Yes, it’s another article about abuse and S&M, but I’m going to cover a lot more than that. I’ll talk about intimacy and bodily reactions and how these things build a relationship — whether consensual or abusive. And I’ll talk about how to deal with them, too.
Last year, I received an email from a woman who wanted to talk about sexual desire that exists alongside real abuse. She has been abused, but she is sexually aroused by S&M, and she struggles with boundaries a lot. She wrote to me:
Here’s what destroys you: that some of us are designed to shut down and feel terror and horror and arousal and shame all at the same time, to crumple before horrible people, to feel aroused even as they genuinely destroy you. This is not in any one’s best interest. It’s not hot, it’s not awesome. And yet it’s there.
The worst pain for some of us, that makes you want to scream and not exist and makes you want to scream to the heavens that you want to die and escape being in your own body is not that you are afraid he will come back. It’s that you are aroused by the possibility that he will. And other than destroying your very self, you can’t stop it. It is the cruelest of design flaws and the worst people understand it and the most compassionate people don’t.
However, the conclusion is not that some people want abuse. By definition, abuse is something that destroys you, that leaves you feeling violated and harmed in a way you don’t want. And part of that mechanism, that involves the desire for the abuse to continue, is that many of us are designed to want more intimacy once intimacy has been initiated with a person. Many of us don’t want to be left.
And the agony of feeling harmed by being left by someone you never wanted to be there in the first place is confusing and can be debilitating.
No one wants to be harmed in this way. Among abuse survivor communities the arousal involved in abuse situations is often called “body betrayal,” but this doesn’t seem to encompass how deep the desires can be for some people. At the root, the desires are often the same desires that fit into normal healthy intimate relationships. To be loved, to have an ongoing interaction, to be seen and understood at the root of all your emotion, to be taken sexually and feel the pleasure of another enjoying your sexual arousal. But these emotions have been exploited and manipulated for the gain of others.
For some number of people who have experienced abuse, the greatest split within the self does not simply come from how horrific the acts themselves were but from the feelings of desire and pleasure that can happen in human beings even during horrific unwanted acts. For some of us, BDSM can be a safe way to explore unpacking some of this desire and how these arousal patterns got mixed up with horrific things — or were already hooked up to horrific things and that pre-existing fact was exploited by a harmful person. And for some of us, taking that out and playing with it may not be a necessary part of recovery at all.
But simply knowing this — the fact that your arousal and pleasure systems can be activated by harmful people is ok — it does not mean you want it, it does not mean that it was good for you, or that anyone should have treated you in that way. That can be the greatest healing in and of itself.
I want to thank her for allowing me to publish her words. Her description is so far from how I usually discuss or experience S&M; and yet I see connections, too, and people rarely discuss those connections.
A while back, a study came out that established that a consenting, positive S&M experience increases a couple’s intimacy afterwards. I cite that study all the time, but I still find its existence kinda absurd; I mean, they could have just asked us how it felt. On the bright side, if S&M is being studied by Real Researchers, it’s a sign that S&M is becoming more widely accepted. Yet for all its hormone level measurements and mood surveys, I didn’t feel like the study got anywhere near the heart of S&M and how S&M creates such extraordinary intimacy. Why would it? Studies are science, and aftercare is art.
I’ve previously defined aftercare as “a cool-down period after an S&M encounter, which often involves reassurance and a discussion of how things went.” That’s a decent quick definition, but there’s a lot more to it. Bodily violence sometimes creates a mental malleability and vulnerability that can be used in good ways … but also in terrible ways. I see aspects of this in competitive sports, especially the ones that involve fighting and hurting other people very directly. (Have you ever seen that phenomenon where two guys fight each other and then become Best Friends right afterwards?)
Being together with an S&M partner during aftercare can be used to free people, to make them feel amazing and establish extraordinary intimacy. But it can hurt people too; it can hurt them terribly.
