This doesn’t feel ready to be written yet, but I’m gonna draft it out and see what happens…
A few days ago, I posted this entry about my relationship to BDSM. Don’t bother clicking that link; it’s locked. It’s very personal, very political and very, very long. At some point, I’ll make it public but only after I’ve had time to edit it, share it with each of my lovers in private, get their feedback and have some heads-up conversations with them about what’s in it.
In the meantime, however, the TL;DR version is: I like BDSM. I do BDSM. I also think BDSM is incredibly complicated — ethically, psychologically, politically — especially when it involves survivors of actual oppression and abuse. This doesn’t mean I don’t think we should do it. It means I think we need to do it with intentionality and a critical consciousness about the many ways in which what we’re doing is complicated. And I think the BDSM Scene does a huge disservice to survivors, including myself, by suggesting and rhetorically enforcing the idea that erotic violence is just like any other kind of kink.
One person who has seen the post said, “I understand what you’re trying to do here but, no matter how much you contextualize, most people are going to read this as a rejection of BDSM — not a complication of it.”
But another said, “Thank you for being visible.”
And it occurs to me that the people who will be able to grok what I’m trying to say are those for whom, like me, BDSM is important but complicated. And that, for those who don’t understand what I’m talking about but want to (and maybe for those who understand, too) maybe the best thing I can do is describe ways that BDSM is important but complicated for me. I’m still figuring it all out myself. Maybe we can figure some of it out together.
I say, “I do BDSM.” I’m not really sure that’s true. I play with power dynamics in my sex. Specifically, I play with a sort of fluid, “switchy”, multiplicity-oriented, genderfuck-y sort of D/s when I can, because that’s what turns me on; the rest of the acronym is just details.
People who identify strongly with BDSM culture might consider me an “amateur”, because I’ve never played in the Scene. I’ve never really played with anybody else who plays in the Scene. I’ve never touched a whip or a flogger. I’ve never been restrained by anything you couldn’t find around the house. (Or in the garage. A resourceful Eagle Scout once tied me up with a 30′ extension cord.) I don’t know the first thing about protocols and I’ve been to just one serious at-a-dungeon BDSM play party ever — and apparently I was badly behaved. (Among other transgressions, I moped.)
Still, power play has been at least some part of almost every erotically intimate relationship in my life, from casual hook-ups to meaningful long term commitments. In fact, perhaps because I was never part of the Scene and thus didn’t have ready-made venues for meeting BDSM-inclined partners, I’m very good at picking up on the subtle potentials for a D/s dynamic in an otherwise “vanilla” situation and breathing life into them. This also means that — because I am a cisgender female person who (especially when I was younger) often passes as femme and straight and I’m living in a misogynistic culture that maps “dominance” to “masculinity” by default — I’ve played the submissive role a lot. And…it’s complicated.
There are ways that consenting to female submission — especially female submission to masculine dominance — under patriarchy is inherently complicated. And damaging. And there are ways that I’ve been damaged by it; continue to be damaged by it when I choose to do it. Others have written about their experiences, and I might write about mine at some point. It’s outside the scope of this post for now. At the same time, for the most part, submission feels safe and comfortable to me. I slip into easily. I feel strong and grounded in it. I’m good at it; especially good at helping my partners move through their guilt, their fear of hurting me or doing me wrong…
But trying to apply those same lessons to myself is a whole different ballgame:
Dominance — or any kind of situation in which I’m accepting or facilitating or holding space another person’s submission — is the most vulnerable-feeling headspace I can possibly be in. Always has been. It’s something I only do with people who I feel incredibly intimate with. Why? It’s not just performance anxiety around my limited experience or a lack of good cultural role-models — although those issues influence my experience, too. But here’s the key to why dominance is so much scarier for me than submission is: When I’m submitting, I trust my dominant partners not to abuse their power — if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be playing with them. But I don’t have the same kind of trust in myself.
I have a bunch of triggers around sex and relationships that have to do with childhood abuse, but the biggest one is the fear of BEING abusive. Because of the way Borderline projection works, my mother drummed into me steadily over years and years the idea that I am a selfish, cruel, heartless, emotionless monster who “just wants whatever I want whenever I want it”, and that I hurt the people who love me simply by being close to them. It’s hard for me to tell people what I want, or make requests — much less demands — not because I don’t have desires, but because I grew up being punished for them. But the worst way I was punished was by being trained to believe that expressing desire was a way of hurting someone I loved. That it made me just like her, the person who I should have been able to count on for protection and comfort but who, instead, I was most afraid of. That my desires — that having desires at all — made me abusive.
So, now I’m almost 30 years old and I’m a mess. I’m sure reams have been written on the ways that not being able to feel or communicate desire can destroy intimate relationships. My struggle to own my own power and desire hasn’t destroyed my relationships — I don’t think — but it’s certainly made them…complicated. And I work on it.
I have one partner who’s been particularly wonderful about trying to encourage me to work through it the past few months. And this ties into something else I said in the Invisible Girl post: That BDSM, done with intention, might be a site for somatic therapy around ways we’ve been abused in the past. I have some political opinions about “dominance” that make me hesitant to frame what we’re doing that way, but that’s also outside the scope of this post — and it looks more-or-less the same on paper right now, anyway. And, in the same way that exploring these “dominant” experiences with my partner have been complicated but healing for me, trying on “submission” with me seems like it has been challenging but empowering for them.
