Sunday, 10 August 2014

Submission, spanking and self-harm

There is a scene in Steven Shainberg’s Secretary where E Edward Grey speaks to Lee, his secretary and submissive, about her history of self-harm. “Is it that sometimes the pain inside has to come to the surface?” he asks her before instructing her to stop doing it. “You will never cut yourself again,” he tells her. “You’re over that now. It’s in the past.”

So instead of self-harming, Lee submits herself to Grey’s command, discovering a world of willing submission and bondage play. The implication is that Lee’s desire to hurt herself and her desire to be punished by Grey are two sides of the same coin. She cures herself of one by fully embracing the other.

I am not sure I accept the link.

I am currently reading Maren Smith’s Holding Hannah in which the protagonist is also a self-harmer. I haven’t finished it yet so I don’t know how the author plans to develop this alongside the book’s BDSM themes but reading it has started me thinking once again about the relationship between self-harm and masochism.

I extensively self-harmed between my mid-teens and mid-twenties. My arms and hands are permanently marked with the small round burn marks and long thin scars which serve as a physical manifestation of the clinical depression I have lived with for the last twenty-five years. I manage my depression now with the help of regular medication and professional therapy a couple of years ago which enabled me to re-think the way I responded to depressive episodes in my life. For a very long time the incapacitating pain of depression was compounded by feelings of guilt that I should be feeling like this in the first place. What do you have to be unhappy about? I would ask myself. I'd badger myself with the things I should be thankful for and how so many people in the world had a much worse time of it than I did. My therapist helped me to break the cycle of adding to my depression by hating myself for daring to have it in the first place. I don’t need to work out why I feel the way I do. I just need to accept that I do and determine where to go from here.

So how does this link in to the other stuff, the kinky spanky BDSM preferences?

That has been a part of my life even longer than the depression has. Certainly from the age of nine I was maintaining a kind of mental scrapbook in which I would store snippets of books and films – like Oliver in the 1968 musical being bent over a table by Fagin his coat tails flipped out of the way for a beating he doesn’t receive, or an episode of Nanny in which three sisters are regularly hit across their palms with a ruler by their stern governess. I would snip and rearrange these images until I had something I liked and replay it again and again in my mind. I wasn’t sexually aware; I just knew it was something that I liked to think about.

As I got older and realised that my obsession was in fact sexual in nature, I naturally assumed I was some kind of freakish pervert. Most of my masturbation fantasies didn’t even involve sex. How weird was that? Then I found out about Sadomasochism. That must be what it is, I thought and, as the world wide web wasn’t around yet, sought out books and magazines full of whips, chains, leather masks and women being restrained in a  variety of unnatural and uncomfortable looking positions.  There was a horrible sense of disappointment when I realised that, no, that wasn’t right either.  I felt like I had I had missed another memo. I was weird even amongst the weirdoes. All I wanted to see was girls having their bottoms spanked.

Interestingly I feel that I have really only come to terms and fully accepted my kink with the last few years which coincides with my acceptance of my clinical depression.

Yet I still remain unconvinced that the two things are connected.

I don’t doubt that the two things often coincide. But then they would. Self harm is not uncommon. Neither is being a bit kinky. The two things are often going to turn up together in the same person. For me, they are just two separate things that make up who I am. Like my vegetarianism or love of Disney movies.

I am not dismissing the idea though. I may have turned forty this year but I am still learning all the time about what it means to be me. In fact, I anticipate it to be a life-long project. I understand – and like – myself better today than at any other point in my life so far. But I am very, very long way indeed from knowing it all. Maybe the dodgy bit of wiring inside my head that sparked the need to self-harm is linked to my fascination with spanking. Regardless of whether they are in fact two sides of the same coin as they were for Lee in Secretary, the most important thing I think is that I continue to accept myself as I am. Emotionally messy, slightly scarred and my own particular level of kinky. It’s all me.


  1. I'm still recovering from self harm from my early teens and it will probably always be a tiny thought somewhere even without the actions. I'm also active in my local BDSM movement and subby in most environments but I never connected the two. I think it's possibly two things that make up me with both good and bad pros and cons. (Obviously self harm is all cons...) I used to try and figure it out once I found the online spanking community and you know what? It doesn't matter if they are linked or how we are wired - all of our experiences and traumas and pleasures ect make us who we are! (And hello we're awesome) A very powerful post Etta. I'm very glad you shared. :)

    1. Some of the words are twisted around - sorry I'm still on my first sips of coffee. I meant to say I used to try and figure it out especially after I found the online spanking community and saw more people were into the things I am.

  2. I think for some it could be or is connected. Part of my problem with Lee's self-harm in the movie is how such a direct causal link is built. My mental health history is a bit complex. My specific diagnosis is Bipolar I with rapid cycling with OCD tendencies- basically that means that I've had full manic and depressive episodes lasting 2 weeks at some point in my life; my moods swing even faster than most bipolar people and sometimes I engage in OCD behaviors without them being severe enough to warrant the full diagnosis. But then, I think "self-harm" is too limited in scope, at least in how people understand the term in the US; like cutting is the only type of self-harm, maybe. I know my compliment of "bad behaviors" is much more complex than that. I also question, in the movie, the notion that BDSM alone "fixes" Lee. While I'm not on meds or in structured therapy (both my decisions, even if they aren't always easy to live with), I do a variety of things, not all of them BDSM-related, that help deal with my moods. Also we don't have Lee's thoughts, only her actions. Well my Master has tried just ordering better thoughts etc in regards my anorexia, but it really doesn't work that outside of movies.

