Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
So this column, in the abstract, is about the healing that comes from a place of hurt, but this column, the one you are about to read, is about diving into the hurt and mucking around with it; it’s best to leave now if you don’t want to read my thoughts on being tied up, power play, hot wax, and nipple clamps.
BDSM is a scary set of acronyms for a survivor to be throwing around, but power and sensation play are integral parts of my fantasy life, and I’ve come to find that incorporating elements of that into my sex life, when I want it and how I want it, can be enormously empowering.
I do believe there’s one thing everyone can learn from BDSM, and that’s that explicit consent is sexy. Every separate time you engage in play, you’re expected to discuss your desires and your limits with your partner, as well as how to signal if you change your mind halfway through, which you’ve probably heard described as a “safe word.” Safe words can be good even for people who don’t like to play with non-consent and power—I talked to a survivor who found it hard to say “No,” because the word no longer meant anything to her, but who could pull out “giraffe” when she was feeling uncomfortable.
Some people like to have two tiers of safe words: one might be “yellow” for “slow down, be gentle, let me catch my breath and think about this” and the second might be “red” for “step away from the submissive.” (Some people like semaphore flags. Or Morse Code.)
One of my lovers and I played a game to come up with our safe word; we went through all of our favorite intellectuals and tried to see if we could make sexy in-scene noises that would sound enough like their name that it might be confusing. (Ahhh-doh-no!no!no! and err-eee-dahhh! were quickly disqualified.)
The intellectual whose name was hardest to accidentally utter in a pleasured context became our safe word. (We finally picked Siegfried Kracauer, because I don’t make guttural cracking noises during sex.)
Right? So this stuff can be totally fun but it wasn’t easy to figure this out. The first time I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on with my sex life and how it might connect to my survivor life, the first book I picked up was The Courage to Heal (1988), which says the following:
“But for women who are working to heal beyond their conditioning to abuse, participating in SM—sex that involves pain, humiliation, or a situation in which one person wields power over the other—makes no sense. It would be like an alcoholic trying to heal from alcoholism by drinking only in special environments created for that purpose.”
…although some of the other sex advice in The Courage to Heal was pretty darn helpful, this made me cringe. Being tied down (my primary BDSM activity at the time) didn’t feel like recapitulating my abuse. It just didn’t. But how was I supposed to argue with the only words I had ever read on the subject?
I’m lucky that I was asking these questions in 2007, by which time there was another great resource out there: Staci Haines’ The Survivor’s Guide to Sex, which devotes an entire chapter to BDSM and power related fantasies and does so in a marvelously even-handed manner.
Staci writes: “Some survivors who are into S/M consciously work with their history of abuse in their scenes. This can be done in a number of ways. You can explore sexual acts and positions in which you were abused. You may find it powerful to reenact abuse scenes and write new endings for them.”
Still, she realizes that it isn’t always healthy: “The most often debated question is whether S/M players are ‘acting out’ prior abuse. My answer is both yes and no, depending… I found that survivors can and do use S/M as a way to dissociate and to unsuccessfully process the abuse. Of course, survivors check out during vanilla sex, too, and use vanilla sex as a way to escape feelings.”
Staci is, as always, right on point. BDSM is like sex itself; it’s all about how you use it. Let me describe a healthy submissive scene for me.
(Although, point: people often forget that BDSM also involves women topping men and the entire queer community topping each other (and I’m a switch). It’s not always a male-female oppression-perpetuating act. Actually, one of my dreams is to remake The Night Porter so that after the war, the characters work through their unresolved issues by having the woman top the SS guard. Clearly that would be a superior film.)
First I negotiate with my partner. I want to play with non-consent—I want you to be a little bit rough with me—I want to struggle when you tie me down. I don’t want you to call me names—I don’t like being called names. We both want to try hot wax but I’m a little bit scared—please go slow and wait to see how I react.
I love this part: in BDSM, I have to explicitly acknowledge the power context of our sex act, and spelling out that power so precisely makes me feel empowered. You’re actually in a lot of control when you’re submissive, if you and your top are doing it right; you’re the one who gets to set all the boundaries and you’re the one with the power to cut it off at any moment.
Then we come up with an absurd scenario and launch in; like I’ve said before, the Cold War makes me hot, so let’s pretend we’re spies and there are state secrets which you know you can get to if you just drip hot wax on me. (I really like spies, as a non-consent scenario, because of the equal power it sort of implies, you know? it’s better for me than doctor/patient or whatever.)
I like the part where I get to pretend I don’t actually want it; somehow it’s freeing for me, and my usual performance neuroses shut off, putting me in a place where I only have to react to the sensations.
Being tied down is useful for similar reasons. I’ve talked about being disembodied before, feeling like I was watching my body rather than living in it. Back when I could check out from “vanilla” sex easily, S/M kept me far more embodied and present in the moment. I couldn’t be disembodied when I was tied down and wholly focused on my partner. I didn’t have to worry about where my hands are or whether I sound like a porn star or what my feet look like—I could just trust my body to do the right thing to get me through this, and in a non-consent tie-me-down-and-tickle-me-up fantasy, that’s giggling and screaming and enjoying myself.
So now I’m tied down and you haven’t found the state secrets hidden inside my clothing; is it possible that they are written on my body and can only be uncovered through the strategic application of hot wax? Indeed.
I love playing with sensations which I might find painful otherwise; it’s fun to work up from rubbing fur over your submissive to clamping their nipples and breaking out the Wartenberg wheel, because as you become sexually aroused, your body releases endorphins which increase your pain threshold.
At the end of a scene, I like to be given a moment to relax, and then touched tenderly and reminded how much my top does care. I need to be checked in with; what worked for me? What didn’t? Were there any points when I felt seriously uncomfortable? What are we going to do next time?
Am I feeling embodied in my body, confident in myself, close to my partner, and welcoming of the pleasure in my life? Then hooray. We’re doing BDSM right.
(And goodness gracious I write too much. Have a happy and safe weekend.)