How do BDSM and Commitment relate?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

This blog entry is part of the series on BDSM and Sexual Identity

Much with regard to BDSM is focused on describing praxis, like play or the sometimes herewith involved sexual activities. Also the technical part of how to play and perform are basically aimed a practical issues.

This blog will more focus on BDSM as activity between people, and more particular on their commitment. Often BDSM is seen as consensual activity, power exchange and alt-sex, which can all be the case in healthy leather play, but not only power, sex, violence or trust are essential, also is commitment. Commitment, first to yourself and to the relationship you have, second to the roles you play.

We shall also see, why I think that commitment in the SSS-triad should be connected with S, rather than with S or S.

(As always: This blog is about exploration, not doctrine …)

About relations
Ever since working on an article regarding the ‘analogia proportionis’ and the ‘analogia proportionalitatis’ - both Latin phrases related to the theory of the ‘analogia entis’ - I have been aware of the link between the words, ‘to relate’, ‘relation’ and ‘relationship’.

Personally, I find these ‘relations’ between the meanings of a word very interesting. What I will try to do today is to look if the terms ‘commitment’ and ‘relate’ can teach us something about the important distinction between identity and role.

As this blog is not about the philosophy of language, I will not go into the meaning of words, how words relate to reality or truth, but rather with Wittgenstein simply phrase that the meaning of a word is its use in a language.

When we use the verb ‘to relate’, we express that something or someone is linked, connected or correlated to each other. A relation can denote a coherence, a proportion or an affiliation, a relationship can often bear similar meaning, but seemed to be reserved for interpersonal bonds. This latter coming close to what we see as a commitment.

About commitment
Basically, I will here just use what Jack Rinella wrote in his ‘Master’s Manual’ in the Chapter about Contracts and Commitments. The first thing Rinella does is pointing out, that a contract is a written description of how people will behave as a couple. On the other hand he sees commitment as the underlying inner condition.

Traditionally commitment is seen as a motivational thing. Something you engage in, support and want to promote and stimulate. With regard to commitment in a relationship between lovers or spouses, commitment has often carried the whiff of exclusivity with it. Rinella here mentions: “family values, including monogamy, fidelity, chastety and morality.”

When it concerns BDSM, is will be clear that the ‘good old’ family values will be challenged at the least. From feminist and polyamory activist, we know that we can and should reclaim some – if not all – of these values, by deconstructing them and – de facto – remove their ‘relationship’ with certain doctrines and worldviews and put them into a new context.

Commitment to identity …
Continuing from where we just left, by playing BDSM in safe, sane and sound ways, we distinguish ourselves as sexual minority sub-culture. We relate to values, but these are now more based on psychology, exploration, curiosity and freedom.

Rinella sees the first and primal commitment that we as players have, towards our own identity as sexual beings and quotes from Shakespear’s Hamlet ‘To thine own self, be true’. As your sexuality and your sexual identity is yours, so is your commitment with regard to how we wish to live out our sexuality.

If we play with others, we – normally – first relate to these others. I say normally, as there can be others involved in actual play, like anonymous fuckers in rape play or gangbangs. Philosophically, in such cases, one could bring up the difference between relationship and occurrence or happening. But we also – more practical – can say that previous to such play a negotiation or agreement of some sort was made.

So, if we play with others, we relate to these others. In this sense we are not only committed to exploring our own kink, but we do it together with others who similarly wish to express their sexuality in such a way. This is what I call the commitment to your identity and as sane players also to the identity of your partner(s). This of course includes consent, care for the wishes of others, their personal integrity and safety of body and emotions.

… and roles
This said, I will now turn to the expression of our commitment in play. Is the relational commitment to ourselves and others based in our sanity, the next question is how sexual identity and play relate. The way I see it, is that in play we explore parts of us by focusing in on them and express them in particular roles, rituals or actions.

