Sadomasochism & Mental Health: Self-Expression

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.

Sexuality is not wholly some divine tool, nor is it something to be hidden away from the hypothetical eyes of children at Pride. It is a diverse and complicated practice that both encompasses and goes beyond “social definitions and self-definitions,” writes Jeffrey Weeks in Sexuality. Sexuality is also the sight of definitional conflict, where “struggles between those who have power to define and regulate,” are met and countered by “those who resist.” The lineage of perverts, of sex workers, of Black and Brown queer and trans people living outside a system of sexuality which attempts to encase them, is that of resistance. Sexuality is not a given, and we do not have to accept a socially-enforced sexuality that attempts to quash Sadomasochistic expression. Let us struggle toward a practice of sexuality which maximizes our possible sexual freedoms, that eroticism which, as Audre Lorde writes, shows us the “deep and irreplaceable knowledge of [our] capacity for joy.”

I began to strain against the steady drumbeat of two pairs of hands on my thighs. My body, its every inclination toward survival, arching away from the pain and attempting to push its way through my back. I knew how long it had been since I had given this far in, since I had allowed myself to sink and become this deeply submissive. Choosing between paralysis or fleeing was certainly nothing new – it feels familiar, even comfortable. For so much of my life, it was every action leading up to those sensations that I didn’t want, every harsh word or threat of violence that caused a split second choice. But here, in a warm room nestled amongst the low hills of Twin Peaks, I brought breath to bear on that terror, allowed myself to dig into and want the sensation I had previously only cowered alongside, and sank through to its most honeyed depths. Powerlessness is easy enough to desire – for so many marginalized people drawn to kink, social power is already something too lacking. The most enduring and powerful appeal of creating and (re)enacting those scenes of initial terror which instilled the knowledge of social difference – bullying, punishment, humiliation – is the restorative sense of controlling that powerlessness.

How much can you allow yourself to experience something before making the decision to flee, to freeze, to dissociate and fall away from one’s self? How many unwanted social hierarchies and unasked for power dynamics does it take to shape the way you access power/lessness in a fruitful and self-educating manner? For the sake of my own perversions, those questions are difficult to answer. My wants and desires, the wants and desires of one white trans woman committed to both self-knowledge and being an absolute bimbo, use kink as a vector for understanding.

All of this thinking through, around, and deeper into power have been crucial to my own growth. But these lessons do not come easily, and have their own related set of challenges. An oft repeated phrase I see sex workers (and providers who engage with kink) have to list in their booking forms or on their websites is that a session is not a replacement for actual therapy. Centering that phrase in my own personal practice of kink, which does hope to engage with the uppermost limits of how we regulate, express, and heal ourselves has been invaluable. For the countless times that an act of power and perversity has taught me an invaluable lesson about myself, there have been as many failed attempts, uncommunicated actions, and hard mistakes made. But the gift of kink is as much in the joy of practice as it is in the act of seeing power. Just like in They Live, a cinematic visualizing of language that explicitly names when, where, and how power is enforced, power can also be equitably wanted and exchanged. Kink is there, like so many bruised marks on a map, to show us how.

SJ: I guess we can start with how we got into S/M and what initially attracted us to it, and go from there. I know for me, S/M was a way of accessing powerlessness in a way that felt safe. Both power and powerlessness, in a way that was not overwhelming, was not dangerous, was not used against me. And I understood protocol as a way that I could engage with that sensation.

HD: What drew me to kink… Well, I feel like so many of us have this dialogue of like, “Oh I always felt it,” but we had none of the words, none of the understanding to actually express it. I would see things on the internet, especially the internet before anybody got their grubby hands on it, and I would see things that made me feel shameful and made me feel excited. And I didn’t understand [those feelings] at all, and then when I found kink I was like, Oh my god, here is a place where we’re all agreeing to do this, but also, I know the rules, I know what to expect. I know how things are going to work. There’s no scary what-if, and if there is one I’ve agreed to it. Like you said, feeling helpless in a controlled setting is so hot, it really pushes my buttons.

