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Playing with pain and power is risky. There is no getting around it. It’s why, as a community, we spend time reading, practicing and attending workshops to make sure we can give our partner the experience they want, in the safest way possible.
In kink we play with the mind just as much as we play with the body. And just like the body, there are certain things that we need to be aware of to make our play as safe as possible.
Mental illness and psychological trauma are an invisible epidemic in Western society. A worldwide survey of women recently revealed that one in three women worldwide has been the victim of sexual assault. And if you look at the combined experience of physical and sexual assault in Australia, the number of women who have experienced some kind of trauma is one in two.
The risk of trauma is not evenly split – it increases with each minority group you belong to. According to the latest data, here in Australia if you are playing with someone who is a member of the LGBTIQ community, there is a 90% chance that they have experienced sexual or physical violence at some point in their lives. If they are an indigenous woman, they are 45 times more likely to have experienced violence than a non indigenous person.
This means that unless you are a cis-gendered straight white man playing with another cis-gendered straight white man, it is more likely than not that your play partner has experienced an emotional or physical trauma at some point during their life.*
So why all this talk of trauma? Because memories of old traumatic events can be triggered when you play.
One of the difficulties of mental and emotional triggers is that they are invisible. Asking someone about muscle pain or fibromyalgia is already difficult, because it forces us to think about and be aware of illnesses that are invisible to an outside observer. Dealing with emotional and psychological safety adds another layer of complexity. Not only is the person’s internal state invisible to an outside observer, but sometimes triggers or hotspots are invisible to the person themselves. They do not realise that they will be triggered by a certain event until that event actually happens.
So what’s to be done? Perhaps the answer is to stay at home with the curtains drawn in case you stumble upon something that triggers you? Sounds boring, right?
In the same way that we work to minimise the physical risks of play, there are ways that we can minimise the emotional risks.
In part 2 we will discuss just that. Minimising risk, looking at some preventative strategies, and also what you can do in the event of a problem.
We hope you have enjoyed this article, and invite you to join in by leaving a comment below, checking out our awesome shop, or following us on Twitter or Facebook.
*By the way, the incidents of physical assault for men is also high – approximately one in ten. They don’t escape the risk of sexual assault either. According to a recent study of college men in the US, approximately 40% of men have been coerced into sexual contact that they did not want at some stage in their lives!
Psychological safety in BDSM play, part 2
Welcome to part 2 of Psychological safety in BDSM play. In this part we discuss risk minimisation and some safety strategies. Miss out on part 1? You can read it first here.
In the same way that we work to minimise the physical risks of play, there are ways that we can minimise the emotional risks. One way to minimise the risks is to be aware of the kinds of play that are most likely to be major emotional hot spots. Scenes that are likely to trigger strong emotions for the majority of people are–
Consensual non consent
Humiliation play is one in particular that, in my experience, seems to catch people off guard. People are often surprised at the intensity of emotion that certain words can arouse in them. It’s all hot and sexy and fun until your Dominant uses that one word that your high school bully used to taunt you with every day. Like any other risky play, it’s a good idea to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. A good approach is to have a mix of proactive and reactive strategies available to you.
Proactive strategies –
Communication communication communication
Jay Wiseman has an excellent checklist available in his book SM101, and I highly recommend this as a good starting point to anyone beginning to play. It will help you to uncover your partners preferences, as well as problem areas and hard limits. Going through a checklist can be fun in itself, and usually uncovers something you can use for your dastardly purposes!
In the same way that you should be asking your partner if they have any pre-existing injuries or medical conditions, you should be checking to see if they have any history of mental health issues or traumas that may be relevant to the session. Don’t rely on someone to tell you. Imagine you are doing a sensory deprivation session. You may need to ask specifically – have you ever had a panic attack? Have you ever experienced dissociation? Have you suffered from claustrophobia? Remember, this only works if you have already established that you are the kind of person who is not going to judge them for having mental health issues. How forthcoming do you really think someone with mental health issues will be if you have just finished telling them a story about that depressed friend of yours who just needs to “pull their socks up and get over it”?
