Feedback understanding the difference between BDSM and painful sex

06/01/2010 at 6:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Last week, I posted an e-mail exchange between me and Ms. Sexability, about reconciling BDSM with a history of painful sex. It’s a question I’ve been struggling with as I become interested in BDSM and kink, and one I don’t think I would be able to resolve in a vacuum.

While I was thinking about this, I saw a blog post at A Femanist View, where SnowDrop Explodes had posted a quote he found to reflect the difference between BDSM and abuse. I’ve been reading A Femanist View for awhile, where I frequently enjoy SnowDrop’s posts about feminism, sexuality, BDSM, and the occasional book review. (He blogs about other topics like politics too, but those listed above are the posts I most like reading.) Seeing as he had just talked about the difference between BDSM and abuse, I wondered if he had any feedback on the difference between painful sex and BDSM, if indeed there is one. I was particularly interested to hear what he had to say, since he is a top. And according to The Topping Book, that means that he is someone who “Can eroticize giving someone an experience that would be unpleasant in real-world interactions” (location 98).

Of course I know that feedback from one person cannot and should not be considered the universal response. Everyone has different experiences and builds their own definitions of sex and kink. I would likely get a different answer if I asked anyone else. However I felt that asking someone who I know is experienced with BDSM would be a good place for me to start exploring, so that I’d have some advance notice on what to expect.

As with the last e-mail, some parts of the following exchange may be triggering.

I asked SnowDrop Explodes,

What…
Would you say the difference is between BDSM & painful sex?

And this is his reply (e-mail is being used with permission.)

The first difference is that BDSM doesn’t have to involve penetrative sex of any kind (v, a or o).   So SM play can be a turn-on for both even when “normal” sex isn’t an option.

The chief difference, I think, goes back again to that quotation: “Half of a relationship is the individuals, the other half cooperation.”   When a medical condition results in suffering (e.g. painful sex), then that comes neither from the cooperation of the parties, nor from their individual make-ups.   It’s an interloper, in effect.   And it’s an interloper whose presence is entirely not consensual!   In terms of my personal sadism, I like to be the one who’s in control of my partner’s pain, pleasure and combination of the two.   Even from a purely selfish perspective, if some medical condition causes her pain when I don’t plan for her to feel pain, then that’s extremely unwelcome.   Of course, the overriding concern is always for her safety and wellbeing (i.e. other-focused rather than self-focused) but I did want to get that point in as well.

In a BDSM relationship, where some condition causes sex to become painful, the ideal would always be that the partners involved would cooperate to find a way to carry on, and to make sure that the best available treatment programme was implemented – in a BDSM relationship, I would expect sexual relations to adapt to the condition.

Additionally, I disclosed,

I am particularly interested in your answer since you are a sadist. (No accusation – I think I’ve seen you describe yourself as such.) I realize this is a pretty broad question…

Like okay, I’m at least ~open to BDSM activity but I’m most hesitant to get into the S/M stuff because i don’t know how to reconcile painful sex with the “Good” kind of pain.

You’re a sadist so if you were dealing with someone with a history of painful sex how would you go about doing that?

And he addressed this with,

The starting point is always communication and cooperation.   Even though I’m very much Dominant as well as sadist, it all starts with these principles – I get to take control only once we both know what we want from the other.

I’m a masochist as well as a sadist, and you mention the distinction between “good” and “bad” pain – something that is all too familiar to me from the gout episodes I’ve had.   I think one of the key distinctions between “good” and “bad” pain is the power of choice that’s involved.   “Bad” pain is generally something unplanned, and it’s something over which no one has any real control – there’s no way to safeword out of it, and no way to avoid it once it’s there.   There are other distinctions as well, and not all “bad” pain is of this kind (for instance, I always find needles to be “bad” pain, however planned it is and however short-term I know it’s going to be).

So, I would use my understanding these points to talk things through with a (prospective) partner whose history includes painful sex.

The way I would talk about it would put her in control of the situation.   My favoured modes of SM play are non-penetrative anyway – spanking, and other impact-play is top of the list – so pleasurable sexual encounters wouldn’t need to involve any penetrative sex.   I would talk to her about the concepts surrounding pain as a gift from masochist to sadist.   This means that she can determine when or if she wants to try penetrative sex, and to frame any accompanying pain as a part of her gift to her partner.   That framing doesn’t work for everyone, I am sure, which is why she has to remain in control.

To make sure she had control of what was happening to her, she would have a safeword the use of which would immediately stop everything.   I would not be comfortable with engaging in penetrative sex until I was confident that she knew and understood and *felt* that I would feel no negative reaction to her stopping things, because my first concern is for her.

Naturally, this means that it would be a slow build-up over the course of a relationship before we tried anything involving penetrative sex.   In the same way that a sub or masochist partner can set “hard” and “soft” limits, and it is not unusual to see those shift and change over the course of a relationship, I would expect to treat penetrative sex in the same way – she gets to set the pace of how far she does or doesn’t want to go with it.