For Rinella three operative words come to mind: “clarity, honesty, consistency.” Knowing what you want and what not. Be honest enough to communicate this properly and sometimes say no. Consistency can be seen as being true to yourself. So even if experiences can and will occasionally change your preferences, you should be consistent in pursuing clarity and honesty in your play.

Yet, I think we can add something more regarding commitment. As BDSM role play enables us to be – in a way – someone, or something that we normally are not, or not as intense. Roleplay is a method of exploring our sexuality by simplifying relationships in roles that are just there for the moment – and yes, in 24/7 slavery it is different –they say, but I beg to differ; as, e.g. a concept such as serial roleplay comes to mind.

Commitment to the role we play is also an identification process. In a way, we attach a part of our imagination to a model or role, so we can by playing this – a treat we learned as a child, in order to understand how some roles relate to the world, to others and to ourselves. It is the way we learn and grow and relate to what we identify with.

Take e.g. being a bully. Most kids are not a bully, but they may want to be one some now and then – when they are angry - but social conventions mostly prevents them. When playing out my sadist side, I can tell you it is extremely cool to be a brutal nasty bastard and to whip that whimpering slut until her eyes show that look which I want to see and expresses: you are my master.

Very dry analysists will now point out and say that this look is not really towards me, but towards the role I play and how that is dependent how it is perceived by the recipient. And we know that, just as we know that a bottom sees her side of the show and not particularly what I think she is reacting on. But, somehow we connect and communicate anyway and we also know that there is still that part that goes beyond the role and when I identify with my role as malevolent being, there are genuine parts of me get involved in the role too. The role is the vehicle of our amusement.

The relation between the – say – two sides of our play: the cold interrogator and the poor victim, has its own dynamics. The energy flows from one pole (victim-role) to the other pole (perpetrator-role) due to an intentional inequality. Commitment to your own role is constituting to that of the other. Here it is more a matter of how one part relates to another part in the role play.

Concluding we can thus say, that a relationship between parts (of roles) that are played out, can be distinguished from the more inner commitment or relating to others and our individual self.

The clue regarding the SSS-riddle
We can and should be committed to safety and soundness in our play and behaviour. Yet, commitment for me has to do most with sanity, particularly as expression of an inner motivation of which safety and soundness are manifestations.

As sanity is often related to mental health, this inner attitude of being committed to both a BDSM relationship as to BDSM play. Commitment to a cause, shows that it is a reasonable choice for which we have other motivational arguments, just as we could have opted not to commit.

Just as we last time have seen that a safeword, as such, is founding for consent and thus sane play, we now can conclude that commitment as inner motivation add to the identity of whom we are when we play. Both as a consenting individual, as in the roles we play.

Remember, this is no rocket-science, just thinking out loud. And as always, I wish you good luck on your journeys, in- and outside of the dungeon.

Enjoy – Sir Cameron

Consent and Safewords

This blog entry is part of the series on BDSM and philosophy

Recently a lovely friend of mine and I disagreed on the use of safewords. When pondering on the cause of our difference in view, I consulted others, both tops and bottoms. What I found out is that some ideas have an edge to them, particularly the concepts of RACK, SSS and Total Power Exchange (TPE).

Consenting partners will always be an issue; but the idea of the continuity of consent in kink is in a way a pain in the ass, particularly in situations of altered mind states. For BDSM consent nevertheless forms one of the criteria by which we regard ourselves as sane or as sick.

(As always: This blog is about exploration, not doctrine …)

What the heck is RACK?
Wikipedia describes this as follows:

“Risk-aware consensual kink … is an acronym used by some of the BDSM community to describe a philosophical view that is generally permissive of certain risky sexual behaviors, as long as the participants are fully aware of the risks. This is often viewed in contrast to safe, sane, and consensual which generally holds that only activities that are considered safe, sane, and consensual are permitted.”

Are questions about safety wrong?
Basically, I do not think so. For the factual consequence of what RACK tell us is that we cannot ever exclude all risks, mistakes or bad scenes, in other words there is not such a thing as a safe place. Even when RACK and SSS (safe, sane & sound) are often presented as contrary, it depends on how you use and interpret the different stances; either position can be regarded as  a conversation, an intellectual interchange, which neither leads to truth nor sets one on a course to find it. But on the way we can learn and get smarter.

