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