All of this would be to help put her in control of how much or how little pain she is okay with, just the same as any other kind of SM activity – safewords, negotiation, understanding, preparation, all being key elements to consensual BDSM sex.   I would also hope that I would be able to communicate and have it understood that there was no need for her ever to consent to penetrative sex at all, if she wasn’t comfortable with involving that pain as SM play.

It occurs to me that your question also seems to be asking how I would approach introducing her to SM play in general.   I think I would approach it with the same care as I would anyone who was new to the physical world of BDSM, so any early encounters would involve light pain only, both of us getting used to her reactions and again, letting her set the pace for how much and how quickly.   We’d explore different kinds of pain and find out what is “good” pain for her, and what pain she finds “bad” or unenjoyable.   Then we’d build on that as the relationship develops and it becomes clear to her how much control over events she’s willing to surrender to me as her sadist partner.

So the basis would be the same as any BDSM relationship: communication, building trust, getting to know each other, making sure that all activities involving pain are consensual and controlled (or controllable), and above all, making it fun for everyone involved.

I suppose one final word needs to be said, about whether or not this whole description depends upon the assumption that she would feel pain anyway.   The idea of including painful sex as a negotiated form of SM play almost seems to put pressure on her to feel some sort of pain from penetrative sex, and of course that’s not a good idea either, so I would be careful about letting it be about potential, rather than actual, pain – so that if it turns out that it doesn’t hurt when she does it with me, then it doesn’t seem like *that’s* a failure, either.

Going back to what you said about your own openness towards BDSM, but not sure how to reconcile “good” pain with painful sex: I think the advice I would give there is what I described in my outline of how I’d deal with the issue with a partner if she had a history.   Different people experience different kinds of pain as “good” or “bad” – I don’t like needles, others love them; some people hate scratching, I love it!   So you can treat “painful sex” as “bad pain” (at least at first) and instead try some of the other sorts of pain that our bodies have to offer, and see what works for you.

I think this is a very interesting response. He is also familiar with “Bad pain,” like the gout he describes, and there’s nothing fun or planned about it. It shows up whether you want it to or not.

And there’s a lot of communication going on in this scenario – this being a scenario in which a woman partner who lives with dyspareunia is also submissive, or receptive to a top. (Eventually I’d like to think and talk about topping with a history of sexual pain as well.) Any new activity is introduced gradually and limits are allowed. And even if you’re engaged in a S/M scene, there’s still no need to engage in penetrative/insertive activities, which would cause pain. It sounds to me like SnowDrop is reluctant to ask a woman engage in penetrative activity, knowing that doing so may hurt. Even though he enjoys BDSM activity as a top, SnowDrop doesn’t want to cause unwanted pain!

We e-mailed back & forth a little bit more,

Some of the sexology & self help books I read recommend incorporating BDSM activity into your sex life when there’s a problem, but they never explain *How* you would go about doing that. I think there is a difference between BDSM and painful sex too – for one thing with BDSM there’s some enjoyment from the sensation and activity, but with painful sex it’s no fun at all.

And he replied,

The thing about the self-help books strikes me as strange, because if BDSM isn’t your thing, it’s not going to help (no matter how useful it might seem).   I recall that there was a proposed study into the way masochists’ brains process pain compared with vanilla folks’, but it didn’t get approved for funding, which is a shame – it might have revealed something useful about pain management.   I think for some masochists, a lot of it is about context (for example, a lot of masochists who are also submissive say that there’s a world of difference between a spanking that’s for fun, and one delivered as a punishment), but I know that doesn’t work for everybody (or for every type of pain).   So I guess maybe the self-help books are trying to help their readers to put the pain in a better context so it’s associated with pleasure instead of “bad sex”.   But again, unless you are predisposed to making that link, I’m not sure it could ever work for most people (besides which, painful sex may well be the type of pain that isn’t amenable to such an approach in the first place).

I think some people assume BDSM is just an extended form of foreplay, while for others it’s the whole point of the sexual interaction (which is why it’s possible for me to say that it needn’t involve penetrative sex at all).

And he also wished me luck.

A couple more points were made on the last exchange. Although I’m becoming interested in BDSM, I know that it’s not going to be right for everyone. It’s not a panacena for pain or dissatisfaction with your sex life. And that’s okay too! I believe that many of the principles involved with BDSM (notably, clear communication,) can carry over into vanilla relationships, but not everyone wants to engage in the activities usually associated with kink. There is nothing wrong with that, if it’s not for you, it’s not for you. Pressure to perform any kind of sexual activity is still pressure.

That’s all I’ve got on BDSM and painful sex for the time being! I’d like to return to this topic some time in the future to look at topping, and see if I can get some practice under my belt in the near future.