  3. I used to cut and it was a huge part of my life during my high school years until I was in my mid twenties. Like Joelle, I am a rapid cycler bipolar as well. I love the movie Secretary because I can relate to Lee. Even being active in the lifestyle wasn't enough to exactly curb my cutting habits, but there did come a time where I substituted my knives for someone with a paddle or whatever else. There were also times when I would play way too hard because of this. It took a lot of time and effort, not only my part but also those I played with to help me get to a point where I was no longer using impact play as a substitution for cutting, but as something I love and enjoy. BDSM is not a fix for mental illness or self-harm. Also like Joelle said, no dominant can cure a problem just by giving an order.

  4. I'm loving this topic. I actually started writing a book on cutting. I have several friends who have kids who cut or cut themselves. When I started researching there were some things that surprised me.

    1) Cutting, self mutilation (which includes skin picking, cutting,) also includes anorexia and bulimia.Asa recovered anorexic I was shocked to learn that this was included under the same umbrella. I am also someone who when stressed with pick at the skin on my fingers and cuticles and never really saw it as the same behavior as cutting. I should have but didn't . The reason they include these under the same umbrella is that they all use pain to distract during stressful times. The pain of a stomach growling can distract as easily as cutting your cuticles or cutting your thigh with a razor.

    2) When a person cuts, self mutilates or uses pain to distract it releases endorphins that calm and soothe the self abuser. BDSM activites such as paddling, spanking, whipping, etc. releases the same endorphins. So it would make sense that substituting the pain of discipline would help as a stress reducer without the life threatening aspect. It made sense. It clicked.

    So in this book I am writing now--the girl asks her Dom to discipline her--hard--with a paddle when she feels the urge to cut. However, she is required to journal, do yoga, take her meds, sleep and eat regularly to prevent triggers, and see her therapist weekly. But when these stress relievers and behavior mods don't work, she leaves a paddle on the counter and puts herself into the corner to wait for her "therapeutic spanking". In addition she knows that if she cuts herself, it is an automatic switching. Something she avoids like the plague, so she volunteers for a paddling.

    I understand that we all hate--me included--to have Hollywood make it look like the only people who are into BDSM are the broken ones. I don't feel it is accurate and we all know it is NOT accurate. But substituting the pain and endorphins released from cutting with the pain and endorphins released during a hard paddling, seems to have medical backing.

    I loved this topic. Very good post. I'm glad that you have overcome your cutting, just like I have overcome my anorexia. It is a struggle. The mental addiction is much harder to overcome. Congratulations!! Awesome post!!

  5. I tried the cutting thing but I did so it didn't looked like I was cutting myself. I would carve things in my arm like crosses or initials. I didn't want people to know because then teachers cause trouble and I just wanted to feel the pain. Then I discovered I enjoyed the feeling of being hungry more so I then spent all of high school starving myself. I lived on Pepsi and Tylenol. I also was involved in sports and I lived for injuries. After reading Megan post I realized I also bit the skin around my nails and I get them pretty sore. Since I still do that I guess I never got over causing harm to myself. I have tried anxiety and depression meds. They do not help so I don't think I have a mental issue and since my 16 has cut herself and I know she has no mental issues she has teenage drama. I have never tried a good paddling for my issues to know if it really does help but I did read a book about and thought it sounded like a good option

  6. Etta- I loved this blog post. You know I love your funny stuff and your wicked sense of humor, but I enjoyed this immensely!

    So when I first watched Secretary I think my take on Lee's self harming was that she was trying to control something she couldn't control. Like it was her way of coping. Things got over whelming so she harmed herself. Then when Edward came in he took her control, so she didn't need to harm herself anymore. That is how I found it when I watched it. But that is coming from someone who has no experience with self harming, so I don't really know what I am talking about.

    My second thing is I think it is funny how most of us who are into the spanking thing have similar stories. I was intrigued with it at an early age same as you, and then same as you thought I was a freak because I only really liked the spanking, nothing else. And lots of my sexy daydreams never had sex in them, just spanking (it is still that way actually).

    We can all be a little weird together, I guess...

    Thanks for sharing about your life and personal experiences. I like seeing the person behind the spanking romance author.

  7. Just wanted to thank everybody for their brilliantly thoughtful and insightful comments on this post. It's possible that we may have confirmed a link given how many of us spankos there are with histories of mental illness - but then I guess people with similar experiences are more likely to comment.

    Thank you so much everybody. It has been really interesting reading everybody's take on the subject.

  8. This is a fascinating topic. I've never cut myself but I've wanted to be spanked as long as I can remember for many of the same reasons. Even as a child of eight I allowed an older child to spank me on the bare with a paddle until I was crying. When I was stressed or sad I craved the spankings. I've allowed myself to be spanked until my butt was bloody. I'm an older adult now and still crave this. I've been blessed with a wife who will paddle me when I tell her I need it.