(This is the entire text of my short book on kink culture, consent, risk, challenge, growth, and predation. It’s a bit under 17,000 words. It’s simply pasted into WordPress from the Word document, and hasn’t had a final edit. But I’m making it available to all who want to read it.)
Gaining Scars: A Philosophy of Kink
To the monster in the closet, for taking on the hardest roles.
Prologue: On Risk, Danger, and Kink
This is the premise of “Scars”:
For many of us, kink is inherently dangerous, and that danger is not a mistake or a side-effect; it’s part of the key to why kink matters to us.
In fact, most meaningful kink involves mental and emotional risk. The more we attempt to remove all risk, the more we remove meaning.
Kink has the power to cause permanent positive change in our lives. It’s impossible to do that without taking risks.
Some of what we do will offend, alarm, and frighten both ourselves and others. Some of what we do will have unintended consequences. That doesn’t mean it’s out of our control; it means that the scope of what we create, when doing consensual kink, is very large. It is cathartic. It is transformative. Working with the physical, mental, and emotional tools of kink includes dealing with pain, aversion, damage, catharsis, and joy. We don’t just diminish kink if we try to take only the easy pars or the “positive” parts; we cut it up into something that no longer has the ability to change us anymore.
And if, in doing kink, you always go in one way, and always emerge exactly the same, why do kink? There are a thousand other activities which don’t involve the hazards of what we do.
And if your response is that kink is something you want, perhaps something you need, then ask yourself: Do you truly desire a kink that can’t really touch you?
Think of a song that has an impact on you, or hell, any medium, a book or a film, or even something as theoretically small as the smell of a particular candle. Maybe you always know how it will affect you, in general; but you’re not the same person you were the last time you experienced it. There’s going to be something different about it, because there’s going to be something different about you.
Here’s a rule of thumb: getting hurt is sometimes the price of admission for doing what we do.
“Scars” is a philosophy which says that we create growth in kink through interactions which are meaningful enough to change us. And part of the nature of self-change is we can’t always control, much less like, that change. In fact, one of the keys to building intentionality in kink is to start looking at what affects us, why it matters to us, and why we want to experience those things. That’s also part of the key to building consent: seeking ways to be brought to that place that is vulnerable, changeable, that place which is capable of learning, that place which is central to creating experiences which make you a more fully developed human being.
Here are some of the building blocks of “Scars”:
- We accept–no, we embrace–danger and risk.
- The does not mean we give safeheaven to predators. But we fight predation through understanding—not fearing–kink which involves risk. We recognize pushing, change, and uncertainty as being tools of transformation. We seek transformation for mutual benefit. That is the opposite of what predators do; they actively seek to cause harm for their own enjoyment, and serve only their own interests.
- We thereby believe that kink is a transformative tool. It challenges you, it dares you, changes you.
- Maybe what we do isn’t normal. Maybe it IS fucked up. And if it is, then we’ll embrace it: if being fucked up means growth, then fuck me up.
- We reject the panic of witch-hunts; they are an understandable, but not an effective, response to community problems.
- We recognize that no system is free of abuse. What we care about is the basic self-organizing principle: if we create cultures of people who gain mutual benefit from kink, we prosper. If we create cultures which exploit, deceive, and harm, we will die.
- We reject politics. We value discussion. On a human level, there will always be politics. We don’t claim to be immune. We just seek to prioritize individual choice over group control.
- We build small circles of trust. We do not seek perfection. Only growth, improvement, and the idea that we address mistakes.
- We do not forget. But we forgive. We redeem.
- All systems can fail. All situations can be exploited politically. All systems can be slandered as cults, as dangerous, as bad, as wrong. We will create our own space, a space for like-minded souls. And that space will live and die based on what we can achieve when we embrace all of kink – the good, the bad, and the chosen-monstrous.
A Personal Note On Redemption
If you don’t know of me, I’ll say that I absolutely have self-interest here; I have skin in this game. (And I strongly, strongly distrust those who get into a situation which might influence others when they, themselves, have nothing to gain or lose. Having something at stake makes you biased, of course; but having nothing at stake makes you able to say whatever feels or looks good to you, rather than what’s needful or helpful–because the outcomes won’t affect you.)
I’m in the situation of many people who’ve been accused of serious consent violation: at the time of this writing, the community doesn’t have a path towards “redemption”. And after a long time in that space, I’ve decided: if I want to see change, I have to make that change. And I’ll be blunt: change probably has to come from someone who isn’t afraid of being attacked by mobs.
I’m not characterizing everyone who disagrees with me as being a mob; quite the contrary, I welcome discussion of disagreement. But people aren’t silenced because they’re concerned others will have differing opinions; they’re silenced because they have good reason to fear annihilation. They’ve seen what happens when one person is the apex of a community’s rage. Nobody wants to be that one person.)
We have mobs for the same reason we DON’T have good systems for redemption: fear. I think people are afraid to put a system of redemption out there, because that system will have a lot of failures. It will potentially “redeem” people who don’t deserve to be allowed back in. It might do damage. It might lead to the blame, even the shunning or mobbing of those who try to institute that system.
Will we find a better way to self-organize? I don’t know. But I’ve lost my faith in the idea of letting others decide my fate, and I think many people in the kink community who are affected by our culture of fear are in the same place. To be honest, my own belief is that the community will cub some of the most egregious and most visibly-hateful mob behavior, but not attack the root problems. I don’t blame the community for that. Asking it to simultaneously “solve” the age-old problem of avoiding predation, particularly during a time of intense turmoil, isn’t really fair.
I’m going to outline a rough, highly fallible system of redemption. This is my own personal system, not one I suggest that the community adopt. But this is what I’m going to use when I’m considering the redemption of others.
Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll say: Fuck it, you’re redeemed. Prove that you deserve to be.
I write this as an outcast. Ignore me, mock me if you want; I won’t be the first, and perhaps I’ll deserve it. But if you mock me, show me your mettle. Show me your real reasons, your own ethics, your truths. Just don’t repeat something which is a lie almost any time it’s told: “We have been told there is darkness among us; only a few holy ones can pick up its scent and save us from plague.” Those voices are liars.
We feel that mobs self-justify: “There wouldn’t be this angry mob if the object of their anger didn’t deserve it”. But that’s not always how mobs work. They can absolutely, sometimes, be expressions of long overdue justice. But basic mob psychology also says that when you create the rudiments of a mob, you build two core choices:
- Join, and gain relative safety, and the acclaim of your peers, or
- Opt out… and risk becoming one of the targets of the mob.
We seek to reject mobs, not because they are always, automatically forces for negativity, but because mobs are essentially the inverse of what we seek in kink. Mobs are definitionally a group mentality. In contrast, the choice of entering the consensual exchange of power, in any role, is one of the most individual acts available to any human being.
Bear in mind that, as people of kink, we enter compacts to play with forces that get into the mind, fuck it deeply, and smile at the screams. That is a part of our joy. The way we both create and experience those interactions is highly, highly personal. A large group can decide the rules of that group; but it cannot and should not decide the rules of consenting individuals outside that group. Not until or unless those individuals choose to be a part of that group. And if that group decides to cast out any who think outside its strictures, it does so at its own peril. Because without dissenters, without outliers, without those who question, we cannot have the insight and critique which make cultures worthwhile.
That’s part of why we of “Scars” embrace discussion, even if it’s angry, as long as it’s genuinely a discussion and not simply blind talking points cloaked in the form of discourse. We do not fear mobs; but we reject the fearmongering they engender.
So we work with individuals, towards the growth individuals. We seek to start fresh in this kink. If you have a bad reputation or bad actions, show yourself worthy, show that your intentions are positive and your actions seek improvement–or recognize that others will stop wanting to interact with you.
This is a philosophy, not a political platform. It’s concerned with the internal over the external. But if you want to create a space for the kink of “Gaining Scars”, go right ahead. Declare your space as you choose, and people can then choose to embrace it, or avoid it. If you do not like a leader, a committee, or a set of rules, then find a different one, and create your own. All leaders and ruling organizations are changed, if not necessarily corrupted, by power; but they can also be enriched and enrich others by trying to foster healthy communities which value the individuals within them
We will not be perfect. But we will not live in fear.
This is our goal: We will carve out a better kink world through our blood, our pain, our fear, our hunger, our joy. We will carve it out with life breakthroughs, with traumas, with damage and with creation. We embrace all of the potentiality of kink, not just that which is easy, not just that which looks good, not just that which is uncontroversial. We are people of kink, and we are prepared to face the unknown.
We are people who see the power of a storm and say, “I want that in my heart.”
That force is the heart of a scene: an interaction in which individuals choose to alter ordinary power dynamics between each other in order to create altered states of mind and body.
That “altered state” doesn’t inherently need to be something extraordinary. As is often noted, an act as simple as a (desired) hug creates a slight change in neurochemistry through an increase in dopamine.
I use the idea of t “alteration” because frankly, I’ve never found a great working definition of “kink”. I remember a time when many of us called it “What It Is That We Do (WIITWD)”, specifically because we felt that attempts to define this by actions—hitting, binding, obeying, coming—would constrain kink into overly-limiting classifications and pigeonholes, making it weaker and less personal.
