Sadomasochism & Mental Health: Boundaries

This is part of a series combining personal writing from the author with real conversations between friends and community members on the intersections between SM, mental health, identity and our interior lives. Read the rest of the series here.

Danielle Blunt is a professional dominatrix and public health researcher. She can be found on Twitter, Instagram, and Onlyfans.

Kolby Brianne is a Black Leatherdyke and leatherworker. She is a recently late-diagnosed autistic woman, and can be found on Instagram @kolbybrianne.

Hunny Daniels is a professional submissive and printmaker. They can be found on Twitter @hunnydaniels and on Instagram @littlehunnypot.

“Think of it as labor which gives birth,” writes Don Perry in his essay ‘Reflections on Sadomasochism and Race’ that appeared in the Fall 1994 issue of Black Leather in Color. The facets of sadomasochistic practice can allow for profound possibilities to occur, and enable us to express ourselves in ways we never could (or never dreamt of) before and outside of kink. Perry continues, writing that S/M allows for “an authenticity in feeling and emotion”, an all too familiar soul-baring process which brings us closer in alignment to our most vulnerable selves. Those manifold and messy parts of ourselves, which we feel ashamed of and focused on addressing in equal measure, are intimately wrapped up in our growth. By being pushed to our very limits, we can know the power of growth.

At first, I thought the San Andreas fault had slipped, cracking the windows on every car in the lot all at once. That first time I said no and really meant it, I heard a pane of glass shatter in my head, an upheaval of my autonomic nervous system that had been so diligently trained to people please. There had been small no’s – answers to inquiries about whether I was hungry, whether I needed anything at the corner store, or if I wanted another hit. But in the parking lot of a bagel store that we had gone to nearly every morning, I finally told someone who was about to become my ex-partner, No. I didn’t want to figure out a new way to try making the Us that had been occurring for nearly three years continue. No, I didn’t think there was anything we could do to adequately address the grievances either of us had. Those two letters are enough of an answer when you just want something to end. And I allowed myself, for the first time, to open my mouth when every ounce of my body was straining against me, and say the word that had been caught in my teeth for so long.

Two years later, my legs were spread open, and someone who I had just picked up from the airport was kissing and nibbling their way down my thighs, edging ever closer. I could feel my breath starting to quicken and catch, anxiety compressing my chest. My voice caught somewhere between my tongue and my lips, the awful hot sensation of unspoken words like cigarette ash in my mouth. Feeling like I was about to combust, my mouth creaked open and I let out a no, loud enough that they could hear from their vantage point between my legs. The person I had left in that bagel shop parking lot would often bite my inner thighs as a part of our play, and somatically I couldn’t stomach it – I still can’t. This time, it was like the thin wood of a pencil snapping. Each time the no gets a bit less cumbersome, and feels a bit easier to sweep up the broken pieces of. In allowing myself to say what I didn’t want, I taught myself to ask for exactly what I did.

KB: I guess when I think about kink roots, I don’t know if I’ve always had one, but I think I can say that I’ve always been a curious person. And I’m a person who started puberty really early, so I didn’t really have a choice at being read as a sexual person from a young age. But I think I should have realized I was kinky a long long time ago, because it didn’t seem salacious or scandalous, it just seemed like a really cool thing, but I filed that away. [laughs] And so later in life, I started thinking “Oh I wish I could be a kinky person, it seems like they have so much fun!” And after I found kink, and I was reading a book on the subject, this line “Most people don’t wish they were something that they’re not. So if you’re wishing to be kinky, you probably are.” I was explaining it to my partner recently, that it felt like a missing puzzle piece, that I didn’t even know I was missing until it was there. Kink is something that I can contextualize my life around, around eroticism generally, and that felt so at home in my brain. That I can have a container for a thing, that it is healthy to have a container for things. The way I separate things out in my brain is not necessarily considered “healthy” so the healthiest way to engage with [kink] felt like, “I can put it in this container, and then play with it in the container, so that it can stay in the container.”

SJ: It’s a good brain organization tool, it’s like building a filing cabinet in your head, full of, you know, perversion.

