Judith Hermans Trauma and Recovery in a BDSM and consent perspective

51feqltiR4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The best book I’ve read on the subject of trauma is by far Judith Hermans Trauma and Recovery – The Aftermath of Violence, From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. In this writing I would like to reflect upon parts of the content from a BDSM and consent perspective.

First a definition of traumatic experience and consent violation – the most important difference between the two is that consent is an agreement between two (or more people) while a traumatic experience is a personal experience. A consent violation can either be caused by a misunderstanding of the agreement, or a conscious or unconscious act of violation. Since there is always two sides to the story of what actually was agreed and what actually happened there will mostly likely be an argument about it. Either between just the two involved, or in a community, or in a court. For this writing what’s important is knowing that independently what happened (if consent was violated or not) one or most likely both involved parties will have an traumatic experience. The rest of this text will be about why we have traumatic experiences and how they affect us from the past and in the future. If you are not up-to-date in the discussion about consent then watch this video.

What creates a trauma is when a person is exposed to an event so overwhelming, often life threatening event, causing them to escape from the present experience. This results in one of two different escape mechanisms, either fight-or-flight-mode when the body gets an rush of adrenalin and tries to either defeat or run away from the threat. Or the person will disassociate or freeze when the mind and body will simply shut off in order to cope with the situation. Most commonly this happens when fight-or-flight-mode fails. The event leaves an traumatic scar that functions as a reminder to avoid similar situations in the future. Within psychotherapy the scar is named complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the definition is complicated (you probably have to read the book and more for a full understanding).

However one common result of PTSD that I believe heavily impacts the act of BDSM play is a behavioural pattern oscillating (switching) between the two extremes of resentment and re-enactment.

During periods of resentment the victim enters a state of hyper-vigilance constantly on the lookout of danger and often reacting with angst, fear and aggression toward things that is reminding of the traumatic scar. The reaction is often not analogous with the present action but amplified by the previous trauma. The triggers can be connected to a wide variety of actions ranging from detailed (for example scent, colour or word) to generalized (for example gender or race). The resentment is usually known by the victim on a general level but the detailed triggers are coded in the unconscious as a instinctive response, that can be learnt and understood over time.

While during periods of re-enactment the victim will find themselves ”looking for” (or maybe ”ending up in” is a better expression) similar experiences over and over again. This can be seen as an unconscious attempt to conquer the traumatic event. By making it into a positive memory or normalize it by discharging built up anxiety. In therapeutic work this is called exposure therapy. The risk of re-enactment (and exposure therapy) is always re-traumatization. That instead of reliving the experience as a positive (or at least manageable) event, the victim is again put into fight-or-flight-mode and/or disassociation. Therefore deepening the traumatic scar.

Looking at resentment and re-enactment from a BDSM perspective I believe that many people in the community are doing this, consciously and unconsciously. And I think its important to make the distinction between trauma play and re-enactment. Trauma play would be playing with a highly charged theme (like rape play) in a conscious and consented way. Comparable to exposure therapy. The risk of re-traumatization is always there, but so is also the chance of healing. During trauma play in my experience the key to success is to understand the power dynamics and the intention ongoing in the session. Looking at the controversial example of rape play:

It can be trauma play were the top/active/dominant is actually giving a gift to the bottom/receiving/submissive with the shared intention of approaching a traumatic scar. The same act (looking exactly the same from the outside) can be sexual play were the top/active/dominant is consensually ravishing the bottom/receiving/submissive for their mutual sexual pleasure.

This distinction has become essential for me when doing therapeutic rope work but I believe it carries strong importance in all types of interactions. It is also important that the traumatic scar might just as well be in the top/active/dominant that is oscillating between resentment and re-enactment.

Finally looking at traumatic scars from a community perspective, I believe that being aware of ones own history around trauma and communicating that is important. To be clear about the intention in a meeting. In the ever growing rope community that carries such wide diversity it is even more important because the intention of a session can be anything from a aesthetic and athletic art work, to a deeply sexual/sensual meeting, or a powerful trauma play. So clarifying the intention is part of reaching consent. Also as a community supporting the victims with traumatic scars by remembering that a trauma is a completely personal experience. It can’t be argued about if it happened or not (like consent violations can be argued about in communities and in courts). Traumatic scars can be faded with time and therapy but they will never fully go away because they are a part of who we are. Parts that we learn to live with by understanding ourselves.

In the book there is also several chapters about repeated trauma in ongoing relationships and childhood, and about denying and shaming trauma both on a personal and community level, that I also think have a huge impact on the BDSM community. So read the book and let me know what resonated with you.

Two other books on the subject that I can also recommend is Trauma Is Really Strange by Steve Haines, which is a 20 page graphical easy-to-read summary of trauma on a personal level, and Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma – The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experience by Peter Levine which looks at trauma from a shamanistic and pre-psychotherapy perspective.