I think this has happened.
My own indicator is the exchange of “power”, because it’s one of the clearest common denominators. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re creating a situation where one side is wholly dominant and the other is wholly submissive. It just means that you’re using something in our everyday lives, the interchange in power between individuals, as a specific tool of changing your mental and emotional state.
Example: You can receive a flogging without submitting to the person administering it; but the situation is still a shift in normal power roles. There aren’t a lot of scenarios in which one can ordinarily consent to being beaten. (And when I look at exceptions in which I’ve participated, like boxing rings or certain initiations, I honestly see many of the drives we find in kink.) I’m not saying that everyone needs to define as “top” or “bottom” or any other direction; I’m just saying that we’re always engaged in the interplay of interpersonal influence. Much of the time, it’s deadly serious—like the authority of a police officer of a boss. In kink, we get to work with it in ways we choose, and that is something incredible.
Why do we seek a “storm”?
I’m not asking us to discard the terms we already use for attempting kink. But when we speak of “playing”, “having a scene”, or (as I’ve sometimes heard) “doing a thing”, we minimize some of what’s going on. I like the metaphor of a storm as a reminder of kink’s potential.
Saying something is a “scene” is a really efficient way of discussing some sort of kink activity, since theatrical scenes are flexible units; they can be something as small as a few lines of dialogue, or as large as the entire show. But using a theatrical word also suggests that we are acting, escaping, stepping onto a stage instead of participating in the world. Now, dramaturgy is one of the most powerful ways to effect mental and emotional change in humans. I’d never disregard its very real effects. But if part of what we do is theatre, there’s also a core of it which isn’t “acting” – it’s very much a reality.
Likewise, “play” can be a very meaningful thing—mammalian young tend to learn through play, for example. But while we absolutely don’t need (or want) to make everything we do deadly serious or humorless, I think we might want to reexamine thinking of it as “play”. If we’re going to recognize that our “play” has longterm effects and influences, we might want to take another look at how we understand those interactions—what it means to walk consciously into the heart of a tempest.
Just try this as a thought experiment: the next time you negotiate or enter a scene or some play, consider what it’s like to be in the center of a tempest, feeling the full force of the gale around you. Think of that sense of dynamism, that movement, that energy. Consider how much raw vitality is available to you. Within the boundaries of your consent and limitations, regardless of your role, it’s yours for the taking. Take it.
How Much Meaning Do We Need?
I don’t think we need to stop using the terms “scene” or “play”, and I hardly think that every scene should happen with the intention of being life-changingly powerful. In fact, if we put that much weight into everything we do, we might run the risk of doing nothing; there’s a difference between recognizing serious potential, and taking things so seriously that you can’t function.
The metaphor which comes to my mind is the way musicians approach their shows. As both a musician and promoter, I’ve see a very tangible difference between a performer choosing to do something without passion—“phoning it in”—versus those who work to find exhilaration and connection, even in something that’s been repeated many, many times. Every concert, and hell, every song has the potential to be yawn-inducing…or life-altering. I’ve seen performers play the same tune the same way in concerts ten years apart, and watched them have trouble staying awake. I’ve also seen performers bring new life to a piece older than most members of the audience, and win over an entire crowd of people who’d previously been completely apathetic. It’s spirit, will, and intent that guide the technique behind our execution of any act, and those forces manifest material, tangible effects on our emotions.
Whether it’s a new melody which inspires the listener, or that vitalizing feeling of an old tune played with verve and feeling, the potential for causing deep change in the listener is always there.
The idea is not that we’re passing an edict requiring every kink interaction to change the orbit of the Earth. I’m just saying that passion is a choice; it’s an expression of mindset, determination, and will.
Everyday life actively works to stop you from creating, from trying difficult things, from surpassing your previous goals. That’s a known quantity. Pain is inevitable; what you do with it is another matter.
Fear happens. Fight to overcome it.
Mistakes happen. Work to fix them; don’t let them stop you.
The most enthralling things can become dull with repetition. Find new things. Or put new spirit into the old.
Play your song; play it with the enthusiasm of your heart, the skill of your mind, and the determination of your soul.
More Impact, More Danger
There is a simple corollary to the idea that kink encounters are meaningful: namely, they are dangerous.
To be specific, even if we know the techniques we are using, we know our partners, and we know ourselves, even if we are doing something we’ve done before, we are still doing something dangerous.
There seems to have evolved something of a sports analogy around our risk profiles. We push it aside and wave it off, the same way someone playing baseball doesn’t consider the possibility of a broken ankle. “What we do involves specialized procedures, and some risk of physical injury is possible.” We play it down, and then we’re surprised when it happens.
Part of that is because the injury is more often internal than external. While physical injury is one very real potential outcome of what we do, I’m going to say that, by far, the biggest risk we face is mental and emotional.
It’s often much harder to analyze emotional injury than physical. For one thing, we don’t always recognize emotional impact when it happens. And it’s generally much easier to point to physical cause-and-effect relationships than mental ones; “The whip was aimed at the shoulder, but hit the spine, and that could have led to spinal problems” is vastly more visible than “The order to stand in a particular fashion resonated in a negative way with a memory of a bad incident from high school”.
You could argue, from this, that the mind is an incredibly complex thing, and any play involving the mind could accidentally trigger something adverse.
And what we need to do, in response, is not run from the possibility of adverse effects; instead, we need to think about how we want to handle the mental/emotional effects of our interactions. Because if we’re not generating much response, then we’re not engaging very much.
To take this a step further, I’m going to say that emotional impact is a key motivation for most of us to do kink. Why are we engaging in actions which are generally, even at the time of this writing, illegal in the United States of America, if not to have more and different impact than “normal” activities would? We want, and perhaps need, to be jolted out of the “normal” world by what we do.
If your kink doesn’t move you beyond everyday experiences, then its value is going to be more limited.
There’s long been a social movement not to be competitive about how “heavy” your kink is, not to shame people who might have less “intensity”, not to judge a particular amount or quantity of kink (as if one even could quantify these very individual responses on some objective scale) – and not to say that someone’s kink isn’t “real”.
Your kink is real if it’s real to you. If that includes practicing a kink where you do not believe that intensity is linked to risk, or where you don’t believe you should have an intensity which has much potential for risk, that’s your kink. But it’s not our kink.
We need to face a difficult truth: the more our play has meaning to us, the more likely we are to get hurt. Meaning is vulnerability—and growth.
Like a fire in the rainforest: some of those who are affected are harmed, some are removed from the ecosystem—and some are finally able to grow after being long suppressed.
It is a wildfire, and we embrace it. We recognize that we open ourselves to pain and trauma, and we make the decision to endure them, seek to heal them, and fight back.
Through kink, we build strength.
Because overcoming pain is strength.
Succumbing to pain, and surviving, is strength.
Getting joy from pain is strength.
Taking damage from pain, and coming back, is strength.
You are strength. Embrace it.
This is a kink of discomfort.
It is completely compatible with a kink that is joyous—in look, in feel, in spirit—but that’s because discomfort isn’t in opposition to joy. You can have interactions where everyone is visibly having a lovely time, and it still isn’t necessarily comfortable. To give a simple example, perhaps it SHOULD disturb us, on a basic level, to watch one person beating the shit out of another, even if both of them are smiling. Maybe especially then.
The reason we can see these things and enjoy them in a kink setting is because we recognize context, and we recognize a meaning outside of exterior cultural norms.
Our kink is potentially disquieting. It unsettles us, as observers and as participants.
Our kink is potentially frightening. And not just when we play with fear, but when we engage in anything that challenges us.
Our kink is potentially monstrous. We are not monsters; but we may, and do, partake in things which are otherwise only the territory of the bestial.
The outside world has long said that we’re wicked, or sick, or wrong. Modern kink has maintained that we are not those things. But honestly, all of those words are deeply subjective. We are, in fact, wicked, in that we don’t always follow the ordinary world’s ideas of how to have ordinary human interactions. (Sometimes, we specifically seek out those rules so that we can break them in our kink.) We are, perhaps, not “healthy”, as defined by most dictionaries—since their definitions tend to derive from being just like other people, and most people don’t do what we do. And you can’t get more “wrong”, broadly speaking, than actively trying to break barriers of ordinary speech, thought, and action. Those barriers exist to keep human society manageable and contained. Fucking with them is no small thing.
Some of us prefer to explain to the outside world that what we do may look or seem like it’s broken, but it isn’t—we might have the symptoms which ordinarily indicate broken or inappropriate human interactions (bruises and marks, to name one obvious example)—but in this case, those symptoms don’t point to a problem, they point to actions taken outside of usual rules.
Some of us like to flaunt that we’re different—different and proud of it.
For myself, I have always seen the creation of new kink ideas as an art, and the implementation of kink as a fight against the tendency of the world to be simple, ordinary, and limited. And no-one who makes art, no-one who pushes the envelope of human possibility, is “just like everyone else”.
Are We Monsters?
What distinguishes us from monsters? It’s the goal of mutual benefit between participants, rather than a goal by one or more participants of undesired harm.
