Choosing kink identities is a way to heal ourselves from old wounds, but can also become a pit where we end up hurting ourselves even more.

I can’t say I had an unhappy childhood. I come from good middle class families (divorced parents, 2 homes, etc.) with no sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

Except, of course, like every person in the world, even the best intentioned parents couldn’t spare me from some emotional trauma and learned behaviours that ended up screwing me as an adult.

I’ve mentioned Arden Leigh before, and again not too long ago she made really important points about how her choosing polyamory and kink were an attempt to find ways to heal her original trauma, and how they both have fallen short of it, and how she has been reevaluating both those identities.

Essentially, I chose kink and poly two sexually marginalized identities that are wholly defensible in the realm of identity politics as a sanctioned way of completely ignoring my own needs in a relationship in exchange for the one blazing, howling, irrepressible need I could not ignore: don’t fucking leave me.

And it made me think: what’s my primary wound? What’s the need that wasn’t fully met as a child that I keep trying to get met with my partners and my dating and my sexual behaviour? And is this, as Leigh says, painting me in a corner in order to protect myself from other things that I don’t want to face?

A Short History Of Childhood Wounds

My step-brother and I were born the same year, but I was born in April, and he in August; I was therefore the eldest, as we both had a younger sibling. This made me the “oldest” one, the more reasonable one, the one who had to give up everything for as long as her younger siblings didn’t have what they wanted first.

Take the colour of our everyday plate, for example. The plates came in a pack of 4, each a different colour. The youngest, a girl, got the pink one (which is the one I wanted); my brother took the green, my step-brother the blue, and I the yellow.

I hate yellow. (Maybe that’s why I hate yellow so much.)

But since I was the eldest, I had to be reasonable and let others have their pick before me, even if it meant that I would have no pick at all. I tried to tell myself that it was just a plate, that it was just for eating and that it didn’t matter.

But on and on this went, my being the last one to get what she wanted, if she could get it at all. I was constantly told to set my feelings and needs aside for the benefit of others, simply on account of my age. My needs and desires and feelings didn’t matter as much as those of my younger siblings and step-siblings, but I could be consoled in the fact that I was being so good and reasonable and nice to them! I was praised for being so generous and nice and reasonable! (“Reasonable” was always the word used to describe the behaviour that was wanted of me.)

And then adolescence came.

I was mercilessly bullied, day in and day out, without respite. For the last three years of high school I lived in constant anxiety and fear, afraid of walking the corridors, afraid of doing something that would provoke people to tease me even more. I found refuge in science-fiction, in books, on the internet, but that didn’t help: I was bullied for that, too!

And despite my complaints, week after week, all I could hear from my mother was: “It can’t be that bad. Just ignore them, they’ll get tired of you.” Except it was that bad. Except they could see, even if I tried to ignore them, the flush of shame on my cheeks and my running away as fast and as far as possible… when I could. But more often than not I had to sit in class and take it, as clueless teachers would watch it happen and then wonder why I sometimes didn’t show up to class or left in the middle, and came back with red puffy eyes from crying under the stairwell.

No matter how much I hurt, no one would believe I was in pain. No matter how much I cried, I was told it was just weakness, that I had to toughen up. No matter how much I wanted to die, nobody thought it urgent enough to do anything serious about it.

I had to sit with my pain balled up in my chest, my body closing upon itself, shoulders hunched and eyes downcast, because there was no way for me to express my pain without being blamed for it.


What does all of this have to do with BDSM?

As I started thinking and writing about it, I realized that my primary wound is attention… or lack thereof. I was denied attention to my needs and feelings, attention to my pain.

First, I was taught that to give up, to sacrifice and to repress got me praise and love. Letting others get their pick before me, even if it meant I would end up with whatever nobody wanted, was how I was supposed to behave.

Then, I was taught that my pain didn’t exist and didn’t matter. Expressing my pain only got me blame and shame, so I had to act as if I wasn’t in pain at all.

Wound of Attention: Bottoming and Submission

When I bottom, I become the centre of attention. Here is this one person whose sole focus is me. They are attentive to my every reaction. They ask about what I want, if I’m okay, if I’m getting what I need. They constantly check in with me. I sit or stand here, doing nothing but waiting and responding and reacting. For me, the preparations around a scene are just as powerful as the scene itself, because it means that my top is paying attention to me: touching me, wrapping rope around me, buckling cuffs around my wrists and ankles, setting the scene just right. Just for me.

There’s also something powerfully erotic about someone giving you what you secretly want but can’t quite express in so many words. I mean, sure, you always must express your needs and expectations clearly, but there’s this tiny black box of secrets inside of me where I hide my most shameful desires. The wonderful release of a D/s relationship gives me permission to say what I want and what I don’t want, to bring those shameful desires into the light. If I want the fucking pink plate, I can say “I want the fucking pink plate.” It gives me permission to choose. And it gives my partner the responsibility to listen to and acknowledge my need.

When I bottom, when I submit, someone is paying attention to me. There is nothing else in their world but me (and nothing else in my world but them). I drink in this attention like elixir. It sustains me, it feeds me. And I can hardly live without it.

Bottoming and submission heal my wound of attention. Through them, I get someone to pay attention to me, to my feelings, to my needs. But my masochism isn’t just the price I have to pay to be a submissive: it’s the second part of my healing, the one that confirms that my pain is real and that it matters.

