Adding SM to a Vanilla Relationship

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by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1999 by William A. Henkin

Q: In SM 101, Jay Wiseman recommends that it's easier for a het male to meet someone and gradually introduce her into SM than it is to find the mistress or submissive of his dreams at the local bar or supermarket. Do you agree or disagree? I prefer to find my relationships in the vanilla world rather than in the BDSM community anyway. But because of what I have in store for the other person, and because I assume that if she is not receptive to my plans I will drop her, I feel guilty about what seems like an unfair and dishonest approach to looking for a partner. How hard is it to start with a vanilla relationship and then add SM to it?

A: I actually have known a couple of men who claimed they found the Mistresses of their dreams in just these sorts of ways -- one by chatting up a woman sitting literally on the next barstool who turned out to have a whip in her purse that she knew how to use, the other by catching the eye of a woman walking her dog and asking if she treated men that way. Nonetheless, out of all the men I've known two is not a lot, and I've never heard of anyone finding a ready-made submissive on the checkout line. Even though I don't have a statistically valid study for reference, I would certainly agree with Jay that the likelihood of finding SM bliss on this sort of chance meeting is extremely slim, and far, far slimmer than the likelihood that someone you meet in vanilla-land might be amenable to learning -- as you once were and as I once was and as practically everyone in Janus once was. I'd guess this is true even though some people simply do not seem to be able to comprehend safe and sane no matter how many times the concepts are explained, and when they hear about BDSM only think of undesirable chain and unbearable pain and nonconsensual servitude, and are just never going to be players.

Still, deliberately introducing someone vanilla into SM can be a painstaking process, and one likely to challenge your abilities as a trainer whether you think of yourself as a top or a bottom. To some significant extent, then, I think your success in finding an SM-compatible partner in or out of the scene depends on who you are, who she is, and how compatible you are together: training is always a team effort. As you might imagine, I generally agree that honesty is a better policy than guile. But self-disclosure is very much part of a coming out process, and I have always felt that the way, time, and place a person comes out is best left to him or her, providing the result is not intended to harm others.

In introducing this set of fruit-fudge-and-nut-like flavors to your prospective vanilla cone, a great deal may hinge on the way you broach the subject. It is a rare individual, top or bottom, in or out of the scene, who is going to be wholeheartedly enthusiastic about playing with you in any way, SM or otherwise, if the first thing out of your mouth after your name is the kind of scene you want. Not only would s/he be rare, but the evidence of his or her over-eagerness, like the evidence of your own, would suggest that this person is willing to play unsafely as well as unwisely. The very thing you may want in your hungry fantasies -- an immediate piece of action -- is actually the very thing you don't want if you're looking for the kind of relationship whose SM will last over a long term. Once someone has gotten to know you, however, and feels that you have some understanding of her as well, you are both in better positions to gauge the other as a fit. If you like each other in the relevant ways, if you want related things out of the experiences you might share, if you have the skills she needs to learn and the patience and ability to teach them, and if the person you're approaching is at least willing to try a little something new, then you can decide if you want to introduce your sort of SM to her, or if you'd be better off taking in a movie.

A great deal also has to do with what you can offer your prospective partner. Obviously, the more you know about your scene the better you can explain its dynamics, and the more helpful you can be in explaining to your wide-eyed innocent what you get out of it and what your prospective partner might look for if she agrees to play with you. But what you have to offer may not only be your scene sophistication. Your capacity for intimacy and your willingness expose your feelings may be more important in establishing trust between you and your new friend than your skill at slinging a flogger. Your familiarity with energy exchange may function as a bridge to understanding some of SM's deeper dynamics for someone who already understands about energy exchanges in other sorts of ways such as in physics or in art. Your ability to have fun with costume, music, and dungeon drama can enhance her experience of fun, while also minimizing some of the dire emotions all the black leather and nasty-looking toys are sometimes designed to elicit. Your skills at boating, rock climbing, or emergency room triage open worlds of discussion that lead to valuations about flagellation and bondage. Your extensive experience giving or taking commands in a hierarchical profession, or while practicing a spiritual discipline, provides you with deep training in giving and receiving service.

And of course a great deal of your success will be related to the nature of the SM you enjoy. Obviously, if you like things that pique her interest she'll be more likely to want to explore with you than if your negotiated needs and desires are far apart. But also, if you want to enjoy an occasional spanking, whether as top or bottom, the number of nominally vanilla folk who would be quite pleased to accommodate may be surprisingly high. Once you make clear to her that spanking is not a punishment for misdeeds -- or else show her how to find the delight in such misbehavior and its recompense -- the intimacy of being over your knee, combined with your hand softly (at first) caressing her bared ass, may prove a sweet inspiration to an otherwise frightened or uninterested novice.

Finally, politeness, courtesy, and the ability to listen to another person's questions and concerns are far more likely to land you an appropriate partner than all the technical skills in the world.

For my part, I think it's always better to have no scene than a bad scene, but I know that sometimes when people get extremely hungry to play they can feel ready to leap on anyone who resembles their fantasies in any way. Since virtually everyone, top or bottom, will go to great lengths to please others whom we like, love, admire, or revere, as we will go to great lengths to avoid getting caught displeasing those we fear, this is exactly where bad scenes often take place, simply because the player who should have known better -- that's you, in this case -- forgot his basic negotiation skills.

William A. Henkin, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Board Certified Sex Therapist, is co-author, with Sybil Holiday, of Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely. He conducts his private psychotherapy practice in San Francisco.

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