I have dedicated myself to a paradoxical way of relating to sadomasochism. I do not embrace hard and fast rules in this approach; instead there are several guiding principles for how we do what we do. One such is playing safer rather than safe to make space for bravery, insecurity, and mystery. So it can never be more than safer. Having said that, there are some constructive building blocks which balance safety and bravery, and doing and being very nicely. Below are four of them.
The first building block is pre-negotiated consent. These are the agreements that are made before you play. They need to cover two things but can involve many more. The first mandatory item is your exit strategy – how you signal that you want to stop and what actions follow. Usually, the signal is a safeword; this everyone knows, I know. But the important thing is the actions which follow. Typically, we would begin by calming the action down, landing softly and then debriefing. Establishing a space which allows for self expression is essential. It’s when both parties can process what has just transpired. This is where growth can occur – or boundaries get (re)defined. This does not always need to happen instantly; strong emotions might take several days to settle or be understood before any debriefing happens. If there are strong disagreements over what happened, I recommend using a third, neutral party. If something illegal has transpired, then the police can be contacted. The main goal is to handle the situation such that a trauma does not form and to avoid lasting hostility all the while creating a sense of fairness.
The second building block is the framing of the interaction. This has multiple parameters and can be quite nuanced. It includes when the session ends, for example, when the ropes are untied, be that before going to bed together on Friday night, or before Sunday brunch with the family. And its location and what actions are included. If a session extends beyond its generally agreed upon ending, a renegotiation through checking in with both parties’ limits and desires is due. The location of a session is often obvious (be it a bedroom or studio), yet if a camera is introduced, you open the space beyond those borders. Will photos be uploaded, shared with others? Even later speaking about what happened with someone else is opening up the space of the session and that needs some negotiation. Finally, what is included and excluded in a session is a needed parameter to be discussed. For some, this is an elaborate listing of all the toys, words and roles to be used, for others it’s more open ended.
Making a Practical Frame More Esoteric
The third building block is a shared fantasy. You place it inside the pre-negotiated frame like a seed that unfolds throughout the play. It can be as simple as “You are dominant; I’m submissive.” or as elaborate as different role-playing scenarios—for example, strict teacher and bratty student. Everyone inside the frame acts together to keep the fantasy alive while hopefully being able to forget everything outside. The shared fantasy inside the frame simultaneously creates the opportunity to be safe and brave. And the exit strategy allows an agreed upon way to break the structure and return to real life. I prefer a shared fantasy over a too-detailed pre-negotiation because sadomasochistic play is more of an emotional journey than a practical one for me. How I experience something is more based on how it feels than what it is. So there is a risk of confusing and misunderstanding each other when trying to be too detailed or exact. That’s why sharing an overall theme is often a more successful strategy, in my experience. Then, of course, there might be specific details worth deciding before —for example, no permanent scarring or avoiding actions connected to previous trauma.
The last building block is on-the-fly consent. It is a skill you practise with your partner to understand the physical and emotional state of the other and yourself. By comprehending your own experience, you will automatically become more transparent about it. For example, if you like something and dare to express that, it will be easier to understand. The same goes if you dislike something or are hesitant. Avoid trying to analyse it because that will make the experience stick in your head rather than express it through your body. You might notice this when your monkey mind (the voice in your head that rarely shuts up) keeps observing what’s happening from the outside. Instead, focus on letting your emotions express themselves through you. Then after your play is over, the analysis might be an excellent subject for a conversation over a cup of tea. Expressing yourself is half the battle; the other half is listening to your partner.
Listening to your partner can be approached analytically – for example, by analysing their breathing or muscle tension. It’s a good starting point, but I believe our intuition can do much more once we have trained it. It evolves by interacting with other human beings while paying close attention to the feedback you receive. At first, the input might need to be verbal, but eventually, you will learn to understand each other’s body language. That way, the sadomasochistic play can evolve into using words for dirty talking, giving orders, and other mischievous deeds, alongside with the safeword in the event of a misunderstanding. For example, in the play involving constant struggle, it can be easy to misread signals. In this case one can continuously offer small opportunities during your play to move away or voice a concern. Most children instinctively do this during play-fighting so we do know how to do this. But it might need to be rediscovered as a grown-up.