A few months ago, I wrote a post called What Happens After an S&M Encounter “Gone Wrong”. (The comments on that post are great, by the way. My readers are so smart!) I intended it to be the first of two posts, and now, at long last, here’s the second half.

I’ve often thought that BDSMers should talk more about our “failed encounters”. Sometimes the best way to learn is through “failure”, or by looking at others’ “failures”. But when a BDSM scene “goes wrong”, it’s often highly personal for everyone concerned. So it’s really hard to talk about and really hard to write about — both for the dominant and submissive partners. This is just like any relationship, really. After all, people rarely talk about their most embarrassing or awkward or otherwise difficult “mistakes made” during vanilla sex, right?

(I use phrases like “failed encounter” and “gone wrong” and “mistakes” with caution, because I think these situations can often be viewed as learning experiences, and therefore they are successful for a lot of purposes! But certainly in the moment they feel like screwups, and a lot of the time they can make the whole relationship very difficult, and I think that most people who have been through them feel as though some kind of failure happened … whether it was a failure of understanding, communication, empathy, caution, or something else.)

Much of the problem, I think, is that people have such a hard time communicating after serious miscommunications and mistakes.

The following quotation is from Staci Newmahr’s Playing At The Edge, an excellent ethnography of the BDSM community. (I’ve changed a few jargon terms so I don’t have to define them for you, but I left two: “top” and “bottom”. A top is a blanket term for a dominant and/or sadist. A bottom is a blanket term for a masochist and/or submissive.)

Sophie had been engaged in a long and intimate S&M relationship with Carl, a friend whom she deeply trusted. During the encounter she describes below, Carl changed his approach, and Sophie subsequently felt that Carl was somehow not quite himself. Sophie and Carl never quite recovered from the incident; though they remained friends and tried to do S&M again, it was, according to Sophie, never the same.

Sophie says:

He was very much a rope top. That was his big thing, was tying people up. And he was excellent at typing people up. And our dynamic was always — I mean, yes, he would absolutely hurt me when the time came for that, but there was also always this element — even when he was hurting me, it was done in this incredibly, like, touchingly caring way. And especially when he was tying me up, it was this soothing, wonderful thing.

So one day … Carl starts an encounter with me. Carl had decided in his head, from all the things that he’s heard me say about how I play with another partner, that that’s what I really want from an interaction, in order for it to be the most gratifying and valuable. So we proceeded to have an encounter where Carl was not Carl. And I didn’t stop it because it was so like, I couldn’t understand what was going on. I couldn’t understand why it felt so horrible. And it wasn’t that I didn’t trust him, because I trust him completely. [ … ] I just couldn’t figure out what the problem is, I felt horrible through the whole thing. And he was so out of touch with me that he wasn’t even aware of how horrible I was feeling. The encounter went on for some time … and the second it was over, I … was just, like, you know, traumatized. And he was like, “Oh my God, what’s wrong?” [and] he carried me into the other room. I said something like, “Where did my Carly go?” and then he started to cry. [ … ] He’s like, “I was trying to give you this sadistic experience.”

In Sophie’s story, Carl’s risk backfires. … The risks were unsuccessful; each ended up emotionally distraught and distant. Ultimately, they sacrificed the relationship. (pages 179-180)

Man, that description is so intense. Let’s talk about it.

My previous post was about The Practice, and I gave a lot of concrete tips in that post. Now for ….

The Theory

Staci Newmahr suggests that one of the things BDSMers get from our activities is a “trust-risk-access” cycle, in which we take risks in order to create trust and intimacy:

In reveling in a trust-risk-access cycle, participants feel knowing of, and knowable to, another. When the scene fails, this intimacy fails; in SM, when the outcomes are unfavorable, participants feel like strangers to one another. Trust, on this level, is the trust that players deeply understand one another; it is destroyed when participants in a scene feel like strangers.

I don’t think all BDSM is quite so emotionally risky. For example, I think that there’s a lot of BDSM that’s focused on specific sensations. I’ve had BDSM encounters where my goal was simply to experience a new physical sensation, so I did that, and it was all very carefully bounded and discussed. In those encounters, there were no real risks except for the physical activity, and frankly, the vast majority of S&M activities are way safer than most people think. (A lot safer than riding a bike, I’d say.) The point of those encounters was to test my body and ride out the chemical surges that resulted.

