If You Simply Must Use BDSM Scenes as Therapy


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by Cat Tailor

Many, if not most, people have experienced some form of sexual or physical abuse in their formative years - formative being any time up to now, when you are of course fully formed as yourself. Some of these people are also drawn to explore BDSM, for pleasure, need, or healing.

That healing can happen in many ways. For one, the simple act of negotiating a scene, speaking what she wants, can be a healing. For another, it might be the realization that he can separate his desire to be beaten from his sexual desires. Yet another might enjoy visiting childhood in ageplay, finding herself freed from the burdens of adult responsibility for a time.

Most people find some form of healing comes to them eventually, simply through exploring their sexual urges honestly and openly. Some players, however, find they feel a calling to explore the darker corners, pressing their fingers into their old wounds, checking to see if it still hurts. These ones eventually turn their thoughts to reenacting their old traumas, seeking the healing that comes from the fire.

This reenactment can take the form of a rape scene, age regression, a beating where the top says the things that the bottom's father used to say, a chance to beat the crap out of someone who acts the part of a previous abuser, etc. There are an infinite number of scenes that can qualify as reenactments of previous traumas, depending on the nature of the trauma and the current condition of the players. Any of them have the potential to be healing or damaging, depending on how they are handled and the readiness, skill, and maturity of the participants.

This article will happen in three parts:

  1. A brief discussion of my credentials so you have some reason to suspect I might have a clue to offer.
  2. Assorted and numerous warnings about why you might want to not ever do this, ever.
  3. Information about how to create healing rather than fresh injury, if you simply must follow this path as part of your healing process.

I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, rape, and sexual abuse as an adult. Like most survivors, I have an immediate urge to soften those words by saying, "Hey, it wasn't really that bad, and I survived, and others have been through worse, and besides that it's over." Thank you for letting me get that out of my system.

However bad it was, I've been conscious of the past events, out of denial about them, and on an active road to recovery for nine years. When I say "active," I mean active. I've done personal empowerment seminars, counseling, sweat lodges, healing circles, psychic readings, soul retrieval, shamanic healing, Reiki and other energy work, crystal healing, massage therapy, shit tons of crying and raging, inner child work, flower essences, journaling and the Artist's Way, reading about survivors and their healing, ritual release of wounds, BDSM exploration, support groups of other survivors, time without penetration, time as a lesbian, time learning to let men near my body again, time sticking my finger in my old wounds to see if I still flinched. There's probably some other stuff I left out. That's what I can remember now.

I've learned to stay in my body and speak my truth in the moment. I no longer have to think about what I'd do if a partner hit me without my consent, as the situation doesn't come up anymore. I've changed, and none of it was easy.

In addition to these personal qualifications to speak on the topic, I have logged eight years as a psychic counselor and shamanic healer. I have a degree in Psychology from Georgetown University. My sex advice column was interesting enough to get me on Playboy Radio. I'm a kinky pervert, in a lot of ways. You with me? Good. Moving along.

Let's talk about why you should probably talk yourself out of using rape scenes or other forms of reenactment as part of your healing process.

There are better, cleaner, and more controllable ways to do one's healing work. When reenacting something that was a shattering trauma the first time around, there is a strong possibility of triggering that old pain or creating new pain on top of it. When you get triggered (or trigger someone else), you might end up dealing with PTSD reactions, multiple personalities, dissociative disorders, uncontrolled rage, grief, or withdrawal, unconsciousness, etc. If you're not absolutely certain that you or your partner can pull you back out of the abyss you've tossed yourself into, don't start down this road. If you're not absolutely certain you can pull your partner out of the abyss you toss them into, don't play with their old wounds.

Dramatic enough? It's true, though. I've been triggered while doing my healing work, by things much less severe than a rape scene, by perfectly well-intentioned people I knew were well-intentioned and who stomped on my trigger anyway by accident. It could take days to just pull out of the "crying until you puke" stage of it, much less the lengthier depression that follows. Not fun. Not even necessarily therapeutic, actually. Other times, I've left my body, and different survivors have differing degrees of dissociation. I've seen someone pass out when the shifts in their energy became too much to keep up with, and this could bring on a medical situation. Someone who is multiple might have several workable personalities who are in control most of the time, but one which is absolutely unmanageable, which comes out under duress. And then there's the PTSD stuff - panic, paranoia, flashbacks, inability to distinguish reality from memory, etc. "Uncontrolled rage" sounds a little inconvenient on the page, but when you or your partner are suddenly actively trying to take out an eye or remove testicles, it's a different story. Especially if there are weapons around. Whee-ha!