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Feedback reconciling BDSM and painful sex

05/25/2010 at 6:56 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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Last week, I wrote up a post about my impressions of The New Bottoming Book, a beginner bottom’s guide to BDSM. I’m becoming interested in BDSM, but I still have questions about it. I’m particularly apprehensive about pain – since I have a history of sexual pain to begin with, I need some help understanding the difference between incorporating pain into sex play vs. painful sex.

So I decided to ask for help!

My interest in BDSM is new, but it’s not coming from out of the blue – I’ve been thinking about it for awhile. A few months ago, I contacted Ms. Sexability from the eponymous blog, SexAbility [NSFW.] Then I got sidetracked for like 5 months, which is terrible on my part I know… Ms. Sexability and her co-contributors have been blogging for several years now about sex and sexuality, BDSM, queerness, and disability. I had been reading her blog for a few months when I started thinking about BDSM, and she was kind enough to take the time to help me out with some tricky questions.

We corresponded, though it took awhile longer before I felt ready to start talking about this topic here. With a scaffolding of understanding provided by The Bottoming Book though, I think now is a good time.

I wrote up an e-mail to Ms. Sexability: [The link and non-italic parts may be triggering:]

What’s on my mind is, one of my blogger-friends posted a link to one of those “What kind of person are you?” quizzes, and the topic of interest for this particular quiz was what kind of BDSM (if any) you are into…

This is the quiz.

I was struggling with some of the questions about pain though. Since I have experienced unwanted sexual pain, when the quiz asked things like, I enjoy the idea that my partner wants to inflict pain on me. I like being threatened with pain. After sex, I enjoy seeing the evidence of the pain I experienced during sex… I was really struggling with those questions. I’m sure the author means wanted pain & wanted marks, but all I could do was flashback to the dyspareunia… I couldn’t get around it. It’s not a trigger, per se; all my sexual experiences have been consensual, but I hear the word “Pain” in the context of sex and, bam, I’m right back at the ring of fire.

I’m interested in both topping & bottoming. But I feel like, if I can’t get around the memories of sexual pain, I won’t make as good of a bottom as I’d like to be. Or as good of a top, if my partner wants to inflict pain on him… I’m likely to go too easy on him. Rationally speaking, I know BDSM isn’t a contest and I’m not going to be compared to anyone else. And I know that if I’m not into pain at all, it shouldn’t be a problem – I can talk to my partner about that & he’ll honor whatever I want.

To boil it down, how do I reconcile a history of sexual pain with the painful aspects of BDSM?

Any ideas?

To which she responded (e-mail response is being used with permission:)

Well, I’m no expert on this topic, because I’m actually into D/s and Bondage more then into SM, and generally do sensation play, and use SM techniques like flogging, waxing, beating with nerf bat etc. for physiotherapy reasons and as a form of pain management, but I’ll give you my ideas and instincts anyways, for what they are worth.

Since I have a chronic pain condition, I find I have a real problem with the “are you into pain,” question, because I’m always replying, “Uh…what do you mean by pain?”  There are many types of pain similiar to there being many types of touch. Imagine if we asked a young girl or boy, “are you into touch?” Well, they’d say, “yes of course,” but that doesn’t mean they want their genitals touched by an adult. So, in the way that we’ve come to talk to children about “good touch,” and “bad or icky touch,” that’s how I’ve come to talk about pain. There is Good Pain and there is Bad Pain.

There is Good Pain, like getting a really deep massage, or flogging, etc. that makes you scream out BUT also makes you go, “Ahhhhhh,” and “Mmmmmmm,” in relaxation or sexual response.

There is also the type of Good Pain that hurts like hell, like the pain during childbirth, but that you withstand and accept it even while cursing and screaming because you know it’s a signal of life and not just life, but life being born. And so this pain makes you feel awful, but mentally you know, somewhere, before and perhaps after the moment if not right in it, that the reward of this pain, is worth the acute pain you feel at the moment.

And then there is “Bad Pain.”

Bad Pain makes you wish you were dead, makes you stop what you are doing and not continue, makes scream out in “Get it the fuck out of me, NOW!” kind of response, VS a, “Mmmm…More Please, Hurts sooo GOOD!” kind of response. Also, bad pain, there is no real reward for enduring it. You don’t feel any pride, “look how strong and tough I am,” you don’t have a child, or an olympic medal, or goal acheived afterwards, you just wish it would stop when it’s happening, and when it’s over, you wish it would never happen again, never have happened, and feel serious anger towards any person causing you the pain, outside of say, “in the moment, of a BDSM scene.” Also, Good Pain, is something you enjoy, and you are not suffering. Unless of course, you enjoy suffering, and then, well, you’ll have to figure out yourself what is Good Pain and Bad Pain. But you get the idea.

