Apr 192011

It’ll tell you something about how my life is going lately when I tell you that on Friday my computer broke and then I went to a memorial service for someone almost young enough to be my daughter, almost. It’s been rough. But that doesn’t stop me noticing blog material!

At the service, we said Psalm 23. For those not familiar, here is the text:

The lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the lord for ever.

My first thought as I considered these words was actually, “Wow, it’d be nice if my dog felt like that about me.” Really, for a rescue dog the idea of having a house that you dwell in FOREVER is a big fucking deal.

I went so far as to imagine what it would be like on the other end of the leash, clipped to a collar, to follow and trust that yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Crikey. A tug on the leash, and I follow with absolute trust, without fear, without question. I would love for my dog to feel that way.

And of course my thoughts went from there to BDSM relationships. Please don’t take that the wrong way.

When I talk to students who are unfamiliar with the kink community, they tend to wonder if there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with a person who eroticizes pain or who enjoys being humiliated or who wants to be controlled. I’ve tried explaining it in a variety of ways, but I think the next time it comes up I’ll try using Psalm 23 to explain it. Like:

Who could fail to feel something compelling in the notion that you could be safe and loved FOREVER, and all you have to do is follow the source of the safety and love? All you have to do is submit to a will stronger than your own, and your cup will run over, you will not want for anything.

I mean, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” This might mean a physical correction or it might be plain old authority, but it definitely means something about how the ways you control me make me feel safer.

I’m convinced that a great deal of this dynamic has to do with attachment and our essential desire to connect deeply with other people. Because our experiences of sensation are contextual – what in one context might hurt in another context may arouse – we can put nearly any sensation in an erotic context and experience pleasure. And what could be more obvious as an erotic context than one where you’re asked, as the submissive, to abandon all control, relax into absolute trust (ie, turn off the brakes) and experience sensation? Or where you can allow yourself to tune in your partner and create a context SO erotic that even the burning sting of a whip or a paddle feels sexy, treading that precarious line between pleasure and pain, so attuned to your partner’s mind and body that you know exactly what to say and do?

Of course some students might feel, uh, a little uncomfortable with the comparison of a psalm to a kinky relationship.

My sister went to a memorial service on the same day – a different service. Her choir sang this, which I think is very nice:

emily nagoski

  16 Responses to “thy rod and thy staff”

Comments (16)
  1. This is very interesting – I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the emotional contexts of kinks/fantasies. For some reason, we’re often told that it’s wrong to meet emotional needs through sex, but I think that’s a part of our basic human wiring to do so.

    Anyway, I’ve really been enjoying your blog, and plan to add it to my blogroll!

  2. My gf and I speak quite openly about what “kinky” means, and our definition seems to be: “things that other people find sexually appealing that you don’t”. I think kink is relative and the things that most people label as kinky are based on population percentages of acceptance.

    Regarding BDSM and Psalm 23, and there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write, I never thought of that psalm as being one of control. Leash tugging never occurred to me. I think more of a shepherd guiding sheep through the occasional push or prod than an impatient dog owner yanking on a leash. To take things a bit further, if the owner is a benevolent owner, the sheep and/or dog will follow willingly, w/o the need for prodding or control. A malevolent owner, however, will control the beast’s every move, demanding loyalty when none is warranted. To me, the attitude of the psalmist is one of the former. In his eyes, God is benevolent, therefore comforting and control is willingly surrendered.

    On a more personal level, I find BDSM, at least as I’ve seen it portrayed or explained on the web, to be a mixed bag. I have no interest in controlling another person *unless* that person surrenders their will to me first and I consider that surrender to be a type of “trust contract” instead of “carte blanche” to do whatever.

    But that’s just me. Sexuality is communication and different people will have different takes on the whole control/surrender dichotomy.

  3. I thought this was a really good article and posted a link to it in our fetlife group in the hopes of starting a discussion there. Since it’s a private community I won’t post a link here but if you’d like it please email me and I will send it to you.

