I remember the day my first dom taught me to beg.
My initial attempts were ludicrous. “Please, sir …” Frantic mental efforts, not aided by his casually travelling hands. “You’re … very strong …”
I remember the moment when his gigantic brain figured out that I didn’t even know how to do it. He stopped, and then the focus was ever so slightly warmed by amusement.
And my world shifted as he said, so very very gently, “You don’t need to flatter me. Just react. Make noises when I touch you.”
Oh God, the shame. I had got it so very wrong. And oh God, the gratitude. He didn’t just not laugh at my incompetence, he was going to pretend he wasn’t even surprised by it.
(And yes, I know his interpretation of “beg” was unconventional, but I wasn’t going to argue.)
I’ve had a few more of those moments lately. The split second after I forced myself to answer someone’s question about exactly what I do in the shower. Or when he helped me figure out which of two equally humiliating positions was more comfortable for my wretched joints. Or when he put on his coat, gave me a long look, and then said quietly, “You may kiss my boots.”
So much kindness. And it’s the power dynamic that makes it so. When someone stands there opening and shutting her mouth like a goldfish, an equal doesn’t incline his head and say, very gently, “You can say it.” Or when she exclaims, “I am so sorry I got the time wrong by ONE WHOLE MINUTE!” an equal doesn’t smile and reassure her that it’s quite all right.
I didn’t tell him that it was a joke. I was too overwhelmed by his real message: I know I could hurt you, really hurt you, and I’m going to protect you instead.
This is why people used to say, gratefully, “The Queen was so condescending – she spoke to me for five minutes!” Because condescension used to mean simply kindness from a superior. And when inequality is taken for granted, kindness from above is a good thing.
But the world has changed. My tenth-grade classmates and I were horrified when our Moral Education textbooks announced that a good Confucian husband should be kind to his wife and bring her presents. We didn’t know how to articulate our outrage at the time, but we knew that kindness was for dogs and cats.
So I wonder if vanilla kindness will die the same tarry death as condescension. In fact, I think it’s already started. There was a time when any cat could be called “poor kitty”, in exactly the same friendly, neutral way you might address a subordinate as “honest Iago”. But nowadays it’s “good doggy” or “clever boy”. That’s how squeamish we have become about kindness to unequals, even animals and children.
This is my problem with equality: we don’t have it. We live in a world brimful of inequality. And I think our uneasiness makes it worse. Denying one’s privilege doesn’t make it go away. Forgetting your power just means you’ll hurt someone by accident. If you are serious about addressing inequality in whatever form, there is no alternative to noblesse oblige.
And this is what I love about BDSM. This is why I am so moved by the question, “If I give you a safeword, will you be able to use it?” That’s someone who knows I’m in his power, who knows he could traumatise me without even realising it. Never mind whether he should have that kind of power over me; I want him to know he does.
Because I can’t live without that inequality. I love the subjugation, the brusque orders and sadistic humiliation. If I don’t have it, I’ll go looking for it.
But it’s best when the cruelty and kindness come together. Pain and fear remind me who’s up there and who’s down here, yes. But it’s the patience and encouragement that I remember for weeks, months, years afterwards. So much trust, so much safety, so much certainty.
Yes, I like the big stick – everything about it – but the part about walking softly has a very special place in my heart.