Q I'm a 26-year-old bisexual woman with a history of self-harm. It hasn't been much of an issue for the last few years, but my sex life has improved a lot in that time. I realized that I am quite submissive and masochistic, and I have found a wonderful dominant partner who I've gotten to explore that kink with in a positive and healthy way. Last night, I watched the movie Secretary, and Maggie Gyllenhaal's character is someone who self-harms but stops when she begins a Dom/sub relationship with her boss. Obviously this film is flawed and not exactly a great guideline for healthy BDSM relationships. However, I did find myself relating to her character and am now questioning my motives for pursuing this kind of sexual relationship. I worry that I may be unintentionally using the pain that I lovingly experience from my partner as a replacement for the pain I used to experience from my bad habits. Or am I using BDSM as a form of harm reduction? Is it rational to even compare these two things?
—Seeking Careful Advice Regarding Recent Emotional Discovery
A "I completely get where SCARRED is coming from," says Lina Dune, the creator of Ask a Sub (askasub.com). "You're discovering your kinks, and then the culture comes in with a not-entirely-accurate film or hot take, and it can taint your self-discovery."
Dune is known as a "fairy submother" to her thousands of followers on Instagram, where she regularly posts about the Dom/sub lifestyle and frequently highlights red flags that newbies to the kink scene may miss. (A Dom who insists he "doesn't negotiate" with subs? Run away.) While still relatively young herself, Dune has been active in the kink scene for many years and identifies as a 24/7 lifestyle sub.
SCARRED, you don't want to over-interpret the film's fictional narrative. Meaning, while it suggested there was a causal relationship between Gyllenhaal's character entering into a Dom/sub relationship and no longer engaging in acts of self-harm, that doesn't mean the same is true for you.
"The culture infantilizes us all when it comes to owning our sexual desires—and that's especially the case for women," says Dune. "The message is: You don't know what you're getting into, or You don't realize the effect this is having. But if there's one thing SCARRED is an expert on, it's herself. It's not like she's in a trance when she's with her Dom—no matter what the movies want us to believe about Dom/sub relationships—which means she's consciously choosing this for herself, and it feels healthy and good. Our bodies don't usually lie. And I'd be willing to bet that self-harm did not feel that way."
But even if it turns out you're right, it could still be a good thing. Dune suggests you explore your feelings with a kink-positive therapist. "From my perspective, it looks like SCARRED may have been manufacturing her own version of exposure therapy, which some somatic-based psychologists have suggested is exactly what negotiated, consent-based kink play can provide," says Dune. "Looking fear in the eye and then being able to back away from it at will—and end with a cuddle and a check-in with your play partner—can make you feel more powerful, not less. So if SCARRED can consciously work through this with a therapist and her Dom, this BDSM relationship has the potential to be very healing, just as long as she maintains her autonomy within it."
Q I'm a 26-year-old straight man, and I haven't gotten laid in a while. I never actually got much to begin with. I lost my virginity late (age 23, also my first kiss) and had bottled up quite a bit of frustration until then (still got a lot of that left over). I also suffer from crippling social anxiety—so crippling, in fact, that I can't even get to know people online, which rules out online dating. I have recently come to the realization that the only way for me to ever get better is to stop wanting to get laid so much. Which. Is. Hard. The first step is learning to be OK with things as they are, which I am making progress with. But sex is everywhere: TV, movies, magazines. On the few occasions I do get to spend time with people, sex comes up a lot. People seriously complain to me about not having "gotten any" for two months, and that's not enough for them. I've heard people describe themselves as "late bloomers" because they had their first time at 17 or 19. I feel like such a freak. I have a male roommate who frequently has women over. I hear them going at it through the wall and get panic attacks because of it. I need some advice on how to be OK with not getting any, not really having gotten much to begin with, and just generally being nervous and inexperienced and self-conscious and lonely. I know that's a lot, but perhaps you have some valuable thoughts for me.
—After School Special
A Since there’s no way to strip the sex scenes and sexual references from every TV show you watch, magazine you read or conversation you have, ASS, working on yourself is going to be a far better use of your time than demanding a remade/de-sexed world. And by “working on yourself,” of course I mean “getting your ass into therapy.” Whether or not you ever get laid again, getting professional help to address your frustrations and social anxiety is going to improve your life. (It will up the chances that you’ll get laid again, ASS, but no promises.)
And take heart: For every letter like yours I get from a straight guy, ASS, I get an identical letter from a straight woman. Which means there are a lot of women out there who are just as inexperienced, self-conscious and lonely. Once you’re in good working order—not perfect, just functional—you might be able to connect with one of those women or some other woman. (But no one wants to connect with a guy who gives off a rage-y vibe, so please stay away from incel forums.)
And your inexperience makes you less freakish these days than you seem to realize. While 54 percent of high-school students had had sex by age 18 in 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, today only 41 percent of high-school students have had sex by age 18. Which means there are a lot of “late bloomers” out there, ASS. And while you’ve doubtless heard that confidence is attractive, you most likely haven’t been told that a person doesn’t have to be experienced to be confident. A guy just has to be comfortable enough in his own skin to be open about who he is, where he’s at and what he’s looking for.
But first things first: Get yourself a good therapist…and maybe a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
Have a question about sex, sexuality or relationships? Email it to Dan Savage, it could get answered in the column some week soon.