So what I would suggest with your Partner, is that you start talking about Good Pain and Bad Pain, and include emotional or psychological pain in the equation, people leave that out and emotional or psych pain is still a form of pain. With the sexual pain that you experienced during sex, that has you afraid now, what I would suggest is basically what they call Densensitization therapy. Like, with your husband, set aside a time, for him to play with you cunt, not necessarily doing penile or otherwise penetration play at this time. Like you could do cunt torture, where you partner flogs your cunt, or learns to do needles in it, (take lessons for this, or get someone in the know to teach you), he can pull, slap, etc.  The GOAL at these moments, is for you start distinguishing what feels “Good” to your cunt and what feels “Bad,” and it’s MOST IMPORTANT that either way, you have positive experiences, make sure, that the whole experience is a generally positive one, lots of loving care, lots of encouraging statements, “that’s a Good Girl your doing great,” or whatever works for you etc.

What your trying to do, is what a therapist once referred to me as “making new history.” you’ve got a history now of having this horrible experience, and so, your basically experiencing, from what you’ve described, a kind of PTSD reaction to the negative experiences. It was so awful, and your anxiety regarding experiencing it again, rises to the level, where your tense, stressed out, frightened, and so, your gonna have “bad Pain,” which, I’m assuming, stops you from having intercourse. So I’m thinking, and I’m NO EXPERT here, but I’m thinking what you need to have, is some positive good experiences, that will counteract that old history. If you haven’t tried it already, I would suggest your partner using his fingers, increasing AND using a variety of different sizes and shapes of sex toys. Go slow, start gently, slowly, doing any “pain work,” BDSM on the outside of the cunt, inner thighs, etc. you can decide for yourselves if you want to do pain work separate from working on penetration experiences. And remember, LOTS of your favorite lube. Your partner shouldn’t worry about you not being “wet,” and neither should you. Just use tons and tons of lube, as much as you can, and just, you know, explore. Explore different positions too when doing this. Maybe you can only handle a very small and thin dildo or vibrator inserted in missionary position, but if you lie on a pillow with your ass in the air, you can take a larger amount and so forth.

I know I experience pain during pentrative sex with dildoes, when I am in doggy style position, my fav position to be in, the pain hurts, but not enough to stop me from doing the behavior. If your pain hurts enough to stop you from doing the behavior and makes you develop anxiety or fear of the behavior, well, for me, I’d place that in the Bad Pain category. I’m assuming that this has probably caused some problems with you and your husband having intercourse, so I would really suggest at first, he focus on using his hands like lesbians do and sex toys. I don’t know if Fisting is something you’ve tried, or if it would hurt you, it all depends on the size of his hands, and honestly, I don’t really know much about your conditions, why I’d love for you to regularly post about these things. But, when I get fisted, it’s not as deep a penetration as with a dildo or a penis would be, it’s more WIDE penitration. I mean, it CAN go deep, but not necessarily and also, it’s hitting a wider area then a dildo or penis would. There’s a great book called “Hand in the Bush,” if your guy wants to try this and hasn’t. As you use the sex toys, hands, etc. and have more positive experiences, you should become desensitized to the horrible one, and also start figuring out what is Good Pain penetratively and what isn’t. Eventually, you might want to try some slow vanilla penetrative sex, with again, lots, and lots, and lots of lube, because your gonna be tense, and so your just not going to as juicy as you would be and you don’t need to be worrying about THAT. I’d really set up times and do this as a carefully planned out, “experimentation,” or “practice play session.” Where the focus is learning and getting new positive memories made, and not so much about “making love,” or “doing a scene.” You can do that at other times, incorporating what you’ve learned works in your practice sessions into your scene.

If it turns out you can’t handle vaginal penetration any more, then I really, really encourage you and your guy to explore anal play if you haven’t done that either. Lots of good books on how to do that out there. If your guy can do you anally, he won’t feel like he’s losing something and you won’t feel like your failing him, etc. Of course, if it happens where you can’t do vaginal penetration anymore, then, both you and your guy have lost something, and there’s a real loss here, that you both need to understand, acknowledge and work through. I would think it would be normal for a guy to feel anger, frustration and loss, all aspects of grief, if his girl couldn’t do penetrative sex with him. And I think you’d feel all these two, but you’d also feel guilt, fear of losing him, shame, sense of not being a “real” woman, and all that kind of stuff. If you can find things to ADD to your sexual experiences then the loss will still be a loss, but not so bad maybe. Just remember that feelings are feelings, and even if your guy is feeling grief, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you, is gonna leave you, or anything like that. allow him to acknowledge and feel his feelings, just, you know, if it’ s too much for YOU get him to dump any anger he may be experiencing on a friend, or anonymously online with other husbands whose wives are dealing with this, etc. It’s okay for him to have a variety of feelings and go through a grief process cause he’s lost something too, but it’s not okay for him to dump that on you, and try to get you to be his support for this issue, cause it’s just too close to home for you. You can’t detach and listen to him as he works his feelings through. Although, again, sharing the feelings, once he knows whats going on for him, is okay I’d think.