Why is consent such an issue?
In a previous blog I stated that; “generally speaking we can regard kink as sick when we lose control over our urges and get other people involved without their consent. So we can distinguish between healthy and unhealthy BDSM depending on the presence of mutual consent and the span of control. Not consenting BDSM is dangerous and can lead to the kind of situations that are used by non-kinks to label that what we do as ‘sick’.

For those who love BDSM and are not ‘sick’ - but simply have a healthy curiosity for the somewhat out of the ordinary sexual praxis - the rationality of what we do by consenting – even when some of the acts involved can be irrational – gives us an argument over against the views of BDSM as sick, mental or abusive.

The problem is, however, that the regular non-BDSM concepts of slavery, total power exchange and submission precisely challenge the notion of consent. The origin of BDSM play is often found in fantasy. As in our dreams, we have consenting partners by definition, otherwise they would not be there and doing those things we crave for. In a way, we make them up on the large screen of our minds projections. And for doing this, for this imagination we take the necessary images out of our head, our memory, our experience.

In your dream, capturing, seducing and raping that adorable person you work with is perfectly fine and sexy. In reality however, you probably not have them answering to your unbelievable hot urges, but rather have them sewing you, resulting in losing your job and land behind those kind of bars we explicitly do not want to see in front of us.

Simply stated, the difference between fantasy and reality play is consent. In the SSS credo this is captured in the notion of ‘sane’. Doing nasty and pervert things between consenting adults is fine, as long as safety is an issue too.

Where imo RACK and SSS differ is the amount of risk that can be accepted and safety that is needed. I will exemplify that with the notion of ‘safewords’.

Wikipedia describes a ‘safeword’ as:

“… a code word or series of code words that are sometimes used in BDSM for a submissive or bottom to unambiguously communicate their physical or emotional state to a dominant or top, typically when approaching, or crossing, a physical, emotional, or moral boundary.

Some safewords are used to stop the scene outright, while others can communicate a willingness to continue, but at a reduced level of intensity. Safewords are usually agreed upon before playing a scene by all participants …

Safewords of BDSM fall under the guiding philosophy of safe, sane and consensual. Those who practice the more permissive philosophy of risk-aware consensual kink may abandon the use of safewords, especially those that practice forms of edgeplay or extreme forms of dominance and submission. In such cases, the choice to give up the use of safewords is a consensual act on the part of the bottom or submissive.”

There we have it. Giving up safewords is not safe (according to SSS), but might be regarded as consensual (in RACK), particularly in edgeplay or TPE.

So with my friend, she likes to be in total control, but what does this mean? Does such a thing as total control or total power exchange exist?

With the help of the notion of consciousness I will try to shed some light on things as control, consent and identity.

Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. So whatever control might be, it must be conscious and consciously applied in BDSM-play.

But like most things labelled with adjectives like ‘true’, ‘real’, ‘total’, ‘complete’ the question is what the scope of meaning of such words is in the practical context of BDSM-play.

Total control is a in a way a futile concept, as we are not even in control of our own thoughts, most of our actions are steered by our unconsciousness and nervous system, not by our thoughts. Also total power exchange is immediately limited by consenting persons that exchange power.

For me - as top – sane use of power involves both control and awareness, but also letting control go and be dependent can be sane practise. Thus both TPE and sanity are rooted in consent.

Consent of whom?
The idea that a safeword would be some kind of topping from the bottom is definitely misleading, but I guess this will always be an issue between the RACK and the SSS camp.

One way of dealing with this issue is to look at different levels of identity. To our core identity belong things like gender-identity and sexual orientation. Naturally, when we consent in BDSM activity, such identities play a major role. The basic respect for the integrity of another person we play with, as a fellow human being, is paramount to consent. Before even one bit of power exchange can start flowing, it is obvious that giving consent to this process presupposes sane persons on equal footing that get involved in play, by their choice. Consent thus functions as mechanism to preserve identity and integrity of the persons that wish to get involved in BDSM play.