  4. Amazing post <3

  5. There are two major BDSM perspectives: “Safe, Sane, and Consensual” (SSC) and “Risk Accepted, Consensual Kink” (RACK). SSC gives the sub the inalienable right to tell the dom to stop when he/she chooses, with the guarantee that the dom WILL stop. With RACK, you may ask, but there are no guarantees either way (hell, you may get beaten worse for even asking). You have to trust that your partner will not severely injure or maim you while you are in his/her power.
    As a [mostly] sexually submissive person with a penchant for hot, kinky sex, I can attest that trust is an absolute imperative for *gratifying* kinky sex. If you do not trust your partner, you cannot relax and relinquish control entirely. If you’re not relaxed emotionally, it’s difficult not to feel violated at least a little when your partner physically hurts you. At the other end of the spectrum, my dom needs to be able to trust me to relate my emotional state to him. He needs me to indicate when we’re crossing the bounds of what I feel okay with. He is not a mind reader, and I have to remember that. If I violate my end of the bargain, he ends up feeling bad when he realizes he’s pushed me too far, and I’m feeling… well, violated.
    In the end, it’s a trust thing: How much are you willing to trust each other?
    Of course, that’s just [my perspective of] the how and not the why. The why is purely subjective and individual. And please take this all with the grain of salt that this is MY experience, not that of every BDSM player.
    For outsiders to the Kink community, the following – which was originally intended as a wake-up call blog post for the creepers at the edges of our community – may be helpful in some manner to understand us at least a little:

    The Psalm 23 comparison is not one I’ve considered before, but I’m liking it :)

    • And now I finally understand why I am not even a tiny bit kinky and get the creeps at the whole trust thing. I cannot comprehend trusting anyone enough to let them do what they want to me, and yeah, I do mentally get kind of ticked about anyone wanting to.

      Oh well.

      • In a paradoxical way, that’s also why I DO organize my fantasies in kinky ways: I’m also chronically low on trust, so I have problems even imagining partners liking me enough so I could trust them enough for getting rid of the brakes. So what I imagine are people who are motivated by strange selfish reasons to behave as if they were trustworthy – with a hidden agenda, exploitation or such. What matters is, that with this selfish intentions added I can imagine safe situations without having to force my imagination to include them actually liking me.

        And that’s why I don’t idendtify as a sub/kinky: what I do is obviously just a side-effect of some problems I actually try to get rid of (whose I do not consider just value-neutral pesonal characteristics, because they make my life worse), and I have no idea what my sexuality will look like when I’ll get better at trust, self-esteem etc.

        I don’t try to marginalize kinky people with this statement, trough, and definitely don’t want to suggest that kinky people are broken or such (and more generally, the legitimacy of someone’s present isn’t based on how s/he ended up being as s/he is.). And their movement for acceptance had actually helped me to accept this side of myself, just like if I would worry about a low libido, I could read what asexuals write, and conclude that even the “worst case” isn’t actually bad.

        … Emily, do you think this line of reasoning/method of getting rid of the brakes is common? I’m not talking about the last paragraph’s, but the stuff before.

        • I don’t is this really a trust thing and not just self-esteem? Like, if you imagined someone who just said, “look I’m not that attracted to you but I want to have sex and you’re here so.. how about it?” That would trustworthy instead of manipulative and not require them liking you.

          Or it might be that you can’t imagine being attracted to someone who’s attracted to you, like Groucho Marx not waning to join any club that would have him for a member, which again is self-seem not trust.

          In a way, I wonder what would happen if you were confronted (or imagined being confrtoned) by a partner who just liked you and wanted you and there was nothing you could say or do that was bad enough for them to go away and they would gradually push your boundaries, easing you into trust as they proved that they would never leave, never change their mind. Would that disengage the brakes?

    • I haven’t heard of RACK before – and a part of my brain did initially go ack! at the idea that a partner might not stop if you ask. But I can see how that both frees the sub to say or do anything AND further deepens the dom’s status as, if you will, “shepherd,” since they even get to decide when their sub has had enough. The sub has to decide that the dom knows best. Which is pretty intense and even more like Psalm 23 than I knew!