Aftercare, like subspace, is one of the most mysterious parts of S&M. Like subspace, a lot of S&Mers describe aftercare in nigh-mystical language. One excellent page of aftercare advice begins by saying:
Aftercare is the last act of the SM drama. It is the culmination, the pulling together of all loose ends, the finishing touches, the final communion between sharers of the SM ritual, the phase where the participants formally give the fantasy scene a context in everyday reality. Its technical purpose is to transition both players from the elevated states created in a scene [i.e., an S&M encounter] back into normalcy, returning to the motor control and awareness they will need to drive home once the scene is over. But as any good SM practitioner will tell you, it’s much more than that. It is the time after the action when the participants come together in mutual affirmation that something special was created and shared. It is when affection and closeness is offered and sought. It is, at very least, the proper time to express thanks to the person who has shared this tiny segment of your life with you. It can be, and often is, the most beautiful part of a scene, and it is part of the scene. To skip it altogether is as rude as having dinner at a friend’s house and then bolting once you’ve eaten your fill.
Aftercare is not always extraordinary, the same way S&M isn’t always extraordinary. Not everyone wants or needs aftercare, although if you “don’t do aftercare,” that’s something to warn your partner about ahead of time.
I guess from the outside, aftercare often looks like a combination of snuggling and chatting and giggling — sometimes, crying and/or comforting. From the inside, though, aftercare can feel like … a shot of pure empathy. Blissful connection. Words like “basking” and “glowing” and “transcending” come to mind. As someone said to me when I was first getting into S&M: “Very few S&Mers actually enjoy giving or receiving pain. What they like is where pain gets them.”
I believe that S&Mers should try very hard to put boundaries around our S&M interactions; we should work to communicate carefully, and compartmentalize what we do. Consent, and well-communicated boundaries, are the factors that separate S&M from abuse. I talked about those boundaries in my most recent post about S&M and abuse, and I also talked about them in my post about what happens after an S&M encounter “gone wrong.” I’ve written about S&M communication tactics that enable communication and boundary-setting, from safewords to checklists to keeping simultaneous journals.
I’ve also written about the psychology of S&M, including the existing research on how some people use S&M to explore past abusive experiences. It’s worth noting that the biggest and best-designed study on S&M found that there is no correlation between abusive experiences and S&M desires. In other words, there is no evidence that abuse creates a desire for S&M — but there’s also nothing wrong with people who use S&M to process past trauma.
Aftercare is part of the S&M boundary-setting process, but a lot of the time, people have a hard time thinking or speaking clearly right after S&M. Some people become incredibly non-verbal, or vague and confused, or giggly, or all of the above. For this reason, some people include later follow-ups (like a next-day phone call) under the umbrella of “aftercare” — the goal is to allow the post-S&M time to be calming and un-challenging, and then talk things through when everyone’s head is clearer. Processing things thoroughly after an S&M encounter is really important, especially if the people involved are planning to do it again. It’s important for two reasons: it helps the people involved get a better sense of what they want and don’t want; and it helps them learn more about how to communicate with their partners.
Recently, I was privileged to give a partner his first heavy S&M experience. Afterwards, when he was coming out of it, he said to me: “No one has ever touched me so deeply, so fast before.” I lay with him, listening. I’m pretty sure I did a good job helping him pick up the pieces, but when I try to figure out what I did, I have trouble describing it.
So I wouldn’t know how to give a step-by-step “how to” for aftercare, but I can offer some thoughts. For one thing, the person who was dominant during the encounter is usually the person who runs the aftercare, too. When I’m in the dominant role, the message I try to get across during aftercare is along these lines: “I’m here, I’m listening, I care about you, you’re safe with me, and you can take all the time you need.”
In the submissive position, I’m often too busy processing to think carefully about what message I’m getting across to my partner. But sometimes I do get the sense that he’s confused or anxious or needs some feedback, at which point I try to get across a message along these lines: “I care about you and I’m so grateful to you for taking on that power just now. If you need to talk, we will do that when I’m more alert. But for now, let’s please just be here together and establish our closeness.”
And when I’m switching — or when the power dynamic is otherwise unclear — well. I guess I try to get across a combination of those messages.
I used to be more willing to do S&M “on the first date,” when I barely knew my partner. That’s changed for two reasons. Firstly, I’ve become much warier of doing S&M without a strong foundation to the relationship. I’ve been lucky, because my partners have treated me so well, even the casual ones. (As more stories of S&M and abuse become public, I realize more and more how lucky I’ve been.) But I don’t ever want to be in a position where I do intense S&M and I can’t rely on my partner afterwards; and the best way to build a reliable foundation is to spend lots of time together before we get into anything deep.
