Monday, July 25, 2011

Humiliation in Sexual Play

The last posting on cocks elicited comments related to humiliation suffered by people with small cocks and referencing a recent study that documented the correlations between what is taken to be a smaller than average cock size, low self-esteem and the likelihood of being the bottom in anal intercourse. I wonder if that study implies that bottoms have lower self-esteem than tops; perhaps that would be the case. However, I believe individual narratives would differ considerably from general responses to a survey. There's no doubt that being a top is valued in the gay world; how could being more dominant and being seen as more masculine not be, generally, more preferred in our society? On the other hand, research also shows that most gay couples who practice anal sex are not exclusive in their roles. Does their self esteem vary according to the role they have chosen in a particular encounter?

My own conversations with gay men who make a point of always being a top have often indicated a fragility behind that preference: the fear of being perceived as less than a man if they were to assume the so-called passive role in anal sex. Understandably, behind that fear is usually a negative appraisal of what it means to be gay and a history of having resisted that identification. Taking refuge in the old shibboleth that a man who fucks a man is twice a man reflects the cultural stereotype of men as dominant and women as passive that has long been a lynch pin of homophobia. It is not surprising that many gay men, having been socialized as men, would subscribe to that cultural perspective and link their preferences in anal sex to their self-esteem. I would maintain that gay men who are more liberated, i.e., more critical of the norms of our culture, are less likely to have their self-esteem linked to a particular sexual role; their comfort with a variety of sexual roles being a sign of a deeper affirmation of their identity as gay.

Within the domain referred to as "kink", are men, sometimes gay, who identify themselves as possessing a characteristic or identity which is the object of derision or rejection in our society. What they get off on sexually is being humiliated for that characteristic or stigmatized identity. There are Jews seeking to be derided, attacked, made fun of for being Jews; Blacks wanting people to do the same for their being Black; cross-dressers wanting to be ridiculed as sissies; gay men wanting to be bullied and humiliated for being gay. Men with cocks they perceive to be small are amongst the most frequent seeking ridicule on kink websites.

The sexual pursuit of humiliation isn't easy to understand and there are diverse reasons that lead people to do so. Often an explanation is to be found in the shame experienced at some point in their lives in relation to the characteristic or identity for which humiliation is subsequently sought. It is understandable that someone who has been humiliated or attacked for a characteristic or stigmatized identity as a child or adolescent might seek out that humiliation again. A safe, controlled setting, such as the internet, provides  a possibility of working through those experiences; attempting to master the experience through repetition of it; much as one might attempt to neutralize a traumatic experience through repeatedly recounting it in a safe setting. Although probably not being consciously articulated, the hope may be that by experiencing that humiliation in a context that need not involve fear or intimidation, the shame would gradually diminish. Simply being in control of the interaction makes a significant experiential difference; perhaps that mechanism sometimes works.

Another motive might be to experience what some shame theorists have called a "shame bath". The theory being that a person will use methods, such as substance abuse, repression or disassociation, to ward off their fears related to being shamed in relation to a characteristic or identity; a warding off which takes energy and creates tension and anxiety. Actively courting shame or humiliation, immersing one's self in the feared shame, can provide release from that tension. I think of a client from several years ago, who was from a poor, rural, Maritime family; so poor that they lived in a shack with a dirt floor, no plumbing, with several children sleeping in the same bed or sharing a bed with adults. Both his immediate family and extended family, all of whom lived in the same vicinity, were engaged in petty criminality and rife with sexual, physical and emotional abuse. He was physically abused by his father and sexually abused by several older relatives, male and female. He himself abused younger family members. He was a survivor of that butal family experience and, later in life, even flourished; largely because he was good looking, bright, tough and gay. I've found that for many men with backgrounds that would lead to a prognosis of a miserable life, being gay can contribute to their salvation; it can both propel them out of the vicinity of their destructive families into an urban area and has potential to give them an opening, through their sexual appeal, to entirely different social and economic classes and opportunities.

