Fetishization of vulnerability (2022)

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

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My Sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

I’m reading Vladimir Nabokov’s cult classic novel Lolita, about a lost man falling in love with a girl child and how they run away together to maintain a dreamlike and impossible relationship. The narration is a romantic, crazy-in-love, lost in a feverish dream, take on paedophilia. He experienced himself seduced by a nymphic temptress. But unmistakable, he is running from the police, having kidnapped this young girl. It’s fascinating because the book makes the paedophile relatable. I think it describes a fascination with vulnerability and the power dynamic that follows. And this relationship dynamic is something I encounter over and over again. Not the erotic ties between a grown-up and a child, but the fetishization of vulnerability. But, of course, it’s not consensual and not conscious in the book. But in reality, between grown-ups, it might be, but it’s still a grey zone. An in-between space. And something that I love trying to understand.

There is this impossible idea about giving everything to belong unconditionally. If I can become the priceless object that you own, then there is nothing more you can ask from me, and this ultimate sacrifice makes me the perfect possession. I can see this in many kinks, like being an owned slave or a highly polished latex object. And in the father-daughter dynamic. Whatever happens, the blood band is still there, and it always will be. There will always be a power dynamic, independently of how much one tries to reject it. But, on the other side of the coin, this brings safety. I can always depend on my parents. At least that’s the narrative about being a family, even if, in reality, it’s a privilege not available to everybody. It’s very similar to the Holywood illusion of love that it’s forever and unconditional. Happily ever after, when the reality is that most people change partners a few times during a lifetime. So I think BDSM can be seen as a ritualization of this practice of unconditional belonging.

The fetishization of vulnerability can take many expressions; the age difference is typical-actual or imagined. And money, and privilege, and being integrated and respected (or not) in society. Like the young troublemaker bad boy being schooled by an older, established woman. The same vulnerability can be found in a traumatized person reenacting an abuse of power and violence and being drawn to authoritative people. I remember a young girl on a kinky internet forum posting a picture of herself in a t-shirt saying, “pscyho chicks fucks the best”. Think of Marla Singer in Fight Club. It’s like something broken that needs fixing that attracts the care-taking daddy-dom. Or something to abuse in the eyes of the predatorial alpha-dom. It’s the extremes of the classical paradox balancing between holding space and being selfish as a dominant that I have written about so many times before. Being stuck in the extreme is dangerous, and finding the right balance is highly individual.

Karpman’s drama triangle of the victim, prosecutor, and rescuer is another tool to view the same interaction. In the role of the victim, one is vulnerable, as in at the risk of being hurt. The rescuer is the daddy-dom trying to fix things, and the prosecutor is the predatorial alpha-dom looking to use the situation. And they need each other. Karpman argues that if one is being a victim, one will attract prosecutors and rescuers, either as new people entering one’s life or as personality traits triggered in people already around. In a relationship drama, it’s normal to move between the roles to embody different aspects of a conflict. However, it can become destructive when being stuck in one of the roles, digging into them like in trench warfare. I often tell people at couples retreats that you’ll be stuck in the conflict forever as long as you see your partner or yourself as only the victim.

Everyone knows that good BDSM contains good drama, storming emotions, and exposed vulnerability. So the dynamic of the Karpmans triangle is often used in BDSM to create a power dynamic. As a part of kink. Most often consensually and sometimes even consciously. The submissive is more or less always the victim; the receiver of pain, bondage, and humiliation. They are the protagonist of the story. And if you want to be the victim, you have to find your other half. Otherwise, there is no one to create a polarity with. The one dominating can be the persecutor; the one whipping, tying and humiliating. Or sometimes the rescuer; giving orgasms, ensuring that everything is okay, and feeding ice cream. I think a “good” or experienced dominant moves between the two, playing both the good and bad cop and somehow becoming the entire world for the submissive. Finally, the submissive can co-create this dynamic by welcoming both the loving touch of a hand and the sting of a whip. Hopefully, writing this is unnecessary, but anyway, what I write about is playing with the victim, care-takes and predator dynamic should be within a conscious and consensual container.

In the book Lolita, which takes the man’s perspective, he always remains in the rescuer or the daddy-dom role. At the same time, she is moving between the victim and the prosecutor or, in kinky lingo, playing the seductive brat. In the book, he never becomes the prosecutor because he never actually does anything sexual with her. Maybe because the narrative is him retelling his dreamlike innocent memories of events that unfolded. Another character would probably tell the story very differently. And we will never know, as the novel, as far as I know, isn’t based on a true story. Reading the book acts as a container to understand a paedophile and, at the same time to understand the fetishization of vulnerability.

Age play and real (but still legal) age differences are other containers for a similar exploration using kink. And maybe it’s a more embodied approach. Similarly, the much-debated method acting technique in theatre that our teacher in directing school warned us about because it digs too deeply into the actor’s psyche. And there are trance techniques (some would call them shamanistic) using religious masks to play out possession of archetypes. So what it all comes down to, I think, is finding safer containers to understand repressed sides of ourselves and our culture. And maybe discharge their power to stop them from spreading outside into everyday life. But what happens when they do?

In my therapeutic sessions, I often meet people deeply stuck in the victim role, which repeatedly attracts prosecutors and rescuers. And when a whole relationship rests upon these fixed roles, I think the relationship will, in the best case, feel one-dimensional or simply end, and in the worst case, become destructive and retraumatizing. But, then, to make things even more complicated, the therapeutic relationship in itself can reproduce the Karpmans triangle dynamics. Different schools of psychotherapy seem to acknowledge this to various degrees. But, it was never mentioned in my medical massage training, even if I met countless people looking for intimacy in touch rather than treatment in our practice clinic. When I asked my practice clients, they often told stories of abuse and how it stopped them from having a normal relationship. In psychoanalysis, if I understood it correctly, it’s even encouraged that the client takes one role and then projects the other onto the therapist, which can bring attention to this behaviour. This complexity is why I think the therapeutic relationship is so sacred, and I have written much more about this in my text about therapy and power; you can find it here.

So this fetishization of vulnerability, what happens when it happens outside a defined container? If anything, it makes relationships stuck in fixed polarity. So, for example, someone stuck in the rescuer role will never have access to expressing vulnerability. Instead, they might find themselves constantly on their tip-toes, waiting to be needed by their partner’s victimhood or being persecuted for not always being available. Or someone stuck in the persecutor will never receive gratitude or devotion from “saving” another or the heart-melting support from showing vulnerability. Playing with these ritualized expressions of extreme polarity is exciting, but they come with risks, like in the story of Lolita. And this is what I’m trying to outline in this musing.