Hearing the phrase “BDSM” sends people’s minds in one of two directions. Mention Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism and they’ll think of intimidating sex shops where you press a buzzer and a guy in rubber pants opens the door, or of charity shop shelves heaving with wrinkled copies of Fifty Shades of Grey. Stripped of all pop culture and paraphernalia, it generally boils down to dominance and submission between consenting parties, often, but not always, for sexual gratification.
“Sit at my feet and pass me my drink.”
Playing with power, pain and pleasure
I’m a practising dominant. In BDSM one may be the dominant/top, and the other the submissive/bottom (as with all subcultures, it comes complete with its own language and terminology). Within a pre-agreed timeframe and pre-agreed parameters, the dominant is in charge, and free to exert their dominance as they see fit. It may be something as subtle as verbal instructions – “sit at my feet and pass me my drink” – or as explicit as tying their sub down and inflicting pain. It’s a way of playing with power dynamics, transgression, pain and pleasure.
Struggling with low confidence
Prior to doing this, I’ve always felt I was terrible in bed. A sudden growth spurt as a teenager left me awkward, gangly, and with only the faintest sense of where my limbs end. On top of that, I’m one of nature’s worriers. What if I’m being boring? What if I’m weird? These thoughts are present all the time, it’s just they get worse when I’m being physically intimate with someone.
I think to myself “ugh you’re disgusting” even though I know it’s nonsense.
This is partly down to general anxiety and partly because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had appallingly low self-esteem. Intellectually, I know it’s nonsense. I’m tall, slim and attractive in the right light, but even years of (very helpful) therapy haven’t convince me that I’m not some horrible goblin of a man.
It affects every aspect of my life, but during sex is the worst. I lie back and look at my stomach thinking “Ugh. You’re disgusting.” I can’t enjoy the moment because I’m so wrapped up with resentment of my own body that it eclipses everything else. It’s stupid. I know it is, but that doesn’t change a thing.
With all this emotional baggage, it came as a surprise when I found myself becoming interested in the BDSM scene, and an even bigger surprise when I turned out to be good at it. On paper, being dominant is the worst thing for an anxious human. You have to take control, you have to act like you’re the most important person in the room – hell, in the world – and you have to believe it. It’s hard to imagine anything more stressful for someone with terrible self-esteem than demanding that a person do something and having the confidence that they will obey.
For a few hours, I’m confident and at ease in my own skin.
Having been part of the scene for a few years, I’m constantly astonished at how liberating it can actually be. When I’m playing with a sub, I get to be someone else. I’m not Alex, riddled with doubt and nagging insecurities: I’m Sir. I’m sexy and scary and you’re lucky to kiss my feet. It takes me out of my own head and gives me a holiday from being me. I can shake off my daily worries and play a character. For a few hours, I’m confident and at ease in my own skin.
Knowing someone trusts you
Weirdly, this sensation sticks around. I’ve found myself becoming more and more confident in my day to day life. It’s partly “fake it ‘til you make it”, and partly the confidence that comes from knowing that someone trusts you enough, wants you enough, to submit to you and all the horrible, wonderful things you plan to do to them. After all, if someone is that comfortable with you, surely you can’t be all that bad?
It’s hard work, but can be deeply rewarding.
Obviously this isn’t a panacea and it certainly isn’t for everyone. A BDSM relationship requires an extraordinary amount of trust between both parties. Agreements have to be reached, limits have to be set, and respect and openness are paramount. It’s hard work, but can be deeply rewarding. For me, as well as being sexy, thrilling and transgressive, it’s a wonderful way to take a little break from my seemingly innate dislike of myself, and to end up smiling and sweaty with my sub as we hug, reassure each other, and both emerge walking that little bit taller.