24 April, 2011

hurt, power, and disability

Fasten your seatbelts because this is LONG.

In high school I enjoyed reading flamewars between anti-s/m people and their targets, just because it never failed to make me irritated in a comfortably predictable way. It's only natural that I grew up to be fascinated by "but my child smears feces" and other ableist shock arguments, given that I spent my adolescence reading the arguments of anti-s/m people which often seem to consist of listing sex acts that, while enjoyable to the participants, sound gross or upsetting to the average person.

I think what makes me able to derive masochistic enjoyment (ha ha) from anti-s/m arguments, while ableist arguments just destroy me and break my heart, is that there’s less of a sense of immediate danger. A lot of the time, people who are making ableist arguments are in a direct position of power over disabled people, as parents, professionals, heads of an organization, etc., and are actively working to put their beliefs into practice. People who are making anti-s/m arguments often seem to be talking in this weird philosophical way about what sex acts other people should engage in or fantasize about.

I don’t mean to sound like I think s/m people don't get discriminated against, but when it comes to flamewars on the Internet my response to anti-s/m people is one of being annoyed and baffled rather than afraid. Because most people grow up liking whatever they like, sexually, so anti-s/m people seem to be implying that certain people just shouldn’t have sex, which seems like such an obviously douchey and ridiculous demand to make of another person that I can’t believe they spend so much time saying it and feeling as righteous about it as they do.

That said, if I was going to engage with the argument that people shouldn’t do s/m and/or d/s because it’s bad for your politics and your health, I would say that, in an alternate universe where people could choose what sexual acts they were into, there would be very good reasons for a disabled person to think about choosing to be into s/m and power exchange. As an inhabitant of the real world, I just think the intersection of s/m and disability is a happy accident for the people who experience it, rather than something anyone can or should “try” because it can destabilize and alleviate some of the bad parts of being disabled. But I want to write about what those destabilizations and alleviations can be, in the context of stuff like Failure Theory and The Classic Disability Catch-22. A few of the things I’m saying are specific to autism but many of them are not which is why I’m using the term “disabled,” throughout.

One by one I’m going to discuss hurting someone, receiving hurt, dominance, and submission, and what engaging in each of those four things might do, mean, or bring up for someone who is disabled. Most of what I write will be in the form of questions because I’m talking generally, and even if I wasn’t there probably would still be no cut-and-dry meaning or effect or answer.

Hurting Someone

(I’m talking about “hurt” instead of “pain” because I don’t want to imply that I’m only talking about physical pain. I do think hurt is a problematic word for me to have chosen because it seems to imply actual harm, which I obviously don’t think should be present.)

People with psychiatric and developmental disabilities are constantly living against the expectation that we’re going to be physically violent or, in the more “harmless” version of developmental disability stereotypes in particular, that we’re going to offend people and otherwise misunderstand what they want and need from us. Some of us experience police brutality due to being read as "dangerous" just because of the effects of our disability. The idealized behavior for a disabled person is that of working incredibly hard to fit ourselves around and into other people’s desires. If we don’t do this we risk various stigmas, some merely insulting and some negative enough to cause us to lose our job, be arrested, etc., when we haven’t actually hurt anyone.

So, if you live your life having been taught that you could hurt someone at any minute--or maybe you know that’s not true, but you still know that other people think that and you have to manage their reactions to you--what does it mean to decide to hurt someone, and do so carefully and in a way that’s enjoyable to them? What does it mean to realize that, actually, you are not on the verge of exploding and killing someone like in Of Mice and Men--that you can actually be in control of how you hurt someone, and do it “correctly” (for them)?

What does it mean to throw out your usual mindset--be nice, apologize a lot, don’t talk too loud, don’t move too fast? What does it mean for your concept of being a socially skilled person, being polite, or being a good person, if you interact with someone by a completely different (or even opposite) set of rules from your usual set, and this pleases them? Actually I do think there’s an answer to this one, but I’ll spare you the boredom of hearing it from me again.

