Trauma, consent and trust; or what to do when things go wrong? (2021)

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

BDSM and tantra are almost always edgy subjects. They are attractive because there is a promise of adventure. But the thing with adventure is that there is always a risk of something going wrong. And it will if you keep practising long enough. So what to do when the shit hits the fan? I think it’s possible to split the troubles into three categories—trauma, consent and trust. 

In the bluntest terms, trauma is the miscalibration of the nervous system. One (or many) horrible experiences teaches a response of fight, flight, freeze and fawn. Initially, the traumatic trigger is helpful because it helps us avoid danger. But as time goes by, the trauma might spread and trigger in times and places when it’s not beneficial. The solution is to get away from the danger, have the trauma validated by others and recalibrate the nervous system, as suggested by Judith Herman in the book trauma and recovery. Some can do this in a matter of minutes, while others need a lifetime. I have written about trauma many times before, and you can read about it here. But essential for this musing is that trauma is something internal, and no one can argue what is traumatic for another or not.

On the other hand, consent is social interaction defining how we want to relate to each other. It is the attempt at a mutual understanding of a situation. From predicting what it will be, agreeing on how it is right now, and later sharing its history. I see it evolving in modern society from a spiritual value worth striving for to a matter of law mandatory to enforce. I think of consent on a human rights level, but I know that much of the world is not very consensual. And there will always be an argument (compared to personal trauma) because there are always at least two experiences to consider. So the judgement and conflict resolution belongs outside the intimate relationship. I have also written about consent before, and you can read about it here.

But where does trust belong in this picture? I think it’s the elusive underlying fabric of both trauma and consent. It’s almost so symbolic that it’s hard to define it precisely. When our partner says, I don’t trust you anymore, it often feels like the doom curse that slowly will destroy the relationship. The business coach and author of the book Thin Book of Trust, Charles Feltman, offers one description that I find beautiful.

“Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to someone else’s actions.” and “Distrust is when that thing is not safe anymore.”

Submission and dominance are perfect examples. As the submissive transfers control over their sexuality to the dominant. And as the dominant exposes their perverted desires to the submissive, in theory. However, in reality, the relationship is much more complicated, as both control and exposure are bidirectional.

In another, less nerdy way of saying it, I need to know that it is safe with you if I should show you my demons, my darkness. Together with Berne Brown, the author of the Power of Vulnerability, Feltman made this breakdown of trust that I think can easily be seen through the lens of tantra and BDSM.

First comes boundaries and reliability; trusting that my partner will respect mine and communicate theirs beforehand or as we go. And doing so reliably over and over again. I often describe this as pre-negotiated and on-the-fly consent. And it goes four ways.

  1. Trusting that I can express my boundaries.
  2. Trusting that my partner will respect my boundaries.
  3. Trusting that my partner will express their boundaries.
  4. Trusting that I can respect their boundaries.

I meet many dominants who fail to trust in number 4 because they fear it will consume everything else once they let their darkness out. And if they can’t trust, they can’t form a deep and meaningful BDSM relationship.

Next up is accountability; trusting that I can hold my partner accountable when they break my trust. Similarly, I will be held accountable—this means informing me about the distrust and being given a chance to earn the trust back. Unfortunately, it is often hard to admit when trust breaks because trust is seen as such a virtue. The result is often passive-aggressiveness. So a tip is to ask about accountability when feeling distrusted, to name the elephant in the room. Similarly to boundaries, accountability also goes four ways;

  1. Trusting that I can hold my partner accountable.
  2. Trusting that my partner accepts accountability.
  3. Trusting that my partner holds me accountable.
  4. Trusting that I accept accountability.

I think there is a common misunderstanding about BDSM that it is the dominant that “does things” to the submissive and that the submissive is the only one that needs to trust by putting boundaries, demanding reliability, and accountability etc. But it’s not a one-way street; trust goes both ways independently of the polarity, as this breakdown is trying to highlight. 

Next is privacy and integrity; trusting someone means sharing things with them that I consider private and trusting that these things will be safe with them. Submission and dominance are commonly regarded as very personal. Of course, it is hard to know what my partner shares about me with their friends, but I can understand how much my partner gossip in general and guess that if others secrets aren’t safe, then probably so are not mine. 

Finally is non-judgement and generosity; trusting that my partner generously accepts me for who I’m and that they are not trying to fix me or turn me into someone else; there is no hidden agenda. And that they are generous in their interpretation of me. I have a story from a retreat that fits here; it’s the last day, and we are making this ritual on being seen. Everyone is wearing blank white masks covering the entire face. One by one, people are given the opportunity to uncover their faces and show something vulnerable in front of the group. It requires trust. One girl is crying underneath her mask, and it’s clear that she is fighting herself to take the space and show herself. She sings the most beautiful folk hymn that leaves no one untouched when she finally does. Then she sits down again next to her friend, that whispers, “Don’t worry, love, it’s over now; you never have to do that again.” completely destroying the heroic victory over her self-doubts. The friend was probably shit scared and didn’t trust that she had conquered her fear within her boundaries. I guess that a lot of distrust was born in their relationship afterwards.

So what to do when things go wrong? First, identify the problem; is it trauma, consent or trust. Or in the worst case, all of them at the same time. If there is trauma, look towards therapy; if there are consent issues, ask a non-biased friend to negotiate, or in the worst case, the legal system. If there are trust issues, break them apart and see what failed. Was it boundaries and reliability? What is needed to hold each other accountable? Did you protect privacy and integrity? And did you act out of non-judgement and generosity?