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Touching the symbolic body (2020)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

This weeks musing is kind of a continuation of Four languages of power, as it asks – how can touch be a symbol for so much. I first got in contact with this idea of the symbolic body after leaving my career job to study medical massage therapy. Before this, touch had almost always been sexual for me, especially when involving naked people. I remember having massive anxiety in our school’s clinic when working with neck-and-shoulder pains. To help a patient long term, one needs to release the pectoralis minor muscle, and my problem was that this muscle sits under the breast on a female body. I quickly learnt the difference between touching the skin to arouse a partner, and simply moving an impractical piece of meat covering a tiny but very tense muscle.

At first, I thought that how I touched the breast was what mattered, but I soon realized something more critical – that is the “why” or, to be more concrete, the “thought” that I currently held in my mind, at the moment of touching. As a funny side note, the brain doesn’t understand “not” very well, so repeating the mantra “this is not sexual, this is not sexual, this not sexual” actually makes the situation very sexual, and uncomfortable for an aspiring massage therapy student.

So what exactly is that “thought”?

I like to describe it as the evaluation of the current situation. And it is shared, in-between individuals, because we are very good at picking up the mood or vibe in a room. Antelopes do the same, one picks up the signs danger, and the whole herd moves simultaneously. Human beings have evolved the same kind of skill into a fine-tuned social system. And it is a skill, and this that important because it is possible to practice and make it better.

An interesting parallel between being a massage therapist and doing rope bondage is that – the more the client, or rope bottom lets go and hands over the trust, the more the other person can decide the evaluation. So if I do a good job massaging the back of the body first, then there is no problem lifting the breast to the side when getting at annoying pectoralis minor. Similarly, the broader polarity we can create together in power dynamic the more influence dominant, leader, or rope top will have on their partner’s experience of the situation. And in this way, also decide if the mood is sexual, caring, sadistic, or something else. So maybe I am dominating my massage clients, but of course, I would never say it this way.

Moving on, I like to imagine the body as layers stacked upon each other. Core our is the spine, and it’s deeply connected to our sense of safety. I wrote a poem about this called While we are falling, and you can read it here. Muscles cover the spine, and from the second layer that moves us through life. And then finally the skin, our biggest organ, that senses the world around us. Already when an embryo develops into a being, it grows from one mass of cells into three layers. First, the endoderm that becomes our inner organs. Secondly, the mesoderm that forms our skeleton and muscles. And finally, the ectoderm that eventually will become both our brain and skin. I know this is a layman understanding and probably more correlation than causation. Still, it fills me with awe and feeling for how symbolic the body is – just knowing that when I was ten days old, my brain and my skin was the same thing, and how they are still today so profoundly connected.

And around the physical layers is the symbolic body. Eastern esoteric and tantric teachings often describe an energy body that flows through the chakras, along the spine, and forms a field around us. And there are many practices involving touching the energetical body. I have written about this before in my text about bondage and pressure points and BDSM and bodywork. I believe that we have similar ideas in Scandinavia, but we use a completely different language to talk about them. Talking about a symbolic body is the most useful way I’ve found so far. It forms a metaphoric understanding of oneself. One that can shape how we understand the world around us and our evaluation of our place in it.

Now let’s connect the this to rope bondage. Tying the hands is the most obvious starting point to investigate. Hands are our primary tool to interact with the world around us. Their gestures speak in volumes when we, for example, raise a fist in the air against oppression. Tying them is a concrete symbol for that one’s opinion no longer is allowed to be expressed and therefore removes the privilege to participate in shaping reality. It makes the bound person dependent on others, and thus removes autonomy. In everyday life, this is, of course, something horrible. Or only for the people whom we don’t want to impact our society. But inside the shared fantasy of a power play, it can be an invitation to submit and surrender. If you are new to the idea of playing with actions that we otherwise condemn, then please read my text about Playing safer.

So when tying the hands in a rope bondage session,
it can be a practical starting point to attach the rope,
but it can also be a symbolic expression of the mood.

Tying the legs is very similar. Our legs are what moves us in the world. They take us on journeys and adventures and help us run away from danger. Having the legs bound is an invitation to stay in the present, and face what is to come. I often see feet twitching from anticipation, and respond with tying them to ground the emotions. There is an immense difference in tying the legs closed or open. Spreading the legs is exposing and bringing attention to the genital area, that is the most fundamental symbol of sex. While tying an aroused person’s legs closed is showing that sexuality is not in focus right now. And deciding and communicating through action what the current focus is – is furthermore apart of the power play itself.

Distorting the face with ropes is directly connected to how we present ourselves. I remember many years ago when my first mistress gave me to book Dressing the man – a permanent guide to male fashion. It was to teach me how fashion is all about bringing attention to the face – because that is the pinnacle of human social interaction. So making a face asymmetrical, or hindering the possibility to speak has great symbolic value. Similarly hiding the face entirely, communicates that the attention is elsewhere.

But I think one must be careful not to overdo it. Because often when portraying BDSM, things get exaggerated – when the same symbolic point can be much more delicate. Slightly bowing someone’s head forward is an excellent example of this, or exposing a vulnerable part of the body, like the wrists or the neck. If you watch videos of me tying, you can see that I often rotate the wrist upwards before taking the hands and tying them behind the back. Making this motion also rotates the shoulders open to make the arms weaker and expose the heart – that is probably the most famous symbol of vulnerability. This “huge action” can be achieved (with a little practice) by just rotating the thumb. And that why touching the symbolic body is so powerful, because with a small effort as the person tying, you can have a massive impact on your partner.

I should add, for this be effective; there must be an environment where there is space for the little things. In a club with loud techno music and strobing lights, it can be more of a challenge, compared to a tranquil dojo or temple-like environment. But there is also the beauty of contrast, I believe, because if everything exists in the loud space, then the silent space is free. Anyhow this gets very philosophic, and I think everyone has to experiment with what works for them.

I want to end with bringing attention to the most fundamental symbol of control, and that is the balance of the spine. It fascinates me how our bones are in a constant balancing act – gravity is continuously trying to pull us down back into the earth while we are doing our best to raise and reach high. When the spine is balanced, this is easy and requires almost no muscle tension. But when pulled, or tied, out of balance, all the muscles are instantly activated to cope with the situation. Therefore it becomes a tremendous symbolic gesture of holding someone out of balance, in a way where they can relax. A rope bondage suspension is the perfect example of this.

Finally, a book recommendation if you want to go even deeper. A German writer called Hans Peter Duerr and his book Der Mythos vom Zivilisationsprozeß. It roughly translates to “Myths about the Civilizing Process”. In short, the author criticizes the idea that humanity started as wild and shameless, and then created civilization to tame our animal behaviors. There is a chapter in the book about nudity and shame, and how it works to create private space in indigenous tribes living closely and mostly naked together. And he puts that into the perspective of a modern society that shamelessly capitalizes on sex. Below is a picture from the book of a white anthropologist posing with the “shameless and naked tribeswomen” but look at their faces. What I see and the author points out; they look ashamed, maybe because a strange outsider is not respecting their social rules.