I’ve often thought that BDSMers should talk more about our “failed encounters”. Sometimes the best way to learn is through “failure”, or by looking at others’ “failures”. But when a BDSM scene “goes wrong”, it’s often highly personal for everyone concerned. So it’s really hard to talk about and really hard to write about — both for the dominant and submissive partners. This is just like any relationship, really. After all, people rarely talk about their most embarrassing or awkward or otherwise difficult “mistakes made” during vanilla sex, right?
(I use phrases like “failed encounter” and “gone wrong” and “mistakes” with caution, because I think these situations can often be viewed as learning experiences, and therefore they are successful for a lot of purposes! But certainly in the moment they feel like screwups, and a lot of the time they can make the whole relationship very difficult, and I think that most people who have been through them feel as though some kind of failure happened … whether it was a failure of understanding, communication, empathy, caution, or something else.)
Much of the problem, I think, is that people have such a hard time communicating after serious miscommunications and mistakes.
The following quotation is from Staci Newmahr’s Playing At The Edge, an excellent ethnography of the BDSM community. (I’ve changed a few jargon terms so I don’t have to define them for you, but I left two terms I’ll be using throughout this entry: “top” and “bottom”. A top is a blanket term for a dominant and/or sadist. A bottom is a blanket term for a masochist and/or submissive.)
Sophie had been engaged in a long and intimate S&M relationship with Carl, a friend whom she deeply trusted. During the encounter she describes below, Carl changed his approach, and Sophie subsequently felt that Carl was somehow not quite himself. Sophie and Carl never quite recovered from the incident; though they remained friends and tried to do S&M again, it was, according to Sophie, never the same.
He was very much a rope top. That was his big thing, was tying people up. And he was excellent at tying people up. And our dynamic was always — I mean, yes, he would absolutely hurt me when the time came for that, but there was also always this element — even when he was hurting me, it was done in this incredibly, like, touchingly caring way. And especially when he was tying me up, it was this soothing, wonderful thing.
So one day … Carl starts an encounter with me. Carl had decided in his head, from all the things that he’s heard me say about how I play with another partner, that that’s what I really want from an interaction, in order for it to be the most gratifying and valuable. So we proceeded to have an encounter where Carl was not Carl. And I didn’t stop it because it was so like, I couldn’t understand what was going on. I couldn’t understand why it felt so horrible. And it wasn’t that I didn’t trust him, because I trust him completely. [ ... ] I just couldn’t figure out what the problem is, I felt horrible through the whole thing. And he was so out of touch with me that he wasn’t even aware of how horrible I was feeling. The encounter went on for some time … and the second it was over, I … was just, like, you know, traumatized. And he was like, “Oh my God, what’s wrong?” [and] he carried me into the other room. I said something like, “Where did my Carly go?” and then he started to cry. [ ... ] He’s like, “I was trying to give you this sadistic experience.”
In Sophie’s story, Carl’s risk backfires. … The risks were unsuccessful; each ended up emotionally distraught and distant. Ultimately, they sacrificed the relationship.
Man, that description is so intense. Let’s talk about it.
The first thing worth noting about Sophie’s story is that, while she probably had a safeword, she didn’t use it: she says that she “didn’t stop it.” Sometimes, in really confusing S&M scenes, submissives have trouble using their safewords. This does not mean safewords are worthless … but as Thomas MacAulay Millar puts it, “Tops can never be on cruise control.” Non-verbal signals matter, and if an S&M partner — top or bottom! — starts reacting in an unusual way, it’s great to check in with them even if they haven’t used their safeword. Safewords are a useful additional way of communicating about sex, but they can’t replace all communication.
Note also how hard the situation was on the top partner, not just the bottom. Carl ended up crying afterwards!
Next, what I find myself wondering is whether Sophie and Carl could have communicated past this incident. Sophie obviously trusted Carl, and presumably he trusted her. Could they have talked it out and had a successful relationship afterwards? It would have been hard, but maybe they could have done it.
I’ve (rarely) had similar experiences myself — where boundaries were severely tested, and afterwards it was difficult for both me and my partner to work through it. It can absolutely have an immense impact on the relationship. I write about this a bit in my awesome eBook, Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser (read reviews and buy it by clicking here). Here’s a quotation from a section in my book where I’m talking to a dominant partner, with whom I just had such a difficult encounter:
Sometimes, these things happen. One partner pushes a boundary, breaks it; maybe the boundary was unspoken; maybe the dominant misreads signals; maybe the submissive didn’t yet realize that the boundary was there. When it comes to S&M, these things can be so dramatic … yet sometimes they’re nobody’s fault. We find these mental and emotional blocks, and we call them landmines.
My partner didn’t hit the landmine on purpose. He wasn’t trying to push me as hard as he did. And I didn’t warn him off. So the important question becomes — how does one deal with such a situation afterwards?
… “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m really sorry. I never want to do that to you again.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “These things happen. But please do be careful. But don’t worry ….” I trailed off, trying to find words.
