Bottoms Up: What Limits?

Being slapped in the face used to be one of my hard limits. I work hard for my skin to glow the way it does, and who has time for other people’s skin oils touching you, let alone marks? And what if someone saw it? I’m not trying to explain or justify my sex life to my colleagues (says the sex columnist). I was just fine with marks anywhere else on my body — but not on my face. Even the thought of it stressed me out. So nope, never, not gonna happen.

And then… Alex and I were playing together. I was being a brat and making her work at her domination. I kept teasing, “Is that all you’ve got?” I laughed in her face. I squirmed in my restraints. It was fun — we were playing with each other and our power dynamic and I was loving every moment. Right in the middle of things, she told me that I deserved to be slapped and I enthusiastically agreed.

The thought of being slapped used to fill me with fear. What if it hurt too much and I started to cry in the middle of sex? What if I hated it but couldn’t tell my partner? I didn’t want something to happen during sex that might turn me off from having any kind of sex ever again. But the thing about limits is that while some of them can be hard and fixed, sometimes even those ones can change.

Often, I kinkshame myself. Some of my limits have more to do with other people and what they’ve said than with me and the way I want to have sex. People don’t often think about how much their offhanded comments about sex can penetrate a person’s mind. I didn’t want to be slapped in the face because I didn’t want to deal with other people’s opinions of me and the way I have sex. Being slapped meant that there might be a mark, and if other people saw it, they might have questions. I was uncomfortable with the thought of having to answer questions about my sex life; how do you, say, explain to someone you only know in a professional context that you wanted your bruises?

However, by centering other people’s questions and opinions around a potential bruise, I was bringing other people into my bedroom and allowing them to determine my desires. The only people who belong in the bedroom with me during sex are the people I’m having sex with. Being in the moment is what makes sex exciting for me, and I can’t be in the moment if I’m wondering what Jan is going to think about my new marks.

Sex doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but what if during the act, it did? What if all I focused on during sex was consent and pleasure? What if I stopped thinking about what other people thought about the sex I was having and just thought about what I wanted from our sex? How might it become more authentic and enjoyable for me and my partner?

Thinking about kink and sex as a vacuum, at least in the moment, helps me when my inclination is to bring all of society into bed with me and my partner(s). When I really focus on my desires, limits change and shift because in the moment, sometimes you want something that you didn’t know you wanted before. If I’m only focused on my partner and our enjoyment of the experience, limits, even those I may have thought of as hard limits, can and do change.

But change doesn’t mean there can’t or shouldn’t be conversation. Alex didn’t just slap me in the face, and if she had, I probably would’ve immediately used my safeword and stopped our play. The way she brought it up gave me the opportunity to say no, or yes. It doesn’t always work that way — sometimes you need to talk things through totally separate from the act — but once in a while, at least for me, you need the experience to realize that you want to test a limit. That moment changed my feelings about getting slapped, but it wasn’t until I gave enthusiastic consent that she actually slapped me.

What I’m getting at is that in thinking critically about sex and kink, it’s important that we don’t just think critically about how our sexual activity functions within a greater society, but that we think about how it feels in our bodies and minds. For me, limits are often societally driven — this isn’t everyone’s truth, just mine — and thinking about them that way has made me more willing to try new things with partners I trust. When I let Alex slap me, I didn’t think about the worksheets I’ve got filled out about things I’m willing and not willing to try, I just felt excited. I let my excitement drive my decisions and it completely shifted the things that I thought I was into. Y’all sex is so much fun when it’s new and always changing. It’s fun when you let it be whatever it wants to be between you and your partner(s). I’m not going to let society kinkshame me into having boring sex and neither should you.

Editor’s note: Kinkshaming will not be tolerated in the comments. 

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Ari is a 20-something artist and educator. They are a mom to two cats, they love domesticity, ritual, and porch time. They have studied, loved, and learned in CT, Greensboro, NC, and ATX.

Ari has written 330 articles for us.


  1. “Sex doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but what if during the act, it did? What if all I focused on during sex was consent and pleasure?”

    You know, this is so much more to me than just worrying about what other people think. My mind never stops racing and I’m wired that way. I can’t focus as much as my Dom would like and it’s not my fault, but it’s something I often think about. What if it could just all fall away? Thankfully sometimes it does (as in subspace) and I spend a lot of time and effort trying to get there more often.

