The Alpha-male stands above the sub, spitting on it, slapping its face, laughing at it when it obeys and starts licking the boots. A string of nasty names and insults pour out of the Alpha-male’s mouth: filthy faggot, cocksucker, fucktoy, pissbucket, cockwhore, cumslut…
Humiliation play is a relatively common element in fetish and BDSM scenes, in one form or another. And there are many forms of humiliation. Humiliation can be hot, with an intense erotic charge. Why? Humiliation can be edgy, pushing the boundaries of personal and social taboos. Are you ready to go that far? Humiliation can be dangerous sometimes. What do you do when it goes too far?
Humiliation, as a word, comes from the latin word “humilis” which means low – it is about putting someone in their place, especially as it relates to power. In consensual BDSM, humiliation is a form of psychological play. Psychological play is a kind of edge play, because psychological play involves playing with trust or consent. It can often include a re-enactment of violence and abuse, and can involve treating another person as if they were an object or subhuman. Psychological play often arouses intense emotions which can be overwhelming to a person, flooding them. All of these are edgy, because in most BDSM scenes the container for the play is trust, consent, respect for persons – these are established and they allow the play to happen in a safe, sane and consensual way. But when you play with the container, you risk crossing the line, and that’s what makes humiliation play edgy.
So, hot and successful humiliation scenes, where everyone has a great time and feels good and positive afterwards, has a particular kind of psychological stance. Humiliation play works like sarcasm. On the surface, there is one message: “you’re a cocksucking faggot” – but below the surface, there is an opposite message: “I like cocksuckers and faggots, they are good things to be.” On the surface, it sounds nasty, mean, dehumanizing, violent. Below the surface, the sub is being praised and valued for those qualities that are often reasons for rejection by the vanilla world. What is considered trash or disgusting by the mainstream world is a great treasure to be enjoyed in the fetish world.
And this psychological dynamic highlights a key aspect to successful humiliation play: only denigrate someone for things you value, or that the other person likes about themselves. Do not go for those characteristics where the sub is already feeling vulnerable and shameful. If a sub has negative feelings about their body size (too short, too small, too big, too skinny) then a Dominant should not humiliate them with comments about that. Doing so will make the scene “too real”, too close to past experiences of real rejection and shaming, and that will bring up very intense negative feelings that will just cut the connection between the Dom and the sub.
So, why is it hot? There are a couple of reasons. One is that intense eroticism is itself a paradox, a combination of desire and some sort of barrier to that desire. Longing and anticipation heightens erotic desire. Violating prohibitions and taboos increases erotic desire. Overcoming ambivalence, when you feel both fascinated and a little disgusted, attracted and repelled, can make something hotter. Humiliation play touches on these psychological dynamics and plays with them. The other reason is that most of our brain doesn’t distinguish between physical pain and social pain, they involve the same parts of the brain – and the body often releases endorphins in reaction to the perception of pain. Hence, being insulted in the right context works just like getting slapped on the ass – pain, yes, but then a rush of endorphins to help process the pain.
There are common themes in humiliation play. The themes can be grouped into four categories: dirt, objectification, weakness, and public display. Dirt is taboo, and involves all sorts of body fluids and products especially (you’re filthy, a nasty ass-eating cumdump). Objectification, treating someone as an object or subhuman, can include reducing someone to a body part (you’re just a hole for Men to use). Weakness is a theme that often comes up in humiliation scenes (you can’t even stand on your own, sissyboy). Public display often means exposing the person or shaming them, since shame is about public exposure (you stand out here in front of everyone in that skimpy thong, until I say).
But because a humiliation scene plays with trust and respect, honor and integrity; because it can play with past real-world hurts and rejections and abuse; because it can blend in with real-world injuries such as racism, sexism, and other forms of stigma, humiliation’s edge can be easily crossed. And that can result in triggering PTSD reactions, or causing a panic attack, or a rage outburst. There are certain techniques that can help, and I encourage people to learn a little psychological first aid. One place to get more info on psychological first aid includes The Alternative Sexualities Health Research Alliance (www.tashra.org) based in San Francisco.
Richard Sprott entered the San Francisco leather scene in 1990. He serves as the Executive Director of CARAS (the Community-Academic Consortium for Research on Alternative Sexualities), a nonprofit corporation designed to promote scientific and scholarly research on kink/BDSM/fetish sexuality. Richard also is one of the founders of TASHRA (The Alternative Sexualities Health Research Alliance). Richard has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from UC Berkeley.