You might have seen a rather popular joke popping up in your social network feeds: ‘Your fetishes are nothing to be ashamed about. Unless your fetish is being humiliated, then you should be very ashamed, you nasty little pervert!’ People usually laugh and move on; I ended up taking it as a cue to talk about the very little discussed topic of erotic humiliation.
In fact, it is odd how even within groups where any sexual practice and curious kink is openly debated, humiliation games still are a taboo of sorts. Especially because they are very common: besides the statistics, I see that even among the people who tell me about their fantasies during coaching – which they may have booked precisely to learn how to better live those desires. Usually it is not hard to guide them toward a way that allows them to safely realize their fantasies, without ill-effects on their overall wellness. However, an inevitable question remains: what makes humiliation scenes so appealing for so many people?
The power of humiliation
To start with, it is important to know that, among all human emotions, the feeling of humiliation is capable of eliciting the most intense reactions. In a famous criminology paper, psychologist David Buss even found that 90% of homicidal instincts are sparked by this very sentiment.
Even without going to such extremes, however, it has been shown that feeling shame – justified or not – can scar us forever, profoundly affecting our behavior throughout our lives. Jon Ronson has accurately described these dynamics in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a wonderful investigation into how reputations can be destroyed online and in everyday life with sometimes lethal effects.
As is always the case, our interest tends to turn toward extremes – even in the field of eroticism. It is no wonder then that an archetype as powerful as humiliation can be intensely intriguing… but certainly not for a wish to go to jail or to become an outcast! When shame becomes the focus of a sexual fantasy the desires at stake are quite different, and very fascinating.
Ganbare! Or how to honorably debase yourself
Of course no single dynamic can fit everyone, but some elements occur more frequently than others. Among them is the approach, typical of certain pornography, of challenging and overcoming taboos for the sheer fun of it, linked to the same desire for self-affirmation you see in kids playing «bet you don’t have the guts to…». The Japanese language has an expression that sums up all this emotional rollercoaster in one word. ‘Ganbare!’ roughly means: ‘tackle this difficult trial making an effort into enduring its unpleasant parts and acknowledging your own weaknesses, while receiving our admiration for how sincerely you prove your deepest essence’.
All of this also reminds of ordeals, an often unwitting aspect of BDSM. The idea is to voluntarily undergo challenges that cause severe momentary discomfort, but once completed provide unequivocal proof that you are stronger and more resilient than you thought possible. The voluntariness of it is indeed a key. As in Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote, «no one can humiliate you if you don’t agree to it,» and deliberately choosing to experience humiliation removes its toxic shameful side, to the point of even making it ennobling.
However, it is not just about being stronger than the embarrassment. If eroticism is the art of making oneself vulnerable, finding pleasure while experiencing humiliating situations requires letting go, allowing oneself to be permeated by feelings we’ve been trying to elude for a lifetime, and genuinely “feeling” the sensations they cause. For yourself, but also for the partner you are sharing all of that with – the more one plunges into the abyss, the more the other’s glory gets exalted. It is kind of like when lovers say to each other «I would do anything to please you»… only in this case you really do.
When the experience of humiliation is reframed as an introspective occasion, a proof of strength or a gift of oneself to the partner, the element of shame fades from the scene. After all, what should one be ashamed of? In due proportion, Edward III’s legendary ‘honni soit qui mal y pense!’ comes to mind: if dealt willingly and with a pure spirit, even the most embarrassing act can become admirable and even give rise to the highest of honors.
Such amazing recontextualization is what allows enthusiasts to find arousing stuff that in other circumstances would be deemed ignoble or repugnant. Think, for example, of cuckolding, toilet games or hypersexual modifications – just a few possibilities among hundreds of scenarios that can reach truly extreme levels of intensity. What they have in common, however, is also another fundamental aspect.
In the erotic field, humiliation is not only chosen and intentional, but also contained. It is a game – a very serious one – that is played in well-defined spaces and times, accessible only to the partners and possibly to carefully selected people. When the experience is over some aftercare might be needed, but getting dressed is enough to go back to your comfortable daily life.
It may seem paradoxical, but the most terrible of erotic humiliations can be exorcised in an instant by exchanging a loving look between partners; apparently milder gestures such as a stranger’s insult or a faux pas in public can instead turn into lasting stains on the soul. Humiliation, if of a certain kind, fades away; degradation, on the other hand, hurts deeply, and that is what is behind Buss’ frightening percentages.
The pleasure of letting go
If after all this theory you are intrigued by humiliation fantasies, it may be helpful to keep in mind some tips that could save you from very unpleasant experiences:
- Before venturing into situations that could cause real psychological trauma, make sure you have established a rapport of honest and serene communication with your partner, where you truly both feel free to tell each other everything, to express your desires and fears, to start and stop play without fear of repercussions, and above all where you deeply love each other
- Switching roles helps you better understand your partner’s emotions, difficulties, and pleasures during playtime
- Before you do anything, negotiate every aspect of the experience you want to create: it’s better to be overly cautious than to unexpectedly find yourself in a traumatic situation
- Make sure you communicate and make it clear what your triggers are: gestures, words, situations, and anything else that might evoke past unpleasant experiences, or trigger unintended nasty reactions
- Before you play, also decide on the duration and the spaces in which you want to experiment. Take privacy into account, even in the long term: you probably don’t want embarrassing images of yourself to surface in ten years’ time
- Part of privacy is also about not involving other people, much less without their consent
- During play, focus on the experience only. The goal is to experience and savor intense sensations, but without letting them blend in with other aspects of your life as a couple
- Once the experience is over, take some time to return to your daily routine as comfortably as possible. Pamper each other, exchange impressions on what you experienced, figure out if and how you would like to repeat this type of game in the future
- Pretty much as the saying goes, «what you do in the game stays in the game.» Never hold what happened during the experience against each other or mention it outside the safe space of the session.