anticipatory service.

There’s learning the M-type’s preferences and priorities. All of them. Even the ones they’re not consciously aware of, or don’t think to communicate. And learning them to a point where remembering them is automatic. And knowing and understanding the “why” if it matters. And incorporating them whenever possible. And… sometimes preferences and priorities change.

There’s thoroughly learning the “technical skills” you might not have yet. Cleaning, cooking, errands, laundry, yard work, travel, secretarial, personal care. And fine tuning those skills based on those preferences.

There’s (in anticipatory service) learning about their subconscious and sometimes nigh invisible cues. An extra split second of looking at a cup when it’s nearing empty. A ghost of a smile that indicates they like what you just did. It’s knowing what they want that they might not even know they want (at least yet). And those cues can also change. It’s knowing them and their boundaries well enough to know what kind of anticipatory service is acceptable and desirable.

In anticipatory service, my goal is to do the things that Mistress wants before she calls, “Slave!” from across the house.

So how do I determine what those things are in an anticipatory style?

1. Do things they’re going to ask for, before they ask. For example: fix problems. Big problems might be more involved, but there are plenty of small “problems” that can be solved immediately. Like the toilet paper roll ran out, or there’s a spill in the kitchen. Try to address things like that right away, and try to figure out how to prevent future problems or make them easier to solve when they come up (store extra toilet paper in the bathroom, have a towel ready in the kitchen). Basically, don’t wait for them to remind you to treat something as necessary. You can see their glass of water is almost empty or that you’re missing a needed event supply without them saying anything—fill the glass now, acquire the supply now.

2. Do (or offer to do) things they might not think to ask for at all. Regularly think of what you could be doing to make their life easier that they might not think of. It could be a once-off task or a new standing order. If it can reasonably just be done, then you can just do it before they get to it. If you think you should talk to them about it first, then do that. Think of things around holidays (wrapping?), trips (packing?), and things like that. Look at what seems to give them stress or frustration or disruption. If there’s a repeating task you see them getting distracted from more important things by, offer to handle it on the same schedule.

3. Improve their processes and environments. Make things a little more convenient or a little prettier in some way (and, note what they think makes something more convenient or pretty). Organize things around the house. Eliminate nuisances. Do minor redecorating. Get related supplies in one place. Improve the lighting. Automate things.

4. Devote yourself, on your own, to learning those “technical skills”, keeping track of those preferences, and doing your own self-improvement (growth cannot be overstated).

Anticipatory service is a lot of learning, a lot of work—and one of my favorite things.