Words by MaxX
Photography by Genevieve Kuzak
Models: Layla and Yvelizra
This article is part of the “The Wawa Complex” issue

BDSM – Bondage, Discipline/Domination, Sadism/Submission and Masochism – is a controversial subject among many, in part because it is so often misrepresented in the entertainment industry, devoid of explanation or context.

Like the LGBT acronym, BDSMK (BDSM+Kink) is a spectrum that involves a wide range of practices and encompasses diverse forms of non-normative intimacy and sensuality that exist beyond the violence it is normally associated with. While some of these practices have entered the mainstream, freed from the negative connotation that BDSMK typically carries, few understand how they can be feminist or healing, particularly for those with histories of oppression or trauma. 

BDSM and kink focus on the brain by playing with the body’s chemical releases and instinctive responses. It digs into your psyche, can alter your perception of reality and push beyond the sensations and experiences you have previously known. While pain may be part of this, it is mostly a tool to reach some larger end goal. Ultimately, BDSMK is a matter of trust-building, embracing your desires, and expanding your understanding of yourself.

CONSENT, SAFENESS, AND AFTERCARE

Safety and consent really are the foundation of any BDSMK scene, and they are the best indicators of a good partner or safe space/club/group. However, this is sometimes forgotten by newbies, and is risky for all involved. Lack of discussion on boundaries and “scene feedback” can foreclose a valuable exploration of BDSMK. 

BDSMK structures are not only places where people can practice BDSMK, but spaces where people can learn about inclusivity and discuss ethics. And, they can inspire and train participants on “riskier” techniques (i.e., needle play, electro-stimulation, or impact) so practitioners can implement these in their own practice. In a world where mainstream pornography trivializes risky practices, which even “vanilla” couples incorporate (like choking), the educative content that kinksters and sex workers produce can be life-saving.

These values were an essential part of The Crown, a femdom1 dungeon in Brooklyn that I visited in 2022. It follows the SSC principles (Safe, Sane, and Consensual) of BDSMK, and implemented the MITS system to ensure safety and security of all engaged partners before any BDSMK play:

  • MARKS: Discuss whether you are ok with leaving the scene with marks on your body, and if so, what kinds and locations. 
  • INJURIES/ILLNESSES and PREEXISTING CONDITIONS: Make sure you’re aware of your partner’s medical history as some positions may be uncomfortable or dangerous due to past injuries, and specific health conditions may require to adjust or avoid certain practices: hemophilia and blood play, epilepsy and bondage, etc. You should also know about the side effects of your partner’s medication.
  • TRIGGERS and LIMITS: It is important to keep in mind anything that could induce fear, anxiety, or unease. For example, some may be afraid of the dark, of being locked up, or of role-play involving police uniforms.
  • SAFE WORDS (or gestures): These are mandatory in BDSM, and should be agreed on prior to the scene to signal unease to another partner. It must be specific enough to not be confused with something a partner may naturally say. “Pineapple” is a commonly used word, for example. Some also use the traffic light system to communicate. If you’re, for example, experiencing an unusual physical response (crying, shaking, heavy sweating) in response to a stimulus: Green indicates “everything’s fine,” reassures your partner, and lets them know you are aware of it, Yellow/Orange for “slow down” or “I’m approaching a limit,” and Red indicates it needs stop and start with aftercare.

When engaging with new subs, I let them know that a good submissive is one that uses its safe words. They tend to think they’ll disappoint me if they use them, while it’s the opposite. It’s the role of dom·mes2 to read their partner so they don’t reach the point where they have to stop the play. But it’s also the sub’s responsibility to acknowledge their feelings, especially as their limits, energy, or resistance may shift from one day to another.

Layla and Yvelizra photographed by Genevieve Kuzak

Aftercare is also a must for kinksters, and testifies of the awareness of BDSMK enthusiasts when it comes to how draining and emotionally overwhelming a scene can be. Aftercare is about resting and spending quality time with each other, sharing our feelings and thoughts, and eventually nursing your partner (put cream on an area that might get bruised, wrap up in a blanket if you’re getting cold from exhaustion, take a shower or have snacks, etc.). Such a focus on consent and comfort shows the ways that BDSMK can be a feminist way of engaging in intimacy.

NON-PENETRATIVE, NON-NORMATIVE INTIMACY, AND THERAPEUTIC PROCESSES

Though patriarchy does impact BDSMK, it isn’t something that was invented by cis heterosexual men to push patriarchal violence upon domains of intimacy. BDMK is actually closely connected to femdom and queerness, historically, because it’s all about questioning and re-inventing power dynamics, especially by encouraging AFAB 3 people to enter dominant positions they are excluded from in their civil lives.

Because it decenters penetration and traditional forms of physical touch, BDSMK offers a range of alternatives to cis-hetero, reproductive-centered sexuality. By prioritizing intimacy in all its forms over sexuality it opens pathways to recover from sexual assault, these practices are inclusive of people who are disabled, asexual, older in age, or suffer from vaginismus or erectile dysfunction. Penetration can be part of some kinksters’ intimacy, but it doesn’t revolve around it.