This is something that I’ll come back to in every section, I guess, and it’s one of the things that is fairly autism-specific. What does it mean to work hard to affect someone in a certain way, and have them appreciate that and see it as something that takes energy and skill, instead of just expecting it?

Also--and this is a topping/hurting-specific thing I guess--in some people’s dynamic, you could even hurt someone in a way they don’t like, and that would be fine; within limits, their feelings are irrelevant to what happens. What if the way you and your partner/s do sex is that you do whatever you want and they’re expected to adjust to you?

Receiving Hurt

One of the most important qualities for a successful disabled person is the ability to bear pain quietly; and not only should you bear pain quietly, but you should bear pain quietly, quietly. The most perfect disabled person receives emotional and physical discomfort and pain with a complete poker face, and this is in the service of a goal: appearing to experience the same amount of pain as non-disabled people, and for the same reasons. Which is to say that the most perfect disabled person appears non-disabled and is not admired by anyone for her stoicism because, if she’s doing it right, no one knows she has anything to be stoic about. If you’re disabled, you deserve to have pain as an invisible constant force in your life, and you deserve it so much it’s not even worth mentioning.

While I’m at it I should mention that some disabled people don’t know what we want, or what hurts us, or what harms us. This can be because of cognitive and language aspects of our disabilities (not being able to sense we’re in pain, or articulate it), or because we have chronic pain and become inured to the sensation, or because people are always telling us what a normal person would be feeling or wanting in our situation, or a combination of those things.

What does it mean to say that you want pain, when you’ve spent your whole life pretending pain doesn’t exist because the expression of pain is so horrifying to people? What does it mean to be able to tell someone that you are or were in pain without this being something that makes them either pity you, or resent you because they see you as lying or exaggerating your pain to get pity?

What does it mean if someone actually enjoys your reaction to being in pain, and wants you to say and show them that you’re in pain? Conversely, what does it mean if you can be very stoic about pain, and someone actually appreciates that about you and sees it as a special skill, instead of a prerequisite for being respected as a decent and competent person?

Also, what does it mean to have it actually be important and expected that you try to figure out what level of hurt is harm, and what your limits are? What does it mean to have a word that means “this isn’t okay it has to stop,” and the other person’s actually supposed to listen?

(I just realized that I was using the word pain instead of hurt for this whole section. I still meant it in the broadest possible way.)


In The Classic Disability Catch-22, I wrote that in order to be seen as the kind of disabled person who deserves to be successful, you must make it appear as though there’s nothing you can’t do. This means that you have to perform beyond your means, damaging yourself in the process, and/or lie and trick people into thinking you’re doing things you’re not actually doing. Because of the dishonesty and recklessness involved in fulfilling this requirement, no one who is perceived as belonging to this elite class of disabled people actually feels secure as a member of that class. This is Failure Theory. Of course, people who aren’t perceived as belonging to that class of disabled people have it a lot worse; they have shown the wrong kinds of weakness and impairment, and barring some extraordinary feat of illusion or strength, they will not be seen as deserving the support or acceptance they need to achieve their goals.

There’s also the issue of “body language” and what that means about your sense of power, authority, and control in the real world. If you look disabled, you look like prey. You may look, to some people, like you shouldn’t be out on your own. Your eye gaze or the way you speak may cause people to read you as shifty, incompetent, frightened, or shy--and given the way people read you, you probably do feel shifty, frightened, and shy, and may be beginning to wonder if you are incompetent.

You may be told that in order to deserve respect, or to be seen as a competent or smart or secure person, you have to have the ability to speak in a certain way and look at people in a certain way; or, as discussed in the “receiving hurt” section, you may have to be able to be stoic about things that you simply can’t be stoic about.

When someone decides to submit to a person who is stuck on one side or the other of the Classic Disability Catch-22, is regularly mistaken for a child, starts crying on the subway, needs help getting dressed, can’t speak loudly enough to be heard by most people, etc. etc. etc., this is a dissolution of standards about what kind of person is supposed to be allowed to have authority and control, whether by the standards of society or by the person’s own standards (in the case of people who are read as non-disabled or successful disabled people, but suffer from Failure Theory).


