Thursday, January 24, 2019

Resilience

“I Can’t Drive 55” -- Sammy Hagar

“Anything worth doing is worth over-doing”!  An anonymous wag

“So put me on the highway, and show me a sign,
And we’ll take it to the limit one more time” -- Glen Frey, Don Henley, and Randy Meisner



“Roads?  Where we are going, we don’t need roads”! -- Emmet Brown

Limits, and the Problem of Idealization:

This exploration of the need for resilience, repair, and reconciliation begins with limits, and the chosen quotes highlight just how ambivalent our society is with these.  Likewise, organized kink, with its transgressive impulses, desire for safety, genuine reverence for equality and freedom, and its love of exceptionalism, is similarly split.  It took NCSF over 6 years to hammer out a satisfactory definition of ‘consent’ among its coalition partner organizations to use in NCSF literature because of the huge diversity of what that term ‘consent’ might mean, and because of the fear that someone’s freedom might be sacrificed to someone else’s sense of limits.  Safety is not the prime directive for kink, notwithstanding its pride of place in our PR slogan.  Those who truly want safety above all else, are probably best advised to stay home!

But limits are particularly problematical because novelty is exciting.  Risk is a turn on.  And the role definitions of good kinksters feature facing fears, giving up control, embracing stress and pushing one’s personal limits.  In this regard, some kinksters sound like athletes.  Often, their mission is to play by the rules, but to transcend limits.  Some good submissives want dominants to push their own limits.  Some good tops want to do exactly that to others.  The Mother-May-I style of consent might be worth trying on a lark, but almost no one wants it to be the backbone of their playing style.   NCSF and the therapeutic community agree that continuous affirmative consent needs to be maintained at all times, and there are many ways this can be accomplished that are not wooden and mechanical, but there is great variety among people into kink about how this is understood and implemented.  Continuous consent can be very hot if done correctly, but, like everything else in kink, not everyone is in to that.

Role playing aggravates this, because our role descriptions are infiltrated by idealization.  Helen Fisher blames this on the neurotransmitter serotonin’s influence on the appetitive or courtship phase of human mating.  I say we develop fantasies about our ideal partners and go seeking them.  Fisher says millions of years of evolution has built brains that do the work of getting us so attracted to someone that reproduction might occur, and that means using the neurophysiology of obsession.  Fisher and I are each at least partly right.  Long before our observations, Romeo and Juliette said this:

Romeo and Juliette from the 1968 Franco Zefferelli production.


“But soft!  What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliette is the sun.
Arise fair sun, and kill the envious moon
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, for she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it.  Cast it off!
It is my lady! Oh, it is my love.
Oh, that she knew she were!
She speaks, yet she says nothing!  What of that?
Her eye discourses, I will answer it.----
I am too bold.  “Tis not to me she speaks.
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their sphere ‘til their return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of those cheeks would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp.  Her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See how she leans that cheek upon her hand.
Oh, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek.”

“What is in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called
Retain that dear perfection that he owes
Without that title.  Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself!  --  William Shakespeare,  ‘Romeo and Juliette, Act II, scene 2’

It seems that Romeo and Juliette have it bad for each other, each is deeply in the throes of romantic idealization.  Elizabethan playgoers recognized excessive romanticism in this famous poetry over 400 years ago.  And this illustrates that idealization is a danger not just for kinksters, but for lovers of all preferences and identifications.  But idealization is particularly dangerous for kinksters because lust is privileged in the kink communities.  Shakespeare here is saying that love is the close cousin of madness.  Having resisted stigma, risked contact with people who may or may not be all that safe sane and consensual in the name of lust, kinksters act like lust matters.
 
Cognitive dissonance alone acts to build commitment to kinky passion and relationships.  We value what we have suffered, sacrificed, and worked ardently to achieve.   And having done all of this, we would like to imagine that our partners are specially, even magically gifted and committed.  Even kink educational efforts, which are designed to inject a measure of reason into how play is conducted also wind up defining good and bad role playing.  Kinky folk challenge themselves to be good masters, good slaves, and good masochists just as we all strive to be good citizens, good parents, and good professionals.  Consensual non-monogamists do it too.  I remember overhearing in the hallway at an event one man telling another how he would never attempt to maintain 6 paramours at a time again; five was too many!  This left me wondering if the Turkish Sultan ever had a garage sale!