In addition to the previous warnings, there are some softer, more emotional things to take into consideration. If your aim is to trigger the old hurt to release it, how do you remain sure that you don't layer new wounding over the old? How does the triggered partner continue to communicate clearly, as panic and memory can easily take one past the reach of language or rational thought? How do you make sure the triggered one doesn't spiral away into depression, suicidal thoughts or attempts, or become otherwise unreachable?

The problem with using a rape scene to heal from rape trauma (or any other version of this) is that it's too close to the original pain for the mind/body to separate, especially early in the healing process.

I'm not saying that reenacting things can't be used, or can't be useful. I've certainly used this technique myself. But I personally wasn't ready to swallow come right after realizing that I'd been deeply wounded by the nonconsensual come-swallowing that had been forced on me. I had to journal about it, talk about it with friends and therapists, cry about it, give myself permission to not even get close to the idea of doing it for a long period of time (setting boundaries), do energy work to release the stored negative energy in my body, have fantasies about doing it in a good way (which allowed me to imagine having control over the act long before I tried it in real life), get my anger out of my body, etc. There were many different pieces of healing I could do, in parts, that let me chip away at the great mass of ick that was built up around that particular sexual act. Seven years after the last time that bit of violence was done to me, I asked a man to let me try it out. Seven years of various and sundry healing practices, plus the time to heal. Before that, even when I thought it was a hot idea, I couldn't do the whole blowjob thing to completion without panicking at least a little bit.

The body takes a long time to process things, and it has its own memory and its own logic. The mind might know the scene is just play, but if the healing process isn't far enough along, the body is going to get all triggered and freaked out and then you get the above-belabored hysterical crying, uncontrolled rage, dissociation, panic, passing out, etc. Not fun, and not the best affirmation for your sense of your healing progress.

In my opinion, had I tried to start with the reenactment strategy, I would have prolonged my healing process. By using therapy, massage, energy work, sweat lodges, journaling, pillow-pounding, crying, dreamwork, journeying, introspection, fantasy, Courage to Heal exercises, personal empowerment seminars, healing circles, a few years as a lesbian, etc, I eventually became ready for the messy, uncontrollable, not-as-good method of reenacting the original trauma and reclaiming my power through doing it by choice. That was my graduation ceremony, not the bulk of the work.

Try things that allow you to deal with one aspect of the healing at a time, since there's usually so many feelings, reactions, memories, etc. all stirred up together. To give a blunt example: calm, reflective environments, where you're not with a guy with his dick out, are generally easier to handle when you're healing from trauma caused by a guy with his dick out. The same can be said of any person's trauma, whether inflicted by men or women, in whatever situations. It's simpler and more relaxing to work on healing in an environment not populated by things just like the original pain.

One final note of caution. As the "healee," you're asking someone to take on the role of rapist, abuser, etc, for your scene. Someone's going to be the top, and that person risks Top Drop in a major way. They can experience guilt, shame, horrified realization about how much they enjoyed it, readjustment of their self image, etc. This gets compounded if you're having a negative or triggered reaction. It's further compounded if they're new to the scene or new to this type of play. If the top isn't sure they can pull themselves out of whatever abyss this sort of play tosses them into, best not to risk it. If they're an emotional mess, how can they rescue you?

Scared yet? Good.

Still hearing that little voice inside you that insists you want to meet your demons head-on, waving your sword of surrender or safeword, diving into the fire so you can emerge cleansed and whole?

Okay, then. Let's talk about how to walk this path without fucking yourself up more than necessary. First I'll discuss some general ideas about the nature of trauma and approaches to healing, and then specifics about selecting partners, negotiation, structuring a scene, and aftercare.

The original trauma is like a big hefty hank of rope. Bound up in it are all sorts of threads representing aspects of the experience, including but not limited to:

Etcetera.

It goes on and on. There isn't one simple thing that can be pointed to in any traumatic event that is the thing that must be healed.

The idea with a healing process is, well, to either cut the rope entire or pick it apart and sever a strand at a time. Cutting the rope can be done occasionally with a good shamanic death experience, but it's difficult and almost impossible to predict how it will go. This is evidenced by many stories of people who have left the scene or experienced further trauma due to a reenactment of some kind, or when playing with BDSM too early in their recovery process.

