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The first time I read 50 Shades of Grey, I puked. It was in a school dormitory. The book was doing its secret tour of various boys’ pillow-undersides, in the cover of night, evading the hawk eyes of the hostel wardens, and it finally came to me. Given that its reputation preceded itself, I hardly cared to read the story and dived right into the middle of a raunchy BDSM sex scene. I was horrified. Till that night, sex, for me was two things – imaginary and vanilla. This was nothing short of utterly radical for my imagination. Repulsed as I was, it also left me intrigued.

photo showing chained and cuffed hands with painted nails
Source: RISE Radio

Fast forward four years, a bunch of failed attempts at love, a couple of books, and lots of erotica later, my journey with BDSM has taught me so much. It has taught me more about sex, about my own person, being a ‘switch’, and the invincible power of consent. But most importantly the ginormous myths, fallacies and challenges that the total newbie I was, faced with in the process. These myths and fallacies are deeply rooted in our understanding of gender, ourselves, our desire and the very idea of concepts like domination and submission. They are also very tangible, in that, left unaddressed it could cause real harm – mental and physical, to you and your partner(s).

Also read: The Kinky Way Forward: How BDSM Helped Liberate My Sexuality

My journey began with a few simple questions. Simple “Why, What, How” stuff.

Why don’t we learn sex?

Cartoon with ABC in the form of BDSM practitioners
Source: Majalah Social

From very early childhood we begin learning things – how to brush, how to count, how to sing, etc. Of course, most of us have the innate ability to perform the underlying physical and mental effort to do these things. We can move our hands up and down, think numerically and produce sounds. But we are still taught the ways in which our various physical and mental faculties can be applied, and we need it. Why then do we assume that sex is something we could just learn by some kind of osmosis?

Why then do we assume that sex is something we could just learn by some kind of osmosis?

Like most other kids, we also learned about the reproductive system in high school biology. Whatever the syllabus lacked was addressed by porn – duly acknowledged by the teacher who remarked: “well you guys probably know about that bit better than I do”. Sadly, she was wrong. Porn is a terrible teacher. And especially so for something like BDSM. Most BDSM content available in mainstream pornography is deeply problematic in so many ways. Most of the content is male-gaze directed fetishizations of rape, humiliation, torture, abuse and slavery. It was just deeply troubling and led me into falsely believing, for a while, that people who wanted to be dominated were somehow inferior.

Also read: Children Exploring Their Sexuality Is More Common Than You Might Think

What is domination? It’s like tying up and stuff, right?

Michael Makai’s landmark book Domination & Submission – a must-read for anyone who is interested in BDSM, was my next stop. He talks about the idea of the “Gift of Submission”. This is something that radically changed my understanding of domination and submission.

Basically, the person who chooses to be submissive holds more power than the one who dominates. The dominating partner (Dom) is given the “Gift of Submission”. Poetic phrase aside, this means that the person who is submissive (Sub) is choosing to “let” the other person dominate. The Sub can, therefore, decide the extent, nature, quality and duration of the act(s) – even end it when and if needs be. Thus by deciding to give up control, you are very much in control.

graphic of consensual spanking
Source: GQ.com

Additionally, it also means a great deal of responsibility for the Dom. You have to be present and listen to what your partner wants, likes and dislikes – aurally and otherwise. You also need to be aware of what you are capable of and practice and learn. It is a lot of work – stuff that porn glosses over. I remember how I used to spank myself, to understand better how different sides, speeds and the state of my palm (whether cupped, flat, spread or tight) would alter its quality. Or how I tried different knots to see what would not cut off blood circulation. Homework is important. At the very least, and most importantly, listen to what your partner wants likes and dislikes.

Domination is not a mindless infliction of hurt, abuse and pain that your partner(s) did not consent to.

The foundational aspect of BDSM sex is a clear understanding of the power dynamics between the partners. While it could be as detailed as a thoroughly deliberated, ratified document (such as the one Mr Grey and Anastasia came up with), it could also be something as simple as effective communication of what each person wants. Even if the situation is something as casual as “let’s try something a little bittle kinky tonight”.

So is BDSM just a careful performance then?

