Things to know about trauma when tying ropes (2022)

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

As rope bondage is becoming more popular, there is a tendency to transgress from the physical experience of tying someone up to a more emotional or spiritual experience. Unfortunately and fortunately, that process touches more vulnerable places, so I believe it’s essential to understand what protection mechanisms exist, how they work, and what is at stake when fiddling with them. Trauma is one such protection mechanism; that’s how I see it. Addiction, emotional numbness, anxiety etc., are others. But trauma, I think, is the big one to have some understanding of.

Perceiving trauma as a protection mechanism, I think, helps. Someone had a shocking experience and is trying to avoid it again. And it makes sense; however, our nervous system doesn’t know if the circumstances change. Simply the difference between a kid being forcefully wrapped in a blanket until it’s impossible to breathe compared to an adult being consciously and consensually tied up with ropes. So feeling panic and a need to escape when wrapped tightly makes sense for some people, while others just feel hugged and held. Working as a bodyworker, I sometimes have clients with a traumatic history. And I also meet many general issues around sexuality, intimacy, control and power (I mean, who doesn’t have them?). I think it’s an entirely normal encounter in private sessions and lessons, in couples retreats, workshops and festivals. It’s part of the learning for the client and, therefore, part of my work. So I want to share some of the experiences I gained over the years. 

To begin, I think it’s essential to define the purpose of tying ropes in the context of trauma, and I believe splitting it into three different categories helps:

  1. Tying someone with a hidden trauma, where the goal is simply to have a good time, but then an unknown trauma may explode like a landmine to the surprise of everyone involved.
  2. Tying someone who has a history of trauma and is aware of it, but the goal is still simply to have a good time. Call this a trauma-aware session.
  3. Tying someone to approach a known trauma and establishing new healthier circumstances using consent and conscious boundaries. Call this a therapeutic session. 

So landmine, trauma-aware and therapeutic sessions. As a person tying, it’s essential to ask yourself, what kind of session you want to have? 

Sometimes, on more cynical days, I think it’s better to approach anyone unaware of their traumas as potential landmines because everyone has somehow been broken. But I think it’s a dangerous way of thinking because there is also a trend to generalize any unwanted experience as traumatizing. And that tends to overshadow people who have really been screwed over by life. Its kind of saying having an orderly home is OCD, and then people think, “oh, but that isn’t so bad”, when someone that actually has OCD needs to flip the lightswitch one-hundred and eight times before leaving a room, making it more or less impossible to go outside. But, on less cynical days, I actually think that most people more or less manage to have their life together and, therefore, can have an amazingly delicious rope session without first spending three years in therapy.

Most of my clients are curious about bondage and seek a trauma-aware professional to have their session, the second kind from the list above, to learn about themselves for themselves. However, there is also “an in-between client” with a traumatized background that is contained so they can function to various degrees in everyday life. For example, maybe they did talking therapy or some other bodywork or developed their ways over time. So then, they want to re-approach a similar situation that caused the trauma, usually related to letting go of control in an intimate setting, so they wish to relearn with me what it means to surrender and submit while maintaining healthy boundaries consciously. I write this to give a context as to why I don’t believe in catharsis. That trauma isn’t miraculously healed in a movement of pushing through a painful experience to reach some kind of enlightenment. I think it gets confused with rites of passage or overcoming incredible challenges. That is great for personal growth but poor for healing. As most bondage sessions are for fun, avoiding a traumatic response should be the goal. And if one is encountered (a landmine), then focus on de-escalating the situation. 

In the old-school BDSM world, there is praise for the famous stopword. May it be jellyfish, red, or simply stop. Of course, it’s always good to have a stop button, but it’s more important to know that a traumatized person might not push it because they have learned to be borderless. So if intimacy is associated with being forced into a traumatic response, consent is never discovered. So in a way, people that cause trauma by overstepping boundaries and people ending up in traumatizing situations are alike in this case, that they likely are borderless. Just like people that have been bullied are likely to become bullies themselves. It’s like something breaks in intimate relating and consent; consent as con (together) and sentire (feeling) feeling together. In the more new-school-conscious kink world, enthusiastic consent is praised, but it doesn’t work either with someone that is borderless in my experience. So I think to understand that tying rope with someone potentially traumatized can include taking complete responsibility for the boundaries that they “should” have but doesn’t. And I think most people do this unconsciously because it’s outside of their limits to deal with the trauma response of others. At least if their goal of bondage is fun, and they expect their partners to be able to protect their boundaries. But it gets dangerous when two borderless people meet, especially if their goal is catharsis.

I’m consciously in this musing, trying to avoid the topic of abuse, victims and consent violations; as I’ve written about it before, it would quickly overtake the things that are good to know about trauma when tying rope.

Then, I think it’s good to know about the four common trauma responses—the first two are the easiest to understand; fight and flight. The surge of adrenaline, the taste of panic, and the urge to immediately change what is happening. To get out or to fight the way free. And I think most people have experienced their fight and flight system. I often describe it as the difference between endurance and surrender. Enduring is external; surrender is internal. But endurance can be tricky, as I think we also learn to endure challenges without triggering the fight and flight system. It’s like learning to suppress the reaction to stay and overcome a challenge. I often wonder if it’s meaningful to suppress it in intimate situations. A common paraphrase is to feel one’s feelings but not have to act on them. I wrote about this previously in my musing about resilience. However, if the fight and flight trauma response is triggered, it’s almost impossible to miss it. 

The other two trauma responses are freezing and fawning. Freezing means no longer being present with the current experience. Sometimes it is described as disassociating or floating away to another place. Peter Levine, a famous teacher of somatic trauma work, explains it as the soul has left the body. Freezing is more problematic but still possible to detect. The body in the ropes tends to become motionless and unresponsive, almost apathetic. But then there is a whole other sidetracked regarding the mythical subspace or otherworldly and surreal journeys that people experience when going deeply into BDSM. I’ve experienced it many times, and I’ve had many partners and clients who “went there”, but I don’t know exactly how it differs from disassociation. But for many, it’s a big part of the reason to play with BDSM in the first place. However, the experience is almost always described as something very positive and utterly different from the trauma response of freeze.

Finally, I think fawning is the most problematic—fawning means adapting to something external by giving up one’s own will. Simply doing things that one doesn’t want to do. The goal is to prevent something worse from happening. Or that it’s easier to deal with the known unwanted situation rather than a threat of unknown proportions from something that might occur. So a fawning trauma response might even be luring the non-traumatized partner deeper into a harmful situation. And it’s often impossible to know because fawning makes the traumatized person an expert in fooling their environment. Sometimes they don’t even realize themselves until much later. Warning signs can be people changing their minds radically during a session, appearing borderless, or seemingly agreeing to anything. But then, on the other hand, many enjoy BDSM by playing with submission and consciously and consensually giving up their own will.

I won’t try summing up this musing in a single ending sentence, as it’s already a summary of many different complicated subjects. But at least try to know yourself and be honest about it when going into a rope session.