Impact Play and EMDR

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a technique that helps people process traumatic experiences. Developed by Francine Shapiro, it uses various methods of bilateral brain stimulation to help reduce the psychological distress associated with specific memories. It has been repeatedly shown to be effective in treating PTSD. Through my experience both in the mental health field and in the world of kink, and as a trauma survivor myself, I’ve begun to wonder if before EMDR was developed, kinksters accidentally stumbled upon the same underlying phenomenon.

The assumptions that underly EMDR come from a body centered understanding of trauma. In this perspective, an event is “traumatic” when it is too overwhelming for our brain to process. The brain has no schema with which to “file” these memories into long term storage. So they become “stuck”- frozen in the visceral body. The way you can tell that the traumatic memory is “stuck” in this way is if you still experience being “triggered” in relation to the memory. Feeling “triggered” is that stuck traumatic energy being activated and trying to disperse.

EMDR therapists use bilateral stimulation, whether it is eye movements, a sound, or physical, like a buzzing sensation in order to activate both hemispheres of the brain. While being stimulated in this way, the client focuses on reliving the bodily sensations related to a traumatic experience. The brain is then able to process it into long term memory. In my experience, when I received EMDR therapy, there is a very distinct sensation of “evaporation” or “dissapation” that is the sensation of the memory being processed and filed away. After this, you may still feel sadness or grief that you went through this experience, but you will not feel “triggered” in terms of a distressing physical response related to this memory.

Impact play is a form of BDSM in which one persons hits another person with some kind of object, such as a hand, a paddle or a cane. Impact play usually happens in a rhythmic fashion, which helps the bottom process the pain and may even take them into a meditative state sometimes called “sub space”.

When I was first venturing into the kink and BDSM world, one of the things that stuck with me was the ritualistic and attachment oriented nature of kinky play. I would be standing in a dungeon, surrounded by pairs of people, one bent over across a bench or table, one standing over them standing over the other, rhythmically beating them back and forth, from one side of their body to the other, for extended periods of time. It appeared to me like both partners were embodying a deep connection to both themselves and each other- like in a deep trance- their cumulative energy filling up the room.

As I began to get more experience in kinky play, especially impact play as a bottom, I started to have these experiences myself. The two parts to it are essential- the trusting attachment and the physical act. Allowing a person I trust to beat me rhythmically back and forth over and over again creates a feeling of both deep groundedness and deep reverie. And in this context, I think it may possible to process trauma- integrating it our bodies and into our long term memory.

Kinksters will often argue that BDSM and kink play is therapeutic. Not a replacement for therapy- but therapeutic. By focusing in the bodily sensations related to a traumatic memory, and allowing a person I deeply trust to beat me rhythmically from side to side of my body, I can feel in my body what it’s like to be back in a moment where I felt hopeless, unworthy, or broken. I stay in that body memory while my partner hits me rhythmically, again and again in a pattern of meditative pain, until the charge in the memory dissipates. And I wonder, does this help integrate my trauma memories in the same way that EMDR does?

The Sexual Assault of Daily Life

Rape culture is not just about the millions of women who have been violently assaulted. Women are traumatized by rape culture every day without being raped. One of the most damaging things about rape culture is experiencing the sexual assault of daily life.

In writing about the sexual assault of daily life, I am not attempting to minimize the effect of rape or abuse in women’s lives. It is a singular experience that cannot be compared to others. But trauma is relative, and a lifetime of smaller violations can lead to the same symptoms of avoidance, hypervigilance, intrusive memories, rage, feelings of worthlessness, and the desire to dissassociate.

As a woman, feeling violated can be an everyday part of life. It’s the small interactions that keep adding up until finally each new tiny trespass can make you feel like exploding. With trauma comes hypervigilance, and eventually even well intentioned conversations might be read by the traumatized person as a potential attack.

It becomes a crazy making experience. It is a feeling in the pit of your stomach- in it’s most basic form this feeling is fear. It is knowing that something is a little off- it is a little bit wrong- it is knowing that you should watch your step. You should be careful. You should be on guard. You are an object. You are an idea. You are a fantasy. You are a toy. You are expendable.

It is noticing that a man took my picture from behind without being asked. It is the feeling of a man’s hand suddenly around my waist without my permission. It is the whistles and yells out of car windows. It is being told I should smile. It is the casual comments about my breasts. It is the piercing male gaze, being looked up and down and up again. It is the mocking joke. It is being talked to like a child. It is the grimaces, the stares, the lip licking- it is being backed up against walls, it is being stood over and intimidated.

Then when you call it out or complain, it is dismissed over and over again: “You’re overreacting.” “He didn’t mean anything bad.” “He was just trying to be friendly.” “You should like the attention.” “Get over it.” “It’s not a big deal.” “Stop complaining.” “Take it as a compliment.”

