A while back, I attended a workshop run by educator Sarah Sloane on the topic of BDSM and abuse. Sarah centered her workshop on a maxim that I have hereby stolen: “Start from a position of strength, and seek strength in the end.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of not just polyamory and BDSM, but sex in general. All types of sexuality are more pleasurable for some people, and less pleasurable for others; emotionally easier for some people, and more difficult for others. I have zero interest in telling other people how they “should” or “shouldn’t” deal with their sexuality, as long as what they’re doing is consensual. I want to say right now that nothing I’m about to write is intended to tell others how they “should” or “shouldn’t” do S&M; it’s just my own thoughts on how I might choose and process my experiences.
I can certainly consent to whatever, even if that thing is problematic or scary or difficult or complicated — I can consent. The thing is, if I want to get something amazing and positive out of my experiences, I think it’s good to start from a position of strength.
In some ways this is clear. For example, I think that being with a partner who genuinely wants me to have a good experience, who really cares about me, and who wants to see me again — that’s almost always a position of strength. Even if I have fairly intense, dark S&M encounters with that person, I can feel confident that he’ll treat me with respect; that he’ll give me space and lend me strength for emotional processing afterwards.
Also, knowing what I want is a position of strength; understanding how I feel is a position of strength. Being able to recognize my emotional difficulties, hiccups, triggers and landmines is a position of strength. Knowing for sure that I can call my safeword, if necessary, is a position of strength. On a physical level, I prefer to do S&M when my body is in good shape — when I’m well-rested and I’ve eaten healthy food. That, too, is a position of strength.
In some ways this can become murky. For example: I am rarely interested in one-night stands. There are a number of reasons for this, but one reason is that — especially as a woman — feeling like a “slut” can be scary, difficult cultural territory. And when I don’t feel good about myself, my interest in one-night stands is even lower — because I know that dealing with the difficult territory of “sluthood” will be harder with low self-esteem. If I’m feeling happy, strong, competent, valuable, and loved by the world … then one-night stands can easily be fun. If I doubt my worth, or if I doubt how much I deserve love … then one-night stands can be self-destructive.
The same goes for relationships with people who don’t care about me. If I’m sure that a guy has no emotional interest in me, then having sex with that guy can be a dangerous emotional proposition for me, and one that I need to feel strong for. This doesn’t always end up being true — I’ve definitely had sexual encounters that left me emotionally unaffected — but sometimes it’s hard to predict whether I’ll want more emotional investment from a given dude, so I try to keep it in mind for all encounters. (From a polyamorous perspective, I’ve noticed that less-emotional sex is often easier to handle when I’m already in a solid relationship with someone else.)
A couple I know in the local S&M community will sometimes have encounters that absolutely blow my mind, because they seem so difficult and so psychological. Here is an example: after the pair was married and child-free for many years, the wife realized that she might want children after all. This was a problem for her husband, who married her with the understanding that neither of them wanted kids. It became an ongoing discussion. Then the husband — who is also the sadistic, dominant partner — asked her if they could have an S&M encounter focused around the topic. She said it was okay.
So, as part of an S&M class that they taught together, the husband used her new feelings about children to rip into her: during the S&M encounter, he told her that she was probably too old to have children, that she’d waited too long. He added that she was too flighty for kids; that she’d be a bad mother. He added that he had always made it clear that he never wanted kids; that she was stupid for marrying someone who didn’t want kids, and that this problem was her own fault.
I was not present during this class, but I heard about it from some attendees, and it sounds like it was really intense. He used a genuine and difficult sore spot to put his wife through a psychological S&M wringer, with her consent.
These days, I feel very tempted towards encounters like that: encounters that can tear me apart on a deep level, using important weaknesses and insecurities. I’ve also received email from other people who want to arrange encounters like that, and who ask my advice. An obvious problem is that such a relationship could easily slip into abusive territory.
So I’ve thought about this a lot, and here’s my conclusion: those kind of intense psychological encounters obey the same maxim as other BDSM — “Start from a position of strength, and seek strength in the end.” I plan to write a more extensive post on BDSM vs. abuse soon, but I think this slogan makes a really good central concept.
Thus, before having such an intense psychological encounter, I should feel that the encounter will ultimately — through the pain and anxiety and tears — make me feel more supported, more capable, more powerful in the world. One angle on this is to trust my partner a great deal, and be sure that he wants the best for me — to be sure that in the end, he wants me to be as strong as I started … or stronger.
It’s possible that I might not need so much support from my partner, if I get support elsewhere in my life: perhaps from friends, perhaps from a Kink Aware therapist, perhaps from a great job or a solid diet and exercise plan, perhaps even from another partner. (Of course, if I were planning to get extensive emotional processing support from other people, then I would seek their consent beforehand.)
Still, it seems like the easiest way to get support would be to get it from my partner, who would share more of the experience with me than anyone else. This would also build our intimacy, which is usually a major factor in having intense S&M encounters in the first place.
If any readers have further thoughts on this, please do share them. This is one of those things I’m definitely still working out for myself, and I’d love some more input.