Picking it apart is nicer, easier on the healee. You look at your rope of trauma, and you start separating strands. Which aspects of the experience were not things that continue to traumatize you? Make a list of those. You might have no issues whatsoever with sex during the day or outdoors, with the smell of come, with dark-haired women, etc. For whatever reason, whether an accumulation of positive associations with that thing in your past or it simply failed to register as part of the pain, many of the threads are not going to be potential triggers for you. Hooray!

Then look at the ones that are. Make a list. "As a result of my trauma, I am now made nervous or terrified by: (cars, penises, breasts, anal sex, locked doors, the taste of coffee on someone's mouth, being on my knees, etc)."

Next, address one trigger thread at a time. Set up an environment where you can have a positive experience with the thing you're afraid of, and work through your feelings about it. Deal with locked doors separately from anal sex. Create situations that are as far from the original trauma as possible, with the exception of that one thing you're working on healing.

Sometimes this means saving the worst for last, which makes good sense anyway. If you're afraid of men, oral sex, the taste of come, swallowing come, and being forced to swallow come, work through the list in order. If you go right to being forced to swallow, you've piled five things you're phobic about on top of each other. Instead, spend time cuddling with men and having other kinds of sex. Then play around with oral sex that doesn't come to conclusion. Then ask a partner to come on his hand, and let you taste it (or some other way to handle that fear). Then gently, calmly, suck a partner off and swallow under controlled circumstances. Finally, if you want to, schedule a rape scene where you're forced to swallow.

This making sense? In order for healing to happen, all parts of your psyche must be able to tell this is a different situation from the original trauma. This means controlling other variables so it's hard for your psyche to miss the point. If you craft a scene where you're duplicating several traumatic aspects of the original trauma together, it's more likely to throw you into that old panic place, rather than helping you move forward empowered.

In negotiating any scene which will involve sex, make very sure you are playing with someone who is totally okay with an abrupt stop in the middle. I know everyone negotiates the use of safewords, etc, but some people say it and others mean it. It's possible the person getting the most "therapy" out of the scene might be full up of what they can stand two seconds before their partner is about to come. You need to be able to call a halt, have them pull out or accept your pulling out as the case may be, right in the middle whenever you need to stop. It takes a highly mature individual to not be resentful or manipulative when their cookie has just been snatched from their reach.

Why do I make such a point of this, you might ask? Well, we are mostly all socialized to be nice people. When we're having sex with someone, in a scene or not, we work to make sure it's good for our partners. We know it's bad manners not to finish what you start. So internally, the "therapized one" has a struggle to call a halt, having to fight against his or her own urge to be polite. If this is compounded by a resentful or manipulative partner ("Ooh, just one more minute, okay?") it becomes harder for them to learn it's okay to set needed boundaries, rather than reinforcing that idea.

The other reason it's a big deal is that you need this person you're "playing" with to have an enormous amount of emotional flexibility and emotional control. They need to be able to go from their role in the scene, to a sexual partner, to a comforting friend, and back, at very close to the snap of your fingers. They need to be able to go from fully aggressive abuser mode (or struggling helpless victim mode) to calm, nonattached, non-sexual, confident supportive friend/counselor mode. In the time it takes you to say "safeword."

See how this can be a bit demanding? Choose carefully. If you're going to risk being hysterical, raging, dissociated, or any of the other fun things that could possibly happen when you play with this type of can of worms as part of your healing process, it's much better to do it with a sufficiently competent ally.

Set up the scene in advance, so you have time to move into a deep state of psychological readiness. Have intense conversations with your inner child or however you relate to the part of you that was wounded. Let them know what's going to happen and why, and that the child self can call a halt at any time.

Set up the scene so that you have a couple days after it to process what you experienced, without having to put a "game face" on for anyone. It's a lot easier to be able to sit in the shitload of feelings you've brought up - good, bad, psychotic, indifferent, whatever - than it is to have to suppress them enough to make it through Sunday brunch with the family. Plan ahead for an emotional crisis. If you don't have one, celebrate! At least you were prepared.

Be clear about your intentions for the scene. Are you looking to have a fun time, changing the original painful imprint through emotion-light rowdy celebration? Are you looking to stir up suppressed feelings/memories so you can work through them after? Are you testing yourself, seeing if you can play with similar situations, while you're in control of them, and survive without freaking out? Are you looking to reclaim your power, reenacting originally traumatic circumstances with yourself in the driver's seat? Are you wanting to act out a surrogate sort of revenge, doing to others what was done to you?

