Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kindness and contempt

The whole issue of bullying has been in the news and on my mind a lot lately. It’s a social phenomenon that I have tried to understand for many years. My interest in social psychology probably originated with the experience of being bullied for a few years, and of trying to understand the phenomenon so I could get myself out of the victim role.

Bullying ties in with many other curious human behaviours, like misogyny, discrimination, war and other forms of oppression. I've struggled over all of these, trying to understand the mental processes that go into deliberate hurt inflicted by one person on another. Power has a great deal to do with it, of course. The acquisition and exercise of power has many rewards.

And who knows that better than us? One of the reasons this issue is central for me is that the dynamics of power and control of one person over another has always been a preoccupation. I spent years trying to differentiate actual oppression from the fantasies that aroused me. My excruciating empathy for genuine victims could be a stumbling block when it came to the sexuality that ruled me. The two are different – consent and arousal, if nothing else – but there are so many elements in common that the line sometimes blurs. And it’s good to know which side of the line one is on.

Power inequities, objectification, humiliation, loss of choice and freedom, sexual slavery – do these trigger arousal? Or dismay and disgust? Or both? Or does it depend on the context? Probably the latter, most of all. Still, when we cringe at some d/s scene that goes “too far,” is it that line that feels like it’s being crossed?

For me, one of the dividing lines is contempt. Do the oppressors really use their victims as objects without regard for their needs? Or is there genuine caring and respect in the relationship, beneath the trappings of inequality? There are any number of d/s books that I simply won’t touch, not just because they are non-consensual, but because of the contempt the powerful have for their victims. The few scenes I’ve stumbled over haunt me. Contempt is a terribly corrosive and toxic element in almost every context. I don’t say that no one deserves it – I can think of a few right now – but I save my contempt for people who act contemptuously toward those weaker than themselves.

Contempt is not a dividing line for everyone. There are people in the bdsm pantheon that get off on contempt, either inflicted or received. My guess is, however, that however powerful the fantasy may be, most of them want that underlay of caring as well, however subtly it’s expressed.

Kindness, on the other hand, is incredibly powerful emotionally, particularly coming from someone with the full ability to be cruel. (That good old “good cop – bad cop” routine.) How many gut-wrenching scenes can you think of, when some powerful dom allows a glimpse of the humanity and love beneath their hard exterior? How many books do you truly enjoy that don’t include an element of kindness and caring?

Is it the contrast that thrills us? Or perhaps the balance of d/s fantasies and the rational need for connection? What do you think?


  1. It is impossible for me to care for the dominant partner if he or she is not demonstrating care for the sub. Pain and/or humiliation can be sexy as hell, but only if a brilliant smile and a "Good girl!" (or whatever) greet us on the other side. (Anders taking time to visit Maia in the mornings on the farm, stroking her and talking to her gently and lovingly, is a nifty example.) It is a hard line to walk (or write) in d/s, complicated by the need of many subs for "use", i.e., objectification, but I agree that kindness, an unexpected gentle touch, a word of encouragement, even if that word is disguised as a warning growl, is the key to the lock in many instances. The walls of inhibition melt as souls (not to be too granola-snorting and Californian here) merge, and contempt has no part in that process. Thanks for this. It is very interesting and thoughtful.