Reimagining BDSM

It’s been a little four years since I first started dabbling in BDSM and wrote my first piece related to the experiences I having. My ‘Confessions of a sub’ blogpost led me to talk more openly about the ups and downs I had within BDSM dynamics and years later I’m still speaking about one of the relationships that taught me most about care and vulnerability in a world that many consider to be filled solely with pain, manipulation and abuse.

I was recently very fortunate to be asked to give a TEDx talk by the TEDx Cape Town women team. Together with my speaker coach Sarika Mahadeo, we put together something I was happy to share; a gruelling, exciting and terrifying experience that had me floating off that stage.

You can watch the talk right here:

I’m afraid the video isn’t captioned, but I’ve put my talk below. Do note that because of nerves as well as the editing that followed, what I wrote down versus what I ended up saying are slightly different, but everything is there.

My favourite romantic relationship was with a person I’ve never met. We shared a yearlong love, heart-breaking when it ended, but we never met once. Our relationship was rooted in BDSM. He was my Dominant. I was his submissive. 

Chains, whips and torture. Is that where your mind went when I said BDSM? 

Most thoughts about The Lifestyle are extreme. Not entirely untrue, simply extreme. I say I’m into BDSM and you may wonder, “why? Isn’t that a white people thing?” You may imagine someone chained up in a dark dungeon. Or perhaps you find yourself thinking of that Movie That Shall Not Be Named, you know the one with the colour grey. 

I am not here to explain nor am I here to excuse BDSM. I’m simply here to share with you a personal experience of it. Its care, its tenderness and its strong conversational foundation – none of which would come to mind when I first used the abbreviation. 

B. D. S. M. The abbreviation falls under the kink umbrella. ‘Kink’ as in any sexual behaviour that isn’t considered ‘traditional’. This Lifestyle allows for physical, psychological and often sexual exchanges of power. 

B – Bondage. The act of tying, binding, or restraining a partner for erotic, aesthetic, or simple sensory stimulation.

D – Discipline. The rules established between those involved and the actions that come when those rules are broken. ‘D’ is also for Domination. Those in a ‘superior’ position within the relationship, who exercises control in the power exchange. 

S – Submission. Those in the ‘inferior’ position, those who willingly give over their control to their Dominant. A Switch is the role one takes on if they choose to move between dominance and submission. Sadomasochism. The act of getting pleasure from inflicting and receiving pain or humiliation. 

M – Masochism. Deriving pleasure from your own pain or humiliation.

The world of BDSM is vast. It’s intricate, beautiful and fulfilling. It involves everything from golden showers, to role play and playing with candles. It can involve spanking, flogging, whipping and needles. But it also includes cuddles, hand-holding, conversations that probe your psyche and a deep love you’ll remember for years to come.

My favourite romantic relationship was with a person I’ve never met. This is why. 

In this first D/s (for dominant submissive) relationship, I learnt exactly what it felt like to be adored. I discovered the most tender parts of myself. I experienced pleasure I never had without ever being touched once by my Dom. We never met in person, remember? I learnt that Doms, while often construed as incredibly authoritative people who do as they please, can be gently firm. I was taught that while I worked on my pain threshold and loved things that left me bruised, pain isn’t a requirement. I was cradled in love, trained to be a submissive who voiced every single opinion while still being disciplined. I learnt about the role of love and laughter. 

I learnt more about my own mental health. Having struggled with anxiety for years, even before I had the vocab to describe what I was going through, I remember describing these feelings to him. Explaining how often I had pains shoot through my chest as though I had been stabbed. I had a slight flare for the dramatic those days. As I went on learning about what it was I was experiencing, he helped me through it, coming up with schedules that would ease my feelings of not being in control, saying my affirmations with me and sending me voice notes that acted like a meditation app for me. He suggested I wear an elastic band around my wrist, it would help ground me. If I ever felt overwhelmed, I could always slip into a corner, listen to the voice notes and snap the elastic band onto my wrist. The sensation of pain acted as a pleasurable distraction but also helped me feel something physical, when the anxiety trapped me in my mind. I would send him picture of my wrists, proudly bearing the welts and bruises he gifted me with. 

Him, on the Autism spectrum. Me, with undiagnosed general anxiety disorder. We fit together like a mouth and a gag. 

As someone who’s been in and experienced an array of relationships from traditionally vanilla (non-kink) relationships, to queer, open and polyamorous to long distance and kink-focused, I’ve been able to see the difference between all these. It’s some of the most ‘unconventional’ relationships that I’ve learnt the most from.

