Apology tokens, punishments, and forgiveness

[In which, I also give you the first ever excerpt from the current draft of my novel!]

Girl On The Net writes this week On Fights, And Apology Tokens. In particular, how a system of otherwise valueless exchange tokens helps avoid fights by taking the place of apologising and outright admitting you’re wrong, in her relationship with a partner she calls “my boy”:

So began a game of give-and-take. When he’d fuck up in some way, or upset me, he’d give me a token. When I fucked up, I’d hand one to him. The actual tokens were meaningless – you couldn’t buy anything with them, and they weren’t recognisable to anyone outside of our twosome. But between us they meant loads: I fucked up, I’m sorry, I love you.

Hence the tokens: it’s easier for me to give him a token than to admit a mistake. … I can just hold out my hand and hope he gives me a token. Or I can pass him one of mine, and meet his eyes, and he’ll know without me having to say it that I mean ‘fuck fuck fuck I’ve done it again and I’m so fucking sorry.’

It got me thinking about fucking up, apologising, things that take the place of apologies, or guilt, or whatever. With my first “slave” partner, we had quite a strongly developed punishment dynamic. In general, something that is usually fun turns out to be much less fun when there is a punishment ethos behind it. When she admitted a mistake, she wanted to apologise, I would administer a punishment, and then she would try to keep apologising. I would tell her, “You’ve been punished, there’s no need to apologise.”

BDSM means never having to say you’re sorry!

Except that’s not true, of course. At some point, the act of accepting such a punishment is itself a way of saying sorry. Besides, not every BDSM dynamic can work that way, and not every Submissive feels the rebalancing or “fairness” aspect so it wouldn’t work for them either.

On top of which, of course, the idea that a Dominant is always right and never has reason to apologise is just plain wrong. It can be very hard for a Dom to admit that they screwed up, and even harder for them to feel a rebalancing effect: the power is supposedly in their hands, so any retribution or re-tallying from the Submissive partner is likely to feel forced or lacking congruence. It’s not impossible that I would find a great deal of solace in a token system like Girl On The Net describes.

Alternatively, I might find it frustrating and guilt-laden in itself. From GOTN’s post:

There’s only one token left in my wallet now, which I think means that on balance I’m a bad person. But I can’t quite be sure because this system died a long time ago. Did we just forget? Were there so many months without arguments that the system fell by the wayside? Or did he, knowing I had just that one left to hold on to, forego the chance to ‘win’ so that I wouldn’t feel too terrible?

A commenter mentions that it could also end up being a way of “keeping score” in a relationship, which would be a negative. I’m sure I wouldn’t go there, but I would start to have lots of overthink-y thoughts and guilts about it if my supply got too low, or if I worried that one or the other was nervous about putting that guilt (of supply running out) on the other. And I am pretty sure that I would end up using it as a way to keep score against myself. Inevitably, I would be the loser in that score-keeping (however well I did with the tokens). This is a legacy of depression, amongst other things. I don’t think I could be quite as comfortable with the thought that, “I think [it] means that on balance I’m a bad person.”

Could a “tokens when I’m wrong, punishments when you’re wrong” system work? I don’t know. I suspect the mechanics of that could be hard to balance evenly (how do the tokens end up back with the Dom, for instance?) so that it feels like a genuine passage of guilt/wrongness. A key part of the BDSM punishment process is the explanation, which takes place before the punishment is administered and sets out what the expectation was, how the act and the will behind it fell short of that, and what is expected in future. As I noted in my review of “Biker Girl”, there is always an element, either before or after, of reassuring the Submissive of hir goodness and desiredness:

Here, the story arc is classical spanking/punishment porn: “sin; anger; calm retribution; redemption and respect”

That comes from fictional representations, and so some stories don’t have that “talk it over” element (Biker Girl, to an extent, does). Dilo Keith has a guest post, by “Wheldrake, my submissive”, in which Wheldrake writes:

Maybe simply talking through the reasons for the submissive’s failure works better for them, as a way of preventing recurrences, or maybe the submissive simply finds the dominant’s disappointment so crushing that punishment is superfluous. For me, talking lapses through is useful and a dominant’s disappointment certainly stings, but receiving a punishment that I find genuinely unpleasant both underlines that disappointment and provides a very basic and concrete reason not to screw up again.

