Why do we love BDSM?

Feel Goods -

Why do we love BDSM?

(Original article from https://www.complex.com/life/2016/05/who-likes-bdsm-and-why)

“The other day my girlfriend pushed me down and looked me in the eye. ‘I'm going to make you cry,’ she said. She began to hit me in earnest, and made me count the blows.”

Why would we ever want someone we love to hurt us? Why would we ever want to hurt someone we love?

And why do some of us crave it?

“Later, as I sobbed and she held me, I felt the therapy of that release: the effect of dealing with PTSD and trauma with pain that I can end any time by saying my safe word. Pain that comes from someone who I know is doing it for both of our pleasure, and not out of a desire to actually hurt me.”

Brook Shelley, a queer trans woman, shared this anecdote with me after responding to my call for personal stories about BDSM. Over the past week, I’ve conducted interviews with a dozen members of the BDSM and kink community, ranging across identities, age, gender, and location. By now, the general mechanics of BDSM are familiar to anyone who’s had even a passing encounter with Fifty Shades of Grey—the whips, crops, and handcuffs all recognizable accoutrement of kinky sex—but I was interested in exploring the personal, psychological side.

BDSM is an acronym with several constituent parts: bondage and discipline, dominance/submission, sadism and masochism. Collectively, these behaviors might be referred to as aspects of kink, a term which covers the broad expanse of non-normative sexuality. It includes BDSM; it can also encompass things like watersports and various fetishes, like latex or balloons.

I use “we” when referring to this community because I find myself a member of it, though, like any imagined community, membership is as much self-designated as it is given. I’m interested in BDSM. In particular, I like submission. I’ve explored rope bondage, been to play parties, and incorporated it into many of my romantic and sexual relationships.

For Brook, the appeal lies in how it allows her to access pain while being in full control of that pain—she can end it at any time with her safe word. BDSM allows her to process complex, traumatic experiences in a way that’s safe and consensual. Her story resonated with my own experiences with BDSM, too: trusting a beloved partner to give me what I need, while knowing that I’m in full control of the situation, is exhilarating.

Is that feeling universal?


FIRST ENCOUNTERS

“For as long as I've had a sexuality, it's been kink-oriented. I remember seeing Secretary in seventh grade and something just clicking in me, like ‘Wow, I want that.’”—Lauren, a queer woman who identifies as a switch.

“In eighth grade, my brother let me have his old laptop, and I read up on kink pretty much immediately,” Lauren continued in her email. “I downloaded and read all the works of the Marquis de Sade, I made an account on the rather cringe-worthy CollarMe.com and pretended I was 18 so I could talk to dominants, I wrote very torrid erotica for my first boyfriend about him tying me up and teasing me.”

BECAUSE VANILLA DATING DOESN’T DEMAND IT, PEOPLE OFTEN AREN’T VOCAL ABOUT WHAT THEY NEED OR WANT FROM A PARTNER.

Because a generation of young people came of age in the era of accessible, content-rich internet, variations of Lauren’s story are common—an initial interest provoked by some piece of pop culture, followed by intense online exploration. Some wrote that they’d never known sexuality without BDSM; others were introduced to kink by a partner later on. And some, like Sysiphe, who now identifies as a dominant masochist, encountered the scene through parties and other kink-community gatherings. “I kept going to events. At first I thought this was a place where I'd have some fun, maybe make a few friends Eventually I realized this was one of my homes and these people kind of my people.”

For those looking to meet BDSM-specific partners, whether long-term or just for a scene, play parties remain a reliable place to meet people; forums like Fetlife also help kinksters connect. But people also meet each other through more banal mediums, like Tinder. Though often framed as a community, BDSM is also merely a practice; there are literal and virtual sites where meeting is enabled. Of course, it's also something one can explore with a partner. 

When she began having sexual experiences with people, Lauren found that she enjoyed what had excited her in theory. “There was something appealingly honest about it all,” she wrote. “Baring the best and worst of human nature, not holding back, being fully with someone without shame.”

For queer erotica writer Xan West, the opposite was true; they explored the theory long before any physical engagement. “That’s the way I generally engage with identity," they wrote. “Research and theory first, then practice. It’s a large piece of how I came out as queer, and how I came out as trans.”

Other people reported having been introduced to BDSM via porn. Zack Graham, a writer living in New York, recalled, “It scared me at first. I have a reaction of visceral disgust when it comes to men physically harming women, and I never imagined that I would ever try it in real life.” When girls Zack was dating began to suggest aspects of BDSM play, he “was shocked at first, but over time, my relationship partners taught me how to use BDSM as a way of intensifying sex and deepening trust."


