Humiliation play: setting emotional filters

Humiliation is a kink that leaves you very emotionally vulnerable. You have to really trust someone to hand over the keys to your sexual psyche. This is true in Vanillaland as well, but the discussions around sex in those spheres tend to share agreed turn-ons and norms. In humiliation, we take things that would destroy us if they were to happen in real-life without our buy-in and transform them into mind-blowingly erotic acts – controlled explosions that have a truly magical effect.

Obviously it’s crucial to have one or more play partners who – as mean as they might be in-scene – are kind and caring in real-life, and who are smart and curious enough to try to understand your kink. This works both ways; you should be solicitous and curious about their erotic daydreams as well, and everyone should emerge feeling good.

But there’s also a bit of self-examination and routine maintenance to be done. I feel like this is trickier for emotional masochists/subs than those on the purely physical/sensory side of BDSM. You know what physical pain feels like and you know what injury feels like, even if it only becomes apparent after the fact. Emotional damage is harder to recognise until it’s really built up.

Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock, saying "It's like I'm back at school, learning about the dangers of book-reading."

I’m not really talking about deliberate psychological abuse by others, though of course this is as much a thing in kink as anywhere. More an inside-out pre-gaming approach, making sure we know what feels good, what reliably triggers bad feelings and what our blind spots are, so we can trust our instincts.

There are countless helpful blog posts detailing privacy filters and settings we should adjust to stop big tech pimping out our life data (if you’ve not done this for every social media site and search engine you use, please DuckDuckGo it before reading any further. And install DuckDuckGo). We should take similar measures with our emotions, particularly when we engage in vulnerable play. Here are a few filters it’s good to set for general pervy wellbeing.

Don’t assume you have to carpe every kinky diem

Two vultures form Disney's The Jungle Book. One asks "What we gonna do?" The other flaps and say " I don't know. What you wanna do?"

In kink, especially when we first explore, it can feel like we have to take every opportunity that comes our way, because we’ll never find anyone perfect for us. A lot of the time this fatalism comes from long-held cultural self-loathing from childhood about our kinks being damaged parts of ourselves that nobody could really embrace. It’s true that nobody will ever be a perfect partner for a single other person, but as Dan Savage says, you can go for a 0.7 and round them up to 1. It’s good to be open-minded and curious, but don’t let yourself be carried hither and thither by the tide of low self-regard, even if you’re the subbiest sub that ever did sub. Good tops and doms don’t want a blank canvas with no strong opinions or dislikes – they want to know what turns you on. They also want you to have a sense of reality and an ability to leave kinkspace if needed, and act like a sentient, functional adult. It’s a red flag for many tops if a sub doesn’t know, or can’t articulate, what they dislike, or if they claim to have no limits whatsoever. I’m sceptical these no-limits people truly exist, and if a sub holds back setting an important limit, the top risks stumbling over it during play and potentially causing harm.

If you hate justifying limits, tell a white lie

Asian woman saying "Truth is not the only thing that is right".

Honesty is generally a solid policy, but if you don’t enjoy doing something fairly commonplace, particularly if it comes up a lot, or seems to be expected (let’s say you don’t enjoy kissing or giving head or cuddling), the prospect of repeatedly explaining why can fill you with dread or kill the mood. In such cases, it’s ok to tell a white lie to casual partners that wards off further questions or saves the other party’s feelings. The excuse could be something as simple as toothache, as long as it explains things satisfactorily. If a play-friendship turns into something longer-term, you should probably come clean about your feelings on the matter, but if it’s a brief fling and you’re a people-pleaser, don’t sacrifice your enjoyment to avoid minor conflict. Just take it into neutral territory and blame outside forces.

Play won’t magically make you happier or better – postpone if you’re low or poorly

Monica from Friends saying "I'm not sick. I'm fine...d"

If you’re having a low time or aren’t physically 100%, this can affect everything from your pain tolerance to your willingness to submit. If you go into a scene hoping to forage dopamine or other happy chemicals, and the scene is toward the darker end (we often play in areas only slimly screened-off from the abhorrent), it can go horribly wrong. Whatever your libido is telling you (and if you’re low on dopamine, it may well be telling you it needs sex or something sex-adjacent), if you’re in a volatile or upset mood, be fair to yourself and your partner and scratch that itch with masturbation, a movie, a takeaway or your comfort activity of choice. Nobody wants you to martyr on through it when you’re feeling like death. Reschedule play for a time when you’re more yourself, and enjoy the anticipation.

Oh, and if you’re worried about letting the other person down, a postponed playdate is so much better than a bin-fire full of blame and upset. It also shows the other person that you care about yourself and aren’t shifting the adulting load entirely onto their shoulders.

Aftercare is not an afterthought

Man and woman in a bar. Woman is saying "I have massive needs!" as she tosses back her drink.

Some people aren’t huggers or texters or caregiving types. That’s absolutely fine. But if you are, and if you experience drop (doms as well as subs), or play in a role that takes you down into dark places from which you need extraction-by-cuddle, set that filter. Either you ask a non-hugger to make an exception or you just don’t play with them, because this seemingly small element of post-play comedown can make the difference between skipping home in delight and curling into a ball feeling abandoned. It’s a big part of play, particularly play involving physical or emotional pain, because when the endorphins drain away, comfort and contact can really break the fall.

Be willing to step away if it’s not a good fit (even if they’re hot)

Buffy The Vampire Slayer saying "Let's face it: none of us are ever gonna have a happy, normal relationship."

You might really, really want to play with someone because you find them attractive. Problem is, their style of play doesn’t feel right for you. It’s not necessarily badly done or unethical, but it either doesn’t turn you on (and doesn’t incorporate things that turn you to sweeten the deal) or it actively turns you off. There may be a discussion to be had if you really like each other and can meet in the middle, but if not, you need to step away. This benefits both you and the other person, since you’re probably not compatible; the person you both imagined you were playing with wasn’t quite real, so now you’re both free to find someone better aligned to your kinks. Set that filter and make it a rule that X kind of play is not something you do. There are plenty of folks out there with whom you’ll click better, and with whom you’ll feel able to let go and be completely, deliciously devastated.

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