A close friend of mine was getting very upset about punishment -- the real-world, criminal-justice kind, not the BDSM mirror of that ethos. "Look", he said, "they get it all mixed up. All of them: the right-wing scummers who want long sentences, hangings and floggings, and the liberals who want all punishments reduced to a telling-off. They overload the word punishment; use it to mean different things. And the different things aren't compatible. If you don't distinguish why you're imposing acts of "punishment", your right to impose them goes away. And that's you plural: society; democracy and all that shit."
I murmured that I didn't see the distinction he was making. He said, "it's simple. We use the courts to do two things: to protect our society by excluding dangerous criminals, killing them if we have to, but also for revenge, to take away the anger we feel at terrible crimes. The protection is OK, it's doing bad things to people because we have no real choice, but the revenge is just wrong, wrong wrong: bad things for worse reasons. And sometimes we do the revenge thing and we have the gall to call it "deterrence", which it never is. We have just one set of laws, one system of courts, and they smear all these ideas together and call them all punishment. It just sucks so badly." And then he smiled and said, "I guess it doesn't matter much to you, does it? You like punishment."
Well no, actually, it's not all the same. Being very involved at the sharp end of the punishment, I find the distinctions matter very much. I get picky about how I'm punished and I only care to do a few of the possible scenarios. The emotional flavour the scene is overwhelmingly important to me.
Looking more widely, the BDSM community both distinguishes and confuses many more concepts of punishment than the criminal-justice system; distinguishes, because as we live and play in the world of punishment we see detail that only an enthusiast could care about; and confuses, because, in the tidal wash of emotion, so many things are left implicit and unspoken.
Here's my personal list. How many of these little emotional scripts, these paths though the wetlands of pain, warm your heart?
Retribution: a mistress punishes in direct and explicit response to some grave sin, whether of commission or omission (or even, frequently, of emission!). Anyone who plays school scenes knows this one: there has to be a reason for the punishment or it just doesn't work.
Ownership: mistress takes sadistic pleasure for herself simply because she can. If you are truly her slave, her absolute possession, why should she need any further reason?
Gift: your pain, welcome or not to you, is made an offering to you mistress, that her life may become a little more agreeable. No coercion or obligation is even implied.
Inverted gift: sometimes the pain and the punishment is her gift to you! It might even be payment in kind for services rendered in another part of the session. (Did you ever read Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow? It has a scene where a submissive must buy the pain he craves by amusing his mistress with tales of others' suffering.)
Apology: you and she pretend some sin that keeps you apart, and, in the fantasy, the punishment expunges the sin and allows you to draw closer to her.
Therapy: the fantasy of a parent, a relative, a teacher, even a lover who cares enough for you to hurt you so that you cease to hurt yourself. So dear to ageplayers everywhere; do your spirits lift when she smiles and tells you it's for your own good?
Foreplay: finally, let us not forget that the act of punishment is sometimes just just pure, loving sensation with no fantasy needed.
No doubt, you can add to this list; and the details of your play will draw the distinctions ever finer, like the branching of streams in a river delta, until no two moments are ever quite alike, and no scene can ever exactly be replayed.
Now ultimately, all this analysis is only words, and fades from importance when the doing of the thing is good. And yet, the words and the distinctions do matter. Good sessions need convergence of ideas, and needs and feelings. This is more than usually difficult for the inventive people into BDSM. If we have no names for the games we play, mistress and sub can easily go down two parallel roads and never quite meet.
I once had an abrupt demonstration of this. I was with a new mistress for the first time, and we'd discussed and negotiated the session in detail, thinking to avoid all nasty shocks: clothes and a setting; this level of pain, that many strokes in the heavy part of the punishment; marks OK, that activity taboo; and so on. All very definite and risk free, I thought. I couldn't have been more wrong! In pinning down the technicalities, we'd forgotten to agree the mood and the flavour of the punishment. I'd got myself seriously worked up to play an "apology" scene, but my mistress was playing "retribution" with overtones of "theft". Nothing I could say, or do, or endure in her scene was going to draw down forgiveness, and I could never achieve deliverance. I used the safeword right away, stopped the scene and left; I didn't feel that I could move into the mindset for her chosen scene in the time available. Afterwards, I sat in my car and just cried; it had so nearly been good but had gone so wrong, and I felt all the self-loathing I'd manufactured for the session blow back into my outside life. I was outcast and unshriven, and I hated myself for letting it fail, when just naming the flavour of the scene beforehand could have made it right. Nowadays, I more often negotiate the flavour of the scene and leave Mistress to choose the operational details of punishment; after all, that's her trade!
Playing devils advocate, though, I can't resist mentioning my all-time favourite session. This was when we started out with one flavour of punishment but, topping outrageously from the bottom, I dragged the scene sideways from retribution through apology to gift and finally into foreplay, all to suit my whim of the moment. Shocking behaviour from a sub, I know, but glory be, my lady followed me cheerfully through all these shifts, adapting gracefully to each change without my needing to speak out of character. That emotional aptness, surety and sensitivity is, perhaps, what we all should value most in a great domme.