Kink and Pastoral Care

I’m working on a series about sexting etiquette–it’s inspiring a lot of thoughts that are hard to articulate. In the meantime, here are some older thoughts on pastoral care and kink (yep, these words do occasionally belong in the same sentence). Why? Because certain concepts prized in the kink community should inform our approaches to pastoral care.

Wikipedia defines pastoral care as “an ancient model of emotional and spiritual support that can be found in all cultures and traditions.” That’s a pretty good start. I would add that pastoral caregivers are often professionals and/or working in a faith-based context (like a parish or campus ministry). I’ll link more info on pastoral care at the bottom of the post.)

I’ve read a lot of great pastoral care theory, including books that are aware of the impact that factors like race, class, and gender can have on care needs and approaches. I’ll learn more as I take more care classes and gain experience. That said, I want to add two ideas that many pastoral care class readings don’t explicitly articulate: 

• The importance of knowing when one cannot give pastoral care

• The value of framing conversations so that people can choose whether and how to take part in the care process. 

I’ll use the lens of BDSM/kink to articulate these concerns. This section will discuss potentially ‘erotic’ activities including impact play (playing with physical hits from canes, floggers, etc.) but nothing explicitly sexual. [Note: Since my main experience at the time that I wrote this was with dominance and topping, this essay is a little top-heavy.]

Throughout my pastoral care class, I was struck by the similarities and transferable skills between kink interactions and pastoral care. Kink and pastoral care are both emotionally intense by nature. In kink, direct communication, trust, and boundary-setting are vital. It is the responsibility of all parties involved in a kink scene or relationship to maintain proper boundaries and communicate their needs. In a power exchange (in which one partner takes on a “dominant” role and the other takes on a “submissive” role, either during a scene or in a relationship), the dominant has to handle the authority that has been temporarily granted to them wisely.

Pastoral caregivers are often in positions of authority, whether because of an official title or the culture of their community. I wonder about the sense of ‘power exchange’ that occurs in a pastoral care relationship. I think that new pastoral caregivers may be prone to a sense of pastoral “frenzy.” In the kink community, the term frenzy describes the urge of an (often) new kinkster to try everything immediately or jump into intense dynamics. Frenzy is sometimes experienced as a visceral ache. When pastoral caregivers discover that they have a knack for caregiving, they can also experience frenzy, a desire to help literally everyone. This is a recipe for heartbreak and burnout. I will discuss that dilemma a bit more when I describe the limitations of kink as a lens. 

In kink, good faith negotiation is key. A good dominant often asks lots of questions, trying to get to the core of what kind of experience the submissive wants and a sense of what might hold them back. Scenes begin with negotiation, check-ins, and warm-up (physical and mental); when a dominant gives a flogging, for example, it is customary for them to begin by gauging the submissive’s pain tolerance (often on a scale of one to ten) or to start with the lightest, gentlest touch, not the heavy over-hand strikes.

While a pastoral care conversation may not require the same level as what’s required for a kink scene, I believe that it is important for pastoral caregivers to remember to step back mentally from the conversation when the consider care. They need to assess what the care-seeker is looking for and ready for. You cannot open mental wounds unless you are prepared to deal with their aftermath. Conversation sometimes flows naturally, but it’s important to check in. When you as a pastoral caregiver want to take “agential power” (Doehring 45) and become more directive (perhaps wanting to escalate the conversation into deeper, more personal, or more emotionally wrought territory), you might follow these steps: 

1. Take a step back to assess your own needs. Are you prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally to escalate this conversation? Is the care–seeker? If you’re not prepared, you don’t have to escalate. You can make a judgment call about whether to proceed, express that you are unsure how to move forward, let the careseeker lead the conversation, or help them find someone who’s more equipped (to ‘refer out’). 

2. If you think that it would be helpful to go deeper, put a mental ‘pin’ in the conversation and state out loud that you want to go deeper. Give the care-seeker a way to opt in. For example, you could say “I think it might be helpful to talk about X now. I know that may be difficult. How would you feel about that?” or “I’d like to try something…” or “May I ask a question about X?” 