    I think a lot more of us let the outside world into our beds more than we realize and it’s a lot healthier to leave it behind and exist in that vacuum of sex and pleasure.

  2. I understand this sentiment. I do. It sounds nice. But if I show up to work with bruises people will literally assume I am being abused. If my partner shows up to work with bruises, people will think that I hit her (and not in a sexy way).

    I love to focus on my desires, but sometimes–frankly, often–our actual needs can clash with them. It’s a negotiation. Limits can be socially driven, but we are social animals. I have social as well as sexual needs. Literally nothing I am exists in a vacuum! I’m a whole person with a whole life. The only person who ever wanted me to act like nothing existed outside a given sexual moment was a crappy ex-boyfriend, and… he was crappy! This includes people I’ve both topped and bottomed for in a bondage-y context.

    • which is why this is something cool for me! and totally not for everyone! which is totally a cool thing! if i show up to school/work w/bruises, i feel comfortable saying i’m not being abused and leaving it at that and knowing my colleagues will believe me, but that’s only my truth!! thanks for sharing your perspective to the conversation :)

  3. I love thinking about kink as experimentation too – you get yourself in a situation with someone and you learn things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise just imagining what it might feel like. But it isn’t binding–you can have a limit and feel good in a moment, or take a sensation differently than you did before, or try something you don’t LIKE but you do WANT and learn all sorts about yourself (or service or bottoming or topping or whatever). Kink is beautiful and complicated and the best and gah. Complex emotional heart eyes for that kind of self discovery and challenge, even and especially to the parts I take for granted or thought I already understood.

  4. thank you for this!

    i lovelovelove seeing my most trusted people as people who will help me push my limits. i have so many more feelings but they are bubbling up inside of me and not yet words! good job articulating all of this!

  5. This interesting to me, as someone who has in certain scenes and certain headspaces enthusiastically consented to things that I felt weird about afterward. Which I don’t tend to think of as me kinkshaming myself, so much as a certain version of me engaging in particular activities is far more easily able to set aside baggage than me the rest of the time. I think there’s value in examining why something is a no, what makes it a no, what conditions create a no and what conditions allow for more flexibility. I think that can be another useful avenue for pushing limits, when we understand better why it’s a limit in the first place.

  6. “…in thinking critically about sex and kink, it’s important that we don’t just think critically about how our sexual activity functions within a greater society, but that we think about how it feels in our bodies and minds.”

  7. Ooh yes. There’s also non-kinky ways this plays out too. For a few years after some sexual assault trauma I was hit with vaginismus – penetration of any kind was too painful. Usually my sex partners would adapt by engaging in non-penetrative sex (which was fine as I generally preferred that anyway).

    One time though with my GF at the time we were fooling around and I suddenly felt this desire to be penetrated. Neither of us were sure if my body could handle it, but there was something driving me that night to try. I asked her if she was willing to give it a shot, she said yes, and we tried it.

    And for the first time in years, it worked and it wasn’t painful at all.

    I broke down crying afterwards. Not out of shame or guilt or whatever, but because this health condition I thought was a perpetual hard limit had broken down. I don’t even know what possessed me to try, once again, that night but it was healing in a most magical way.

  8. This is sooooo goooooood. Thank you for this! I especially loved: “Y’all sex is so much fun when it’s new and always changing. It’s fun when you let it be whatever it wants to be between you and your partner(s). I’m not going to let society kinkshame me into having boring sex and neither should you.”

    I also especially love face slapping, although it too was a hard limit for me for a while. :)

  9. thank you as always for sharing your thoughts and experiences. often, the standard for negotiation around boundaries and limits in kink suggest that renegotiation of someone else’s limits generally shouldn’t happen especially during play, due to the altered headspace that people get into etc. as a general recommendation, i would agree with and share this view. but i understand that experiences vary and people don’t do kink in one particular way. you mentioned trusting your partner and having some knowledge of how your limits are societally driven. would you say that there were other conditions/factors that led to you wanting/preferring/enjoying this kind of renegotiation? i’m quite interested in these sorts of ‘yes, howevers’ because i’d like the consent education that i’m part of to be nuanced enough to account for diversity in experiences and preferences while still being, well, good education in terms of sketching out standards for how to treat others.

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