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.
(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?
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.