TRUST AND SECURITY

Trust figured prominently in all the conversations I had. “I think the biggest turn-on and the biggest draw to BDSM for me is the trust involved in any healthy BDSM encounter,” Lauren told me. It’s necessary to trust your partner to take care of you during and after a scene; the latter is known as “aftercare” and can be both emotional and physical. Pushing boundaries together is one way of strengthening and deepening that trust, as well as a way of risk management. The combination is often exhilarating—Lauren likened it to being on a rollercoaster. “You might be whirling through the air, terrified of the speed and drops and height, but you know you're strapped in securely, so it's not really scary.”

BDSM REQUIRES AN EXPLICIT DISCUSSION OF EACH INDIVIDUAL’S NEEDS, BOUNDARIES, AND FANTASIES.

“I think one of the reasons why I like BDSM and kink is because it opens up a whole world of conversations that don't really happen with ‘vanilla’ sex,” wrote Sofia, a queer Asian woman. “Consent is important, but so is understanding limits and listening to your partner and their needs.”

Vanilla sex and dating—what we might consider normative, non-kinky sexual behavior—often struggle with the language around consent and desire, because those conversations aren’t an explicit part of the courtship process. Matters like when to have sex, what kind of sex to have, and how the relationship dynamics might be established (dating? friends with benefits? something else?) aren’t discussed as much as felt out by instinct. Because vanilla dating doesn’t demand it, people often aren’t vocal about what they need or want from a partner—remember the last time you had to sit down and have a “define-the-relationship” talk? However, BDSM requires an explicit discussion of each individual’s needs, boundaries, and fantasies, which in turn allows for a heightened sense of simultaneous freedom and security.

“At some level, I think I'm just an adrenaline junkie; I like the way my body buzzes when it thinks we're in danger,” wrote Sysiphe, who identifies as a dominant masochist. “And as a perpetual multi-tasker, pain stimuli coalesces my brain into one space, helping me live only in that moment." This combination of intensity—whether sensory or emotional—and extreme trust allows for practitioners to safely access these adrenaline rushes in controlled, consensual spaces.

Because of the great amount of trust required, one-off encounters that incorporate kinky dynamics are often more “service” or action-oriented—think spanking or light bondage as opposed to a seriously psychological daddy/little dynamic. But several of the people I interviewed also spoke of deeply satisfying, long-term relationships, monogamous or otherwise, in which the accumulation of trust over time has led to intense, even nourishing experiences. BDSM spans so many individual practices and types of dynamics that it can look like one thing during a one-night stand and something entirely different in another situation—like a 24/7 power exchange.

Allison, a white, Jewish, queer woman in a 24/7 total power exchange described her relationship with her dominant to me at length. “I am a really type-A, independent person in my daily life. I'm future-driven, I'm organized, I'm confident, I'm loud and outgoing,” she wrote. “In order to give up and control and relax, I have to make an effort.” Being submissive to her dominant, Allison explained, both reminds her and (consensually) forces her to give up the control that she wields throughout her daily life. It’s a relief, both physically and psychologically, to submit to a trusted person and enter subspace—a mental state in which you’re free to focus on your body and its sensations. It can also offer the best endorphin high you’ve ever had.

For Allison, submission is an act of trust. It’s also an act that provides her with a deep sense of security. “I am submitting to someone who isn't just using me to serve their desires, but who enjoys the challenge and responsibility of nurturing me and helping me be a better person and keeping me focused on my goals,” she wrote. “I feel cherished.”


TRAUMA AND NARRATIVE

Members of the community are quick to emphasize that a healthy BDSM relationship is consensual and mutually gratifying to both parties; it's never abusive. At the same time, some people I spoke to, like Brook, acknowledged the role of trauma in their current practice and enjoyment of BDSM. While the scene with her girlfriend allowed Brook to process her complex PTSD and trauma in a healthy and safe space, other members of the community distance themselves from stray theories surrounding their origins of interest.

When asked "Why do you like BDSM?" Xan West wrote, "It is my belief that the need to answer the question of why around sexual identity and desire is not only damaging, but often rooted in the idea that a particular form of sexuality is pathological and dysfunctional. If something is understood to be a problem, folks look for a cause and a cure.”

It’s deeply problematic to imply that an interest in a particular type of encounter must be the result of past trauma. Though BDSM and related paraphilias were only removed from the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), published in 2013, studies have demonstrated that statistically, kinksters don’t have significantly higher rates of childhood abuse or trauma than vanilla folk.

