Samantha Manewitz, LICSW, is a 32-year-old educator, sex nerd and therapist, currently in Somerville. In her capacity as a helping professional, she has seen a broad spectrum of clients: domestic violence victims, self-injuring teens, traumatized children, sexual assault survivors and clients of just about every sexuality and gender orientation. Outside of her therapy office, Samantha’s journey is one of perpetual learning, and being the nerd she is, she’s compelled to share the knowledge she collects with others along the way. Her current project, Safety Beyond Safewords, is focused on educating the kink community and mental health professionals about healthy sexuality within the context of bondage, domination/submission and sadism/masochism (known as BDSM). You can learn more on her blog, beyondsafewords.com, which she updates every Monday.
Partner dance is one of my primary sources for self-care. As of late, Argentine tango has been my dance du jour. Not long ago, I was at a practica, an informal dance where dancers are encouraged to give and solicit feedback. I was dancing with one of the more experienced leads, and he was helping me with my technique. The more I focused on perfecting the steps, the less coordinated I felt. Finally he stopped me and told me I was thinking too much. I blinked at him for a minute (or three). Sensing my confusion, he explained his tango philosophy:
Tango is passion and sensuality. It came out of the brothels. There’s an intensity. It’s like, I’m in charge. I’m going to tell you where to go, but I’m going to take care of you, and you’re going to surrender to me. Well, we surrender to each other.
If only I’d gotten into tango earlier!
Flash back to mid-2011, when I was a second-year social work student. I was taking a course on psychotherapy for LGBT-identified clients, where we were asked to give a presentation on a related subject of our choosing. I chose to give a presentation on kink and consensual BDSM. Even in the context of an LGBT-themed class, my choice of subject was not without risk. For one, I have a lot of personal investment in this community. Second, I was (and remain) aware that the external trappings of BDSM and kinky sexual play can be mistaken for abuse by the outside observer.
I sought to emphasize the importance of understanding the difference between consensual activity and abuse. I also stressed that, as therapists, acting on a strong revulsion to kinky activities makes it impossible to assess for signs of actual abuse or non-consensual violence. Abuse is much more than inflicting physical pain on another person. It’s about exerting power and control over another person without that person’s consent. While BDSM plays with the emotional states associated with violence, the subjective experience of play can be empowering and even healing in the right contexts.
For those moments we are two people moving as one. But that doesn’t mean you just sit back and let me do whatever. We’re having a kind of conversation. I want you to be with me.
One of my classmates raised a rather tense-looking hand. “I don’t really understand how this is at all comparable to homosexuality or sexuality at all.” This comment came, of course, at the very end of class. “You’re hurting people or getting hurt. I mean, I work with domestic violence victims, and if someone talks about their partner beating them or justifies their partner beating them, how does that work?” Since I only had a few minutes, I just said: “On some level you’re right. It is very counter-intuitive. The thing to look at is the intention behind the action, not the action itself.” She shook her head vigorously. “I totally couldn’t do that. I think I’d just feel sorry for them.”
Looking back, I can’t help but cringe at my use of the word “intention.” Then again, I was only just starting to understand the ins and outs of my field. Now I would focus more on the subjective experience of both partners. I know now that not all abuse is committed intentionally, and that a mismatch of intention and interpretation can have devastating consequences.
I take care of you and you go with my lead. But I still give you space to express yourself. And I’m listening to the music and listening to your breathing and your body language. And it’s a constant give and take.
Having worked with domestic violence clients and trauma survivors myself, my classmate’s comment made total sense. I get how hard it is as an outsider to wrap one’s head around the concept of willingly accepting intense sensation or engaging in power exchange. At the time, I didn’t quite know how to articulate how different the internal experiences are between consensual kink and abuse. Had I given this presentation as the clinician I am now, I would have been able to give a much better answer. After all, I have a blog and two workshops (one for the kink community and one for health professionals) dedicated to the subject.
It wasn’t until a day or two after my presentation that it hit me: I should have compared kink to partner dancing.
The lead dictates where the follow goes, what the follow does. The lead sets the tone of the dance. The lead is also responsible for keeping the follow safe and making sure the follow doesn’t accidentally careen into other dancers on the floor or get stepped on. When done right, and when the dynamic is not abusive, the “dance” or power play in BDSM (dom/sub, top/bottom, whatever you want to call it) is all about energy exchange and connection. The top gives energy to the bottom in the form of rope, impact, sensation, etc. The scene falls apart, however, if the bottom doesn’t contribute energy to the scene. The bottom’s reactions feed the top and allow for that same energy loop to occur. When that energy builds, and the connection works, the results are just delicious.
And once you can let go and let muscle memory take over, if only for one song, well, the feeling just transcends words. For those four minutes, no matter what else is going on around me, my energy is totally focused on my partner. And until the dance is over, she’s the only woman in the room. That’s what I strive for when I dance. And you can tell. Look at the women’s faces when they’re dancing. They’re just on cloud nine.
So, let’s dance.
P.S. For those of you who are completely new to kink and want to learn more, Kink Academy is one of the best online educational resources out there. FYI, it’s not even a little bit work-safe. (I have no affiliation with Kink Academy; I just think it’s great.) It has a number of videos from some of the top kink presenters. Most of the content is paid, but there are a number of great articles and videos that can be accessed for free.