KB: I think for me, and I wonder if this is me processing out loud because these two things haven’t connected in my brain. So my OCD diagnosis happened in November of 2018, and I went to my first kink event in December of 2018. So my journey of knowing that I’m a person who, yes has an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and yes you are a fucking filthy pervert, so those are things that are tied together, but they are also things that I probably knew as a kid about myself but later denied. So I think I have some unraveling to do about the connection of those two things becoming sort of actualized at the same time. So it was through learning that I had OCD that I realized that my brain likes these things, likes doing these sort of things. When I was diagnosed, and realizing how it affected me outside of the way that I eat, it’s these processes throughout my day or the way that my personality functions. It isn’t that disruptive, but having the framework helped. Finding kink, having the words for it, helped contextualize the sex that I like to have, the friendships that I like to have, the dynamics that I like to have and the relationships in general. It gave me an outline, and I love an outline.

KB: To piggyback off of the beginning of what you said, and Sloane I believe we’ve talked about this, one of the main ways that my OCD manifests itself is in the way that I eat. I have something called ARFID – Avoidant and Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. Basically, I am an extremely picky eater and have the diet of your average third grader. Growing up and talking to people about that, they would either make fun of me or pity me for all the things I wasn’t eating. And when it comes to kinky people, and all of us doing our own weird shit, even outside of sex, once I entered kink and capital L Leather Space, is where I can meet people, in a social setting in which there is food, which is usually one of my least favorite things, and be like, “Okay this is my deal.” And to hear “Okay that’s cool. That’s just more information I have about you.” That has been a consistent pattern of new people that I meet in the Leather community, that is not the same in non-kinky and non-leather people, definitely not the same with straight people.

It’s like, we don’t have to get to this level of intimacy before I share this sort of basic stuff about myself, and how I navigate. Opposed to how, in other spaces, there’s an expectation that we need to be friends before we talk about this weird embarrassing thing. I would like to talk about it before we go to dinner.

HD: Absolutely. This is how I’m explaining to you, how I would like you to know me. I’m explaining the weird things about me, because really, it’s all weird. There’s not a lot that I could share with you that isn’t weird.

SJ: When it comes to straight people, I do have some information filed away, “Oh that person likes movies.” But when it comes to kinky people, I can name off like 50 things that they’re into. Even if I don’t know them that well, I have this sort of rolodex in my head that has little bits of information about them. If I’ve either been in a scene with them, or watched them be in a scene, or we have all been in a scene together, or I just have seen them talk about their experiences on the internet. Just knowing that sort of information about somebody else – their likes and dislikes, their boundaries and personal needs – seems so much more commonplace in kink. There’s an ease of access because of that.

She was nervous, at first. Solely based on the way we met, it made sense. I was standing next to Gayle Rubin and two other perverts of some notoriety when the picture was taken. We look awkward in the dim light of The Stud, our smiles more like grimaces in the flat fluorescent light. That connection which brought us together, our shared interest in S/M as a transgressive practice, as a social text, as a mutual history, can be a flimsy commonality when put under any pressure, let alone a dawning Folsom Weekend. She was sitting in a bedroom somewhere in Georgia, her years spent in New York with one of the S/M practitioners in the photograph a single degree of connection between us. We first started speaking about Bjork – her music like the soaring ache of an ice shelf breaking into the sea, in particular that line from her song Bachelorette, “I’m a fountain of blood, In the shape of a girl”. She asked for my number, so she could check on me during my surgery recovery. A few weeks after, she posted a picture in her bedroom wearing an oxblood leather chest harness, the straps accentuating her breasts and torso, a fountain of blood like a femme about to bloom.