That benefit could be anything: as simple as the oxytocin rush of that desired embrace; as societally approved as great sex; as complex survival through a hideous and prolonged ordeal which would make outsiders say, “Why would anyone possibly go through that willingly?”
The problem in this is that we would like to see consent as a thing, as a light we turn off or on. It is not a thing. Consent is not a solid, tangible state of being; it is a desire. It is a thing for which we strive.
(If we strive for consent and fail, there is potential harm. But there is potential for harm in every area of life. That doesn’t make it okay. It just requires us to be aware.)
We strive for consent; and sometimes, we fail to achieve it. That means at least one party is potentially harmed. The question of how to look at harm is a larger one, and depends a great deal on how you view the ability of the community versus the individual in parsing damage. (Sometimes, you need outside perspective in order to see when someone is messing with your head. Sometimes, outside perspectives miss key points of interactions. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for when outside help is optimal.)
There is only one way to create a completely predictable consent, and that is to create a completely predictable kink.
And that is an empty kink.
It is a lonely, hungry, unsatisfying kink for too many of us; and we won’t accept the idea that there’s something wrong with us for feeling that way. We play with edges; we trace liminal spaces; we put ourselves on the line. We risk.
We need to recognize that kink which seeks to challenge us, to expand us, to create growth, to take us to new places—
–is kink which could discomfort us, could hurt us, could damage us, could break consent. We don’t want any of those outcomes; but we want a kink that pushes us to be more than what we are now.
To do that kink, we run the risk of scars.
What Is “Meaningful Kink?
Kink is personal and individual. No-one can define your kink except for you; no-one but you can be the ultimate judge of what you find meaningful.
That being said:
There was a very long time when it was our careful goal, as a community, to see all kink as equal. The idea was that this would create mutual respect and help us avoid being hurtfully judgmental.
It was a good idea, with good intentions, and changing it brings up by the specter of intolerance. But after many years of not critiquing the kink of others, we haven’t ended up with a wealth of depth and diversity of kink interactions, particularly in light of how much the community has grown and how much the Internet has permitted exposure to new knowledge ideas. In spite of all this—perhaps partly because of all this–we’ve created communities which are often vastly exclusionary. We’ve frequently achieved the opposite of what we wanted.
I’ll be blunt: the attempt to accept all kink has, unfortunately, failed. The least-threatening kink—that is, the kink which takes the fewest risks, which pushes the least—has become a dominant cultural force. And even though we haven’t stopped claiming that ‘your kink may not be my kink, but your kink is okay’ – we’ve quietly changed that. Because:
- It’s objectively harder to construct good consent when you are pushing boundaries. This is not new knowledge; it’s one of the first things I was taught, 25 years ago.
- It’s easier for someone to get hurt when you’re pushing boundaries.
- We specifically define kink as being different from abuse by stating that kink is consensual.
- Therefore, once we start defining “hurt” as “violation of consent”, we start defining riskier play as not being kink.
The goal is noble and universal—we all want to avoid consent violation and harm. But the result is the actual erasure of kink which challenges us.
And fuck that.
Some of us choose to seek that challenge. Some of us embrace it. Some of us define ourselves by it.
In general, it is kink which pushes, fights, discomforts, and challenges which has the greatest potential to create meaning.
I don’t necessarily mean “edgeplay”, or complex or dangerous physical technique, or more pounds of force per square inch in a given blow. I mean kink which challenges mind, will, and internal strength.
That doesn’t require anything fancy or outwardly impressive. It could be a soft word, a touch, even a small gesture. The means isn’t what’s core; just the meaning.
We seek kink which drives us, tests us, moves us. That which does not move us does not have meaning.
Vulnerability: Dangerous, Necessary
This is a basic thing: to be vulnerable is to risk getting hurt.
It’s why we try to cover or change our vulnerabilities.
But there is also a time to release them: into the hands of someone you trust. (Note that “vulnerability” is not a quality of tops or bottoms; it’s a quality of all of us. There’s as much danger in applying the blade as there is in receiving it.)
Does this mean that one should automatically seek to be vulnerable in every scene and with every person? No. It means being aware that just as vulnerability is a source of fear, unease, and powerlessness, it can also be the catalyst which frees us from those things.
In other words, I’m not telling you to simply open yourself up to everyone, any more than you out to routinely leave your door unlocked, or run around naked in a dangerous neighborhood at night.
I am saying that opening a part of yourself which is afraid, perhaps broken, perhaps prone to damage—is one of the keys to overcoming those things.
Your mileage may vary. Your catharsis is your own.
But sometimes, it makes sense to shed your armor.
Powerful vulnerability is a learned skill; it’s easy to be either impenetrable, or totally porous, and neither one of those should be your goal. If you never let anything in, you look tough, but all you’re doing is blocking. You’re dealing with the surface, and preventing anything from actually entering your mind and affecting you. In contrast, if you let everything in, you’re actually missing out on a critical piece of development—the choice inherent in allowing yourself to be exposed.
Chosen vulnerability is a tremendous power. It takes guts. It involves risks. It absolutely means there’s significantly more potential for damage. It’s easy (and understandable) to just lock everyone out. It’s also hard as fuck, if you’ve let someone or something in and it damages you, to fight through that damage to try to heal it. Every piece of the process of vulnerability is a struggle.
But it matters. Because every damn moment of that struggle develops strength. Every piece is an opportunity—sometimes a requirement—to understand more about yourself, about what you fear, and what you can overcome.
And if you can’t be vulnerable, then you miss out on most of the deepest connections you can make in kink. If you can’t open up, you can’t be hurt as easily, but you also feel far, far less. Vulnerability is a power which makes your kink experiences much more moving, because they have far more repercussions. It’s not an easy skill. It’s not always pleasant. Sometimes, it hurts like a motherfucker, and for all the wrong reasons.
But without it, a part of your kink is hollow.
Potential damage is inherent in what we do. That doesn’t make all damage good, or mean that we should go in attempting to get hurt.
But I’ve seen a lot of people grappling with words, with how to find the kink they need, with how to talk about the fact that what they want is hazardous. I know one person who expresses her philosophy for playpartners as “You must be this tall to ride”, which is a good, shorthand trope for playing rough, but it also implies that those who aren’t ready are children—small fry at a carnival who don’t get to go on the “Big Kid” rides.
I’ve also heard people talk about finding “matching Risk Profiles”. I like that as a concept; it makes sense. What I don’t like is the way it lets us pretend that all kinksters are the same, we just have different “risk profiles”. We’re not the same. If your whole kink seeks to minimize risk, it’s a very different beast from kink which chooses to seek out higher risk for higher reward.
And then there’s this, which is honestly the thing that I hear most often: “I’m fucked up, so my kink is just fucked up, and I need to find people who are broken so they’ll be compatible with my being fucked up”. And that’s damn sad, and it’s not right.
Sure, some of us consider ourselves twisted, and we might revel in that fact. But that doesn’t mean people should be considering themselves some kind of wrecked machinery because of the kink they desire.
But that’s where we are at the moment of writing this. We’ve gone so far in the attempt to “normalize” kink, to make kink something palatable to everyone, that kink which challenges us must be our bad, our problem, our “Yeah, I’m just fucked up and there’s something wrong with me”. After all those years spent trying to get out of the DSM, we’re re-pathologizing ourselves because frankly, we’re being told that “healthy” kink is something which, to many of us, just plain is. Not. Kink. At. All.
The phrase I like is: “I’m proud of my scars.”
Lots of scars are negative. They remind us of things we wish we hadn’t done. And if it’s a permanent injury, there has to be one hell of a trade-off to consider the newfound limitation part of an overall positive. (Yes, I’d go back again and trade the knowledge I gained for the retinal detachment it cost me; but I’d still rather have both the properly attached retina AND the knowledge if I could. I can’t. So I’ll take the knowledge).
This is “Seeking Scars”:
We seek experiences which are inherently dangerous. It’s not the danger we seek; it’s the fact that what we want can’t come without risk. We do all that we can to protect each other, but that is both an imperfect and a wholistic practice. To be specific, it’s not just about the scene or the aftercare. It’s also about consequences and potential, and what you do next.. It’s about an entire philosophy of what it means to knowingly seek out that which is powerful, complex, and—yes, even today, perhaps more than yesterday—taboo.
I know a lot of people who shrug off their kink with the aforementioned “I guess I’m fucked up”, but the truth is that we’re often not ALLOWED to be “Not Fucked Up” anymore. There’s tremendous pressure to see kink as some known quantity, a healthy process where everyone stays safe and everyone is always okay—and if that doesn’t happen, it’s because there is specific FAULT, and one or more individuals have done something wrong.
But sometimes our kink simply isn’t safe. Sometimes our kink isn’t “okay”. Sometimes, we’re looking for those ‘scars’, those war wounds which remind us that we’ve been a part of something transformative.
Your kink may not be our kink. And frankly, if your kink insists on saying that our kink is fucked up, then NO—your kink is NOT okay with us.
You do not get a free pass at judging what we do if you won’t be a part of it.
BREAKING AND REMAKING
Perhaps everyone is “broken” in some way. If so, not everyone needs to be “fixed”. (I’ve heard a lot of people say that we do kink because there’s something ‘wrong’ with us. Sometimes, people mean it as an insult. I think they’re wrong.)
