Setting the Stage for a Scene (BDSM Series Part 3)

Now you are reading one in a series of six articles on the erotic power play, or what is more often called BDSM. BDSM encompasses an array of opportunities to play with power and to create high arousal and deep intimacy. In other articles, I talked about the different roles that partners take in BDSM scenes – top, bottom, dominant and submissive, and switch – and also the ways that psychological power play and sensation play can differ.

It bears mentioning that roles and preferences for certain kinds of experiences can develop or shift over time, just the way that our sexual desires do. These can evolve as parts of oneself grow within a relationship, or come to the forefront as new experiences and pleasures – sometimes in surprising ways. Also, some people can be a bottom with one partner and a top with another or can be a submissive bottom with one and a non-submissive bottom with another. But always, the conscious bottom or submissive is by definition a highly empowered person, because you can only give up the power that you acknowledge having in the first place.

Because BDSM does reach deep into the heart and psyche of people who explore it, it’s always a provocative topic. Many people know little about it except what they’ve read in novels or gleaned from movies or porn. As a result, they find that the idea of using control, or restraint, or pain to create arousal and excitement is offensive. They don’t admit that in only slightly more subtle ways, they are doing very similar things in their own relationship, except that they call it lovemaking or “adding a little spice.”

Some feminists argue that any sexual excursion into the realm of power play reflects the illness of a patriarchal culture. They insist that whether the partners are two men, two women, or a man and a woman, if they are engaging in power exchange they are replicating the paradigm of a sick society. As a feminist I understand the very real cultural conditions out of which this argument evolved, but I don’t buy the argument itself as valid or relevant to erotic experience. All high-intensity eroticism is power drenched. BDSM only exaggerates the power in the interests of more pleasure, dramatizes it, and, most importantly, consensualizes it and gives it a name.

It has been my observation that people who are deeply insecure about their own power or agency in the world are understandably fearful of playing with intense power dynamics when their guard is down – as it is, or must be, in order for sex to be splendid. For many, it seems unwise to give up the little power they think they have – especially if they aren’t sure they can hold onto it. And if that’s how they feel, they absolutely shouldn’t do it – but they also shouldn’t draw conclusions about what is right for others under those circumstances. Likewise, people who aren’t sure of their capacity to handle power, who have perhaps misused some of the more ordinary power they accrue, find the idea of playing with power both enticing and frightening – but they are inclined to pathologize it rather than face their own fears or limitations.

In my work as a psychologist, I’ve found it interesting that many men who have grown up with feminist mothers and maintain an egalitarian, humanistic outlook get involved in BDSM as Tops, only to become cautious about what that power exchange means, especially given some of these arguments. Many of my own male clients have come to me specifically for counseling to talk about whether their attraction to this kind of eroticism is OK. Is it healthy? Is it fair? Is it humane? These were all guys that I’d trust in a heartbeat to use power wisely and play safely – because they asked the right questions, because they wanted to be sure they are playing consciously, loving consciously, that they are not oppressive in any way. They cherish their partners and respect them – they take the idea that erotic power exchange must be safe, sane and consensual very seriously. It’s this kind of consciousness that everyone can learn from, even those who aren’t into BDSM. The relations between most couples could be far more trusting and sexier if partners always checked themselves to see if they are being responsible, caring, and safe.

BDSM often occurs in the context of what is known as a “scene.” That’s kinky language for a lovemaking session – but there’s actually a bit more to it. A scene is composed of certain phases – and here’s where everybody can learn from what kinky players do and apply it to their own sexual interludes.

The boundaries of a scene delineate the time and space in which partners remain in their chosen roles. A scene that goes well, that makes everybody happy, proceeds only after negotiation and consent have been established. It usually starts slowly, with both emotional and physical warm up, that then builds in intensity, with thoughtfulness and care. When a scene reaches its peak – whether to a level of orgasm, or catharsis, or just when both players have had enough – the top, who is like the scene director, usually starts to wind things down slowly, with an awareness that both people have been in a kind of altered state, and need to take their time coming back to the ordinary world and their ordinary roles. So, think of a scene as being preceded by negotiation and consent, then including a warm up, a build up, a peak, and a wind-down. Finally, the experience concludes with what is often called “aftercare” – a time when the bottom, in intense sensation play especially, has a chance to re-enter the world with the caring support of the top.

Particularly in new relationships, or with new playmates, partners will talk about what they want to have happen – or not have happen – during an upcoming scene. This is a period of negotiation to establish consent. In another article I’ll talk more about negotiation, as well as about establishing safewords, necessary so that both partners, but especially the bottom, can slow or stop the action with just a word.

In BDSM culture, the slogan “safe, sane, and consensual” was created to delineate S/M from abuse, dominance and submission from coercion, and bondage from entrapment. The BDSM community as a whole takes pride in a credo that honors and protects personal boundaries and limits. However, playing in this arena also may incur various levels of risk, so it demands a willingness to take responsibility for your own actions and for your communications to your partner – whether you’re a top or bottom. Mistakes during scenes are more likely to occur when communication has been vague in the first place. Partners aren’t mind readers, and, like any physically demanding sport, some kinds of BDSM play are riskier than others. BDSM is a game for seasoned grown-ups – NOT for people whose favorite game is blame, or who expect their partners to know more about them than they know about themselves. The fantasy of the omniscient dominant or the always compliant submissive is just that – a fantasy. We all know how well expecting partners to mind read works in most ordinary sexual exchanges – not very. So you can imagine how that is even less likely to work in something as complicated as a BDSM scene.

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