Content Note for discussions of abuse and BDSM.
There have been plenty of studies, plenty of takes, and even more personal stories on the internet speaking to this. I could bury you in links. Instead, I’ll share a bit about my own experience with the power of consent.
It’s first important to know a little bit about my background, which I’ll cloak in some vagaries for my own sense of privacy and safety: I have experienced various kinds of abuse from a young age, including physical, emotional, and sexual. These sorts of experiences are difficult to go through, but the more devastating part, I find, is the echoes they create through the years. It is hard to trust people when your trust has been misused and taken advantage of in the past. It’s hard to let people care for you when those who were supposed to did not, or used that position of power to hurt or exploit you.
While it will be an ongoing process to understand how these experiences have shaped me, weed out harmful behaviors and thought processes that have resulted, and heal, one thing that has been integral has been exploring consensual forms of BDSM.
To some, bondage, degradation, and beatings might look like the opposite of healing from abuse. To them I say: consensual BDSM is about trusting someone or someones enough to collaborate with you on a scene, trusting that they will only go so far as you’ve discussed, and will always stop at your safeword. This is why safewords are almost sacred within kink communities: once you bypass someone’s consent, it’s abuse. Playing next to that line can be tricky beyond words, especially in certain kinds of kinky play. Many are drawn in regardless, trying to make sense and order in a messy tangle of physicality and the minds behind it.
For me, the most acute pain that has arisen from past abuse is the autonomy, the choices, that were wrested from my grasp. I had no control over what happened in any of the painful events that I’ve experienced. Consensual BDSM is the opposite: I can choose what I want, how I want it, and I can make it stop at any time. This is the siren call that urges me near the rocks: though it could lead to pain, even trauma if I trust the wrong person or something goes awry, the feeling of control and freedom that comes with a successful power exchange is an ambrosia.
I am not alone in this: many others have described the lasting ramifications of abuse as centering on that lack of control, the stealing away of agency. Years of rummaging in your head, trying to figure how you could have done something differently to prevent these atrocities from happening–when there wasn’t anything you could have done. There is nothing one could have said, no different outfit that could have been worn, no entreaty that really could have made a difference. Abuse and broken consent are not the fault of the person experiencing it. Responsibility sits squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator, and it’s important for me to say these things both to myself and everyone else, as often as possible.
Sexuality is something that is inextricably interwoven through our consciousness. Not merely physical, sex and pleasure are entwined with our emotions, memories, and thoughts. Our experiences, our triumphs and our traumas, events that make an inestimable impact and others that seem to only make a small ripple, all can get tangled in our sexuality.
This is, in my opinion, one of the more beautiful and fascinating things about the experience of sexuality. It’s arguably the core of what drives lust, intimacy, and things one might term as depravity in humans, and that can get messy. As social creatures, sexuality could never be anything but complex and sometimes disturbing. Look at our friends the Dolphins, who also experience rape and use tools for sexual pleasure, or the Bonobos, who use sex socially, as a way to give and receive favors and create bonds. But as humans, our fascination with symbolism and meaning has resulted in a web of complexities when it comes to how sexuality ticks within us.
BDSM is about willing, enthusiastic, consensual exchange of power. What makes it tick is a culture that’s obsessed with that power: sometimes it’s reversal of roles, like in FemDom. As originally tweeted by @yevgen1a, “FemDom is just women treating men the way men usually treat women.” These power exchanges are often a way to reflect and either reproduce or flip power structures we have or had no control over, whether on an individual basis or a cultural one. Sometimes people see their place in cultural power structures and want to flip the scenario; others, like me, want to revisit and rewrite and take control of individual power exchanges they didn’t find any control in.
Not only being able to, but being asked to, say “No” is powerful on a level that can’t be described for a person who never had that option.