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Friday, February 02, 2007

Question

I am a female submissive who got involved with my local BDSM community about four years ago. Actually, I realize now that I didn't see much of the community because I quickly got involved with the first dominant man who showed interest in me. He described himself as being very experienced and since I had very little knowledge, just my fantasies, I trusted him to show me how this should work. He actually kept me isolated from other community members but I didn't realize this since we were so busy playing. We did a lot of physically intense things, and I can't remember a single time when I refused to try something he wanted, even if I thought it sounded distasteful, because that's what a good bottom is supposed to do, right?

Well, I now have more time to myself, and I have done a lot more reading, gone to some conferences where there were workshops about safety, and I've talked to other players. I know now that my top did several things with me that were actually unsafe. He once tied me up face down on the bed and then went out and left me alone for several hours. One of my hands and then my entire arm fell asleep, and by the time he got back I was pretty scared about it. He enjoys humiliation and has pushed me way past my limits in this regard. I can remember feeling awful about myself for days and days because he made me think I really was stupid or disgusting. But the "disgusting" things were things he made me do that I didn't even like.

Now I would like to hold him accountable for treating me badly and doing dangerous activities. But I have not yet found anyone else to play with. This is a small community, and he is very popular because he is quite active and visible as a dominant. I have tried to talk to other people about the unsafe play, but their attitude was that I am just jealous because he has found another submissive woman. I always thought if a man really cared about you, he would be monogamous, but he assured me that this other woman could come into his life without affecting his time with me. It has, of course, and I wonder why I haven't just broken up with him.

There seems to be a big difference between the kind of play that is described in the books I read and what I have seen so far. This is discouraging. Maybe I am not attractive enough to find the right kind of top? One article I read said that the BDSM community polices itself so that unsafe players are not made welcome, but he's so welcome he practically runs the whole scene here. Should I go …

Answer

Oh, that would be a shame. You sound like someone who has pretty serious fantasies about S/M sex. If you enjoyed even some of what you did with your first master, I hope you stick around the community long enough to meet a man who will treat you better. You've been in an emotionally abusive (and physically dangerous) relationship, so it's natural to feel really angry, to want some kind of revenge, and also to question why you got into that situation.

Safety manuals and other nonfiction books about S/M technique reflect the ideal situation. They set a very high standard for safe play. And that's a good thing, because some of the things that we fantasize about are pretty risky. It's very important to take good care of each other so we can continue to play for years to come.

Unfortunately, BDSM people are a sexual minority. Simply put, there aren't as many of us as there are of the vanilla majority. That makes it harder to find a compatible partner. And we're not just outnumbered, we're put down. People who don't know a lot about our sexual style, or people who feel uncomfortable with sexual variation, perceive us as dangerous, mentally ill, anti-feminist, or racist. There are a host of other criticisms I could list, but you get the idea. That means that we are pretty vulnerable when we share our fantasies with another person. It gives them a certain amount of personal information about us that could be misused. I think there are a lot of people who would like to experiment with bondage, dominant-submissive role-playing, or erotic pain/intense sensation, but they are afraid of being blackmailed, discriminated against, or stigmatized if they express those desires.

So we wind up with these small groups of people who have dared to come at least a little way out of the leather closet. The smaller the town or city, and the more conservative the larger culture, the smaller these groups are going to be. People with charismatic personalities can exercise a lot of control over these mini-communities. Because there are few opportunities to play, tops wind up with a disproportionate amount of power and little accountability. This doesn't matter if the dominant is an ethical person who cares about the quality of his or her work. But you wound up with another sort.

I wish I could say that the BDSM world is a place where everybody behaves democratically, cares about doing the right thing, puts principles before personality, and strives to follow safety standards with scrupulous attention. The majority of us, I believe, do all of those things. But every group—whether it's Little League, the PTA, or a gay biker club—has its bad apples. And there really isn't any easy way to get rid of them.

I'm sorry that other people have not been more supportive when you tell your story. Being left alone when you are tied up is extremely dangerous. People are warned not to do this in every S/M sex manual I've read. You might tell the bottom you are leaving and pretend to step out of the room (which you can get away with if he or she is blindfolded), but you still keep watch over them. An S/M top has a repertoire of techniques that are emotional and psychological as well as physical. Humiliation scenes are as intense as a heavy whipping. Many people don't like them at all. Even the folks who enjoy them have guidelines. There are certain things that you don't say to them. Your top never bothered to give you a safe word, it sounds like (a code word you can use to stop the action at any time). And he never got a sense of what your limits might be in emotional play.

Instead, he used his power over you to intimidate you and make you feel bad about yourself so you would be easier to control. This is the same thing that a vanilla lover who was a bully would do. But it would be easier to spot. If somebody we love and trust tells us we are bad, we tend to believe them. Then we feel bad about ourselves. That doesn't give us much empowerment to figure out that we are not getting our needs met in the relationship. We start to feel lucky that this person is with us at all, because we are so bad, and a downward spiral has been created that can result in battery or psychological trauma.

You need to rebuild your self-esteem. Focus on that rather than punishing your former top. Build some stronger friendships, if you can, within this community. You may find that you can only trust a handful of people. Look for people with principles who seem to have some genuine knowledge of how the game should be played. Sex should make us feel better about ourselves. Relationships should bring out the highest and most sacred aspects of who we are. This is true whether they are vanilla or kinky.

You probably feel like you want to warn people away from playing with this guy. You can try, but it's sometimes hard to get people to listen to such warnings. In the end, they have to make their own decisions. That's their responsibility as grownups who want to do what mutually consenting adults have the right to do. I think what is happening to you is really shitty, and I wish I had the power to change it. But I think the way to make long-term change is to focus on yourself, create a better life for yourself, and don't stop looking for a safe top who can help you to live out some of your fantasies. Good bottoms are a gift, and should be made to feel special and valuable.

Over time, as you meet new people and create your own "in group," you may be able to set higher standards and welcome newcomers into a safer environment. BDSM support groups are good ways to do this. By having programs about safe play and giving people a space to meet and socialize, they build better environments for our scene. Doing activism on behalf of the community is also important. If people were more educated about us, greater acceptance would allow more people to become involved, and we'd be less vulnerable to exploitation.

Since you can't get your former master to apologize, please allow me, as a top of almost 30 years' standing, to apologize on behalf of a league of concerned dominant men and women. You are not alone. Many other people have found themselves in bad relationships that include BDSM play. Once more, I want to emphasize that this is not common—but it is important to reach out to heal the people who have been badly treated. He doesn't belong in the leather community, but you do. I hope the dominant that you deserve will appear when you are ready to try again.

Next time, don't allow yourself to be isolated. Take your time checking out the other person's credentials. If they are not able to negotiate with you or won't give you a safe word, don't play with them. If they are unable to take criticism or resolve conflict with you in a fair way, that's another danger sign. The desire to play can be so intense that it's hard to control. Put your common sense in charge of who gets access to your sensitive body and submissive personality.