Every once in a while, someone will ask me a question about something BDSM-related that I feel “done with”; I feel like I did all my thinking about those topics, years ago. But it’s still useful to get those questions today, because it forces me to try and understand where my head was at, three to seven years ago. It forces me to calibrate my inner processes. I often think of these questions as the “simple” ones, or the “101” questions, because they are so often addressed in typical conversation among BDSMers. Then again, lots of people don’t have access to a BDSM community, or aren’t interested in their local BDSM community for whatever reason. Therefore, it’s useful for me to cover those “simple” questions on my blog anyway.

Plus, just because a question is simple doesn’t mean the question is not interesting.

One such question is the “BDSM versus sex” question. Is BDSM always sex? Is it always sexual? A lot of people see BDSM as something that “always” includes sex, or is “always sexual in some way”. In the documentary “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!“, one famous BDSM writer is quoted saying something like: “I would say that eros is always involved in BDSM, even if the participants aren’t doing anything that would look sexual to non-BDSMers.”

But a lot of other people see BDSM, and the BDSM urge, as something that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex — that is separate from sex.

I see two sides to this question: the political side, and the “how does it feel?” side. Both sides are intertwined; when it comes to sex, politics can’t help shaping our experiences (and vice versa). I acknowledge this. And yet even when I try to account for that, there is still something deeply different about the way my body feels my BDSM urges, as opposed to how my body feels sexual urges. I don’t think that those bodily differences could ever quite go away, no matter how my mental angle on those processes changed.

I already wrote Part 1 of this post about the political side of this question. Now for Part 2 ….

The Embodied Side of BDSM versus Sex

Although Part 1 was all about how the divide between “BDSM” and “sex” is often nonsensical, or purely political, or socially constructed … that doesn’t mean that the divide does not exist. I once had a conversation about ignoring social constructs with a wise friend, who noted dryly that: “One-way streets are a social construct. That doesn’t mean we should ignore them.” Just because the outside world influences our sexuality, does not mean that our sexual preferences are invalid.

Some polyamorous BDSMers have very different rules about having sex with outsiders, as opposed to doing BDSM with outsiders. For example, during the time when I was considering a transition to polyamory, I myself had a couple relationships where we were sexually monogamous — yet my partners agreed that I could do BDSM with people who weren’t my partner. Those particular partners felt jealous and threatened by the idea of me having sex with another man, but they didn’t mind if I did BDSM with another man. Maybe the feelings of those partners only arose because they categorized “BDSM” and “sex” into weirdly different socially-constructed ways … but those partners’ feelings were nonetheless real, and their feelings deserved respect.

And there are also unmistakable ways that BDSM feels different from sex. There is something, bodily, that is just plain different about BDSM, as opposed to sex. I often find myself thinking of “BDSM feelings” and “sexual feelings” as flowing down two parallel channels in my head … sometimes these channels intersect, but sometimes they’re far apart. The BDSM urge strikes me as deeply different, separate, from the sex urge. It can be fun to combine BDSM and sex, but there are definitely times when I want BDSM that feel very unlike most times when I want sex.

The biggest political reason why it’s difficult to discuss this is the way in which we currently conceptualize sexuality through “orientations”: we have built a cultural “orientation model” focused on the idea that “acceptable” sexuality is “built-in”, or “innate”. Some BDSMers consider BDSM an “orientation” — and I, myself, once found that thinking of BDSM as an orientation was extremely helpful in coming to terms with my BDSM desires. But one thing I don’t like about the orientation model now is that it makes us sound like we’re apologizing. “Poor little me! It’s not my fault I’m straight! Or a domme! Whatever!” Why would any of these things be faults in the first place? Our bodies are our own, our experiences are our own, and our consent is our own to give.

The orientation model is one of the cultural factors that makes it hard to discuss sensory, sensual experiences without defaulting to sexuality. As commenter saurus pointed out on the Feministe version of part 1 of this post:

Sometimes I think that we have compulsions, needs or “fetishes” that aren’t sexual, but lumping them in with sexuality is sometimes the most convenient or socially manageable way to deal with them or get those needs met. They might even physically arouse us for a variety of reasons, but that might be a side effect instead of the act’s inherent nature. Which is not to say that every act can be cleanly cleaved into “sexual” and “non-sexual” — of course not. But I think we lack a language around these needs that doesn’t use sexuality. I see a lot of groundbreaking work coming out of the asexual and disability justice communities in this regard (which is just to say that I find the folks in these groups are churning out some incredible ways to “queer” conventional dominant ideas about sexuality; not that they never have sex or whatever).