Definitely not. The need to dominate is as much out of desire as is the need to be dominated. The responsibilities attached to BDSM are frankly the same as that for any other sex act. But since the submissive partner(s) are placing themselves at a position of vulnerability, these responsibilities mark the difference between sex and abuse. Have fun, but responsibly.

Also, don’t ever feel compelled to dominate or submit because your partner wants you to. There is no shame in saying No.

Is it less “Manly” to be Submissive?

cartoon graphic of male submissives
Source: Weheartit.com

I still remember the night of my submissive sexual awakening. I was pinned up against a mud wall, lifted off my feet and <redacted redacted redacted>. It challenged my fundamental understanding of my own self and what I thought I was. As cis-men, most of us are led to believe that “men always dominate” – sexually and otherwise. If you do not dominate, you are a ‘pussy’. So when I was dominated, by a cis-woman, I felt utterly emasculated – mainly because I loved it. Just as much as I loved to dominate.

It was a great cause of conflict until I learned that I was a ‘switch’ – someone who enjoys both domination and submission. It opened my eyes to the fact that till that encounter I had never even considered that I might enjoy being dominated. Being a cis-male had somehow made it obvious to me that I should only dominate, and would only enjoy that.

The idea of domination is culturally tied to masculinity in so many ways – primarily through the myth that domination is more powerful and denotes machismo.

Depictions of male submissiveness like mainstream ‘Femdom’ porn thrives on the idea that a submissive male is less of a male. That he/they are somehow taking on a woman’s role. There is no “man’s” role or “woman’s” role in BDSM. Sex is nothing if not born out of desire. So do what you desire and leave gender out of it. What is the point of doing what you think you are supposed to do if it brings you no satisfaction?

Also read: The Vitamin Stree Sex Survey: Let’s Talk About Sex

AFTERCARE! AFTERCARE! AFTERCARE!

As I read, saw, sexted and experienced my way through BDSM, for the first couple of years I had no idea about the concept of Aftercare. Subsequent conversations with like-minded practitioners and friends made me realise that most of them didn’t know about it either. This is mostly because conventional gurus of BDSM – mainstream porn, erotica and that one kinky friend, never really talk about it. But it is incredibly important. Both out of human decency and to make BDSM a safe feminist space.

cartoon graphic of aftercare rituals
Source: Love Sense

I like to think of BDSM sex acts as a sandwich. The filling can be a variety of things you and your partner(s) want to do. But it has to be wrapped up in the bread of consent on top and aftercare below. While consensual pain maybe pleasure, once sex is over, pain is a pain. From hickeys to whip marks and even blood clots so many things could happen that require care and attention once sex is over. Be there, offer to provide care and if permitted, pamper away.

And no, it doesn’t matter if the sex was non-romantic. Aftercare is important even if you may not care for the person. Basic human decency mandates that you take care of someone you hurt, even if it were consensual and for your mutual pleasure. In feminist terms, it is that equalising act that clearly qualifies the preceding sex act as an agreed upon power play and the partners as being equals, with neither having power over the other that goes beyond the bed.

In Conclusion

I am no less a feminist because I enjoy dominating women (as well as men and trans-people) in bed. I am no less a man because I enjoy being submissive in bed. Those are my choices and based out of my desires. Choices and desires that define the sexual acts I engage in, and not me as a person. My sexuality and sexual preferences are a part of me but do not necessarily define me. Further, I feel free to speak about these issues because I come from a family that doesn’t consider sex a taboo – one I can freely ask doubts to and share opinions with. Sadly, the same is not true for the majority of us.

The land that gave the world the Kamasutra claims that talking about sex is against our culture.

So yes, this is also a cry. A cry that echoes and resounds with a fellow writer on this same platform. A cry for a more tolerant India. One where we could openly embrace our various sexual tastes and preferences without fear of judgement. Where we could pull discussions of sex out of the corridors of secrecy and into healthy, safe and equal platforms. One where children don’t grow up learning sex and along with it, misogyny, sexual intolerance, lack of self-esteem and unrealistic expectations from porn. This is a cry for the sunshine of a better, more tolerant, safer and happier tomorrow.

A tomorrow where we could be ourselves without fear. Where we could live our truth, without shame.


Featured Image Source: PikTag

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