Obviously submission doesn’t have to do with whether someone is “weak” in a pervasive sense, but for a lot of people being submissive involves doing and saying things that are associated culturally with weakness and vulnerability. It also sometimes involves letting go of control and doing what someone else says.

So if you’re in a position, in real life, where you have a chance to be successful only as long as you never show weakness, then what does it mean to be able to express weakness with someone and not be destroyed by it? To have someone actually like and enjoy that part of you, and want to see it, and still respect you when they see it? On the other hand, if your real life position is one of being fucked over because you’re read as weak or because there are things you can’t do--again, what does it mean to express weakness or inabilities to someone and have them think it’s cool, and have them respect you regardless?

Performing weakness, or allowing yourself to sincerely experience weakness, is an act that is comparable to the act of deciding to hurt someone. It involves a similar controlled reversal of the values and goals you usually hold yourself to, and an embrace of the person you’re afraid of being.

I find it astoundingly privileged when anti-s/m people talk about how, for example, doing power exchange is “bringing in” all these terrible things from the outside world into your relationship. When you’re disabled, lack of power is such a huge part of who you are that it’s hard to imagine that not being a part of any relationship you have. So, like, that would be really cool to be worrying about “bringing in a hierarchy” or “bringing in brokenness” into a relationship. It sounds like a charmed life.

I haven’t come across much discussion of the s/m and disability intersection; staticnonsense’s Kinky Disability posts, which I love, are really one of the only attempts to address the issue that I have seen on any disability blog. Before the Disability Internet, of course, there was Bob Flanagan, but I haven’t done enough research to know if he was part of any kind of movement. I feel nervous about posting this because it is so long and I haven’t really written about any kind of sexuality before, but I just think this intersection is a really fascinating one and worth talking about.


  1. I'm not going to write a super-long comment about how I relate to this personally because... well, I'm not. But I did start to cry while reading this. Thanks so much for putting it up.

  2. That makes me so happy! Well that probably doesn't sound right but I feel like this is like the most emotional thing I've ever posted and I was sort of worried that other people don't feel invested/emotional about this kind of thing.

  3. Oh my fucking god.

    Thank you.

    Bookmarking, crying, wishing I could talk to someone (YOU, perhaps I will send you an email when tomorrow is over) about this.

    I love it. Wow.

  4. i so relate to this, esp your points about giving/receiving pain/hurt what with being both a sadist and a masochist. thank you for writing it, it brings up a lot of thoughts and questions that otherwise typically don't come up. and thank you for the link - i'm glad you enjoy the series so much!

  5. This post is brilliant; thank you so much for it! It really puts into words a lot of things I've been trying to formulate myself, lately.

    Another thing I would add is, with my (possibly ASD-related) anxiety issues, I find that one reason I really enjoy submission is that I tend to get really anxious that I'm doing things right when it comes to sex, and if my partner is in a negotiated position of control, I don't worry so much about what I'm doing, which gives me a chance to enjoy myself more and, since I'm less anxious, to speak up if I do want to do something different.

    (Sorry if that's TMI-- I just thought it might be another dimension to your section on submission)

  6. Thank you so much for writing this.

    The whole stoicism thing is so true. I wrote a whole entry on it a while ago.


    I love how much different stuff you managed to cover. Long post = awesome.

  7. I used to read things from a now defunct organisation that said that all sexual acts involved some kind of coercion and that therefore with the power relations in our society it was impossible to do it "right" and that the closest you could get would be to abstain entirely (which they admitted isn't a realistic expectation for most people). They said that rectifying some of the power imbalances were a perquisite for even beginning to to find out what's "right" in this context.

    I'm not comfortable with S/M things but I couldn't point out more that's wrong with it than is wrong with what most people are doing so it's mostly one of the things that I don't see as any of my business.

