I consider myself disabled. I don’t use physical aids, and I didn’t sign up with the Office of Disabilities in college, but between the chronic pain and lifelong mental illness (which most definitely impacts my academic, professional and personal lives) I’d say “disabled” fits me pretty well. It wasn’t until a few months back, when I started co-producing a regular event that I realized kink/fetish’s unique relationship with disability. I have seen two main ways kink and fetish interact with disability, either leading to liberation (or at the very least mediation) or further restriction.
I have talked to several people with chronic pain or chronic physical conditions which lead to pain, and there is the prevailing idea that S&M specifically changes our relationship with pain from one of being controlled to one of being in control. Through that change, comes a level of relief. We choose the type of pain to experience as well as it’s delivery method, level of intensity, and duration. Flogging, wax play, electro-stimulation, paddling/caning, and whipping all provide a different kind of pain and allow for a redirection of the senses. Given the environment, these may not even “hurt” in the conventional way we understand “ouchie” pain.
Electro-stimulation through a violet or neon wand, on a low enough setting, gives a tingling or buzzing sensation and on a medium setting gives tiny shocks, similar to the feeling of static electricity. With a partner, you can also feel this electricity move from one part of your body to another. Outside of a scene, this could be “ouchie” pain (like when you accidentally touch an exposed wire) but within the context of a scene, the participants can reclaim those sensations and deem them enjoyable. Biting and other temporary marking also translates pain to relief or pleasure. If someone bit me as a way to demonstrate aggression, the result is anger and bad pain. If a partner bites me, even if it is with greater intensity than the first bite, that is desirable. I have the control over how deep the bites are, who delivers them, where I am bitten etc. Having witnessed other pain-centered play, I can see that these other forms (paddling, whips etc) act similarly. We are able to temporarily exchange bad pain for good pain.
Aftercare is also key in allowing for this bad pain > good pain conversion. Bad pain does not include aftercare. After a particularly bad night of hip pain, my hips don’t comfort me or guide me to allow me to process the night before. The sudden drop does not allow me any way to mentally process what I have experienced and how to move forward in the way that kink aftercare does.
This is an important point that most non-disabled people miss: The kink and leather scene is not disability accessible. I don’t know of a single queer bar with a ramp or elevator for those with canes or wheelchairs. The event I co-produce is up 2 flights of narrow stairs. I can name several other events that either involve climbing up a substantial amount of stairs or lack easily reachable rest areas to recuperate. For those who deal with mental illness, these events often involve a large amount of people in a small space, lots of sensory input (changes in lighting, lots of body contact, loud music etc) with again little to no room to recover. It is difficult to have meaningful conversations with people with loud music and and the constant bumping of bodies as people move around the space, which leaves people with depression (like myself) and anxiety facing severe event drop and the lingering feeling that our interactions do not go past the superficial, both of which have lasting effects on our relationships in and out of the scene.
It’s also not unheard of for people to experience PTSD and dissociation flare ups at events. Like, with bad pain, there is no aftercare for bar nights and events. And while there are miscellaneous comments about consent in bars and venues, this conversation is severely lacking and also forces the individual to enforce their own boundaries for consent, and individually to deal with violations in consent. An event does not end when an attendee has reached or exceeded their limit, which again can lead to severe events drop and an increase in the intensity of the symptoms.
Participation in the scene is extremely beneficial for many people living with disability. However, as much as the scene preaches inclusion, we have to realize that, while we may welcome all, we are most definitely not reachable to all. I don’t have a single solution to solve this problem, and I don’t think there is a single “fix-all." But the first step is recognizing the problem and starting a dialogue.
So start talking.