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The Pleasure and Pain of Being Disabled in the BDSM Community

"People were always kind of onboard with me being a submissive or masochist—although they were always worried about hitting me too hard and knocking a joint out of place."

Shanna Katz Kattari. Photo courtesy of Shanna Katz Kattari

When people think about BDSM today, they often think about Fifty Shades of Grey. That franchise and other pop-culture touchstones paint kink as a sultry extravagance of the rich, svelte, and white—a rarified space for those with pristine bodies. Even as kink becomes more popular and widely discussed in mainstream culture, the common depictions of BDSM don't leave much room for those with non-normative bodies to be able to participate.

However, the actual world of BDSM has long been populated by people of all levels of ability—from those with visible conditions like paralysis to invisible conditions like chronic pain or fatigue, as well as mental conditions like PTSD. For many people with disabilities, BDSM is just one facet of life in which they have learned to accommodate their differences. For others, kink is a powerful tool for managing their disability: controlling pain, inverting social dynamics, and achieving new levels of comfort with and communication about their disabilities and needs.

Many major kink sites and organizations now offer public workshops on how to navigate disability in BDSM play and relationships. But relative to the incredible diversity of disabilities and the nearly infinite variations of kink, the intersection of BDSM and disability has received shockingly little attention, even within the kink world.

VICE spoke with several people living and working at the intersection of these identities—those who came to BDSM with a disability and others who were already members of the community and developed impairments later in life. We also spoke to private practitioners and public sex educators. They told us what kink can bring to the disabled experience (and visa versa), about the differences between being disabled in private and public BDSM spaces like play parties or dungeons, and some of the complications disabilities can create in the kink world.

Photo courtesy of Shanna Katz Kattari

Shanna Katz Kattari

Shanna is a disabled woman and sex educator (who did not wish to disclose the details of her disability and its affect on her life). She researches and offers classes on BDSM and disability.

I had always heard from clients and workshop attendees how inclusive and supportive the kink community was around disability, and then experienced this for myself when I offered classes and workshops in kink spaces.

Some attendees take advantage of pain processing workshops to learn how to breathe through their daily pain, while others have brought up using flogging to increase endorphins thereby reducing pain from scoliosis, and having their partners use domination to help them work through anxiety and panic attacks.

I have had clients concerned that they could not be truly dominant if they were disabled, who then realized what a great way to have submissive partners provide service—like bringing pills on time, making sure they stay hydrated, prepping and cleaning up play spaces, or massaging painful body parts. Conversely, I have met submissive folks who have resolved their concerns about their impairments through the care provided by a dom.

I think every single individual, couple, and group could benefit from the conversations and negotiations built into kink culture prior to playing or being in a relationship, and I've seen how much that benefits disabled folks. Someone with mobility issues might include what positions feel good and which ones don't. Someone with PTSD, a trauma history, or anxiety might share what words, actions, scents, or other things might accidentally trigger them and what their partner should do if they're triggered.

Kinky people are incredibly creative, and disabled individuals are also creative, which results in an intersection that can revolutionize the sexuality of kinky disabled folks and their partners.

Photo of Lyric Seal by Nikki Silver

Lyric Seal, a. k. a. Neve Be(ast)

Lyric is a transgender individual and artist, activist, and adult performer born with scoliosis and a joint disorder known as amyoplasia who uses a wheelchair.

I have been trying to take my time in how I represent myself as a kinky person in my art because I have natural performance anxiety. In certain contexts, as an adult performer, there is an expectation of how your body is going to be able to perform, props and all, and I think my anxiety is related to having a kind of unpredictable body that is not always going to perform in a way that is normatively expected.

In my personal life, I'm more intuitive and direct. I feel like I'm better at explaining what I need, as well as listening to what someone else wants and needs. It really feeds my imagination to be able to imagine a visual and physical representation of what I want and be fearless in sexualizing it. I feel the intersection of having a challenging, exciting body and challenging, exciting sex has made me a braver person.

I think that I have been given the social message that it is too much for me to be everything that I am: black, queer, disabled, tattooed, as well as a sex worker, an artist, and a kinkster. When I imagine sexual situations, I sometimes wonder, Does this contradict this other part of who I am? If I want to bottom in a certain way, does that degrade or betray the other aspects of my identity in which I am oppressed? Then I remind myself that, no, these identities are all inside the same person. So that helps me grow as a person and helps me understand how three dimensional other people are.

Photo courtesy of Grace Duncan

Grace Duncan

Grace is a longtime kinkster who developed a thyroid condition ten years ago, and her husband and BDSM partner has developed back issues.

Back before I had Hashimoto's disease, my husband and I could spend an entire day playing in various ways. Now, we have to carefully figure out how much I can do or it ends up ruining the play for us because, instead of a satisfying session, I just end up tired.

My hub and I would plan a scene, get everything set up, and the whole time I would be struggling. I kept telling myself that I'd be fine, that my being tired won't get in the way, but the full-on fatigue didn't allow me the mind space I needed to submit.

