ASK THE THERAPIST
by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1999 by William A. Henkin
<Q> What kinds of distinctions do you make between people who are interested in playing because it's fun, and people who have a deep psychological need for SM interactions? And how does a couple split in this way deal with their SM?
<A> I suppose the simplest way to distinguish between these two categories of people is to say that SM is a need for the first, and for the second it's a want. One way that difference might play out experientially is that someone who needs SM would be unwilling or unable to remain in a primary erotic/romantic relationship that did not include SM or at least allow for it enough to keep the itch scratched, while someone who wants SM could be satisfied without it in a primary erotic/romantic relationship even though s/he might miss it.
Desire discrepancy is the single most frequent complaint couples bring to sex therapists, and it's worth pointing out here that the couple you describe could equally well have a desire discrepancy around some issue other than SM oral sex vs no oral sex, intercourse vs outercourse, open vs closed relationship, three time a day vs three times a year: unless SM itself is some kind of problem for one or both of the people, then from a therapist's perspective the issue that confronts them is desire discrepancy, not SM.
In sex as in other areas, no two people are a perfect fit for one another all the time under all circumstances. All couples I have known, therefore, whether in or out of the scene, have benefited or could have benefited from communicating their wants and needs with each other and then negotiating around them. A couple split the way you suggest would stand a very good chance of negotiating their SM successfully because, at least as you've posed the problem, there are no needs in conflict: one person needs SM and the other person wants SM. Neither party needs not to have SM present in the relationship, so everyone's needs can be met, even if both people have to compromise with what they want with more or less SM than each would find ideal, for instance. In your vignette that question the matter of degree remains unsettled but also unposed: if the partner who likes but does not need SM wants very little of it, and the partner who needs SM needs a great deal of it, the negotiation may have some challenges. But if other facets of their relationship can also be negotiated to their mutual satisfaction, then some SM perhaps a minimum from the perspective of the person who needs it and a maximum from the perspective of the person who wants it will likely be a component of what they do together.
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<Q> How do you negotiate during a scene?
<A> In this community we are fond of urging people to negotiate extensively before they play. But, of course, not everyone does and even sticklers for that protocol cannot know ahead of time what additional issues are going to come up in scene, and so they too sometimes find themselves surprised.
Negotiation, like any other form of communication, has both verbal and behavioral forms. In your explicit verbal pre-play negotiation you may make deliberate allowances for verbal negotiation during a scene. For example, if you've built in a middle-ground safeword between, let us say, "green" meaning go and "red" meaning stop such as "yellow" meaning slow down then when any or either participant says "yellow," the scene slows down without stopping, and everyone can talk.
Behavioral negotiation during a scene is often a less precise matter because it relies on the players' abilities to interpret signs. The most common signs are physical expressions. If "A" is spanking "B" and "B" is happily squealing and kicking and struggling in exactly the ways "A" has come to recognize mean "Yes yes yes, don't stop," an implicit behavioral in-scene negotiation takes place that is tantamount to "B" saying "green." If, in the same scenario, "B" is not exhibiting the well-known signs of pleasure and instead, for the first time in "A" 's recollection, curls into a ball and weeps piteously, a behavioral in-scene negotiation begins that is tantamount to "B" saying "red" or at least "yellow"; ideally "A" will complete this piece of the negotiation by stopping or slowing down the scene.
Whether verbally or behaviorally, you already do negotiate in-scene. I'm of the old-enough school that thinks more pre-play negotiation is better than less, because the dungeon is not where I especially like to encounter surprises. If you are of a bolder, more daring school of play you may prefer to rely on your wits more completely, but that does not mean you are not still negotiating in-scene you're just doing it a different and perhaps less exact way.
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