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September 1994

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1994 by William A. Henkin

<Q> What are humiliation and degradation, and how are they used as a turn-on in SM play? Examples?

<A> Humiliation is the process of lowering a person's pride, dignity, or self-esteem, often by encouraging him to see himself as foolish, contemptible, or worthless. Degradation is the process of lowering a person's rank, status, value, or worth – "de-grading" him – usually in someone else's eyes and often, thereby, in his own. This is how degradation may frequently lead to humiliation.

Many SM and DS interactions achieve their erotic edge through the consensual assumption of inequality between Master or Mistress and slave or other property, Dominant and submissive, or other form of Top and bottom. It is an easy call, therefore, to use degradation and humiliation to establish, enforce, or reinforce the presumptive power disparity. In addition, some people enjoy making or emphasizing such distinctions (or having them made or emphasized) by the Top's belittling, insulting, or otherwise debasing the bottom.

One classic example of degradation and humiliation behavior in SM is verbal abuse. Here, the form degradation takes may be the Top telling the bottom what a worthless piece of flotsam the bottom is; if the bottom accepts and even, perhaps, believes the judgment, he may then feel humiliated. In another situation a Top might dress her butch/macho bottom in diapers and ruffly pink baby clothes, and parade the bottom at the Eagle or at the Mr. Drummer contest. A Top might require a bottom to accept golden showers, either in private or in a public scene. And humiliation can be very subtle, as when a Top gently requires that his shy bottom expose herself at a party or similar consensual public scene, transgressing the childhood inhibitions to which she had been trained.

Degradation and humiliation exist on a continuum that begins with the mildest embarrassment and proceeds through the most severe debasement. And along the way some people learn the difference between humiliation and humility – a state that can only be attained when false pride is stripped away from a posturing ego and the real strength of an individual shines forth. This can be a gift for the Top of stunning beauty.

If playing with degradation and humiliation distresses you or your partner, or turns either of you off, don't do it. These games can emphasize the poor image some people – Tops as well as bottoms – have of themselves and/or of others, and can harm their egos or self-esteem.

At the same time, just because these games don't work for one person doesn't mean they don't work very well for another. Some people whose ego strength is quite good may become erotically aroused by degradation and humiliation; still other people do not find activities such as those I mentioned to be particularly degrading or humiliating or maybe even interesting; yet others may take enormous pleasure in wearing diapers, for instance, or take great pride in being a really good pony or pretty baby; some may find serenity through surrender by demonstrating or receiving the profoundest depths of submission through golden showers. As with all variant sexual behaviors, one person's poison is often another person's grilled spiced tofu with aoli marinade.

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