      • That isn’t actually my understanding of RACK. From what I know, RACK is a response to what some saw as limiting in the “safe” and “sane” parts of Safe, Sane and Consensual. Many kinky people like to partake in activities that can never be *completely* safe (for instance, knife or breath play) and “sane” is a completely subjective term – for instance, many might see rape play or a Master/slave relationship as being outside the bounds of sanity.

        So RACK offers another way for couples to engage in kink in a way that works for them but still emphasizes consent (it’s right there in the acronym!). A couple might, for instance, decide to dispense with safwords under RACK, but hopefully that’s only done in a situation where there’s an abundance of mutual trust built on a long history of respecting each other’s limits.

  6. the program doesn’t let me reply directly to what you said, so there it is:

    of course it is a self-esteem thing, and I’m working on it (with professional assistance!).

    As of your scenarios to imagine : in both scenarios I couldn’t suspense my disbelief enough, and would be too much reminded of my real-life reactions:

    -If someone (I’m attracted to) told me ““look I’m not that attracted to you but I want to have sex and you’re here so.. how about it?””, then I couldn’t relax because of the performance anxiety. “Oh god, this person probably wants me to x, y and z, I’m not into y and not good at z, and would prefer making out a bit before x, but he probably wants them right now! How could I sustain boundaries if I have explicitly a very limited utility here?” And that’s why I’d say no.

    As of about the theoretical never-leaving partner, I’d just believe, that
    a. he’s a maniac/weirdo
    b. he’s fixated on his idea of me without actually knowing me, and the moment he realized who I am in reality, he would go away. There actually has been a real-life person whose devotement made me feel “what’s wrong with him? didn’t he get the universal memo about me?” So being loved by someone like that would be of course useful, but couldn’t in itself reprogram my basic attitude.
    And “wouldn’t go away, whatever I’d do” can sound creepy, too – if my input wouldn’t matter at all, would we be still communicating?

    I think that at the basis of all this lies my belief that they couldn’t possibly get out as much enjoyment of the things we’d do as I did, and that’s where imagining hidden agendas helps.

    Anyway, I don’t want you, Emily, to resolve my problems!, just maybe, if you want, give a bit of info about how rare this logic is… I always imagined that this is not extremely rare (just like the other logic I’ve read about, where imaginary power is being used to circumvene the “good girls aren’t supposed to” block).

    • Oh gosh, I don’t know how common it is. It’ll be in the single digit percentage, but I would guess it’s not less than 1%. Lots and lots of people have self-esteem stuff happening in their heads and performance anxiety is almost universal at least in a person’s life, so the part that makes it rarer is just the preferring the idea of someone who’s manipulating you. That’s a rough guess.

  7. Or maybe the other example is rare/inexistent/cheap pseudo-psychology, too! Who knows?

  8. I was at a memorial service last week where they also read that psalm, & I went straight from atheistic grumpiness at the “shepherd/sheep” metaphor to very kinky thoughts about “thy rod & thy staff”! Glad it’s not just me. ;-)

    My own experience of “RACK” as a kinky person has absolutely nothing to do with the dominant player not respecting a safeword [request to stop], as described above — and I’ve never heard it described in those terms elsewhere. My understanding of RACK is that we are admitting not everything we do is 100% “safe” but we try to be risk-aware. The submissive partner still gets to use “yellow” and “red” or whatever other safewords/signals they’ve agreed upon. Yes, you *could* negotiate a scene where you choose not to have a safeword, but that would be a very specific subset of risk-aware consensual kink activities/players.


    • Different circles, different interpretations? Or did I somehow mix up RACK with Total Power Exchange? (yup, thinking about it, that makes more sense now. dammit) Apologies for accidentally being misleading and thank you for the correction.
      Giving someone absolute control is scary, exhilarating, erotic… and something I have only ever crossed into the realm of because we didn’t communicate clearly in the beginning. I got lucky and he realized that I was panicking and he stopped (kind of tough to say “no” when they decide to start choking you without even hinting about it first). Communication is equally important with trust, if not moreso, as I learned the hard way.

      • oh, Total Power Exchange! yes, I think that must be what you meant.

        Sounds like a scary incident, and it’s good that your partner was able to read your signals — I think it’s definitely incumbent upon the “TPE” player to make sure *they* have communicated fully beforehand!


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