All of these goals and more can be wonderful, and can be used well as part of a healing process. Trust your intuition, and be deeply honest with yourself and your play partner(s). Then set up the scene to accomplish what you desire. Know what result you would like to see, to meet your intention. It could be finding your voice mid-scene, a cathartic emotional release, sexual pleasure, turning the tables on the abuser, going into the pain until you let go of yourself and your fear, whatever. Communicate with the top about where you want to go. Communicate with the top about what their reaction should be when you get there. Be as detailed as you can about the terrain you anticipate.

This clarity will probably require sharing your stories, both top and bottom. The top needs to know what triggers they're supposed to land on with both feet, and which ones they're supposed to avoid. They need to know what other traumas might get stirred up. The top should share their own abuse history, so the bottom knows what things might send the top spinning off if they do them. Know yourselves and each other.

Consider having a neutral ally there, totally as support for you. If you involve three people in the scene this way, then when you call "safeword" (or when the scene's over) your partner can take what time they need to beat off or get their head straight or come down, and your support person can swoop right in to take care of your emotional needs. Saves wear and tear on the partner.

Make provisions for rage. I'm not talking about a little stirred up anger. I'm talking about blind rage, which can easily be accessed through this kind of play. Don't play with knives handy the first time out. Consider bondage you can struggle against but not escape if you're strong and likely to hurt your partner. Consider having other people ready to help restrain you if you're lashing out physically. People can get hurt, you know.

Oh, and the above warning goes triple for nice people who never ever get angry. Push you far enough, and you pop!

Stay close to your feelings as you go. For me, it was important to notice very attentively when I started to leave my body. There was a narrow gap in which I could stop whatever action was pushing me past where I was comfortable. If I didn't stop things when my belly started getting squidgy, I'd float away, and regret things later. Pay close attention. If you're not sure, call a temporary halt. Breathe deeply, close your eyes, and check in with your body, your inner child, your heart, your intuition. Ask yourself if you want to continue. It's fine to stop or go on. Sometimes a break is needed to remind your body that you are actually in control of what's happening, and to give yourself a chance to catch up with the action.

Know how far you want to go in the scene, and don't renegotiate once you're in it. You're setting up an intensely emotional space, and altering your reality quite a bit as a result. That's not the time to decide you want to try a little anal after all. If you find a part of yourself that connects to a new desire in the scene, acknowledge it, and set up a separate scene to address that piece. The general idea is to come out of the scene with less baggage than you entered it with, and that means not setting yourself up for regrets once you sober up from the endorphins.

Let it be all about you. If your partner is likely to have their own emotional stuff come up, either pick another partner or set up their own support network for after. You need to be able to attend to yourself. One of the leftovers from abuse is that the survivor has excessively attuned emotional radar. They put a lot of energy into being aware of what's going on with people around them, working to avoid the trauma again. If it was long-term abuse, in close-quarters, they have a whole host of strategies for avoiding incidents or getting the person abusing them to finish quickly or attracting the attention of the abuser to distract them from siblings. Yes, this gets a bit confusing psychologically for the survivor. After the scene, one of the most profound parts of the healing process might be being able to attend to your own emotional needs, without having to act like nothing happened, assure your partner it was good for you too, or whatever the fuck sick show you had to put on to survive in the first place.

All the usual aftercare things should be in place, doubled. Chocolate, greasy protein-laden food, emergen-c, warm blankies, a teddy bear (the chances of reverting a bit are pretty high), sage smudge if you're woo-woo, a hot shower or bath, someone to stay with overnight, a journal to write in, pillows to punch, a huge box of kleenex, a bottle of champagne if you're feeling tremendously fine - and then someone to keep an eye on you for when the crash comes later on or the next day.

Most of all, take care of yourself. Don't do this because your mind thinks you're ready. Do it because your deepest wisdom knows you're ready. Celebrate the healing it brings you, in whatever forms it comes.


Cat Tailor is the author of the Pansexual Perverts' Play Pack, a sexual role-playing game, available at http://www.sexpositivepress.com. She has written a sex advice column, Chasing Your Tail? Advice for Fuckers, Players, and Perverts at http://www.shadesbeyondgray.com. Shades also has her articles on psychic survival and etiquette at play parties. Her short smut has appeared in Problem Child, AmoretOnline, the Bottom Line, and at Shades, as well as having been featured at Red Hot Words, Seattle's The Wetspot's naughty open mike night. She has been interviewed on Playboy Radio and SexLife. Her highly non-therapeutic BDSM erotic novel is currently seeking a publisher to play with. Consensually, of course.


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