I don’t know if this helps at all, but it’s all I’ve got! LOL

It helps. I think, it helped me.

A few points I found particularly interesting: Ms. Sexability uses some BDSM practices, such as sensation play, for pain management. She’s written about this topic before [NSFW]. And she makes a distinction between Good Pain and Bad Pain. I like the use of deep massage as an example of “Good pain,” because that’s something I’ve personally experienced firsthand.

I have had a few deep tissue massages and I think it’s a very good example of Good Pain. A deep tissue massage can hurt a little while it’s going on – but at the same time it feels sooo good… A good masseuse encourages me to give feedback on whether I’m comfortable and if I’d prefer harder or lighter work, and so far I prefer firm pressure. And I relax completely during treatment – which surprised me the first time, since relaxing like that is usually difficult for me to do. At a treatment a few months ago, my masseuse was really working my calf muscles over. She had my right calf in what felt like a vice grip, and moved her hands up my leg with that same pressure. It was a very intense sensation, bordering on pain, but at the same time I didn’t want her to stop on that leg. My left leg, she had to take it easier on, since that’s the leg that pain sometimes radiates down when I’m in bad shape. After a deep tissue massage, I may be left sore for a day or two, since those muscles get worked over much more than what I’m used to, but I experience some benefits too – I’m more flexible and energized for days. I love it. I love the non-professional massages my partner and I give each other, but deep tissue massage by a professional is something I pay money for! I’m about due for another deep tissue massage, in fact.

I also appreciate that Ms. Sexability acknowledges emotional & psychological pain as important to consider. BDSM can involve intense emotions & feelings, not all of them physical – and it’s okay to make distinctions between good and bad pain there, too. And it’s okay to have those emotions. And it’s okay to go through a period of grief when sex hurts and you cannot or can no longer engage in activities that you wanted. I know I grieved.

The desensitization exercise suggested above, is one I’ve heard and seen elsewhere, and something that I’ve been working on. My techniques are a little different, but I’m open to incorporating more kinky activity into my process too. Reading between the lines, desensitization and learning to associate touch with pleasure was one of my instructions for dilator treatment post-vestibulectomy! Learn how to associate physical touch with good feelings. It can take a long time, especially since I’m trying not to rush. For me this means dilators, clinical physical therapy and both touching with my partner (we’re not actually married yet but at this point everything’s inevitable,) and maybe sometimes inserting something into my vagina when we’re together, maybe even to orgasm for me. I’m learning how to associate vulvar & vaginal touch with good experiences. Sometimes I backtrack, and I’m trying to accept these backtracks.

And she makes another important point, to take your time.

I really enjoyed this response, and, if the comments on the Bottoming Book review post are any indication, there are some BDSM practitioners and activists who are willing to lend a helping hand to beginners. There’s a lot of good stuff here, and it’s very reassuring.

Thoughts on “The New Bottoming Book,” dipping my toes into BDSM

05/18/2010 at 5:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
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Ever since I first noticed some trouble afoot downstairs, I’ve been studying sex & sexuality above and beyond what I was granted access to in public school. I’ve learned a lot from different sources – journal articles, paperback books, websites, online support groups and blogs – and I’ve still got a long ways to go… and it’s going to take a lot of practice before I reach a point where I feel confident when it comes to sex.

Different sources try to sell you on different ideas, but I’ve been noticing a few common threads scattered throughout many (though not all) of the works by experts and advocates I’ve been reading. One of the common ideas I’ve come across in multiple sexuality books is that society (and many people in it) would benefit from a broader definition of sex, one which includes a wide variety of sexual activity beyond hetero PIV intercourse. And some of those books make a very interesting suggestion for exploration – BDSM. That is, bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism.

It sounds counter-intuitive at first – Isn’t BDSM painful? Doesn’t embracing and re-enacting power dynamics go against feminism? And to an outsider like myself, it can look scary. How can someone with a history of dyspareunia (painful sex) possibly incorporate pain and power dynamics into their sex life on purpose? Why would you do this? There are vocal critics of BDSM, including feminist critiques. How do you reconcile BDSM with feminist ideals, if at all?

Yet again and again and again in sex-positive communities I’ve been a part of (or at least watched from afar) and in the books I’ve read, I’ve seen arguments defending BDSM and kink, and opening the door for it as a healthy sexual activity.

Consider the following passages from some of the books I’ve read:

Returning once again to Sex is not a Natural Act,

The possibilities for pleasure include, for example, the capacity for eroticizing nongenital parts of the body through conditioning and symbolism. As Jeffrey Weeks (1985) points out, ‘In S/M,… the whole body becomes a seat of pleasure, and the cultivation of roles and exotic practices the key to the attainment of pleasure. A degenitalization of sex and of pleasure is taking place in these practices…” (p. 241) (Tiefer, location 2385, emphasis mine).

