Content Warning: dom/sub dynamics, sexual kink/fantasy, and sexual violence.
There’s a certain thrill some feel when getting slapped during a sexual encounter, and I always thought myself one of these people. I am a feminist and a woman of strong moral beliefs. However, after two years in an abusive relationship, recovering my own healthy sexuality was no short process. I began to explore the realms of kink and fantasy, surprisingly enough, but with caution. The enjoyment I felt in such imagined powerlessness seemed odd at first, but I embraced my newfound freedom. I met a coworker who would grab my wrists at work, flushing my cheeks immediately. I instructed the grasp of my gentler partners up to my neck, knowing their soft palms would never venture to true asphyxiation. The desire for a lack of control seemed in my own hands. It was thrilling but underwhelming. The feeling of safety gained from consent did away with any atmosphere of true submission and power exchange, and I struggled with this fact, knowing that comfort was vital in these encounters but always somehow overstated.
Entering college meant coming to full terms with my needs, and this was not without its own dangers. My perspective shifted when, on an unassuming bar night, I was approached by an older man who I later found had some experience in the realm of kink. We went out to dinner a couple of times, and he surprised me with a beautiful hotel room on our third date. The evening felt lighthearted—he even purchased a room with two beds to imply that I wasn’t required to sleep with him. However, a bottle of wine in, and this option passed quickly. The stunning view of Boston blurred, and I began dancing around the room wearing less and less. He pulled me to him harder than the other men I’d been with, and I was genuinely excited about the tinges of initial pain, which lacked the delicacy I’d come to expect. Still, I was now in the company of an adult man, drunk on his alcohol, in a hotel room he had paid for. His terms were simple but constraining. I felt that I owed him something, even when I truly didn’t.
When the encounter gained speed, I found myself on my knees more than I had expected, and within a scene that I no longer wanted to be a part of. I had taken on the role of the submissive girl and developed scars in the process: I was covered in bruises and carpet burn, my cheeks hurt more with each strike, and I felt fatigued and defeated. He made sure to ask if I enjoyed “this sort of thing” initially, but the early enjoyment had subsided with increasing pain. This was too much. I began to desperately memorize the pop art on the walls, trying to stall my own suffocation without much success. I couldn’t remember when the thrill of it all stopped and was replaced with utter compliance with his wishes to continue. It was as if he had continued to escalate the interaction, while my mind left my body, curled up in the corner of the room, and began to watch myself submit to his vision of kink.
Perhaps my own tendency to “people please” over self-regard led to such a situation. Although I have continuously resisted the urge to blame myself, it’s difficult to not look back and wish I had acted differently, realizing my ability to voice my needs. I recognize now that the very role I occupied as the submissive under a dominant makes the action of revoking consent, or consenting to only limited actions, even more difficult. In this case, this man was not only the “master,” but the dominant force in all factors: age, funds, experience. Stepping back and voicing my growing discomfort seemed like a betrayal to the fantasy he had created, an explicit step outside of it that could ruin the feeling of the moment. I somehow feared letting him down by abandoning his sense of control and my lack of it. After all, no one ever wants to see Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Grey frown and say: “Hey, that kind of hurt too much, and I’m pretty sleepy.” And should we? It’s difficult to imagine these pauses as “sexy,” but maybe they are the behind-the-scenes moments where the fantasy should be left aside. Still, the experience left me questioning not only my choice to explore kink, but whether it can ever truly be part of a comfortable and satisfying interaction, outside of unrealistic media.
I don’t believe my experience was an entirely unique one. Kink is growing increasingly popular as an empowering exploration of sexual power play and the boundaries of comfort and pain. Just look at Tufts Burlesque Troupe, which usually showcases bondage or kink-based dance of leather and chains that prompts some of the loudest applause show-wide and is an impactful image of sexual transparency. Yet, as more feel comfortable experimenting with their own fantasies, the blurred boundaries of consent within kink should not be dismissed.
This is where I believe my experience failed. Consent obviously must come explicitly from both ends of any intimate interaction, but it would be naive to fail to recognize the more substantial role that a dominant figure must play in ensuring the constant comfort of the submissive. Consent is mutual enjoyment, even if one’s chosen role is to obey. This may seem like an obvious point, but in kink exploration, it may not be. Those who are enticed by this form of intimacy must recognize the dangers of it, and the necessity of even further communication, in order to embrace the level of fear and lack of control they are comfortable with.
This is not to say that I will never participate in kink again. The experience was scary, but also revelatory. My advice for those interested in this side of sexuality is to recognize that boundaries are not universal. I previously believed that I could be slapped in the face and be okay with it, and midway through the interaction, I accepted that this wasn’t the case, as I felt degraded by an action that seemed harshly personal. Returning home in the morning and finding more and more bruises across my body didn’t bring back fond memories: it made me shiver, remembering the actions of a traumatized version of myself. I should have voiced this concern, but it also should have been asked of me. If I could go back, I’d leave aside the role and listen to every part of my body. I would recognize the difference between pain and pleasure as one that I determine. I would voice that I need sleep and water and a hug now and then. The importance of these pauses, rules, and verbal reminders of our humanity and ability to change our minds cannot be underscored more in kinky encounters. Putting aside the fantasy is not a betrayal of it—it is simply an acknowledgment of the human underneath any costume.