Safely explore being submissive

Free Virtual Event for Sexual Violence Survivors

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Just the Tip offers smart and compassionate sex and relationship advice from queer non-monogamous kinkster Jera Brown. If you have a sex or love question you’d like Jera to answer, email or DM Jera on Twitter @thejerabrown

Just the Tip is sponsored by Early To Bed, one of Chicago’s finest feminist adult toy stores.

This week’s question came out of an interview I did for a SheKnows article about men who use dating sites to find inexperienced submissive women interested in exploring BDSM. Amy (not her real name) asked the question during the interview, and I asked sexual trauma expert, Andrew Pari, LCSW to respond to her question.

“I was raped on a date with a guy I met online. I got sucked in because I was curious about subbing and the power play, only to be taken advantage of. I’ve been looking for years for material of any sort that talks about how to reconcile my emotional and sexual submissiveness with the fear of being out of control and/or in harm’s way again.”

A lot is written about playing safely with submission by those far more educated than I on the subject. I’m going to focus on caring for oneself while exploring the darker and more taboo aspects of submissive sexual play.

Exploring sexual desires carries risk, just like any relationship between two (or more) people. This is far truer when our desires are about submitting ourselves to the sexual interests of another. Submissive sex carries amazing erotic frisson. Giving ourselves over to the power of another allows us to be free. Free from decision.  Free from responsibility. Free to allow another to do things to us that can shift us into that amazing subspace where cares disappear and our primal sexual mind can run free. It’s one of the most erotic experiences available. But there can be a cost.

Amy was raped while pursuing a relationship meant to explore submission. He used her willingness to explore this exciting part of her sexual psyche to create unwanted pain where there should have been pleasure.

When the partner we thought we could trust abuses our vulnerability, how can we come back from that? How can we heal from the pain of that hurt and loss of trust when we still have that powerful desire to experience submission to another?

Two important points I must make are on reporting sexual assault and seeking professional support.

Amy didn’t report the assault to the police because of the existence of flirtatious messages that she was worried would be used against her in court. My response to this concern is that rape is rape, and participating in sub-dom sexual play does not invalidate your right to report a crime. You have the same right to pursue criminal charges as any other rape victim, regardless of what “messages” you think you may have given.  Being a submissive in the bedroom does not require you to be one in life.

As a sexual assault therapist, I would also strongly urge you to seek out professional support if you haven’t.  While there are many excellent sexual assault psychotherapists, kink-aware sexual assault recovery specialists are trained to work with you through the assault and regain confidence in yourself and your ability to wade back into the world of power play. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom maintains a listing of kink-aware professionals who will understand the complexity of healing from trauma in the context of pursuing your sexual interests.

Beyond that, having a trusted network of friends or family who won’t shame your sexual choices is extremely important in exploring the fantasy. The concern of being re-traumatized is real. Without the tools and self-knowledge necessary to recover from your assault, you will remain vulnerable to being hurt again.

To take a step toward trusting a new partner, it’s important to recognize that being violated is all about the person who did it and is not a reason to judge yourself or your sexual desires. They chose to hurt you. Your desire for submission didn’t cause you to be hurt.  Even exploration of sexual degradation and humiliation must come in a context of safety and trust. When someone violates that, it’s a statement of who they are, not of your submissive needs. Understanding this one point may help to move you towards learning to trust another.

Stepping back into sexual waters after being hurt means ensuring trust in any partner with whom you engage.  This is an important piece, and a woman should not jump back into submissive play without knowing her “trigger-points.” Trigger-points are those moments when fear overwhelms the sexy and prevents immersion in the submissive scene. In her book, “The Sexual Healing Journey,” Wendy Maltz discusses “automatic reactions,” and how to recognize and work through them. Though it’s not written with power play in mind, it does a good job of addressing these barriers to sexual health.

A large part of what I work on with clients is identifying trigger-points and learning to “unlink” them from the memory of the assault. Feelings and thoughts are two different things that can become tied together during trauma. Using a series of steps can help to pull them apart so that memories of the event become just that, without the painful feelings that were associated with them. Without doing this work first, you run the risk of unintentionally re-traumatizing yourself.

Once you’ve identified your trigger points, you can begin to soothe them by introducing comforting activities.  Grounding is a very basic and effective way of doing this. When we are “triggered,” we automatically go into our primal brain, where our linked fears and memories are stored.

Using grounding exercises forces our higher “thinking” brain to engage and begins to soothe over those traumatized neural pathways hurt during the assault.  Grounding can be as simple as naming as many sports teams, spices, or objects in the room of a certain color that you can.

How do you move from personal healing to involving a partner in safely connecting with your submissive side? Baby steps are the key.

In any form of sex play, we talk about paying attention to the self. The more edgy or dangerous the play, the more important this idea becomes. Taking the time to explore internally the pull of this specific fantasy—moments that create the erotic tension—will also help you naturally develop the sense of how to do so safely. This level of personal exploration isn’t easy to do. We are often clueless about the “why” behind our deepest sexual desires, but understanding them can take us into that beautiful darkness of genuine satisfaction. When we know what we need and why, the door opens for us to explain it to another person, in a way that’s safe as well as hot.

Begin with a discussion with your partner away from the bedroom, at a time and place where you will not be engaging in any play. It may feel difficult, but explain to a new sexual partner upfront that you had an experience that requires additional hand-holding and discussion. Watch for their reaction. If they pull back or seem too eager, they may not be the right partner for you. You want someone who listens, who can talk with you about what you need and what will put you at ease, and, ironically, will follow your lead as to what will make this an enjoyable experience for both of you. This is the concept that drives the action of “topping from the bottom.”

Learning to re-experience submissive tendencies for fun (because that’s what it’s all about, right?) is a matter of helping a partner to know what your trigger points are and what you need from them when they are activated. Safe words, of course, are one way to do this. Another is to teach them the grounding exercises or other soothing techniques that keep you present and focused, away from the triggered feelings.

From there, it’s a slow introduction of the fantasy elements you enjoy, trying them out, stepping back, evaluating your (and his) experience, and moving forward again. Creating experiments together that help you feel comfortable giving over to another’s power once more. And, of course, aftercare after each session to help you re-connect with yourself and your partner.

In re-learning how to enjoy your play, always know that you can stop at any time. Only by learning to listen to your instincts and your partner’s true interest in your well-being will you regain the sense of trust you need to fully immerse into your submissive self.

There’s a very healing element in allowing someone this level of trust and care for you after the pain of a sexual assault. Coordinating this under the guidance of a therapist can be a very powerful curative combination and one I’ve practiced with my clients with great success.

Recovering from sexual assault and rediscovering the excitement of exploring submission can take time, and these are steps along the journey back to trust.  Working through the experience so that it’s something that can be talked about and explored without being overwhelmed is a positive step towards regaining your sexual freedom.

Jera writes about sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. They are the author of Just the Tip, a queer-friendly, sex-positive, relationship advice column and the editor of Sacred and Subversive,...