I think one answer to that is to just open up the definition of sexuality to include these things, but as someone who identifies vehemently not as “sex positive” but as “sex non-judgmental”, I know I don’t personally want all my shit to be lumped in with sexuality. It just makes me picture some sex judgmental person insisting that “oh, that’s totally sexual.”

I, Clarisse, can certainly attest that it’s common for people to have BDSM encounters that are “just” BDSM — “no sex involved”. For example — an encounter where one partner whips the other, or gets whipped, and there’s no genital contact or even discussion of genitals. (I’ve written about such encounters several times, like in my post on communication case studies.) And I’d like to stress that when I have encounters like that, they can be very satisfying without involving sex. The release — the high — I get from a heavy BDSM encounter can be its own reward.

I’ve also had BDSM encounters where I got turned on …

… but I didn’t feel turned on until later, or afterwards, or until my partner did something specific to draw out my desire. For example — I remember that in one intense BDSM encounter as a domme, I wound up the encounter and pulled away from my partner. We had both been sitting down; I stood up and took off the metal claws I’d been using to rip him up. (Secretly, the claws were banjo picks. Do-It-Yourself BDSM is awesome.)

Then I leaned over my partner to pick something up. I had thought we were pretty much done, but he seized me as I leaned over, and he pulled me close and kissed my neck, and I literally gasped in shock. My sexual desire spiked so hard … I practically melted into his arms. And yet if you’d asked me, moments before, whether I was turned on … I would have said “no”.

One way to think about it might be that sometimes, BDSM “primes” me so that I’m more receptive to sexual energy. It’s not that BDSM is exactly a sexual turn-on in itself; sometimes it is, but that’s actually surprisingly rare. Yet BDSM often … gets my blood flowing? … and seems to “open the floodgates”, so sexual hormones can storm through my body.

And just in case this wasn’t complex enough for you … on the other hand, I’ve had BDSM encounters where my partner tried to take it sexual, and I wasn’t interested. It’s almost like there’s a BDSM cycle that I often get into, and once the cycle is sufficiently advanced, I can’t easily shift out of it.

Sometimes, when I’m near the “peak” of the BDSM cycle, then being interrupted for any reason — sex, or anything else — is absolutely horrible. I’d rather be left on the edge of orgasm, burning with sexual desire, than be hurt until I almost cry. The emotion becomes a stubborn lump in my throat; becomes balled up in my chest. At times like that, it almost feels hard to breathe.

A while back, a reporter named Mac McClelland who worked in Haiti made a splash by writing an article about how she used “violent sex” to ease her Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I briefly reported on the article for Feministe, but at the time, I didn’t share many of my thoughts about what she wrote. One thing I did say was that the reporter didn’t use any BDSM terminology — at least not that I spotted. She didn’t seem to conceptualize her desire for “violent sex” as a BDSM thing at all. Interestingly, a Feministe commenter named Jadey, who has experience with kink, also didn’t conceptualize the reporter’s article that way. Jadey wrote:

I don’t think she’s bad or wrong, and I don’t think her method of coping with her PTSD is bad or wrong. … [Yet] I’ve got a kink/BDSM background, but that’s not what she’s describing here. She’s talking about something far different, and I can’t understand the experience she describes with Isaac. It is … incomprehensible.

I want to stress here that I, Clarisse Thorn, have never been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (And I’ve undergone plenty of analysis, so I’m sure that if I had PTSD, someone would have noticed by now.) And just in case it needs to be said again, I’ll also stress that I have no intention of telling anyone else how to define their own experiences. And just in case it needs to be said again, there is a big difference between consenting BDSM and abuse; here is an article I’ve written about the distinction between consenting BDSM and abuse.