3. If they say yes, thank them and proceed. If they say no, thank them and let them set the course for the conversation. Never take their vulnerability for granted. Don’t attempt to pry secrets out of them, no matter how cathartic you think the sharing would be. 

The reason that I list these steps is that it is important for caregivers to be mindful of their own boundaries and limits, not to be overcome by the zeal for helping and take over the conversation. The caregiver and care-seeker always need to be able to opt in.  

Of course, the nature of human life means that the caregiver and care-seeker will sometimes hit emotional landmines (and/or try lines of questioning that are not productive). The boundary-centered framework of kink is helpful in this case too. Even when kinky play is going well, players may need to draw back or ‘dial it down’ temporarily. 

There may be times during kink scenes where one partner is unexpectedly triggered. The dominant has to be mindful (and humble) enough to stop, deescalate, or change the scene so that they can check in with the submissive. They can’t just stick to the original plan and hope for the best. Players, dominant and submissive, should not feel trapped in an activity. Pastoral caregivers also need to have this flexibility (which makes the various tools discussed in class helpful to know). 

Kink scenes traditionally end with “aftercare,” the process by which the players wind down the scene, come out of their scene roles, take care of any wounds, and sometimes debrief (generally) about how the scene went. There *probably* won’t be any wounds from a flogger, but lotion, a snack, and a glass of water might be in order for both parties. The sub may be riding a high of endorphins from the scene (and the dominant may also need to “come down”), so they will often spend some time wrapped up in a blanket and cuddling together, talking about idle things. Nobody will drive or operate machinery for a little while. While it isn’t always possible to transition peacefully out of a pastoral care interaction because of time or institutional constraints, a caregiver may want to…

• lay out the estimated time for the conversation from the beginning

• keep snacks on hand

• have a bank of organized quick referral resources at their fingertips

• encourage a care-seeker to take time after the conversation to reflect

• take a few minutes for their own ‘aftercare’ to breathe and debrief before seeing another care-seeker 

While pastoral care and kink relations have many similarities, they are, of course, very different. Pastoral care-seekers should not feel dominated. Kink can be a modality with skills that transfer well to pastoral care, but it would be ethically problematic, to say the least, to try to mix the two situations in reality. In The Practice of Pastoral Care, Carrie Doehring warns that to “engage in sexual or romantic relationships with care seekers” would be sexual misconduct (77). This is a good general rule. I want to make exceptions for professional sex workers (including surrogates) who have clearly bounded sexual contact with clients (as sex surrogate Dr. Helen Fisher does in The Sessions). Sex work is emotional labor often adjacent to and even overlapping with clinical therapy. That should be acknowledged (and decriminalized regardless). In most cases, however, the kind of intimate ‘play’ that people enjoy in kink or in romantic and/or sexual relationships should not take place between caregiver and care-seeker in a pastoral care relationship, nor, in some cases, should a person with pastoral care skills try to use these skills in their private lives. Be mindful when you use your skills. Notice when you choose to take care of someone. Even if you’re not officially a pastoral caregiver, those caregiving skills can be all too easy to fall back on! 

While a pastoral caregiver may find their listening skills helpful in resolving emotional conflicts with a friend or partner, they may fall fully into the pastoral caregiving role, implicitly assuming an emotional distance from personal conflicts that do not exist. This assumption can damage the relationship and leave both parties hurt and exhausted. In the same way that one wouldn’t just initiate a kink dynamic without prior discussion, it’s important not to charge into caregiving without considering consent and awareness. 

Pastoral Care Resources:

Carrie Doehring’s The Practice of Pastoral Care

Stephanie Crumpton’s A Womanist Pastoral Theology Against Intimate and Cultural Violence

Sonia E. Waters’ Addiction and Pastoral Care

Gregory Ellison’s Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African American Young MenHerbert Anderson and Kenneth Mitchell’s All Our Losses, All Our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care


Fetish Foibles, Part 2 – Cleaning Communication

Welcome to Fetish Foibles, the series where I talk about my kinky mistakes! Read Part 1 here

One thing I’ve discovered in my time as a Dominant is that I enjoy receiving practical, concrete acts of service. My sub enjoys serving. I present this scenario for your edified entertainment: my apartment needed cleaning. My sub and I decided to try a scenario during which he cleaned my apartment in the nude, that classic staple of D/s fantasy. I made him a list of things to do. He stripped naked and got to cleaning. 