Wound of Pain: Masochism

I wasn’t much of a masochist until not too long ago. I knew I had a propensity for pain—I experimented with clothespins quite early on in my sexual awakening. But I only ever looked at it as a part of my submissive identity, not as a thing I could satisfy on its own, without submission attached.

Although they’re still very much linked, I know I can have pain without a D/s relationship in place. It has expanded my concept of what kink can be, and how I can benefit from it even when single.

When someone hurts me, they acknowledge that they are hurting me. They want to hurt me. And they know that I am hurting, because I am moaning or screaming or begging them to stop. And they tell me that they know it hurts. And there is something healing to that, this witnessing of my pain, even as they are causing it. There’s a shared knowledge, a secret covenant, between sadist and masochist: “I will hurt you. You will suffer for me. In exchange, I will see your pain and guide you through it. I will help you transcend it.”

There’s also the idea that I consent to this pain, that ultimately, I’m the one doing it to myself. It’s a pain that I can control, to a point. I control when it happens and how it happens and (mostly) when it ends. I hold the off switch in my hand or on my tongue. It’s a pain that I can feel, process, and let go of. It’s a pain I can talk about. It’s a pain I can unpack, share, discuss. It’s a pain I can speak with another person, a person who will not say “it can’t be that bad.” Because they’re the ones who caused it, and yes, it was that bad, and no, you are not weak.

While pain turns me on, my top talking to me about my pain turns me on even more. A silent top frustrates me—I like to be told how much I like it, that I did this to myself, how I am secretly craving this. Most of all, I enjoy that they can see it, that they know it’s there, and that they understand that it’s the most important thing in the moment for me. I enjoy that they witness this pain and that they can give me words for it. I love how the pain is meant to hurt me, but not hurt me. It’s a liberating, rather than shaming, pain.

When I suffer on the cross or the whipping post, I can be in pain in a way that people see, understand, and acknowledge. I can feel it and scream it and kick it, and nobody’s going to tell me to stop being so weak. They’re going to tell me how good I am, how strong I am, how much they admire and desire me for taking that pain. My pain turns them on; it doesn’t make them uncomfortable or ashamed. They embrace it as much as I do.

Pain to heal pain: that’s the role of masochism for me. It confirms over and over again that I am allowed to feel it, that there’s nothing weak about willingly giving my body up for suffering.

What Colour Is Your Corner?

But here’s the question: are these completely healthy? As much as these are methods to heal my wounds, are they also coping mechanisms for things I don’t want to deal with?

I have a tendency to be… self-centred. Despite my claims of compassion and empathy, sometimes, yeah, I want it all to be about me. I like to receive and not reciprocate, sometimes. Maybe because I used to give and give with nothing in return, I feel justified in indulging in some self-centeredness, to refill my bucket. And submission is a good way to get that: “hey, so I’ll just do whatever you want, just pay attention to me!” And when it comes to reciprocating, I’ll do it, but only if I get something in return. And it makes me likely to take advantage of people who are very giving. (I have been taken advantage of the same way.)

As a submissive (but mostly as a bottom), I get to lavish in the attention I used to give in the hopes of getting it back. I get to feel justified in my getting my rocks off while my partner can only expect to get dressed and leave. After all, don’t tops and dominants get their pleasure simply from controlling the situation? I don’t owe them anything other than lying there and taking whatever they dish out. I feel like I don’t have to reciprocate, because I deserve my pleasure and my attention, and didn’t my partner agree to this anyway?

As far as masochism goes, its shadow lies in my propensity for addiction. I’m a non-sober alcoholic, and skirted very near the opiate addict line in the past few months. Sometimes looking for pain is like looking for a drink or a hit. The endorphin and dopamine rush, the loss of self, the lowering of inhibitions, the ability to forget about whatever is bothering me, the possibility to mask my emotional pain through something else… all reasons why I drink.

It’s a thin, easily crossed line between conscious, intentional masochism and just another addiction. As with any addictive substance, there’s a high, then a drop. Then looking for your next time, which is never as good as that first time, so you need a bigger, more extreme dose to get high again. When a simple spanking doesn’t do it anymore, when flogging and whipping are like an ordinary Tuesday, when you’ve done the needles and the breath play and even the flesh hooks, what else is there left to experience? What else is there to raise your happy neurotransmitter levels?

Although kink doesn’t necessarily work that way, you can see the potential danger. Why are some people happy with a glass of wine once in a while, while others just can’t stop themselves? Are there kinksters for whom pain has turned into an addiction? I’m afraid I may use it to compensate, to cope, to keep living in fundamental ignorance.

Of course, there are healthy ways to be both submissive and masochistic. That these identities have shadow sides doesn’t mean that they can’t heal our wounds in profound, meaningful ways.

However, what Leigh’s work has made me consider is that I must be aware of the potential shadows to stay in the light. If I want to use submission and masochism for healing, rather than retreating further into ignorance, I need to be conscious of their pitfalls.

Leigh invites us to really look at the reasons for our identities and behaviours:

I invite you too to examine whether you’ve painted yourself into a corner of identity politics that nobody will be able to rescue you from because it feels too much like sex-shaming. Are you submissive because you fear your needs are too embarrassing, too much? Are you dominant because you fear being called out when you’re wrong, because you fear the uncertainty of what might happen if you’re not in control? Are you poly because you want to take care of multiple people, or are you poly because you don’t want to be accountable to anyone?

Once you’re honest with yourself, you can make more conscious and intentional choices every time.

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