SM and Childhood Memories

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February 1994

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1994 by William A. Henkin

<Q> Why do SM and DS scenes seem to bring up feelings and memories from childhood for so many of us?

<A> For some people – not all by any means – SM and DS scenes bring up feelings and memories from childhood because the words, behaviors, and relationship roles we play out with one another resemble in some way those we encountered in different contexts as children. For example, the experiences our scenes enable us to recall, whether directly or indirectly, may include sexual contact we were powerless to refuse, extreme exercises of control, physical and/or emotional intensity, or perhaps some relatively benign aspect of the non-consensual domination that contributes to making even the happiest childhood a bit confusing – e. g., having the grown-ups you love make you do things you do not want to do, such as eat Brussels sprouts, go to bed when you would rather stay up, or pee in the toilet instead of your diapers.

It may be more obvious how someone in a bottom space could recall the feelings associated with such events than it is how someone in a Top space could, but the dilemma has to do with understanding power dynamics rationally. The child who finds her- or himself caught in such a situation is not likely to respond from a fully reasoned position. Instead, without deep reflection, s/he may see him- or herself as having little or no choice in a situation and being a victim, or, in our terms, bottoming non-consensually; alternatively, s/he may think the more powerful adult exercising authority is a better reflection of him- or herself and take that person's side – a process known to psychologists as identifying with the oppressor – taking on the feelings of an abuser or, again in our terms, a non-consensual Top. For people whose SM roots include such childhood experiences – again, not all SM players by any means – Top and bottom spaces can be fairly clear translations of earlier self-identifications. Perhaps that's one reason an SM/DS ideal is, to paraphrase the late Cynthia Slater who founded the Society of Janus, to throw out the garbage and keep the good orgasms.

Not everyone involved with SM or DS comes to it for such reasons, of course, and our erotic activities have powers all their own. Regardless of what happened in our childhoods, for instance, SM and DS scenes often provoke and even celebrate feelings of vulnerability, in Tops as well as in bottoms. In addition, they are often venues in which we deliberately seek intensity that will push or expand our physical and emotional limits. This set of circumstances – pushing limits in a condition of intensity and vulnerability – amounts to a recipe for creating tension.

Now, tension by itself is not a bad thing: it just signifies a build-up of energy. Without tension there can be no release, as, for example, there is no orgasm without a prior build-up of sexual or erotic tension. In this way and in others, tension is a kind of stress, and everyone, whether in or out of SM, tends to regress emotionally under severe stress; the more extreme or persistent the stress, of course, the greater the likelihood it will result in regression. In one sense, then, the very nature of our sex play is set up to evoke echoes of our younger years.

To play erotic games requiring the vulnerability and depth of intensity that can occur in SM and DS scenes, especially when playing on the edge and pushing limits, requires a great deal of trust on the parts of all players, and trust – like the fear and hope that also frequently come into play in our scenes – is usually an emotion in the keeping of our very young selves. Exposing ourselves to the feelings that often arise in an intense scene is liable to further evoke feelings and memories that are in the keeping of our younger personas.

The fact that SM and DS scenes have considerable potential to call out our younger selves, with all the vulnerability, hope, trust, and need they can embody, is one reason knowing yourself and your partners can maximize the possibility of having a fully satisfying SM experience. Regression of the sort I'm addressing may not be apparent, since younger personas do not necessarily speak in childish voices or even with immature vocabularies. They usually do, however, behave in younger ways than we're accustomed to expect from adults. There is no reason to assume that our very young parts will surface during any or all scenes, but the possibility exists; in any case, the feelings associated with those parts of ourselves are frequently called out even when we play as full-fledged grown-ups. The object in exploring these topics is not to prevent our young personas or their feelings from emerging, but to know what to do when they appear. In that way we can enhance minimize the possibility that our scenes will feel like abuse, and maximize the possibility that they'll feel like fun so that all players can have the best possible time.

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