I’ve been thinking a lot over the past month or two about how I relate to humiliation from a Submissive perspective. I have always simply said that it’s a hard limit, but some of the ways I have been roleplaying Sub roles online recently have forced me to think more deeply about what I mean by “humiliation”, and what distinguishes the things that are hard limits from the things that I have been finding incredibly hot in, even important to, the roleplays I enjoyed.
The reason is, I have been using a roleplay character/persona/expression of myself that keys into a lot of things that are hard to access from my usual self, and that to function in daily life I have to suppress or circumvent. The natural way for me to get to those things is from a Sub, “reluctant”, role. It is also in various ways very closely wrapped up with the “small, female” sense of myself, which I described as, “a small and timid little tomboy”. In short, a lot of the time, I make a partner “force” me into situations, because the timid little tomboy won’t admit to wanting them. To feel better-connected with it, my tomboy-ish self may “feel about 14”, but feels (normally) that it’s important to project herself as (a) an adult and (b) respectable, a productive part of the community. Point (b) is particularly significant, because it relates strongly to my senses of social anxiety and insecurity. These feelings are ones that, in order to function at all, I have to overcome: suppress, circumvent, resolve the issues, or whatever, to become better with people. With my roleplayed self, I can embrace them.
Humiliation and the Respectable Tomboy
Being TRW – a tomboyish, respectable, woman – (in this version of myself), and roleplaying sexual scenarios, means that I use the social language and structures of slut-shaming as a way to challenge my emotional self. In various ways, this is also keying into social anxiety about permission to be sexual that I feel as a male-bodied person, but its main purpose is to let me resist and be overruled. TRW wants, but dare not ask directly for what she wants (instead, my usual tactic is to deny wanting it – in a sexual roleplay chatroom, I feel the subtext that if you have to deny it, then it’s probably true rather than false, is clear). Instead, it must be imposed from without. In a public chatroom, this involves at some stage either being exposed physically and it being done to me, or else being exposed as wanting it, and then having it done to me.
And right there, we have our point at which the question of “humiliation” arises.
As TRW, there can be no doubt that I find it very hot to roleplay shame experiences of this type: TRW finds herself embarrassed and ashamed to be found out as a sexual being, despite needing to be sexual and feeling those desires. The experience of those emotions when I’m in TRW mindspace is extremely powerful, and a scary turn-on. (Which is why I do it as online roleplay, of course.)
Nevertheless, I do not experience that as humiliation, or at least, not in the sense I usually use that word, and which I find so repugnant that it’s a hard limit.
Xiao Yingtai @ University of Abject Submission wrote about humiliation after reading a psychology study exploring the emotion. The study defined humiliation as, “publicity and loss of social status”. That sounds a lot like the “public shame” scenario I described above, so it’s hard for me to relate to that definition as it stands.
In taking the time to think about humiliation, and the specific scenarios that I relate to that emotion, whether in kink play or in regular life, I found two distinct strands that, to my mind, do not overlap much. These are the types of thing that I would count as “hard limits” in a BDSM scene. The first is relatively easy to unwrap as part of the “loss of social status” definition implied by the research Yingtai discussed. The other, while related, is much more tangential to it.
Focus on the social aspect, on the idea that it isn’t about the “status”, but rather, the “social”, the way people perceive and regard others. In that, there is the element that people judge other people. The first “hard limit” for me is about shame-judgements: “you should feel shame for this”, or “I expect you to be humiliated about this”. Too often this seems to be an element of how humiliation play rolls out. In discussing “Kink’s Transgressions”, I wrote, “You could laugh at me or belittle me, and that would be a very bad experience (I’d safeword instantly), but as long as you don’t, and I feel confident that you aren’t (and aren’t going to), then it feels amazing.” That was about the activities, rather than about embracing the “shame” emotion. As TRW, having people taunt me for being exposed doesn’t feel bad, as long as they focus on the fact that I set the terms of what exposure means to me. But still, laughing or belittling would be very bad for TRW. The taunts or amusement at my expense are, again, not about judging me, but about being victorious over me (which is kind of the point). In that piece, what I discuss is more, “If you think less of me for enjoying this, then I don’t think much of you.”
So the distinction between what I find hot and what i find a hard limit, in this aspect, is the distinction between judging myself and my own standing in the social setting, versus being judged by others who expect me to have, or try to impose onto me, some judgement about what I do or am.
