Why my BDSM is not a form of self-harm (trigger warning)

Disclaimer: There is no such thing as a universal experience of mental illness. The content of this post refers specifically to me, and should not be held as representative of everyone with clinical depression.

A lot of perverts of around my generation had some kind of awakening upon watching the film Secretary. For those who don’t know, a potted summary: Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a chronic self-harmer, finds a new kind of release in BDSM.

Secretary helped me to identify my sexual preferences (in more ways than one – Maggie Gyllenhaal was the first female celebrity I openly admitted I was attracted to). However, its depiction of the intersection between BDSM and self-harm is hella problematic.

I am a depressive and a recovering self-harmer. I have not self-injured in 4 months to the day. As I type this, my arms are covered in bruises and rope-marks from a tricky suspension and a fairly vicious hojojutsu session. These two things are not related.

For me, self-harm is one of two things: an act of self-hatred, or externalising emotional pain. Wounds are reassuring, because they heal, and if the wounds on the outside can heal, maybe the ones on the inside can too. Pain can help to make the noise in my head subside during a particularly bad episode. Sometimes I just want to hurt myself because that’s all I deserve.

Fundamentally, I do not self-injure because I enjoy pain. That’s the realm of SM. If I am tempted to engage in SM as a replacement for self harm, I am doing it for the wrong reasons, and I am self-aware enough to isolate myself if I have to.

SM can be a tool to manage the urge to self-harm. It is not, and should never be, a substitute for self-harm. If you wield SM against yourself as a tool of self-hatred, you are almost certainly doing it with the wrong person and for the wrong reasons.

Being Genderqueer

I was a pretty ordinary cis girl up until the age of about 14.

Lots of things changed around then. I hit puberty. I found metal. I stopped dressing the way my mother wanted me to and started wearing baggy skater jeans, chains and hooded tops. I wrote dreadful poetry. And I had this feeling – this creeping sensation, right at the back of my head – that I wasn’t sure the word “girl” applied to me.

At university, I started having words with myself. Most of those words were about my sexuality – at 19, I finally acknowledged that I was attracted to female-bodied people as well as male-bodied ones, and started to work towards being less scared of it – but there was an increasing awareness of something askew with my gender identity. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, aside from this nagging feeling. I don’t feel like a woman.

To an extent, it was what most people call tomboyishness. I hate wearing skirts. I tend to be blunt. I like contact sports. I swear a lot. I prefer action films to rom-coms and beer to cocktails. None of this would make me any less of a woman, of course. It’s just social convention that people with vaginas aren’t meant to like these things, when plenty of them actually do. More than that, there was this feeling that something fundamental about the way I function is Not Woman.

This all sounds incredibly nebulous. My gender identity is nebulous. Asking someone what being genderqueer means is kind of like asking what it feels like to be in love: no two people will give you the same answer, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to explain to someone who’s never felt it themselves.

At 22, I was first introduced to the concept of gender variance. Even then, I couldn’t have explained to you what precisely it was that made me feel like I was gender variant. I still can’t. I can’t give any response that’s more specific than “I just am”. I came out to my boyfriend of the time, who told me I couldn’t be genderqueer because I was clearly female

To other people, I guess I am clearly female. I have well-defined breasts and hips, long hair, a feminine face, a high voice. And those who get to that stage of intimacy will hardly fail to notice that I have a vagina. I’m not planning to have surgery. Even if I identified as a trans man (which is up for debate), I couldn’t transition if I wanted to carry on singing. I like my hair the way it is. I quite like my breasts, some of the time. Mostly, I wish I could shed my gender periodically, the way snakes shed their skin, and grow a different one that suited me better for the season.

Review: BOUND 8/04/2012

“You’re going to BOUND?” My interlocutor makes a face over his pint. “I dunno. Bruce is a stand-up guy, but I wouldn’t pay £15 for something like that where I have no idea what it’s like.”

He has a point. £15 is peanuts for the astronomically priced London fetish scene, but the event’s publicity hasn’t exactly been consistent, and no-one I’ve spoken to is really sure what it’s about. No-one knows whether to expect play, whether the dungeon of the Flying Dutchman will be open, or even what sort of performance is likely to be happening. But my friend S and I shrug our shoulders. We’ve never seen performance shibari before, we’re curious, and frankly, we’re hardly likely to see it for cheaper than £15, so we figure we’ll chance it.

We arrive some time after the proposed social between 8 and 10, but well in time to catch the first of the performances. I am amused to note that this takes a very similar form to an open mic night – people can ask to perform, and are called up to the stage by an MC when their turn arrives.

The few people who actually read this thing will know that rope is a relatively new thing on me. This being the case, I don’t really feel qualified to comment much on the actual rigging. Aside from one – a straightforward, traditional shibari display with no narrative to speak of, nor even a great deal of visible connection between the rigger and his bunny – the performances I saw all spoke to me a great deal. There was the raw brutality of Jackwhipper and Zahara, the fun playfulness of Will Hunt and Emily, the artful sadism of Hedwig and Aurelie, and the darkly stylish Jenis and Andy. A rigger friend was able to point out some of the flaws in the rope-work, but, novice that I am, the technical details all passed me by.

BOUND is a great place to see experienced and established rope couples strut their stuff. It’s also a really useful benchmark for aspiring riggers and rope performers. Peer rope events are great for learning new skills and socialising with other shibari enthusiasts, but it’s rare to have the opportunity to actually watch other riggers in action. In some ways, this is the most exciting thing about the event. I’ve found it inspiring, and will certainly work towards having one or two performances of my own worthy of the event. It’s also a great place to road test new ideas. I really hope that BOUND can become an established forum for this sort of work, and I think it has a great deal of potential.

Due to personal issues, I was forced to leave the event early. However, what I did see was well worth the ticket price. Regardless of the standard of rigging, performance shibari is a deeply moving thing to see, and the riggers and bunnies showed levels of creativity and affection for each other that astonished and delighted me. I’m very happy that there’s an event like this in London, now, and I sincerely hope that Esinem has the energy and resources to keep up the good work.

I have only a couple of gripes with the set-up. The first is the location. The Flying Dutchman is a great venue for an event like BOUND, with a stage and plenty of places to put suspension points. I’ve heard reasonably favourable reports of the dungeon areas, too, though I can’t comment on them myself. It is, however, in the middle of sodding nowhere – it’s at least 15 minutes’ walk from the nearest tube station, and whilst it is reasonably well served by buses, it’s not exactly the easiest place to find.

The second – and I hope my readers will indulge me on this point – was the music. Where the riggers had choreographed their work and brought their own music, this wasn’t a problem, but not everyone had put their scenes together with music in mind. From a distance, it was difficult to tell what exactly the set-up for playing music was, but it looked for all the world like one of the bar staff with a laptop and Grooveshark. Occasionally there would be gaps in the playlist, or songs that were inappropriate to the scene in question, and this was pretty jarring. I would quite like to see a proper DJ and/or a well thought out playlist at the next event.

The third – excusable, given that this was the first BOUND – was the flow between acts. I like the open mic-style conceit of the evening, but there were a couple of instances where the MC jumped the gun and started to announce the next act before the people on stage had finished. There was also a palpable lack of awareness as to how the technology works, with microphones feeding back all over the place. I’m sure this issue will iron itself out with further iterations, but it’s something that perhaps the organisers would like to bear in mind.

Overall though, I am glad I went, I’m sorry I couldn’t stay longer, and I’m rather looking forward to the next one.