However the point is made and however the punishment felt, it is always a part of the process that some form of forgiveness and rebalancing is spoken and experienced. I don’t know how to fit that into a token exchange. Maybe (as a commenter @ Girl On The Net suggests) the token is given to say, “We need to talk about where I screwed up,” and returned afterwards, when the Sub feels the issue is resolved? (Edit to add – what happens if the Dom gives the token but the Sub hands it back, “I don’t think you have screwed up”?)

Forgiveness and guilt are strong elements in my novel. One of the key points at which a sense of the turbulence starting to creep into the central Master/slave relationship is a moment where the Master overreacts to the Slave’s lateness by temporarily withholding her collar.

The next day, the Slave (Jo) goes to church. The vicar, Bridget Casseforte, is giving a sermon that speaks to her situation:

The incident was fresh in Jo’s mind the next day, as Bridget Casseforte gave a sermon on the subject of forgiveness.

“When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’,” Bridget reminded her congregation. She built her theme, “The burden of sin is not only in our relationship with God, but also in our relationship with those around us. We do wrong, sometimes knowingly, and sometimes with sincere will to do good. Our neighbours are the same. Sometimes, we may feel wronged by someone’s actions without understanding the will behind them but our own actions can seem the same way to them. So we learn to forgive, as the Lord forgives us, and see not only how we have been unintentionally hurt but how we may have unintentionally hurt another, whether it was in our control or not. This is how we ourselves find forgiveness.”

After the service, Jo mentioned to Bridget that the sermon resonated because of what had happened yesterday.

“I’m glad it spoke to you,” Bridget said, “I hope you take the messages away with you. But also, that you share them with Thomas.”

“How do you mean?”

“As I said in the sermon, Jo, these things go both ways: we forgive others, because we ourselves need forgiveness. If you needed to hear these words, then perhaps he would benefit from them, too.”

(EDIT TO ADD: The theology is mine, I discussed this with family members to get a sense that it does fit; another potential reference point is the recent piece by Archbishop Desmond Tutu on forgiveness, which has a slightly different reason why we need to forgive others)

When Jo comes home, Thomas (her Master) is waiting:

Thomas was holding the collar in his hands when Jo opened the door. She raised her eyebrow at him and smiled slightly, then closed the door, stripped, and knelt as usual. She met his gaze steadily. He was less steady, hastening to place the collar on her.

“Thank you, Master,” she said.

Thomas took a step back, “For what?”

“You reminded me that I can’t take this for granted,” Her fingers strayed to the collar, “And it means a lot to me.”

She waited for him to process her answer.

“Come, let’s have lunch,” he said. She followed him through to the dining room. He presented her with a chair and she sat with her hands in her lap. He served himself, and then asked her what she wanted. She frowned.

“I will eat whatever you give me, Master.”

Silence fell. When her plate was clear, Jo said, “Master, may I speak freely to you?”

Thomas nodded, “Of course, sweet thing.”

She cleared her throat and framed herself. “Master, I feel as though you are still trying to make up to me about yesterday. I don’t want that. All I ever want from you is that you own me and make me feel owned. Right now, you seem to have forgotten that and it scares me far more than anything else. Bridget talked about forgiving others in her sermon today, and just as God forgives us, we have to forgive each other. I want you to know that as long as you own me, I will forgive you.” She looked at him through her lashes. “Master, I need you to own me now.”

She waited, fearful of what he would do, but far more fearful that he would refuse. His eyes seemed far away as he gazed out the window.

“Did you mean what you said about forgiving me?” he asked.

“Master, please don’t,” she protested.

“Did you mean it?” he insisted.

“Yes.”

“Then you must beg me to accept your forgiveness.”

“Master…”

“That’s an order, slave. Do it.”

Jo scrutinised his expression as she left her seat and sank to one knee. He was impassive. She placed her hands on his thigh, looked into his eyes and bit her lip.

“Um… Master,” she stammered, “Please accept my forgiveness?” Thomas’s face was like steel. She tried again.

“Master, your slave needs you to accept her forgiveness. Please? Please!”

He grabbed her hair, and she relaxed. She saw his demeanour change in response.

“Your forgiveness is accepted. Stay there.”

Doms need forgiveness, and sometimes we need our Sub partners to forgive us, even when that seems to mess up the power exchange. We’re human too, and as Wheldrake says, to err is human.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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