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO TALK ABOUT BDSM WITHOUT TALKING ABOUT POWER.

Yet one would be remiss to suggest that kink cannot be used to safely overcome trauma. It’s still a relatively underground approach—you won’t find too many therapists suggesting the practice to troubled couples—but many of the people I talked to acknowledged the therapeutic effects of BDSM play. Lauren wrote regarding her experience with consensual non-consent play, also known as rape play: “To feel safe in the face of something horrible comforted me and made me feel like I had regained some power over my body, because I was re-experiencing my rape in a situation where my body was safe and allowed to react however it wanted.”

In this way, BDSM can be understood as a narrative-making tool that puts practitioners in roles of power where they might have previously been powerless. (Indeed, it’s likely no coincidence that the usual term for an instance of BDSM encounter is a “scene.”) Basil, a dominant in his 50s, wrote: “Beyond just the simple sensations, what I particularly am drawn to is the power to manipulate very primal archetypes and myths to produce transcendent emotional states, which often result in some personal insight or progress for the parties present.”

For those in a 24/7 relationship, like Allison, those dynamics are in place all the time. Some kinksters might never use the term “scene”—its connotations of script and fantasy don’t always apply to those who explore BDSM dynamics in their personal lives.


POWER

“I love seeing real male emotions, especially. Tearing their defenses down. It's intoxicating to me. A shortcut is just physically hurting them, but there's so much more that can be done.”—Ms. Evie, domme

It’s impossible to talk about BDSM without talking about power. Power is the backbone of any BDSM-inflected interaction, whether it’s rope bondage or impact play. More accurately what happens is a power exchange, in which people engage with an existing and created power dynamic to achieve a predetermined outcome. Sometimes this outcome is explicit, even scripted down to the dialogue; sometimes, it’s less so—it might simply be a set of power dynamics (a submissive man with a domme like Ms. Evie) with room for both partners to explore their limits and desires.

Ms. Evie, a white cis woman in her early 40s, explained to me why she enjoys being a domme: “I crave real reactions, real emotion. I want to hear him gasp as I penetrate him or hurt him, or see him get nervous or sad about something I say. I want to see him be a slut for me. I want to own him. Usually I don't even get off during the scene, although it turns me on.”

AFTER ALL, KINKY PEOPLE ARE STILL PEOPLE.

Of course, such an act is in the service of the submissive party. “The irony of the BDSM dom-fantasy, of using the other person purely for your own enjoyment, is of course that you’re intensely focused on their enjoyment,” wrote Jeff, a self-described "straight white dominant guy." This comes as a relief to Jeff, whose hegemonic identity and penchant for dominance seem at odds with his personal politics. It’s the mutuality—the power exchange—that makes BDSM work as a practice.

And domination isn’t just about sensory aspects, like tying someone up or commanding them to perform an action. It’s also about eliciting genuine emotional responses from a submissive. “I wish my practice could be more about this, more about allowing men to access their emotions and feel ‘known and loved,’ but that's really rare,” said Ms. Evie, who noted that many male submissives want a purely sexual, FemDom porn script.

“My practice isn't what I'd like it to be,” she said, “because I haven't met enough intelligent, attractive men who are capable of treating women like people.”

Power, my respondents are quick to remind me, influences all relationships—not just kinky ones. “We cannot create relationships that are free of power, however much we may wish that were possible. We play out power and privilege in our relationships all the time,” said Xan West. “What I think BDSM offers the possibility of, is models for conscious engagement with power and consensual negotiation of power in relationships.”

“Even if some of the sex I have looks very much like a strong man taking advantage of a frightened woman, it is so much safer for me than ‘vanilla dating,’ where men have casually sexually assaulted me, pressured me into sex, or made painful assumptions about my boundaries,” Lauren told me. While vanilla dating often hedges around—or completely ignores—frank talk of needs, boundaries, and desire, BDSM makes such discussions imperative. It's not impossible to get hurt during a BDSM scene, physically or emotionally. After all, kinky people are still people, and abusive or bad behavior can be masked by kink dynamics, as many interviewees shared with me.

“BDSM doesn’t assume that it’s possible to have sex without power,” said Xan West. “Instead, we have a framework for thinking about power.” Though BDSM often explicitly involves risk management in a way that’s not for everyone, it also requires the language of consent and discussion of triggers and boundaries that vanilla relationships could benefit from—even if kink never enters the picture.


