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December 1998

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1998 by William A. Henkin

<Q> As an ex-battered woman, I get a big thrill from beating and hurting men, but sometimes I get carried away. What should I do?

<Q> How does a man deal with his aggression toward female submissives so that his face remains relaxed, not scary?

<Q> Is topping less sexually stimulating than bottoming? When I top I find it's mostly a release for my anger and other frustrations. Is this normal, or is it a sign that I'm really a bottom?

<A> Dear Friends, it's true I haven't been to a lot of play parties over the past few years, but in my little corner of the world, before people actually get involved with SM as the organized communities have come to know it, they have usually come to recognize that SM is about sex, not violence, and that this distinction is part of what consent – not to mention safety and sanity – is all about. It may be foreplay, it may be everything and then some, or it may just fuel the bonfires of the mind, but if you like this sort of thing it's what gets you hot and wet and/or hard, and sooner or later it's part of what gets you off. By reminding us all that there are important distinctions between violence and SM sex I do not mean to imply that sadists aren't thrilled by offering their bottoms pain or that masochists aren't eager to receive it, that dominants do not feel aggression toward their submissives (or even vice-versa), or that feelings of anger, frustration, and revenge do not play their parts in inspiring many people's BDSM scripts. But even if your SM has, as a friend of mine likes to say, dirty roots, those roots might be mined for insight and awareness, for mental health and spiritual enlightenment, or for the evolution of charming and delightfully twisted erotic scripts – but from where I sit they are not, in themselves, what erotic power exchange is about.

If you find yourself getting so carried away in your scenes that you feel in danger of losing the kind of control you want to maintain; if you find that the emotions you want to keep hidden are so powerful that – broad, generous grins and exhalations of ecstasy apart – you cannot govern your facial grimacing; if by intention or inadvertence you are bringing to the dungeon or bedroom those angers and frustrations you've been carrying with you for an hour, a day, a week, a year, or a lifetime; if something, in other words, other than the potent forces of love, intimacy, spirituality, sensual delight, the hero's journey, or just plain sexy fun are taking over your scenes: in these cases you are probably using SM to act out issues that are better addressed with your therapist, your spiritual advisor, your personal confidante, your guru, or your partner. To play from those spaces may not only be emotionally unsafe for you and/or your partner(s), but could also jeopardize your long-term pleasure in BDSM.

Apart from the underlying nature of these three related questions, here are some more concrete answers.

1. I have spoken before with tops – usually novices – who felt that they got carried away in their SM play, and often what they meant was that they derived more pleasure from their role than they'd expected to, or discovered themselves to be more sadistic than they'd thought they were, and so began to fear that they were evil, emotionally unbalanced, or a threat to their bottoms. If you get so carried away that you cannot control who, what, when, where, or how hard you're striking; if you damage people or exceed negotiated limits nonconsensually; or if fallout from your play is interfering with your personal, professional, emotional, or social life, you may have cause for concern. If your anger toward your batterer is unresolved and you generalize it to other men, I would judge that you also have cause for concern if for no other reason than that you've developed a prejudice that limits the scope of your human interactions. Take up any of these concerns with any of the people I mentioned above, as it seems appropriate in your life. If you're just having more fun than you planned, perhaps you only need to expand your own horizons.

2. Aggression is a perfectly natural feeling we all have toward many other people on many kinds of occasions. It can be a positive force, as when we vehemently seek to defend our rights or expand our skills, and it can be a negative force, as when we shout at little children or drive too fast for safety. The feeling of aggression is not a problem in itself; problems arises when aggression takes us over and it uses us to say or do things rather than the other way around. If you can deliberately tap into your reservoir of aggression in a scene you can add a lot of juice to the energy exchange. Then, if you pay attention to what you're doing – whipping or spanking, bondage or service, whatever – instead of dwelling on how you're feeling, you'll probably find you can relax your face and many other too-tight muscles besides. But if your blood suddenly starts to boil, your face gets red, the cords in your neck stand out, and you have the kinds of difficulties with safety and negotiated boundaries I mentioned above; or if you feel singularly aggressive toward submissives or toward women in general, the question is probably not how to keep your face relaxed enough not to appear scary, but how to learn what it is in you, or in you about these classes of human being, that provokes such rage in you.

3. Back in the days when spanking was thought to be a good way to punish children one of the first rules for effective parenting was, Never strike your child in anger. We know now that spanking children is not good for them, and that there are better and more effective ways for parents to deal with their own angers and frustrations than walloping their kids. And while spanking may be very good for some adult bottoms sometimes, I think the first principle remains the same in SM: don't play when you're angry.

SM – topping and bottoming alike – is a way to engage in a sophisticated form of erotic intimacy. Whether topping is less sexually stimulating than bottoming probably depends on who you ask. I know that topping is extremely and very genitally sexual for some people, more globally erotic for others, and flat-out boring for still others. The same can be said for bottoming. If you're doing SM for the erotics, go where the juice is for you, and top or bottom or switch as you please. If for you topping is mostly a way to release difficult emotions, that does not indicate that you're a bottom, it indicates that you're using the wrong tool for the job you want to do. The dungeon, where catharsis is the goal, not the door, is a place to have fun; it is not a place to come to terms with your angers.

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