But unlike Jadey, when I read the original “violent sex” article, the reporter’s description of her encounter sounded a lot like some of my preferences … indeed, it sounded like some of the BDSM encounters I’ve had. For example, the reporter writes:

“Okay,” my partner said. “I love you, okay?” I said, I know, okay. And with that he was on me, forcing my arms to my sides, then pinning them over my head, sliding a hand up under my shirt when I couldn’t stop him. The control I’d lost made my torso scream with anxiety; I cried out desperately as I kicked myself free. … When I got out from under him and started to scramble away, he simply caught me by a leg or an upper arm or my hair and dragged me back. By the time he pinned me by my neck with one forearm so I was forced to use both hands to free up space between his elbow and my windpipe, I’d largely exhausted myself.

And just like that, I’d lost. It’s what I was looking for, of course. But my body — my hard-fighting, adrenaline-drenched body — reacted by exploding into terrible panic. … I did not enjoy it in the way a person getting screwed normally would. But as it became clear that I could endure it, I started to take deeper breaths. And my mind stayed there, stayed present even when it became painful …. My body felt devastated but relieved; I’d lost, but survived. After he climbed off me, he gathered me up in his arms. I broke into a thousand pieces on his chest, sobbing so hard that my ribs felt like they were coming loose.

… Isaac pulled my hair away from my wet face, repeating over and over and over something that he probably believed but that I had to relearn. “You are so strong,” he said. “You are so strong. You are so strong.”

Sounds extremely familiar to me.

Now, it’s not like I have BDSM encounters like that all the time; indeed, experiences of that type are relatively rare for me. But the reporter’s description doesn’t sound “far different” from what I’ve experienced. Certainly not “incomprehensible”. There’s only one big difference, actually: I’ve never had such an intense BDSM experience in which my partner also had penis-in-vagina sex with me. (I’m assuming the reporter means “penis-in-vagina” sex when she talks about “getting screwed”, but I could be wrong.)

Honestly, I’m not sure why I would want to combine vaginal sex with an experience like that. Vaginal sex strikes me, personally, as kinda incidental to what I’d get out of it. But maybe I’ll try it sometime and it’ll be the greatest thing in the world; we’ll see, I guess.

Sometimes I find that I’ve still got a “BDSM versus sex” distinction to work out, although I seem to have comfortably settled into the frameworks I’ve created. One of my very first blog entries, back in 2008, was called “Casual Sex? Casual Kink?“, and I spent the whole thing musing about whether I was more or less okay with casual BDSM than I was with casual sex.

These days, I find that I’m kinda okay with both casual sex and casual BDSM, but I much prefer those experiences within intimate relationships. Make no mistake, my friends: BDSM can include a great deal of love and connection … at least as much as sex.

To hammer the point home, let me tell you about what happened after I broke up with a much-beloved ex-boyfriend: Mr. Inferno. It was back when I was very focused on being monogamous with my partners. Mr. Inferno broke up with me, and a month or two later I had the chance to have an overnight BDSM encounter with another man, so I took it. There was no genital contact; the whole encounter was limited to this guy giving me orders, and hurting me until I cried.

But I remember, even as I slipped into the familiar emotional cycle, that I couldn’t let go: I couldn’t let go because I felt like I was betraying Mr. Inferno. He’d broken my heart, but on some level I felt like I still belonged to him. It was wrong, wrong, wrong for me to cry in someone else’s arms. The wrongness rang through me like a bell. It was so impossible, unbearable — all I could think was how it should have been Mr. Inferno. I choked on the tears. I couldn’t lose myself in them.

Later, I mentioned to my partner that one of my ex-boyfriends (not Mr. Inferno) had trouble dealing with my BDSM desires. “Ah,” my partner said. “That explains why you had trouble letting yourself cry.” I decided to nod; to let him think he knew what was blocking me off. It seemed simpler.

In the morning, I had breakfast with my partner. We hugged and split up, and I went for a walk until I found a local creek. I sat next to the creek and I closed my eyes and I let the helpless tears slip down my cheeks.

I’d felt (and I’d known others who felt) this way after the dissolution of a sexual relationship. But I had never imagined that such a reaction of intense bodily loyalty could apply to BDSM as well as sex. I hadn’t anticipated that I’d feel such heartbreaking, visceral loss just because I let another man hurt me.

So different, and yet so the same.

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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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