There are many paths to changing broken places inside you. One of them is the process of knowingly breaking and remaking yourself.
Robert Anton Wilson once wrote that “A true Initiation never ends”. What that means to me is that a truly revelatory experience doesn’t affect you just once. Instead, you keep coming back to it (and it keeps coming back to you), and your understanding of it goes deeper as you gain life experience and notice more patterns and correlations. (Initiation’s dark and unfortunately-frequent twin, Trauma, works the same way. For me, the goal is to try to accept more of what the initiation is trying to tell me—and to find ways to break out of the patterns that trauma tries to weave in my head.)
What if we theorize that it shouldn’t be our goal to find kink which could never break us, but rather, to find kink which can help us be ourselves, can help us piece and stitch and weld ourselves into something similar to what we were, but new—and better?
What if we want to use fear as something which devours us completely—so that we know we can go through it and live?
What if we choose pain to remember that our bodies are frail, but our spirits are limitless?
What if we choose that which might destroy us, in order to recreate ourselves as something vastly bigger than before?
Being Burned Versus Being Forged
“Play with fire, you’ll get burned” might be one of the oldest ideas in human history, particularly since control of fire was pivotal in our evolution. And it’s likely that one of the earliest corollaries to “We need fire” was “Fire sometimes hurts us”.
Whether or not you “need” kink is up to you. But, contact with kink, like contact with fire, will eventually singe us.
What do we do with that?
We shouldn’t ignore it, and we can’t just wave it away. Identifying negative experiences is really important. It can help us see abuse; it can help us understand or recognize that we have symptoms of depression or PTSD; it can help us realize that a particular pain or aversion is not some inherent “weakness”, but something caused by what we’ve experienced. (It is quite understandable to develop an aversion to the sea if you’ve been stung by a jellyfish. But what you do thereafter is not determined by the jellyfish or the sea; it is determined by you.)
We can’t control all of our emotions; most people believe we oughtn’t try. Your mind is meant to make you want to evade that sting in the future, and there are times when it’s wise to listen. But there are also times when your mind is sensing a jellyfish that isn’t there, and the more you can teach it to break that pattern, the more your head will be free.
We’re not helpless in the face of hurt. Because there’s no question that expectation, outlook, and methods of processing change how we perceive and recognize events.
You can see this in something simple less frightening than pain—humor, for example. If your friends tell you a show is hilarious, you’re more likely to enjoy it than if they tell you they hate it. The show’s the same; it’s your experience of the show which is different. This is why comedians have ‘opening’ acts; there’s something special in the communal experience of laughing along with a group of strangers (and something difficult, for most people, about laughing when others are silent). This is also why reason sitcoms have laugh tracks, and why standup comedy is recorded in front of live audiences. Even if we’re listening to comedy by ourselves, we still seek exterior validation that it’s okay to laugh.
Comedy is a good example of this basic piece of humanity: things which are hypothetically exterior to an experience can have a huge, even game-changing effect on how we process that experience.
This is important for many reasons, not the least of which being that we have more tools with which to sort through what has happened. In other words, you are not a prisoner of your experiences. You are, instead, a combination of the things you have done, the things you have experienced, and the things for which you strive.
In “Scars”, we seek a model of agency and determination. We don’t claim to be immune to the rest of the world; nobody is. But we look to combine the elements of our life with goals of self-mastery; to take the bad, the good, and the uncertain, and try to use them to construct our future. We use those aspects of self to try to become better at everything we do, could be, and are.
And that includes our burns; in fact, it requires them.
To be alive is to accumulate experiences, some incredible, some horrific. If we are harmed–by ourselves, circumstances, other people—it’s important to think about how to respond, to try to determine whether it was ignorance or malice, to figure out what was going on, and why things ended up going wrong.
How do we reconcile that with the inherent danger of what we do? Consider this as a baseline:
We do not make better kink by trying to erase all possibility of said harm, any more than we’d make it better if our entire intention was to do ourselves damage. We need to recognize that the harm will come, and incorporate that knowledge into what it means to be kinky, what it means to exchange power, what it means to do what we do.
We acknowledge we will accrue burns. And we give ourselves permission to seek the alchemical transformation of those burns into strength. That doesn’t always mean forgiving or forgetting the cause of those burns; it just means that we expect to sometimes make contact with fire, and we need to be ready to translate that hurt into a stronger inner fire.
There are no magic words, there is no self-help mantra which dispel depression, fear and self-doubt for all people and at all times.
But here are some thoughts of power available to those of us who push ourselves in kink:
- “The mind says to be paralyzed by danger; but danger is one of the places I call home.”
- “This is only fear. I have faced fear before, and survived.”
- “Pain can be strong enough to rule your life, but that day has not come yet.”
- “I have walked willingly into places more difficult than this one”.
- “Perhaps the worst will happen; but if it does, I will take it in, learn from it, and become better.”
EMBRACE THE ANVIL
An anvil is an unyielding force against which one tempers a piece of metal by striking it repeatedly with a smith’s hammer. This is a mantra of the anvil:
I will come back.
Rely on me.
I will come back.
Sometimes I will fail.
Sometimes I will lose.
Sometimes I will break.
I will come back.
I will come back.
I will come back.
I will come back stronger.
Our scars define us.
I have scars I would like no-one to see. I have scars I hate. I hate their origin, their diminishment of my capacity, the remembered pain of incurring them.
But they are utterly mine. However they came to be, they are a part of my body, as much as my left hand is; as much as my lack of a left hand would be, if I lost that piece of myself.
One survivor to another, I would not tell you that you are required to see trauma, PTSD, or loss in any one way. But I can tell you what I use:
This pain is a part of me.
This ugliness is a part of me.
But it does not mean that I am defined by pain. It does not make me ugly.
These things are part of my resolution:
To continue whenever and however I can.
To sometimes stop, but never give in.
To surrender only as my own choice.
Every scar, visible or invisible, is an icon of power. Every difficult thing brings a new scar, visible or otherwise. I am the culmination—so far—of a continual pattern of building strength into and onto my skin.
Every scar makes me bigger. Everything that tries to stop my growth makes me grow.
And I will grow until I surpass every obstacle that I can, and gain strength from every obstacle I cannot surpass.
Kink is my obstacle course, my proving ground, my place of training. Sometimes it hurts me. But it is always my home.
What Does It Mean That Our Scars Define Us?
We all have scars.
Some are not physical.
Some are only inside, not visible from the exterior or by others.
Now, sometimes deal with things which make us shy away or cringe. Let me tell you this:
It’s okay—and sometimes necessary, especially if we are to have empathy—to regret or be ashamed of what we have done; to fear what we have gone through, or what lies ahead.
But don’t let it make you curl into yourself when you most need to stand straight. Don’t move away from that awkward and sticky pain. Get closer, if you can.
Embrace your scars.
If it is damaging to think of the wound directly right now, don’t. But take on all the infected places surrounding that scar tissue, and pour on it the iodine of your will and determination.
This is the power of working with a kink that scars us: We face down the prospect of those scars by choice. We learn; we endure; we fight.
Anxiety, pain, damage, uncertainty and challenge are our companions. They can’t intimidate us with the possibility that they will rise up before us; they’ve already done so, many times. Sometimes they’ve pushed us back, made us doubt, hurt us. And yet here we are, once again. Even if our bodies fall, our minds can—and will—rise.
SEEKING DANGER IS NOT THE SAME AS SEEKING HARM
Let’s be clear about this.
We don’t seek dangerous things out of a death-wish, or a desire for injury.
We seek to be challenged, and we recognize that challenge comes with risk.
We are neither unaware of danger, nor pursuing it for intentional harm.
We merely know that we seek out situations, experiences, and growth which cannot be had without the risk of pain, even loss.
We acknowledge risk. We seek to manage it.
But it does not control us. Fear is not our master. It is part of the path necessary for anyone who does kink, regardless of role: the self-mastery that enables you to keep going.
THE HARD PATH
Give me the hard way.
Not because I am foolish and don’t realize I could be harmed.
Not because of bravado or posturing.
Not because it makes me look good.
Give me the hard path because that is the path of vision and possibility.
That is the path of undiscovered secrets.
That is the path which tests me.
That is the path whose destination is unknown.
That is the path of the journey that will take me closer to my hungriest, my most vulnerable, my strongest, best self.
Give me the hard path. Give me myself.
Passion is hunger. Hunger is a motivator which sometimes leads us down paths we’d otherwise avoid.
The desire for consensual dominance and submission, in any role, is a craving, and sometimes a need.
People will do a lot to fill that need, once it’s awakened.
And we already stand with one foot on the sovereign terrain of the unthinkable. Having entered this world, it’s often hard to exit. And once you start to see what kink has to offer, you being to recognize how much you might lose if you leave it behind.
I’ve mentioned “risk” a number of times. I’d like to consider a few of those risks now.
A Note On Predation
If we’re going to speak about consensual kink which might create physical, mental, or emotional injury, then we ought to take a moment to talk about nonconsensual kink which can do that damage—also known as “predation”.