HD: Kink and my control, and the way that they informed one another, happened in so many expansive ways. I also have OCD, and there’s several points in every day when I;m doing something, and I feel weird about it. And I feel judged for needing those things that others might not. I’m also autistic, and do not communicate the same as everyone else. When people present this sort of neurotypical model of “This is how a person is, this is how they communicate, this is how you have successful relationships.” I couldn’t do any of that, and it made me feel really broken. Then coming into spaces when everyone is doing weird shit, and we’re all like “Fuck yea!” In those spaces, my needs are my needs, and your needs are your needs. You never have to explain why your hard limit is your hard limit, and you don’t need to know why mine is mine. Especially in sex, before I found kink, it felt really out of control. I wasn’t getting to have the kind of sex that I wanted to have, I didn’t get to enjoy it, I just existed in this process in which sex happened. And now I get to have this weird beautiful sex, because I get to say “I don’t like this typical thing,” or “That doesn’t do much for me.” I have the words to express my needs, particularly with sensory processing stuff. Even in kink, like, I don’t do bodily fluids. I know that’s kind of unheard of for a lot of kinky people, like spit is one of the most popular languages for kinky people. But fluids just trigger this onset of thoughts that I have no control over, and now I’m not enjoying myself. Kink has shifted so much of my mindset, like in my life before kink I didn’t understand boundaries. You could have explained them to me a thousand different ways but if people tried, I couldn’t understand, like “You don’t do what people tell you to do?” And because of kink I get to be submissive, I love being a service bottom and taking care of people, but because of kink I don’t have to feel like it’s not my choice. I get to understand myself in every context and stand in my truth. And you don’t get that in many spaces, for knowing yourself, even if it’s not what they’re used to.

There is an unmitigated beauty in getting exactly what you want. When your drink order at a coffee shop is exactly right, or the sublime experience of a date going as good as you envisioned it would. Even the celebration of turning someone into a human footstool and deliberately ignoring them while you laugh along with friends is so joyous, so long as the footstool sees furniture-ification as their personal joy. When there is an expectation that everyone gets exactly what they want, and knows how to ask for what they need, what sort of possible happinesses are made imminent? There is such an elaborate pain in the deferment of one’s own wants for the assumed benefit of another. Just as troubling as pretending that my personal anxiety is indicative of a stranger’s thoughts or feelings, and that any action I take could step on their hypothetical toes, so too is imagining that the martyrdom of my wants enables someone else’s joy.

Not to say that there isn’t the possibility for incredible sex, delicious meals, or lovely evenings when not every individuated need is met. But the scenes I have had with partners who have explicitly stated how they would like to be hurt, and who continue to negotiate that mutual experience of pain given and received while it occurs, have been the most transcendent. When I know specifically what button someone wants me to press, and not just the sort of assumed neighborhood that that button might be in, I am explicitly certain that everyone is getting what they want. Even in a scene that takes on roles, knowing the difference between someone who wants a disciplinarian Mother, and someone in search of a caring Mommy who knows exactly what you need to feel good, is vast. The more that needs and wants can be clarified, the more mutually fulfilled desire is allowed to take root and flourish.

DB: Hunny was saying something to the effect of, “Being a service bottom, after someone tells you what to do, and knowing how relaxing it is to have a role.” And it reminded me that when I was a kid, my Mom asked me, “Why are you so comfortable telling people what to do and what you want from them?” It never occurred to me, why wouldn’t I tell you what I wanted? I think it was like around gift giving, when I would say “I want you to buy me this!” and she was like “Why do you feel no shame?” and like, why am I supposed to? And I think that there’s something to having pre-established dynamics where it is encouraged for me to do that, that is something that is celebrated. I know those things and can communicate them, rather than like having to deal with social norms that say you’re not supposed to get what you want.

DB: There’s this part of reciprocity where you’re appreciated for those weird parts of you. Or when a service bottom meets a top who enjoys that kind of service – I can speak for myself as a chronically ill kinkster, I’ve had partners take care of me who are kinky, and partners take care of me who aren’t kinky, and it’s a very different energy. Having a partner care for me when I’m sick, who is submissive and service oriented, makes me feel infinitely more cared for, than when it’s just thought of as another task or something you’re supposed to do.

HD: There’s more intention behind it! As someone who also has a chronic illness, when a friend chooses to help me, there’s no “reason” for them to be doing this, they’re doing this because you want to. And there’s an understanding in a service dynamic, that this is so much deeper than “you’re supposed to.” There’s a satisfaction that the other person is feeling, that you know is there, that you’re not curious about or apprehensive that they don’t want you to do that, you know that you’re giving to them as much as they’re giving to you.

DB: I was talking to a service submissive who has, in their previous relationships, always felt like a burden to partners. And in our dynamic, I’m watching them try and wrap their brain around someone actually enjoying telling them what to do, and it not being a burden.

HD: I mean, as a neurodiverse person, as a chronically ill person, it’s hard to not feel like a burden. It’s very easy to feel like everything you’re doing is nonconsensual for the other person, that if they didn’t have to be doing it, they wouldn’t. It feels really great to schlep that off, and exist in a space that you don’t have to occupy precious brain space with.