PROBLEMATICS

“Am I revealing that this is what I really think about the role of women in the world, or perhaps revealing something about the kind of women I'm attracted to? I am really into inflicting pain— and surely that can't be good, right, that I really enjoy hurting women?”—Jeff, "straight white dominant guy"

“But of course, balanced against that is the whole 'But she enjoys it!' thing,” Jeff continued. “Here, I get into the distinctly non-feminist territory of questioning the desires of women. Do they actually enjoy this thing, or are they just telling themselves they do because society expects it of them?”

“I think that it's easy to point at BDSM, which often recreates fucked-up power dynamics, as something problematic, and it definitely can be, particularly when people play in unethical ways,” wrote Lauren, who identifies as a switch, but spoke mainly of her submissive preferences, where she feels most herself. “I don't think it's surprising that many of us have fucked-up or patriarchal fantasies. But BDSM doesn't trouble me as a feminist nearly as much as many aspects of vanilla dating and patriarchy in general. For me, play happens through a filter of careful consideration, respect, and agency that removes most of the poison of patriarchy.”

THE BDSM COMMUNITY ISN’T ALWAYS EQUIPPED TO DEAL WITH CONVERSATIONS SURROUNDING RACE, ABILITY, OR ACCESS.

“One reason I enjoy being a domme," said Ms. Evie, “is because it feels more feminist, but really it can turn sexist very quickly. I know it's not really feminist.” Most men, she said, have very sexualized fantasies of what a female domme should be: “Men want to be pegged,” she told me. “Tons of them are dying for it. They will pretend they like you just to get pegged and then treat you like a sex robot with no feelings.” And domination in the service of a submissive man, however appealingly misandrist, isn’t really feminism.

For Brook, the question of her personal politics is resolved by the company she keeps. “Gendered violence and the threat of it is an everyday reality for so many of us as women, but I am privileged to have built a structure and a group that is almost entirely women, and other queer folks,” she told me. “This lets us de-center men, their gaze, and their patriarchal expectations of submission from our lives.”

As well as patriarchal structures that both problematize and characterize BDSM, its overwhelming whiteness is an unspoken element of the kink community—and that’s not even including topics like race play, which can be incredibly divisive.

“Despite being a woman of color and how many of my friends who are active kinksters are racialized folks, kink is still really white, especially in bigger scenes,” Sofia told me. This means kinksters of color have to navigate the same biases they do in vanilla life, compounded by the complication that the BDSM community considers itself progressive because it exists outside "normative" communities. “The guise of being alternative is supposed to simply be enough,” said Sofia. But it’s not, and BDSM can actually be incredibly regressive. ​

“Most organized kink communities are inaccessible for a lot of people based on economics alone,” added Xan West. The cost of parties and gear (like bondage equipment, rigs, restraints, and various impact-play toys, for example) make BDSM a typically middle-class hobby with financial demands. “And when you also include access around disability and trans exclusion, not to mention folks that simply don’t feel welcome or are constantly targeted by harassment and exoticization, there are even more folks who cannot access kink communities.”

The BDSM community isn’t always equipped to deal with conversations surrounding race, ability, or access, but some of its members are working to change that.

“After all, what social sphere do I engage in that isn't shaped by the patriarchy?” asked Sysiphe. “But I rarely hear this question raised by outsiders talking about the punk scene—where, honestly, I find it harder to deal than in kink spaces.”

“How do we create a safe space? How do we empower people to understand and ask for their agency, power, rights?” Sysiphe wrote. “The only way I know to grapple with that within the scene is to initiate conversations about radical self-determinism as often as possible; to emphasize that we all have the right to negotiate relationships that work for us outside of pre-existing narratives of power structure.”

I’ve always thought of BDSM as an intensely psychological practice, but it’s also one intimately entwined with power and problematics, privilege and access. It’s a practice reliant on self-discovery and self-exploration. More than whips and chains or gear, BDSM is a space to examine, push boundaries, and transform in unexpected and thrilling ways.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A note from Master's lovely - BDSM is a place where you can be truly yourself - no mask, no pretense - and be accepted and loved for who really are. It is a place where you can experience such extreme levels of trust and open communication in a relationship that cannot even be compared to other relationships. It is a place where you can say what you need to and look just the way you are without judgment. Being in a D/s relationship and being owned by a Dominant who you adore so much gives you the most amazing sense of belonging and brings out all your desires to please Him/Her and make them happy and proud of you, and makes you feel so proud to belong to them and want to do absolutely anything for them (within your pre-negotiated limits if you have them!). Not to mention the amazing physical and emotional play in the relationship with all the different play styles and kinks which are all just so so wonderful. It is absolutely the best thing ever and I am just the biggest lucky duck to be my Master's. 




Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Tags