But I do think that what Newmahr describes as a “trust-risk-access” cycle is a real thing, and that many BDSMers are seeking it.

More importantly, this trust-risk-access cycle is not even remotely unique to BDSM. (Newmahr doesn’t claim that it is … although she might disagree with me when I say that the cycle is at least a little bit present in almost all sexual interactions.) However, I do suspect that BDSM gives us a particularly useful window on trust-risk-access. In BDSM, participants are not only deliberately going through this cycle and talking about how to accomplish it — we are also usually compartmentalizing those boundary-tests.

In my just-released book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser, I floated what I call The Theory of Strategic Ambiguity. (Read excerpts from reviews and learn where to buy the book by clicking here.) Briefly, the idea is that people look for a certain level of “strategic ambiguity” in relationships — also known as contrast, challenge, unpredictability or novelty. The urge manifests differently for different people. Some people do this by playing flirtatious games, some people do it with psychological S&M, some people do it by traveling to exciting new places, some people do it by having a challenging joint project like a business, etc.

I think it’s impossible to deny that people want strategic ambiguity, but I also think that different people probably incline towards different “types” — and I also think that people want different levels. You could look at strategic ambiguity as a continuum, with “total safety” or “total certainty” on one end, and “total uncertainty” on the other end. Nobody wants to be on either end. And nobody wants to feel a type that they don’t like. I may be into S&M, but even I don’t want to be hurt too much, and there are certain types of pain that I prefer over others.

And so I also believe that some of the most important lessons of S&M are ways of categorizing, controlling, and compartmentalizing a desired sense of ambiguity. For example: jealousy. Although many people don’t, plenty of people really get off on jealousy. A large percentage of them do not admit it even to themselves, as I have observed among my friends since age sixteen. Others acknowledge that they find it arousing in some sense … but also feel incredibly conflicted and horrible about it at the same time. And others try to compartmentalize it: they talk about it carefully, play with jealousy together, get off on it, and then hopefully stop doing it until next time.

(I’ve previously analyzed jealousy in one of my polyamory posts, and discussed how I only feel it rarely today … and I’ve mentioned that when I feel jealousy nowadays, it usually feels mild and kind of hot. Yet when I was younger, it was much more terrible and soul-searing and never ever sexy.)

Methods that BDSMers use to compartmentalize our activities include planning things with an incredible amount of detail ahead of time (like with checklists), using safewords, or having encounters that are limited to a certain period of time. Similarly, some people who successfully compartmentalize jealousy are in various kinky sex communities such as S&M or swing. They do it with cuckoldry scenarios and so on, like where one partner is tied up and watches the other partner have sex with someone else.

Another type of strategic ambiguity is adversarial flirtation. Pickup artists have developed the best theories of flirtation that I have ever seen, and a lot of the game seems to be about creating a playful adversarial sense with a consenting partner. And again, at this point, it all looks like exactly the same thing to me. For example, negs are a pickup artist term that indicates “a remark, sometimes humorous, used to point out a woman’s flaws.” Some people hate negs, some people are really into them, and sometimes people use them too harshly and screw up — the same way a person can screw up an S&M scene. So how different is it when a guy negs me and we laugh about it together … as opposed to an S&M partner who insults me during an encounter and then snuggles with me afterwards?

I think that Staci Newmahr’s trust-risk-access cycle is another way of talking about this: a deliberate method of taking interpersonal risks with people we like. A deliberate method of posing challenges for the relationship, so that when the relationship clears the challenge it’s stronger than ever.

But in a “failed encounter,” both people have to deal with the emotional consequences of “failing the challenge.” The bad emotional consequences are in proportion to how intense the encounter was, and it becomes all about talking it through and comforting each other afterwards. For a relationship to survive a failed encounter, it often needs really good compartmentalization.

And I suspect that this is the same for relationships that involve other types of contrast, challenge, unpredictability and novelty, too. I find jealousy kinda hot sometimes … but when I’m dating someone who I suspect gets off on jealousy yet won’t talk about it, I lose patience very quickly. I suspect that most people who are thoughtful about relationships (including some pickup artists) would benefit a lot from learning the respectful communication tactics promoted by many S&M communities, even if they don’t plan to engage in overt S&M themselves.