I, meanwhile, caught up on homework. When he finished tidying and scrubbing, I ‘inspected’ his work, feeling like Mary Poppins in her white gloves. My sub confessed a few minutes later that he felt bad about my assessment. I realized that I had been overly harsh for the situation; I had fallen back on corny erotica tropes about cold, critical Mistresses who demanded perfection instead of treating the cleaning like the loving service that it was. While we cuddled, I apologized and thanked him for letting me know how he felt. Through that process, we discovered a few issues that made the task less satisfying for both of us than it could have been.

First, we came at the service from different standpoints. I wanted practical, time-saving service that would free me up to do other things. My sub wanted to clean as an extension of our erotic play, imagining me watching him, teasing him at various points throughout the service task. A more thorough discussion of our wants and expectations would have helped us both. 

Second, we threw nudity in without considering our task environment. If you’re gonna clean in the nude, remember the factors of chemical exposure and room temperature–my sub got cold! 

Third, I used a more critical approach to assess the work than I normally would–one that was not true to my needs or our D/s dynamic. In my sub’s case, it was reminiscent of a difficult dynamic from another part of his life that he didn’t enjoy. It is perfectly fine to negotiate a service task in which the Dominant acts very stern and critical, but that emotional dynamic should not be taken for granted or forced upon a situation where it has not been negotiated. 

Nowadays, I still assign practical service tasks that aren’t the slightest bit sexy for my sub (they’re still sexy for me; being served and obeyed is immensely satisfying in many ways), but I’m more mindful of the importance of clear communication about our expectations and desires from service.

Fetish Foibles, Part 1 – Play Partner Selection Error

Greetings, Beloved! I’m starting a little post series about mistakes that I’ve made over time as a kinkster in hopes that others will be edified and comforted. As Queen Clarisse Renaldi would say, “Don’t make the same mistakes I did…make your own mistakes!”

Today’s foible: play partner selection error. TL;DR – I suffered many fools for no good reason. #QuelleSurprise

Finding a trustworthy play partner can be a harrowing process, especially for women. So far, I haven’t had any traumatic experiences with people I’ve chosen to play and/or have sex with. I’m grateful for that. Early on, I wasted far too much time entertaining people (men) who were pushy, flaky, or just not evolved enough to engage with kink safely. 

For example, I once gave my phone number out to a guy who then revealed that he self-identified as a sociopath (a “socio”). He appeared to have no understanding of why that was a problem, and I actually tried to explain it to him

At the time, I had this strange idea that because I was a new Dominant, I had to “pay my dues” by putting up with mediocre experiences and attitudes. Please note, especially when you’re just starting to explore, mediocre experiences are part of life, even when the stars seem aligned for maximum pleasure. But there’s no need to waste time on people who don’t care about your needs. 

My first mediocre kink experience occurred on a kinky Discord server with an anonymous switch guy. I dommed him in a lengthy text-based roleplay scene (we must have texted about six hours in all!). While I enjoyed the scene, he kept wanting to interact with me as “Mistress” afterward and messaged regularly looking for dominant attention from me. I got overwhelmed and soon just stopped replying to his messages. We both made mistakes in that situation. He assumed that I would always interact with him as a Dominant without asking me what I wanted. I just went along with it and replied to his messages in the way that he wanted, feeling like it would be rude not to (until it was just too much and I had to jump ship). At the time, it didn’t occur to me that I could have said, “I enjoyed our play but I don’t have the energy to dominate you all the time” or even “Thanks for playing, but I don’t want to talk to you right now/anymore.” I was the flaky one (the flaker?) in that situation, though I don’t blame myself; he really should have known better. 