But it is a big deal. These little violations build up in the back of your mind. Sometimes I get a feeling of dread knowing I need to walk somewhere by myself at night. My body gets stiff and guarded when I know I have to talk to a strange man in public. I avoid the eye contact of the men around me. I feel shakey when I feel men walk up close behind me, even if we are just standing in line somewhere.

You can’t look at these experiences without understanding their context in the system of our society. There is a reason that women are having these experiences and men aren’t. It is a way to let women know that they are always being watched- that they should always be a little afraid, always walking on eggshells, that they are never really totally safe- every little movement we make will be noticed by men and then either sexualized or mocked.

It is how women are kept in line. It is how we are reminded that we should always be worrying about what men think. And wheher we conform or we don’t- there is always the threat that we could be hurt. Men have power over us and the violence could happen at any time.

This is the sexual assault of daily life. This is the cumulative fear of womanhood. So my face turns red. My body gets jumpy. I yell at men to get away from me. I act icey cold.

And then I get called crazy- bitch- psycho- cunt.

Yes I’m crazy. And men have made me this way. We are policed our whole lives, and little by little, moment by moment, we get crazy. People are incredulous, like the don’t understand why when we kill ourselves, when we cut ourselves, when we get high and drunk, when we starve ourselves, when we binge. How can you not understand why? I will feel violated no matter what I do. So I have limited choices within this constraint: I can let me rage simmer down to a white hot coal in my stomach until it burns all the way through my body. I can explode, and let every blood vessel burst. Or I can numb myself slightly- we will find ways to cope and make it through until the end.

End Violence Against Sex Workers

What can we do to end violence against sex workers? It’s hard to talk about what all sex workers need to make that happen, because contrary to popular opinion, there is not one type of sex worker. Sex workers come in all varieties, from all intersections of privilege and oppression. But one thing I am certain of is that decriminalizing sex work will benefit all sex workers. In my explanation, I am leaving out the over arching moral issue of whether or not it is “ethical” to sell sex for money in a basic philosophical sense. I’m generally not interested in engaging with this part of the issue when I talk about sex work, because in the day to day life of a sex worker, it is mostly irrelevant. Although I certainly have my opinions about it, I’m not writing this to talk about whether or not women “should” sell sex for money. The fact is that they do. And given that fact, here are some ideas about what will make sex workers safer
I consider myself an example of someone who was a very privileged sex worker. I’m white, cisgender, and grew up with class privilege. I decided to do sex work for five years because I wanted to have money and time to party and enjoy myself while I was a full time under graduate college student. It felt more fulfilling to perform sexual acts for money 3-5 hours a month than to work 10-15 hours a week at a boring food service or retail job- and I usually made about the same amount of money or more by doing sex work for much fewer hours. It meant that I had more time to do homework and pursue my other interests, leaving me feeling less stressed and more fulfilled than if I had a regular job.
Although not all the work I did was illegal, it was certainly all stigmatized, which I believe is related to criminalization and the stereotypes that are used to maintain criminalization. Criminalization affected me negatively, even with all of my privileges.
When I first got into sex work, I had no connections to other sex workers. I figured out how the industry worked mostly on my own, through trial and error. Looking back, I realized that I did a lot of really unsafe things. If I had known other sex workers from the beginning, this could have been avoided. I could have been taught all the tips and tricks and safety precautions that I now know. Criminalization isolates sex workers. We are afraid to talk about our work, we are afraid to talk about our experiences, and we are afraid to help out new sex workers as they enter the industry.
Although most of the clients I worked with when I did sex work were decent, gentle men, some of them were creepy and I was even assaulted a couple of times. However, I had no recourse, or even an effective way to warn other sex workers about these people, because of criminalization. I wonder sometimes how many other girls have been traumatized by these same men because I had no way to circulate my experience and hold these men accountable.
Lastly, criminalization hurt me because I knew that if I was outed, I could get a criminal record, or at the very least because of the stigma of even the legal work that I did, I could be dismissed from my internship, lose credibility at school, and not be taken seriously as an applicant for a job in my chosen field, destroying any chance of progressing in my career and therefore actually trapping me, without choice, into a life of sex work.

Maybe you are still skeptical, because the examples I have given are all related to life as a sex worker with a lot of privilege. “You had a choice”, you might say. “Many women are not so lucky”. That’s true- many women are not nearly as lucky as I have been in my life. However, I want to complicate the idea of choice- because it is not sex work that creates a lack of choices for women. It is capitalism, it is ableism, and it is patriarchy. Many poor women are choosing between sex work and scrubbing toilets as a hotel maid, standing long hours on their feet at fast food restaurants, enduring awful conditions in factories, or even being homeless. Because the reality is, there are not enough jobs outside of the sex industry that exist for poor women. If you take sex work away, it does not automatically create other jobs for women to get, or inherently make that woman feel any more empowered. Those other jobs I mentioned feel incredibly degrading to a lot of women. However, no one talks about “outlawing fast food workers” as a way to keep women from feeling degraded. Banning sex work does not prevent women from making hard choices in an awful economic climate. Many poor women, because of personal taste, ability status, or their own life priorities, will choose sex work over an exhausting full time minimum wage job. If this bothers you, organize to create a more just economic system, and leave sex workers alone. Giving sex workers a criminal record and the label of “prostitute” just gives them fewer future choices among the limited ones they already have.

