Last night, my partner and I got into a really awesome conversation about psychological play and the ways it in factors into our relationships. After meandering through our semi-deconstructionist way of teasing apart concepts and ideas, we came to this somewhat central point: almost all the sex that either of us have is a form of psychological play.
Which seems like a strange thing. It’s just sex (as though anything in the kink scene is “just” anything). But the truth is, some of the hardest, edgiest, most mentally challenging things I do look, to anyone watching from the outside, probably look vanilla- possibly boring, even.
Like many folks- particularly folks who have been socialized female, though I’d imagine the experience spans across genders- I’ve spent a considerable amount of time as a sexual person dealing with expectation and sexual pressure. The sense of “owing” someone sex, the sense that refusing sexual advances might be damaging and/or dangerous and finding ways to diplomatically refuse or, when needed, acquiesce to mitigate consequences. The sense that one person’s needs supersedes another person’s comfort. Being a people-pleaser, disliking conflict, not feeling empowered to say “no”… all of these things, together, make sex feel significantly more loaded. Add in a high sex drive and everything gets really messy really fast.
As anyone who has slept with me on a consistent (or semi-consistent) basis knows, I have an incredibly difficult time instigating sex. It’s almost easier if I don’t know someone well; I assume that if we’re fucking, it’s because we want to be (plus the nice surge of endorphins gives a nice boost). But when it’s someone I’m in any kind of ongoing relationship with, I start worrying about expectations. Particularly because I have this delightful habit of long-distance relationships, there is this conceptually pressurized situation where you only have a limited amount of time with someone, and you want to fully enjoy that time spent together… but what if one of you isn’t feeling it? On one hand, it feels…hard… to not be able to be intimate during that time, but on the other… life and circumstances and mental health and trauma and bodies and all the various things that can upset sexual dynamics don’t really work on convenient timelines, which is something I am always hyper-aware of.
Last night, my partner and I were talking about both the difficulty in teaching “how-to’s” for psychological play and the mental gymnastics we both have to do to be able to have fulfilling sexual relationships. It’s one of the reasons that, when we are feeling sexually connected and strong, our sex life is vibrant and complicated and fucked up and awesome. And also why it’s incredibly easy for us to fall into ruts and impasses with each other- because sex is hard and complicated and fraught with trauma and history and fear and shame and all sorts of stuff for both of us. And we can’t always push ourselves- and each other- through those things.
Instigating sex is one of the most mentally difficult things for me to do. My body and mind go through a series of start/stops that make it clunky and awkward and really, not particularly sexy at all. I recognize a stirring sensation, a desire, something. I immediately shut it down without thinking, a sense of “this really isn’t the time” or something similar. And then I slowly, so slowly, start to unpack it. If I can come up with any clear or obvious reason or justification why something might be unwelcome on the other end, full stop (an easy example: if I know someone is at work and they haven’t explicitly invited, say, sexy pictures while they’re working, I’m not going to instigate that- where “instigate” includes “asking if I can do this thing”).
Supposing that’s not true, though, then I move on to calibrating desire: how much do I want this thing? There’s a sweet spot in the middle- if I don’t want it enough, I won’t have the drive to push through the rest of the process. If I want it too much, rejection is going to be harder, and I don’t like asking for things when “yes” and “no” don’t feel fairly equal (for example, if a “not right now” would send me into a self-conscious tailspin that someone else is then going to have to deal with, that feels manipulative and not-cool, and those are times that I don’t ask). But there’s a window, in the middle, one wherein I want it enough to push through the mental process, but don’t want it so much that hearing “no” is more difficult than hearing “yes.”
Assuming I’m in that sweet spot (is this starting to feel a lot like a flowchart of sorts? It’s really a wonder that I ever get laid), then I might slowly, very slowly, start to express that in small ways. A hand movement, a shift, something. And then stop. Wait. See how that is received, see what the reaction is. Positive, maybe move a little more, shift a little more. Any indication that that’s not a reciprocated desire, full stop. Neutral… stop, think, reevaluate.
And so on. Wash, rinse, repeat, until the other person either clearly indicates interest or clearly indicates disinterest. Seriously. It’s a wonder that I ever get laid because this mental process is long and exhausting and hard. Left up to me, I would wait forever for other people to instigate things every time, but I recognize (a) that I have serious trust issues manifesting as sexual avoidance and (b) that’s pretty unfair to put the weight of instigation on the other person all the time.
So what does any of this have to do with psychological play? The thing is, that kind of play is intensely personal and subjective to the people playing. So while I might cackle and laugh and snark through, say, a kidnapping scene, what makes it fuck with my head is the concern that people are going to get bored, or worried that I’m taking time away from other things they would want to be doing. And while I can fuck someone for hours and be totally into it, a part of me wonders if they’re doing it because they think they have to, if I was pushy or come off as feeling entitled to their body in any sort of way.
Because psychological play is subjective. It gets into the fears and insecurities of a person, and those are highly specific. It gets into what makes a person move and think and act the ways that they do, gets into defense mechanisms and survival tactics and sometimes trauma and emotional triggers. So what might be easy and obvious to one person is going to make another person curl up in a quivering mass of terror. What looks incredibly boring and possibly vanilla to one person is going to be the most intense, fucked up thing to another.
There isn’t really a good way to teach people how to read other people, how to know which buttons to push, and when, and how. There are some days that I can play with my own shit around instigating sex and sit in that discomfort and know that that struggle is part of the scene… and there are other days where I have to look at someone and say, “I can’t do this today; I need your help if you want something to happen.”
Because sex feels like psychological play so much of the time. Getting me out of my head to where I’m not worried about whether I’m taking too long (or not long enough), worried about what my body looks like or is doing, worrying about whether I’m doing something right, worrying about whether someone is only doing something because they feel pressured to, or feel like it’s expected, worried about…
It doesn’t stop. And pushing through those fears, those worries, those, concerns, those things that make my stomach clench and make me grit my teeth and bury my face and pause after every infinitesimally small movement and struggle with words…playing with those things is a form of psychological masochism. It’s not the only form, and it’s not the only way I play with that, but it is one way. My own internal discomfort with desire makes sex that much more appealing because, hi, emotional and psychological masochist here.
I think it’s all too easy to get caught up in the big, flashy things. The things that look crazy and hard and intense. The things that look pretty, that look like what we think kink is “supposed” to look like. It’s easy to get caught up in those things, but the truth is, everyone’s edgeplay is different. I can pull out knives all day and not think twice about it, but I can’t instigate sex without jumping through fifteen different mental hoops to convince myself that it’s ok.
Because sometimes the simplest, smallest things have the greatest impact. Because sometimes nuance does more than the big, obvious scenes. Because knowing your sexual partners inherently lends itself to deeper, more fulfilling sexual relationships- even for me, maybe especially for me, because the better I know you, the more I know you, the more these things spin around in my head. Because these things don’t come up until we are in an ongoing sexual relationship (maybe this is part of why I’m so terrible at the “defining the relationship” conversation). Because sometimes psychological play is interrogations and CNC, and sometimes it’s as simple as asking, “What do you want?”