  8. Hm, yeah I guess I personally feel like d/s can be a way of rectifying power imbalances, which seems like a bizarre thing to say (unless you have some sort of policy that whichever partner wins Oppression Olympics gets to be dominant and the power exchange is more total depending on how oppressed they are--and oh my gosh why aren't second-wave feminists advocating this, it would be so much funner than being anti-everything). But I think that a relationship that includes more explicit roles and ways of doing things is usually going to have less coercion because people actually discuss how things work instead of falling into guy initiates sex, mind-disabled person is always wrong, person from minority culture has to conform to person from dominant culture, etc.

    Thanks for your comments everyone, I Have a Lot of Feelings about this so I appreciate I'm not the only one. I really love your post on stoicism vs. masochism cereus-sphinx and caitlin I didn't think you were TMIing at all, thank you for sharing your experience because I think I missed a lot.

    1. I used to have an internalized notion of "dom should be whoever wins the oppression olympics," unfortunately. Then I realized how shitty and reductive it was...I'm not into dom/sub dynamics at all anymore. Wasn't even then, come to think of it.

      I relate on the stoicism vs masochism thing...I'm the opposite of the usual preference, eroticizing stoicism in myself and others (masochism is less and less appealing to me, with the whole "enjoying things that hurt" seeming to echo the bitterness of people around me throwing in my face how much they *looooved* sensations I found very painful) and this explains it. Tactile and proprioceptive defensive...means sexual touch is gonna hurt. Including via my own hand. And I still had a libido. So it was either stoicism or miserable sexual frustration forever (and NO ONE was going to take my sex drive away, I was adamant about it, because it was one of the very few things I had that was completely and straightforwardly acknowledged as mine.) So now simultaneous stoicism is the only way I can sexually function, pretty much...where it's hurting me and hurting them and both know it and both are pushing through it and neither hates or resents the other for being that way or grimacing when touched.

    2. PS. Stoicism can be completely self-centered. It's not always for the benefit of others. Going into a difficult situation despite the unpleasantness to benefit oneself? To show off how tough one is? To demonstrate single-minded will and desire that outweighs any unpleasantness?
      Showing just how much you would do for a klondike bar, so to speak. Sure, the hot coals really suck and they don't feel good on your feet, but you're going to get that ice cream despite it because you decided to. That's not masochism, but it's not squicky pseudo-altruism either.
      Stoicism for the benefit of others does squick me. Big time. But stoicism that is completely selfish, stoicism where the other person does not care how I'm reacting but is entirely focused on themselves (and vice versa) is comforting.
      It's also slightly vengeful...everyone was yelling at me to "toughen up," but the minute I use it for something the ableists don't like, something that can never be stolen from me, they get upset at my "lack of responsiveness." It's only self-destruction when it doesn't serve the ableists.
      I'm not running over these coals just so ableist people can eat the klondike bar I wanted for myself. MY KLONDIKE BAR. And only then is it a problem, apparently.

  9. This just about brought me to tears. Thank-you so much for putting into words what I've never been able to say.

  10. In the last couple of years, I've started to meet a number of cool kinksters who have disabilities, and while I've gained an appreciation for how that can physically affect their BDSM play, your post has really showed me how BDSM play could be mentally/emotionally empowering.

    Thank you so much for writing this!

  11. "Also--and this is a topping/hurting-specific thing I guess--in some people’s dynamic, you could even hurt someone in a way they don’t like, and that would be fine; within limits, their feelings are irrelevant to what happens. What if the way you and your partner/s do sex is that you do whatever you want and they’re expected to adjust to you?"

    See, this is an example of why I think S/M is wrong. To me, that is just plain abuse. I can sort of accept hurting someone who *wants* to be hurt, in the way they want to be hurt (my Mom gets massages, and they hurt, but also make her feel better; my Dad and I practice karate moves on each other and although we try not to hurt each other a bit of pain is unavoidable and makes it more educational). But it seems to me that S/M leads to things like hurting people in ways they don't want and haven't consented to.

    And I don't think being 'wired that way' and not having a choice about what you're into has any bearing on the ethics of it. Some people are sexually attracted to prepubertal children. They have no choice about those feelings either. Doesn't mean they can act on them without causing harm to a child.

