I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the verbal side of D/S play. I am not, for the most part, a pain enthusiast. I have a low tolerance for it when I’m being dominated – low enough that including spanking or other impact play as a central part of what we’re doing barely seems worth it. When I’m topping someone, I’m more enthusiastic about wielding a flogger or a belt, or just rolling up my sleeves and putting my hands to work, but it’s still something I get pleasure out of largely because my partner does. I’m not instinctively or intrinsically aroused by administering pain.
I’m much keener on verbal domination and especially on verbal submission. I like the back-and-forth nature of it; the call-and-response, as one of you issues commands that the other feels compelled to obey. It also provides an opportunity to weave together both the experience we’re having and any fantasies that might enhance it; and again, there’s a clear rhythm to that dance, with the dominant creating a scenario and leading the submissive through it.
Maybe we were in a pub earlier, and you thought the barman was hot. Maybe you’re thinking about that as I wrap your hair around my fist and move your mouth up and down my cock. And if you are thinking about it, maybe you’ll get even wetter when I tell you to spread your legs as you suck me, and to imagine the clink of his belt behind you; the sound of him spitting on his palm and slowly pumping his hand along his stiffening length, as he watches you suck me off like a good little whore.
Or maybe you won’t.
Most of us with even a basic level of BDSM experience know our physical limits and triggers, in part because that sort of pain is fairly easy to measure and articulate. It’s also predictable. I know what I can take and what I can’t, and that doesn’t vary from one day to the next unless I have an injury of some kind. Spank me too hard and I’ll tell you; likewise, I’ll respond quickly and to any distress in your voice when I overstep the mark, or to safewords that we’ve agreed beforehand. When done properly, impact play is safe because it’s structured, and because most of the language used to describe it is clear and well-defined.
If physical domination is a piano concerto, verbal domination – and especially verbal humiliation – is often treated more like experimental jazz. Touch and feel, not rules and discipline. Blurred lines. Intuition. It’s natural to see it that way, but it can also be risky, because unlike when you’re whacking my arse with paddle, the pain isn’t always so obvious; so easy to measure and articulate.
In November 1999, I was four months into my first proper relationship and, like most 18 year olds, riddled with insecurities. My girlfriend had opted to take a gap year before university, and had got a job in the centre of Oxford at my dad’s company, 15 miles from where she lived and just a ten-minute walk from my college accommodation. It meant that we spent a lot of time together in my room, but very little at her place, a small gardener’s cottage on a country estate, where she lived with her parents and twin sister.
If the cottage was small, my girlfriend’s bedroom was positively tiny, and with so few opportunities to spend time there, I was always incredibly curious about everything whenever she did invite me over. I would study the posters on her wall as if they contained tiny, precious nuggets of insight into her hopes and dreams. I would sit on the edge of her bed and leaf through the novels on the shelf opposite, because to know Laura’s books was to know her – or so I thought at the time. And every now and then, my gaze would flick down to the bottom of the bookcase, where she kept the biggest treasure of all. Her diary.
Only a complete arsehole reads his girlfriend’s diary. At 18, I was that arsehole. I could call it a moment of weakness, and in one sense it was, but it was also the product of overwhelming insecurity. I spent most of my time back then worrying that she was about to dump me, because that’s what you do when you’re a teenager, experiencing the pleasure and pain of love and intimacy for the first time. I hoped to find reassurance somewhere in the neat, familiar cursive; instead, as is invariably the case when breaching someone’s privacy in such a terrible way, I got exactly what I deserved – a slap to the face that couldn’t have stung more if she’d come striding out of the bathroom and hand-delivered it.
‘I don’t know how I feel about this relationship any more . . . For one thing, he’s just not very attractive…’
It was both a complete shock and a confirmation of all my worst fears about myself. Too many spots, crooked teeth, greasy hair, weak jaw: I’d spent most of my teenage years hating what I saw in the mirror, and right there, in clear black-and-white, was proof that the girl I was in love with hated it too.
I put the diary back on the shelf. I scrunched up all that shock and pain and sadness into a little ball, and pushed it deep down inside myself, where she could never hope to find it. I fixed a smile on my face, ready to carry on as if nothing had happened.
Two months later, we tried to have sex for the first time. I couldn’t get it up. She left the following week for Hungary, where she taught English for six months. I flew out to visit in April and she dumped me. Twice. By the time two mutual friends went inter-railing with her in July, she’d acquired a new boyfriend.
“I never thought Laura would be so loud in bed,” one of them declared, to widespread laughter, at a party later that summer. “I’m pretty sure the whole Youth Hostel heard them.”
I pushed the ball down even further. I didn’t stop smiling.
We don’t always know which traumas will stay with us over the years, and which will slough off like dead skin, forgotten even before they’ve drifted down to the ground.
Some time ago, I was talking to someone who’d expressed an interest in topping me. She was into verbal humiliation, and between us we started to explore what that might involve.
“Your cock really is pathetically small. Useless in fact. Not like a real man’s.”
“Is it ok to laugh when I tell you how small your cock is?”
“Good. And is it ok if I tell you that your last girlfriend probably left you because she couldn’t stand being fucked with such a tiny dick?”
“I…well…yes. I think. Let me get back to you on that one.”
I went away, gave it some thought, and decided that yes, I was ok with that. It was part of the scenario, and existed within a framework that she’d created. However, in the moment my first instinct had been to push back; suddenly I was 18 again, and sitting on my girlfriend’s bed, my fingers moving up involuntarily to feel the spots on my face and press my overlapping teeth apart. I was back at that summer party, listening to them laugh.
I hadn’t thought about either evening for years and years – not consciously, anyway. But apparently there they were, still balled up in my stomach; diminished in size, perhaps, by the passage of time, but stubbornly refusing to disappear completely.
That sort of gut-twisting pain is far harder to communicate to a partner – especially one who doesn’t know you very well – than the sting of a crop or a whip. I don’t know what my response would have been if she’d just said that in bed without any prior discussion, when I was naked and vulnerable. Maybe I would have been fine – I’m not insecure about cock size more generally, which is why we’d incorporated it into the role-play in the first place, and why I’ve written it into stories that focus on verbal domination – but then again, maybe I wouldn’t have been. And that’s kind of the point.
Without talking about verbal limits as well as physical ones, we won’t learn that a particular partner loves to be called a slut or a bitch, but hates the word whore, and can’t stand hearing it in a sexual context. We won’t learn that ‘useless’ and ‘dirty’ are fine, but ‘ugly’ isn’t, because ugly is what he or she has been hurt by before. We won’t learn that cuckolding is hot, but abandonment is problematic.
Wider context is also important. Because actually, ‘useless’ might be fine one day –most days – but if I’ve just lost my job, or cocked up an interview, it’s probably not what I want to hear, even if I am still in the mood to be dominated in that sort of way.
Beyond the specifics, having a conversation about verbal limits prior to any play helps you both to be more sensitive to the impact words can have once you’re actually in the bedroom, especially if you’re planning to explore darker fantasies and fetishes. It makes the jazz that little bit less experimental. Bounded creativity actually encourages a deeper, richer form of expression, because you know you’re exploring areas that you’re both comfortable playing in.
Responsible kinksters talk about physical and psychological limits in BDSM; the more I explore that side of myself, the more I think it’s just as important to be aware of what your partner doesn’t like to hear, as it is to know how hard they do and don’t like to be spanked.