A Few Thoughts on Kink, Depression, and Toxic Masculinity

Recently on Twitter, my friend Miss R (@leathermines) and I had a brief exchange about kink and mental issue issues, and I thought I’d expand on it a bit here. I suspect this post is going to be more ‘random thoughts’ than a thought-out argument. But I haven’t posted much recently other than talking about Alex, so I wanted to put some ideas out there,

Our chat started out with a graphic I posted about depression. Depression can a powerful mental health problem. While many people think it’s just “feeling really sad”, clinical depression is more complex than that. Its symptoms can include

  • Feelings of sadness, crying, hopelessness, or emptiness
  • Irritability, frustration, angry outbursts–often over small obstacles or issues
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or self-blame
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities like exercise, hobbies, or sex
  • Insomnia or excessively sleeping
  • Tiredness, lack of energy, an inability to complete simple tasks
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss or weight gain
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts–a desire to “make the pain go away”

Clinical depression can strike anyone: young or old, male or female, Dom or sub, and its symptoms can vary in different groups (men, for example, are more likely to experience feelings of anger than feelings of sadness, and they may lose interest in work or family as well as hobbies), and my comments today are primarily about men, in part because that’s the group I know best, being a member of it. Depression is thought to occur less commonly in men than in women or at least it is less commonly diagnosed. This may be in part because male symptoms, such as angry outbursts, seem incongruous with a condition so commonly viewed as “feeling really sad”. But in men it often manifests is lethal ways; depressed men are more likely to kill themselves or their partners than depressed women, for example.

One important factor in male depression is Toxic Masculinity. Toxic Masculinity is the idea that “real men” are always physically and socially dominant, aggressively competitive and driven by a need to win, strong to the point of being stoic and unemotional, independent to the point of not needing any assistance at any situation, thoroughly heterosexual, and so on.

This term is often misunderstood; it is not a statement that masculinity itself is toxic, but rather that some expressions of masculinity are toxic. There is nothing toxic about the idea of masculine strength, for example, but it becomes toxic when it considers any expression of weakness unacceptable. In such a situation, being defeated in a competition or being sick, for example, becomes unacceptable and toxic masculinity may push a man to violence or self-harm to avoid acknowledging such weakness. Toxic masculinity often leads men to engage in domestic violence, homophobic or misogynistic behaviors, and self-destructive behaviors such as excessive drinking. The Alt-Right is rife with Toxic Masculinity, and Donald Trump is pretty much a poster boy for it.

Toxic Masculinity contributes to depression in men because it thwarts a man’s ability to express or often even understand his own emotions and emotional needs, to seek assistance when he is in distress, admit that he has failed to live up to the standards imposed on men, to admit any sexual desires that fall outside the accepted norms of gender performance, and so on.

All this connects to kink (specifically gay kink) in a variety of ways. On the Outer Layer, dominance often expresses an exaggerated version of traditional masculinity; Doms are presented as supremely strong, successful in business and sports, stoically unemotional and demanding, hypermasculine and aggressively sexual, as seeking the top role in sexual activities, as being verbally abusive and physically cruel, and so on. You see this in the erotica and in porn videos, and you see it in the way many doms and findoms perform their dominance on Twitter.

That performance of exaggerated masculinity is often mistaken for reality, especially on sites like Twitter and BDSMLR (I’m often shocked by how “digital natives” like Millennials and iGens, who are supposed to be extremely savvy about such things, can frequently misread online performances as genuine). A lot of Twitter findoms cultivate a persona based on extreme athleticism, loud demands for money, middle finger expressions of contempt, and treating submissive guys like shit. A lot of Twitter and BDSMLR doms assert that they are ‘naturally superior’ to ‘fags’ and some post videos that suggest or demonstrate full-out violence toward their subs. All of that is Toxic Masculinity.

Or at least it is when it’s not tempered by an appreciation of the Inner Layer, the level at which the dom and the sub are equals who agree to exchange power. On that level, the Dom’s aggressive performance of hypermasculinity is undergirded with an awareness that his sub is a human being whose pleasure and well-being matter and who may need a more gentle kind of treatment. The Inner Layer is where the dom should manifest his more nurturing, supportive, and protective masculinity.