My client had come fairly far on his own and with the aide of acquaintances he had met along the way; he was articulate in both French and English, had gotten a junior college diploma and worked at developing a body that was extremely appealing for men into muscle. Unfortunately, he was consumed by shame; fearing that his poor and dysfunctional family background would somehow be perceived and disclosed; leading to an automatic rejection; feeling that his accomplishments were a scam; that he was an impostor who would some day be unmasked. Fear of exposure and shame related to his origins kept him from being able to form an intimate relationship or to keep a job; any involvement with another person beyond the most superficial threatened exposure. He struggled not to reveal the person he believed himself to be deep, down inside: damaged, perverse, dangerous. When the anxiety and stress of concealing his "true self" built up an unbearable pressure, he would take a shame bath: masturbating on the Metro or in a school yard; having a night of destructive sexual oblivion at the sauna. Happily, his releases never came to the attention of the law, but afterwards he would feel tremendous guilt and re-imposed the controls that kept him appearing normal. The cycle would repeat itself every few months. It is easy to see that some men seeking humiliation on the internet or other sexual meeting place are seeking just such a release.

Another possible explanation for seeking humiliation in a sexual context is to be found in the practice of edging: bringing oneself to a personal limit, whether physical or emotional, which is experienced as exciting and gets the adrenalin flowing with the potential of enhancing sexual pleasure. The practice of some adolescent boys to suffocate themselves when masturbating is an example of edging. A person, who in his ordinary life is a confident, take-charge individual, may experience a similar high though playing that he is the slave of another man. The experience of humiliation may be so far from his ordinary self-perception that it produces a rush of adrenaline and endorphins. A similar high might be experienced by someone who had an affirmative, even proud, perspective on their race, religion or sexual orientation, through playing at being treated abusively for those same characteristics; a high produced by seeking out and experiencing what would normally be experienced as forbidden and intolerable.

I ask myself whether such play always and necessarily reveals that the person is not as confident and proud as he appears; whether he is, in fact, taking a shame bath. I have explored that issue with people drawn to humiliating play in a sexual context. Many relate that they, personally, have never experienced rejection, abuse or humiliation related to the characteristic or identity which is the object of ridicule and verbal abuse; though in our culture it is nearly impossible for a Black person to have avoided racism, a Jewish person to have avoided anti-semitism, or a gay person to have avoided homophobia. Some insist that their getting off on being humiliated for a stigmatized characteristic or identity no more reflects their real appraisal of themselves than a rape fantasy reflects a real desire to be raped or an adolescent experimenting with suffocation to enhance orgasm really wants to strangle himself.

I am very reluctant to make judgments based on either morality or mental health in relation to those who seek humiliation in a sexual context. I think the motivations for engaging in such behaviour are just too complex to arrive at sweeping conclusions and I give precedence to the abilities of individuals to come to  their own honest, examined reasons for that attraction. It's not that I have any illusions of the extent to which we can know ourselves; it's more that I respect the integrity of an individual's process of self-examination and hold no one to a higher standard than I ask of myself. Hence, if someone is clear and confident, for example, that being a slave is a condition they would not remotely want to experience in real life, but enjoy experiencing in sexual play, I would not assume there must be some issue with self-esteem lurking in the depths of their psyche. I would not presume that I know better.

On the other hand, were a client and I to conclude in conversation that his experience of seeking humiliation fits with that of the shame bath theory, it is likely that both he and I would conclude that the factors drawing him to that experience would benefit from further understanding and that, perhaps, the experience itself is not a productive one for him to pursue. Similarly, if someone expressed discomfort with seeking humiliation as a way or working through trauma or as a version of edging, further conversation to explore that discomfort would be merited, but I would not initiate it with the assumption that discomfort there must be. Which brings us back to a familiar point: the same experience as described by an observer is not necessarily the same experience for individuals living through it; much depends on the narrative leading into and accompanying the experience.

One final aspect of the practice of seeking out humiliation in a sexual context concerns me: the experience of the person providing the asked-for humiliation. I have trouble seeing this participation as harmless play. What disturbs me is the possibility that the giver of humiliation actually holds the abusive, discriminatory attitudes and beliefs that form the basis for his humiliating the receiver; that he could be in reality a racist, anti-semite or homophobe getting off on tormenting and bullying his victim. Even were that not the case, I feel that the giving of humiliation based on stigmatized characteristics or identities promotes negative social values. My own distaste and disapproval of bullying would make it radically discordant for me to give such humiliation; even were it to give pleasure to the recipient.

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