I had found that in more traditional relationships there was a lot of assumption in what to expect, where things go as well as how you communicate about certain things – especially when it comes to the sexual as well as the emotional health of a relationship. It isn’t difficult to figure out why this is. We’re shown it everywhere, romcoms literally play out how relationships and the way we experience romantic love in ways that can be formulaic. And while many people challenge this and create their own rules for their own relationships, it was within BDSM where I learnt about true communication and interactions that are safe, sane and consensual. It was when I was a submissive that I learnt that our assumptions need to be challenged.

You think BDSM is all fun and whips? Get ready to get talked out. We have our fun, and IMMENSE amounts of it, but what happens first is the communication. Things are discussed at length, often before we’re in the same room with each other, some of these go as far as involving contracts. Things. Get. Real. When you’re in a space where kinks exist on such a wide spectrum, it’s always best when things are outlined clearly. Hard and soft limits are established – the former being activities that you are certain you have in interest in and the latter being those that are open to negotiation.  Personal concerns lists are drawn up, outlining the physical, mental and emotional aspects of being within a relationship or a simple play space. Got anxiety? Note it down. prone to fainting? Note it down. Struggle with allergies, have brittle bones or find yourself triggered by certain acts – that information is laid out in the very beginning.  

 My first D/s relationship taught me all this. 

I’ve since had many other experiences, I’m a beginner when it comes to bondage, I discovered my love for flogging, nipple clamps and choking and I’ve been able to experiment with my Dominant side. But there was nothing quite like entering a relationship to learn how to be someone’s submissive and coming out feeling like I was stronger and better. Being given a bed time because he knew lack of sleep affected my mental and physical health, having my clothes picked out by him the night before because the decision often made me anxious and being reminded to eat when my mental health took my appetite away from me. I learnt the tenderness that comes with aftercare post an intense sexual interaction – something that I had seldom experienced outside of BDSM. Feeling held and safe as you come down from the euphoria.  

I was even given writing assignments to work through negative emotions, which I often bottled up and internalised. I discovered and became more comfortable verbalising my own emotional vulnerabilities. Being submissive not only taught me about how my body responded to pleasure, it also made clear the strong emotional responses I have. I learnt about expressing anger, sadness and disappointment, as well as my self-deprecation and confusion about what the future held for me. 

From this D/s relationship I was able to build on the way I become intimate with people, physically and emotionally. Even when my relationship with someone wasn’t rooted in BDSM, I was able to use the lessons I had learnt. These include: 

  1. Awareness of boundaries. I made sure that I never got lazy with making sure these were always clear. Explicit and clear, my outlined my own limits but also make sure those I enter into relationships are doing the work too. It’s taught me a great deal on expressing what I do and do not want and accepting when people do the same. 

  2. Give and take. This tender balance is a lesson I’ll treasure for life. When roles are set out so explicitly, it becomes easier to have conversations about expectations and being able to reassess them when things change from either side. I don’t allow things to get stagnant. 

  3. Attentiveness. There’s something about BDSM that allows me to be completely ‘in’ it. Whether an interaction is sexual or not, I’m completely drawn in to it. Every movement, embrace, kiss, moment of tension and relaxation, graze of skin and change in breathing is noticeable. When interactions are so varied, it’s important to be attuned to your partner. I seldom fall into a pattern of expectation.

  4. Aftercare. The holding, validating, embracing, cuddling and intimacy that follows a play session. It not only allows us to reconnect after intense sexual experiences, it allows us to care for one another outside of the sexual. After care after an argument, a tough day, an anxiety attack or after receiving bad news. It allows for us to be intentional in our intimacy and care for each other. 

My favourite romantic relationship was with a person I’ve never met, but it allowed me to meet a little more of myself through care, nurture and tenderness. 

My hope is that we carry such lessons into other parts of our lives. That we can get to a place of understanding those who experience pleasure in many different ways. May we take that audacity with us – the audacity to do as you please, as it pleases you. May we take that awareness of boundaries, balancing between give and take, the spirit of attentiveness as well as the tender care we give each other. I went into BDSM thinking I’d be learning how to answer, ‘Yes, Sir’ to everything and left being able to assert when I wanted to say no. I assumed I’d simply learning to kneel for my Dominant but I learnt to stand true in my own desires, wants and needs. I learnt all I could, and continue to do so, from The Lifestyle. I hope more of us do the same. 

And I hope you’ve leave here with more curiosities than answers. That you, remagine BDSM.