As someone struggling with sexual problems, I find this passage very interesting. In mainstream depictions of sex, there’s a very strong focus on genital activity & orgasm, but according to this, in BDSM you don’t even need to have genital contact to experience pleasure.

BDSM is explicitly stated as a possibility for couples to explore in Let Me Count the Ways,

“Just for fun, here’s a list – in no particular order – of outercourse activities that different people enjoy. Remember a self-accepting, nonpressured attitude make all the difference […] Dominance and submission: holding your partner down, being held down, using a blindfold, spanking, using wrist or ankle restraints, playact at “forcing” someone to do something. Remember, this is very intimate stuff, so clear communication is essential.” (Klein & Robbins, 114, emphasis mine).

This same list includes several other activities that might fall under a broad definition of BDSM as well.

But wait, there’s more – The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability includes a whole chapter about S/M, in which among other things the authors define terms and talk about the difficulty of navigating the BDSM community while disabled. (I’ve heard PWD discuss this topic of BDSM & accessibility in detail on blogs.) Anne Sprinkle asks the reader of Spectacular Sex whether or not she (Sprinke’s aim was mostly women readers) might be interested in exploring BDSM. Chapters 8 and 9 in Sex Toys 101 talks about BDSM toys and activities, illustrated with lots of bright colorful pictures.
So there’s five examples in print I have personally seen talk about BDSM in a positive way, and the list goes on in published books and online.

Huh. Again and again and again I see the same thing. Perhaps there is something to this BDSM after all. I am intrigued yet apprehensive, and would like to know more. These books listed above don’t all talk about how to do BDSM in step-by-step great detail, don’t talk about how to reconcile it with feminism or a history that may include painful sex, abuse, or PTSD. So where do I start? How do I use this? How do I play this game?

Somewhere along the line, I can’t remember how at this point, I stumbled upon or was directed to a pair of books about BDSM, The New Bottoming Book and The New Topping Book, both by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. It would be awhile longer yet before I could purchase them with my own money, only because I had no safe place to hide them from prying eyes. Luckily the authors and publishers saw fit to make these books available as e-books. One slightly-used Kindle, $20 and a few clicks later, problem solved!

And after chugging through Sex is not a Natural Act, I needed a break from tough brain work. Something a little lighter & friendlier with some positive affirmations in it. And so here we are… For an alternate review to supplement your reading of The New Bottoming Book this one is quite detailed, NSFW.

The New Bottoming Book is a revision of an earlier, shorter incarnation with the same name (minus the “New” part.) After the success of the first printing in the mid-1990s and growth in the kink community (especially online,) the authors went back and built upon their original work. Dossie and Janet (they refer to each other by first names so I hope they don’t mind if I do too,) are writing from the perspectives of a Bottom and a Top, respectively – although both authors have switched roles. It’s a nice, short, easy read, especially compared to some of the more theoretical books I’ve been slogging through. It only took a few days to finish cover to cover and about 1 single day to re-read.The Kindle version has 1656 locations, which translates to about 200 pages in print. I rarely used the highlighter & note taking features of the Kindle this time, although I did toy with the text-to-speech feature at a few juicy passages… While talking via webcam with my boyfriend. Mostly though, I simply went “With the flow” while I was reading.

The primary audience of The New Bottoming Book is bottoms, and anyone who is thinking about bottoming. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry – the authors define many BDSM terms throughout, which is great because I’d be lost otherwise. Dossie and Janet have a liberal definition of what they consider BDSM. “If the people directly involved in any given scene or activity agree that what they’re doing is BDSM, it is” (location 212.) That means that no one can tell you that what you’re doing isn’t “Real” – you and your partner get to decide. It doesn’t necessarily have to look like anything – this is a valuable lesson for anyone who’s struggling with the rigid rules of what mainstream sex is “Supposed” to look like. And whenever you perform BDSM, that’s a “Scene.” BDSM is synonymous with leathersex, and leathersex is “An activity in which one partner consciously, consensually relinquishes control to another in at least one of four areas: movement, behavior, sensation or emotion” (location 108). This exchange of power & control is temporary and all parties involved may set limits by mutual agreement. Dossie and Janet talk about the concept of “Power-with” vs. “Power-over.”

