Ok let me start out by saying that I don't want to write this post. It's 2016, it's a new year, I kissed a really cute and smart and charming boy at midnight on New Year's Eve, and I have been working really, really hard to put the pain of last year behind me, and for the most part I have made a great deal of progress. The last thing I want to do is get sucked back into that pain, both for my own sake as well as for the sake of people both new and old that I'm inviting into my life. Nor do I want to keep writing these posts that highlight the disempowerment I've been feeling, because it's just not a fun feeling to dwell on.
Unfortunately, there's social media.
This morning, two posts appeared in my Twitter feed consecutively. The first was this one, about the tendency of self-identified submissive women to have a history of abusive relationships. I've touched on that concept in this post about emotional labor (the submissive woman's desire to give it and the narcissist's desire to take it), but here are the parts from today that struck me, edited together for brevity:
[Submissive women] are motivated by a deep desire to please. Every submissive woman I have ever personally known has been through a number of abusive relationships. She gives and men take and take and it becomes abusive. Weak men with self-esteem issues are often drawn to these women, which compounds the problem. It takes enormous strength and experience to take from a woman like this (which is what she needs) without abusing her. Your job is to soak up all her love and affection and attention, help her find ways to please you, while supporting and strengthening her as a person. In a relationship like this, trust is the one thing that cannot be repaired. If you damage it, you now go into the same pile of “men who hurt her” and you will never truly be trusted again.
At this point in my blog I don't think I have to repeat the specifics of my past relationship with a Dominant with a mind control fetish (if you're a newcomer, you can read here and here to bring yourself up to speed), but suffice it to say I have noticed myself feeling more than a little Jessica Jonesy around my kink lately. I feel like when I get into a submissive headspace it's possible for me to lose a lot of my good judgment, because part of what it means to submit is to suspend judgment, which allows for surrender. But I'm feeling like oh god, if I'm mind controlled again I might do things that are counter to my best interests. And I worry that if I just choose self-preservation I'll miss out on my erotic bliss, which is my favorite thing and without which life feels bleak. But I've noticed several instances in the past few months where my surrender seems anchored to an anxiety trigger, and I'm not sure how to fix that.
I understand that there are a lot of self-protective coping mechanisms surrounding me, because it's hard to tell the kind of surrender that is transformative shamanic ordeal from the kind of surrender that is selling your soul to the devil, and once that oxytocin bond kicks in even the devil can look pretty appealing. Mostly I have to calculate which potential partners have a favorable risk/reward ratio in terms of my experiencing their dominance and then safeguard against anyone else who might be trying to exploit me, and in those defenses I end up looking less than submissive from the outside (at least on my social media anyway), and I start to worry about the way my submissive market value might appear to any potential dominant partners in my future who might google me. I'm not sure my skill at surrender comes across well when I keep talking about how much I have to protect it.
Suffice it to say, when you have a fetish for granting mindless obedience, you have to really know who you can trust with that shit. "You're addicted to surrender," one of my mentors admonished me recently. When you consider that idea, my kink becomes much more complicated. Back in early fall I was texting to try to meet up with a person with whom I had been in a fairly toxic spiral, and the friend who was with me as I waited on a response turned to me in the midst of my staring compulsively at my phone and said, "Have you ever hung out with an addict?"
To put this in perspective, while I feared Jessica Jones would be a wellspring of PTSD flashbacks for me, it turns out I actually felt a howling nostalgia for the singleminded passion of Kilgrave's victims. It felt similar to how I imagine Russell Brand felt describing the envy he felt toward his former addict self who still got to do heroin. The simplicity of obedience is such a goddamned relief to this overly analytical mind, even when (especially when?) that obedience requires so much self-sacrifice on my part that it ends up being indistinguishable from self-destruction.
I want to believe that such an alignment of my actions with another person's best interests is possible to do in a healthy manner with someone ethical, but you're really tempting Jesus in the desert with that one, aren't you?
Back to Twitter: the second post that came up on my feed was this thread by @borderlinefemme, in which she analyzes the relationship of mental illness in women to both abuse and stigma. She cites a survey from Psychological Medicine which states that 40% of women with severe mental illnesses had suffered rape or attempted rape, as compared to 7% of the total female population, and then goes on to describe the villainization of women with borderline personality disorder (BPD) as "either femmes fatales, harpies, or unstable emotional bitches" -- basically, imperfect victims. And when you remember that one of the symptoms of BPD is an intense fear of abandonment, that means that many women with BPD will learn to go to extreme efforts to avoid becoming the emotional caricature of their disorder that would cause people to leave them:
borderline women aren't allowed to be angry. our angry is too scary, it's too hurtful, it's too much. bc borderline woman are expected to get angry, we're now trying to repress it. so i like i assume many others have just shut it down. if i allow myself to show off my anger, people will leave almost immediately. there's no chance at redemption. so i get sad instead. now we've replaced anger with sadness. and that sadness may be incredibly annoying and redundant but it's more acceptable than a mad woman. and who is easy to abuse? the sad girl. the girl is bottling it all in and submitting to the apathy that is expected. ~try to be chill~ bc again, that sadness may cause friends/lovers to become irritated but not enough to leave & despite the abuse we dont want to be abandoned. once you've seen a woman with a disorders madness, can you ever perceive her as nice or even stable again? borderline women are paying the price for this. our relationships, health, perception of self. anger is not a privilege we are entitled to.
