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.

Masochism and me

I find it very difficult to feel as if I am “present” in my body.

There are all kinds of reasons for this. It’s at least partially because I am very particular about physical contact. With people I know and trust, I can be very tactile. With people I’ve never met or have any misgivings about, physical contact can be repugnant – it makes me feel nauseous, and leaves me with an abiding desire to shower several times and/or shed my skin.

In my day-to-day life, I find it very difficult to focus and to stay rooted in the here and now. I am neuroatypical. I have a laundry-list of ways in which this affects me. On a good day, I am giddy and excitable in a childlike sort of way. Most days, I am depressive, anxious, and prone to withdrawing into the infinitely expansive prison which is my own skull. Moreover, as a genderqueer person, this body is often alien to me. It feels like little more than a meat car. Nominally, at least, I am driving it, but I can put it on autopilot with little trouble or outwardly noticeable effect.

At times, sensation can be an unwelcome distraction. But in the right place, with the right person(s), it can be transformative. It can bring me back into myself from wherever meandering pathway my mind has chosen to lead me down. More than that, it can bring me into true contact with the person providing the sensation. A hug will bring me into the safe space enclosed by the arms of whoever is hugging me.

More effective, however, is pain. More effective still – and this came as a surprise to me, at the time of discovery – is rope play.

Play such as the scene I described in my last post is, at the same time, one of the most grounding and ecstatic things I have ever experienced. The rope (a sensation in itself) binds me, literally and metaphorically, into myself. The pain makes it impossible, inconceivable, to want to drift away, and yet the feelings are like a different world in themselves. My body is more than just a shell I can abandon. It’s a vessel, a journey, a network of tightly packed nerves that are coming alive.

Aside from when I am performing, there are few things that can make me want to inhabit my body more than that.