Secondly, I’ve become more aware of how quickly S&M can affect me. It’s entirely possible to do excellent, intense S&M with someone I can’t trust. And if that happens, then boom: I’ll be intensely bonded to him, yet unable to trust him. It’s not a good place to be. There are some kinds of S&M that feel light or even impersonal to me, but when I do things that feel intense … the bond forms so fast, and it’s so incredibly strong. I swear it’s a chemical thing. My body will crave him beyond words, even if my brain knows he’s a terrible idea.
I once heard about a woman who won’t allow herself to have orgasms during casual sex, because she knows the orgasm itself will bond her to her partner. I don’t experience orgasms that way. But when a partner really puts me under with S&M, pulls me in deep, and then he gives me aftercare while I surface? That’s where I fall in love.
I’ve heard of polyamorous S&M relationships in which the primary relationship disallows S&M with non-primary partners. I can certainly understand wanting to reserve that for the primary relationship. I’ve also heard of polyamorous S&M relationships in which the partners can do S&M with outside partners … but won’t allow aftercare with outside partners. I can understand that even better.
In late 2010, I cross-posted an article about an intense S&M experience to the blog Feministe. In the article, I included these words:
There it was. I felt the tears building, gasps torn from my throat, I felt myself starting to fall apart and reform: around him, around his guidance and force and demands. Almost unable to think. Until finally he relented and said my name, and said softly, “Come back,” and ran his hand reassuringly down my hair.
There it was: the reason I want it so much.
In response, a commenter named FormerWildChild wrote:
For some of us, the idea of being hit by another person makes us want to jump up and run out of our skin. It seriously wigs us out. It is not a moral judgment; is a true phobia for another person. It reminds me of when we were at the un-civilized end of Grand Canyon with our children. All that stood between my kids and certain death was inches of loosely packed sand. When we were done sightseeing, I discreetly walked behind the van and threw up until I could breathe again.
I had that same terrified feeling when I read about your account of your last session. I wanted to go wrap a blanket around you, hold you in my arms and feed you tea and cookies until I can finally breathe again.
And my fear is not because I fail to really “get” what you experience. It comes from an absolute recognition of what you describe.
I have experienced what you described at the end of your BDSM session, the breaking and reforming of yourself around someone. I have felt exactly what you are talking about, that feeling of finally letting go, of surrendering, and the other person sensing that you are finally there, and then stopping. I have felt the sweetness of those moments of post-thrashing closeness when tenderness seems to hover in the room. I know the feeling of intense closeness which can follow the next day. The air is filled with a cathartic cleanness, the experience of inflicting pain and of receiving pain has cleared the air better than any southern thunderstorm. I can even imagine coming to crave that feeling in the way that you describe.
But I experienced all of those feelings as a child. What you described is precisely what it feels like when an abuser truly lets loose and keeps going until “it” breaks, until there is that moment of catharsis for both the beaten and the person doing the beating. In my experience, those relationships are like playing along the end of the Grand Canyon: people fall in, and they die.
Now, I am willing to believe two things: one, it is possible that my mother and other abusers are actually engaged in a form of BDSM rape when they beat the people that they love. Just as sex is the overpowering and taking of something that should be beautiful and intimate, so beating a loved one to catharsis might just be the same sort of thing. Perhaps that is something that abuse experts should look at.
I am also willing to believe that you have an invisible fence as you play along the edge of your own personal Grand Canyon. I am willing to believe that you know how to be there without falling into the abyss. But if that is the case — that it is safe for you out there, and that I simply need to accept that. Then I will ask you to accept the fact that I will need to go behind the van and toss my lunch.
At first I was frustrated by that comment, because all I could see was someone saying “I want to throw up when I read about your sexuality,” and I was like: grrr. But now I look at that comment, and I see such important points, points that are utterly crucial to the developing language that distinguishes S&M from abuse.
I will say first that I have never personally survived that kind of abuse. But I have received emails from people asking me to write about this, over and over, and I hope that I can help those folks by offering my thoughts. I have also spoken to some abuse experts who tell me that, behind closed doors, they do talk about this: they discuss how the existence of real desire, real catharsis, and real intimacy within an abusive context can look terrifyingly similar to descriptions of S&M encounters.
