Domming while Damaged: it’s not reliving the past

Xiao Yingtai @ University of Abject Submission has written over the past few weeks a series about what the “abject” part of “abject submission” means to her and in her kink. The conclusion is positive overall, but (as with a great novel – I’m a writer, remember?) the path to get there is harrowing. But it’s from the final, more positive, post, “Only the Gift“, that I was able to draw out my own thoughts and questions.

Questions like, “Is there such a thing as abject Dominance?” and “If there is, how does that relate to my kink/journey?” Also questions like, “Does my masochism and occasional desire or urge to submit, have similar themes?” but this is more about how the themes in Yingtai’s post are echoed in how I relate to my Dom and sadist identities.

Like Yingtai, I have been through depression. In Monday’s post, I wrote about feeling always dismissed because what happened to me wasn’t bad enough to “count”. I focussed on things that have happened since I reached adulthood (defined as aged 18 and above), but my childhood had similar themes, and my depression probably started when I was around 8 or 9 years old. My emotional problems were not as bad as some people have suffered, but enough that I had regular visits to a child psychiatrist. I don’t remember any of what happened with her, just that she and I would talk, and then she would talk to my parents while I played with toys in the next door room. It seems odd now for me not to have called it abuse, just because it was other children instead of grown-ups who were doing it (and of course, if I retaliated, the grown-ups saw me as the problem).

One of the common arguments to dismiss, “other” or outlaw BDSM is the idea that those who do it, top or bottom, are acting out scripts or eroticising abuse. At first, I would reject such a theory as just plain wrong, we kinky folks are all perfectly well-balanced, ordinary people, it’s something innate in us, or it’s just playing with the breadth of human sensation, and so on.

But when I start to think about where it all comes from, what the fantasies and the realities of my kink all “mean” at the deepest level, I find that it goes into some very dark and murky regions of my mind. I find the memories of those dreadful experiences (that were yet somehow never quite bad enough to “count”) and my reactions to them, and I wonder if maybe there isn’t, after all, a connection. I don’t think there is, but I can never be sure. And of course, those tactics of dismissing everyone who’s ever been emotionally damaged at all as having no control, as being unhealthy, as needing fixing instead of wallowing in the mire of their bad experiences, makes it hard to shake the feeling that if it is, then somehow there is something wrong with being what I am.

Very often, these arguments are used by KERFs (I’m assuming “kink-exclusionary rad fem” is the term, by analogy with “SWERF” (excluding/othering/outlawing sex workers) and TERF (excluding/othering/etc trans folk)) to dismiss the experiences of female-identified Submissive folks, and at the same time to berate the (ahem) patriarchy-loving brutes who Dom them (whether they’re lesbian or straight male).

I have had conversations with many people in the scene, both those who refute the argument by saying “that’s just not my story at all”, and those who object to it because on some level it is their story. Among them were women who identify as Submissive who have survived emotional illness or trauma, or even child abuse, and whose kink absolutely is informed by those experiences, but who have processed and decided that, actually, they do have the ability to say, “this is what my life has made me, and it is not a bad place to have reached.” Yes, they clearly identify those earlier experiences were bad and horrible and they would have been better off without them, but having reached this place of BDSM consensual Submission, they can tell the difference between a bad thing and a good thing. And their BDSM is good.

It’s the sort of story that I see in Yingtai’s post:

I had assumed my fantasies were bad for me because they were about reliving experiences which were bad for me. But did they leave me numbed by trauma and fear, self-loathing and regret?

No. Something in me took the worst of real life and gave it back to me, changed just enough to leave me feeling loved and supported. It’s amazing how the fantasy was almost identical to its real-life antecedent, and yet it took me months to see the parallel because the emotional effects were night and day. Gone the frustration and hurt. Only the conflict and helplessness and love remained, leaving me prostrate with gratitude.

And that’s important.

