I like pain. I like submission. What do these things actually mean, though? I don’t like it when I stub my toe, for example, and there are quite a lot of authoritarian situations I don’t like either. My emotional reactions, in particular, can get really complicated. So I need more precise words than “I like pain” and “I like submission.”

This is not a new problem, and around the BDSM subculture there are more precise terms that are frequently used. But when I was first exploring BDSM and didn’t yet have access to the community, I started coming up with my own vocabulary for what I liked and what I didn’t like. The primary words I came up with — words that I still use a lot in my own head, and that I sometimes try to explain to my partners — were “clean” pain and “dirty” pain.

I think of some pain as “clean” because even if it’s intense, I usually … like it. (For lack of a better word.) This is the kind of pain I fantasize about when I’m really craving BDSM. There are certain places on my body that take pain more cleanly — my upper arms, most of my back, my thighs. There are certain types of pain that are inherently more clean — needles come to mind. Wide, deep, blunt bites are good too. Heavy whips made of weighty materials, like suede. Pulling my hair right above the nape of my neck.

On the other hand, I think of some pain as “dirty” because it’s … harder to take. I don’t think of it as dirty because I see it as scandalous or perverse — rather, dirty pain is complex and hard to process. I never fantasize about it. Pain where my bones are close to the surface of my skin, like my collarbone, is dirty. Pain on top of scars is dirty. Pinches and small, narrow bites are dirty. Pulling my hair anywhere besides the nape of my neck is dirty. Electric shocks are extremely dirty.

But this whole “clean” and “dirty” thing, it doesn’t make any sense outside my own body, my own head. It’s hard to explain it. It helps that the BDSM community tends to frame pain in terms of techniques and less-subjective adjectives, using words like “sharp” or “sting” or “thud”. (A lot of people think of “sharp” and “sting” as the same sensation. I usually separate them a bit more, but I’m not sure how many other people separate them.)

Franklin Veaux defines “thud” as “sensation of heavy, dull impact” and defines “sting” as “sensation of quick, sharp pain”. These words are most often applied to floggers (implements for hitting people, e.g.: “this is a thuddy flogger”), but sometimes the words are used for other things too. I’ve found that I generally prefer thuddy-type pain, for example, but it took me a long time to figure that out, because there are so many specific sharp sensations that I love.

Okay. Now for emotions. This is the really hard part.

A while back I got an anonymous comment on my coming-out story that I absolutely love. Here’s a quotation from the comment:

When it came to it, very little about the reality [of BDSM] matched my fantasies. Oh, sometimes what we did matched the way a real-life even can match a fantasy. There were moments that were … Transcendental.

But there were many more moments that … were deeply, deeply conflicted. I NEVER expected to feel that much … anger … toward someone dominating me and inflicting pain. I expected it to be a relief. I didn’t expect to wrestle with hatred.

He liked to slap my face. Everytime he did it I would feel this burst of pure hatred. At one point he asked if I liked it. I said, “No. I hate it. But I don’t want you to stop doing it.”

I can’t remember right now if any other “coming out” story I’ve ever read included such a visceral description of anger. Of course, I think the last time I read one I hadn’t experienced it myself. Maybe I never noticed it before, but noticed it this time because it resonated with me. But mostly I remember those stories mentioning fear, shame, worry, and embarrassment.

The events in my coming-out story took place years ago, and my feelings about BDSM are really different now. I remember that I was conflicted, furious, resentful. But at the same time, I have often thought that much of my anger and resentment was due to the fact that Richard — my first intense BDSM partner — was not emotionally available. I needed support that he didn’t give me. (To some extent because neither he nor I recognized how much support I needed.) And, of course, much of that anger was due to the fact that I couldn’t deal with BDSM. That I was fighting back against, was unable to take ownership of my sexuality.

As I settled my feelings, reconciled myself to my sexual identity — my emotional reactions became a whole different ball game. (It helped that I dated a string of men who were more emotionally available and assisted me with emotional processing, too.) It turned out that the rage that I had suspected was inextricable from BDSM was, in fact, entirely possible to separate. I entered a stage where I learned how to avoid that anger. To work around it. I learned to sink myself into fear and desperation, which I love, and which are easier to work with.

I experimented with different types of submissive play. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s almost impossible for me to feel submissive unless someone hurts me. (There have been exceptions, but they were definitely exceptional.) The BDSM community has lots of jargon for interpersonal emotional encounters, but those words usually describe actions or scenarios rather than feelings, like “public humiliation” or “domestic servitude” or “sexual slavery”. So I had to learn which emotions are associated with which actions, and that’s complicated too, though some things are just obvious. Some people really get off on public humiliation, for example, but that’s a strong and instinctive limit for me because it makes me extraordinarily angry. (There have been exceptions, but they were definitely exceptional.)

I got better at calling out my safeword when I had to. Yes, I think it’s hard to use a safeword, especially when you’re new … for all kinds of reasons: you don’t want to disappoint your partner, and sometimes it’s hard to realize that you need to safeword, because it’s very difficult to keep track of how you’re feeling in the moment …. But I also think that calling a safeword when you need to stop is a skill that you can get better at, much like other kinds of boundary-setting. So I became fairly practiced at calling my safeword when I needed to. If I started feeling very angry, I got good at halting the encounter, or shifting the emphasis to something else instead.

As I gained a more precise understanding of my physical reactions — clean pain and dirty pain — I figured out that there are differences in emotional reactions, too. Loosely speaking: clean pain makes me feel afraid and submissive, whereas dirty pain makes me mad. (Though this isn’t always true. I hate spanking, for example; it irritates me; but it’s pretty clean pain. And it might be worth noting how much I hate tickling … but that doesn’t hurt.)

If the dirty pain is hard or unexpected enough, I can’t seem to control lashing out. I fight back without even thinking about it (which often functions just fine as a way of renegotiating the encounter, in itself, without safewording). If it’s mild? I just get annoyed. But if it’s intense … I don’t just struggle, I attack. I leave marks on my partners.

I learned to avoid dirty pain, usually. I learned to circumvent anger, usually. I had once seen anger, and dirty pain, as maybe being an unavoidable cost of BDSM. I once suspected that I might never be able to have a BDSM relationship where I didn’t feel anger, where I didn’t feel pain that I didn’t want. I was wrong. Those things aren’t unavoidable costs. They can be worked around.

But now …. Yes, now! We’ve reached the part of the entry where Clarisse makes statements about her current self and potential future actions that may or may not be true and should be treated with caution, because she is an evolving and complicated human …!

Now that I’ve built up all these frameworks, I’ve had a few encounters lately where I felt … a lot of anger. Sometimes connected to dirty pain; sometimes not. And I didn’t stop. I watched how I was feeling and I dealt with it while it was happening, and it was … worth watching. It was hard to take, oh, it was so hard to take. But it was also intense and fascinating.

I’ve heard from a few other BDSM submissives that they like feeling anger during their encounters, that they need anger in order to get where they want to go.

If I follow the thread of anger, now ….

Where will it take me?

(If any other submissives/switches are reading this, I’d love to hear about how you process anger, and whether you developed words for pain before encountering the larger BDSM subculture.)

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This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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