'Harem Scene' J G Delincourt, an excellent example of 19th century French orientalism. 
Harem life certainly seems to be going smoothly here!
This can make some dominants want to hit harder, be more demanding, and be pushy.  It can make some submissives feel like they are being bad at their role if they use their safeword or fear they will harm the performance of their partner if they stop a scene.  Novice submissives not only need to be taught that they cannot have every piece of candy in the store on the first trip, but that it is a sure sign of inexperience to proudly declare they have no limits and will try anything.  As endearing as such devotion may feel, it is more wisely understood as a failure to recognize one’s own limits, rather than the communication of ultimate affection.  This collision between inexperience and idealized roles is largely responsible for the 2014 Consent Violations Survey finding that 75% of the violations occurred either before, or within the first three years of our respondents’ involvement in the organized kink community.

But problems with limit setting and consent violations do not simply end after three years of training and experience.  As kinksters become more experienced, they learn their limits, and some wish to push those limits.  They often are exposed to new experiences where they have yet to learn their limits.  Some relax their guard.  And with increased intimacy and commitment, lovers want to please each other more, not less.  The problem of being edgy may get better with self-knowledge and kink education, but it never disappears.  And for some pushy kinksters who constantly seek to know their limits, it is hardly possible to know one’s limits without ever exceeding them.

From Consent Violations to Consent Incidents:

In our previous research, the NCSF 2014 Consent Violations Survey, my colleagues Susan Wright and Derrell Cox and I decided to use the term ‘violations’ because we wanted to cast the broadest net possible to capture problem experiences that might illuminate any systematic problems in how organized kink handles consent.  That NCSF team had been working hard for several years with NCSF’s Coalition Partners to define a broadly acceptable concept of consent, and this research was meant to be a reality check about how well individuals thought consent worked in local organizations and events.  We were looking for problems, not strengths.  Consent and its Discontents
 
Our results showed some problems, and we have reported back on these, but we also learned that many consent ‘violations’, while they constituted situations in which respondent’s play experience did not meet their expectations, did not really constitute ‘violations’.  Our respondents, astute readers, and we investigators recognized that these unmet expectations could be painful, scary, and even traumatic, but did not stem from behaviors that the respondent viewed as malevolent.  The best alternate term was volunteered by Charlie Glickman; the more neutral ‘consent incidents’.  Although we knew from the start asking the questions this way loaded the dice, it was a new perspective for me to consider that we might have created a less sensitive instrument for investigating coping strategies for consent events that focused on individual participants’ responsibilities for resolving incidents because of our a priori emphasis on organizational solutions.  It is clear from the diversity of incidents however, that every bit as important as organizational solutions; dungeon masters, complaint policies, mentoring, safeties, and educational programing might be in reducing predatory behavior and novice vulnerability, education in self-protective preparations is important, too.  A great many consent incidents constituted success stories about overcoming problems that are somewhat routine, and in our next survey, every effort will be made to be less fixated upon primary institutional prevention, so we can mine the wisdom inherent in such successes.

Trauma vs Resilience:

The theories of trauma and resilience, as they apply to behavior that is known to entertain significant risk, apply to much kinky behavior.  While we have the potential to be changed by any experience, and have increased potential in novel and intense experiences, experiences that might overwhelm our coping ability and can be damaging, and sometimes we can be changed in ways that are painful and unanticipated.  Life is inherently stressful, and we often embrace goals that are difficult, painful, challenging and stressful.  But we do not always have complete freedom of choice about the extent or intensity of the risks we face.  Neither are we always correct in our anticipations of how we will respond to intense experiences.