    1. "But it seems to me that S/M leads to things like hurting people in ways they don't want and haven't consented to."

      Maybe you have had that experience with s/m acts that you've done and I appreciate your opinion, but in my experience, nonconsensual sexual acts happen because a person doesn't care about the other person's consent, not because of the sexual acts they are doing.

      If I was hurting someone and pushing them around in a preplanned way, and they expressed they didn't want me to do what I was doing, or I had a bad feeling, then I would stop and try to figure out what was going on. If I was kissing someone or touching them in a more conventional way, and the same thing happened, then I would react the same way.

      Some people only want to have conventional sex, but if their main goal in sex is to get what they want, then they are likely to do something nonconsensual.

      I'm not holding myself up as some model of amazing consent practices, but I think if I failed to respect someone's consent and what they want, that's because of me as a person, not the kind of sex we're having.

      "And I don't think being 'wired that way' and not having a choice about what you're into has any bearing on the ethics of it. Some people are sexually attracted to prepubertal children. They have no choice about those feelings either. Doesn't mean they can act on them without causing harm to a child."

      That's true when it comes to a situation that is inherently nonconsensual like sex between a child and adult. But I do think it's a little extreme for you to tell me that I should not have sex with willing adults, because it doesn't "seem to you" that I am able to have consensual sex.

    2. I'm kind of going to echo Amanda here but I'm going to have to agree with her. The kind of act has no bearing on whether or not it's consensual.

      So this applies to sexual versus nonsexual, both things can be consensual or nonconsensual. If I go up to someone on the street and punch her in the face, try to tie her shoes together when she's not looking, or secretly take her phone then it isn't sexual but it's still nonconsensual. If someone says "Please [insert typical sex act]" and I then proceed to [typical sex act] then it is consensual. It doesn't stop being consensual just because it's sexual. Even within a category, such as "acts that people consider sexual," this still applies to subcategories such as "S/M sexual acts" and "'normal' sexual acts."

      Certain activities might limit people's ability to express consent. For instance, if someone typically communicates through speech and then she is gagged she will not be able to communicate verbally if she changes her mind or has a problem with something that is going. A responsible party will insist that some nonverbal means be agreed upon, however, so that consent is still being continually expressed.

      Now, whether something is consensual is not the same as whether or not it is morally or ethically correct. Even in countries where the culture professes Liberalism most people would say that the "right to do what you want with your own body" stops short of allowing someone to kill you and eat your carefully prepared body. Even if consent was clearly given and could be proved, such a person would at the very least be convicted of manslaughter if this act were to become well known. But any act can be consented to and, given the massive number of people who live or have lived, most likely has been consented to at some point.

      Amanda's other point is relevant, too. Although people who attempt to justify pedophilia can and do argue that children can sometimes give consent, there is a difference in knowledge, power, and social stature between adults and children. We have decided as a culture that sexual or romantic relationships of any kind are in this context both inappropriate and incredibly harmful.*

      This imbalance, however, does not necessarily apply to an adult. If it did apply, more typical acts or relationships would not necessarily be any less harmful than "S/M" type acts or relationships. It is therefore not especially relevant to a discussion of these specific acts or relationships and more likely serves to discredit one social taboo by comparing it to another.

      *I would very much consider this to be the correct position; however, it is worth noting that this opinion is by no means universal to every culture. Ancient Greece is especially well known for this practice.

    3. As a second thought, I do think the part that you quoted could be problematic, but at the same time being expected to along with what someone else wants is not inherently abusive in the sense that most people use the word. Amanda does say their feelings are irrelevant, but "within limits." What are these limits? I know Amanda well enough that I believe I have a fairly good idea of what she means, but in general this is still an important question.

      If- as you seem to have done- we define the limit at baseline and say people should never be expected to go along with something they don't want then, say, being expected to go to a restaurant you don't like because it's your boyfriend's birthday becomes abusive. I do not think this is a useful way of talking about abuse. The motivations and context behind the act itself matter. Even if someone were expected to always go to the restraunts of her boyfriend's choosing this might not be problematic for certain people.