Emotional Safety

By continuing to browse this web site you are certifying your agreement to its terms of use; please read them if you have not done so already.


June 1992

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1992 by William A. Henkin

<Q> When a bottom goes into an emotional trip, how does the top bring the bottom back and care for him/her safely?

<A> I'm not sure what you mean by an "emotional trip," so I'm going to make some assumptions about what you want to know and respond to my assumptions. If I get it wrong, ask your question again with more specific information.

I assume that by "emotional trip" you mean your bottom becomes upset by something during a scene and cries, rages, withdraws, or in some other fashion behaves in a way that disrupts the scene. In that case your first job as a top is to exert control in a way that protects both you and your bottom, and your second job is to preserve the scene if possible.

How you protect your bottom and yourself depends most of all on who the two of you are as individuals and on the nature of your relationship. It also depends, of course, on the nature of your scene, and the nature of the emotional trip. If one or both of you is a novice, for example, an occasional upset might be expected as part of the learning process.

In general you will be able to protect both yourselves and your scene by slowing everything down, even if that means taking a brief mid-scene time-out or straight time that doesn't break role. You don't have to end the scene at this point; you can communicate in very light role. Use an interim safeword such as yellow instead of red (tops can use safewords too), and ask your bottom what's going on. If you have to remove a gag or blindfold, or release a limb from bondage, do so. Then – and here's the hard part – listen. Don't try to fix anything or save anyone or repair any damage or be a hero, just listen.

Once you know what the problem is, you can determine whether the emotional trip can be resolved or not. Often people get upset in scenes because they're future tripping. They're worried about how hard the next cane stroke will be – or the one ten strokes down the line – or how difficult the top's next command will be to fulfill. Sometimes, too, a scene brings up painful memories and sends the bottom off into the past or into another persona. In either case, simply talking about it can usually give the bottom a chance to clear away some of the upset. Then the emotional trip may be resolved by the top's quiet observation that the upsetting incident took place then, or has not even happened yet, but in any case it is not happening here and now.

In the calm present, both the fear of the future and memories of the past can fade. Stay in communication with your bottom: ask how he or she is feeling now. If the emotional trip has been resolved, reminding the bottom of the scene's perameters can help to reassert the space. If the bottom is wearing a collar, for instance, and that collar has particular meaning or purpose, ask the bottom to repeat what that meaning or purpose is. If the bottom is supposed to use a special form of address for the top, such as Sir or Ma'am, the top can ask a few simple questions whose response requires the bottom to use that form of address.

If the bottom's problem is inherent in the scene – if it's a piercing scene, for instance, and the bottom simply cannot get beyond a frantic piercing phobia – the top may have to choose between forcing the issue and changing or terminating the scene.

Closing a scene that has come to such an unplanned end may have implications for the future: will you play with this person again? and if you do, what kind of scene will you do? But in the moment gentleness and grace without recriminations will help. Unless you have a supremely manipulative bottom – in which case this "upset" gimmick should only work once – the bottom is probably already feeling bad; there's no place for blame, make-wrongs, shame, or guilt. Besides, a successfully resolved upset can inspire trust in both players' abilities to deal responsibly with difficulties, leading to hotter times down the road.

My answer to this question may not apply to very experienced players engaged in very heavy scenes. For some people role is role, scene is scene, and the bottom's upset is simply something for the bottom to handle. If you and your bottom are such players – you know who you are – and if your agreements on this point have already been negotiated, then the upset may be exactly the part of the scene that leads to the bottom's release.

Novice tops may also think that their upsets belong to their bottoms. Once, when learning to top, I became concerned about a bottom during a whipping and slowed down to gentle her through what I thought might have been a crisis. "DON'T STOP!" she shouted, right on the edge.

Which brings up my last point: if you don't know what you're doing assume it's better to be safe than sorry. If you make a mistake and slow or stop a scene unnecessarily, you can probably start again. If you fail to stop a scene that really needs to be stopped you may have a longer, more severe set of upsets on your hands than you want to handle.

This document is in the following section of this site: Main Documents > Contributing Authors > William Henkin

If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.