A convoy of U. S. Army Humvees courtesy of Military.com

The United States military has, as a consequence of long asymmetrical conflicts following World War II, has been at the forefront in efforts to train soldiers in resilience.  Combat can only be made so much less stressful by through combat skills training and good military discipline.  Fear, loss and pain are commonly encountered by many troops.  So the military has turned to psychology to provide resilience training for the troops.  Although modern tactics like Improvised explosive devices have caused terrible wounds for troops, improved emergency medical treatment has saved many people who previously would have died.  The heroic stories of rehabilitation from these losses speaks the effectiveness of resilience training.  The sad suicide rates for veterans for whom such training is insufficient also speaks to the need for the training, and for the social support that amplifies its effectiveness.  It also shows that resilience and effective personal responsibility are not an alternative to the need for constructive social changes.

The goal of resilience training is to prepare ourselves for levels of stress that might exceed our anticipations.  While enhancing our resilience is entirely consistent with radical existential responsibility for our sexuality and mental health, it is not at all inconsistent with the idea that social systems and cultural practices that impose unnecessary and unfair risks should be opposed by social change efforts.  The concept of resilience is not about the moral process of assigning blame for a mistake or deflecting calls for social justice.  It is about self-protection even in the face of accepting risks in order to get what you desire.  The goal is to make yourself as robust as possible in the face of unexpected adversity as opposed to succumbing to changes you cannot control due to adverse experiences.


The American Psychological Association (APA) lists the following as evidenced-based correlates of resilience.  If you wanted to enhance your psychological resilience, this is a great place to start. The categories listed below are APA’s.  We will follow each APA bullet point in italics with our suggestions from kinky life in in regular typeface:

Make (and maintain) connections.  Good relationships with close family members, friends and others are important.  Accepting help and support from others who care about you and will listen to you strengthens resilience.  Some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based organizations, or other local groups provides social support and can help with reclaiming hope.  Assisting others in their time of need can benefit the helper.
 
Given that 70% of socially involved kinky people are not out to friends, family, other members of their churches or civic organizations, or co-workers; it is important for dealing with kink risks that one have social connections who know and accept your kinks, and who can be talked to if you experience a consent incident or violation.  Likewise, even if you are a novice in pursuing your kink interests socially, your learning journey can still make you an accepting friend and listener to others.  The benefits to resilience from social connections do not depend nearly so much on giving and receiving good advice as they do empathetic listening and acceptance, and creation of safe psychological space with your support system.  Although it may be challenging, try to maintain all the connections you safely can even though a crisis may have changed your feelings.

Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems.  You cannot change the fact that highly stressful events happen, but you can change how you interpret and respond to those events.  Try looking beyond the present to how future circumstances might be a little better.  Note any subtle ways in which you might already feel somewhat better as you deal with the difficult situation.
 
Kinky folk are often already better than average at looking at things from multiple points of view.  However, this sound advice from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT…  I know and don’t start!  But there you go again, looking at things from multiple perspectives!) and is also about the crucial strategy of avoiding single-minded thinking and being overwhelmed by strong emotion.
 
Accept that change is a part of living.  Certain goals may no longer be obtainable as a result of adverse situations.  Accepting situations that cannot be changed can help you focus on those that you can alter.
 
We do not have scientific data to prove this, but in our clinical experience, many kinky clients are more reluctant than other psychotherapy clients to accept loss.  Perhaps this is the result of having to overcome social stigma and its attendant obstacles to identify, own, and act upon their kinky desires.  Knowing what you have to give up, and what you might be able to change is not a simple matter easily reduced to an aphorism.  But having a prior conversation with yourself and your most intimate supporters can facilitate making the determination of how to face a loss.  The key here is that your anticipation of a loss and its actuality may feel very different because you are in different emotional states. Having a prior conversation helps ground you in multiple points of view and makes it easier to use your support systems if something stressful happens. Having such talks about what might go wrong and how to deal with it not only constitutes good safety planning, but helps you manage your emotional reactions.

Move toward your goals.  Develop some realistic goals.  Do something regularly – even if it seems like a small accomplishment – that enables you to move toward your goals.  Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself “What is the one thing I can do today that helps me move in the direction I want to go”?
 
Being a genius at strategic thinking helps, but it is not necessary to have a master plan to deal with adversity.  If you have one and can implement it, that’s great!  But it is crucial to actually take constructive steps. Taking the step you can take today is much better than imagining the better step you cannot do right now.  We often think of displacement as a defense, but defenses are just another name for coping strategies.  For example, if you cannot fix the main injustice that has harmed you, it can help in your healing to act to help protect others in the future.  That may be a displacement, but it is also a net good.