We hope and desire to catch those who hide behind kink in order to lie, to cause harm on purpose and suffer no consequences, to use kink as a disguise for abuse. We wish to stop them just as, when I was a child, we sought to avoid those who, we were told, carefully put poison or razors into Halloween candy.
(Ironically, the first reports of tampered Halloween candy appear to be urban myths. In fact, almost every “report” or breathless “warning” about tampered Halloween candy has been proven false, and out of hundreds of thousands of instances of trick-or-treating, there are almost no confirmed cases at all. None whatsoever.
Yet it’s one of the primary reasons people give when they talk about why they don’t want their offspring trick-or-treating.)
I’ll be blunt: creating a kink where false moves and mistakes are seen as predation is not the answer. For one thing, it gives everyone involved a violation a motivation to lie–to themselves and/or others. People who might have stepped forward to say “I think I made a mistake” are now more inclined to stay silent, because we believe so much less in “honest mistakes” and so much more in “dishonest predators”. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle.
Furthermore, experiences of consent are not always binary. It is entirely possible for one person to say, “You meant to hurt me!”, and the other to say “I never meant to hurt you!” – and have each of those people be speaking the truth as they know and experienced it. I have literally born witness to situations where two people each say, “The other person violated my consent”—and I believe that each of them was telling (what they saw as) the truth.
This creates problems which can only be solved by, in essence, deciding who is the “liar” through dogma, ideology, or guesswork, none of which are highly effective at the main goal—discovering if, when, and where people are violating consent on purpose.
(They’re a bit more effective at figuring out when people are violating consent by accident. But if we don’t differentiate between accidents and intentional harm, the point is moot. Worse, if we conflate accidental and intentional harm, we create an entire series of new problems. That doesn’t let the awkward, the careless, or the mistake-makers off the hook for the consequences of their actions; it just doesn’t make them predators. And one great way to MAKE people into predators is to take those who’ve made mistakes, and proclaim that they are, in fact, monsters. Once you’ve ostracized and attacked someone, it’s not surprising that said person becomes much less interested in becoming a productive, positive member of the greater kink community.)
Being willing to hear people is highly important. Being willing to let people who’ve been hurt speak up as safely as possible is highly important. But creating spaces for only one side to be heard, whichever side that is, has never, historically, been good for anyone (not even that side.)
If we want to have working communities, whether small or large, then we. Need. To. Talk. We need to discuss problems, dangers, and both possible mistakes, and possible abuse. We’ve been aware for a long time that many things which might need to be discussed have been silenced instead. But our response, while understandable, is broken–silence those who’ve been too loud, give voice to the voiceless. It changes the dynamic. It gives some power to those who needed it and didn’t have it. But it’s a shitty damn way to figure out something as slippery as “Who is a predator?”
Unfortunately, all we have now is a transition of silencing. And that transition isn’t as simple as “once accusers couldn’t speak, and now the accused can’t speak. (Which, if it were true, would arguably be an improvement…but it would still be seriously problematic.) What we actually have, at the time of this writing, is essentially a wholesale silencing of anyone who might question what’s going on. And honestly, I personally believe that it gets worse: I think there’s a lot of internalized silencing.
That is to say, I’ve watched a lot of people in the kink community self-silence because we’ve created such a firm line–“This is wrong, and anyone who questions it is aiding and abetting abuse”. Yes, we can all agree that abuse is an evil. But once we make the definition of abuse into an ever-widening series of actions and possibilities, we force ourselves to shrink our actions smaller and smaller. And that is a series of tiny deaths.
It’s a cycle. We don’t want to be seen as evil by others, and if that means shutting up, we’re likely to shut up. And we don’t want to be perceived as evil by ourselves; and if that means shutting off or shutting down parts of our own thoughts, our own questions, our own uncertainties and our own mental explanations—then that’s a thing we’ll do.
The ugly truth is this: Much as the automatic presumption of innocence is toxic, the automatic presumption of guilt is toxic. It is dangerous to call everyone who makes a mistake, or even everyone who participates in a monstrous act, a monster—because it dilutes ability to find actual monsters. And it gives us the most obfuscating, the least productive, the most difficult circumstances under which to consider the difference between a mistake or a flaw, and the work of a demon.
It spirals. The more we dilute our ranks hunting demons (who often simply do not exist), the more power we give to those who lurk in the shadows, who revel in the appeal of their “danger”, who say, “Play with me – I’m so scary and dangerous that I am banned for how tough I play.”
We push potential violators out of spaces we control, and we wonder why they reappear in spaces which lionize them. And yet, how many of us, faced with “be an exile over there, or be a hero over there” would choose to be an exile?
As someone who pioneered the failed, disproven, and utterly wrecked theory that what the community needed was ban-heavy events, I’ll give you the conclusions, free of charge: We angered those we banned. We angered their friends. Eventually, many of them made up with their accusers, their accusers become their friends—and I had a wealth of angry, bitter people who wanted to see justice: they wanted to see me banned, just like they were, and they wanted to destroy the events which took away their homes and their happiness.
I can tell you this from experience: Economically speaking, when you encourage the “good” events to ban harder, you actually strengthen the “dangerous” events, those which care much less about a dangerous or bad reputation—or actively seek out those things. The kink community seems to believe that it can just get rid of some entrenched and entitled monsters, and become safe. It can’t. If you ban everyone who might be an abuser from every major event, it still wouldn’t end those peoples’ careers. You’d still run the risk of simply creating competitors to mainstream kink.
There’s no perfect solution, except “We need to reexamine our idea of monsters, and what to do when we think we’ve found them”. That’s not at all the easiest or more pleasurable path. But the more you define people as monsters, the more you cause some people to as some parties and events already do, “Monsters welcome”.
Who wants to play with the scariest monster, the riskiest person?
So, so many people do. Be careful about giving out those labels; they’re double-edged swords.
ON THE LIMITATIONS OF KNOWLEDGE
It’s possible to predict some kinds of creation, sometimes.
I’ve heard of a few painters who speak of seeing a painting precisely in their heads before they paint it. Some writers plot out every last detail before they write, and then follow that blueprint to the letter—though they also tend to make copious revisions. Mark Knopfler once mentioned that he created Dire straits to render the sounds he had previously heard only in his head.
You can make art that way. But I don’t think that foreknowledge is the norm. I think most people engaged in creative work find that, to paraphrase Tolkien, “the tale grows in the telling.
Even if some art is completely predictable in advance, I’ll tell you this: almost no collaborative art is that way. Nor would we want it to be.
If Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett knew exactly how “Good Omens” would turn out, down to the last word, they wouldn’t have needed to work together to produce it. Sure, it would have made good money—but it wouldn’t have been an interesting project for them, and for two men with more than enough money, the lure of a unique product was irresistible.
Knowledge is imperfect. And the more we collaborate—the more we create something between multiple minds–the less we can know of the other heads involved. (Unless it’s not a real partnership, and just additional hands – if you have three people in the kitchen, and one of them prepares food and the other two spend the rest of the time stirring, that’s not collaboration, that’s just multiple people.) Kink interactions are collaborations. And that means we enter Uncertainty.
There is only so much you can know in a collaboration, and only so much you can control.
And all kink is a collaboration (except, perhaps, for solo kink – and even there, my experience is that people tend to use that time to think about kink which involves at least the idea of other people). I don’t care if you feel that one of the people involved is a passive recipient; it’s still the sum of your mutual actions and responses. All kink is collaborative creation, and thus kink is inherently unpredictable.
(Yes, you can strive to make your kink as predictable, as ordinary, as mundane, as everyday as humanly possible, to minimize surprises. But if that is your kink, then you and I want very different things out of what we do.)
Here are some of the things you can know and do:
- Earn and develop trust. Give your partner reason to have faith in your intentions through showing, in the longterm, that you do not seek an unfair advantage, but rather an even and mutual exchange. That doesn’t mean a lack of D/s; it means that all those involved should be in a position to have their wants and needs met.
- Communicate to and with your partner(s) about what you have done, when you are able. The nature of kink sometimes creates an inability to access language easily. That makes it even more important for us to practice developing words for when it becomes difficult to speak.
- Be mindful of what you’re doing. It’s sometimes too easy to mis-estimate the difficulty of an act, even one with which you’re familiar—if you’re learning, it’s hard to know; if you’re experienced, you can make something ‘routine’ enough that you skip a step or miss an important point. That’s why I’d say “be mindful” rather than “know what you’re doing”—knowledge (and ignorance) are both dangerous if not driven by proper focus.
- Try hard to be on the same page about wants, desires, and fears. On all sides.
- Have a plan in place for how you best communicate in bad spaces, or when something goes wrong. What should one person do if another shuts down? Do you have emotions which you need to fight, in order to speak? Do your emotions shut down when you’re in a bad place? You cannot, cannot anticipate every possible problem; but you can have an idea of some ways that you respond to problems, and how to create communication thereafter.
Here are some things you cannot know:
- The precise effect of something new on your partner (or, often, yourself).
- How much trust you might lose or gain, and what it will do to the limitations and abilities of your relationship to the other(s).
- The precise effect of something you’ve done before with your partner when one or more of you is in a different physical/emotional circumstance from the last time.