Sometimes, a shared commonality can be enough from which to build a connection. Our conversations were careful, but not overly cautious. Like walking through a statue garden of desire, we allowed the way we understood powerlessness as something physical and fetishized and larger than life to dictate where we went. How helplessness related to my own bodily lived experiences, how the erotic tension was in the relationship between having power and giving it up. How I could both be a woman who had been inappropriately hit on by a professor, and how I could, years later, want to find my way toward that vulnerability in an agreed upon manner. That connection which brought us together was the very presence of language – the text of our lives, our desire, was a living document we could both see, edit, and access.

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.

SJ: Finding ways to, not even overcome the shame of being told not to do something, but actively finding ways to access the thing that I want, has been so important. Blunt said something like, “Getting what I want is encouraged, and expected,” and having an outlet for that is so nice. I do like the instructive nature of all of it. I think about this a lot in terms of the Sex Wars of the 1980s, that S/M and Butch/Femme were all sort of lumped together as the same evil thing that should be banned from lesbian communities. And it’s interesting because, those two can overlap, but they don’t have to necessarily – if you had to find a commonality between the two of them, there are roles associated with them. There are roles, and performance, and an understanding of what you’re supposed to do in them. And it’s been interesting to see on the internet the ways in which people have become very like actively hostile to either those ideas, or in an effort to be more inclusive and expansive, have really tried to take roles that have historical form and function, and blow them up, make them nonsensical, to make them not mean anything anymore. It is hard to both want a more expansive definition of like, what it is to be a Top or be a Bottom or be Kinky, or be in any of these scenes and communities, and also to know that there are actually things you have to do at the end of the day, if you want that role.

KB: In the words of Crissle West of The Read podcast, “Words mean things.” And here’s the thing. I’m a fucking chaotic switch, I love to take all the rules and throw them out the window now and then. But you have to know all the rules to know how you can bend them, to know where you can bend them, and where you cannot. I like things to make sense, I like having those defined rules. But once I know what the roles are, I can pull this from column A, and this from column B, and this from column C. And there’s also a time when, I want to have the clarity of having a Butch to my Femme. And maybe the S/M in our relationship is going to be a little wonky, but the clarity helps us get there.

DB: I think about power dynamics, you need a general understanding to either subvert, or, like Hunny was talking about with “more traditional kink relationship structures,” it’s having that information, and having that understanding of different dynamics, that allow you to figure out what works for you, rather than being boxed into what you’re told you’re supposed to want.

KB: Even in those “traditional relationships” of having a Dominant and a Submissive, there’s something to understand. Even if you’re not engaging in those roles, learning about what was historically done, can still be cool and hot and fun, still engaging even if it’s not for you.

See I have trouble receiving. I hate receiving surprise gifts, because it feels like I owe them something, or that I all of a sudden have power over them that I didn’t ask for. It feels like an obligation in either direction. I don’t like receiving gifts from vanilla people because I don’t know what the intention is. In service, there’s a sense in the back of my head, that I know what they’re getting out of it as well, knowing that “Of course they’re giving me something but they’re getting something from this as well.” It makes receiving those things so much easier because they’re in a container, realizing that “Oh they’re giving me this because they want to,” and I can receive it knowing that that is exactly the intent behind it.

SJ: Right, right, there’s something so beyond being hot, and charged, and powerful, that makes receiving or giving so much easier, because there’s a context for it, because you have a framework.

DB: The rules are already figured out.

SJ: Yea, you understand why someone would want to do that for you. It makes all of this so much easier to bear. It tends to push back on this chaos of thoughts, “I don’t deserve this, I don’t want this, you’ve put me in a position that I don’t have a context for,” but rather, it comes with a set of instructions that are not physically there but are understood.

I think this comes up for me a lot in scenes, right. At the end of a scene, I want somebody else to feel something, and sometimes you’ll start down a path let’s say, and use a flogger, and this toy, and it’s just not happening. You keep running into a wall, they’re not reacting in the way you want them to, they’re not responding to the situation, the words aren’t working right. Sometimes you have to think on your feet and switch positions, change the toy you’re using, try something completely differently, in order to get to the same end goal. There are some days right, where my chronic illness flares up, and I’m eating the exact same thing I did yesterday and it fucks me up for some reason.

