As a child, I used to love Sailor Moon. My friends and I would go outside and pretend to be different characters, defeating villains, mentally transforming into hyper-sexualized teenage schoolgirls as we roamed the playground, playing Sailor Moon. One day, I was headed out the door and told my mother (as I had done many times) that I was going outside to play SM (the natural abbreviation), and she responded, “I wish you wouldn’t say that.” When I asked her why, she said, “Because it sounds like you’re saying S&M.” Perplexed, I asked her what that was and she responded, “S&M is where people hit one another with chains for sex.”
This was 15 years ago, and although there is a greater understanding of BDSM in mainstream culture now than there was then, there is still this connection between BDSM, physical pain, and sex. And while that’s not necessarily incorrect, those are also incredibly separate things that are not automatically connected as a natural progression.
For some, kink is sexual; for others, it is not. For some, kink involves some level of physical duress; for others, it does not. To flatten our understanding of kink and BDSM to simply physical pain and sex creates a particular archetype that needs to be dismantled in order to discuss other ways that kink may manifest itself.
And that’s where I’m at today. I want to talk about a facet of kink that isn’t always discussed publicly because it’s a little edgier and
perhaps more difficult to grasp. Whips and chains, we can conceptualize because they are concrete nouns. We can imagine them as physical objects, conceptually understand how they might be used to inflict pain (even if we don’t understand the desire for it). We “get” the idea of physical masochism insofar as we have the capacity to grasp the logistics, but discussing psychological and emotional masochism can be much harder because it’s not a concrete idea. Inflicting “invisible” wounds is much more abstract and varies significantly from person to person.
I don’t like things that hurt without purpose. I have a fairly high pain threshold, but unless there is a reason why I am experiencing pain, something I can come back to in peak moment (e.g. when I’m getting a tattoo), then it becomes a lot harder for me to endure physical pain. So, for a long time, I didn’t identify myself as a masochist. Masochists like pain, and I don’t like pain, therefore…
Yet if we define masochism to be the act of deriving pleasure from pain, then we can further designate different ways in which a person is capable of experiencing pain: physical, emotional, and psychological.
This made me stop and think a bit further about how I relate to myself and my experiences of pain. Because I am such an analytical person whose brain never seems to shut off, I found that I am drawn to things that short-circuit my spinning thought process: either times where my emotions overtake my logic, or times when I am on edge and unsure what to expect next.
I am an emotional and psychological masochist. I like when someone can get inside my head and cause fear, play with my emotional responses, trip up my well-ordered thought process, convince me of something, and do it without needing to inflict a significant amount of physical pain.
That’s a tall order. I have to know someone well (most of the time) for that to be achievable, and I have to have a certain type of chemistry with them. I have to trust them explicitly to keep me safe, to push hard but know when they’re reaching a boundary. It’s a form of masochism, but one that is a lot harder to grasp at because it’s not a concrete thing that leaves concrete wounds.
But make no mistake, emotional and psychological masochism can still leave wounds.
That’s the part that I feel like isn’t talked about enough inside the scene. We talk about the importance of checking in with a bottom after a scene to make sure that they are doing ok, ensure that there is no lasting damage or harm, etc. It’s easy to tell if a cut gets infected or a joint is messed up or there is nerve damage. We can take stock of the physical pretty well, most of the time. But how do we care for the emotional and psychological wounds? How do we tell when something begins to fester? Where is the ointment we apply to an open memory?
Emotional and psychological masochism is tricky, because we have to know ourselves well enough to understand what generates certain responses and how to navigate the tricky landscapes of our own neural connections. Like understanding what parts of the body can accept certain types of impact, we have to understand which parts of our minds can accept a certain level of duress. We need to understand which emotions we are pulling from and how to get there without creating an emotional tether to the top where we then become dependent on them for our well-being.
And we need to understand how we care for the wounds we choose to inflict. We have to find ways of creating an emotional first-aid kit so that everyone feels safe afterward.
I just had a scene with someone a little over a week ago in which she asked for a certain level of emotional masochism, which included my walking away when the scene was “done” and allowing her to sit and cry and be in that space with no visible aftercare for a period of time. I found, throughout that scene, that was the hardest part for me: walking away and holding space while she cried alone. And yet, that is what she asked for and that is what she needed. A few days ago, we got together for breakfast to talk: talk about how she was doing, talk about how I was doing. It was amazing, as the top in that scene, to be able to sit with her and talk about the scene: what was hard for me, what came up for me, how I felt and responded at certain points. The reality is, emotional and psychological masochism can be just as difficult on a top as it is on the bottom, and (while I believe in having space for aftercare for all parties if they want/need it, regardless of role in any scene), I have never had so poignant an example of a time when, as a top, I needed to be able to have some aftercare.
When I do impact topping, my aftercare is usually checking in with the bottom a couple days out and making sure that they are doing ok. I feel safe and cared for knowing that I helped create space for someone else to feel safe and cared for. In this kind of scene, though, it was really amazing to have the space, as a top, to talk about what that scene brought up for me and how I responded to it emotionally. In having that conversation with her, I was able to care for my own invisible wounds to ensure that they were well-cared for and properly bandaged. It also gave me a sense of what I ask for when I ask other people for intense, emotionally taxing scenes. It allowed me to add some tools to my own emotional first aid kit to be able to better care for the wounds that I am comfortable receiving.
Anyway, the point of all of this is to say, kink can be amazing. It can be an incredibly cathartic way to deal with trauma and stress, it can be an amazing tool to understand and deconstruct thought processes and perspectives, and it can be a powerful way to heal and grow as a person. But we can’t limit our understanding of kink to simply the physical, nor can we ignore the impact and implications of negotiating and navigating emotionally difficult scenes. They can be incredibly important, powerful, and fulfilling scenes… but they can also leave wounds deeper than any flogger. Creating an emotional first-aid kit (which must include a level of self-awareness and honesty) is vital to ensuring that we can navigate the scene in ways that are fun, safe, and fulfilling for everyone- regardless of whether you top or bottom.
(Cross-posted to FetLife)