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Bruise Control

Joe Newton

My question could come across as kink shaming. That is not my intent. I am a habitual self-harmer who is planning to seek therapy. However, I find myself unable to stop comparing attitudes towards the kind of self-harm I’ve engaged in with attitudes toward BDSM pain play. When I was a teenager, I would describe myself as a masochist because I was unaware of the sexual connotations of the word, and I bought into the stereotype that self-harm was only self-harm when it was done by an emo kid cutting themselves with a razor blade. My method was different: blunt force. In my view, the self-harm I engage in is no less ethical or healthy than the kind of “pain play” I’ve read about others engaging in.

My self-harm provides catharsis for the sadness and anger I feel. Sometimes when my negative emotions are intense, I...

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...s when my negative emotions are intense, I feel as if they will burst my body and I am desperate to release them. In these times I find relief in turning emotional pain into physical pain. I haven’t always done this as safely as I could. Last year, during one of the most difficult years of my life, I failed to consider how the visible marks on my body might bother others. I wound up upsetting my coworkers and now I am facing disciplinary action at work, which has only added to my stress. I’ve read that people into BDSM engage in pain play in seek of catharsis. I also do it for catharsis. The only difference seems to be the motive. Mine is to cope, and theirs is sexual gratification. I now know how hard I can hit myself without causing lasting injuries. I typically do it alone and discreetly, so non-consenting parties are not involved, and I of course consent to the pain I inflict on myself. Yet what I do is perceived as unhealthy and BDSM pain play is considered healthy. Am I wrong to wonder why that is? I feel that people are told not to judge others for their kinks while I am judged and shamed for what I do safely, consensually, and in private. Perplexed About Intensely Nebulous Esoteric Distinctions P.S. I have very little sexual experience personally due to almost no one finding me attractive. Before I bring in the big guns — before I roll out our guest experts — I wanna encourage you to follow through on your plan to see a therapist. Advice columns are great, of course, and the insights and/or dick jokes of a halfway decent advice columnist can help. But your issues — your physical and emotional safety — require more thorough analysis than I could possibly provide for you in this space. Alright, PAINED, with that said… I shared your letter with Leigh Cowart, the author of Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose, a terrifically entertaining and insightful book about the different ways different kinds of people seek out different kinds of pain. “I don’t think PAINED is seeing similarities where there are none,” said Cowart. “What people who practice BDSM do and what PAINED is doing are both ways of using aversive sensation and the brain’s reward system to create a desired emotional state.” Americans, as Cowart argues in their book, assess consensual suffering — and so much else — using moral judgments that aren’t always consistent or logical. People who seek out pain in socially sanctioned ways, e.g., long-distance runners, mixed martial artists, celebrities who go on chat shows and eat chicken wings slathered in extreme hot sauces, are looked up to — particularly when their pain-seeking behaviors “[come] draped in the dignity of athleticism,” as Cowart puts it — while BDSM players are subjected to a lot of judgment and shame. Now, numerous studies have shown that BDSM players are just as emotionally healthy as vanilla people, which is why mental health professionals no longer pathologize people into consensual sadomasochism. But kink muggles don’t admire kinksters the same way they admire, say, long-distance runners even though the masochists and a marathoners push themselves to their physical limits for similar reasons — both seeking the rush of endorphins that freely chosen pain can induce, both may be seeking the kind of emotional catharsis that freely chosen pain can provide. “While pain on purpose for emotional benefit is common and normal, and while it is not inherently harmful,” Cowart said, “it can be harmful — so it deserves a thoughtful risk analysis to assess for avoidable dangers.” To that end, PAINED, Cowart wants you — they want any person seeking out pain on purpose — to think about these questions: “Am I emotionally regulated enough to safely give myself catharsis through pain?” “Am I looking to feel pain that is temporary or am I risking harm with lasting effects?” “Do I feel like I can stop or does this feel compulsive?” No one wants to see themselves as damaged, PAINED, which means you’ll have to be on your guard against rationalizing behaviors that actually might be compulsive and harmful — and if you’re showing up to work covered in bruises so alarming you might lose your job over them, that points to compulsive and harmful. So, I would urge you not to engage in solo pain play — if that’s how you wanna think of it for now — while you think about Cowart’s questions and wait for your first appointment with your therapist. Cowart had another suggestion for you: If you are emotionally well-regulated, if you aren’t doing yourself lasting harm, and you — and your therapist — don’t think this is compulsive behavior, you should find some like-minded friends. “Generally speaking, in potentially risky situations — be it BDSM or rock climbing or swimming or fight club — humans mitigate risk with the buddy system,” said Cowart. “If you’re going to do something dangerous, you want to be able to say, ‘Hey watch this!’, before you jump, in