I recently read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. It's fascinating and valuable how-to book, offering techniques for protecting ourselves from violence. de Becker writes that the primary warning signal of danger ahead is the momentary feeling of fear. Not anxiety or suspicion, but actual fear. Too often we don't pay attention to fear because we're in a constant state of nervousness as it is, or we force the emotion away because it's impolite to take action on the basis of a hunch. This is a mistake. Predictive fear is based on a whole slew of subconscious observations, which we might dismiss if we attribute it to mere "intuition."
There have been a few occasions where I might have been in danger. When I was a college student, I lived in a ratty apartment in downtown Denver. One night I get a knock at my door. I open it. A big man is standing out in the hallway. He holds a Bowie-type knife in his hand. I'm surprised, and a little nervous. Big man. Stranger. Knife. Night. But I don't't feel a jolt of fear. I ask him, "Are you wanting to hurt me?" He says no. He then proceedes to vent about a fellow apartment dweller who was complaining that he'd been playing his Pow Wow music too loud. Afterwards the big man with the big knife goes back home. So why didn't I feel fear? There were plenty of clues that I was not in danger, and my brain was evidently processing them subconsciously. Like: The security system of the apartment pretty much meant he was a neighbor. So not some guy off the street. He was stoking his knife the entire time. My mind must have interpreted this stroking not as a threat, but as an upset guy handling a security blanket. His actions, his body language, the context, his voice, all made me believe he was just a lonely, scared man who was seeking friendly human contact. What didn't count was his answer to my question about if he was going to hurt me.
A few years later, I'm flying to San Jose for a job interview in Northern California. A young woman and I get to talking on the plane. She finds out I'm renting a car to head north. She asks me for a ride to city on the way. I say sure. As we're deplaning, she suddenly informs me she wants me to take on another passenger. She has a friend, a man, also on the plane. I'm surprised and uneasy. I pause to think about this new development, and she smiles at me. Her smile is wide, and meant to be reassuring. The smile says, "Trust me." I now feel true fear. Needless to say, I didn't let her, or her companion, in my rental car. It's possible that this couple wasn't dangerous at all. But I still think they were.
And this close call brings me to the topic of this post: What can The Gift of Fear, full of great advice for the vanilla world, offer a sub in the BDSM world? Clearly the concept of respecting your fear isn't all that relevant in the kink sphere, given that fear is the extra thrill attracting many to BDSM. So how can the knowledge in de Becker's book protect the submissive?
First, by analyzing the concept of "trust" rather than "fear".
de Becker describes, in detail, a group of signals that let you know you may be in danger. These signals are the intellectual (and often subconscious) underpinnings of the fear emotion. The vulnerable sub is going to have to study those signals in the context of trust, rather than fear. I'll write about two of de Becker's signals, but in relation to BDSM play.
Forced Teaming: Translated to the BDSM world, this is a manipulation to "force trust". A sub who responds to such manipulation is in grave danger. Here are a few examples: A Dom is "owed" trust. A Dom "deserves" trust. A Dom has "earned" trust. A Dom is "hurt" because there's not enough trust. A Dom is angry because there isn't enough trust. A Dom demands trust. A Dom claims there's a timetable for trust. Bullshit. To see how ridiculous these claims are, replace trust with the words "romantic love". Is someone owed romantic love? Is romantic love earned? Does romantic love have a timetable?
Trust, rather than love, is often the emotional currency of BDSM. Treat trust with respect, and expect your partner to do the same.
Discounting the word no: This concept obviously doesn't need recasting. I can't tell you how many times I've spoken to subs who played with someone who violated their limits or ignored their safeword. They're hurt and harmed. But after a promise to do better, they play with the same person again. And get into even worse trouble. There's no "three strikes and you're out" in BDSM. The kink game is a lot rougher and potentially more deadly than baseball. One strike is enough. Get outta there.
Unless it's by some mutually agreed-upon, in advance, mind-fuck or role-play scenario, "no means no" in BDSM, too.