BDSM is Not Repentance

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Content notice: possible self-harm, police brutality 

Some time ago, I read about a guilt-ridden police officer who went to professional dominatrices to be beaten and humiliated as punishment for his habit of mistreating the people that he stopped on the street. As far as I know, his kinky sessions didn’t stop him from hurting the people under his power. He was still cruel. To put it in religious terms that I understand, he wanted to burn off his sins by ‘suffering’. Instead, he just burned off his guilt and went on his way. Shame covered him like a blanket of ash. 

He wouldn’t be the first to try to use BDSM to cope with guilt and shame. Some reading this post might wonder whether typical kink ‘punishment’ activities like being caned, forced to do chores, or verbally degraded will allow them to compensate for behavior that they’re ashamed of. My answer is “Maybe, but probably not.” 

My full response would be a real treatise, accounting for the various ways that people like to define BDSM and even ‘punishment.’ I’d also have to talk about whether I think that consensual punishments are fruitful (I have complex feelings). I’ll save those for other posts and spare you the ninety-five theses. 

For now, I want to talk about repentance, something more powerful than self-punishment. The Hebrew and Greek words that we often translate as “repent” appear over and over in the Bible.  

In Greek, the original written language of the New Testament, the word is “metanoia,” “to change the mind.” In biblical Hebrew, words literally meaning “to turn” or “turn around” are common (a little more on the language here). 

Wikipedia calls repentance “the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs, which is accompanied by commitment to change for the better.”

In short, repentance isn’t just about feeling sorry. Feelings are important, but they don’t do much in themselves. Instead, repentance is about harnessing thoughts and feelings through reflection in order to change behavior. 

Let’s consider the police officer. Did he repent? No. He felt bad and used BDSM to feel better. Perhaps, he thought that because he had chosen to experience pain, he now understood the pain he had caused others. Maybe he thought that his pain (carefully calibrated to satisfy him, as kinky pain usually is) would balance out theirs.

Repentance doesn’t work like that. For those who use Christian God language, God doesn’t work like that. 

Jesus didn’t say “I was in prison, but you felt bad and punished yourself.” Jesus said “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Mt. 25:43). 

This passage might sound harsh and confronting to some readers. It is. It doesn’t leave room for us to pretend that feeling bad about something is the same as doing something about it. 

But it also means that God doesn’t demand that you punish yourself to counteract the suffering you have caused. It means that you get to choose how you respond to that suffering. 

In the police officer’s case, there was most likely nothing he could do to repair the harm he had caused. The bodies he bruised (probably black bodies) would have to heal themselves; the heartache and trauma might never fully go away. He numbed them out with his own ‘suffering’. But he has the power to recognize what he has done and to make different choices, I hope with the help of a good therapist and strong community. That in itself is painful, and not in a fun way (think of a much less extreme version of Voldemort’s fractured soul).

The temporary hurt of kinky play is not a shortcut to understanding the harm one has caused, and it isn’t repentance. 

That being said, does BDSM have a role in repentance? Maybe so (and I’ll talk about that more in another post), but it depends on one’s goals and attitude. I want to practice treating others well through kink, and I want to give myself care in the play that I choose. I want what my sub experiences under my direction to have a positive impact on the way that he interacts with the world outside of our dynamic. I believe that kink can help people to reflect and grow. In the end, though, repentance is a chosen struggle, and there is no substitute.

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