Instead of letting go, I ended up more stressed because I couldn't do what I wanted so badly to do. For a long time, I fought this, insisting to myself and my hub that I was all right. I didn't want to accept that my health, especially the fatigue I was feeling, would impact this aspect of my life like it had everything else. It got to the point where he would recognize the signs when I was too tired to play and would call it off.

It wasn't until I totally freaked out during a session and called my safe word—which is extremely rare with us—that I began to accept that I needed to start being more honest with my husband and myself because it wasn't doing either of us any good if I tried to fake it.

At the time, the idea of being disabled in any way and still involved in BDSM wasn't common. I didn't have many close to me in the community who I could go to—all of them were quite able and didn't have to make allowances—and I had a difficult time finding resources on how to limit.

So some of what we came up with was, really, just me and my husband's own creativity. We stepped back and reevaluated our play—looked at what we could do that wasn't necessarily such a big scene. I am a masochist and absolutely adore impact play, so we found ways to work in smaller spankings or floggings. I was also able to find other subtle ways to feed my submissive side, like sitting at his feet while we watched a movie.

We still plan scenes, though I doubt I'll ever be able to do the types of scenes we were able to do before I got sick. If we do plan it properly, submitting to my husband and handing over control helps relieves my daily stress, as well as the stress that my problems cause. It's not an easy thing to accept, but it sure beats not playing at all, which, frankly, I refuse to do.

Lady Solaris

Lady Solaris is an LA-based dominatrix and sex educator with a connective tissue disorder, among other impairments.

For a lot of people, BDSM can be difficult in private play because there's not a set time or space. Adaptations are also huge in private play because most people don't have a dungeon or dungeon furniture in their home, but they can get incredibly creative with the items that they have at their disposal.

When you're going into a dungeon, the feeling is different. It allows for socialization. But because of prying eyes, a lot of disabled people coming to public kink spaces have this sense of pressure—which factually doesn't often exist in the community—to fit the mold of what society has shown us BDSM should be. For someone coming in with a disability, you have to be very secure in yourself as a person to relay that to somebody you're playing with, and then to be OK with adaptation.

Disabled people sometimes can't even get in to some spaces because of the way they've been designed. Some club owners don't necessarily think about the fact that they could design the space for people with disabilities from the start. Additionally, some of the furniture designers forget to think about the community as a whole and neglect to create furniture that could adapt to multiple people.

The gap became very apparent to me when I would ask at seminars for an adaptation in something like throwing a flogger or tying someone in a particular way, because I don't have the strength or dexterity to do those things as easily as someone who doesn't have any restrictions or disabilities, and the presenters would tell me, "There are none, this is the only way to do it."

So I started adapting my own stuff for myself and the people I'd play with—coming up with different ways to tie people up or throw a flogger and so on—and be safe while doing it. Maybe it didn't look the same as what other people in BDSM were doing at clubs and dungeons, but it was safe for the bottom and safe for me, and I could still enjoy BDSM.

Seminars with disabled people who previously felt like they had to keep their disabilities hidden have started to open the discussion up in LA's kink space, especially over the past eight years, but we still have a long way to go. It really helps to share the knowledge of adaptation for people with disabilities or injuries, as well as being comfortable playing in public spaces. Other people may see an adaptation and use it as well, realizing, "I can still do this type of play because I just saw somebody do an adaptation that would actually work for me, even with my back injury."

Photo of Azura Rose byDoomCookiePhoto

Azura Rose

Azura is a goth sex worker, model, and submissive based in Toronto with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which causes frequent joint dislocation and chronic pain.

People were always kind of onboard with me being a submissive or masochist—although they were worried about hitting me too hard and knocking a joint out of place. But I've had the most issues with the rope bondage community. When you tell people in that scene, "I have joint issues," they're hesitant about putting their rope on you especially with suspension. They're worried something's going to dislocate, and they're going to drop me and are unsure of how to accommodate for the way that my body is because they often only learn one way of tying people up. Sometimes people decide that they'd just rather not play with me.

I can understand from a safety perspective why people feel uncomfortable consenting to the risk of playing with someone when they don't know how. But it can be really frustrating when I miss out because other people are not as adaptable as I've had to be my whole life.

In my private life, I'm polyamorous. One primary partner is also disabled, so we balance our needs together. I'm really stubborn and will play through an injury, but she has fibro myalgia, so she can't just work through it because it will just get worse. Being with her has also taught me to be more comfortable about taking my time and judging what's reasonable for me, not just injuring myself over and over because I want to do something.

My other partner is able-bodied, but he's really good at listening to me. If I say that something hurts, he has to decide if it's something significant. He can overreact sometimes, whereas most disabled people realize that being hurt is just a daily occurrence.

Building a BDSM relationship with a disability can still be difficult. I need to make sure that people see me as an independent, rational adult and respect me when I say that I don't need help. It's also important that people address their own language issues and not use slurs around me. Building those ties can be as simple as taking the time to think about accessibility when planning a night out with friends or just not looking at me with revulsion every time one of my joints dislocates.

I think that the hardest part for people can be when they witness other people treating me badly. Maintaining a positive BDSM relationship is not just about people addressing their own issues, but really taking a stand if a friend starts using slurs or talking about how they don't care about accessibility.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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