It’s amazing to think of the layers of meaning that unfold when you consider the idea of hitting someone.
I think a lot of people outside the BDSM scene conceive of much of WIITWD (What It Is That We Do, for those who like lengthy unpronounceable acronyms) as some form of eroticized punishment. You know – that whole “you’ve been a bad girl” script that’s so common in bad porn and the occasional cheesy sitcom scenario. But contrary to popular belief, that’s hardly the most common meaning behind BDSM play. And also contrary to popular belief, punishment is not necessarily play at all.
Sure, some people play with eroticized punishment. Certainly I know a few for whom the idea of punishment is central to their masturbatory fantasies, and if they can transfer those scenarios into a real-life play experience, that’s the height of bliss. I’ve played with that sort of punishment myself at times, and enjoyed it to some extent, but it’s not usually my thing. It generally feels fake and silly; I’m not really interested in calling up fabricated anger to frame a supposedly disciplinary action that’s actually closer to a reward than anything resembling the punishment it parodies. For all that I’m a huge pervert, I’m not much into fantasies, I guess. I know, boring, eh? In any case: play-punishment fans, please don’t get upset. Your kink is not my kink, but your kink is okay.
That’s not to say there’s no room for punishment in my kinky little world. I think my take on it is just really literal. And for that, we need to consider the concepts of “pleasure” and “pain” and the ideas of “authority” and “discipline.”
For me, the experience of taking someone on a journey of pain is akin to taking them on a journey of pleasure. In fact, they’re more or less exactly the same thing – we’re just taking different paths to reach a similar state of connectedness and trust and intimacy. In the case of “traditional” pleasure, of the sexual variety at least, that path is one that leads to orgasm, or aims in that general direction; in the case of “painful” pleasure, the senses are stimulated in entirely other ways and an orgasm may well have no place in the experience, but the body and mind are just as fully engaged and can reach states of ecstasy just as intensely.
As the top in most of my play, what gets me off is the trust – the simple fact of someone giving their body and mind to me for a period of time and trusting that I will take them through dark places and keep them safe and whole there. When I engage in a BDSM scene with someone, whether it’s sexual or not, they are opening their bodies and minds to me as surely as they would if I were fucking them. When I let the lashes of a flogger fly against someone’s back, when I aim strokes of a cane to leave thin red welts across their thighs, when I carefully place clamps on the tender flesh of a breast or belly, when I slip needles in precise patterns under their skin, when I aim a satisfyingly thuddy punch at the curved muscle of their ass – these things are an expression of my focused and deliberate care.
Anyone can hurt someone; it takes skill and sensitivity to bring them to a place where they enjoy it and want more, where the sensations both physical and emotional take them to good places. Challenging places perhaps; dark places often, maybe even frightening ones. That’s where the thrill lies – this shit is not neutral, it’s powerfully charged. That’s the whole point. But that does not make it destructive or vindictive; not angry or hurtful. Pain and hurt are simply not one and the same. Much the way someone will get a greater thrill from whitewater rafting than they’re ever likely to get from a stroll on a familiar neighbourhood street, so it is with BDSM versus vanilla – yes, in BDSM there is risk, difficulty, effort, strain, fear. And the places you can get by walking right into the jaws of those things are challenging and compelling and, one hopes, supremely satisfying… rather than quiet and comfortable and, at times, numbing. This is precisely the draw.
Being given the privilege of taking someone into this sort of experience turns me on the same way it turns me on when someone tilts their face to me for a kiss or parts their legs to let me touch the vulnerable bits between them; it’s an invitation into a place that’s unguarded, that’s deeply real, that’s never to be taken for granted. When I engage in a BDSM scene with someone, whether it’s sexual or not, they are opening their bodies and minds to me as surely as they would if I were fucking them. And much like with sex, if they let me in deep enough and open to me wide enough, I take my own pleasure there too – it’s not all just about me working for theirs.
How could this be about punishment? This is about intimacy, connection, vulnerability, trust. To me, these things are the height of pleasure. I can’t imagine entering that sort of experience with someone and having them interpret it as an indication of my displeasure. If I’m displeased with someone, I’m probably not interested in engaging with them at any depth at all, let alone at one that requires so much openness and effort on both parts.
But like I said… there is room for punishment. It’s just a completely different thing, in my world at least, from any feather-tickler-and-blindfold “bad boy” scenario you might see in a late-night movie, or from an exciting and mutually enjoyable SM scene in the friendly neighbourhood dungeon.
