This weekend, I purposefully exposed myself to something with the potential to cause a flashback: a “nonconsensual” BDSM scene. Why would I want to expose myself to scenes that theatrically emulate abuse? Why not just avoid abusive themes altogether? Wouldn’t my life be easier that way?
Not exactly. I tried that method for years. Repressed memories still haunted me. I still got panic attacks. I just had no means to cope with them. PTSD stops traumatic memories from becoming integrated with the rest of one’s psyche. Instead of merging with the background noise of memories we cart around in our conscious minds every day, they become predators that lurk in the shadows, leaping out to attack and then scurrying away.
In the interest of having a fun sexy time, and also the chance to confront some of those shadows, I attended the Folsom edition of Cum & Glitter. I’ve been to previous showings, and I knew this one was going to be different. While kink made its appearance in other shows, this time it was front-and-center and more extreme. I went into this show knowing there were scenes I would find sexy as all hell, and also a possibility I could get triggered. I took stock of what options were available if that happened: Places I could retreat, people I could ask for help. I even brought Missy with me (a doll I keep for my child aspects in case I regress while having a flashback).
From the beginning of the show I could tell I was in the right place, with the right people. During the prologue, Quinn Cassidy described the type of material that would follow, with humor (“Hard. Christian. Themes!”), before reassuring the audience that we are welcome to take care of ourselves if necessary, and step out if things get too intense. That is how you open a show with a wide range of kink on display. Anyone who thinks trigger warnings are unavoidably clunky or destroy the energy of a performance need to speak with the performers behind Cum & Glitter. They provided ample notice of what was to come and encouraged healthy behavior, while still maintaining a sexy, edgy vibe.
I knew going in there were two acts with the potential to scare the fuck out of me. One was a religious-themed burlesque by Dorian Faust, and the other was a non-consensual scene involving a piggie (played by Siouxsie Q) and a butcher (Maxine Holloway). As soon as the crew carted a pentagram onstage for Dorian’s act, I knew I had to flee. Easy answer! I stayed within earshot and returned after the end applause.
I was curious about the piggie and butcher scene, however. I had been exposed to enough sexual religious iconography to know Dorian’s scene would be an issue for me, but I hadn’t encountered anything close to what this scene involved: a piggie marked up for butchering, rape play, and a sequence where the pig was “butchered” into meat. I chose to stay for this act, fully aware I might get triggered and freak out. I had a space where I could retreat and several comforts at hand if I needed them.
Anyone who thinks trigger warnings are unavoidably clunky or destroy the energy of a performance need to speak with the performers behind Cum & Glitter.
It turns out I’m not into butcher scenes. The “non-consensual” part of the act felt a little too real for me, and the butchering part, while purely theatrical, was also intense. I didn’t realize I entered a panic attack until almost an hour later, while eating at a nearby restaurant. The shock wore off, and I felt the world go dark as my body flooded with feelings from the “black hole”–the part of my childhood where the worst abuse occurred.
I told my ride I was having a panic attack. She put some money on the table to pay for our food, dropped me off at her apartment to lie down, and then drove back to the restaurant by herself. I listened to calming music and used deep breathing and other self-soothing tricks to bring myself down. I pulled Missy out of my backpack and sat her on the bed to watch over me. The memories that came to me in this flashback were terrifying, but I’ve faced enough flashbacks in recovery that I knew how to deal with it. Watching the final act was a risk, but I knew what I was getting into and how to take care of myself if things went bad.
I won’t say being triggered was an enjoyable experience, but I did get a lot out of it. This was the latest in a long string of efforts to gradually step outside my comfort zone. In traditional theraputic settings this is called “exposure therapy”. You gradually increase exposure to an anxiety-inducing stimulus in a controlled environment, which retrains your brain into maintaining a feeling of safety in the face of fear. Exposure therapy shines a light into the dark shadows where repressed memories hide, and tames them so they stop acting like predators and coexist peacefully with the rest of a survivor’s history.
This form of therapy is easy to carry out when the problem is more mundane, like the fear of heights or arachnophobia. But when your fears are about sexuality, especially in the aftermath of abuse, it can be harder to find avenues to safely confront those fears. Fantasy is an effective alternative. For example, researchers are developing virtual reality simulations of combat scenarios to treat war veterans with PTSD. I don’t have access to high-end virtual reality simulations for my own issues, but I do have access to pornography and kink. Both are essential tools in my recovery process. They also can be lots of fun when I’m not doing recovery work.
Practitioners of BDSM are often stereotyped as broken individuals replaying childhood abuse. This is both inaccurate (plenty of people with loving families are twisted freaks in the bedroom) and dismisses the ways BDSM can be a healthy therapeutic tool for those of us who actually do have a history of abuse. This stereotype wreaks all sorts of havoc: It shames the BDSM scene into forcefully denying that abuse can ever have a connection to kink, which then leads to a lot of abuse getting swept under the rug. It also pressures people with abuse histories to avoid even considering kink as a valid way to explore their sexuality and their history. Many people with naturally kinky inclinations (a group which includes some survivors) become ashamed of their interest, repressing their urges and lashing out at others to compensate. Everyone loses.
Exposure therapy shines a light into the dark shadows where repressed memories hide, and tames them so they stop acting like predators and coexist peacefully with the rest of a survivor’s history.
At the same time people malign BDSM, they also balk at trigger warnings. There is no such thing as a safe space, they argue, and the only way to deal with trauma is to confront it. While the last part of that argument is true, it completely fails to understand how the recovery process works. Exposure therapy is effective only when the environment is controlled, the person can leave at any point, and the exposure is consensual and pre-negotiated. That last part is crucial. Without some sort of trigger warning, what could be a healing opportunity instead becomes a minefield that can worsen the damage. The anti-trigger warning argument is not very far removed from the True Dom who refuses to use safewords.
Triggers don’t just disappear after you get therapy. Triggers are a part of life when you’re a survivor. Forcing yourself to endure pain unnecessarily isn’t noble, and taking care of yourself isn’t running from the truth. Part of respecting other people and allowing them to heal is trusting their ability to decide where and when they are ready for facing their truth. Nobody can set an individual’s schedule for facing traumatic subjects but the survivor themselves. Nobody but the survivor herself is an expert on what she needs to feel safe or to be healthy.
Consent, respect, and yes, trigger warnings in some form (even if not explicitly stated as a “trigger warning”) are what allow that informed agency to take place. I had that informed agency at Cum & Glitter, which meant I could enjoy the acts I liked and make my own choices about the ones that were too intense.
If there had been no prior notice, I would have been caught off guard, missed more than half the show, and had a lingering bad taste in my mouth. Instead, I have lasting happy memories of Beretta James getting fucked by a machine, Bianca Stone getting DP’ed by Mickey Mod and Sebastian Keys, Quinn Cassidy getting off on two guys getting off, and Courtney Trouble gasping for/cutting off breath while fucking herself under sultry soft lights (not to mention topless soundboard exhibitionist Dana Morrigan). Consent really is sexy, especially when it includes the audience in negotiations.