In other situations, I was the flakee. I would talk to guys who would disappear, only to pop up again weeks or even months later as though no time had passed. One guy was a combination of flaky, pushy, and unevolved. When he messaged me, I put a great deal of emotional labor into teaching him how to navigate FetLife respectfully. He ‘didn’t have time’ to go to munches. Nowadays, that would be an instant “Nope” from me. If you can make time to get fucked up the ass, you can make time to eat pancakes. Back then, I tried to be understanding. We met up briefly and scheduled a play session (we were both really interested in pegging). I bought lube, gloves, and a bulb enema for him. He cancelled at the last minute. We scheduled again. He cancelled. He tried to coax me into sending pictures of my strapon. At one point, I replied, “Too much trouble.” He didn’t message again for six weeks.

When he finally did, I was just laying the foundations of my dynamic with my current sub and told him that play was unlikely. He responded by pouting (“Oh I’m :/ well let me know if things change”). In his last message, he said he didn’t want to be “that annoying guy” but wanted to see one more time if I was interested. The sad part is, I don’t think he realizes that he became “that guy” a long time back. He was the stereotypical horny FetLife jerk, and I almost played with him. 

How do I avoid the jerks? Nowadays, I rarely consider anyone who doesn’t go to munches. And I pull back from any stranger who leaps to ‘submit’ to or ‘serve’ me for no good reason; that’s domism, and I’m not indulging it. Kink is a collaborative process. Most guys I met in my early exploration didn’t get that memo. 

I’ve also learned over time to weed out anyone who self-identifies as an “alpha male.” It leaks defensive, patriarchal shame, and I’m not taking the time to unpack that with random dudes anymore (for the record, I nope right past the “alpha females” too). My emotional labor is valuable. If a guy I’m talking to says something that rubs me the wrong way, I say so and (sometimes) give him a chance to correct himself. Seeing how someone reacts to being told “No” early on can be a great early indicator of how they’ll act later. Generally, I feel that I’m in a safe enough position to give second chances. Not everyone has that privilege, and I wouldn’t judge anyone who has more stringent boundaries. It feels good (though I roll my eyes at myself) to see how much I’ve grown in being able to set the boundaries that work for me. Do you have any “fetish foibles” to share? Had any play partner fiascos? Let me know in the comments! 

PS–Great video on how NOT to approach people in kinky contexts here

Featured image:  Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, by Henri Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France

File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3b/Paris_Tuileries_Garden_Facepalm_statue.jpg

Attribution: Alex E. Proimos [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] No changes were made to the image.

Leadership is a Team Sport

[Image description: Photo is of two lounging cats. One looks at the camera, alert, while the other relaxes.]

Throughout high school, I never thought of myself as a leader. I was the quiet, nerdy artist who never could quite keep up with what was going on. I wasn’t often bullied, and I even experienced rare bursts of admiration when classmates watched me draw. But I didn’t think of myself as a leader, and I was not popular. (Cue “Popular” from Wicked.) 

During my ninth grade field trip, my teachers tried to push me into leadership by putting me in charge of the rest of the class for a team-building exercise. I stood on the ground while my classmates tried to shuffle their way across a low tightrope between two trees. My job was to tell them when to move, how, and where. 

The teachers kept adding restrictions. For example, I was the only one allowed to talk or move without direction. It did not go well. After tipping off the rope for the umpteenth time, my disgruntled classmates asked the teachers to replace me. The next attempt (with a different leader) went a little better, and the class eventually completed the challenge. Was a team built? Did I lead? Did we trust each other more after that? Not really. My teachers meant well in assigning me a directive role; they wanted me to rise to the occasion and gain confidence. Unfortunately, they didn’t set me up for success as a leader. As a ‘team,’ we were unequipped in several ways. 

First, the teachers ignored the dynamics of the class; we were all still hormonal, image-conscious teenagers. Some in the class, for better or for worse, had support and experience as leaders. I simply was not one of them. The teachers tried to impose a different dynamic without preparing us all to try it in good faith. 

Second, the teachers took away the tools I needed to communicate with the class and make good decisions. I could not read my classmates’ faces. Meanwhile, they were utterly dependent and unable to communicate with or support me. No wonder they got frustrated. 

Third, I lacked the desire to lead. Sure, that was related to shyness, perfectionism, and low self-esteem, but trying to force a shy perfectionist to lead confidently by putting them in a situation with no reason to feel confident tends to backfire. Ironically, as the only person allowed to move, I felt paralyzed. The resulting failure reinforced my belief that I wasn’t a leader. 