But it’s complicated. Like today. The two of us had been text-flirting all afternoon. They were describing to me their desire to be “taken advantage of” next time we’re together and…other things I don’t feel ready to share on the public Internet, especially because some of them aren’t mine to share…but I found myself getting physically aroused for the first time in…days? Maybe a week? Maybe a couple of weeks? I’m very disconnected from my body, and my relationship to it sexually is (duh) complicated, so physical arousal is pretty rare for me. I hold onto it like something fragile and precious any time it happens. And today, it was happening.
By the time I got home, I was ready to, um, “take advantage” of myself… Even felt like there was a possibility of orgasm — another thing that’s pretty rare for me. My partner and I were still batting sexy text messages back and forth, so I sent them this:
I just got home and I am going to fuck myself right now thinking about you on your knees in my bed, face buried in the pillows, your hands locked behind your head, whimpering, moaning and pleading with me as I slowly and completely claim your sweet ass…
* blush *
Maybe you should sneak away right now and find a place to fuck yourself, too, while you think about being fucked by me.
They asked me to give them 15 minutes and said they’d “meet me in the aether.” (If you know my partners and don’t know who I’m talking about already, I’m sure the fact that they wanted to meet “in the aether” makes it pretty obvious. 😉 )
About an hour later, my phone rang.
“..Hey?” I said softly into the receiver. (Do cell phones still have “receivers”?) There was a pause at the other end. Some crackly broken-up ukelele music in the background. And then a low, breathy voice purring in my ear, describing detailed thoughts and feelings about their desire to be taken and owned by me…
Eventually, my lover’s voice trailed off.
And I burst into tears.
“Oh baby! What’s wrong?”
“..I, um…I just…I don’t know. I’m sorry. I just-…I wish you’d called me half an hour ago.” And then I bawled some more. I’d been in…I hate saying the word “dominant” out loud, especially to a lover who I’m playing with; it invokes so many things I don’t want to draw in…but all the available words suck. I’d been in a dominant headspace, I told them, and feeling so good in it, and so turned on by the conversation we’d been having, and lying in bed waiting for them to call me…
…And, at some point, I had drifted off, and just ended up having these terrible strange dreams, drifting in and out of sleepy consciousness, found myself thinking about abusiveness, power-and-control politics, damage, destruction…by the time the phone rang, I was physically shut down, meditating on this idea: “Abuse feels like the desire to shape somebody into something that pleases you more, regardless of whether and how this destroys them.”
But this human being and I have such unprecedented chemistry, just the sound of their voice talking about the weather from 1000 miles away turns me on. And here they were, with no preamble, whispering sweet submissive nothings across the aether…my body ached with desire, my stomach flip-flopped, it was like having my erotic consciousness forced back open against my will and in the face of my pain and cognitive dissonance and it was uncomfortable, and scary, and it didn’t feel good, and I wanted it to stop…but I didn’t want to stop it because I wanted to not want it to stop. Because I wanted it to just be easy.
“All I wanted was a goddamn orgasm,” I finally managed to choke through tears. “Instead I got a crying fit. Why can’t I just come like a normal human being? Why can’t it be uncomplicated?”
My lover, no stranger to abuse — epistemic or otherwise — themself, laughed sympathetically and sadly on the other end of the line, “You know it doesn’t get to be uncomplicated.”
“Because it’s not.”
“But we take what we can get and we make the best of it together.”
“I…yeah. I know.”
“I’m sorry that I made you cry.”
“You didn’t make me cry. It’s okay. I just…”
“I should’ve called earlier.”
“I really liked the things you were saying. I want to do this with you,” I stumbled…
“I know. We’ll keep trying.”
Some people can’t do “casual sex”, even if they might want to, not because they’re “prudes” but because they’re survivors of assault. Me, I can’t do casual D/s; and I especially can’t do casual D. Not because I don’t want to. I’ll be honest: I want to. I really want to. Not just because I find it hot. (I do find it hot.) But because, when it works well, I can feel it healing me. But like anything powerful, done incautiously, it also has the potential to damage me and to injure people I care about. Because it’s really fucking complicated.
Of course, it’s not always so intense. Not all my forays into intimacy end in processing and tears; occasionally they do end in orgasms; and sometimes it even feels uncomplicated for a minute. But there’s always the potential for a crying jag. Or a panic attack. Or the glassy-eyed, self-effacing dissociation I’ll snap into to avoid doing either of the former in front of a near-stranger — which is a big part of why I don’t play with strangers anymore. Or for the realization years down the line that I’ve been destroying, ignoring, erasing or debasing some part of myself that I should’ve been cherishing…that in a culture that teaches us from birth that none of us are worthy of love, there are so many insidious ways to indulge in self-hatred without even realizing until it’s too late…
And even when everything goes smooth and easy, when I come away feeling loved and seen and warm inside, it has potential to be this intense, to be this powerful; and that makes every exploration of “dominance” or “submission”, even light ones, feel heavy. And dangerous. And also exciting. Sometimes. More often, lately. And I like that…
So, that’s something.
But here’s the key: I don’t actually want it to get easier. Because if something as complicated as playing with power-and-control in the context of a pervasive oppression culture feels simple, something is very wrong. I just want to get better at being okay with conscious complication. And at being okay with me — at being okay with being complicated.