- What happens when you enter new or deeper parts of the mind. In fact: the deeper the part of the mind you enter, the less you can predict the result. (But the more shallowly you enter the mind, the more shallow, in general, the resulting interaction.)
- You cannot always know what a kink interaction will become, even if it’s one you’ve already engaged in before.
This is not intended as a comprehensive list; it’s just meant to be a starting place. The gist is:
As mentioned before, you cannot wholly predict the effect of any meaningful kink experience. We don’t have a perfect solution. The closest we come is the ability to communicate, to figure out our needs and wants, and to talk about them as best we can.
SOME THINGS WE CANNOT KNOW ABOUT CONSENT
We have a basic idea that if A is a thing, then, by definition, Not-A cannot be that thing. If A is the pen I am using to write this, then Not A can be anything BUT that pen.
Consent doesn’t always work that way.
If Person X says that Person Z violated their consent, and Person Z says she did not do so, they can, potentially, both be “right”.
For one thing, Person X can truly believe their consent was violated, while Person Z truly believes that no consent was violated at all. A “zero tolerance” policy attempts to solve the solution by saying, “Well, we’ll just get rid of the person who is accused”. That does not work well.
Yes, it’s better than hiding the situation and pretending it isn’t real. But it has severe problems. (For one thing, what if the accused then accuses the accuser? Do we believe in chronological order? That could easily create a world where people rush to make sure they make the “first” accusation.)
But that’s not the heart of the situation. The difficulty increases when we add the problem of limited knowledge.
All understanding of human interaction is imperfect; we cannot see into the inner souls and inner truths of every person. That doesn’t mean we know nothing. It means that even excellent self-knowledge is limited; knowledge of others is, by necessity, even more limited.
(Examples: Precisely how hungry are you? How much emotion will a particular piece of new media cause you? At what moment have you had too much to drink? When, exactly—time, day, and date, please–do you start and stop being contagious in the course of a particular illness? How do you put into words an inexplicable feeling, and will those words make someone else understand your point of view?)
Like most things, this becomes much more complex when we add at least a second person into the equation. “How do you perceive the color green, and how is that different from my perception?” “If the sound of a whip cracking makes us both happy in the right context, please quantify exactly how happy, and what that happiness does to your neural chemistry. Use charts.” Or in other words: the inside of another’s head is not a fully knowable thing. (I submit that even if we had portable technology to measure the reactions of someone’s brain—which is not a comforting concept—there would still be a great deal we could not understand. Even if you could tell for sure whether or not someone thinks they’re lying, that’s cold comfort when two peoples’ honest perceptions simply run counter to each other)
None of this means that we can’t or shouldn’t try to establish common ground for consent. What it means is that deciding consent is not always easy.
That’s why building consensual interactions involves so much communication. You get better at figuring these things out as you do more of it; but you also tend to start doing more advanced play, which ramps up the consent questions.
And all this is made even more difficult if you are trying to use “breaking consent” as a means for finding predators.
Because this is the thing about predators—about people who consciously use kink (or anything else) to take what they want, without caring about (or even with preference for and enjoyment of) the harm they do to others. To be specific, they only care insofar as that harm might endanger them.
Predators, real honest-to-Gods “in this to hurt and manipulate others” people will not act in good faith.
In other words, no matter what your system is, predators will try to construct consent as a situation with a “winner” (them) and a “loser” (the others)—and then they will do their damnedest to avoid getting “caught”.
What does this mean, and why is it important?
It means that if you destroy everyone who you catch who may have violated consent or might be seen as having violated consent, you MAY catch some predators…and you WILL catch non-predators who actively seek to create consent.
And in so doing, you will deplete the supply of people who act in good faith, and leave predators more opportunities to refine their tactics and actions so they are harder and harder to catch. And since you’re creating a rich harvest of “people who may have violated consent” to deal with, you have a lot fewer resources to put into “investigating people who may be dangerous predators”.
And that is EXACTLY the kind of world a predator would like to live in.
Tops Who Safeword, Bottoms Who Abuse, And Other Unpleasant Truths
I have spent a lot of my life talking about the fact that, while I respect safewords, they are flawed. They’re flawed culturally, emotionally, and individually, and that’s not because of any weakness or problem with the person(s) who might safeword. The short version is that they’re a very legitimate tool, but there are a lot of reasons why it is hardest to safeword when said safeword might be most needed.
Originally, I wrote this as a piece discussing what it might mean for tops to be able to safeword. And you know what? If you top, and being able to safeword helps you, more power to you. There’s always been a piece of the safeword which is a social lubricant—the idea that you can say “Red” more easily than you can say “stop”, and there are times when that threshold of speech is very critical.
But that’s never been the core of a safeword. The idea is to create space for the bottom in a power dynamic to have some ability to alter or stop a scene without breaking that dynamic. It’s a means of creating some control in a situation that is defined largely by giving up control.
I’m not entirely sure when the idea of tops safewording entered kink culture. I’ve spoken to several other people who’ve been in the scene for between 10 and 30 years, and none of us seems to recall being taught this idea when we first started. I’m not sure I even heard of the concept until perhaps two or three years ago, and even then, it was always, “You know, tops can safeword, too”—as if this was some long-accepted wisdom, instead of a new concept.
Even when I first heard it, it was hard for me to give credence to the idea. It’s part of the role of the top to maintain some level reasonable emotional control, and if the top can’t do so, that’s a serious danger sign. (Are we asking tops to be superhuman and emotionless? No. We’re saying that if the person in control of a scene loses self-control, then that scene is entering an area of danger. I’ve known tops to have scenes where they pretty much “let go” completely; those scenes were deeply negotiated, and they needed to be)
I can think of a time when I wish I’d safeworded: my scene with U, just a year or two ago, a needle scene wherein I was essentially there for emotional support, as I don’t do needle play. Because what they asked of me was not okay, and I wish I had stopped it. But I realize that’s my retrospective mind thinking. It’s how I feel now. It’s not how I felt then. Do I think U violated my consent? Perhaps. Do I think it was intentional? No.
Should I have safeworded? Well, if I had, I would have been spared some pain. But I would have felt that I’d let down other people—and I’d have felt some of their pain, as they, in turn, worried about me. That is a natural part of safewording for many people. It doesn’t make people wrong for safewording. It just opens up another problem: once safewords are introduced, there’s a certain amount of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.
And that is just a piece of the problem. I can’t speak to the intent of whoever introduced “tops can safeword” as a concept (and again: if you’re a top, and safewords empower you, then I’m glad you have them; you do the kink that works for you.) But I can say that there’s a clear danger here:
We’ve long noted that submissives who bring consent allegations tend to be asked, “If the person was violating your consent, why didn’t you safeword?” It’s a legitimate question. And we’ve found a lot of ways to make that question illegitimate. We say that there were factors of intimidation, or social pressure, or altered mindspace. These aren’t unreasonable points, and it’s true—lack of safewording doesn’t mean a scene was consensual.
Only there are a growing number of people who won’t accept those aforementioned “reasonable” points. They don’t put it like that. They simply say, “If you can’t safeword, or if you won’t safeword, we can’t play”.
Why is that?
They’re trying to articulate something much bigger: you can’t really construct consent in a world where someone can decide, retroactively, years later, that any given scene was nonconsensual.
In that universe, there’s a really ugly thought we need to bring up, regarding the idea that tops can safeword. Saying bottoms can safeword gives them a piece of power and an element of safety. Saying tops can safeword gives those tops very, very little power that they don’t already have… and gives them all the liabilities of “not safewording”. In other words, rather than giving tops more agency by saying they can safeword, we’re actually introducing a new level of blame.
And that would be obvious, except that we have tremendous difficulty admitting the existence of predatory bottoms.
(Let’s be clear. We’re NOT letting predatory tops off the hook. But emotional manipulation can happen to anyone, regardless of role. The only kind of dominance immune to emotional hooks is a kind of dominance which doesn’t care about a submissive’s feelings….which would, ironically, be one of the definitions of an abusive top.)
We have difficulty accepting that there are bottoms who, intentionally or otherwise, will manipulate and control those around them, including their tops. And tops are absolutely vulnerable. When we think of loving or caring dominants, for example, we think of dominants who look at submissive’s physical, mental, and emotional needs, and attempt to satisfy those things.
That’s not an unusual dynamic; in fact, it’s the premise of more than a few books. But it’s a dynamic which is highly open to manipulation. It doesn’t have to be intentional manipulation; anyone can have emotional needs which are simultaneously quite real, and also quite harmful to themselves and others. But it’s also, quite definitely, something which can be intentionally manipulated.
I’ll give you a simple notion: until we recognize that dominants can be abused just as much as submissives, giving dominants a safeword doesn’t do a lot to increase their power or agency. But it deeply increases their susceptibility to harm.
I’ll give you another thought:
- We tell submissives that they can safeword if the dominant’s actions get to be “too much”.
- We tell dominants that they can safeword if their own actions get to be “too much” for them.
I’ve heard it maintained that dominants, especially male dominants, have had all the power in the kink community for a long time, and they are therefore more likely to be abusive.
Maybe. It could also be that we don’t see “abusive” actions by submissive as abuse—or tend to believe dominants who say they’ve been abused.