What could we have done differently in that situation? Any number of things might have helped. For example, we didn’t have to do that particular team-building exercise; we could’ve done the “human knot” game, where the team tries to untwist and very link does its part. 

The teachers could have asked for volunteers in the first place (I was not ready to be singled out for that particular activity). 

When we learned what the challenge was, we could have come up with a strategy or even divided leadership so that people on the ground and on the rope could observe what was happening and make recommendations. 

I could have paused the activity and asked for communication and suggestions, or I could have said “I’m not equipped for this; we need to let someone else have a turn.” 

My classmates could have handled their frustration better, perhaps stating their feelings and asking what I needed instead of just complaining to the teachers. 

The teachers could have made time for us to debrief after the activity, figure out why it was so hard, assure us that it was okay, and get input on what to try for next time. 

Shoulda coulda woulda. But thinking through what could have helped us then reminds me that ‘leadership’ is a team sport; no one ‘leads’ in a vacuum. 

I’ve had several less unpleasant opportunities to lead since that demoralizing experience. Joining Girl Scouts as a highschooler gave me opportunities to lead in a more conducive setting (yep, I joined Girl Scouts after most people drop out). 

I’ve learned about my strengths and weaknesses as a leader with help from friends and mentors; in my senior year of college, one of my college professors said I exemplified “leading from the middle.” With the benefit of experience, that ill-fated highschool exercise has provided a way for me to reflect on how I can set myself, my friends, my teammates, and my partners up for success.

In some cases, I am the designated leader and make firm decisions in that role. Even then, I need the support and input of others and the resilience to acknowledge when something doesn’t work. Most of the time, I share leadership with others on my team and support other leaders as we work to build the dynamics we want, protect our communities, and create spaces for growth and refuge. Leadership is not a one-person show. Instead, leadership is a matter of process and relationship, a team sport in which we all participate. 

“Stay Like This”

[Image description: Photo is an abstract close-up of a black leather boot on pink satin.]

This post was written for the Wicked Wednesday erotica blogging meme, heavily based on a real play experience I had with my sub. This one’s explicit, folks! Content: D/s, hand spanking, sexual play, ‘public’ nudity, and consensual boundary-pushing

We’re slightly mellow already when we arrive at the dungeon–at home, I worked him up to two prostate orgasms as he lay on his back, panting. 

The red light casts a velvety glow over everyone in the play space. Tonight’s guests seek a more sensual energy than usual–our low-key sensual spanking scene will fit right in. We forego the shiny padded spanking benches for a utilitarian play mat against the wall. 

I order him to strip. He’s still a bit sheepish about public nudity, so I remove my shirt and bra in solidarity. I think it will feel awkward, but it doesn’t; it just feels like a fact of life. My sub sets himself up on all fours, presenting himself for my touch, my ‘handling’. 

It always takes me a couple of minutes to settle into a scene, especially in a communal space; I smile and shrug at my friend across the room as I sit down on the mat, as if to say “Yep, here it is…spanking. *Jazz hands.*” 

My sub waits. I let my hands wander over his back, tracing delicately over his ass, which he has shaved for me (when in doubt, I get handsy). And then, I swing back and hit. And hit again, cupping my palm. I wait. He hums. This is one of his favorite activities. I feel him warming as I rub his cheeks rosy. Another smack, harder. I need more sound, leaning over his body to get closer to his face. I want to hear his moans mingle with the hypnotic dungeon music. 

I wrap an arm around him as I reel back for another slap, leveraging his body to crash back into my spanking hand. We find a rhythm. He looks up sometimes, making eye contact with the person getting fucked on the swinging bed several feet away. 

Sometimes, I catch his balls, sending him lurching forward. He always puts himself back in my palm, whimpering when I pause my onslaught to play with his hard cock. When I think he’s had enough, I stop. He eases himself up in a daze of pleasure, sitting for a moment with his legs splayed out. He reaches for his clothes. “No,” I say, pinning him to my side as I put one hand on his thigh. “Stay like this a little longer.” Suddenly embarrassed again, he obeys, hands at his sides on the mat and legs open to reveal his still half-hard cock to any onlookers. 