On the Outer Layer, weakness is a bad thing. We doms mock our subs for being pathetic weaklings, and the subs get to use their performance of weakness to admire and worship the strength performed by the dom. But if we stop there, we’re left in the realm of Toxic Masculinity, thinking that being submissive is actually bad.

On the Inner Layer, we recognize that Dom and sub are like Yin and Yang, opposites who have to exist in a state of complementarity, because neither can really exist without the other. Strength has no meaning without weakness, the way darkness has no meaning without light. Dom has no meaning without sub. There can be no performance of hypermasculinity without a submissive audience to watch and admire that performance. So subs are as important to doms as doms are to subs; a dom can no more dominate himself than a sub can submit to himself. And that sense of weakness that doms like to mock is in fact the vehicle through which we communicate. It is the thing that enables the sub to adopt a position of inferiority, to look at us from a distance with that sense of wonder and admiration and longing that makes them eager to serve. Weakness isn’t bad; it’s just the opposite version of strength, the way that -1 isn’t morally worse than 1.

What this means for subs who might be dealing with depression is that it offers us a way to frame submission as a space where weakness is acceptable, where the emotional struggles of depression can be talked about openly and de-stigmatized, where a sub doesn’t have to feel ashamed of whatever he’s struggling with. While subs are not inherently weak people, they are people who enjoy putting aside their strengths. They learn to accept that their dom is stronger than they are and that’s ok. It means that a good dom can act as a supporter, loaning a depressed sub some of his protective and nurturing strength, helping him feel safe. It means that a dom can help a depressed sub take care of himself, make important choices for him, and possibly provide motivation to do things such as basic self-care.

However, be aware that a deeply depressed sub may not be able to carry out even simple commands like getting dressed. Vanilla people with depression often struggle to meet their commitments to their loved ones, and depressed subs are no different. In fact, submission could, in some cases, become an added source of depression. A sub who can’t obey simple commands may feel like he’s failing not just himself but his master. My point here is not that doms should just give depressed subs orders but rather that a good dom is aware that he may be able to use his sub’s desire to obey as a tool to support and reinforce his sub in some situations. Power exchange is not a panacea for depression in subs; it’s no substitute for therapy and medication when such things are necessary.

Depression in doms is a challenge because unlike subs, we doms can easily be caught in the straight-jacket of our role, since Toxic Masculinity discourages doms from admitting feelings of weakness, inadequacy, despair, fear, or failure. This is another reason why it’s important to understand that dominance is performance. Just like the cliché of the sad clown, a weak dom is a contradiction in terms and so it’s important for both doms and subs to recognize that dominance is only one facet of a Dom’s humanity and that sometimes he needs to step away from that part of himself to seek help for his psychic wounds.

The challenge is enabling him to find the courage to put down a performance that might have served as a kind of armor or exoskeleton to help him avoid acknowledging his pain. Because depression in men often manifests as anger rather than sadness, performing dominance can easily be a way for doms to deny their underlying problems. And many subs may be uncomfortable seeing their paragon of strength and power expressing feelings of weakness and inadequacy. The dom may well fear that his sub will abandon him if he admits that he’s not always strong. It’s easy to imagine that if your dominance is what the sub likes about you, setting that aside for its opposite might alienate the sub.

The good news is that subs can be amazingly supportive, though not inevitably so. Many subs crave the chance to serve their master, and they often have care-taking instincts (and not infrequently care-taking skills). The times I’ve struggled, my boys have generally been wonderfully supportive, patient, and concerned for my well-being.

What all this highlights is the importance of developing deep ties with at least some of your subs. If you’re the kind of dom who keeps your interactions with your boys to a surface level, you’re foregoing a chance to build the kind of strong, lasting intimacy that can pay dividends of support down the road. But that intimacy requires putting aside the Outer Layer performance occasionally and letting the sub see other parts of you. Aftercare is a great place to do that.

Ok, apparently I had something more coherent to say here than I expected. There’s more that I should talk about–the importance of aftercare as a counter-balance to the performance of Toxic Masculinity, the way dominance can be used to offer other models of masculinity, kink as therapy, and so on. But if I get into that, this post is gonna be WAY longer. Bottom line, make room in your dynamic for either partner to express whatever more negative feelings they may have–it will make your bond much stronger.

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