case someone needs to save your life. If PAINED explored pain catharsis in a more social, structured environment, where there are more explicitly defined boundaries for engagement, PAINED may find deepening catharsis through pain shared.” Your local BDSM group is a good place to find the kind of social, structured environment Cowart is talking about. Most people at the munch you’ll attend first and the play party you might attend later will be sexually aroused by BDSM, PAINED, but in every large kink group there are serious players who are seeking emotional release, not sexual release. Now, for a second opinion, we turn to another Leigh: Leigh Wakeford, a California-based psychotherapist who specializes in shame-resilience work with queer and kinky or kink-curious couples and individuals. “I am sorry to hear that PAINED feels judged and shamed for the way in which they have learned to cope with their sadness and anger,” said Wakeford, “and how their relationship to pain compares to the kind of pain experienced by partners engaging in BDSM pain-play, is a valid thing to contemplate.” There are, however, easily identifiable makers that can help to distinguish healthy BDSM play — which may or may not include consensual and controlled pain play — from emotional or physical abuse. “Pain-play in BDSM operates within clearly defined boundaries and collaborative parameters that allow for pain to be safely expressed and experienced between the consenting partners,” said Wakeford. “These ‘rules’ make the interaction with pain playful, pleasurable, and potentially transformative. And there’s a greater degree of safety when these things are experienced with another than is possible when engaging in these things alone. What comes to mind for me here are the numerous kinksters who have lost their lives during solo ‘breath control’ play due to the very fact that another was not present to safely assist and witness.” So, it’s unanimous: Cowart, Wakeford, and Savage all vote for finding friends who share your interest in safe, sane, and consensual impact play. Connecting with others who share your need for release through pain — even if it takes some effort to find them — will not just make you safer, PAINED, it will transform something that currently isolates you from others into something that helps you connect with others. Good luck. P.S. Kink scenes tend to be more welcoming spaces for people who don’t feel conventionally attractive. For many in the kink scene, PAINED, it’s your ability to safely dish it out (your skill set as a Dom) and/or your ability to take it (your appetite as a sub) that matters most, not your jawline or your waistline. Follow Leigh Cowart on Instagram, Threads, and Twitter @voraciousbrain. I had a sexual experience that’s left me feeling shitty. Met another gay man on an app, got wasted together at a leather bar, fucked at his place on a number of substances. He stopped when I was too out of it to proceed, he played some music, and let me crash with him until I’d sobered up enough to get a Lyft. When we fucked, I’d asked him to degrade me. I asked him to do and say things an abusive ex had often done to me without consent. Why, when wasted and fucking, did I try and recreate the sexual assaults I had experienced? In the moment: hot. In the aftermath, I feel as horrible as I did when those events first happened to me. Super Upset Boy I asked Leigh Wakeford to weigh in on your question while I had him on the line. “Recreating a traumatic sexual experience is not uncommon among survivors of abuse,” said Wakeford, “So, most importantly SUB needs to hear that he is not alone. And he also needs to know that one of the beautiful offerings of BDSM play is the potential for revisiting and re-narrating traumatic encounters in a safe, consensual and empowering way, which can help us reclaim things that were taken from us without our permission.” And what your abusive ex may have taken from you, SUB, is a kind of consensual D/s sex play — involving humiliation, degradation, verbal abuse, etc. — that you weren’t consciously aware you enjoyed before his abuse started. Right now, these things may be tainted by their association with your ex, SUB, but that doesn’t make them bad things. Just as sex in the missionary position in the absence of consent will be experienced as assault by someone who might otherwise enjoy the most vanilla-est of vanilla sex, kinky-like humiliation and degradation in the absence of consent will be experienced as abuse by someone who might otherwise enjoy the kinkiest of kinky sex. “SUB had some shitty and bad things happen to him,” added Wakeford “but he is not a bad or shitty person for wanting to experience pleasure in ways that are uniquely exciting to him.” Which may be exactly what you were trying to do that night, SUB: In an effort to create new and positive associations with your kinks, you went out and found someone you intuitively felt you could trust — and your intuition proved to be correct, as evidence by the way he took care of you when you had to tap out — but you had to obliterate your inhibitions with drugs and alcohol to get there… which isn’t ideal. “In my experience,” said Wakeford, “the most effective and safest way to create a new narrative around a past traumatic encounter is also the most sober possible way. Being in a less conscious state can interfere with the clarity and level of control required to heal and grow.” Follow Leigh Wakeford is on Instagram and Threads @LeighWakefordTherapy. His website is LeighWakefordTherapy.com. Got problems? Email your question to Dan here! Or record your question for the Lovecast here! Follow Dan on Instagram and Threads @DanSavage. Follow Dan on BlueSky @DanSavage. HUMP! Part One is NOW STREAMING! Go to HUMP! Film Fest to watch the lineup in the comfort of your home!  

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