Take decisive actions.  Act on adverse situations as much as you can.  Take decisive actions, rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.

Some people react to adversity by becoming passive and feeling helpless.  This advice is targeted for them.  It can be quite difficult to implement.  Obviously decisive actions need to be judiciously considered and effective actions will be a great deal more solace than failed efforts, so decisiveness is not automatically helpful.
 
The research behind this specific advice is based on   the model of depression based upon learned helplessness.  Taking decisive action is an antidote to passivity and excessive rumination.  Taking effective action helps manage the emotions by confronting any internal narratives that you are helpless.  If your sexual desire focuses on wishes to give up all control and responsibility as keys to your identity or erotic pleasure, then this component of resilience might be a bigger challenge for you than other people.  For example, you may wish to give up and fantasize that others will rescue you.  Often, this is easier to imagine than to arrange, and you will be better served by strategies you can initiate and carry out.

The other threat this APA advice is targeting is repression.  Repression and denial often undermine effective coping by protecting us from the negative emotions associated with real dangers without addressing real risks. There is very strong clinical evidence that kinky people, in owning parts of their inner darkness are less repressed than most psychotherapy clients, and than the general population.  If so, repression and rigid denial may be less likely to be problems for you, but can still be encountered.  Kinky clients are often pretty good at facing their fears.  If this is true for you, it may be a strength of your response to a consent incident.
   
Look for opportunities for self-discovery.  People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect in their struggle with loss.  Many people who have experienced tragedies and hardship have reported having better relationships, greater strength even while feeling vulnerable, increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality, and heightened appreciation for life.

The kink aphorism “Careful what you wish for!” applies here.  One does not always learn what one expects to in a heroic journey; that is part of the growth and part of what Joseph Campbell said makes it heroic.  You may not think of your kink experiences that way, but the very openness that makes kinksters seek knowledge about their dark sides should still be counted among your assets if things go wrong.  Likewise, all relationships, not just kinky ones, can grow stronger overcoming adversity.  Where you judge it to be safe, overcoming a consent incident can be a relationship strengthening experience if those involved respond to the challenge empathetically.

Nurture a positive view of yourself.  Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.

Such evidence as science can provide suggests that many kinksters are strong in personal efficacy whether they take dominant or submissive roles in their preferred play.  Emotion being highly privileged in the world of kink, it can hardly be said they are afraid to act on their instincts.  But losses and unexpected reverses being what they are, it is always tempting to blame oneself when risks turn out badly, even if you are ordinarily brave and insightful.  One is in a fundamentally different position, and often in a different emotional state when a risk turns out badly than when you were contemplating the taking of that risk in prospect.  This advice, for kinksters and everyone else, is a warning about solving the emotional tensions associated with loss by blaming yourself.  While it is true that you may have made mistakes in a risky decision, it is even more true that you will need to rely on your own faculties to rectify them.  This precept is about not killing the goose that lays the golden eggs just because you were expecting an egg just when the goose laid a poop.  Disappointing as that may be, you still may get plenty more golden eggs.

Keep things in perspective.  Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and try to keep a long-term perspective.  Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.

Note that the metaphor of the golden goose from the previous paragraph is highly relevant here, too.  You need your judgement to interpret how serious the implications of a consent incident might be to your kinky goals.  Perhaps your risk tolerance is less than you had anticipated.  Perhaps you are disenchanted with your hope of finding sexual acceptance.  Your trusted partner might have been a systematic predator.  As painful as such new learnings might be, your judgment is still going to be needed in deciding to handle this unwelcome feedback.  Good social support and clear goals are still going to require you to keep making judgments and keep evaluating your goals.  And sexual and social risk will continue to be part of your decision making.

Maintain a hopeful outlook.  An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life.  Try visualizing what you want rather than worrying about your fear.