It’s so hard to know how to talk about this, especially with people who aren’t used to discussing S&M. When there’s a fuckup, sometimes both sides feel betrayed. The submissive might think: “Maybe I didn’t tell you exactly what to avoid, but sometimes it’s too much to think about, sometimes it’s hard to understand in the moment, sometimes I don’t know ahead of time. Okay, so I pushed myself too hard, but I did it because I’m so into you; I did it because, in that moment, I lost track of myself. And anyway, I thought you could read me. I thought you understood me. I thought you knew. You’ve read me perfectly well before; why not this time? Is it that you don’t care?”
Whereas the dominant might think: “Maybe I went too far, but I thought I could trust you to stop me. I thought I could trust you to tell me. I don’t want to harm you, I just want to push you; I want to break down walls with you. I want to see your eyes go deep and soft. It’s not fair for me to feel like I fucked up, because you fucked up, too. I thought you could take care of yourself. I thought you knew. You’ve communicated perfectly well before; why not this time? Can I rely on you?”
That particular relationship didn’t last, and I think that our most difficult encounter probably affected our trust for each other through the end. Still, I can tell you how we worked on it at the time — and I can tell you that it felt really good. We just listened to each other. And we both assumed that the other person had good intent. By the end of talking it out — which admittedly took a really long time; multiple days — I trusted him more than ever and I felt incredibly close to him.
I’ve been thinking a lot about classic feminist anti-abuse models, which describe how abusers accomplish abuse. One of the tactics abusers consistently use is Minimizing, Denying, and Blaming their partners. Abusers claim that the abuse didn’t happen; they claim it wasn’t important; they blame their partners for what happened.
A partner who is willing to listen and change will respond openly to criticism and to mistakes: a non-abusive partner will not minimize, deny, or blame.
And those three things are what my ex-partner did not do. He never claimed that our difficult encounter didn’t happen; he never put the blame on me; he never insisted that it was no big deal. He didn’t even come close to doing those things while we talked it through. He took his emotions and dealt honestly with them, and I did my best to do the same.
Also, in BDSM, we often talk about the concept of “aftercare”: that is, what we say and do after a BDSM scene to ground ourselves, bring ourselves back into the world, and connect with our partners. Aftercare is a huge topic; here is an excellent page full of advice on how to give good aftercare. It’s important to give careful aftercare after any BDSM encounter, but if the encounter has been particularly difficult, it’s doubly important. I have personally had good experiences leaving Super Intense Conversations like the one I describe above until post-aftercare, when all partners have calmed down and dealt with any immediate emotional responses.
I’m writing vaguely, so here are some concrete suggestions for things to say during the conversation after a difficult BDSM encounter:
“I still like you and think you’re a good person.”
“Do you want to talk about this now? If not now, then let’s set a concrete time for later.”
“I’m feeling really vulnerable and confused right now.”
“Why do you think that happened? How were you reading me, and what were you thinking as you responded to me?”
“How do we feel about this now that we’ve discussed it, and how can we keep it from happening again?”
“What have we learned about landmines? Are there any particular words or actions that are definitely off-limits from now on?”
I have one final super important caveat to add here: Not all “screwups” are actually screwups. Some are just plain abuse. A human-shaped predator will use words like “miscommunication” and “mistake” to cover up what they do. This post is focused on honest errors, but there are dishonest and evil people out there. In particular, if a person “keeps screwing up” … that’s a terribly bad sign. It is not an inherent part of BDSM to feel roiled up and confused and alienated after a BDSM encounter; most BDSMers feel more intimate and connected after successful encounters.
UPDATE, March 2012: I just found some notes that I took during a workshop about BDSM edgeplay that was run by Mollena Williams in late December. (Edgeplay is a term for BDSM activities that feel especially intense for the participants.) Mollena suggests some questions to ask beforehand:
Have I seen my partner do S&M before?
*What did they say or do that made me feel good and comfortable?
*What did they say that made me have an intense reaction? — Pass this information on to the partner ahead of time.
What does my gut feeling say about this person? — If you have a bad gut feeling about a person, listen to it! Especially for edgeplay.
Mollena also suggested that when BDSMers play at the edge, they “make a contingency plan” ahead of time … not just for the participants, but for everyone watching, since such activities often take place at dungeons. She noted that such a “contingency plan” might contain:
Honesty and thoroughness, of course
Each partner giving each other explicit permission to safeword
Each partner giving each other explicit permission for “things to not be okay” afterwards
Having someone on hand that each partner can talk to afterwards — not necessarily the same person for everyone involved. This person could be an observer, or might know everyone involved in the scene, or might be relatively separate from it all such as a kink-aware therapist, but the really important thing is that this person can give emotional support in every imaginable scenario.
Thanks, Mollena, for the workshop and the thoughts. I’ve never made such a contingency plan myself, but I definitely think it’s worth considering for people who are planning a heavy scene.