“Most of our culture’s systems run on power-over, with sexism, racism and militarism being some ugly examples. Power-over means that a person sees his or her power as the ability to control others, and thus always sees this power as relative, either greater or lesser than other people’s power” (location 266) … “Power-with is based on the idea that we can all become more powerful by supporting each other in being more powerful” (location 274)

So one of the main themes to understand about BDSM is that it’s about playing with power. The toys and roles used by participants are tools to feeling powerful, which is a reward in and of itself. (Gives new meaning to the old slogan for the Super Nintendo… “Now you’re playing with power. Super power.” Remember that? Best damn console ever…)

A bottom is “Someone who has the ability to eroticize or otherwise enjoy some sensations or emotions – such as pain, helplessness, powerlessness and humiliation – that would be unpleasant in another context” (location 89). Bottoms and the verb form “To bottom” have many synonyms, and you can perform bottoming roles without identifying exclusively as a bottom. Bottoms are the focus of the book, but I have no doubt that Tops – counterparts to bottoms – would benefit from reading as well. Tops “Can eroticize giving someone an experience that would be unpleasant in real-world interactions” (location 98) and likewise have many synonyms.

Speaking of synonyms and language – I noticed that several negative terms were used in reclaimatory fashion, particularly “Pervert.” The authors switch back & forth between masculine & feminine gender pronouns all the time. However there is also some ablist language re: mental illness – “Crazy” is explicitly used twice (not reclaimatory.)

For someone already experienced in BDSM, I’m sure much of the information in The New Bottoming Book will be basic 101-level review – an experienced person will already know about many of the principles and terms the authors talk about. It’s possible that experienced players will have already read The Bottoming Book. As someone who has basically zero real-world experience with BDSM though, I genuinely need that 101 level introduction and found it helpful. I’m so vanilla, I like to eat vanilla frosting straight out of the can and pour Kahlua French Vanilla over vanilla ice cream while listening to Vanilla Ice & Milli Vanilli. But I can be open minded…

Early on in the book, the authors state that The New Bottoming Book is not meant to be used as a step-by-step manual for how to be a good bottom in BDSM. This surprised me, since I had seen it recommended elsewhere – I expected it to be a how-to book. And there are sections and chapters that talk about how to do BDSM – almost the entire second half of the book is dedicated to describing various scenes. But the how-to descriptions are brief. It’s great for generating ideas and helpful pointers but there aren’t any diagrams of how to tie someone up in rope bondage, for example. In fact there are no illustrations save for a small Phil Foglio-esque happy person on the cover. (It’s not actually by Phil Foglio. I think… it’s copyright “Fish.” I don’t know who Fish is.)

Nonetheless, some of the ideas in the book go over my head. It’s not because of technical jargon or academic ivory towers I have to scale. I think the writing overall is accessible to almost everyone, and peppered throughout with plenty of positive affirmation. While not heavily technical nor theoretical, the writing style is nonetheless very philosophical. The book talks about the philosophy of bottoming, the motives behind it, the mindset, the rewards. If you do not understand why someone would choose to bottom, this book may help fill in the gaps in your knowledge. The New Bottoming Book talks a lot about why people bottom (and top,) but there’s not a lot of concrete hard facts, scientific laws or statistics provided. (A quick PubMed search reveals that there are some BDSM peer-reviewed studies… There were probably fewer at the time of printing though.)
For example, the authors discuss the rush of endorphins that probably comes from careful use of intense sensations, including pain. I say “Probably” because Dossie and Janet disclose, “At least, that’s what we think happens: this is a theory that fits our experience, and the medical establishment is very unlikely to subject this to scientific research, so we just have to believe in our own sensations” (location 1126).

I feel that sometimes Dossie and Janet were writing as though the reader already knew what the authors were talking about. Although the authors make it clear that all are welcome to join the BDSM community of their own free will, I sometimes felt left out for my lack of experience. I get the impression that The New Bottoming Book was written mostly for those who already had an draw to BDSM and who have already established what might be considered BDSM fantasies. But I don’t know where “Bottom space” (location 217) and “The forever place” (location 935) are and I’ve never been put in a trance. You had to have been there…

I’ve never been there before. For example, the authors sometimes compare their bottoming experience to flight. And they do not mean flying while seated in coach on a long plane trip cross-country – they mean mentally, the feeling of free flight as in a dream.
What was that Sandman line? Anybody else here read that series? Dream is talking and he goes, “If you do not climb, you will not fall. This is true. But is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall?” Todd Farber replies, “Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly.”
I remain earthbound. For now…

I’m coming from a position where BDSM is not an intrinsic drive for me – it’s something that I was told about later in life and am curious of now. I think I could get into this. My only other exposure to written BDSM material was the Claiming of Sleeping Beauty – an erotic BDSM novel that bored me to tears. I remember reading it years ago (I was still in high school and all my goth friends had read it) and being sorely disappointed. I was expecting literary pornography and got something else. I never bothered reading the other two novels in the series, not wanting to waste more money on something that didn’t do anything for me sexually.
In contrast, I’ve heard some activists talk about how their attraction to BDSM and kink is a variation of sexual orientation. This is something I’m actively building an interest in.