Maybe you are tempted by the rhetoric of “criminalize johns and pimps, not sex workers”. Many people who argue for this say that it will help the least privileged sex workers. Let’s think this through. Say you are homeless, addicted to drugs, and are a sex worker meeting clients all day. You are hoping to make enough money to get a hotel room, some food, and your drug of choice for tonight. However, your clients keep getting arrested after you solicit them. Even though you are not arrested, you now have no money for a hotel room that night. You have to spend the night on the streets, where you are much more likely to be violently assaulted. Criminalizing the soliticitation of sex workers doesn’t automatically create more shelters, more work and educational opportunities, and more drug rehab options, let alone ones that are accessible to the most marginalized of people. Staying on the streets over night is traumatizing, and physical disabilities and mental illnesses often get worse when living on the streets, leaving people less able to access services they would need to help get them out of the homeless and drug addicted cycle they get stuck in. You can see that in no way did criminalizing the clients of this hypothetical sex worker actually gave her more choices or helped her in any way.

Even if after all this, your response still might be, “but what about women who are actually kidnapped and used as sex slaves? How will decriminalization help them?” First of all- the number of people this actually happens to is by far the minority of people in the industry. Law enforcement inflates these numbers by including all manner of traveling sex workers, regardless of their individual situations. For example, the “sex trafficking victim” who was murdered at a Portland hotel last year was actually an escort murdered by a client (every headline calls her a trafficking victim). Sex workers in Portland kept saying that she wasn’t a trafficking victim, that they knew her, but no one listened to them.
Even if your focus is this minority of women in the industry- then I think you should actually be supporting sex workers even more! Sex workers inherently have the most access to those who are trafficked, due to their connections in the industry and the places they work. By supporting and empowering sex workers, they would be able to ally themselves with social services to help trafficked women escape their kidnappers and abusive pimps.

Although all sex workers have different identities and experiences, all sex workers deserve rights, deserve respect, and deserve to have their work decriminalized. If you are so upset about the work conditions that sex workers experience, spend your energy fighting to end stigma, increase social services and the creation of a more humane economic system in general.

Clarification: I did sex work for five years. I’m no longer doing sex work. I haven’t for a couple of years now. Which is the only reason why I now feel comfortable talking about my experience.

a history of violence

The first time a man looked at me with sex and power and obsession, I was ten.

It happened for the second time a few months later.

At the mall my mother sneered with fear, pointing at the older man walking by us. He had looked me up and down. “Is that what you want? Is that who you want to notice you?”

I could feel her anger. She was angry at my clothing, she was angry at the way I walked; but mostly she was angry at my sexuality. She was angry I was growing up so young, despite every effort to keep me canned like in a jar.

I startle easily. I can feel people walk up behind me. I watch men’s feet walk by me out of the corner of my eye- I make sure they aren’t slowing down, or turning around back towards me.

I had never learned the skills to say no. It is a skill that you feel in your body- and I had never felt it. I had spent my childhood learning to accommodate the needs of others. It was no different when it came to boys.

I learned from TV and movies and magazines that women have to change ourselves to be liked by men- we aren’t enjoyable the way we are just naturally. And the worst thing we can do is be upsetting to a man. We are the keepers of their comfort.

It started by learning to freeze. I never learned what I wanted and what I didn’t want. I didn’t know there was such a thing as wanting something that was different than what men wanted.

Even when I started to trust my own desires a little more, it was an internal negotiation with male entitlement. How much do I have to not want something for it to be ok to make a scene? Is it worth the shame of being a woman and asking for what I want?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had sex didn’t really want to. Desirable girls want sex every day- so I must want to? And something is wrong with me if I don’t. It was impossible to tell the difference between the expectations I felt and the wants and needs of my self.

I never argued with men. Their opinions always made more sense. Their stances are wide. Their voices are loud. Their shoulders are hard. Why would I argue with them? I knew I would always lose. I believed I would always lose. I couldn’t confront the absurdity of it all. I wasn’t ready.

Men do things to you and you let them. I had no concept of empowerment, consent, authenticity, knowing what I really want. Not in any way that was meaningful. Not in any way that nurtured my soul.

Accommodation. Freezing. Permissiveness. The overwhelming desire to be desirable. With the praise came shame. With the approval came disdain. With the lust came disgust. It’s an impossible paradox.