My emotions are screwed up. I’ve been catching up on my New Scientist reading (currently about 2 weeks behind!) and in the 26th April edition, there’s a piece about intrusive thoughts, written by a sufferer of OCD, which looks at anxiety disorders, OCD, intrusive thoughts and the interesting fact that in 90% of people who don’t suffer from anxiety disorders experience intrusive thoughts of shocking or disturbing natures. I recognised some of the traits associated with anxiety, and I also recognised some of the “intrusive thoughts” as (a) being similar to intrusive thoughts I’ve had, and (b) similar in content to some of my more extreme sexual fantasies. I suspect that it is not that I have eroticised my anxiety, but rather, some of my anxiety is about my Dominance and sadism.

I learned a while back not to hate myself for being sadist, and Dominant. But it’s a fragile lesson and easily disturbed by some peoples’ analyses of “where it comes from” or “what it means”. But like Yingtai, and those other Submissives who were also survivors, there is a key question: “how does it make you feel?” Or, “what feeling are you projecting?” Or maybe even, “What feelings are you inducing?”

Three different approaches.

Inducing: it’s always about those same feelings Yingtai talks about, in that quoted passage. As much as we say it’s about fear, or pain, or humiliation (as much as it is about those things) the goal is always to leave a partner, “feeling loved and supported… Gone the frustration and hurt. Only the conflict and helplessness and love remained.”

What I feel and what I project are intertwined but not exactly the same. I’ve felt destructive anger, and I’ve felt self-destructive (i.e. suicidal) anguish. Those are bad, bad things. They were things I felt during the episodes mentioned in Monday’s post, and as a child being bullied. They are also things people seem to assume that a sadist Dominant must, on some level, be playing out when he (they always assume “he”) does what he does to his partner. Another of Yingtai’s posts quotes Guy Baldwin (I don’t know Baldwin’s position/identity, but it appears he’s recognised as an authority on SM/Leather lifestyles) saying that the experience of topping is, “this delicate balancing act on the razor’s edge between the urge to rape, pillage and destroy and the need for self-restraint”.

Hatred, anger, destruction – violence as it is normally understood (including against the self) – are vast, uncontrolled, runaway, turbulence. At least, that’s how I feel it. Reason, rationality, empathy and order are all alien to them.

But when you are a top in a scene, or a Dom in a non-scene-delineated relationship (e.g. 24/7 or similar), you are in control. I’m not talking about the whole “who has the real power” stuff – a top can be a service top doing just what the bottom says, or can be a sadist with no interest in Dominating and “taking control” of the other person. But when you are topping, there is no room for raging, explosive, runaway emotions. In order to perform your role (whatever that role is, as the “active” party) you have to be focussed and aware.

What I feel inside is not chaotic, uncontrolled turbulence. Indeed, when I top, or take a Dominant role in a relationship, the act of doing so puts me into a calm place. I still worry about things, because that’s what I do, but the turmoil and stress of the world disappears. Whether I’m Dominating or “just” topping, the emotional world within becomes simple, structured and clear. Not necessarily “safe” (remember, I still worry about stuff) but manageable. I know the risks, I know the rewards, I know how to deal with them. (writing stories, and playing music, are the other activities that do this for me. Draw your own conclusions.)

I project my attentiveness, and also that I care for and about my partner. The end goal is what I quoted above, and it’s my job to get us there. I end up feeling something very similar to Yingtai’s (including the gratitude). Even in my fantasies, the most important part is how the victim (yes, my fantasies often have a victim role) feels, and the engagement with them. Again from Yingtai’s “sadism” post, this time her own view: “Sadism is not about hatred or callousness. It is about love and intimacy.”

Whatever the source of my Domness and my sadism, I can tell the difference between a bad thing and a good thing. As scary and dangerous as it may seem, and sometimes still feels inside, when it comes to it, being a Dom is a place of balance and peace, even when it looks like the opposite. Where it comes from doesn’t change that it’s a good thing.

