More Thoughts on Subs and Fear

After my previous post about novice subs and fear, I kept thinking of more things to say on the subject. Here they are, in no particular order.

1) In some ways, fear is an basic component to being submissive. The prospect that something unwanted might happen, that the dom might push you beyond your limits, is almost universal. Subs almost by definition want what they don’t want, and the point of giving up control is to not get to decide exactly what happens. That can be intensely arousing, but the flip side of that for many subs is a certain fear that it will happen. Bondage subs in particular are usually quite aware that getting tied up means that the dom could do something unpleasant that the sub can’t stop. Certainly for many finsubs, the idea that their cashmaster will take more than they can afford to give is exciting. That frisson of fear makes the sexy stuff more sexy and intense. So a sub needs to learn how to distinguish good fear (the kind that makes things sexier) and bad fear (the instinct that a particular dom is legitimately bad news). This is part of what makes being a newbie sub such a challenge–they often haven’t learned to distinguish the two.

2) The fact that fear is to some extent integral to submission creates a problem for doms, because different subs have different thresholds for fear. Some need to feel really safe before they can sub, while others want to feel a lot of risk. If I give a low-threshold sub too much fear, they’re liable to run away. If I give a high-threshold sub not enough fear, they’re liable to get bored and walk away. So as a dom, I have to walk a tight-rope where I try to seem trust-worthy enough to play with while also seeming just threatening enough to make the sub feel excited. Gauging the current candidate’s fear threshold in an online chat can be remarkably challenging, because while low-threshold subs need a lot of talk about safety and trust, high-threshold subs often don’t like that and feel like it spoils the mood. As a result, I have to figure out how openly I can talk about those issues, sometimes without being able to bring them up directly. If you’re a novice sub, please do me a favor and tell me up-front what you need to hear in this area (although, of course, as a novice you may not know what you need to hear yet).

3) Many subs are by nature anxious. One of the things they like about submission to a master is that it removes much of the need for the decision-making that can provoke anxiety–they don’t have to decide what to wear or what to do during sex because their master makes that decision for them. As a result, many subs crave rules, because rules reduce the need for decision-making. Having a master is like having a sun to orbit around. He anchors the sub to a specific psychic place, resolving some of the Durkheimian anomie created by too much freedom of choice. (I have a theory that the enormous freedoms of modern life is the major reason for the large number of subs out there–too much freedom is frightening because the risks of making the wrong choice can seem overwhelming.) For anxious subs, submission can soothe fear in a very profound way. Thus the thing that novice subs fear may actually be the remedy for some of that fear.

4) When I first started exploring kink in a conscious way, I found an experienced bondage dom who mentored me by tying me up and then having me reproduce the tie on him. One night he had me pretty securely tied up, stretched out between two anchor points in the archway between his living room and his dining room. He stepped over me from one room into the other and snagged his foot on one of the ropes. He fell down and for a split-second I thought he had injured himself (fortunately, he hadn’t). My mind immediately began to race. What if he had been knocked unconscious or, worse, killed? I would be screwed, because I wouldn’t be able to get myself out (he was a good bondage dom). I pictured myself trapped for days or weeks before someone found me. I realized that in a worse case scenario I might die. That was the moment I realized I really wasn’t a sub. I have too great a need to be in control because being too far out of control doesn’t soothe my anxieties, it makes them worse. Feeling in control, on the other hand, is calming to me. Self-mastery is a big part of how I see myself, and not being able to control that surging fear in those moments showed me that submission was the wrong path for me.

5) Kinky play can often bring up fears and pain from the past. You can be chugging along happily one moment and then abruptly jump the rails and head off into Flashback Town. You can start crying and not know why. This is particularly true of pain play. There is something about being spanked or flogged that can bring up long-buried memories or just the feelings of a lost memory. Once, years ago, I was rough-housing with a boyfriend and somehow for a few moments, he had me pinned in a way I couldn’t breathe. I felt such an intense explosion of fear and anger that I forced him off me, stormed out of our apartment, and began driving nowhere just to calm down. Eventually I realized that he had inadvertently triggered a long-buried memory from when I was about 8 when my oldest brother (who was a full 8 years older than me) choked me almost into unconsciousness. The explosion of feelings wasn’t about what my boyfriend had done to me; it was the feelings I had about when my brother choked me when I was 8. I wasn’t doing anything kinky or even sexual when it happened, but kink play can occasionally do the same thing, especially when the sub has unresolved issues from childhood. So sometimes the fear that subs experience during play has nothing to do with what’s actually happening at the moment.