A Letter To The Fucked Up:
I don’t know how many of you there are. All I know is, even where I am now, I hear from you all the time. I hear, “people tell me that what I want to do is dangerous, that it is risky, that it is scary. I want to hurt or be hurt in ways that people do not think is cool, even though the others involved in the actual act are as willing and eager as I am. What’s wrong with me? Why am I fucked up?”
Let me give you this to think about. The ones who insist on being small, the ones who insist on being conquered by their fears, the ones who need to judge you, the ones who can’t let you be yourself.
Maybe they are the ones who are fucked up.
This is part of what kink means: consent changes everything. Figuring out consent can be incredibly complex; it can be difficult; it can be painful. But ultimately, it is between you and those with whom you engage in kink. If a party, or a group, or an organization says, “We don’t approve of what you do, and you can’t do it in our space”, then it’s sometimes worth thinking about whether or not they have a point, whether or not they see something you don’t. But they absolutely do not have the right to tell you what you and yours can do to with and for each other, in your own spaces, on your own time.
We make a lot of decisions about consent–in communities, at parties, in arguments on the internet. We don’t know a better way of trying to look into the problem of people who would break consent maliciously and try to hide it.
But that is societal, not individual. If you and yours know that what you do is done with consent, then fucking do it. And screw those who tell you that it’s wrong. That doesn’t mean that I recommend automatically ignoring other peoples’ opinions–one of the benefits of being a part of a society is that you don’t have to reinvent every wheel, and you don’t have to be the only one who tends your fire. Listen to critique; make room for people to offer to help or ask you to consider doing something differently. But don’t let people tear you apart because you are different from them.
Doing things that other people dislike is not inherently fucked up. Being judgmental of others, most particularly when it is not constructive, when it does not seek to help but merely seeks to suppress, or stop, or destroy, is not okay. That is what is truly fucked-up.
And if there are enough of those “other people” to form what they would call a community, if they get to set “the standards” and decree from on high that you are fucked up, then maybe fucked up is the best thing to be.
Do you know who really, really gets a kick out of cutting other people down? It’s the ones who just can’t stand the fact that others are willing to reach higher than they do.
You grow, and be your beautiful, fucked-up self. The ones who disagree with you, but respect you, will show it. The ones who want to make you smaller because they, themselves, are tiny…. They deserve your pity, not your fear.
A Note From The Underground
I am no historian, and I suspect it would be a mistake to try to predict the kink future, or even try to understand the kink present, by analyzing the past. A lot of our past was intentionally hidden, and a lot of what we know about it comes from what we might call the oral tradition, or what I once heard called, “All the history people like to tell, and none of the history they wish hadn’t happened.”
That is far from a criticism of those who talk about the kink of the past. Even when our memories are clear, they’re still subjective, and it’s quite unfair to ask a small number of individuals to paint a holistic picture of the actions of hundreds or thousands of people. (And let’s face it–very few of us really prefer telling the least heroic or most embarrassing part of our life stories, especially when we are trying to encourage people to follow in our footsteps and become a part of our culture.)
In many urban areas, kink is much more overt than it used to be. But it’s still, in theory, underground. That being said, we’ve experienced a comparatively recent, deeply enhanced ability for kinked people to connect through the Internet. And there is no doubt that the internet has made the community vastly larger and vastly more full of more easily accessed information (as well as opinions and, perhaps, misinformation.)
We also note that famous bump in our numbers from the popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, even though many of us decried the actual “kink” supposedly depicted in those books, (and in their multitude of spin-offs and rip-offs.)
Kink is certainly more visible than it has been at any other point in my lifetime; less criminalized than it has been for most of my life; and more able to operate above ground, rather than in secret.
I’d really like for that to be a good thing.
But it isn’t.
It’s not like kink is safe in the vanilla world. There are some jobs where you can show up with bruises and rope burns; there are more spaces when you can tell your friends and neighbors (some) of your kink life. But we’re not anywhere near a point where, say, kink can’t be used against you in a custody battle. We’re not at a point where kink won’t be used against you on social media, if people decide to do so.
No, I don’t want us to be forced back into the closet. I don’t want the vanilla world to shame people for their kink. I don’t want anyone to be outed or lose their jobs for their kink.
The problem is, we are now being outed. People are losing their jobs. And probably more than any time in history, people who practice kink are being shamed.
That shaming is happening on a smaller scale than it once was, which ought to be a positive. It isn’t. That’s because it is not originating primarily in the mainstream world. And the relative smallness of that shaming isn’t helpful, because it’s easily at the ugliest nadir I’ve witnessed in the entire 25 years that I’ve been part of the scene.
That’s because the shaming is coming from us.
It’s coming from inside. It’s coming from our comrades, our kink families, our own communities. And they have incredible power over us. Because we have long tried to believe that all kink is equal, and therefore, if ANY people within kink tell us that we are sick or wrong or evil, we know they are not ignorant Outsiders, who think that a flogging is an attempted assault. They are theoretically people just like ourselves.
I should know. I was one of them.
After my own allegations, I deleted almost a decade of writing from FetLife. I’m not saying that I forsake every piece of it, because I do not. But I can tell you that in retrospect, there were dozens and dozens of times when I was simply caught up in a Feeding Frenzy, a mob of sharks who scented blood and dove right in. And we were all certain that it was okay, because we were sure we were fighting for the side of consent.
How do I feel about those days? It should be evident by now that I believe that, even if we did good, we also did a lot of harm. We were ready; we were moral reapers, determined to obliterate those who we saw as dangerous to the community.
Whether our causes of consent were righteous or busted, I will let you in on a truth: we were machines that manufactured monsters. Let people debate whether we were finding evil, or just deciding to perceive it was there. The critical thing is that once the consent community was a large enough group, we found the joys of building mobs.
Humans love active Community. Humans love to feel right. We literally achieve an addictive neurochemical release when we act in what we believe to be righteous outrage. And I’m going to tell you this. Even if we were 100% right at that time, even if everything we did was right, we were still wrong. Because we believe we were driven by our ethics and our desire to Build a Better World. And some piece of that is true. But our consent mobs were also driven by endorphins, by a desire to signal our own virtues, and—eventually—by the very real and justified fear that if we weren’t a part of the mobs, we’d become their targets.
Kink itself is already fraught with risks and neurochemical alterations and psychonautics and circumstances which are specifically meant to run counter to societal norms. If all the actions we take in kink were completely approved by Society, it would be much harder for us to use them to create games or altered headspaces based on reinterpreting and dividing the use of power between individuals. (More succinctly: if kink interactions were normal social dynamics, then they wouldn’t activate us, because we wouldn’t be doing anything outside of our normal lives.)
We’ve tried to have all the societal mindfucking, and still be accepted by society. I’m no longer sure that’s the best course for all of us.
I truly believe that we should consider going back underground.
I don’t mean that we should lose the societal advances that we have gained. I mean that we need to stop acting like we are going to be a local amateur softball team, or the people who run the corner store. What we do is different from what is normal. For many of us, we do specifically derives power from facing and defying the norms of society.
We’ve now had years of the closest I’ve ever seen to societal acceptance of kink. And it’s brought us to a time when we’ve divided and subdivided and attacked each other with a furious passion unparalleled in my experience.
Maybe we need to consider going back underground. Maybe we need to consider small groups of individuals who know each other and talk to each other, rather than large groups who feel they can interact primarily via keyboard, and still know each other.
And perhaps this is the time for us to make our kink spaces into places that DON’T seek the approval of the whole kink world, but rather the kinship of those who believe in a particular space and what it wants to do. Because we have seen what we thought was freedom and what we thought was safety in numbers, and it turned out to be a nonconsensual slavery, and the tyranny of angry primates in large groups.
I say, to hell with all of it. If other people want to spend their time trying to display acceptable faces for an audience, trying to convince both the vanilla and the kink world that they’re just like everyone else, that’s on them. I want passionate kink with like-minded individuals who don’t give a fuck if outside society likes it. I don’t want the roars of approval from a stadium crowd, nor the screams of disapproval of Internet mobs, regardless of the intentions of either.
HOW TO ALWAYS AVOID PREDATORS AND CONSENT VIOLATORS
You can only educate yourself and others, look around carefully and, if you see something that might be wrong, have as much open conversation as possible.
One positive about the scene right now: speaking up about possible predators is fantastic.
But shunning everyone accused of consent violation is not a good coping tool. And I’m speaking from experience on all sides of the fence—from the consent advocacy side, from the accused side, and from the side of someone who has been on the sidelines, watching the scene, for just under a year as I write this.
Shunning drives the remorseful out of the scene, where they can never help or be helped.
And shunning drives predators to the seamier, less-visible parts of the kink world, where they can do the most damage. And they will. And they are.
In a community of people for whom danger is often a serious turn-on, how in the world do we expect to expect to get rid of people by saying, “Those people are dangerous”?
HOW TO DEAL WITH YOUR OWN, INTERNAL AFTERMATH AFTER MALCONSENT
Every consent issue is different. Some are issues of serious, intentional abuse; some are massive unintentional harm; some are uncertainties and questions; many are a mix of all of those things, and more. How you and the organizations of which you might be a part police those things—that is up to you and those groups. How you, yourself, handle it is a combination of what your mind will let you do, and what you seek to do.