There are harmful ways to engage with a Dom or sadist identity, that in many ways mirror the “abject” scenario Yingtai discusses – the sense of emotional self-harm from it, for example. I’m not in that space any more but I know where it lies. As to how that relates to my journey, I found instead the same answer as Yingtai: “how does it feel?” and “how does it make my partner feel?” And those answers turn out to be very good things.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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11 Responses to Domming while Damaged: it’s not reliving the past

  1. Yingtai says:

    I am so humbled by your thoughtful engagement with my writing. And your questions are fascinating. What would abject dominance even look like – going through the motions, disconnecting? Or do you mean the acceptance of abject submission, pushing the fear further and taking charge of the helplessness completely?

    And thank you for raising the issue of self-harm by doms. I have wondered about it. Because I think No Rescue stories would feel even worse for me if it put me in the role of perpetrator rather than victim. But people just don’t seem to talk about it, except to condemn all porn as objectifying women.

    I am so glad you stress leaving one’s partner in good shape. This is the standard that David Stein (originator of “Safe, Sane and Consensual”) proposes in his essay “How to Do the Right Kinky Thing”.

    Guy Baldwin did the traditional leather progression from bottom to top, as far as I can tell. What you say about the chaos resolving into calm is fascinating and reminds me of conversations with Malin James (about the self-discipline necessary) and Augusta Columbine (about the relief of stilling all the voices – unfortunately this happened offline). Your experience of topping sounds like the mirror image of my experience of bottoming. Mine is escape by not thinking, and yours seems to be escape by focusing solely on your partner. I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels as a sub to get more confirmation that at least some doms think of it this way.

  2. ValeryNorth says:

    Always glad to engage with someone who thinks deeply about their kink and life experiences 🙂

    I was thinking about a Dom who feels “abject” in hir Domness, and one thought was that disconnection or “going through the motions”. Another thought was of someone who feels compelled but helpless in the face of their decision to Dom, even though it’s always with their partner(s) consent (perhaps by analogy to compulsive but emotionally self-harming masturbation).

    Thanks for the info about Baldwin’s background – it’s what I suspected. The whole “bottom then top” is an ideal that bothers me, but perhaps not for the “obvious” reason: I think I am happier now about playing sub/bottom roles because of my experience as a top; I couldn’t have extended that trust first (because, you know, past issues, an’ all).

    “Stilling all the voices” is a good phrase for it. As I mentioned on Twitter, I don’t like the whole “id vs ego”, “self-restraint” version (which I also see in Malin James’s comment that you linked). It turns out that, however sadistic or brutal I may be in a scene (consensual, and with due concern etc, of course), there’s no conflict or rage, everything works smoothly together. On Twitter I described it as “self-determination, not self-restraint”. It may take another whole post to piece together an adequate description of that state of mind. But the sense conveyed in “stilling all the voices” feels good, like a room going quiet because an agreement has been reached. Which is definitely a relief.

    • Yingtai says:

      That makes so much sense! When I was really scared that I was getting addicted to eroticising depression, I wondered what that would look like for a top, and the closest analogy I could think of was getting addicted to eroticising actual anger. Guy Baldwin describes tops who find that as they develop deeper feelings of love for their bottoms, they are unable to be really sadistic with them, and I can’t help thinking that sounds like their sadism is unhealthy. And perhaps for someone who has gotten used to playing that way, it would take self-discipline to break the pattern?

      I wish I could put you and me and Augusta Columbine in the same room. It would be such a wonderful conversation.

      • ValeryNorth says:

        I saw that whole “love diminishes sadism” script discussed several times in the first few years I was engaging with the BDSM community. I’m reluctant to call it “unhealthy”, because it may just be a different way of processing things, but at the same time it’s a mindset that I find very alien and disturbing, for the reasons you mention. As paradoxical as it may seem, my expressions of Dominance & sadism come from a place of love, so more love couldn’t lead to less Domness.

        • Yingtai says:

          You’re right, I should give them the benefit of the doubt on whether it’s unhealthy. But it is very reassuring to be reminded that there are doms who feel the way you do.

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