Yet I am not too worried about whether my newly budding interest in BDSM will make me any better or worse at it than anyone else. I’m new so of course it’ll take time & practice to figure out how, if and where BDSM will fit into my sex life. And I can understand why some of those sexuality activists and experts mentioned above offered BDSM as a suggestion in the first place – the way it’s described by Dossie and Janet makes it sound relaxed and flexible, yet ethical. Consent and choice are very important concepts to good BDSM players, as they should be to any good lovers. BDSM is a means to lowering physical and emotional barriers and thus experiencing intense intimacy. The trade-off is increased vulnerability and risk for the duration of the scene. That’s why it’s so important to negotiate limits and duration before starting a scene.

The authors make recommendations to stay safe and minimize your risk of getting hurt physically and emotionally. You don’t have to surrender all of your power over to a top all at once and certainly you don’t have to do so permanently. It’s okay to take small steps. And it’s very important to communicate candidly and frequently. And if something does go wrong during a scene, it’s okay to stop what you’re doing, usually by speaking a safeword. A violation after a safewording isn’t an extension of a BDSM scene – it’s abuse.

And, unless you want to, you don’t even need to have sex as part of a BDSM scene. It’s possible to keep genital stimulation off the table completely and still experience pleasure in a BDSM scene. This is very important to me, as right now I would definitely need to keep any and all vaginal penetration/insertion off the table when engaged in BDSM.

Speaking of what you want, the authors make it clear that you should want to get something out of BDSM. You’re not doing this just to please a top, unless pleasing that top is what pleases you most. What you want may be something obvious like an orgasm or something more intangible, like to explore negative emotions. Or you may want to be praised for doing a good job, or to feel an endorphin rush. And it’s okay to stop mid-scene if you’re having a problem. If the problem can be easily resolved, then you can pick up where you left off or take a break if it cannot be readily addressed.

So once you know what you want in the end, how do you go about getting it? The authors talk about making a BDSM checklist. This is a list of any and all kinky activity you can think of and deciding whether you have any interest in doing such activities. You can write it down from the top of your head, but there premade checklists lists ready for use online. (I still find it amusing that one of those lists includes vaginal dilators, since dilators are so hum-drum and clinical to me.) You can then compare lists with other people and come to mutual agreement on what you’d both enjoy. If you and your partner do not have much in common on those lists, you’re allowed to decline playing with them at all.

The authors strongly recommend joining the BDSM community, but it’s not clear to me from this book whether it’s sufficent to partake solely of the online community. One shortcoming of the book is that the authors don’t talk about is the risks of coming “Out” as kinky publicly. If you get caught doing BDSM, it can be a whole big stink especially if you’re a politician, for example. Another risk not touched upon is that, although the authors mention at several points that some issues would be better worked out in a professional therapeutic environment, not all licensed therapists are kink-friendly.

One chapter talks all about meeting new people, checking their references and using the internet; unfortunately this section of the book feels so outdated it’s almost quaint. That’s not the author’s fault though – technology just kept on chuggin’ along after the book was published. Luckily for me, I don’t think I need to look very far to find a good top.My partner has an interest in topping, and I’m fine with that – but I told him the only way I’m going to play with him is if he reads the companion, The New Topping Book! I did my homework, now you do yours!

At the end of the book, I understand why other authors and bloggers have placed BDSM on the table as an option for sexual activity, but questions remain. I have a better understanding of bottoming but not topping or switching – which is fine since I can read the companion Topping Book for that. But I still lack real-world experience, and it’s going to take practice to make perfect. The New Topping Book does not explicitly address feminist critiques of BDSM. Since I still lack that real-world experience, overall I have to give The New Bottoming Book a final grade of, “Middle.” Yeah we’re not using a number or grade letter scale today. It just feels middle to me. I’ll have a better idea of what the authors are talking about after I see it in person.

So who might benefit from reading The New Bottoming Book? I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in or currently involved with BDSM. I would suggest to anyone who is not necessarily interested in BDSM but nonetheless curious about it. I would suggest it to people experiencing sexual difficulties – maybe not so much for every single activity but for the sense of acceptance and creativity throughout the book, and for the frequent, consistent affirmations that yes, it’s okay to do this thing that you want (so long as you take steps to do so safely,) and yes it’s okay to not match a mainstream definition of sex.
One caveat though is that, some folks are triggered by descriptions of BDSM from having experienced abuse. People with a history of abuse may still be able to take something positive away from The New Bottoming Book, but should proceed with caution. If you are not getting a benefit from it at all, then in the spirit of the book, I would say it’s okay to put it down and do something else.

But you know what, I’m not sure a book alone is the only place I can get BDSM knowledge from… this is the whole wide internet. Maybe before I dive headfirst into the BDSM pool, I should check in with some more experienced advocates. I have a lot of questions left to ask.

Stay tuned.


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