I am a huge fan of BDSM porn actress/producer Nimue Allen, and her work at Nimue’s World. Pandora Blake wrote last week about Allen’s Strength through humiliation, about a recent video they shot together in which Allen asked Blake to verbally abuse her from behind the camera. I relate very much to humiliation play as a top (see the “kink’s transgressions” link above, where I mention it), but as a bottom it’s a hard limit. The power of the transgression that Allen can cope with and presents is a big part of why I find her work so enthralling and erotic, but I couldn’t take it myself. As Blake writes:
The language we had negotiated I would use – insulting her for being a slut, a whore, telling her she was disgusting to be sexual and to enjoy kinky play – represented the opposite of my own point of view. My role was not to express my own opinions but to hold up a mirror, to play the part of the worst sort of conservative, whorephobic, misogynistic, slut-shaming, body-shaming prude so that Nimue could rise above it. I was fascinated by the power these words held to make me feel so uncomfortable – and even more fascinated to discover how aroused they made her.
This expresses so well the ways I feel about it. The types of language – body-shaming, slut-shaming, and so on – are precisely the sort of imposed views that I resent and hate. It’s not that they even hurt me, that makes them a hard-limit, in this sense. It’s that I respond with emotions that I find utterly unerotic. Without breaking my own self-image, to have such views projected against me or demanded of me, such humiliation makes me feel unsexy and de-aroused.
But let me judge myself, by whatever standards and in relation to whatever, in a sexual context and you will be rewarded.
Except, for that other strand…
Don’t I Feel Like A Jerk?
Possibly the most powerful humiliation feelings I get turn out to be almost entirely self-judgement based, and are also the strongest hard-limit. As mentioned, it’s only tangentially related to the “loss of social status” definition, but it is related to it. The heading isn’t quite accurate in terms of what the feeling is: it’s not “jerk”, but “stupid”, or “set up to fail”. I can try and fail at something without worrying too much about it. You know how you manage to do a trick five times in a row perfectly, then the next try you say, “Hey, everyone, look what I can do”? I’m totally fine with that sort of failure, even if I look like an idiot. (You got that it’s always that sixth attempt that it goes horribly wrong, right?)
But if there’s some task I’m expected to do, and either I’ve been put in an impossible position or else not given enough( or just given the wrong) instructions and end up doing the wrong thing (especially in public) then I feel humiliated, hurt, resentful, and things feel irretrievable. Yes, I think this, too, is related to social anxiety (or, social anxiety is related to this). Inasmuch as “failure” is here a self-judgement, then this is about how I perceive myself. It doesn’t matter how other people react to my screw-up, I resent that I was put in that place, and I feel hurt that I didn’t get it right anyway.
Connected with this is the overlap with the first type: when something at which I feel accomplished, successful, or in which I take pride, is disparaged, or judged as worthless or a source of scorn and ridicule. It’s about being made to feel stupid, clumsy, or untalented (which is why it’s under this category) but it’s also about someone projecting their judgement, in ways where perhaps I have less confidence in myself.
Intriguingly, I always thought it was best as a top to explain that I deliberately set up a bottom to fail, so as to invoke play-punishment. But if someone did that to me, I would be very upset. To accept the scene, I need to feel that I know the rules, know the consequence of failure, and believe that success is possible (even if it isn’t – but I also would not want to try again, and again, unless it really was possible and I could get closer). Either that, or I know from the start that I’m supposed to fail and the only thing at stake is how badly. So, this has forced me to challenge and rethink my approach to topping, too.
I’m not sure what conclusions to draw to sum up the above. One interesting thing is perhaps to think about how the categories I’ve outlined might leave gaps that I haven’t thought about, and if I gave this to a Dominant partner, whether they would be able to come up with ways to surprise me.
Another conclusion is that I can’t see shame play working well for me in r/l, because there’s less scope for changing my “skin” and keying into, for example, the TRW side of me. A creative Dominant might be able to find ways to create roleplays that worked for me to do that, though. One element of this difficulty is that to feel sexual shame (meaning, shame that turns me on, not necessarily, shame about sex, though that helps in a sexual situation), I have to choose to do so. I have to access the suppressed parts of me that make self-judgements, and yet do so in a way that is safe. it has to be very deliberate.
Finally, if I had to sum up the difference, I would say it’s generally fine (within a negotiated scene) to make me feel small, defeated, helpless, or exposed. But don’t judge me for those things, and don’t make me feel useless.