Rape survivors of all genders sometimes experience physical pleasure and even orgasm while being assaulted. A paper about this was published in the 2004 Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine, and there are plenty of first-person accounts around the Internet. Here’s an explicit and tremendously saddening quotation from one of them:
I kept physically fighting him off and telling him that though I respected him as my pastor and as a father figure I wanted him to stop. He pushed me, tore my clothes and raped me. … The pain was incredible as they were very rough and forceful. After what seemed like forever I blacked out. I remember the pastor shaking me hard and slapping me across the face. He then shoved down my throat ten or so Excedrin (a medicinal mixture of pain killer and caffeine) so that I would stay awake.
One of the most disturbing things that happened that night is that I had an orgasm. Despite years of marriage, it was my first orgasm ever. It really confused me. I thought some part of me must be mentally sick to have experienced the pleasure of an orgasm during this horrific trauma.
Here’s the thing about consent: orgasm is not consent. Physical pleasure is only the body’s reaction to certain types of stimulation. Also: sexual desire is not consent. And love isn’t consent, either. If I feel sexual desire for my partner, and my body feels good when he touches me, and I love him, yet I make it clear that I don’t want to have sex right now … then he’s still violating my consent if he has sex with me. (Obviously, if I want to say “no” and mean “yes,” then it’s my responsibility to negotiate that ahead of time and set a safeword.)
In short: There can be pleasure, desire, and even love existing alongside real abuse. But that doesn’t mean it’s not abuse. This is as true with S&M as it is with non-S&M sex.
I once spoke to a person who referred to himself as an abuser, who told me that he’d read descriptions of S&M aftercare, and that he saw his own tactics within them. He told me when he thought about it, he had always considered it to be “brainwashing.”
And I can see it. That’s the scary part. I really can see it. I can believe that when we have powerful S&M experiences, we tap into the same parts of our brains that could otherwise be used for psychological manipulation and destruction. S&M shows us how to create and utilize enormous mental vulnerability through violence … and vulnerability can always be abused. In the literature exploring the cycle of abuse, people often write about the “reconciliation phase,” in which the abuser is all sweetness and light to their victim; I can’t help but wonder how much of the “reconciliation phase” could be recognized as non-consensual aftercare. How much of an abuser’s power over their victim might come from the mental malleability that cautious S&Mers learn to respect?
This does not mean that our bodies are broken. The woman whose words I published at the top of this article called it “the cruelest of design flaws and the worst people understand it and the most compassionate people don’t.” But we don’t have to perceive this as a flaw — it’s not a flaw any more than orgasms are a flaw. Some S&M instructors compare S&M mental states to “altered states,” like being drunk; there’s nothing wrong with being drunk, but people should be careful with alcohol. Our bodies are instruments with certain powers and vulnerabilities that we must respect.
This power and vulnerability is one of the biggest reasons I do the writing that I do. Because although they’re invisible, I do have a sense of the fences that FormerWildChild talked about when she commented at Feministe: the fences that keep S&Mers from falling into the Grand Canyon of abuse. Those invisible fences around the canyon are constructed from self-awareness, self-esteem, respect, and consent.
How do we build fences around the canyon? We build them by seeking to understand our desires, and talk openly with our partners, and respect our partners’ limits. So I write about communication and self-examination and learning to value my boundaries… and I hope it will help people learn what it means to play at the edge, rather than falling into the canyon.
This is scary, loaded, complicated territory. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I have ideas on how we might begin finding answers from here.
Firstly, S&Mers and feminists both need to be aware of this emotional and biological phenomenon. It can create a sense of overwhelming intimacy with unexpected partners. And it can be used as a tool by abusers who groom relationships that started consensually into abusive relationships.
Secondly, we must keep talking about communication and boundary-setting. I’ve put a ton of links in this article. An important part of this discussion is openly discussing what happens when well-intentioned S&Mers screw up, and how we deal with that. Again, I wrote about that in “What Happens After an S&M Encounter “‘Gone Wrong.'” Thomas MacAulay Millar has a great post that lists the mistakes that can happen within S&M. He mentions, for example, that sometimes there are genuine physical “technical” errors; sometimes people also hit “landmines” or unexpected psychological problems (I also covered this in my post). Talking openly about screwups makes it harder for abusers to claim that they “just screwed up.”
Thirdly, within our communities, we need to spread the word — especially to people who we believe might be inexperienced or vulnerable or otherwise in a position to have this used against them.