by Randall S. Frederick
For a long time, I found it hard to recognize and accept the kinds of kink I found exciting. I knew humiliation was part of BDSM, but I didn’t enjoy the theater of hardcore kink – leather, whips, chains, the aggressive industrialism of the scene. The Internet had opened an expansive and complex world to me and so I searched for softer kinds of kink. Most of it was typical, perhaps even mundane. People around my own age, not performers with the craggy faces of smoke inhalation and poor health choices. Threesomes. Foursomes. College. Amateur. Something similar to Girls Gone Wild, but… more. Erotica was a constant. Navigating the complexities of storied relationships, first times, the detailed description of certain acts, behaviors, body parts – at least for a time – brought me to new levels of arousal.
I was in college by then, and would walk to class consumed with the stories I had read the night before. Fantasy became more enjoyable than the polite, distant society between classes and student groups. Without really recognizing what was happening, I began to make note of similarities in some of my favorite videos, sites, and stories. I paid attention to tags, descriptions, summaries, the hyphenates that preceded a story to classify and catalog it. Paying attention to these opened more doors, navigating me down hallways of excitement. When I came to the end of one grouping, I would double-back and explore another. Instead of corralling me or compelling me to fixate, I felt like the world of sexual interests continued to open to me. I began to have names for what I was interested in most – psychological torture, humiliation, cuckolding, relationships, shame – and intuited in the lightly probing questions I put to friends, the disgust and confusion with which they responded, that it was best to not talk about any of them. It wasn’t that my friends were prudes, I don’t think. It was just that the main staples of pornography were safest – teens, threesomes, MILF, facials.
And then I went for a walk down Sunset Avenue with one of my best friends, Syd.
Syd and I grew up two hours away from one another, we had discovered. We shared culture, food and folkways, the curve of the mouth when we pronounced certain words, a shared understanding of religion and region. Right away, we had a common tongue to discuss how we saw the world around us. And, as with any relationship where there is a high level of intimate discussion, one day our conversation steered toward what excited us and turned us on. I had learned in college that it was not possible to have these discussions. Best to keep things superficial, general, vague. Broad strokes, certainly not details.
But of course Syd saw right through this and laughed. “No, Randall. Don’t give me that bullshit. Tell me the real stuff!” A dozen labels went through my mind in that moment, and I panicked. It was not possible to really share those things with someone else, was it?
I knew my parents didn’t share their sexual interests with one another. My mother had told me as much. So had my father, years later when he found out I wrote about sexuality. It seemed every “good” marriage, even the “functional” ones operated best with a high degree of subterfuge. Fantasies could exist in the mind, but they should never be shared with someone else – especially the person you were in a relationship with. The collateral could be too much. In one of the important relationships of my life, a college girlfriend had walked in on me masturbating with a laptop on the desk and I refused to allow her to see what it was that had gotten me so turned on. With every denial, she grew angrier. With every demand and insistence, I grew more resolved. Near the end of the relationship, she took an internship four hours away. She called one weekend to say she wouldn’t be driving home. A coworker, another intern, had asked her to go with him to a bar to see a musician he liked. She was calling to ask what she should do. It was the major sign that she was already cheating on me, but instead of growing angry, I encouraged her. After so many years, this felt like one of the stories I had read playing itself out and I think I wanted to see where it would go, what she would do. I sexualized it and encouraged her, believing it could strengthen our relationship. I wasn’t jealous. What I felt in that phonecall was compersion, or the vicarious joy associated with seeing one’s partner have a joyful sexual or romantic relationship with someone else. Naturally, she broke up with me and refused to speak to me anymore. I “didn’t care about her” she said, and “if going out for drinks and music with someone else doesn’t make you angry, then I don’t see why we’re together.” Because those events were comingled – the sexual, the relational, the compersion, the breakup – in the years that followed, I was convinced cuckolding was my primary fetish. I fetishized her being with someone else and, with no way to process things, my psyche secured it all together as one event that had been both sexual and volatile.
So when Syd asked me to tell her the truth, I think I answered out of desperation more than anything else. “Interracial. Cuckolding. Emotional torture kind of thing.” It felt like confessing to a crime and once I started, I couldn’t stop. I unwound and didn’t stop until we had come to the end of our walk.
“That’s it?” she said, as though it were some simple thing. “Man. That’s… great. I mean, I’m into tentacle porn. At least yours involves humans. I mean… sometimes I’m into really young lesbians but that’s kind of it.”
We laughed and I think, looking back, it was one of those moments that truly heal you because you know you’re not alone. While the particulars were different, we had come to a new awareness of one another, a private joke. In the years that followed, we could tease one another and remind one another that, whatever our faults, our desires weren’t among them.
That was the conversation that released me to talk about sex more openly. While I, of course, knew all about the sex lives of my friends, that walk with Syd was the day I started to share more about myself and, in doing so, find new secrets and complexities in the activities, desires, and behaviors of those around me. It opened the door on all kinds of new kinks and became a kind of social currency. Normalizing someone else’s experience normalized mine, which in turn normalized someone else’s. The same was true for our kinks; one creative idea begat another until before long, our Neverland table was full of colorful choices laid out along the table of the imagination.
I think, though, that for some of us that hesitation becomes eroticized. The secrecy, the taboo, the “dark and terrible thing” inside of us becomes the fuel for kink. Because we think it is so terrible, because it seems so niche that the only place we can find anything in culture resembling that specific thing that turns out brain around, we begin to invest it with more meaning than it really has.
That’s not to suggest your kinks are normal. I don’t even know you, after all! It’s to say that, at the end of the day, tentacle porn isn’t that weird. In fact, there are hundreds of thousands of other people out there with the exact same kink. Just because we don’t have shows about it in primetime doesn’t mean it’s something to be ashamed about, something you need to hide from your partner or friends, or something that makes you a bad person.
But what if shame is the kink? What if it’s not the shame around the kink, say the aversion we have toward telling our partner we like to dress up in a certain costume tucked in the back of the closet but instead the kink itself is the shame? What if we feel erotic agony whenever we think of someone telling us how disgusting we are, how stupid we are, how worthless we are? What if being humiliated is the very thing that turns our propeller around and gets us going?
In that case, I would suggest, shame is not something to “get over.” It’s something to embrace and carefully understand. Because what we are dealing with then is not coming to terms with who we are and moving past it, instead what we are negotiating is whether we can eroticize the shame and draw clear distinctions between the kink and our daily life.
One of the great misunderstandings about sexual kinks and particularly BDSM is that they are not about the physical act so much as the psychological experience. The brain, more than any other muscle or fetishized body part, is the strongest sexual organ we humans possess.
The submissive knows, when their Dominant is authentic and not simply abusive, that they can stop the scene at any time. The choice, made consciously and repeatedly, to suppress physical responses for sexual gratification is what heightens arousal. For the submissive, this very often means humiliation or doing something their socially constructed self would not enjoy having done to them. They are disciplined, for instance, as an act of physical discipline. They are tied down and held captive, another physical experience. But these benign, sometimes offensive acts are what give them a sexual thrill. For the Dominant as well as the submissive, the physical act is meaningless or, at best, stagecraft to the theater of the mind. It is the mental and emotional experience that eroticizes the physical. But then, there need not be anything physical either. While BDSM is so often presented as literally harmful and hurtful, as anyone who has survived a middle school playground knows, we are more often to experience hurts in the very place they are eroticized – verbally, mentally, emotionally. We experience not the lash of the whip, but that of the tongue as our lover dresses us down and insults us at our most vulnerable, giving voice to our insecurities.
And then what?
Since Tumblr (and it’s doppelgänger BDSMLR), new corners of porn have popped up, new niches of popular genres. Cuckolding (where a male partner is shamed as his female partner explores sex with someone outside the relationship) is the new threesome. Even then, cuckqueening (where a female partner is shamed as her male partner explores sex with someone outside the relationship) is a new facet. Femdom has begun to explore chastity (restrictive devices used to “lock away” genitalia), even castration themes (where the male loses his penis, testicles, or both). Perhaps moving too far one way, “gentle Femdom” has become more prominent, where a female dominant is not harsh but motivates her submissive through positive affirmation and teasing (a lighter form of shame).
Each of these are a variation on a similar theme: at least one partner is motivated by sexual shame, humiliation, and their perceived failures (real or imagined) are sexualized. This erotic humiliation is something that supports and reinforces larger, more prominent kinks.
Erotic humiliation is consensual psychological humiliation performed in order to produce erotic excitement or sexual arousal. This can be for either the person(s) being humiliated and demeaned or the person(s) humiliating, or both. It is sometimes performed before spectators, including pornography and webcam viewers or it may be part of BDSM and other sexual roleplay, accompanied by the sexual stimulation of the genitals (or other erotic region) of one or both parties in the activity.
Humiliation is a subjective issue though, depending on the context. It does not even need to be sexual in nature; as with many other sexual activities, it is the feelings that are obtained from the experience that are desired, regardless of the actual activity. Usually there is a feeling of submission for the person being humiliated and dominance for the person implementing the humiliation. As with other types of dominant-submissive play, it is the submissive who is in control; the submissive sets the limits, because the submissive is free to leave if his or her demands are not met.
Erotic humiliation can be done verbally, physically, or both, and can be either private or public. Some individuals assume an acting role and others prefer to be spoken to in a degrading way. A classic technique that can be used to put the submissive into a bottom mind space is to humiliate them while also providing them with sexual stimulation. Select individuals who desire this form of humiliation may use it to acquire emotional release, to confirm their insecurities and sexualize them or give them new meanings.
This might seem confusing, but transforming humiliation into a sexual experience is not dissimilar from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the most well-known form of therapy used by therapists and counselors today.
Cognitive behavior therapy is based on a cognitive theory of psychopathology. The cognitive model describes how people’s perceptions of (or spontaneous thoughts about) situations influence their emotional, behavioral (and often physiological) reactions.
Individuals’ perceptions are often distorted and dysfunctional when they are distressed. Said simply, we’re not thinking clearly when we are angry or “caught up in the moment.” The model is used so an individual can learn to identify and evaluate their responses (their automatic thoughts, which spontaneously occur when presented with verbal or imaginal stimuli), and to correct their thinking so that it more closely resembles reality. When they do so, their distress usually decreases, they are able to behave more functionally, and (especially in anxiety cases), their physiological arousal abates.
In other words, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy seeks to “retrain” the fight-or-flight response we have when we are in an agitated state.
Individuals learn to identify and modify their distorted beliefs: their basic understanding of themselves, their worlds, and other people through the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The guiding assumption is that distorted beliefs influence an individual’s ability to process information, which gives rise to their distorted thoughts. Thus, the cognitive model explains individuals’ emotional, physiological, and behavioral responses as mediated by their perceptions of experience, which are influenced by their beliefs and by their characteristic ways of interacting with the world, as well as by the experiences themselves.
In a therapeutic setting, professional use a gentle Socratic questioning process to help patients evaluate and respond to their automatic thoughts and beliefs. They also teach them to engage in this evaluation process themselves. Therapists may help patients design behavioral experiments (ex: roleplay or replaying old conversations) to carry out between sessions to test cognitions that are in the form of predictions. When patients’ thoughts are valid, therapists do problem solving, evaluate patients’ conclusions, and work with them to accept their difficulties.
In other words, the cognitive model examines and describes how people’s thoughts and perceptions influence their lives. Often, distress can distort a person’s perceptions, and that, in turn, can lead to unhealthy emotions and behaviors. CBT helps individuals learn to identify and evaluate their “automatic thoughts” and shift their thinking to be healthier. The cognitive model is at the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and it plays a critical role in helping therapists use gentle Socratic questioning to develop treatments.
Which is why, if you were to see a scene where humiliation play is featured, you would notice the Dominant asks the submissive questions. This is the Socratic Method. Asking a submissive, “Who is a slut?” and having the submissive respond, “I am” is the Socratic Method. This call and response, where the question – whether sexual or otherwise – is used to move the submissive forward in the scene to a specific end (decided by the Dominant) is the Socratic Method. The conversational loop does not end until the submissive answers correctly (as the Dominant intends). Whether the submissive has learned the script through repetition or previous play, or is new to the script being performed and subsequently punished until they respond the correct way (the way the Dominant intends), this is again the Socratic Method. So, building on this and using the same form as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the Dominant is something of a therapist. They can help the submissive “reshape” their experience and even, through Pavlovian response, elicit a reaction (such as arousal) of which the submissive may not be aware.
Which is why, I emphasize, consent and knowing these things in advance is so important. Because even a well-intentioned Dominant may “reshape” a submissive in harmful ways. How much more the sadistic Dominant who does not prioritize the submissive’s interests, safety, and well-being? Humiliation is more than just “play.” It builds (or further damages) someone’s self-concept and identity. In BDSM, we would emphasize aftercare. Physical tenderness and reassurance from the Dominant after an especially intense scene is absolutely essential to the submissive. They need to reorient to a world where punishments and restraints are not typical. In the same way, with humiliation, the submissive needs to be reassured that a baseline exists where their insecurities and the harsh criticism of the Dominant is not their standard, everyday reality. Great care must be taken to build the fantasy apart from the everyday.
The American Psychological Association defines humiliation as a “feeling of shame as a result of being disgraced or deprecated. The feeling sometimes leads to severe depression and deterioration of the individual’s sense of self-esteem. Humiliation of a partner is frequently found in relationships characterized by sexual sadism and sexual masochism.” Humiliation play can be taken to a point where it becomes emotionally or psychologically distressing to one or the other partner, especially if it is public humiliation. Erotic humiliation can become extreme enough to be considered a form of edgeplay, which some consider may best be approached with advance negotiation and use of a safeword, again to establish the baseline and make it viewable at all times, if even through the hatch of a safeword.
Humiliation, then, can become ritualized and unlike some sexual variations, it can also be easily carried out over a long distance (such as online) but while fantasy and fascination with erotic humiliation is a prevalent part of BDSM and other sexual roleplay, relatively little has been written on it. I suspect this is because we would need to spend so much time educating and doing the hard work of making emotionally (and psychologically) intelligent people. It’s so much easier just to beat someone. Also, one of the most important things to remember when it comes to this type of play is that everyone’s experience is going to be vastly different. There is no such thing as a “humiliating activity” that is guaranteed to work on everyone. It entirely depends on the mindset of the people involved. What one person finds degrading another person might find liberating, so there’s no perfect formula. It really is something you have to personalize and this too takes a great amount of time, advance preparation, and shared education. Pressed with impulsivity and horniness, we fail to invest in our partners, in each other, and in the shared experience of bringing fantasy into our shared sexual experiences.
Erotic humiliation is about taking a “real world” thing/word/action which we commonly understand as “humiliating” and re-contextualizing it as erotic play by adding a layer of acceptance, appreciation, and mutual enjoyment. It’s important to understand how the real world context forms the basis for why these activities are humiliating. Erotic humiliation plays on concepts like misogyny, gender roles, and the “ick factor” to create an experience that is ultimately pleasurable, rather than offensive, injurious, or disgusting.
There are consequences to our behavior. It would be a terrible misunderstanding to dismiss the implications of all this, and I would offer a mark of unpreparedness. Rather, performed ethically, partners recognize those consequences, prepare for them in advance, and sexualize them as they appear. Harmful kink, the kind that is abusive and unethical and abusive is something else – harmful, abusive, and unethical. That bears repeating. Kink doesn’t always “work” and doesn’t always work well. To do anything well requires that we understand the process, and assuming you can walk right into it and become a handed pro right away is narcissistic.
As Carolyn Elliot writes in Existential Kink, we recognize that “as long as we have unconscious (repressed, denied, disowned) enjoyment in some ‘bad’ thing in our lives, we will keep seeking out that very same ‘bad’ thing; we’ll perpetuate it without even realizing we’re doing so.” This takes considerable insight and self-awareness, the frame of mind of someone who is mentally and emotionally healthy, not someone broken, flawed, damaged, or fragile. As Elliot continues, “I learned first-hand that by embracing my ‘psychic masochism,’ by recognizing and empowering the darkness of my ‘shadow,’ and in the end taking pleasure in my yucky stuff that I could do something amazing. I could complete integrate my good self with my bad self and become a whole person.”
Elliot, who founded the online magazine WITCH and is not a licensed psychologist (her doctorate is a PhD in critical and cultural studies from the University of Pittsburgh), says that in her coaching practice, “This insight is rarely discussed in pop psychology and self-help books, which tend to focus on ‘Love & Light’ (repeated affirmations, visualizations, positivity, etc.) and many people are frustrated when this approach does not produce results. What I had learned… is that the key to a magical life rests in delving into the other end of the spectrum: finding the power of the darkness.”
The not-so-pretty parts of ourselves emerge in spite of us. They are the tendencies that live within each of us, the primitive, basic instincts we are born with and soon learn are unacceptable. These include rage, greed, jealousy, addiction, procrastination, and any number of self-destructive behaviors.
Carl Jung referred to these instincts, or dark sides of our personalities, as our shadow selves. They have been portrayed across media throughout time—in Greek myths, film, art, and literature, and embodied by famous characters from Darth Vader to Hamlet.
“The shadow is not an error or a flaw,” say Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf, authors of Romancing the Shadow: Illuminating the Dark Side of the Soul. “It is a part of the natural order of who we are. And it is not a problem to be solved; it is a mystery to be faced. It has the power to connect us to the depths of our own imaginations.”
Whatever we call these parts of our personalities, the important thing to remember is that they are just that—parts. They are not the sum of who we are. However, if we allow them to hijack our better judgment, they have the potential to sabotage our relationships, our well-being, and ultimately our lives.
“We all have our shadow sides. They are not bad,” says Allan Lokos, meditation teacher and author of Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living. “It is when we don’t have awareness that problems arise. Only once we are aware can we change.”
The starting place for such change is with mindfulness. Awareness of our behavior, without judgment or harsh criticism, is at the core of mindfulness. “We can look at our actions and our words mindfully,” Lokos suggests, “and decide if they are causing discomfort, or dis-ease. We can then say to ourselves, ‘This type of thinking or speaking is not going to serve me well. Nor will it serve those around me well. I can do better.’”
Continued in pt. II
- Enough to Make You Blush: Exploring Erotic Humiliation, by Princess Kali
- Existential Kink: Unmask Your Shadow and Embrace Your Power, by Carolyn Elliot, PhD
- Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living, by Allan Lokos
- Romancing the Shadow: A Guide to Soul Work for a Vital, Authentic Life, by Connie Zweig and Steven Wolf
- The Mistress Manual: A Good Girl’s Guide to Female Dominance, by Mistress Lorelei