I don't know if I ever suffered from BPD. It's hard to tell personality disorders from trauma reactions, just as it's hard to tell learning secure attachment patterns from absorbing the culture of chill, just as it's hard to tell depression from being surrounded by assholes. When in the midst of a depressive episode in 2011 I went to a clinic to speak to team of psychological evaluators, I ran through a list of BPD symptoms and explained how it could be an "intense fear of abandonment" that caused me to become a seduction coach and which might also account for my submissive orientation since there is a security that comes in being told exactly what to do in order to be pleasing to one's partner, and suggested since my book had just come out that perhaps I had managed to build an entire career on the backs of my demons. The doctors just stared at me like I was from another planet, and eventually the episode passed and I just got on with my life.
I will, however, say this much: I don't feel I have ever been allowed to express anger in a relationship. In my aforementioned D/s relationship in my early 20s, my partner shamed me for expressing anger and retreated from any issue I got emotional about. When we got our neuro-linguistic programming certifications, I learned the NLP tenet "The meaning of your communication is the response that you get," and started taking responsibility for how my words were landing. And since I was dating a selfish Dominant, the best way to get my needs met was to please him and hope for an intermittent reward.
This habit of allowing anger to squeeze out only in the calmest, most rational and even-toned sentences has stayed with me ever since. Even in the wake of my breakup at the beginning of 2015, which was so sudden and without warning that I really should have been given plenty of space to rage and process, I sent my former lover a text message a day later expressing something that was angering me, and he accused me of "haranguing." So I stopped texting and dropped the subject. Better to swallow my anger in silence than to be branded an overemotional harpy. (Oh silence. I could write an entire post on the nature of silence, and maybe one day I will. In short, to express anger is often to make a request that can be ruthlessly denied, and to make a request so important it comes out as anger only to have it denied by your loved one is a risk too painful to bear.)
So how do these two posts relate, and why did seeing them on Twitter consecutively send me into an emotional tizzy today?
Well, as I wrote about a few months ago, kink often gets conflated (sometimes accurately, sometimes not) with trauma and abuse history, which can also be a cause of mental illness such as PTSD. In some cases, BDSM relationships can even attract abusers under the guise of dominance as sanctioned abuse, and even cause PTSD, Jessica Jones-style. But to take that a step further, according to the Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology, when presented with identical patient symptoms, doctors will more often diagnose men with PTSD and women with BPD. (Seriously read that link, it's fucked up.) Translation? Men experience pain from trauma in their lives, but bitches be crazy.
Synthesizing all the information above draws the conclusion that women who identify as submissive are more likely to attract abusers, more likely to be gaslighted for reacting to abuse, more likely to be stigmatized for talking about abuse, and more likely to be punished and ostracized for being angry about it. Because kinky women are too often assumed to be mentally ill, and a mentally ill woman expressing anger is a short fuse away from boiling your bunny.
Sometimes I feel like fighting for my submission is an uphill battle (seriously how hard should it be to want to please someone?), and slut shame is only a very small part of my adversary. Sometimes I feel like I am sacrificing my own emotional life just to be low-maintenance, because being low-maintenance is a desirable quality in a submissive, and I wish to be submissive so that I can shut my brain off and have a clear directive for how to be pleasing.
I'd like to say that the right partner will honor my emotions when I express them in a clear and rational manner, and in fact will reward my carefully cultivated communication skills by listening to me and taking me seriously. But the truth is even my fellow relationship coaching colleagues sometimes have trouble believing in the insecurities I talk about because I have spent so much time cultivating ease and attractiveness, and because I speak about my issues with such a detached rationality. Like, isn't it weird that the more transparent you try to be about your vulnerabilities, the more people think you're brave? The other night I was hanging out in a hot tub with my friend Destin, who's a tantric energy worker, and he did some light energy movement on me. "Wow," he said when we were through, "you have a lot more going on in your root chakra than I thought." "Oh?" I asked. "Yeah, that's where issues about self-worth, right to existence, and trust all happen." I looked at him and said, "That's what I've been trying to tell everyone but nobody believes me!"
I am having some issues with trust because I am a submissive, and because I wish to be a desirable submissive I'm having trouble expressing my issues with trust.
And trusting myself seems to defeat the point of surrender. The bliss of surrender comes from not having to make my own decisions, and there's a very fine line between surrendering to the unknown and not taking responsibility for fucking up your life. Luckily it's been a long time since my surrender caused me to fuck up my life (and even then at least I'm getting a good memoir out of it?), but I also haven't found many places where it feels worthwhile to surrender lately either.
I wish that everyone in the world possessed ethics, integrity, and trustworthiness -- I would just go around being submissive all the time. But in the meantime, I'd at least like a little more compassion for the emotions that I put into my service as well as the stuff that's going to naturally come up in the course of a relationship. Because even the best of people will hurt you unintentionally, and I need to feel that my pain/trauma will be acknowledged if I bring it up without it meaning that I'm crazy, irrational, or "haranguing" in the way that women, particularly kinky women, are unfairly labeled.