Consent is therefore founding for any form of BDSM according to both RACK and SSS. So when we link consent to identity, we may connect BDSM with exploration regarding our sexual preferences and urges. BDSM role play is thus in a way ‘at variance’ with both identity (which we exploring on) and with mainstream culture. Playing roles thus enables us to learn, grown and own our experiences, as a person.

The clue

We take those risks, because our psyche craves for realisation of both the conscious parts of our identity and the hidden, dark and unconscious parts. BDSM-play is thus transgressing in nature, and therefor risky. The clue is that consent can change. And even then, as seen above, a safeword will sometimes not help. I have had bottoms in my power, seeking my will and not caring about consent. That can sometimes be seductive, but that is the nature of playing with power. You can use it according to your own perception, but tops get into their BDSM-role too. So when our self-perception changes, also our limits can get fluid; including limits that define us as sound or sane - and that is very un-safe and risky.

The power we have been given, by consent, can turn into dynamics that are not steered by respect for the integrity of the other person – the factor that makes consensual play sane. The idea that the top is in ‘real’ control, might reveal itself as mistaking the darker side of our top-role for justified and allow power with to change into power over – and the herewith connected notions of abuse, violation and deprivation of self-integrity of the bottom. After all, coercive sexual interaction is part of many kinky roles that the BDSM community likes to fantasize about or tries to realize in active play; being kidnapped and kept captive by that vicious female pirate or being interrogated and searched for drugs by that mean couple of custom officers.

So playing rough and edgy roles can be tremendously rewarding, but it can also be scary and result in a change of mind. Passwords are an expression of non-consent and a change of mind of one of the players must have a way to be realized and heard. For me, besides trust and consent, also pre-scene negotiations and safewords can help to diminish the risk of our play going awry; in fact for me playing without an exit strategy would indicate we have to do with unsafe play partners. Within RACK, we have not simply “safe”’ but rather fifty shades of "safer" and "less safe”. Having a safeword that is available to both tops and bottoms, we make it safer as it forms one (last) straw that enables us – when we still can – to claim our right to conscious self-definition, a thing we all consented to in the first place.

The idea that a slave is then having power, is simply acknowledging that real power is not taken, but shared and given over freely. This is willingly and consensually done by another person, which presupposes the inherent quality of having power to share or accept in the first place. Playing a slave and being a slave are two pair of shoes.

Playing a master/mistress by seizing control once a bottom has lost it, places all the responsibility on the top and luckily most of us can handle that, as we are adult and sane persons that play with kinky urges. Like the continuity of ‘consent’ is sometimes for a while out of our control, so can we for a short while feel and experience how it is to be ‘on top’. We then perhaps accept that the consent of our bottom(s) as being exchanged to us for the duration of the scene. Again, as a friend said; “Tops should then safeword for their sanity when it is their conviction that the bottom has had too much.” Being a top is first and foremost an inner attitude and a matter of self-definition, experience, knowledge and technical skills are only the result thereof.

In this blog I argued about the importance of consent for both RACK as SSS. Not only have we seen that consent is the founding base on which BDSM-role play is resting, I also suggested to connect safewords with consent, so that the pursuance of kinky and sexual happiness always stays legitimate and humane.

In order not to do this at the cost of others, I stressed the importance of understanding that risk cannot be avoided, but that the respect for the integrity of our partners may include their basic right to self-determination and self-identification on which a given consent is based in the first place: power to choose is a given and just as founding as consent is. Finally, I emphasised that the notion of playing and being master or slave is in a way a discontinuation of both consent as power. This brings us deep into the land of archaic imagery. For my part, I opted for safewords, as total power, true domination or real control are just adjectives blurring the crucial border between facts and fiction.

As always, I wish you good luck on your journeys, in- and outside of the dungeon.

Enjoy – Sir Cameron