6) When that sort of fear or anger comes up during play, the most important thing for a dom to do is to stop play and address the situation. That might mean untying the sub and cuddling with him. That might mean just having a brief ‘Red Light moment’ to talk about what’s happening. That might mean listening to the sub’s fear or anger in a calm and patient manner and realizing that that emotion quite probably has nothing to do with the dom, but rather with whomever harmed the sub in the past. In that moment, the sub might not be able to distinguish the dom from his previous abuser, so it’s absolutely critical that the dom not take such an incident as a sign of failure on either person’s part.

7) Sometimes kink play can help a sub work through a bad incident in the past, doing a scene in which the dom stands in for someone else and potentially rewriting the sub’s emotional experience by allowing the sub a sense of control they did not have when the original incident occurred. But that requires both dom and sub to understand what the issue is, to approach it very intentionally and consciously, and for the sub to have absolute control over how the scene plays out. Even then such a scene can easily go wrong, because kink play is not a substitute for therapy with a trained specialist. But the first time a sub has a fear-reaction like that, it is not the moment for the dom to try to heal them by pushing them through the experience. A fear-reaction mishandled can cause a lot of harm, so the appropriate thing for the dom to do is simply stop and become a reassuring and supportive presence until the sub can find a way out of whatever pit he’s fallen into.

8) Boys sometimes panic over the intensity of their feelings. If that happens after a scene is over, they often just ghost the dom. That’s unfortunate, because often they are just experiencing an after-effect of subbing, particularly if they are novices. In a situation like that, a sub should generally think about talking to the dom, who may be able to guide the sub through that panic or provide them a deeper context or objective voice that helps them realize that the panic isn’t a sign that something bad is happening.

9) If that panic comes during a scene, they may try to just ride it out and get through the scene. That’s usually a bad idea, because it can spiral into something more intense or otherwise rob the sub of the pleasure of the scene. A much better thing to do would be to ask to pause the scene and discuss what’s going on. A good dom is never afraid to take time to support his sub.

10) 7 or 8 years ago, I played with a total novice boy who hit me up on Recon. We had a long talk, then met for coffee and talked some more, and then agreed to play. About 5 minutes into the scene, when the only thing that had happened was an inspection and a little bootlicking, he abruptly safe-worded and said that he didn’t think kink was for him. I told him I was entirely ok with that because it meant that he had learned something about himself and his needs and I was glad to have helped him understand himself a little. I have occasionally mentioned this incident to other boys as an example of what I thought a successful scene looked like, even though it didn’t last very long. He knew himself better and because of that, I was ok that I hadn’t gotten the normal things I want out of a scene.

But about a month ago, that boy unexpectedly got back in touch with me. He confessed that he had gotten out of our scene because he was feeling scared. He said that after he left, he felt that he had failed me by doing that and so he’d spent the intervening years feeling like a failure and being afraid to explore kink, even though he knew he wanted to. That made me feel profoundly sad, because I genuinely hadn’t considered his choice to be a failure. If he had been able to talk about his fear during the scene, perhaps I could have helped him change the trajectory of the events by giving him a different way to contextualize his feelings. Perhaps we would have done a long scene (one he would have considered successful) or perhaps he would still have left early but not felt so bad about it. But because he wasn’t able to tell me what he was really feeling, I wasn’t able to help him process those feelings.

11) If a boy does admit to being afraid, a good dom should usually stop or slow down the scene, dialing down whatever the experience is until the boy feels safe. Maybe that means ending the scene and shifting to aftercare, but maybe it just means moving into a more gentle and reassuring activity such as cuddling or kissing. In many cases, a fearful boy will be able to return to more aggressive play after he’s worked through the fear, confident that he’s safe. This is a great way to build trust, and a boy who truly trusts a dom will usually go a long way for him.

12) Boys have a tendency to blame themselves if a scene doesn’t go well, as the boy I mentioned above did. Subs are, in my experience, prone to seeing themselves as being the problem (I should have done X. I shouldn’t have done X. He must think I’m a loser. I’m not advanced enough for him. I shouldn’t have safe-worded. Etc). But sometimes they are making assumptions about what their dom wants or projecting their own desires onto him or otherwise misunderstanding his perspective. That’s why talking is an important corrective to fear.

My point in all of this is that fear isn’t automatically a bad thing. It’s part of the experience of submission for many, perhaps even most subs. Novice subs shouldn’t wait until they stop being afraid to start actively exploring kink, because that moment probably won’t come until they’ve had a few experiences, and even then they’re likely to feel some moments of fear. Instead of retreating from the fear, the best choice is usually to ask the dom for help in understanding and managing the fear. In the fun-house mirror that is kink, fear isn’t always a bad thing, just as pain isn’t always bad. The trick is to learn to distinguish good fear from bad fear.

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