Consent consent consent
When a person has suffered a psychological trauma, it is usually a result of someone violating their consent in some way. Violating someone’s consent in a small way, or even joking about violating their consent, can bring on intense feelings of panic for someone who has experienced this. Do your best to listen to your play partner’s requests and actively encourage them to use their safe word or say no if they need to. Never make jokes about safe words, denigrate someone who needed to use a safeword, or imply that maybe you won’t listen to them if they use a safe word.
Your behaviour matters
When someone experiences a flashback or panic attack, their reaction will be very different if it occurs in a safe, respectful environment. There is nothing that you can do about the fact that they are experiencing difficult feelings – but if you can create a calm, respectful and reassuring space it will pass much more quickly for them and be less severe. Building a rapport and creating a history of respectful behaviour towards the person you are playing with means that you are creating a psychologically safe space. Creating this space is like disinfecting your play room. It means that even if injuries do accidentally occur, at least they have occurred in a sterile environment. You can help people feel safe by looking after your own psychological health, doing your own reading about mental health issues and trauma, and working actively on your own communication skills.*
So you have done everything that you can, and your partner is still in psychological distress. What do you do? Depending on the personality and prior history of your play partner, they will be experiencing one of the following –
To know the most helpful way to respond to these events, it is important to understand a little bit about the “alarm system” of the human body. When a person experiences a traumatic event, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated. The alarm goes off, and the SNS begins to prepare the body to fight or run away.
Given that, in much of our play, we are deliberately arousing the SNS, it is no wonder that sometimes the wires get crossed, and sexual arousal spills over into real panic.
All of these reactions are simply symptoms of a sympathetic nervous system that has become too aroused. In order to assist with any of them, you need to calm down the persons sympathetic nervous system.
How to bring the SNS back to baseline
Stop playing immediately – take off the ropes, take off the collar and stop playing. This person’s emotional brain has taken over, and they are in no condition to be playing anymore.
Reduce intense stimulation – intense stimulation is usually what has led to the person being in this state. The less stimulation at this point, the better. If you can, take the person somewhere quiet and safe and private.
Slow breathing – fast, shallow breathing is the first reaction that occurs in the body as it prepares for a dangerous situation. Slowing your breathing down reverses this reaction, and sends a signal to the body that the danger has passed.
Human beings have special “mirror neurons” in the brain that allow us to empathise with other people. Even if the person you are with has trouble slowing their breathing, they will subconsciously mirror the pace of your breathing. So when in doubt, act as a mirror – begin breathing at their pace and then gradually make your own breathing slower and more relaxed. Their breathing will automatically follow, without them even being aware of it.
Use grounding – Grounding is a technique that allows dissociated people to “come back to earth”. The brain can only focus on one thing at a time, so if you focus it on something neutral, it cannot remain panicked. A good example of a verbal grounding exercise is to ask the person to tell you about their day, backwards. They will need to concentrate to remember, and you can ask them to expand on neutral events, such as watching TV or eating breakfast.
If in doubt, call for help – While it’s great to have these skills up your sleeve, in the end it’s important that the person speak to a professional. The symptoms of a panic attack are similar to those of a heart attack, and unless the person has been physically examined you cannot be sure which is which. If in doubt, contact emergency services or your local hospital. It’s better to create a false alarm than to ignore a potentially serious situation.
We hope you have found this article useful. We will follow it up soon with a short, hand-out style summary of what to do in the event of a problem like this.
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About Miss Pixie
Ms Pixie is a woman of many talents. As well as assisting with the running of Ethical Kink, she also runs a separate business practicing as a queer friendly, kink aware health professional. A vegetarian for over 13 years, she made the journey from animal welfare to animal rights via her interest in feminism, kink and body modification. Ms Pixie assists with ethical issues, business planning and writes regularly for the Ethical Kink blog. She is also the full time partner and submissive of Stuniverse. When she isn’t working she enjoys playing guitar, dancing and fire twirling. She also makes a mean vegan lentil pot pie ;)
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