HD: Right, like what even is a safe food.

KB: I have two things! One, I wonder if, within the framework of “expectations vs intentions”, if there’s a correlation between top and bottom, topping and bottoming. Intention coming from a place of topping, and putting out that intention, but that’s probably a whole other conversation. And then thinking about food – if I had a dollar for every time there was a food on my safe list that I just couldn’t get down. I could make food, it could have been right yesterday, it could have been right three hours ago, but it isn’t now.

SJ: But this happens to me too with fucking. Like, “Oh I know there’s a thing that works. There’s always a thing that works.” And then someday, for whatever reason, because of the weather, because of the stars, like the texture of the bedsheets, my brain says “There’s not a chance in hell you’re going to cum like this, don’t even try.” And I’ll just stop.

KB: Right, sometimes with a partner they can tell something is off, they can tell something isn’t working, and we’ll have to just stop. Like, what is feeling weird, what isn’t working, and then have to find another way around it, to get to it.

DB: Or sometimes you just can’t get there. That’s my experience, just being open to not getting there. I think Kolby, what you were saying about intention versus expectation from a top or bottom space, is definitely something I want to think about more. I think I used to play with a much heavier intention of bringing somebody, or myself, to like an altered state of bottom or top space. But I think even with that, trying to keep people present should always be the primary intention, and sometimes that looks like stopping a scene when it needs to stop.

SJ: I think pulling something from what Kolby said earlier about taking things from column A and taking things from column B, you can also just take things away too. We’re not going to have all of our bodies touching each other, we’re not going to be fully undressed, we’re not going to touch this part of my body – you can start to take things away from the scene that won’t work for you and maybe add them back in later, there is this nice way of, I don’t know, picking and choosing sounds flippant.

DB: What if the removal of something can be eroticized too? Right, this idea that more is always better versus sensory deprivation. The type of sex we have can be both an additive and subtractive practice.

HD: Absolutely, something being hot and enjoyable to you doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wanted by everyone. Safe is a relative term.

DB: Instead of just focusing on one model of sex!

“I want you to hold me between your legs, put your hand over my mouth, and squeeze,” I told someone once, after we had been trying for what felt like hours and hours. Their bed frame groaned as we shifted positions, our bodies that had dripped sweat earlier now stuck, indignant, and tacky. They tried to approximate what I had asked of them, and I tried to close my eyes and focus, feeling that familiar bloodrush. But I kept surfacing, over and over again, and couldn’t stay down for long enough. The entire process happened silently, fingers wetly working, their breath in my ear, but no words. No structure to be inside of, no mode or character to create and become lost in. Just the panting messy static of breath, and the occasional “Like this?” I nodded, tried to grit my teeth, tried to force it till I faked one.

Later, when I left their apartment and returned to mine, the breath, our gyrating near-silence, seemed to ring in my head. This most un-erotic tinitis felt like it had become lodged permanently, a sexless Telltale Heart, a lube-slicked-but-never-cumming incessant metronome. I went to one of the only and most consistent places I knew to find words, cycling through a frayed copy of a Carol Queen book, then Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl, later the Trans Sex Zine, and back again. Somewhere between a strapon scene in a shower, my head found the vocal structure, and knew what to say to me to turn me on. The verbage doesn’t have to be the eternity, but so much of kink can be in the art form of finding language for desires never previously named. Language, weightless as soap bubbles, can lift and hold the ways that we wanted to be cared for, and to give care. Engaging forms of hot, devoted, helplessness; formations shaped like Mommy/girl, Teacher/student, Doctor/patient, can birth so much more than our own power willingly lost. The greatest gift any good pervert can give themselves is building an encyclopedia of personal lust, all the words you’ve ever wanted to hear, whispered while someone holds you close.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

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.

1 Comment

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!