Additionally, “topping” and domination can help one maintain control in intimate settings when letting go isn’t an option, providing an opportunity to individualize your experience of intimacy in a restrictive normative society. For others, it may be reassuring to endorse a submissive role to free themselves from the decision-making stress of a vulnerable setting like intimacy. And, accessing subspace4 can also be a good way of overcoming mental barriers preventing you from fully immersing in an intimate moment. Some experience it as a high that competes with orgasming, opening up a world of possibilities when it comes to challenging our orgasm/genitals-oriented intimacy.

BDSM offers a route for women to express their feelings, and a space to grow assertiveness and leadership, actively deconstructing the gendering of emotion and characters.

Consensual Non-Consent (CNC) can serve a similar role as common treatments for those who have experienced assault, like therapy, hypnosis, and EMDR. While it may be challenging for people to dig into traumatic memories and vocalize/share the impact they have had on their lives, re-playing an aggression can allow people to stop blaming themselves or reframe their relationship with the trauma. Changing the course of its events can allow your anger to express, and fighting against somebody that is trying to impose an action on you may help you build strength and confidence. CNC can also help those who need to face their fears and regain some kind of control in a non-consensual course of events. This may help them reconnect with public space and other settings associated with trauma. 

How people engage with BDSMK, and CNC practices specifically, depends on the person. But, these practices offer a way to rewrite a traumatic memory with an empowering and/or indulgent version of it, and provide mental spaces for you to escape your reality and thoughts. There are many ways for traumatized brains to function or rewire their relationship to the experience, and the way people do this is their prerogative. 

By providing an alternative way of getting intimate that values sensations over penetration, BDSMK allows us to understand our bodies beyond their genitals and provides a non-judgmental space for our desires and experiences.

REFLECTING ON FEMALE SUPREMACY AND THE PROCESS OF GIVING AND RECEIVING PAIN

BDSMK is feminist in the way it asks us to rethink a system that de/under-values AFAB people’s pleasure, and by how it’s actively reinventing the deadlock intimacy became in a patriarchal setting. One of the many ways in which it does so is by recognizing the richness of AFAB domination; while there is a slight majority of men involved in BDSMK, outside cis-gay circles it is a world mostly ruled by women.

There are many potential reasons for this. First, being a good dominant involves being caring, self-reliant, detail-oriented, trustworthy, empathetic, and a good communicator. These qualities are cultivated within AFAB people from birth, as many are raised to be mothers, or caretakers. Perhaps AFAB people excel in these intimate arrangements because they have a clear understanding of power dynamics, can analyze and communicate around feelings, and know how to build and maintain trust. These become especially important when it comes to practices where one’s ability to communicate and/or move might be compromised.

Layla and Yvelizra photographed by Genevieve Kuzak

Secondly, it could be that BDSMK is inherently non-normative and provides a pathway for enthusiasts to break out of the cis-men ruled world. For example, some people who are in positions of power in their civilian lives (in government, businessmen·women, CEOs etc.) turn to submission because they want to escape responsibilities and control. Practices like human furniture and service can be even more freeing from the necessity of “taking action.”

Thirdly, we can’t deny that AFAB sex-workers have paved the way for AFAB civilians to endorse the dominant roles in BDSM. Professional dominas are in fact the main reason why the BDSM world is dominated by women; they are some of the most skilled and famous dominants out there. 

Endorsing the dominant role in BDSM may come with inflicting pain, and it is through this process that I found a heaven into BDSM for my healing self. Being an AFAB feminist in a patriarchal society came with unveiling a certain level of rightful anger considering the violence I was facing daily. BDSM became a way to let go of this resentment that wouldn’t completely evacuate through therapy nor activism nor even combat sports, and I will always be grateful to my subs for helping me process this everyday violence in a consensual way. The best thing about this process is that, at the exact moment where I let go of my rage through whatever my sub is looking for within the scene, pain becomes channeled through a frame of trust and mutual agreement.

In a world where women’s anger is diminished or not taken seriously, where sexism feeds the idea that women can only be loving or forgiving or harmless, BDSM offers a route for them to express their feelings and a space to grow assertiveness and leadership, actively deconstructing the gendering of emotion and characters.

CONCLUSION

I’ve seen some kinksters externalize their pain and fears through BDSM so they didn’t resort to self-harm. I’ve made cis-male submissives read radical feminist works before releasing them into the world. I’ve heard about BIPOC dominas making white wealthy subs donate thousands of dollars to Black-founded charities so they’d allow them to come. I’ve read about impact play being used as a way to manage and regain control over chronic pain.

BDSM practices are healing in numerous ways, as they emerge alongside diverse life experiences and inclinations. Even though kinky intimacy could never be 100% secure, we must recognize that kinksters have developed whole methods and habits that not only allow them to partner in the safest way, but can also benefit intimate practices of non-kinksters. And, because BDSMK relationships revolve around trust and cultivating the sensorial, these relationships have the potential to be more intersectional and consensual than their heteronormative counterparts.

  1. Femdom means female dominance.
  2. A dom is a male dominant. And “domme” designates a female dominant, it is a synonym of domina/dominatrix.
  3. Stands for “Assigned Female At Birth”.
  4. A trance-like altered form of consciousness in response to hormones released by submissives while practicing BDSM.
%d bloggers like this: