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You will note as you read the previous two posts that I have recorded people’s gender and d/s roles in their comments. That’s because years of sociological study of the scene have taught me that gender and BDSM roles overlap in some very complicated ways. As a mostly-dom woman who has mostly been in d/s relationships with people who were raised as men, I expected to see tales of d/s burnout coming disproportionately from cis men subs. I don’t have a large enough sample to back that up (and there are so few of them anyway that I would need a rather enormous sample to try to accumulate that). But the gendered dynamics of BDSM roles definitely seemed be working against cis men subs here in some pretty severe ways that would make them more likely to burn out.
(1) They’re working against their socially gendered roles in a serious uphill battle. There’s a lot of socialization they’re already fighting against to do submission at all because “everyone knows that masculinity means dominance.” Fighting a gendered battle with themselves and society may have made them slightly burnt out by the time they arrive in a relationship.
(2) Men in general have fewer friends in our society, which means that their support networks are already generally weaker than women’s. Cis men subs tend to be especially isolated, disconnected, and rare in our community with little social support from kink community either. Since one of the most common solutions for burnout prevention/cure was “kinky social support,” they tend to be in a pretty tough place.
(3) Fem doms and masc subs in general are rarer and have fewer opportunities to “practice.” They come to d/s relationships with less experience, and thus on average are less able to articulate their needs, wants, and desires. Having talked submission with women and men, I have been struck by how much more articulate the average cis woman submissive is at explaining her motivations for d/s than the average cis man submissive–and being able to clearly articulate motivations for d/s was something that showed up repeatedly in people’s comments about burnout.
(4) Being rarer also means that fem doms and masc subs may end up pushing themselves to stay in unsuitable relationships based on scarcity. Several people mentioned burnout in relation to the feeling that “this is the best you’re going to get, so deal with it”; but for fem doms and masc subs, that feeling is likely heightened by fewer opportunities, thus encouraging burnout.
(5) As a population, statistically speaking, cis men “subs” are largely actually switches. I talked to multiple switches who said they got burnt out when they only engaged in submission (without having a sub themselves), so cis men “subs” seem especially vulnerable to this particular brand of burnout.
(6) As I have reported before, subs in general have worse self-esteem than doms, but this difference is especially conspicuous and bleak among cis men subs. While self-esteem may not be directly tied to burnout, I suspect that it is indirectly tied to it through overall mental health, and a general sense of self-respect.
I thought about all of these factors (and especially the grim accumulation of them) as I looked at the relationship landscape around me. Lamenting my own recent break-up, I was a bit startled by how many fem dom friends I had to share my lamentations of having been broken up with by a cis man sub. In fact, I didn’t even meet anyone where the break up had gone in the other direction (woman breaking up with man), which was startling since, in general in vanilla society, women tend to break up with men much more than men break up with women (and women break up with each other most of all). Relationships dissolve for all sorts of reasons, but when I started considering the macro-level challenges here, I felt both better and worse all at the same time…
Other than increasing awareness, I have absolutely no idea how to fix these problems at the individual level. But I reiterate my call in my previous post for more kinkworld support groups; and in this case, I think a support group for masc subs is very much in order for a variety of reasons.
Looking inwards, looking back: What people said they wished they’d done and known
When I asked people what they wished they had done and known in retrospect, their answers were heartbreaking (and again, painfully familiar). There were common themes of (1) Lacking self-knowledge–both not understanding what they needed to be fulfilled as doms and subs, and also not understanding when they were experiencing burnout (2) Failing to successfully communicate about problems in the relationship/dynamic (3) Believing “this” was the best they were going to get and later finding out they could, in fact, get much better (4) Admitting when things weren’t going well and seeking help from others in the community.
I am quoting these accounts at length because I think there is a lot of wisdom in each one, and all weave together some or all of the themes I’ve just highlighted:
From M (sub woman): I wish I had understood my submission more, my partner’s limitations more, and that our D/s could shift into something more comfortable but in a healthy way, instead of us both being hurt in the process. I wish I knew we could change without it being a failing on either of our parts, because we both still blame ourselves from time to time. I wish I would have known it would be okay, because in the end, we are partners and not just our dynamic.
I wish I would have talked about how I was feeling when I felt it. Our dynamic had an emotionally painful drop, and neither of us could communicate what was happening. My partner admitted after several years he just wasn’t dominant outside of play, and I realized I needed 24/7 total power exchange in order to truly be submissive.
I wish I had known why I couldn’t take pain from my partner anymore; I wish I had known why it felt like he was actually hitting me instead of it feeling like playtime. I didn’t understand why I had absolutely no pain tolerance with this particular partner, but was able to receive pain from others with no problem.
From A (top FtM): I wish I’d known that I didn’t have to settle for so little, that in later decades I’d find much more compatible partners, who don’t leave me feeling emptied or droppy or left-behind or used-up, but mostly just loved and appreciated and well pleased. And they seem to do this by being themselves rather than by making a particular effort. I wish I’d realized earlier that different people (and in different years) have such variable degrees of willingness or ability to soak up affection when it’s offered.
I wish I’d negotiated much more insistently, much more specifically, and many years earlier, for what I was going to need from our relationship in order to stay fueled/nourished over the long term. It’s one thing to anticipate/discuss/memorize a mutually agreeable plan for an evening’s scene, but quite another matter to anticipate a mutually agreeable plan for a year, a decade, or a longer-term relationship. I wish I’d been better able to gather friends around during the roughest patch. It would also probably have been better if I’d sought out a different partner[s] much sooner, rather than trying so hard to make things work with a partner whose interests and skills weren’t (in hindsight) all that compatible with mine.
From Teneo (top man): I wish I’d been more vulnerable overall with friends and acquaintances about what I was going through, and that I’d been more focused on my friendships and social web. To this day I find that vulnerability is hard and I feel that expressing my feelings to others is deeply burdensome to them, but I am convinced that if I had done a better job of this I would have had an easier time finding my way back. I wish I’d kept a consistent journaling habit which would have featured self-honesty and writing out how I felt. I wish I’d been more aggressive and courageous about therapy. I wish I’d paid more attention to my health, which has been on a slow and steady decline.
Vulnerability in dominants is not a trait that feels prized, and indecisiveness or uncertainty is an incompatible feature to many submissives who pursue relationships with dominants. Not every dominant can be “on” all the time just as not every submissive can be “on” all the time…
An a-ha moment for me was listening to Joshua Tenpenny during a session with Raven Kaldera, where Joshua brought up his maxim of, “If the Master doesn’t want it, it isn’t service.” This allowed me to understand finer nuances of my need to please even as a dominant. It helped me get to the bedrock of understanding that oftentimes, I was engaging in dominance not because I wanted it (though at times I did) but because it was expected of me or a feature of my relationship. It helped me understand that I could want things on my own, and whether or not someone else wanted them or was satisfied by them was not necessarily a feature I needed to solve for.
Effective communication is an undervalued trait and I wish I’d had better modeling of healthy communication at different levels, dominant to submissive. Kinksters focus so much on “hard” technique e.g. florentine, knives, needles, kinbaku, etc and I wish there were a lot more classes on modeling “softer” features of competence e.g. motive, vulnerability, communication, negotiation. I sometimes listen to negotiation classes through the lenses I learned in therapy and I am shocked at how little focus there is in some areas.
(I wholeheartedly agree that we don’t talk enough about vulnerability and dominance, and have written about it before!)
What would have helped prevent it
When it comes to burnout, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I asked people directly what they thought would have helped them prevent burnout, but few had specific answers. Mor (sub NB) said that for them, “something that anchors the dynamic and relationship, as opposed to just a bunch of isolated fetishes” was key to preventing burnout. But I think we can find some more implicit ideas in the “wish they’d known/done” section above. Among them are (1) Introspection–particularly geared towards what motivates someone to be in a d/s dynamic, and what enables them to thrive in it. (2) Establishing open and honest lines of communication with a partner to make sure that both people feel like they’re getting what they need. (3) Establishing and maintaining realistic expectations, both for yourself and your partner.
I think that a major factor in preventing d/s burnout may just be reimagining what we think that d/s is and how we understand it.
As a subculture, we love to talk about d/s as a “natural” facet of relationships, even while admitting that relationships themselves “take work.” But as I have reflected on people’s experiences (and my own), I have come increasingly to doubt this inherently relationship-focused vision, that imagines d/s as being all about communication, commitment, emotions, and passion. And while it is definitely about those things…
…Perhaps d/s is also well-imagined as being like a shared (and sometimes very intense) hobby.
There are married couples who occasionally go ice-skating together (“I live the lifestyle when I can”), there are married couples who are professional pairs ice-skaters together (hardcore 24/7), and there are people who pairs skate together who also occasionally have dinner together (“play partners” “secondary/tertiary d/s relationships”). You can imagine how it might affect each of those relationships if one or both people stopped wanting to ice skate at all, started wanting to ice skate with someone else, got injured and couldn’t ice skate any more, and/or decided they wanted to switch to a completely different style of ice skating that their partner wasn’t interested in or just wasn’t good at. Maybe they got tired of pairs skating with their original partner because boredom, or maybe they were always fighting at home so it made it harder to skate together too, or maybe they just got tired of pairs skating in that style, or maybe they honestly didn’t skate very well together but they both enjoyed it a lot conceptually and their shitty skating was having a deleterious effect on the rest of their relationship, or maybe they just needed to take a break from ice skating in general, or maybe they felt like they were better at it or way more invested in it than their partner was… Regardless, d/s and pairs ice-skating are both intense co-created experiences, and if both people don’t actively want to do them, they’re not going to work well. Moreover, at the point where burnout has hit for either one, I don’t think the classic solutions for faltering relationships (communicate more! process a lot! look for new ways to share experiences together right now! reinvest!) are good solutions here.
The reason I think this alternate vision of d/s may be so important for preventing (and managing) burnout is that it takes some of the pressure off of “success” and “failure.” If we imagine d/s as an intrinsic property of relationships, if the d/s fails, THE RELATIONSHIP HAS FAILED, and that’s a lot to ask someone to admit to themselves, their partner, their friends, and their community. But if we imagine it more as something we like to do together that intrinsically relies on our mutual interest and connection, admitting that maybe we’re not as into it as we thought we were or that it’s not really working for us right now doesn’t feel so much like an all-encompassing admission. Thinking of it as something WE LIKE TO DO TOGETHER rather than WHO WE ARE gives us a lot more leeway to reimagine our relationships with it changing or without it at all. And it puts a lot less pressure on us to live up to some imagined expectation about who we’re supposed to be (both to ourselves and to our partners).
Burnout is burnout?
As I read people’s descriptions of their experiences and the things that helped them recover, it became increasingly clear that d/s burnout often isn’t very different from work burnout. The solutions that showed up frequently here looked a lot like the same advice you get for how to handle work burnout. I’m taking most of these from the first google hit I got on the subject here. Namely: (1) Be honest with yourself about what’s bothering you and try to clarify it for yourself (2) Journal (3) Seek professional help (4) Build and maintain a support network (4) Try to generally maintain your physical and mental health overall (exercise, sleep, and nutrition) (5) Set good boundaries for yourself, and try to keep a solid balance throughout your life, and (6) Communicate honestly.
In both cases, some jobs/partners don’t give back or respond to your needs when you voice them, and at that point, you may have to cut and run. That may be extremely hard for partly the same reason in both cases: a lot of your identity and sense of personal self and meaning may be wrapped up in your job and/or your d/s role-relationship. Ironically, in both cases, those feelings of identity might be exacerbating your burnout because you might just straight-up feel like a failure as a person by admitting that you’re burnt out at those things.
Why don’t we form more support groups?
Something I have realized as I have been writing this post is that, as a community, we have for some reason failed to habitually establish support groups. We teach classes, host performances, hold parties, go to munches… But we mostly don’t hold support groups for things like kinksters managing trauma (again, I’ve seen several classes on this, but no support groups), kinksters surviving the demise of d/s relationships (which almost everyone seems to agree is disproportionately awful), and kinksters just trying to manage challenges in their d/s dynamics. In retrospect, reading over multiple people’s stories, I am frustrated that we basically just tried to deal alone with something that all of us were dealing with individually, even though we all agree that we could have helped each other!
So please… some kinky social workers and therapists in training… start leading some online support groups for kinksters to talk about these things. I would love to see “support groups” aimed at specific dimensions of kink life become a feature of “the scene” the same way “rope jams” are.
(I’d do it myself, but I’m a terrible candidate for leading any kind of support group…)
The elephant in the room for anyone trying to identify and manage symptoms of d/s burnout for themselves is, “Am I just not feeling this d/s thing anymore because the problem is me (my physical/mental health? my life issues)? Because something is fundamentally amiss with my relationship? Or maybe something about my overarching relationship structures? Is whatever the problem is even fixable??”
These are not questions that are easy to answer while you’re in the thick of things. You need to be able to take a big step back and assess yourself, your relationship, your relationship structures, and the general picture of your life, and that means you have to take a break from it. You and your partner might both completely freak out at the prospect of that because it can feel like such an utter condemnation of the relationship; maybe the two of you don’t even know how to have sex with each other without d/s. How you manage that will have to depend on the nature of the relationship you have with your partner. For myself, what I’ve done in the past is whittle down the d/s to the smallest of things that make it possible for us to both still feel like we’re on familiar ground in the bedroom, and try to leave off the rest while my partner takes a break. But I’m sure there are other strategies that people will talk about in the comments.
At the end of the day, the best advice for d/s burnout is just… take a fucking break.
If you want to get back to it eventually (and especially sooner rather than later), you’ll have to do some real work on yourself and with your partner in the process. But don’t do it now. Do it later. Don’t think of this as a relationship you are failing to save right now–think of this as a shared hobby that maybe you get to come back to with somebody later. I know–oh gods, how I tearfully know–that there are people with whom that shared hobby was most of your relationship, so saying good-bye to the hobby is also saying good-bye to the relationship. But you and I both know that relationships founded on shared hobbies are often fragile, so be brave and leave it on good terms and not after you’ve beaten and battered it and can’t stand the sight of each other. And maybe it’s something you can come back to after you’ve had some time to think more deeply about what you really want.
I was first introduced to the concept of d/s burnout in an instagram post a few months ago. The concept and phrasing was very new to me, but it vaguely resonated with me in a “I-think-that-might-explain-the-behavior-and-actions-of-people-I-have-been-in-relationships-with-and-others-I-know” kind of way. I have had a lot more conversations with a lot of people about it since then, but I still feel like I am just beginning to wrap my head around this idea and the implications of it. To get a better sense of people’s varied experiences with d/s burnout, I solicited stories from strangers and friends a couple of months ago, and I will quote heavily (with consent) from the people who responded to that call here. If you read this and feel compelled to share your own story, please do so in the comments on that writing so they all stay together. My writings here are not meant to be some definitive thesis on this subject; on the contrary, they’re a starting point meant to spur more discussion, more writing, more teaching, more conversation–I want to read your writing on d/s burnout and go to your workshop focusing on it.
What started as a single post (and still sort-of is) got so long that I was sure no one would read it if I posted it as a single thing that FetLife would then tell you took 30 minutes to read. So I’ve divided this into 2 main parts and then what is essentially a lengthy postscript about gender. Please don’t feel like you have to read even a single one of these posts all at once; to be honest, I wouldn’t really recommend it. You’re getting a high-emotion warning here because if you just happened to click on the title of this and thought you’d just learn more about “what d/s burnout is,” you might be getting a lot more than you bargained for. This shit is emotionally heavy and loaded in an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sort of way: if you’ve never been in a d/s relationship, this is probably easy reading, but if you’ve been in more than two, be prepared… Be kind to yourself reading this, and take your time if you have to.
D/s burnout: what is it?
In its ideal type, d/s burnout refers to losing interest in doing d/s, either in general or with a specific partner, for reasons that are not obvious (i.e. not as a result of physical abuse, emotional manipulation, physical/hormonal changes, or identity changes). In its core ideal type, someone in a relationship that they’re actually generally pretty content with, with a partner they abstractly feel* cares about them and their wants and needs, starts finding themselves increasingly disinterested in doing d/s in general and/or with that partner. (I will explain that important asterisk in the next section). A d/s dynamic that started out as hot and fun and sexy and interesting starts to feel like work without a clear reason why.
Of course, the whole point of ideal types is that real life often doesn’t conform to them. In reality, d/s burnout is, of course, much more likely to happen in relationships that always had some serious weaknesses and flaws (what relationships are perfect???), and it will worm its way into those relationship cracks with grim determination. Most people aren’t in perfectly matched d/s relationships to start with, so there was always conflict over pressure to do things they didn’t want that may become or start to feel more intense. In kinkland, most people doing d/s are doing it in the context of poly, and there may always have been resentments and issues with other partners that also become or start to feel more intense. …And perhaps all of these things were true…
To further complicate matters, in this gourmet kinkland of poly relationship buffet options, lots of people (myself included) often do d/s in a context where the “d/s” part by design basically is most of the “relationship.” Sure, you might hold hands and go out to dinner, and you might even say “I love you” and mean it… But at the end of the day, take the d/s away, and there’s not necessarily a lot of other core relationship left. So if someone in that context starts to burn out on the d/s, it’s really hard to know if “the problem” is “the d/s or the relationship” because the d/s and the relationship are the same thing.
The symptoms of d/s burnout mostly sound exactly like what you’d expect. The symptoms of d/s burnout from bottoms were often being able to take less pain than they used to and a general reluctance to submit (in general, or with a specific partner). For service subs, burnout could mean doing the bare minimum of service tasks that used to give them joy. For example, Sierracita (sub gender unknown) said:
I resented the two of them having their time together. I was the easy thing to give up when something had to go, so I was a very lonely slave girl. I resented being told to do things, feeling like my chores simply facilitated their relationship. I stopped taking a whole lot of care of myself. I did exactly the requirements and no more.
Meanwhile for tops, it sounded more like the reports of work burnout generally do–as if topping had indeed become an (unpaid) job they no longer wanted to do. Thus A (top FtM) said:
[When I got burnt out] my ongoing output of kink energy was much bigger than the energy that I was receiving from it. This felt like running out of fuel. It felt like a kind of hemorrhaging.
People on both sides described post-con-drop types of feelings and exhaustion just from playing with a partner alone, as well as a general feelings of cynicism, lack of enthusiasm, and “this just feels like work.”
There’s also a common emotional response that happens as well: the reason for that asterisk next to the phrase “with a partner they abstractly feel* cares about them and their wants and needs” in the previous section is that one of the classic symptoms of d/s burnout appears to be abstractly feeling like a partner cares about their wants and needs, while simultaneously experiencing a conflicting sense that the partner doesn’t care or maybe “doesn’t care in the way I need.” This symptom often leads to frustrating circular conversations in which one person insists that the other one isn’t really paying attention to their wants and needs while offering little concrete evidence for the accusation, and little concrete advice for how to fix it. There’s just this lingering sense that something is wrong, and a constant feeling of being irked by what both parties agree are apparently minor things.
Reasons for it
The reasons people give for experiencing d/s burnout can basically be divided into “relationship issues” and “other.” Unsurprisingly, burnout resulting from “other” is generally a lot more (eventually) recoverable with “this partner” than burnout resulting from “relationship issues.” Those relationship reasons are most commonly: (1) The partner was failing to meet their emotional needs outside of the dynamic which then created problems within the dynamic and (2) The partner was failing to meet many of their d/s needs which created a sense of incompleteness, dissatisfaction, and/or being taken advantage of. Whether tops or bottoms, d/s burnout from relationship issues was often accompanied by a sense of “I’m the one putting all the effort in to make this work.”
Mor (sub NB), for example, said that they got burnt out because they felt like they were never really getting the whole d/s package they were looking for in the play they were receiving:
I think I experienced D/s burnout from constantly getting small tastes of what I was looking for, without getting anything like the whole package. Or, not getting the elements that made it ok. For example: someone that would happily give me a heavy beating, without any of the mental control or actual dynamic exchange. I need more to a dynamic. It is what I take refuge in, to push through and even enjoy the pain. Without it, there is so much work for me–to fabricate a dynamic in my mind, where none truly exists–just to be ok with the pain.
T (sub woman), meanwhile, said she got burnt out because she had an unfortunate tendency to pick narcissistic doms who took advantage of her:
At this point, I am burned out and have pulled the plug on any future relationships until I can figure out where my picker is broken and where I myself am going wrong. I seem to pick narcissistic men, and end up getting hurt. There is never just one side, but it has left me very distrusting and with low self-confidence. One of the major things was that they became very manipulative when I didn’t want to do something sexually that they wanted. At this point, I really don’t want to risk being touched again or opening myself up to more hurt. I am submissive to my core, but I’m not a carpet to walk on. I got where I am through a lot of hard work, I’m intelligent, and as far as I am concerned, I can’t be respected if I don’t respect myself.
For “other” issues, they were most frequently: (1) Personal problems such as being generally depressed, in bad health, and/or stressed for other reasons (2) Unrealistic expectations, either of themselves or their partner (sometimes based on what was possible in their relationship given its constraints) (3) Other seemingly unrelated unmet needs that began to affect the dynamic anyway (most notably, people whose poly needs were unmet and it began to take a toll on their existing d/s dynamics/relationships because they were generally unsatisfied, and switches who wanted both a dom and a sub and only had one). And of course, these “other issues” are often heavily entangled with relationship issues as well.
M (sub woman), said she got burnt out as her 24/7 relationship had to confront the daily realities of everyday life:
I blame the shift of 24/7 to [a play-based dynamic] because of cohabiting and co-parenting and the general stress of everyday life.
Teneo (top man), said he got burnt out from trying to be the top he thought bottoms expected him to be rather than the top he wanted to be:
At the time I began burning out, I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman I’d anticipated would be a lifetime partner, but this problem wasn’t partner-specific and actually got worse with later entanglements before I finally realized what was happening. My desire to “stay in it” / “stay the course” / “stay strong you’re already doing it” led to a feeling of becoming a kink-vending machine, and this had compounding effects because the more I tried to live up to the expectations and desires others had of me, the more I felt bad about my failure to execute when I tried to put myself into a headspace.
What helped them recover
The major themes in helping people to successfully recover from d/s burnout were: (1) seeking support from others–especially kinky community and therapy (2) finding a partner who actually gave them the things they were missing (especially when they didn’t realize it) from their previous d/s relationship–either after a break-up or through poly (3) changing the nature of the d/s relationship (3a) for some switches, this meant playing on the other side of the slash (e.g. bottoms topping, or tops bottoming) (4) most importantly, time and taking a break. For most people, it was some combination of these things.
Thus Mor (sub NB) mentioned kinky community and time:
I think one of the things that helps the most is talking to other kinky people. Talking about new ideas and sharing excitement with them. I can pull off of the interests and perspectives of others. And just… time. Time alone to think, time to relax, time for body and mind to heal.
And Teneo (top man), talked about finding a more fulfilling relationship:
Finding someone who cares for me in the way I didn’t realize I needed to be cared for has had a profound impact on my willingness and competence at engaging in power exchange.
Meanwhile, M (sub woman), who stayed in her long-term relationship with her partner explained:
Our dynamic had to shift as I was never able to recover submission and receiving pain from my partner. We moved over to a daddy/little dynamic which mirrored our everyday life and felt much more natural (at least now). We tried moving back to play-based D/s, but I ended up resentful.
For myself, I would say that the most difficult aspect of managing a long-term partner’s periodic d/s burnout associated with bouts of mental illness has been teaching both of us to externalize his experiences of dissatisfaction (this was not easy and took a long time) so we know when it’s time to take a break. Depression can creep up on a person, and it is often accompanied by an unfriendly companion named Denial. Together, Depression and Denial may try to convince the affected party that the problem isn’t them, the problem is those annoying things their partner does to try to control them! (Conveniently ignoring the fact that those same things are sexy and arousing when the person isn’t depressed). That dance is an especially tricky one, since when he’s just feeling a little bit low, those same activities will energize him and make him feel good, but once depressed, they start to become a source of bitter conflict. In short, one of the things that can work to manage d/s burnout is knowing yourself, knowing your partner, and knowing when it’s time to take a break. Easy, right? If only…
What didn’t work
The most common intuitive strategy that did not seem to work was trying to heavily reinvest in the failing d/s dynamic.
This paragraph from A was hauntingly personally familiar to me:
A (top FtM): I had a series of conversations to let my partner know what was happening and what we might do about it, and to understand their perspective on it. Coming out of one of these conversations, I wrote a how-to manual to tell my partner what would recharge and energize me, including specific sentences that I would welcome hearing. This was illuminating in a way, but it did not work.
It turns out that the problem with d/s burnout is that one or both people are… tired. So if you try to get someone reinvested in the dynamic, you’re actually probably going to tire them out more, both by processing and by asking them to put more into something they already feel like they’re not getting very much out of. Kinkland teaches us that good relationships are built on good communication, and that’s true–but the good communication had to show up earlier. Once you’ve failed at that, your best solution is take a fucking break. It takes energy and conviction to recommit to a d/s dynamic, and those aren’t things that burnt out people usually have a lot of.
To be continued…
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Goddess knows, I am no expert at the shitty art of breaking up with people; far from it. But I have a lot of confidence in my own good advice about breaking up that I’m just not amazing at following. Since my social network seems to be brimming these days with recent broken hearts and I’ve been feeling a bit down myself, I figured now was as good a time as any to write a post I’ve been meaning to write for years.
It’s easy and understandable to agonize over the decision to end a relationship, but at the end of the day, I’m pretty convinced that young or old, poly or mono, gay or straight, kinky or vanilla, it mostly just comes down to your answer to three basic questions.
1. Do I like who I am when I’m with this person?
You can rationalize all day about whether you like the person, make excuses for them, and tell yourself that they’re just mentally ill, etc. etc. etc. But take a long hard look at yourself and ask yourself: does this person and my relationship with them make me a better or worse person? Perhaps the answer is “neutral,” in which case, continue on to the next questions. However, generally speaking, unhealthy relationships turn us into the worst versions of ourselves, while good relationships help us manifest the best parts of ourselves.
2. How long has it been since I felt happy/satisfied/fulfilled with this person? How long am I willing to wait to feel that way again?
The most damning answer to this question is, of course, “I have never felt happy with them.” But more commonly, people had a glowing period of New Relationship Energy (NRE) in which to enjoy their relationship, and then settled into something decidedly less glowy that they stayed in hoping to return to their former glory days. Or maybe things were good for a very long time until Something Happened (a child was born, a parent died), and the relationship has just never been the same since. At that point, you kind of have to set a timer for yourself, and try to force yourself to keep to it: “I’ll give this six more months to get a lot better, but then it’s time to go” or “I’ll give this a couple more years with some couples counseling before I throw in the towel.”
It’s also important to distinguish where you are on the scale of dis/satisfaction, which spans from “glowing” (spoiler alert: that’s not usually something that lasts very long for anyone) to “happy” to “fine” to “boring” to “miserable” to “abusive.” If you demand “glowing” all the time, you will never keep a relationship for long; for some situations, “boring” might be good enough, but for most situations, “miserable” and “abusive” probably aren’t. Ironically, mediocre relationships are often harder to leave than “miserable” ones (though usually not harder than “abusive” ones), just because your motivation to get out is lower, and you feel guiltier about leaving.
The calculations for how long to wait here are the result of some complex multiplication involving life entanglements (houses owned, children raised), time together spent in joy, and time together spent in misery vs meh. Be brutally self-aware of your math, plotting out the time you spent together happy (two months? Two years? Two decades?) vs time spent in misery (two months? Two years? Two decades?) vs time spent in “meh” (you get the picture). The most common trajectory I see is people who were happy together for six months who then manage to eke out the next year-and-a-half before finally giving up. 2-3 years is pretty much the well-researched cutoff line for classically defined NRE style affection, so the timeline there is fairly predictable.
3. Would I be happier “alone”?
I’ve put “alone” in quotation marks here because frequently poly people aren’t making a choice to be alone or not, but rather “just” with their other partners vs additionally with this partner. Regardless, the very human temptation here is to ask yourself, “could I get a better relationship than this one?” You’ll never know whether you’ll find another partner, and you may be seeing Potential Competing New Partner over there with the beer goggley gaze of NRE. New Partner looks to be filled with the promise of joy, while Old Partner looks like work. But it’s very hard to know the future of your relationship with someone you haven’t been in one (for long) yet with. one thing you should be able to hopefully calculate with realism is how you’d feel without this person.
Conversely, So. Many. People. Stay. In terrible relationships because they’re convinced that they’ll never find a better partner than this one. But it’s not about finding a better partner or not: it’s about the relative soul rot of being in a crappy relationship vs being without it. Only you can know how unhappy the relationship is making you compared with how unhappy you’d be without it.
There are lots of other considerations that influence whether you should stay or go. These include everything from “we have kids” (which I did mention in the time math) to “my primary loathes this person.” Those factors may all turn out to be much more important for you than any of the ones I have listed here, which are targeted more purely at the relationship in and of itself. If you end up basing your calculations on something other than your own happiness, it’s still at least worthwhile to do so consciously. This can, for example, help you avoid one of the classically stupid poly situations that often arises of “my primary loathes X […because X is actually terrible for me…], but I’m mad at my primary for hating X.” You can get out of that situation by realizing your own damned self that X is terrible for you, irrespective of your partner’s feelings about them. Lots of poly people think they have “jealous partners” when what they actually have are partners who are sick of them dating terrible people. Meanwhile, if you’re basing your decision to stay together on something like supporting your children, for goddess’ sake, try to be good parents together. Whatever devil you choose, do it with your eyes wide open.
I’m going to close this post with some Valentines for my exes. I strongly suspect that some of these emotions will resonate with others, and if they feel painfully familiar to you, maybe that should inform your choices…
It’s amazing how little someone can leave behind when they never intended to stay.
I wish that I could have reflected your best vision of the person you wanted me to be, instead of reflecting your anxieties about the people you were afraid I was.
I worry that the mere fact of loving you made me complicit in the awful things you did to other people.
At least once a week, for years, I still fantasized about having sex with you. I only stopped after you broke my heart again into even smaller pieces of exactly the same shape.
I was always more in love with your kinks than with you.
I wish that our beautiful friendship could have better withstood me falling in love with you.
I don’t get a magical denouement where I get to make everything better. I just have a hole in my life to remind me of the way I failed.
The first time I said I loved you was the last time I ever saw you, and despite the passage of years, I still can’t decide which part of that I regret.
I almost left the scene because I couldn’t tolerate being in it without you.
If I had a chance to be with you again, I would love to be someone I never got to be on the first try: myself.
Him: You’re going to get tired of making me ask permission to drink water. You don’t know how much I drink.
Me: Oh, trust me, I know. And I’m not going to get tired of it.
I have a confession to make: I find most 24/7 d/s relationships to be really boring. When I ask people what they do in them, they mostly tell me things like, “I take care of her,” “I get water for her,” and “Everything I do is for her.” When I ask them if they get anything sexual out of doing things for their partners, most of them say “no.” I don’t fucking get it.
But it’s not that I’m not into 24/7 d/s dynamics—I totally am. I just like the really fucked up shit, and it’s mostly sexual for me. I’d cheerfully keep a sub locked up and chained to a piece of furniture for… well, as long as I guess I reasonably could. I literally jerk off thinking about my sub asking permission to use the bathroom and telling them “no.” My ideal version of a sub is basically a sex toy who does whatever the fuck I want them to for my entertainment and pleasure. Their humanity is only really meaningful to me in this arrangement in as much as I find consent (as well as the blurry world of consensual non-consent) hot. (Despite appearances, I’m not actually much of a sadist, and a lot of the awful things I love to do I don’t even find hot—I just find it hot that someone will let me do them).
I generally divide up these two worlds of d/s into “affirmative d/s” and “the dark side of d/s.” In affirmative d/s dynamics, the idea is basically that the sub has been uplifted by being owned by the dominant; doms do things like tell their subs that the subs aren’t allowed to refer to themselves as “fat” or suggest that they’re in any way unworthy. There’s kind of a glowy look that subs in these dynamics get. Dark d/s subs, on the other hand, have generally been consensually downgraded through their submission. They and their dominants are happiest in the places where the sub’s humanity seems questionable, and you get comments like a friend of mine’s in reference to his sub that “sometimes she forgets and thinks she’s people.”
It shouldn’t escape any observant kinksters’ notice that the vast majority of long-term d/s relationships, whether primary or even fairly serious non-primary relationships, are affirmative d/s dynamics. People in those dynamics sometimes play in the territory of humiliation and degradation, but it’s not the core of the d/s arrangement. It turns out that it’s really hard to have a spouse who you treat as degraded property all the time (more plausible to do it on weekend retreats or just when you close the bedroom door, but still tricky).
Dark 24/7 d/s dynamics, which in their most extreme versions are just immersing yourself in a fucked up kinky fantasy life, are relatively rare because they’re wildly incompatible with the basic demands of real life and most people’s actual emotional needs–and ironically require a pretty serious dose of trust, compassion, honesty, and just generally knowing someone well. From observation and experience, I’m pretty convinced that if you’re addicted to this kind of intense hyper-kinked (and often hyper-sexed) fantasy, you’re unlikely to get it outside of the context of vacationships .
Staying cognizant of the emotional limitations of these vacationship “24/7 dynamics” is a perpetual challenge, since most of the people who are into them are really into them and tend to get kind of swept up in them. Moreover, if you find one, it’s hard to escape the sense that you’ve stumbled upon something precious because it’s so hard to find people who are into this fucked up shit, good at it, and don’t have questionable motivations for doing it, and who have good chemistry with you personally. Once you find your golden needle in a haystack, it’s hard not to want to metaphorically clutch it and cuddle it, but the reality is that it’s about as emotionally satisfying as cuddling that metaphorical needle: it’s sharp and not well-designed for that. …And yet… You journey into the dark parts of your self with someone else and you create a powerful intimacy and trust on that trip. And if you’re on the left side of the slash and you have an ounce of sense, you know that the end of that trip leaves you in a profoundly vulnerable place.
I think most of us in kinkland spend most of our time worried about the mental health, stability, relationship satisfaction, and general well-being of the subs in these dark d/s dynamics, but little to no time concerned about these things for the doms. I get why that is: we’re worried that the subs are being abused, or that they’ve only agreed to do these things because they have abysmal self-esteem—and these concerns are very valid. But in relationships that are completely consensual and voluntary (those are some big and important caveats), there’s a weird emotional/relationship imbalance that ends up accruing in these dynamics against the doms, which I think is the reason that most longish-term dark d/s dynamics I’ve ever heard of got broken off by the sub.
One of the most fucked up aspects of these relationships is that, to some (and sometimes to a great) extent, they’re built on the sub being afraid of the dom and hating many of the things the dom does to them. On some level, this tends to generalize to the sub also hating the dom a little bit too, but in some twisted way, just as they love hating the things the dom does to them, they love hating the dom. That’s a convoluted emotional labyrinth for most people to navigate, and it’s only made weirder and more twisted by the fact that terror, degradation, and humiliation are often the deepest core of intimacy in these relationships.
If the core of intimacy in affirmative d/s relationships is sort of a perpetual trust fall into loving arms, the core of intimacy in dark d/s relationships is the dom pushing the sub into a dark hole and then maybe eventually throwing them a rope ladder to climb out.
There are a few bleak inevitable emotional inequalities in this arrangement. First of all, unless they’re deep switches, doms tend to be pretty bewildered by what the subs are getting out of it. Doms in these dynamics live in a state of (aroused) cognitive dissonance and discomfort surrounded by the fact that their sub keeps telling them they hate something, but they’re obviously turned on by it and apparently keep doing it willingly. Yet the doms don’t really understand why.
The second problem is that even the most cheerfully degraded subs still usually have at least a few things that are genuinely “too much,” but neither they nor their doms are often terribly clear about where those lines are. Once ideas like “I hate that,” “that’s too much,” “I can’t do that,” and “please don’t do that” become so blurry that they’re sort-of meaningless, doms end up in this odd limbo where they’re worried about accidentally going too far and worried about not going far enough and boring their subs. Instead of meaning “stop,” all those phrases of dislike just become a means to emotional intimacy and kinky pleasure on both sides… right up until the moment when they don’t.
Every dom in these relationships inevitably crosses a line, and they don’t really know where the line is until they get to it. Sure, the subs have safewords, but not using them tends to be a matter of perverse pride for them, and in my experience, instead of safewording, all of them just get mad and yell at me if I hurt them too much. It’s pretty hard to know what “too much” is until you get there, especially because it often varies wildly by the day. Relatedly, guessing how the subs are going to react when stressed is often just a crap shoot: half the time, do something terrible to them when they’re in a bad mood, and they’re so much happier and relaxed than they were before, while the other half they’re furious with you. How do they feel about you after you cross those lines? At what point do you do something that’s unforgivable? Do you do cumulative damage to the dynamic every time you mess up, or is it basically okay as long as you don’t do it too often? Even more torturous is wondering if maybe you’re actually creating more of this fucked up intimacy by occasionally going too far, but if now it’s kind of the wrong kind of intimacy? No matter how much you pretend they aren’t people, the subs here still are, and they have actual feelings. About you.
Which brings me to the third and biggest problem. While you’re building this perverse intimacy with someone, it just doesn’t look the same on both sides. Subs are getting slowly lost in this twisted labyrinth of simultaneously fearing, hating, being attracted to, and possibly loving their doms, and all the while the doms just kind of adore the subs for letting them do this shit to them. Sure, there may be a fucked up part of the dom’s brain that actually, genuinely, truly believes that they own this piece of property formerly known as a person, but any reasonably healthy person knows that that piece of property is actually a rare fucking miracle of a person for letting them do (and seemingly enjoying) the things the dom always thought they were a terrible person for fantasizing about.
Thus you end up with this twisted relationship dynamic where, for a variety of reasons–including the fact that it’s what turns them on–the subs get increasingly ambivalent feelings about their doms, but the doms unambivalently like their subs. That doesn’t exactly put the two of you on equal emotional footing in terms of the relationship.
I wrote an erotica years ago that ended with the sub telling her dom, “I hate you,” and him telling her, “shhh, you’re trying not to cum.” I find that fucked up emotional place to be incredibly sexy, but it ultimately makes the doms weirdly emotionally vulnerable. If you’re genuinely emotionally invested in your sub (and, perversely, you can’t cultivate hatred without emotional investment), wondering if they actually hate you will keep you up at night even if the memory of them saying that in bed is pure wank fodder. And that inequality is just exacerbated by the fact that even in the most degraded of dark d/s dynamics, it’s very hard to imagine a dom telling their sub, “I hate you,” because that’s just not the way this usually plays out. When you build a dynamic around one person’s eroticized hatred and the other’s eroticized malevolent sense of ownership, any smart person knows they’re going to end up with some warped interpersonal dynamics. But contrary to what you might expect, in a real world of genuine consent, I don’t think the warp favors the dom. Even though both people have the power to walk away from this, we all know who’s a lot more likely to do the walking; despite being tied down, chained up, and leashed, I’m pretty sure it’s mostly the subs.
 I usually define vacationships as “real” relationships where people see each other intensely, but only occasionally. One of the signals of a vacationship is that you clean the house, get dressed up, and clear your schedule because the partner is coming over. You don’t have to try to schedule a “date night” with a vacationship partner, because any time you spend with them is basically by definition date night. You can’t really get the kind of trust you need for super intense dark d/s dynamics out of a casual encounter, but you run into the aforementioned pragmatic day-to-day + emotional problems if you try to do it in the context of more serious long-term relationships. (I’m sure everyone reading this will have one exception to the claim that dark d/s dynamics mostly only work in the context of vacationships over the long haul. Cool. But I’ve watched a lottttt of kinky relationships over the years, and those people stand out because they’re exceptions… And even most of the ones I thought seemed okay later ended in acrimonious messes).
Evie Lupine interviewed me about the academic side of BDSM for her YouTube channel. You can check out the video at this link. Enjoy!
“I found your website while trying to find and answer to the following question, which has been surprisingly difficult to get ANY real information on:
Last month, I inadvertently found some VERY violent pornography among a loved one’s belongings — extreme stuff by any standard: mutilation, broken bones and torture, even hints of necrophilia and snuff, all sexualized in one way or another.
He’s long been quite vocal about being a kinkster, and I understand that much of this is “play” — “like a violent video game,” as it’s been described to me. But is material this extreme something to worry about, in your opinion?”
The short answer is that it’s probably not a big deal. The slightly extended answer is that no one really knows, but it’s probably not a big deal.
Very long answer:
So I’m not really sure how you came to be exposed to this information about the person you love, nor what the nature of this pornography is, but I’ll make some guesses and move on to the important issues…
There are basically two angles I see to answering your question: 1. Should you be worried about this person actually going out and raping/torturing/murdering people? And 2. Do I personally believe him watching/owning this is immoral?
Should I be worried about him actually going out and raping and murdering people?
…Probably not. There’s a pretty big difference between watching fucked up shit and doing fucked up shit. There’s at least one study (which to the best of my knowledge has never been replicated) that found that in countries where (fake) child porn was legal, child molestation rates were much lower (see Perv). Thus there’s actually some reason to believe that people watching “bad” porn might make them *less* likely to do “bad” things (I know I get therapeutic experiences from playing violent video games, and I think there’s every reason that the same idea could be applied to violent porn).
I have a partner who jerks off to (free and publicly available) videos of people being (actually) tortured because he figures the videos have already been made so he might as well as enjoy them. He’s not even looking at “porn”–just eroticizing the torture that someone else experienced, which might objectively be way creepier than what your friend is doing. Yet I’m fairly certain that my partner’s not likely to go on a serial killing spree any time soon, but I guess you never know. All of which is to say that watching, reading, and jerking off to “extreme” stuff doesn’t necessarily make someone more likely to do those things. If he’s deep into the BDSM subculture, a big motivation for a lot of kinksters is to find ways to do super fucked up things in safe(ish) and consensual ways.
To the best of my knowledge, there are no reputable or meaningful academic studies that have looked at the actual violent tendencies of people who watch extreme porn. There’s good cause for them to look at it, too, because merely possessing such pornography became a crime in the UK in 2009. For a great look into all this, check out Clarissa Smith’s chapter on snuff (link) and Jonathan Clough’s article on extreme pornography (link).
Okay, now I know you’re thinking about the three million studies you read where a psychologist took 36 undergraduate men, showed them some violent porn, and then they said they thought the idea of raping women was more appealing. The problem is that those studies have nothing to do with real world behaviors. And lest you appeal to the “common sense” argument here, let me point out a “common sense” contradiction between experiments and real-world findings that is much better understood: condom use while intoxicated. Common sense says that people are less likely to use condoms when they’re drunk, experiments say that men who are drunk find condoms less appealing, but… real world data say that there’s just no connection (I wrote a paper on this in 2013). Really, the question that they should be researching is if a taste for violent pornography is linked to actual violent behavior, but I can’t find anything that does that.
And I know you’re thinking about all those news stories about the crazed serial killer rapist dude with his terrifyingly creepy porn collection, and forensic researchers who insist this is real evidence. The tricky thing there is that’s a one-way correlation: my understanding is that there are pretty decent odds that people who do fucked up things will watch really fucked up porn. But the correlation doesn’t necessarily go both ways: there’s decent reason to believe that lots of people watch really fucked up porn but don’t do the really fucked up things. I think Smith’s article (cited above) does a pretty decent job of explaining why that might be.
But what about the moral implications?
For me, it mostly depends on whether the people making the pornography in question are doing so in an ethical way. According to Smith, a lot of these websites promise that no one was actually harmed in the making of their pornography. To that, I say, cool. If the porn is not ethically produced, then I think it’s super creepy to financially support it (and kind of neutral to say, steal it off the internet). But people buy stuff that’s immorally produced all the time (from illegal drugs to the literal clothes on our backs), and I personally think that anyone who’s supporting the Mexican drug cartels has way more to answer for than people supporting an itsy-bitsy basement industry of criminally produced pornography. They’re both terrible, but… hey, that’s just me…
The British government, by the way, decided they didn’t care about the ethics of production. They decided it was just bad, end of story. So if your loved one lives in the UK, he’s in potential legal trouble, regardless of the ethics of the thing.
The thing that actually matters
True story: I once went on a date with a guy who did in fact commit first degree murder just a couple of years later. After that single date, I decided there was no way I would ever go out with him again because he was “clearly too violent.” This was blindingly obvious to me, but clearly not quite as clear to many of his friends…
My point here is that the majority of the time, people don’t randomly turn out to be serial killers and rapists; there are usually a thousand clues around them that have nothing to do with porn and everything to do with how often they’ve beaten people up, talk about beating people up, and how much they believe “women really want sex from you even when they say no”. There are a small number who aren’t so obvious, and they generally have NO friends; the ones who actually have friends and still manage to pass as normal people are absurdly rare.
So. In my opinion, the real question isn’t, “Should I be concerned that my friend has creepy taste in pornography?” but far the far more complex, “Does my friend seem like someone who gives a shit about the well-being of both men AND women in general and his partners specifically? Do his partners seem afraid of him? Does he seem to have violent tendencies in general? Does he often cover up things, lie, constantly make excuses, hypocritically slut shame, seem really into sex but weirdly and disproportionately uncomfortable talking about it in a personal way, or massively exaggerate?” Even in the BDSM scene, I’ve met a number of people who were really bad people, and every single one of them so far was easily identifiable to me by one of those traits. And in my experience, those are the things that separate the kinksters with disturbing tastes from the future convicts of the world.
And believe me when I say I know, have played with, banged and AM a kinkster with slightly disturbing tastes.