I first realized that I was submissive about 10 years ago, at the age of 20 and in the middle of my first “adult” relationship, i.e. my first relationship that hadn’t begun in high school. Looking back now, my kinks manifested in various ways prior to that – including a childhood period of fascination with historical methods of corporal punishment – but it wasn’t until college that I was able to attach a label to those desires.

Labels can be helpful. As I’ve written before, discovering words to accurately describe my queerness was a revelation, and finding labels to reflect my burgeoning kinks was equally eye-opening. But labels can also be restrictive, when they almost fit but not quite – like a pair of leggings that’s just a bit too tight. Suddenly, you find yourself uncomfortable, self-conscious, and questioning why you ever put the damn things on in the first place.

In the decade since discovering them, I’ve undergone multiple evolutions and identity crises surrounding my submission and my kinks: I don’t want to be expected to be submissive all the time, but it’s still an important piece of myself, is that disingenuous? I don’t want to willfully disobey my dominant partner, but I do sometimes like to be snarky with them; am I doing the dreaded “topping from the bottom” by being a bit bratty sometimes? I don’t even like anal sex, doesn’t that basically make me vanilla?

Am I a bad submissive? Am I broken? Am I contributing to the oppression of women by liking these things?

The answer to all of these questions is no, of course – but they’ve still plagued me over the years nonetheless, and I know I’m hardly unique in that experience.

But though it’s taken time and a lot of self-reflection, I think I’ve finally reached the point in my kink journey where I’m a lot less concerned with what I should be doing, what my dynamic is supposed to look like, and if my preferences make me less valid as a submissive or kinky person in general. The recent breakup, painful though it was, was actually of great assistance in this; suddenly, for the first time in years, I found myself without a dominant partner. (I have begun to develop something of a kink dynamic via sext with a dude I matched with on Tinder back over the holidays, but that’s a story for another time.)

Without an attachment to a partner, I was free to engage in deeper examination of myself and my sexual desires. I still identify as a submissive, a rope bunny, and a masochist, but my masochistic rope bunny submission doesn’t look like it did 4 years ago – and it also doesn’t necessarily look like that of another person with the same identities.

The biggest modification I’ve made to my own perception of my preferred kink dynamic is where I fall on the little spectrum. I’m still definitely neither a little nor an ageplayer, but I can’t deny that certain components of a DD/lg dynamic are attractive to me. I’m not one for a 24/7 dynamic, but when I am in a submissive headspace, I prefer nurturing dominance: supportive and guiding, potentially stern when necessary but without the vibes of detached coldness I get from more traditional D/s arrangements. At the same time, however, I hate feeling overridden, condescended to, and infantilized.

Combine that with my perfectionism, academic excellence, and desire to be praised – hello, attachment to Hermione Granger! – and you get my very own bespoke D/s dynamic: Distinguished Professor/university student (though whether that refers to an undergraduate or graduate student depends on the day).

No, it’s not a label you’ll likely find with a devoted tumblr blog, or see discussed much in places like Fetlife, and I imagine it might get a side-eye from some of the so-called old guard kinksters out there, but it’s what fits best for me. An equal partner in “regular” life who will take the lead sexually (and in other spheres, if necessary) but always values my opinion, input, and autonomy. Someone who will (consensually) put me in my place when I’m being mouthy but not make me feel like a disappointment for speaking my mind. Someone who views me both as fucktoy and favorite student, obedient little slut and brilliant associate. Someone wants me to reach my goals and succeed in life and will teach and guide and support me in the process, regardless of whether that support looks like kind words or an over-the-knee spanking (or likely a combination thereof).

I imagine building a kink identity, and later a dynamic with one or multiple partners, as something like creating a character in a video game (or in D&D, if that’s more your thing). There are the stock options to choose from at the beginning, when you’re first figuring out the controls and gameplay, with a few modifications that you can make. As you progress through the game, you unlock more options; you can tailor your character to better reflect your aesthetic, skills, and/or interests. But you’re not a better or worse player if you prefer the clothes and hair color you were given at the beginning of the game or if you’re decked out with a bunch of custom skins; the heavy-duty armor that one player prefers may not suit the light, speedy style of combat at which another player excels. There isn’t a One True Way of playing the game, one hyper-specific combination of traits that one has to select in order to win.

Kink is your game. You are your character, and you get to choose your adventure.