You can listen to this musing here or read it below.
Let’s try to summarize what I have come to learn about aftercare, self-care and resilience. But, first, let’s define the words. Aftercare is what you do together with your partner when ending a session. Self-care is what you do with yourself when your partner is no longer around. Resilience is more complicated, so I’ll get back to it later. It’s common practice in the BDSM culture to talk about aftercare before the session to understand what the other needs, what I’m willing to provide, and how and if that combines. What if someone gets really desperately horny and “needs” sex afterwards? Or at a play party, needs the other to stay with them for the rest of the night?
It’s a misunderstanding that aftercare is only for the submissive. I have written about vulnerability for dominants in length in other texts, but I’ll touch upon it here for completeness. To generalize broadly, the more selfish the dominant has been, the more aftercare they need because they have probably broken many of their own ethical rules. Like you don’t beat people up or humiliate them. Even if it is totally conscious and consensual, the subconscious mind may trigger feelings of guilt and fear. And dominants that fail to acknowledge this vulnerability is more dangerous because they either suppress or normalize their behaviour. Similarly, the submissive mindset may trigger feelings of regret, disgust and shame. Or even anger towards themself or the other. And dealing with that is part of the aftermath of a session.
I tend to think about aftercare as tending to the soul by caring for the physical body. And often, the emotional body is more important, at least in the long run, because bruises and scars almost always heal, while the emotional scars and triggers might stay forever. The first things to do are often pretty obvious; calming down the nervous system, restoring blood sugar, rehydrating and managing body temperature. So, simply make each other feel safe, cared for and loved.
I think it’s interesting to consider what of the aftercare that happens while there still is a polarity or power dynamic. The play often fades away gradually, and the needs and responsibilities will differ accordingly and take many different shapes. For example, in the dominant role, I could order my submissive to pleasure me sexually, give me a massage, or cook dinner as the session ends. This still maintains the power dynamic but with a lower intensity. Similarly, as still as a dominant, I could wrap my partner in a blanket, feed them ice cream and watch a movie together. This is also maintaining the power dynamic. And that could be nice.
Or, we can try to break the polarity by having a very rational chat about what happened and give each other feedback. But, I often prefer to let the power dynamic slowly fade away, maybe even until we fall asleep in each other’s arms. And then leave the rational thinking to another day.
But, of course, a short reasonable; are you okay? Yes, I am—is still both loving and helpful. And if the answer would be be no, then there is an opportunity to deal with it. When things go wrong in an intimate or intense situation, it’s often constructive to deal with it directly. Things might hurt more than expected when one is vulnerable and the armour is off. Bad feelings can be like little monsters, at first completely harmless, but if it’s locked in behind the armour, they might grow and become more and more of a problem. And next time the armour comes off, there is a massive beast on an emotional rampage waiting to come out.
Similarly, when in this vulnerable state at the end of a session, the world might seem dramatically colourful, and one’s emotions might feel more alive. It’s a bit like being overwhelmingly in love. And it can be addictive to feel that much. There is a saying about gravity: whatever goes up must also come down. And it matters a lot how well one can deal with the coming down. Some will drink a glass of wine to dampen the intensity. But, while one glass is okay, one bottle might be too much. So feeling low or hungover after a session is expected and can be dealt with as any other mood swing. And here, resilience comes into play, and we start to move toward the realm of self-care.
Resilience, I think, is the biggest differentiator when it comes to being hurt (or not) in BDSM. One way to measure it is the resources one has to deal with life and many factors contribute to it. A social network is a big one if there is someone that I can call when things are hard. Emotional and physical well-being is another, and how much space there is in my life for not feeling my best. I often talk about needing a vacation after the vacation when the vacation was participating in an intense retreat. Age and experience are another, simply having been through the challenging passages of life. The counterpoint is emotional scars and traumas, known or hidden, accumulated over a lifetime.
The sad fact is that the people with the least resilience or resources to deal with bad situations are also the most likely to end up in them. You can read my text about Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery if you are curious. Hence the one with more experience should probably take more responsibility by asking themselves: am I ready to give the proper care? I remember one of my first and much older mistresses, when I was twenty-something, telling me that I would attract many people through my BDSM life, and if they were young(er), it was my responsibility to make sure that I left them in better shape than I found them. And I think this is still true, but I should probably add that some youngsters are much more emotionally mature than many grown-ups. So it’s not always that easy.
The experience of vulnerability in a BDSM session is, in a way, an irrational space. And the emotional experience often stays much longer in the subconscious than the rational. The experience is made safer by acting it out inside a conscious and consensual container. For example, the bondage filled with shame and exposure is made “okay” because it happened inside a session—an agreed frame. But our modern take on consent is often a very mind-driven concept; read more about it in my text about consent as feeling together. The felt experience still stays in the subconscious. The memory might feel safe because most sessions end safely with aftercare, self-care and ample resilience.
But there is still this function in the brain that memories are revaluated every time they are remembered. And next time, the frame might be different. Like after a big relationship fight, waking up after a hellish nightmare, or being caught in the middle of a stressful life episode. At a time when our resilience is lower, or the other way around, at a time when we have more resources and perspective on the situation. Maybe after leaving a destructive relationship, our evaluation might be different. And things that felt okay during and directly after the session might now feel way out of proportion. Of course, it’s okay to change one’s mind; it happens all the time as time goes on and lessons are learnt. But it’s important to remember that memories of a session are likely to be more emotional than logical and are highly influenced by the current resilience level.
And this makes it tricky; if I feel bad a few weeks after a session, is it that my resilience is low, and I don’t have space for self-care when whatever was up is coming back down. Or did I gain perspective on the situation? I think the only thing to know surely is that my memories are highly dependent on my current mood. Maybe more than how my mood was in the actual session. But I think it’s important to be kind to oneself and use the resilience that one has to handle the situation, like reaching out to the social network or taking an evening in the bath to oneself.
The reason why I started writing this musing is that I got an email asking me about it. And this email ended with a quote from another of my musings, and I think it still makes a lot of sense. “Leaving this state brings sadness, and so does knowing that it’s not for real and not forever. However, there is great potential in learning to let go and say goodbye. People often ask me if it doesn’t hurt, and sure it does, but it hurts because it meant something. It was meaningful.” So many people enter through the party spanking and carousel shibari. But I think allowing or making space for the vulnerable and the hidden desires behind the armour; is one of the most significant gifts that a BDSM session can offer. And, of course, then it becomes essential to know one’s resilience to ask and make space for the proper after and self-care.
Finally, to make things more concrete, a little checklist:
- What is our current resilience level? If it’s very unbalanced, is the more resourceful willing to take more responsibility?
- What are the aftercare needs of the submissive and the dominant? Do they work inside or outside the power dynamic?
- What space do we have for individual self-care once we go our separate ways?
- What previous experience do I have to answer the questions above properly?