During the first half of 2022, I spent some time on dating apps, matching with men who clearly showed their interest in BDSM kink and thought of themselves as the ‘Dom’ – the daddy/master/sir. Over time I had realised that I enjoyed being ‘disciplined’ and this led me to seek a Bondage/Discipline – Dominance/Submission dynamic, sexually. I was also curious about assuming these roles as a lifestyle; I wanted to find out what it felt like to play the role of the submissive because, in my mind, being dominated was linked to being protected, and ‘taken care of’. It was this allure of ‘care’ that made me keener to become involved with a man who seemed to have a ‘natural’ dominating tendency, and that is why I was attracted to Ab.
I never met Ab. We matched on a dating app and our conversations took place over the phone or on one-sided video calls (I being on video). Things escalated fast – one moment he was asking for my phone number, and the next, he was ‘punishing’ me because I had teased him by making him wait for it. Over the next couple of days, he was my ‘master’ and I was his ‘bitch’. When we spoke, I would have to say to him, “I am your property, Ab”, or “I am your bitch.” I did not feel comfortable being called a bitch but I gave in because I didn’t want to be rejected. He would make me masturbate multiple times over the phone, tell me to send nudes without my face, and give me other such ‘tasks’. There was one in which he told me to strip, and made me slap myself over a video call in which he could see me but I was not allowed to see him. This too was a punishment. I agreed to it after some hesitation and fear – I got naked, and slapped myself repeatedly, harder each time, looking into a phone screen where I could see myself alone. I was confused and bruised by the end of it. The only time I’d ever slapped and hit myself was when I had been angry or had had a violent nervous breakdown; each slap took me back to one of those episodes in my past. I didn’t know if the pain I felt was thrilling and satisfying, or humiliating and agonising. Moreover, I didn’t know if I was supposed to enjoy the experience – would it be acceptable if this had aroused me?
We came to an agreement to meet over the weekend and spend three days together. He would pay for everything from hotel rooms to meals to transportation; in return, I had to follow instructions. There were explicit terms laid down as the weekend approached. I would have to be naked the whole time we were in the hotel room together, and wear a collar with a leash. I would have to crawl on my knees whenever I approached him. At one point, he ‘jokingly’ suggested that I could get a temporary tattoo on my butt that read, “Property of Ab”. He also made it clear that this power dynamic would not involve “emotions or feelings”. He would end this relationship if he were attracted to someone else in a more socially acceptable way. I understood that I wasn’t allowed to “fall” for him.
While this exchange was playing out, I was also reading about consent in BDSM relationships. There was one commonality among all the content – a healthy dom-sub dynamic required transparent communication and consent. A submissive did not have to do anything they clearly said no to, or expressly did not want to do. Yet, what I read was in conflict with what was happening to me. I kept saying ‘no’ to certain acts but eventually ended up doing them (for instance, the slapping). It was always in a semi-vulnerable moment that I would accede to his demands. He once said, “Why do you even try saying no? You know I’ll have my way with you eventually.” I would try to talk to him about what I had been reading and learning, and he’d nod in agreement about the consent bit but his words wouldn’t match his actions.
As the weekend approached, I grew more nervous because I was going to participate in an arrangement that I knew nothing about, and I had agreed to give up control to a stranger. I was curious and willing but also ill- informed, and the situation could turn potentially dangerous. I also knew that if it became dangerous, I would have no way of defending myself because I had willingly walked into this arrangement. So far, my only sources of open and popular knowledge had been the bondage category on pornography websites and Fifty Shades of Grey. In short, I was terrified. On Thursday evening that week, I called him and told him that I was backing out.
The virtual world of dating can be a labyrinth if its ways and templates for engagement are not familiar, but one gets used to the landscape with time. By then, I knew not only the perils of interacting with strangers but also the safety measures I had to take to ensure that I remain unharmed, both physically and emotionally. However, I was not used to the kind of exchange that I had with Ab and didn’t know how to navigate its virtuality. There were no guidelines, rules, or helplines.
In the beginning, I said that I wanted to find out what it was like to be in a dom-sub relationship. There were two primary reasons for this: One, I experienced pleasure in having a certain amount of pain inflicted upon me and I enjoyed being sexually controlled in a way where I had to give up resistance. I cannot pin down the moment where I stumbled upon this knowledge about myself – perhaps my body realized before I did. Two, I had read that a healthy and communicative Bondage/Discipline – Dominance/Submission relationship could also be a space for healing. In different personal accounts, women had written that bondage/discipline and submission had helped them overcome past sexual trauma. This piqued my curiosity more because I have been living with unresolved sexual trauma. However, I hadn’t considered that these women were being able to trust someone enough to give up control because they were simultaneously taking safety measures. The discourse about pleasure and liberation went in tandem with safety, communication, and consent for them.
When I look back on that week and Ab, as I knew him, I realize that a lot of men want (and need) to dominate women not because it is mutually pleasurable but because it reinforces patriarchal hierarchies. The taboo around kink, as a larger space of exploration, and BDSM, as a part of it, only furthers the violence, intensifying the apparent mystery of these subjects. This enforced silence has nothing to do with kink or BDSM; it is about the lack of safe spaces for dialogue, the lack of accountability on the part of people who are more powerful than others, and the lack of easily available resources and information. I suffered not only because I couldn’t safeguard myself (neither did I know how to), but also because I had no one to turn to for help. In every online conversation about bondage and discipline and submission with others, I have met with either a disbelieving disgust or a salacious intent that reeks of patriarchal entitlement. Ab’s behaviour was coercion in the least and could have turned into a crime at its worst. This encounter might not have happened if I had a safe space to ask questions and find some helpful answers.
After this incident, I realised that submission does not mean the absence of consent, and I have to draw boundaries for myself, even if that means a certain kind of rigidity. Since then, I have been learning to seek out safe spaces to understand the community, its practices, and explore this part of my sexuality with curiosity and safety to learn more about myself. Most of all, I am learning that not only does no mean no, but that consent is much more complex than this simplistic reduction. I am learning to trust my body and myself – if something doesn’t feel right, then it is probably not right. I am learning that I do not need to fake pleasure or accept behaviours that make me uncomfortable, simply because I want to feel desirable to men.