This is hard advice to implement, especially if you felt you were already doing this as well as you could when a consent incident blind-sided you.  This is the reason we emphasized that even well-thought-out kink experiences were risky and that one could not know one’s limits without occasional mishaps, accidents, and even disasters.  The same optimism that may have caused your adventure to miscarry might be successful in better achieving your goals if you can evaluate the causes of your mishap and persist in your strategy, albeit modifying it with the new learnings from the consent incident.  If your incident was partly caused by failed social systems, optimism will be an asset in your efforts to fix these failures so that others are protected from the loss it was your misfortune to face.

Take care of yourself.  Pay attention to your own needs and feelings.  Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing.  Exercise regularly.  Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

Given that kinks often come from deep within us and are profoundly felt, it is easy to imagine that pursuit of them proceeds from our deepest authenticity.  But given that even conventional sexuality, let alone kinks, is deeply socially stigmatized, it is also common to have conflicted feelings about even intense desires.  Sudden or unexpected losses can bring out deeper ambivalence and make self-care difficult and ambiguous.  Likewise, kink is often not a relaxing form of self-expression.  Many kinksters seek increased intensity of experience and more stress.  Deciding what behaviors and thoughts will lead to decreased stress can be complicated.   Feedback from kinky members of your support system can be especially helpful if you have questions about managing your self-care that others who are not aware of what your lifestyle entails.

Additional ways of strengthening your resilience may be helpful.  For example, some people write about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events in their life.  Meditation and other spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope.

A consent incident, especially one that happens within your community of support can be especially isolating.  In finding alternate strategies for supporting yourself, it is important to recognize your vulnerability, and use safe sources of support while you reassess the riskiness of your relationships to people and communities.  At such times, it is important to go slowly while you determine what resources you can trust, and where your personal safety lies.

The key is to identify ways that are likely to work well for you as part of your personal strategy for fostering resilience.

No laundry list of resilience strategies can be exhaustive nor universally applicable.  You must mix, match, expropriate and invent the methods that work best for you.  This APA list and our additions are only a starting point.  You must decide which of these strategies work best for you, setting side those that are not so helpful.
 
Additional ways to work on building your resilience:

Work on your dark side.  While you may feel that exploring your kinks is working on your dark side, your own sexual stigma and sex negativity are also part of that dark side.  It is all well to seek validation from others, but this is useless insofar as you fail to accept yourself.  Confronting your own sex negativity does not just mean moving towards the sex you want, but also moving away from sex you do not want and going slowly about sex about which you remain explicitly ambivalent.

Know your hard boundaries from your soft ones.  Just as it is kink idealization to imagine that the best submissives never use their safewords, so is it a false sign of sophistication or self-knowledge to have no hard limits.  One way to know your limits is to imagine how you will feel if an edgy scene goes wrong, rather than imagining it turning out perfectly.  Do not attempt activities or relationships if you are not ready to fail, even if you have a capable partner whom you trust and who is eager to perform them.

Insist on feedback.  Part of the thrill of kink is contracting for an adventure that goes a little beyond your anticipation and control.  Your captive is utterly helpless and cannot possibly escape.  You are not allowed to say ‘no’.  You get to feel the thrill of the knife at your throat as she has her way with you.  For many people, these are the sweet spots of kinky dreams.  But aftercare is where you start to heel from the pain and stress you willingly embraced in a scene and where you get to evaluate its impact on your self-concept and relationship.  While it may seem unromantic at times to debrief them, there is no going to the edge without constant feedback and giving that up for a time should not be confused with abandoning it altogether.  This is also one of the places that trust gets built which enables further exploration.  If you feel worse about yourself after humiliation play rather than better, it is time to pause and explore why.

Remember that kink is highly embodied.  Your reaction to a consent incident, like your reaction to an intense scene that goes smoothly, is physical as well as mental.  Your aftercare needs will persist even if something happens that makes parts of your planned aftercare strategy unavailable to you.  It may mean that it is not time to discuss what went wrong right away because you or your play partner is still in an altered state of consciousness.
 
For more on this see:  Mistress Adobe’s Sub-drop tool kit (That link is already in Elephant http://elephantinthehottub.blogspot.com/2015/12/coping-with-top-and-sub-drop.html)

©Russell J Stambaugh, PhD, Ann Arbor, January 2019