I never said no- I never said stop. I never even pulled away. This happened in my own bed. This happened in other beds. It happened on couches and in bathrooms and in cars. I was lied to. I was coerced. I was talked down to. I was tricked.

I’ve been followed by men on the street. As early as eleven years old. As a teenager I heard more jail bait jokes than I could count. I knew I was expected to be seductive, so their behaviors could be understandable. I knew I had to embody their excuses for abuse.

I’ve been convinced by more men than I can count to do things that made them feel in control. When I did what they said to it validated everything their masculinity stands for. A smile, or a hello, or a giggle, or not arguing back. It was a daily proof, that I was there to not be offended, to not make a scene, to not hold a grudge, to not be upset: just be enjoyably passive.

Later, I grew up and learned more and dug deep and found hints of my self. I pondered the idea of saying no. I started shouting back to catcallers. My adrenalin boiled and my heart exploded with every try.

The first time I really refused someone who thought they owned me I was punched in the face.

The first time I tried to confront a harasser at the bar he stood his ground and stared at me cruelly and coldly. If I had punched him I would have been put in handcuffs. So I walked away and cried that I had no power.

The times I’ve felt powerless still overshadow all the times I’ve gotten away. That hot feeling of helplessness I still remember clearer than the times I’ve said no and pushed and shoved and ran and been safe. It’s an uphill battle. It’s treading against a current.

I am learning to take care of myself- but the times I didn’t allow myself to are still bigger in my memory. Fighting back takes practice- it will take the rest of my life to learn these skills, like I am a toddler again, crawling towards my own empowerment.

The Dissatisfied Goddess

At best she laughs about nothing,

at worst she laughs at tragedy.

For her the nights are long and lurking-

she wishes only to understand why others are able to see beauty.

When I dream I am kissing her red wounds-

She sings most beautifully right before someone dies.

She cannot scrub away the grunge of life: every morning it blossoms from her tongue with black petals.

She thinks she might be happy once she melds with the goodness in mud- when she drinks up the sweet dampness in leaves.

Why Are You Kinky?

Because it makes me tremble;
because it gives me tingles;
because my chest open and my heart flies free;
because I am imaginative;
because I am easily bored;
because I have a dirty mind;
because the world tells me I shouldn’t like it;
because the world is what made me like it;
because of a lifetime of mixed messages;
because I was never good enough;
because I want to be the best at it;
because my parents told me “DO WHAT YOU LOVE”;
because of trauma;
because my trauma is ambiguous;
because I can’t quite put my finger on it;
because I’m surrounded by predators;
because I’m waiting for the pounce;
because I know it can always get worse;
because I can’t ever believe in something entirely;
because it has become my religion;
because it has become my savior;
because it calms me down and soothes me;
because feminists hate me;
because conservatives despise me;
because I’m asking for it;
because it’s the only way I can ever make my thinking sometimes stop;
because of sparkly dresses and high heels,
because of damsels in distress;
because of Disney princesses;
because of slasher flicks and screaming girls and blood;
because no one taught me how to put on make-up;
because it was my earliest fantasies;
because I think about it when I masturbate;
because THE BEST ORGASMS I’VE EVER HAD;
because it was easy money;
because I wanted to be someone else;
because I knew it was wrong;
because it felt so good;
because I have never felt so close to someone;
because I wanted the world to see me do it;
because THERE’S NO TURNING BACK NOW,
because I so desperately want to feel powerful;
because I am a woman and I will never be powerful;
because every day I walk the streets and I wait for violence and it’s out of my control;
because maybe I want to choose my own kinds of violence;
because I find it empowering;
because I find it degrading;
because I have so much anxiety about everything I do;
because I am tough;
because I want to prove I can take it;
because I know I can take it;
because I like the way the bruises look for days afterwards;
because of how rope feels when it’s tied to my body;
because my arms and legs fall asleep;
because of spanking, clothespins, paddles, floggers, canes, knives, scalpels, plastic bats, wooden spoons, blindfolds, fists, slaps, hair pulling, chains, collars, leashes and piss;
because men aren’t supposed to do that to girls;
because girls aren’t supposed to want men to do that to them;
because I’m queer,
because “I’d pass in Texas”,
because it puts me into a trance;
because I like being scared;
because he tells me I’m a good girl when I do it;
because he tells me he’s proud of me for taking it;
because he tells me I’m strong;
because I never have been a good girl;
because I never wanted to be what THEY wanted;
because I hate what I’ve become;
because I’ve always hated everything I’ve ever been;
because I’m hypersexual;
because I’m abnormal;
because something’s wrong with me;
because there are thousands of others just like me;
because I thrive on objectification;
because I rage against objectification;
because I want to crawl out of my own body and escape;
because I get so sad that I can’t even cry;
because the world is dying around me;
because my greatest performance is that of femininity;
because I am an embodiment of submission.