SJ: Right, I was thinking about this a lot while reading Care Work. It isn’t that you’re asking someone to include subtitles and an ASL translation, but that’s the baseline expectation. There’s available accessibility information for everyone and everything. In a lot of ways, I think through kink, and the dynamics of care, that it writes down, creates, and allows for those things to go as expected. You don’t have to question them, or second guess them, or worry that you’re being overbearing by asking for them. That’s just the thing that’s supposed to happen.

HD: And that’s a big weight! For someone who spends their day trying to deal with these thoughts, the absence of [those anxieties] in a relationship is an incredible space to get to exist in.

HD: I feel like the antithesis of a lot of this. I feel a strong pull toward ritual, but I feel a stronger pull toward understanding expectation. I don’t find a lot of rituals that feels feasible for me, because my needs change every single day. I don’t think I could set something in stone, and say “Here’s a scene that works for me.” Like I’ve had a lifelong hard limit with spit, but I have gotten into such a good subspace where someone can fuck my face until there’s spit rubbed all over my face, and I can keep going. I know certain tools that can work, but I do have to surrender to the moment and know what my needs are on a day by day basis.

DB: I think part of the ritual too is having room for adapting to whatever is going on. I’ve had scenes both personally and professionally where it’s like, what I asked for is not going to work for me today. Not being stuck on an outcome, but rather working towards an embodied experience – instead of having a hard goal, like “I’m going to stick 87 needles in you, and then we’ll know that our goals have been accomplished.”

SJ: Hunny what were you saying about expectations? Like “Oh I was expecting to do this today, but now I have to adjust my expectations.” Or is it something different?

HD: Yea it’s kind of like that – I feel ingrained in the idea of a ritual is an intention, you know you’re moving towards an intention. But it’s rarely a system that works for me. Expectations are a much easier concept for me to grasp, because then, the process within which you get to that end is ever changing. If I want to, let’s say, at the end of a scene be a brain-dead drooly mess, everyday the ritual and the process with which I get to that place can be totally different. It’s just so much easier for me to know “what I want to happen” and figure out how to get there afterwards. Especially with my sensory needs, outside of kink, just in everyday life, are ever-changing. I could do all of the steps right, like I could cook an entire meal, and just not be able to eat it.

HD: I don’t really do eye contact, and I think that opens the possibility for new dynamics. If anything, it allows me to be more present in my body, and removes a source of sensory stimulus that could be overwhelming. In that way, I’m actually able to enjoy myself more, because I’m not performing for a neurotypical expected role.

DB: And I think intention can be as much about being present with a partner as it is about adapting to the changing needs of whoever is in a scene. Creating an environment where pleasure or pain might occur, rather than an expectation.

SJ: I like that, creating a possibility. I think that’s always a more useful question to ask, the “Do we want to start to build that container?” or do we want to just have sex, or do we want to do both, or neither. How we choose to create that space, or not create that space, are dependent on so many factors. I know that my current girlfriend and I are both CSA survivors, so sometimes there are just triggering events that come up, actions that you didn’t think would be upsetting when you started. Knowing that there is the possibility that there could be a power dynamic if you want it, but that you don’t necessarily have to step into that dynamic every time, can open up so much more possibility.

Juggling the possibility of changing needs can be a daunting task at best. When we allow ourselves the grace of flexibility, and don’t demand that our bodies are always capable of working the way that they previously have, we are able to break free of the expectations placed upon us. I know that I have spoken to many lesbian, bisexual, and queer trans women who have had the sexual functions of their body assumed, long before a single article of their clothing hits the bedroom floor. Socially ingrained knowledge around what a penis is, how it functions, and what can make a sexual organ like it feel good are baked into just about every facet of our transmisogynistic society. Often, this knowledge is then used to divide trans women into two distinctive camps – tops, who exclusively use their penis in a penetrative way, and bottoms, who are solely receptive, both anally and orally.

The vast range of personal sexual preferences, surgical statuses, and individual comfort levels notwithstanding, this sort of reductive thinking about trans women’s bodies does not allow for so many of us to actually have our sexual needs fulfilled. Giving myself the tool of saying no is one part of an equation; and the other has been giving voice to how I would like to use my body in a given sexual situation. The possibility might arise in which I do want to be fucked in a certain way, but that’s all it can remain – a possibility. In peeling off the oily labels of ableist and transphobic social expectations that demand they determine how our bodies function, we can create for ourselves a personal sexuality that encompasses even the most diverse range of needs.

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Sloane Holzer

Sloane is a writer & leatherdyke about town. She lives in the Bay Area and is interested in social histories, community building, and care work.

Sloane has written 6 articles for us.


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