I’m not going to address how communities should deal with consent violation; that’s up to them. But I’m going to talk a bit about some things you can look into doing for yourself, if your mind will permit.
These are internal things, or things which happen between you and the one(s) who have caused harm. The fact that I do not list meta-options, of how to speak to a community, of when to seek outside redress, does not mean you should not do these things. It means we live in a space where those actions change your level of autonomy over the result. It’s amazing that we live in a time when it’s much easier for people to be heard when they have consent complaints. It’s not as good when the narrative tends towards “Well, this is abuse; you leave, and we shun the perpetrator”. Yes, there are times when that’s badly needed. But there are times when that does harm, not good. And having it taken out of your hands (say, by an organization deciding to ban someone about whom you are not sure) is neither positive nor pleasant.
Is it in the self-interest of someone who has hurt you to try to convince you that something isn’t their fault? Sure, and that’s absolutely an opportunity for predatory manipulation. But it’s also in your own self-interest to try to weigh what happened as honestly as possible. This means that it’s harmful for you to automatically assume either your own guilt, or your own innocence. Sometimes it’s way too easy to blame yourself when you oughtn’t. Sometimes it’s way too easy to blame others instead of re-examining yourself.
I can’t tell you how best to relate to your own mind. But I can offer you some thoughts on what you can choose to do.
- First, remember this: You own your autonomy. You get to make choices about what happened, and you get to judge what it means to you, and to how you identify yourself and what you’ve experienced.
- You can talk about it. If the other person won’t talk, that’s a red flag. If you don’t have the ability to speak of it, don’t be hard on yourself. Find a means of expression, whatever that is for you. Write it down. Tell a trusted friend to try to find words. Ask a third party to speak to that person. Find something that works.
- You can take time over it. You can do self-care. You can receive assistance and tending from others, if you’re so positioned and so inclined.
- You can decide—not be told—whether the injury and the one who caused it are one and the same, or are separate things. In other words, you get to decide whether you feel your hurt is to be attributed to the person with whom you experienced that hurt.
- And regardless of what you choose to do, you can incorporate this into the pattern of your life. It may not be a joyous piece. But it’s a scar. And your scars belong to you and you alone.
Let’s be honest. Doing what we do can fuck you up. But it can also lift you up. Sometimes we enter the depths of ourselves, partly because of how good, how right it feels, to be in the lowest places, then stretch upwards and turn your face to the rays of the morning star.
You don’t need to “achieve” anything in order to do kink that matters to you. Meaningful kink is its own journey, its own challenge, and its own reward.
That being said, I’m going to offer you three archetypes for growth. They’re not intended as the only things you can do, or even as the best way of doing those things. They’re just some concepts to play with.
Note that these archetypes are not role dependent. It’s not that a dominant takes on one of these roles and the submissive supports it. Instead, I’m saying that kink changes you, changes what you are able to do and be; that if your kink is meaningful enough to change your head, it is powerful enough to change the rest of your life.
My own expression of that “life change” lies the twin arts of doing and becoming. That is, the will to make changes in the world around you, and the spirit to become someone capable of vitalizing those changes.
I’m partial to this archetype, because I long embraced it. Builders make and create; they bring into being things which haven’t existed before, be they books or events or home furniture.
This is also a good starting piece for discussing how D/s fits in, as I’d like to differentiate “personal becoming” from, for example, giving or receiving service. For example, to use my own case, for – I had some people who enthusiastically offered service to support what I was trying to build. And people often created roles which complimented my needs–like taking notes as a personal assistant, helping me stay hydrated, running emergency errands, reminding me to keep appointments, take vitamins, check on particular things at particular times.
But that’s not the core way D/s helped me. Frankly, in terms of direct benefit, I gained as much from being a submissive as from being a dominant in that time. My submission took forms like getting motivation, guidance, stress relief, a chance to devote myself something aside from my work; it was deeply helpful.
In both cases, the real strength I drew from kink was the passion to try to be something other than ordinary, to do extraordinary things. This is not unique to the kink world, obviously. But I’ll tell you: I will gladly accept all of the sources of passion and energy that I can find.
Here are some of the aspects of builders:
- They seek to bring new things into the world.
- They try to see “spare time” as an opportunity to create more things.
- They take pride in making something of use or value.
- They are motivated to attempt more than they “need” to do in life.
I’m going to give some examples of ways we can view and use components of kink to support being the things above:
-Each stroke of conscious, meaningful kink brings new emotions into the world; that is a primal act of creation. It instigates creation in other parts of your life.
-Making new things is audacious as fuck. It’s easy to fear failure. When we face our terrors through our kink lives, we develop our ability to look at outside-world situations with new confidence.
-Being a creator requires deep determination, the same determination which is at the core of any kink which pushes at the edges of our abilities and inner strength.
You’ll find, as we go, that several of these idea are useful in more than one archetype—perhaps all of them. That is by design. Kink gives us many tools, and they’re applicable in the outside world. Go ahead and claim them.
You might think that this is the most obvious of ideas. And certainly, it’s what the outside world often believes of us—that we chose kink because we are unwitting and helpless slaves to endorphins.
But that’s not how it is.
Kink teaches us that deep experiences between sentients can be any combination of science and art, can be many kinds of spontaneity and planning—but what they can seldom be, if we strive for something both innovative and effective, is thoughtless, or effortless. (They might drive us in such a way that we don’t perceive the effort as “work”—but the effort is there.)
If hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure, presumably maximal pleasure, then people of kink are uniquely equipped to consider how to make that possible. Because it’s easy to do something pleasurable; it’s hard to get the most out of it. (You could have a fantastic time eating an entire carton of Twinkies; but that’s a temporary enjoyment, followed by rather a lot of suffering.)
What is the “greatest” pleasure? Is it that which is longest-lasting? Is it the obverse? –that is, something beautiful and fleeting, powerful partly because it is ephemeral? How do we balance the search for pleasure with the importance of surviving day to day life?
(Unless you’re very wealthy, you need to stop the pursuit of endorphin rushes long enough to take out the trash; and hell, even if you ARE wealthy, even our fantasy stories about wealthy kinked people suggest that a life without mundane struggles is hollow. Christian Grey seems self-satisfied, but that’s not the same as actually being fulfilled.)
Sure, kink gives us a vehicle to enact pleasure on each other, but that’s a small piece of the puzzle. What’s more important is that it give us tools to figure out how best to find, understand, and appreciate what pleasure is for us.
- Devising what you’d consider to be the “maximization” of pleasure.
- An ability to experience significant highs—and deal with lows.
- The recognition of life balance versus life alteration when seeking fulfillment
- Understanding of the value of desire.
Some tools kink gives for that include:
- An understanding of the potential inherent in mixtures of delight and pain
- The will to want things very deeply, and then to enact those wants ethically
- The courage to seek joy.
You might think that the path of the servant refers to submission, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I have met no small number of dominants who really wish to be of service to a community, a charity, a cause. (And I’ll take this moment to reiterate that none of these archetypes refers to a kink role, but rather to things which kink empowers us to do.)
The servant wants to help, wants to make life better for others. I don’t feel it necessary to go into questions of motivation or morality (say, whether the Servant is somehow “better” than the Hedonist. I will say that in my own calculus, she is not. Furthermore, there is no reason why one person or one set of people can’t be both. And more than both, for that matter.)
Some ways kink empowers this:
- D/s enables us to see just how meaningful even a little bit of assistance can be.
- Kink gives us the confidence to be secure in ourselves, which is an excellent first step towards assisting others.
- It helps us recognize that service can be ennobling, without getting us hung up on patting ourselves on the back for what we do.
- In facing the challenges of kink, we can gain the strength we need to become a rock or a support for others.
- And it teaches us how puissant it can be both to give of yourself.
Some things required of the servant:
- Being a servant requires finding ways to be sensitive to and aware of the needs and wants of others; that’s no small thing.
- The recognition that little actions can have potentially large effects….and that we’re capable of things both great and small.
- Acknowledging yourself as someone who is able to help or able to learn the skills to help, and then standing up and getting it done.
For your consideration:
My goal here is not to tell you things you need to be, but to illustrate some of what we can be. I’d like to offer two ideas for your consideration: the Seeker, someone who is going through life searching for meaning; and the Adventurer, someone who is going through life seeking new experiences. I leave the exercise of thinking about their various attributes and empowerments to you. And I’ll leave you with this thought: if you look at it through this lens, an extraordinary number of us are already Seekers and Adventurers. For some of us, that’s what brought us to kink in the first place.
The Fight For Scar Tissue: A closing note
Take risks. Fight for your right to do so.
Get hurt sometimes. Fight to survive it.
Don’t let others tell you what your kink should be. Fight them for your right to express yourself.
Grow. Fight your way towards the sun.
Be afraid sometimes. Fight to conquer that fear.
Fail sometimes. Accept it. Try again. Keep fighting.
Offer yourself the peace, the power, and the satisfaction of being a person who’s fought for every inch of ground, every piece of self-knowledge, every difficult answer to every difficult question.
Fight to earn your scars.