There’s a reason this feels so vulnerable for my sub; it’s rare for a cis man to get fully nude in this space. I could reach over, stroke him hard, wipe out his excruciating awareness with the sweet oblivion of touch. But I don’t. Instead, we sit like that for a few minutes while I tell him how proud I am of his bravery, my protective arm around his shoulder. We make a pocket of stillness amid a riot of play. 

Back at my place later that night, he will practically leap onto my bed, moaning when I start hitting him with my belt, rutting back against my hips as I press him forward. He’ll look back in wordless arousal and spread himself for me. I’ll slam him into the mattress with enough force to make the bed squeak, the simulation of fucking just as arousing as the real thing. I will claim him with murmurs and growls of ownership. But nothing proves my ownership more, and nothing makes my pride in him burn as brightly as those naked minutes we spend just sitting there on the dungeon floor. 


Wicked Wednesday... a place to be wickedly sexy or sexily wicked

Aftercare – It’s Not Just for Kink

[Image description: Photo is of Christ Church College in Oxford, England, originally constructed 500 years ago.]

Occasionally, something I’ve learned from kink will help me to reflect on something from vanilla life, which then influences my overall mindset for the better. This post illustrates one of those times. 

A few years ago, a dear friend and I went into the woods to play pretend, as one does. This wasn’t a kink scene, mind, just us imagining that we lived in Medieval Europe. We made up silly details as we walked along (“Ah yes, they have put out flowers because there has been a death in the family…”). We ran into a couple of  ‘journeymen’ on the path who played along for a while. I became a troubadour, and she became a duchess. I had to make up a song on the spot to sing in her honor (it was actually a pretty epic song). We must have pretended for at least a couple of hours. I still remember it fondly. 

But a strange thing happened when we stopped playing and my friend went home for some introvert time: I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had just spent the last couple of hours experiencing life as a troubadour of the Middle Ages, and now I had no one for whom to sing, no station in life. I practically could have recited elegiac poetry about the lost mead halls. 

After wandering around in that state for a while, I went home and watched several episodes of Wolf Hall (a PBS Masterpiece program set in the court of Henry VIII). Presently, I felt a little more normal, like my imaginings had finally run their course and my brain had found equilibrium. 

It didn’t hit me until more recently, when I started exploring kink, that I had that strange response because I didn’t know how to find my way back to the present day. Essentially, though I didn’t realize it at the time, my brain was scrambled by the rapid gear shift from courtier to college student. I needed aftercare

In the kink world, ‘aftercare’ is what players do after the end of a scene to find their way back to their non-play selves. They might drink some water, cuddle and chat, bandage any wounds, watch mindless television for a while, or even take some time away from each other to reflect. ‘Cruel’ master becomes doting partner, playful puppy becomes exhausted friend, etc. Aftercare continues with check-ins and debrief conversations in the following days. Aftercare is different for everyone, but many players need it to minimize and mitigate the effects of ‘drop’. (Side note–anyone can experience drop, including tops and dominants. I’ll talk about my experiences with dom drop in another post.) Whatever form it takes, the ritual of caring closure that aftercare provides helps players to transition out of whatever intense thing has just occurred. 

The concept of aftercare is something that I now keep in mind after any intense experience, no matter how trivial it seems. Watching historical dramas did the trick for me a few years ago. When pretending nowadays, I try to let people know beforehand that my imagination is wild and to have a closing check-in with them afterward (something like “Thanks for going there with me; I’m ready to go back to reality now and will need to clear my head. Are you okay? Need anything?”). 

This practice may seem excessive, but consider all the ways that humans seek closure and aftercare on a daily basis. There’s a reason that activists debrief over pizza after a protest–sometimes, you just need to feel like a person again. After a show ends, actors hold cast parties. Athletes have cool-downs. Students end their years of toil with ceremonies of praise, hugs, tears, and mementos. At the end of a long day, parents read their children to sleep.

When we don’t get caring closure, even when we don’t realize that’s what we need, we may feel strange and disoriented, unable to move forward. I don’t always know exactly what I need at the end of an experience, but I’m learning to ask. Whether in kinky play or vanilla life, aftercare has been a helpful concept for me to keep in mind as I explore.