It takes a very particular kind of relationship to frame punishment, and when that relationship exists, most likely punishment will not be sought out within it. When a fully grown human being chooses to enter into a relationship of ongoing dominance and submission with another, and to consciously and mindfully agree on a distribution of authority that expresses a power differential that’s not only welcome but actively desired, then all of a sudden punishment becomes meaningful – and there’s not much fantasy-like about it. Would you get all excited if your boss suspended you without pay for a day? If your mother sent you to bed without dessert? If your professor made you rewrite a paper? Not so much. So where’s the thrill in getting punished by a person whom you’ve chosen to give authority in your world? It kinda feels rotten when you fail, doesn’t it?
Clearly, that kind of relationship is not for everyone. The existence of this sort of dynamic in fact actually squicks out a lot of people who’d quite happily spank each other black-and-blue – to say nothing of the non- or not-very-kinky folks who are open-minded about all sorts of odd practices but shudder to think about how things might work between a dominant and a submissive, or a master/slave, or daddy/boy, or whatever other word pair you might come up with to express some sort of chosen, cultivated and celebrated relationship in which one person holds authority and the other respects it.
Unlike many, I don’t think there’s some sort of inherent hierarchy of kinks, where the silly little spankings are on the bottom of the pyramid and the enlightened minority sit at the top of it, reigning supreme in their superior understanding of the human psyche, collar around one person’s throat and leash resting in the hands of the other. Really, that’s just pretty fucking arrogant. Some people get great satisfaction out of exploring power relations in this way, others don’t get the thrill. To each their own. Simple enough.
I do, however, happen to be one of those people who gets the thrill. I take the responsibilities of these relationships seriously, and don’t enter into them lightly. Much like I feel honoured to be offered someone’s vulnerability in sex or in SM, I find it indescribably beautiful when someone offers me an ongoing thread of that vulnerability in ways that permeate a relationship. It’s a vote of confidence that reaches levels I just don’t experience in other sorts of relations; it’s awesome and humbling and exciting and hot and sweet and… well, hard to express. It’s an experience of incredibly fine tenderness, of deep mutual respect, of specifically channeled and framed ways of expressing love and care.
In a relationship of dominance and submission, the person submitting to me is entrusting me to care for them and tend to their well-being. The thrill – and that word doesn’t quite seem adequate, but for lack of a better one, thrill – is in the fact of one person deliberately ceding authority and the other consciously taken up and using in ways that benefit both people in the end. Submission is not tantamount to playing doormat; rather, it’s an act of conscious trust that can be revoked at any time. It’s incumbent on the dominant to wield their power responsibly and well – and it’s incumbent on the submissive to bestow it sincerely and from a place of growth and joy, and not mistrustfully or from a place of despair or damage.
And for all that there’s a deep thrill in D/s for me, the idea of punishment still holds no excitement. If a submissive does something that’s counter to the ongoing maintenance of the parameters of our relationship, that’s disappointing or poorly executed or careless, it doesn’t feel good to me; and it doesn’t feel pleasurable to call them back into line. When I was an employer, I never enjoyed the experience of “having a talk” with an out-of-line employee; as an educator I don’t relish the experience of telling someone they just don’t get it and need to do catch-up work. These things are part of the “job” of dominance, and the job is enormously satisfying. But there’s no joy in this particular piece. And much like the parallels to employment, I’d rather correct and teach and explain and check in than be a hard-ass with someone I care about. Punishment in D/s, like in most other areas of life, is a last resort – in my books at least.
A wise man of my acquaintance once said that to him, it was important that a dominant punish a submissive in a way that the dominant him/herself does not enjoy. That way, it ensures that punishment is being used for the right reasons – as a form of discipline rather than as a form of entertainment. It serves the added purpose of reinforcing, to the submissive, that the situation is unpleasant for the dominant, such that shaping up can only be a good thing for all concerned. Not everyone necessarily agrees with this particular approach to D/s, but it very much resonates with me.
With that in mind, if a dominant likes to connect via SM play and a submissive enjoys that experience, their play would be a reflection of things going well… not of a punishment. A punishment would probably not involve the dominant pulling out the flogger for a few whacks – unless perhaps the submissive in question had a particular dislike for a given instrument. No, a punishment, in this case, might in fact be the withholding of such a pleasurable experience… or a repetitive chore… or a denial of privileges.
So there we have it. True punishment looks nothing like fantasy punishment; they’re two completely different animals. The latter isn’t really punishment, and the former isn’t much of a fantasy.
And here’s one of the reasons why I find the world of BDSM to be so relentlessly intriguing, both intellectually and personally. When you’re turned on to the experiences of pain as pleasure and discipline as intimacy, all of a sudden you have to redefine your take on a whole lot of the world’s over-simplified associations. You’re forced to re-examine, to explore, to evaluate and assess both what’s going on around you and what’s going on inside you. To me, that gets me several steps closer to “real,” and reality is the tree from which I pluck my pleasure. It’s so much tastier than any fantasy I could ever cultivate.